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Surging Interest in Online Education

Classes are canceled, people are quarantined, and unemployment is rising due to the coronavirus pandemic. These conditions bode poorly for the economy, but have contributed to increasing interest in online education. Over the past few weeks, Class Central has documented how American universities are moving to online classes, and how researchers are using MOOCs to disseminate information about the coronavirus. Now, data shows that these policy changes have been accompanied by a surge in public interest in online education.

Google queries for “online classes” increased a whopping 204% from March 7 to March 21 according to Google Trends, while queries for “online education” increased 90%. March 6 is when several American universities, including Stanford University, announced a switch to online classes in order to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

Interest in online education has led to record traffic for Class Central and our catalog of MOOCs. According to Google Analytics, on Sunday March 15 traffic increased by almost 900%. Class Central has continued to see unprecedented traffic as people use our site to figure out what MOOCs to take. In total, Class Central has seen more than 3 million learners since March 14.

Some of that traffic was driven by coverage in the media. Initially, a Class Central article titled “Here are 450 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free” went viral on FreeCodeCamp. Since then, Class Central has seen coverage from NPR, CBS, Good Morning America, Inc, and Forbes, among others. Class Central has also seen increased traffic from Google searches, social media referrals, and from returning visitors.

Class Central’s traffic was accompanied by increased traffic for MOOC providers, according to Alexa rankings.

March 14 Ranking March 23 Ranking
Coursera 444 433
EdX 1,190 1,130
FutureLearn 6,198 5,638
Class Central 17,183 10,962

On Google, the topic “Massive Open Online Course” saw a 137% increase starting from March 14, according to Google Trends. March 14 is also the date that Class Central began seeing increases in traffic, suggesting that underlying trends are the cause.

Although in person classes have been canceled, it’s unlikely that this increase is driven by students. Universities like Stanford appear to be using tools like Zoom (video conferencing software) and Canvas (classroom management software) rather than MOOC platforms to manage online classes.

Interest in MOOCs is likely driven by social distancing and quarantine measures, which require adults to stay home and limit outside contact. On March 16, six counties in the Bay Area instituted shelter in place measures, which likely contributed to MOOC interest in March 17. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that interest in MOOCs is driven by increased unemployment, which causes workers to seek ways to upskill themselves and find new jobs. Unemployment claims in the US increased on the week ending March 14.

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