Year end is a natural time to pause for reflection. And that’s just what we did in a recent Leading Learning Webinar. In this article, we recap some key points from that session. You can also watch the recording of that Webinar below.
Our wish is that the points below provide fodder for your own reflection—that powerful engine of learning—and equip you to make educated guesses and craft hypotheses about what the learning business landscape of 2021 may look like and how that landscape might shape your own organization’s offerings.
To help us look at the 2021 learning business landscape, we draw on some data we collected via an online survey in late November and early December 2020. We received qualifying responses from 117 organizations.
Looking Back: How the Pandemic Shaped Learning Businesses in 2020
Given the profound impact of the pandemic on life, work, and learning, we asked survey respondents, “To what extent to you agree or disagree with the following statements about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted your learning business?”
- The pandemic has caused us to create or significantly revise our learning business strategy.
- The pandemic has caused us to increase our budget for providing online education.
- The pandemic has caused us to increase the quantity of our online educational offerings.
- The pandemic has caused us to increase the quality of our online educational offerings.
- The pandemic has caused us to introduce new online educational formats.
- The pandemic has caused us to decrease pricing for at least some of our online educational offerings.
The top three—strategy, quantity of online education, and new online educational formats—were areas where more than 50 percent of respondents strongly agreed.
We find the emphasis on learning business strategy promising. It suggests that organizations are trying to not be in purely reactive mode; they’re trying to be proactive and craft a strategy that matches this current moment.
The increase in the quantity of online educational offerings isn’t surprising. Given that in-person education was impossible or difficult for much of the year, it makes sense that the quantity of online education would go up.
The introduction of new online educational formats is also not too surprising. In 2020, many organizations changed in-person conferences to virtual, and some did it for the first time this year—which means they added a new format to their portfolio of offerings.
What we find more surprising is that only 14.5 percent of respondents strongly agreed that the pandemic caused them to decrease pricing for at least some of their online educational offerings, which suggests that pandemic prices remained on par with pre-pandemic prices for many organizations.
While that may have been true for 2020, we’re not sure it’ll hold going forward. The economic impact of the pandemic is far from over, and so, if you’ve been able to hold pricing steady in 2020, that may not be the case in 2021.
Looking at the pricing question in the context of the other items that came in lower on the list can be illuminating. Here are the six areas ranked:
- Learning business strategy (57.8 percent)
- Quantity of online education (52.6 percent)
- New online educational formats (52.6 percent)
- Quality of online education (37.4 percent)
- Budget for online education (29.6 percent)
- Pricing (14.5 percent)
What’s interesting in the ranking is that it’s going to be increasingly hard to hold pricing for online education steady—much less increase it—without improving the quality (fourth in this list), and improving the quality is likely to require an increase in budget (fifth in the list).
We wouldn’t be surprised if we see downward price pressure on online offerings in 2021 coupled with greater demand for quality, which will require bigger budgets. All that could make for fiscally challenging times ahead.
Looking Ahead: What Learning Businesses Plan to Tackle in 2021
We asked survey respondents to let us know which of 14 areas of activities they’re already engaged, planning to pursue in the year ahead, or not planning to pursue.
- Creation of learning experiences that combine online elements with face-to-face elements
- Implementation of technologies that leverage artificial intelligence to support or enhance learning
- Microlearning opportunities
- Providing a personalized learning experience
- Creation of social or peer-to-peer learning experiences
- Use of virtual reality or augmented reality to provide new learning experiences or enhance existing experiences
- Use of virtual conferences—i.e., an online event similar to a traditional face-to-face conference, not just a single Webinar
- New or alternative approaches to credentialing, including certificate programs, microcredentials, and digital badges
- Aligning our offerings with specific career or job paths relevant to learners—e.g., through a competency model, learning pathways, or targeted curricula
- Integration of our educational offerings into the learning and development programs of employers in a field or industry or into general workforce development needs
- Development of strategies or tactics to help combat declining enrollments, downward price pressure, or “commoditization” of educational offerings
- Increased efforts to gather and analyze data to inform new product decisions or improve existing products
- Increased efforts to gather and analyze data that demonstrates the impact or effectiveness of the learning experiences offered
- Implementation of methods to ensure that learning is retained and applied over time
Six of the 14 areas are either already being pursued or planning to be pursued in 2021 by at least three-quarters of responding organizations. Here are those the top six. (To rank these, we grouped responses from folks already pursuing that area and those planning to in 2021.)
