Demand for online learning services soars during pandemic


If there was ever a good time to brush up on her cooking skills, Vancouverite Cori Lau figured that time was now.

Stuck at home most of the day because of COVID-19, the 28-year-old technical designer was no longer eating out as much and she suddenly had more time on her hands. 

“I have a very set menu,” Lau said. “I really wanted to kind of branch out.”

Based on word-of-mouth recommendations, Lau signed up for MasterClass. The video subscription service with high production values offers courses on topics like cooking, writing and entrepreneurship taught by celebrities.

A 2-for-1 offer sealed the deal, and Lau is now part-way through a cooking course taught by chef Gordon Ramsay. 

Cori Lau says she signed up for MasterClass to improve her cooking skills now that she has a bit more time on her hands. (Cori Lau)

As the coronavirus pandemic forces many to hunker down at home, a growing number of people have turned to online learning resources like MasterClass, the Great Courses and Mango Languages. The Toronto and Vancouver public libraries say patrons have flocked to the online learning services they offer. 

Kay Cahill, the Vancouver Public Library’s director of collections and technology, says librarians expected patrons to turn to fiction in troubled times. Instead, they’re downloading books on subjects like cooking, health and relationships. 

“We’re going through a really interesting time of crisis that isn’t like anything we’ve been through in our lifetimes, and people are learning new things about themselves,” Cahill said. 

Empathy, plagues and wellbeing

The Vancouver library says its patrons borrowed over 60 per cent more non-fiction titles compared to this time last year. 

MasterClass wouldn’t release data on its subscriptions, but a spokesperson said the top video viewed in March was a lesson on tactical empathy, taught by former FBI negotiator Chris Voss.

The Great Courses, a less celebrity-driven service, says new subscriptions have tripled compared to before the pandemic. Some of its top courses include The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague and An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. 

It’s not just so-called edutainment that is gaining ground.

Coursera, a popular provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) offered by universities, says it has seen a five-fold increase in enrolment globally in the past month compared to this time last year. Its top course, with more than two million enrolments so far this year, is Yale’s The Science of Well-Being.

Even Khan Academy, cherished by school-age children all over the world for its light-hearted, engaging lessons on subject like calculus and math, says it’s experiencing record usage.

Accomplishment and control

Catherine Rawn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, says the demand might be driven in part by a desire to achieve a sense of control during an otherwise chaotic time.

“I think that need to dive in and have something controllable might be driving that a bit,” Rawn said.

Another potential motivating fact Rawn mentioned is building a sense of accomplishment, especially for low-stakes courses that don’t require a lot of skill. 

Recruiter Carolina Vaz says she signed up for MasterClass because she was drawn to celebrities teaching courses about the music industry. (Carolina Vaz)

That was part of the appeal for Vancouverite Carolina Vaz, who signed up for MasterClass because of her interest in music. 

Vaz, 26, who works from home as a recruiter at a staffing agency, says she was drawn to MasterClass because of classes taught by pop star Christina Aguilera and film composer Hans Zimmer.

Instead of chatting with colleagues during her lunch break, Vaz says she now watches a 20-minute lesson on MasterClass instead.  

“I always try to occupy myself trying to learn new things,” Vaz said. “This was perfect.”



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