Health and Healthcare Systems

These 3 charts show the global growth in online learning

Online learning: Someone typing in a laptop keyboard.

More than 20 million new learners registered for online learning in 2021. Image: UNSPLASH/Glenn Carstens-Peters

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • People are increasingly accessing online courses to help them navigate today’s ever changing labour market.
  • Online learning platform Coursera recorded 20 million new student registrations in 2021.
  • The highest rate of new learner growth online came from emerging economies.
  • Online learning is an important tool helping to close the widening global skills gap.


The number of students accessing its online courses now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, a leading global online learning platform reports.

Following the COVID-19-induced shift to remote working, people are increasingly looking to digital learning to develop the skills to navigate today’s constantly evolving world of work.

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Online learning platform Coursera has released its 2021 Impact Report, which shows more than 20 million new learners registered for courses in the year - equivalent to total growth in the three years pre-pandemic.

The increase continues an upward trend that predates the pandemic but has since gained momentum.

The upward trend in online learning

A chart showing the growth in online learning.
More than 20 million new learners registered for courses in 2021. Image: Coursera

In 2016, 21 million students registered for Coursera’s online courses, a number that increased annually by around 7 million over the next two years. But the switch to remote working as the pandemic hit triggered a three-fold increase in new registrations, bringing the figure to 71 million in 2020, and 92 million in 2021.

Course enrolments for online learning followed a similar pattern, with pre-pandemic gains overshadowed by huge spikes. Enrolment numbers more than doubled in 2020 and increased by 32% the following year, peaking at 189 million.

These increases reflect growing global acceptance of online teaching, including increases in remote learners taking higher education courses and those from vulnerable or remote communities.

Where do most online learners call home?

Regionally, Asia Pacific saw the biggest student presence on the learning platform, with 28 million new online learners enrolling for 68 million courses, followed by North America, Europe and Latin America.

By comparison, just 3 million online learners came from Africa, joining 5 million courses. However, Africa saw the highest growth in both student registrations (up 43%) and course enrolments (up 50%).

10 flags showing countries with most online learners.
The highest number of remote learners on Coursea’s learning platform were from the US and India. Image: Coursera

At the country level, the US topped the standings with more than 17 million people getting enrolled in online learning, followed by India with 13.6 million. A sizable gap separated these two nations from Mexico with almost 5 million, with Brazil and China completing the top five list.

10 flags showing countries with most growth in online learners.
Emerging nations are seeing the fastest rate of growth in online learning. Image: Coursera

The highest rate of new learner growth came from emerging economies however, led by Paraguay with 98% growth totalling 110,000 learners.


Lebanon saw 97% growth in learners, with 158,000 in total. Although the Philippines saw 85% learner growth, the South East Asian nation registered 1.3 million learners in total.

Other emerging nations with high student totals that saw more than 50% growth in 2021 include Indonesia, Kenya, Vietnam and Kazakhstan.

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Reskilling for the future

Access to quality online learning is an important step in helping people future-proof their skills and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

The pandemic has accelerated an already fast-changing world, where technologies like AI and automation continue to disrupt labour markets and bring structural change. This creates an uncertain future for many.


Today’s rate of technological change is expected to continue or accelerate in some areas, the Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020 predicts. Cloud computing, big data and e-commerce look set to remain focal points for big business, along with advances in digital encryption, non-humanoid robots and AI.

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For many, the future of work is already here. And, although the total number of jobs lost in the technical revolution will be outnumbered by the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ it creates, the immediate impact could displace many workers and leave them without the skills needed to perform new and more technical roles.

But disruption also creates new opportunities requiring new skills. And the increased focus on reskilling among both companies and individuals offers a solution. On average, 66% of employers surveyed for the report expect to get a return on investment within a year of upskilling and reskilling employees.

There has been a five-fold increase in employer provision of online learning opportunities for employees, a four-fold increase in individuals independently seeking online learning opportunities, and a nine-fold increase in online learning opportunities created through government programmes.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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