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Learning Subscriptions: the Education Trend of 2020

Find out about the acceleration of online learning in 2020 and discover how online education trends are moving towards a learning subscription model.

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It’s the beginning of a new year, and we’ve never experienced as much upheaval in our lives as in 2020. Education is no exception, as schools, universities and online learning platforms have all been making dramatic changes to keep with the changing times. We’re moving forward in a new learning landscape, and we expect our educational services to adapt to our changing demands. 

Our way of achieving this at FutureLearn is by offering flexible, accessible, career-focused and fun learning experiences. We’re also releasing our new subscription model, ExpertTracks, which will allow people to sink their teeth into a course collection of their choice and really kick start their careers in 2021. Our partner, the University of Leeds, described our ExpertTracks as “a new flexible, affordable study model that can fit into busy schedules, making learning accessible to all”, and we’re excited for you to try them.

What is learning on demand and how is it different from learning subscriptions?

Over the course of the year, there’s been an increasing interest in learning on demand and learning subscriptions, so we thought we’d explore what both of these terms really mean. In this section, we go over the main differences between learning on demand and learning subscriptions and discuss the benefits of both models in online education.

Learning on demand

Learning on demand refers to the kind of learning where you have access to educational content at any time or in any place. The learner, therefore, has control over their learning and gets to plan and create their own educational journey. A model like this differs from a typical in-person learning model due to its flexibility and because it requires less of a financial and personal commitment.

This learning on demand model has grown in popularity over the last few years. Part of the reason for its success is that modern learners are often both tech-savvy but extremely busy. As such, they want to access educational content in digestible and accessible chunks, from wherever they want, without having to rearrange their hectic schedules. 

Here at FutureLearn, we use aspects of the learning on demand model. Learners are able to choose when they want to start their courses, access content from all over the world, and learn through an accessible and informative online platform from their mobiles, laptops and computers.

Benefits of learning on demand

  • No pressure to study at a particular time
  • Learners are able to access the content wherever they want
  • Content is easily accessible on technology 
  • Content is easy to understand due to clear online format
  • Not as much of a commitment as taking a class in real-time
  • More of a continuous learning process so learners can retain information more easily

Learning subscriptions

Learning subscriptions are another online educational model where people can subscribe to a service by paying usually monthly or yearly. They then have access to educational content whenever and wherever they want, as long as they continue to pay the fee. There are often different types of subscription offered to fit changing learner demands.

Globally, we are evolving into a subscription society where we subscribe to all manner of things, not just the most popular entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify. We subscribe to food deliveries, premium delivery services like amazon prime, and even curated monthly boxes for hobbies, such as knitting. 

Gartner, the Global Research and Advisory Company, discovered that 75% of all companies that sell directly to consumers will offer a subscription service of some kind by 2023. This rise in popularity has been steadily increasing for a few years, but COVID-19 undoubtedly escalated the popularity of subscriptions, due to the need for easily accessible goods and services without having to make a trip outside.

The UK is most definitely a prime example of a subscription society, with the growing subscription economy currently worth £323 million. Spending on digital and subscription services has increased consistently throughout each month in 2020. Individually Brits spend an average of £46 per month on subscriptions, and we predict this number will rise in 2021.

Benefits of learning subscriptions

  • A monthly subscription is not a big financial commitment and is much more manageable for people to afford.
  • There is no commitment needed as the subscription can be cancelled if the learner changes their mind or doesn’t have the funds.
  • Subscriptions can help members stay accountable to their commitments, because they know they have already paid for a service and so want to make the most of it.
  • Flexibility is ideal because you can learn anywhere and at any time, similarly to learning on demand.
  • It doesn’t cost extra to redo or go over previous content if it was difficult. This makes it easier to understand and retain information properly. In real-life situations, you might have to sign up for new classes or pay extra for going over the content.

Why have learning subscription services become more popular?

Looking at the graph below, we can see that searches for both ‘learning on demand’ and ‘learning subscription’ have risen in popularity globally over the last ten years, but the growth of ‘learning subscription’ has been more substantial, particularly during the pandemic. COVID-19 hasn’t particularly impacted online searches for ‘learning on demand’; instead, we’ve seen a more slow and steady rise over the ten years. The peak for learning subscriptions may not rise as high once the pandemic is over, but it looks like we’ll continue to see an increase in searches over time.

Global trends graph

Impact of covid-19 and lockdown

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the demand for online learning, as we can see from the global spikes in searches for ‘learning subscription’ over the past ten months. This trend is understandable for a number of reasons; first of all, a lot of people have been working remotely, which has given them more access to their computers and more time to focus on their careers instead of having to commute to and from work.

Additionally, many people were placed on furlough or made unemployed due to businesses struggling to stay afloat, which meant that people had free time to upskill, pick up a new hobby or attempt to retrain. Retraining has been a large motivation for people signing up for learning subscriptions, especially in the second half of the pandemic. 

Moreover, a lot of industries have been hit really hard and people have been feeling a lack of security in their jobs. Wanting to pick up targeted skill sets with the intention of moving into a different career has been a huge motivator for many new learners. 

Finally, since many people’s financial situations have taken a hit, learning subscriptions have become an affordable option for people who want to take online courses. Paying all in one go can be off-putting or impossible, whereas a much smaller monthly subscription fee is more manageable during this time.