At the top is “increased efforts to gather and analyze data to inform new product decisions or improve existing products” with 90.2 percent of respondents already doing it or planning to in 2021. This is heartening because we’re big proponents of big-picture marketing that goes far beyond just promotion and really starts with product development. Using data to understand what products need to be made and which need to go away and how to improve offerings is simply good business practice.
“Use of virtual conferences” is second with a combined 88.4 percent either already doing it or will be by the end of next year. This isn’t surprising given that so many organizations had to forego in-person conferences this year because of the pandemic, and conferences are such a big part of many learning businesses’ revenue and strategy that they had to find a way to convert and hold those conferences online.
Third, we have another data area, “increased efforts to gather and analyze data that demonstrates the impact or effectiveness of the learning experiences we offer,” with 87.3 percent. “Creation of learning experiences that combine online elements with face-to-face elements” is fourth with 82.1 percent, and “microlearning opportunities” follows just barely behind with 80.0 percent. The last of the top six is “creation of social or peer-to-peer learning experiences” with 77.3 percent.
The focus on social and peer-to-peer learning makes great sense in the context of 2020. Social learning is incredibly effective, and the pandemic has deprived many of us of social interactions. So in this moment, social and peer-to-peer learning are doubly appealing formats—they can be effective learning approaches and, if they can provide learners with some connection to others, that’s added benefit.
In looking at these top areas, we see three possibilities that pique our interest and that we’ll delve a little deeper on:
- The impact imperative
- A blended boom
- Microlearning maturity
The Impact Imperative
Third in the top-six list is “increased efforts to gather and analyze data that demonstrates the impact or effectiveness of the learning experiences we offer.” Showing impact and effectiveness are hugely important with learning—and not often done. It’s much easier to tout satisfaction data from smile sheets.
But we need to do the work to dig in and see how close our offerings come to achieving goals and metrics we set, grounded in a solid understanding of what matters to our learners and the other stakeholders in their learning. Learning businesses need a command of learning science and effective marketing practices so they can design for real learning, make learners aware of their offerings and their value, deliver behavior-changing learning, and then measure the impact. All the above is always important, but, in the context of the 2021 learning business landscape, it’s arguably even more important.
Competition in the third sector was already pretty fierce, but with the emphasis on online in 2020, we’re seeing organizations bump up against new competitors—entities that didn’t offer online education before and so weren’t really an option for your learners now are. And, when there’s a glut of online offerings, you must take action to stand out. Demonstrating effectiveness and impact and having the data—quantitative numbers and qualitative case studies and testimonials—are ways to stand out and to show that your offerings are high-quality.
Digging into effectiveness and impact and delivering high-quality experiences will likely take additional resources—perhaps just the sunk cost of additional staff time but perhaps the hard costs of some contractor help or technology. So the impact imperative likely has budgetary implications. In the survey results we looked at earlier about how the pandemic has changed learning businesses, quality and budget were lower down on the list. We think that has to change if you’re to really deliver on the impact imperative.
A Blended Boom
“Creation of learning experiences that combine online elements with face-to-face elements” was fourth in the top-six list. We purposely phrased that option to focus on combining online and face-to-face, however it happens. But, of course, there are different ways to combine online and face to face. Hybrid and blended are two common ways.
Blended and hybrid are not used to mean the same thing by all people, so here’s what we mean:
- Hybrid learning is an educational approach where some individuals participate in person and some participate online. Instructors and facilitators teach remote and in-person learners at the same time using technology like video conferencing.
- With blended learning, instructors and facilitators combine in-person instruction with online learning activities. Learners complete some components online and do others in person.
