What are the Main Trends in Online Learning? A Helicopter Analysis of Possible Futures

By Mark Brown

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer for online learning on several levels, the field has a long and rich history. This history has not always featured in our response to the pandemic. Earlier in the year, I was asked to undertake for an external organisation a helicopter analysis of the main trends in online learning with an eye on the future, but anchored in this history. What follows in this blog post is a raw version of my analysis that has yet to find its way into a formally published paper. The intention of this post is to share some of my analysis and the related thinking arising from both the research and the more popular literature before we start another potentially memorable year in the evolution of online learning. The analysis identifies five macro-level trends: 

  • Convergence
  • Massification
  • Openness
  • Interactivity
  • Diversification 
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The Definition Problem

Before setting out to consider major trends in Online Learning, it does help to set some parameters for the analysis or at the very least to establish from the outset that defining the field is a challenge. Online learning is far more complex than usually understood in everyday language and practice. According to Singh and Thurman (2019), the term “Online Learning” was first used in 1995 in the early development of the Learning Management System (LMS), which in Europe is better known as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Since then, online learning has evolved and is a term whose meaning has become less clear over time (Irvine, 2020). As Irvine (2020) observes, 

“What used to be a simple binary of face-to-face or online has now become so extremely complex that our ability to understand each other is impaired” (p. 42).

The semantics have been muddied as online learning is often spoken about in the context of many overlapping terms such as e-learning, blended learning, digital learning, distance learning, flipped learning, hybrid learning, to name a few. Therefore, as mentioned above, defining online learning for this analysis was not a straightforward task, with Singh and Thurman (2019) identifying 46 definitions in their recent literature review. Notably, common features of most definitions include but are not limited to concepts of time, space, distance, interactivity and use of technology, particularly the Internet. While physical distance is not always an element for defining online learning, it is mentioned consistently. For this reason, the following discussion frames the analysis of current trends in online learning around the following definition:

“Online learning is defined as education being delivered or experienced in an online environment either synchronously or asynchronously through the use of the Internet where learners do not need to be co-present in a physical space” (adapted from Singh & Thurman, 2019). 

A wealth of literature falling under this broad definition has been published over the past 25-years. Importantly, a great deal is already known about the effective design of synchronous and asynchronous online learning environments, as reported in several major literature reviews (e.g. Means, et al., 2010; Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson, 2015; Martin, Sun & Westine, 2020). There is a body of scholarly literature exploring major trends and patterns in online learning in a similar vein. For example, the annual Horizon Report (EDUCAUSE, 2021) and Innovating Pedagogy Report (Kukulska-Hulme, et al., 2021) help to identify past, present, and future trends. There are also efforts to retrospectively analyse trends such as Bozkurt and Zawacki-Richter’s (2021) interesting visual representation of the online (distance) learning landscape. More popular opinion pieces on future trends and speculative scholarly works looking into the future also make up the literature, which collectively informs this analysis. 

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

The remainder of this paper outlines five macro-level trends in the evolution and potential future development of online learning. Set against the background of these trends, how we choose to shape, reshape and reimagine the future ways that online learning can be deployed in the service of education, lifelong learning and the type of [digital] societies we want to create is a very different matter. This is a much bigger question that needs to frame any discussion of our possible, probable and preferred futures.

Go to Mark’s LinkedIn page to read the full text of this future trends analysis.

Five Lessons from Learning in the Light: Reflecting on the Onlining of Irish Higher Education

By Mark Brown

Speaking from Washington DC on the morning of Thursday 12th March 2020 the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced that all schools and higher education campuses across Ireland were to close at 6:00pm. This news was not totally unexpected, but the short notice caught many people by surprise and resulted in a flurry of activity within and across Irish educational institutions.


The campus and school lockdown quickly evolved to other sectors with the Government introducing new regulations requiring all bars, restaurants and shops to close. At the time of writing, Ireland remains in a tight lockdown situation until current restrictions are reviewed on May 18th, 2020. However, there is every indication that social distancing requirements will continue for the foreseeable future and seriously impact the start of the new academic year.

No alt text provided for this imageWhen Dublin City University (DCU) hosted the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning back in November 2019 no one amongst the 800+ delegates from over 80 countries could have predicted the great onlining of Irish higher education in the weeks and now months since the Taoiseach’s announcement. The pivot to rapidly teach online has forced us to think around corners and fast-track the future (Brown, 2020). While history teaches us to be wary about making speculative claims about the future it is highly probable that online education will never be the same again (Brown, Costello & Nic Giolla Mhichil, 2020). In 2012, the New York Times declared it was the “Year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012) and now 2020 is likely to be known as the year when online education helped us to keep teaching and keep learning. With the benefit of hindsight there is a prophetic quality that rings remarkably true to this extract from Learning in the Light, a poem written by Réaltán Ní Leannáin for last year’s World Conference:

“We no longer stop learning when the darkness gathers,

Those old webs have crumbled in this era of light.

In an age of information, learning squats tight in our grasp, within reach of all.”

On the whole the Irish response to emergency teaching online in the face of darkness and incredibly challenging circumstances has been remarkably positive and relatively successful. The period from March 2020 to May 2020 can be described in three phases:

(i) get online quickly,

(ii) get organised to develop appropriate alternative assessments, and

(iii) get thinking about future scenarios and next steps.

While the Irish story of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic is still being written the unprecedented pivot to online learning will be etched forever into the history of higher education (Brown, 2020). As we pause, look to the future and enter a new stage, however, what lessons can we learn from the experience so far? Although the following reflections and five lessons drawing on the experiences of the NIDL team do not claim to be a definitive or representative account of how Ireland has responded to the Covid-19 global pandemic, hopefully they contribute to useful learnings and further conversations as we move forward.

You can read the five lessons and the rest of this blog post on Mark’s personal Linkedin account.