A smile spreads across crime reporter Akshat Chauhan’s face the moment he presses the ‘send’ button on his email. It’s 9.30pm and he is finally done filing his story du jour, unravelling a new lead in the investigation of a high-profile suicide case. He quickly gulps the tea which was lying forgotten on the side table before clicking open a document titled ‘Shylock’. Within seconds he is immersed in a famous tirade of the shrewd Jewish moneylender, who was a lead character of William Shakespeare’s 16th century play Merchant of Venice. Chauhan keys in a crisp 350-word analysis of this comic villain’s outburst —“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” — before he hits the bed at 1am.

Chauhan is pursuing a four-month certificate programme on Shakespeare’s works conducted by Harvard University. “The time I used to stand in the Borivali local, sandwiched between sweaty office-goers, I now spend doing virtual tours of Venice’s Rialto bridge and Jewish ghetto areas where the Merchant of Venice was set,” says the 45-year-old, speaking about the “amazing” experience. Before the pandemic-induced work-from-home mandate came into place, Chauhan used to leave his home at 11am and return by midnight, drained and ready to crash.

Eight thousand kilometres away in Spain, pop sensation Shakira is grateful to Greek philosopher Plato for making her isolation exciting. “Thank you Plato and predecessors for all the ‘fun’ over the last month!” she wrote in an Instagram post where she proudly displayed her certificate — she completed a four-week course — in ancient philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. The 43-year-old has an abiding interest in ancient history but had to skip university as her singing career took off when she was a teenager.

For busy professionals like Chauhan and Shakira, the lockdown has unlocked a rare opportunity to fulfil long-standing academic dreams which they had relegated to the recesses of their heart in the process of earning their daily dal-roti. Stuck at home — plus saving precious time spent on commute and superfluous meetings — many of them are now eagerly opening e-windows to reconnect with subjects they once loved or study new topics that pique their interest.

Virtual classrooms fill up

Shakira had joined UPenn via Coursera, an online platform for higher education courses with the world’s top 200 universities. The company saw over 10 million enrollments from mid-March to mid-May. This is an astounding 644 per cent more sign-ups compared to the same period last year, noted Class Central, a leading search engine for online courses. Over nine million learners have visited Class Central to hunt for online courses since March 15.

Other providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have also witnessed a remarkable rise in demand. MITx has had 500,000 enrollments since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and EdX, created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, has become one of the world’s top 1000 websites. Udemy reported a 200 per cent spike in students from India alone and upGrad saw a 50 per cent increase in learners by the end of March. LinkedIn too recorded a 176 per cent rise in time spent by Indian professionals on viewing its learning content over the past two months.

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Source: Alexa siteinfo and SimilarWeb

Class Central, which reports on trends in e-learning via its newsletter MOOCWatch, noted in a recent report that the pandemic had brought MOOCs back in the spotlight. “This (surge in demand) reminds me of the ‘Year of the MOOC’,” wrote Dhaval Shah, CEO of Class Central, referring to 2012, the year which saw four million individuals enrolling in MOOCs with 40 universities. This medium of virtual education was born in mid-2011 when Stanford University put up its first online course in artificial intelligence.

From philosophy to floristry

While many individuals do e-courses to beef up their CVs with certificates from Ivy Leagues, acquire new skills for the digital world or prep for a career change, a good proportion are propelled by the simple joy of learning. After all, not everyone’s passion is their profession.

LinkedIn’s third ‘Workforce Confidence Index’, a fortnightly survey of Indian professionals, found that 40 per cent want to learn something new and unrelated to their career, while 30 per cent hope to improve their emotional well-being. On Coursera’s webpage, you find Yale’s University’s course, ‘The Science of Well-Being’ and Duke University’s ‘Think Again I: How to Understand Arguments’ rubbing shoulders with diplomas in machine learning and data science.

Online courses are typically offered for free or a nominal fee. The learner only has to pay if he or she wishes to receive a certificate. To further cash in on the growing interest during the pandemic, many EdTech companies have waived their charges or introduced heavy discounts. Coursera is offering 115 free courses from universities such as Caltech, Duke and Georgia Tech. Normally these would have cost about $50 each.  Moreover, 85 courses would come with free certificates until the end of July. LinkedIn has abolished the subscription fee for 275 hours’ worth learning content to help members future-proof their career. Udacity, on the other hand, announced machine learning scholarships which will make its nano-degrees – normally costing $399 – available for free to selected candidates.

Degree of fun

While an online course can never replace the feel of learning in a real-time classroom where the professor can admonish you for zoning out, the universities use a multi-modal approach to deliver an experience that comes quite close. Over the four to six-week programme, the student typically attends live lectures, watches pre-recorded presentations, participates in virtual debates and reads the documents delivered to his or her inbox. A series of quizzes and homework assignments have to be completed in order to obtain pass marks and a certificate.

Target-chasing professionals, who are struggling to cope with the stillness of life in lockdown, feel the courses give them a sense of purpose and satisfaction. “I check my email first thing every morning, hoping to see my next quiz,” says Chauhan. Shakira admitted she loved every moment spent exploring ancient philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality and human happiness, even though she had to study for hours after her kids – with footballer husband Gerard Pique — slept.