Both mix face-to-face with online learning, but who the learners are differs. With hybrid learning, the in-person learners and the online learners are different individuals. With blended learning, the same individuals learn both in person and online.
We’re more bullish on the future of blended than hybrid and hoping for a blended boom post-pandemic. In a context where learning is the goal, hybrid is hard to pull off. Hybrid requires an instructor to pay attention to the needs of two groups of learners (those in the room and those online). The presenter has to be good delivering online and good at delivering in person, and she has to do them both at the same time. That’s hard to pull off.
Blended learning, on the other hand, when done well, can support metalearning principles in a way neither purely online nor purely in-person learning can, and blended allows you to determine instructional formats based on what works best for the particular situation, given the content, the learners’ needs, and the goals for the particular learning experience. Blended brings the potential for maximizing the value of the time learners spend together by leveraging technology.
“Microlearning opportunities” came in fifth in our top-six list. While microlearning is decidedly not new, it may finally be hitting maturity because it has the ability to address some of the current moment’s realities.
While there doesn’t seem to have been widespread price decreases because of the pandemic, the economic tail of COVID-19 will be long, and so affordability may be more of an issue for your learners in 2021 and beyond. Microlearning gives you the chance to offer something at a lower price point on your Value Ramp. Learners who can’t afford a full eight-hour seminar or a course bundle might still find something of value that they can afford in your portfolio—and, through continued contact with you through that microlearning, they’ll be more likely to buy that longer seminar or course bundle from you when they can afford it.
Microlearning also has the potential to address Zoom fatigue and virtual burnout. Microlearning by definition requires a shorter online commitment, so it may be more palatable for learners in the current moment to access microlearning than a Zoom Webinar, which, perhaps, feels too much like all the other Zooms they’re on throughout the week.
There’s an opportunity with microlearning. To pursue it, you need to get good at microlearning—understanding how to chunk content and craft an actual learning experience that can take place in a short time—and determine how microlearning fits in your portfolio of offerings.
Looking Ahead: What Learning Businesses Have Shelved for 2021
We also have data on what people aren’t planning to pursue next year. Here are the bottom four out of the list of 14:
Well over half of respondents are not pursuing “use of virtual reality or augmented reality to provide new learning experiences or enhance existing experiences” or “implementation of technologies that leverage artificial intelligence to support or enhance learning.”
Our hunch is that VR, AR, and AI feel a bit overwhelming to dig into. Organizations may be wondering where to start and what technologies to use. VR, AR, and AI may also feel too expensive to pursue. But tools and technologies continue to evolve and get easier to use and build with. As that happens and as they become available at lower price points, we think we’ll see a great uptick in these areas.
It’s worth noting that AI is more of a focus than VR and AR. That makes sense because AI is likely the key to making personalized learning options for individuals a reality. AI is getting baked into some of the systems learning businesses are already using—such as some learning management systems or other learntech, like learning experience platforms.
The next two are of these bottom four aren’t such outliers as the first two—it’s a big jump from 80.7 percent not doing anything with VR or AR and 67.9 percent not doing anything with AI to the 46.1 percent not doing anything with “new or alternative approaches to credentialing, including certificate programs, microcredentials, and digital badges” and the 40.2 percent not pursuing “integration of our educational offerings into the learning and development programs of employers in their field or industry or into general workforce development needs.”
It may be that 2021 has a practical and immediate focus for many learning businesses after a rocky and disruptive 2020. But alternative credentialing and workforce development represent huge opportunities. They’re both ways the third sector of education can provide value in a way that higher ed can’t. Alternative credentials and the workforce development are about getting at what people value about learning and then providing it—so they’re also tightly tied to the impact imperative.
Food for Thought—and Action
We hope this data from your learning business peers offers some food for thought—some topics and ideas for structuring your own reflecting and thinking about what you’ll prioritize in your learning business in 2021.
But we also hope you don’t stop at thinking. We hope you get to action too. And we wish you all the best in 2021 as you take action and navigate the learning business landscape.
Jeff & Celisa