Disruptions to educational institutions

The events of this past year have disrupted traditional educational institutions more than ever before, and this has provided an opportunity for online education to fill in the gaps and provide educational services. Students all over the world have not been able to use their university or school services properly due to closures and difficulties with online teaching in a Zoom or Google Meet format. Learning through video calls can be challenging due to problems focusing, hearing or connecting with other students.  

Online learning subscriptions offer an easy, cheap and accessible way to supplement students’ learning or teach them new things. This could be useful for parents with children out of school, or for university students at home who are finding the lack of structure difficult, and want to create more of a structured approach to their learning. A university student may even want to try out an online course before deciding what to major in, or what to focus on as a career goal.

Additionally, young people are starting to look for completely different paths to success that lie outside traditional education, such as teaching themselves to code or learning technical skills from the comfort of their bedrooms. Whether you’re a university student supplementing your learning or someone who wants to test out a subject without the commitment of a degree, the benefits of online learning are that there is so much choice and freedom.

We’re all becoming more tech-savvy

We all know that very young people and children are tech-savvy in this day and age, but older generations are also getting more accustomed to using technology. This means that the pool of potential online subscription users is constantly growing.

Most of us have numerous technological devices, including laptops, phones, tablets and Smart TVs. There are so many ways we can access learning content now, and also an increasing number of ways we can be reminded to learn something new or stick to our goals. Emails and phone notifications make sure we remember to finish what we started, and multimedia experiences on online courses such as interactive quizzes and videos help to hold our attention spans and make learning more fun.

How does interest in learning subscriptions differ around the world?


Searches for both terms in the UK have been relatively steady, but ‘learning subscription’ has been seeing more peaks over the ten years compared to ‘learning on demand’. Since January 2020, searches for ‘learning subscription’ have really risen. The peaks in March and June are due to the pandemic, but January’s peak seemed to happen naturally. January’s peak could have been a result of people wanting to try new things at the beginning of the year.

UK trends graph


The US

The trends in the US are definitely less stable than in the UK, probably due to the larger population. Both search terms have been rising and falling in the same range for a while, though the term ‘learning subscription’ was actually very popular in 2016 for a short period. In the last 2 years, ‘learning on demand’ has been more volatile while ‘learning subscription’ has been getting more consistently high search volumes.

Over the pandemic, both terms have risen in popularity, with ‘learning on demand’ even surpassing ‘learning subscription’ in October 2020. Generally, it seems that learning subscriptions have been more popular. 



Here we can see that the term ‘learning subscription’ has been more popular over the ten years, whereas ‘learning on demand’ has only had short bursts of popularity. The pandemic hasn’t seemed to affect results too much, contrary to previous countries. ‘Learning subscription’ had a peak in September 2020 but this doesn’t necessarily correlate with COVID-19.

Canada trends graph



The data for Australia is relatively similar to Canada in that it’s more sparse than in the UK and US, and ‘learning subscription’ has generally been the much more popular search over the last ten years. The number of searches is lower on the whole than Canada, however. At the height of the pandemic, ‘learning on demand’ had a huge peak, while interestingly, ‘learning subscription’ searches didn’t really change. In May, however, the number of searches for ‘learning on demand’ dropped right back down.

Australia trends graph


The search trends in India are interesting. While ‘learning on demand’ searches have decreased in popularity over the past ten years, ‘learning subscriptions’ searches have increased in popularity. Over the last year particularly, searches have been consistently high for learning subscriptions. The biggest peaks were in April when India had a nation-wide lockdown, and August, when they experienced a huge spike in daily cases compared to July. As we enter 2021, the searches for ‘learning subscription’ are reaching an all-time high in India.

India trends graph


Introducing ExpertTracks 

ExpertTracks are our newly released product and are a way for us to keep up with learner demands in education and the current climate. They are collections of 3-5 courses that allow learners to go deeper into a subject, with payment via a flexible subscription model. Learners will be able to pay monthly after having a free 7-day trial and will be able to start learning whenever they like. To find out more, take a look at our recent blog post explaining all there is to know about ExpertTracks.

Adrian Devey, the director of Monash Centre for Professional Development at Monash University, said: “Monash University is excited by the opportunity the new Expert Track program provides to make high-quality, high-demand courses accessible to a global professional audience”. We’re excited to be working with some of the top universities and institutions around the world to create an ExpertTrack that suits everyone.

ExpertTracks are great for if you really want to get stuck into a subject and become an expert, rather than just do one for fun. James DeVaney, who works for our partner, the University of Michigan, said, “ExpertTracks will help put learners in charge of their own educational journey”. 

With ExpertTracks, learners will gain in-depth knowledge over a number of topics within a subject they feel passionate about, and they’ll also gain recognition for their work in the form of certification. We encourage learners to try one of our ExpertTracks if they want to take the next step on their journey towards achieving their dream career.

Final thoughts

Online learning is going to continue to grow in 2021, and the learning subscription model is right at the forefront. With our flexible online courses, microcredentials and new ExpertTracks, there are so many opportunities for everyone to experience online learning with FutureLearn. Let’s make 2021 a year full of possibility and growth.

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