There are companies that have suffered big blows from COVID; there are companies that have benefited from COVID; and there are companies for whom COVID has only accelerated trends in their markets that were already happening.

“Edtech” company OpenLearning Limited (OLL) is firmly in the latter category. OpenLearning delivers education online, and COVID meant that universities were not doing face-to-face learning – especially for their international students, who couldn’t come to Australia. OpenLearning helped fill the gap – but that gap only “sold” the company’s offering even better.

“During COVID, most institutions have really just implemented stopgap solutions; they’ve just used Zoom to run virtual classes, or they’ve uploaded their PowerPoint slides to their learning management system that they’ve had for over a decade,” says Adam Brimo, founder and chief executive officer at OpenLearning.

“But once the institutions got over that initial period where they just had to use a stopgap solution, now they’re looking at how they actually deliver a much higher-quality experience, and differentiate themselves from their competitors. If everyone is just running virtual classes on Zoom and distributing PowerPoints, first of all, the students aren’t going to pay the same fees, and second, if the quality is low, people aren’t going to meet the outcomes. If you’re a top university or top education provider, you’re going to want to offer your students something better. OpenLearning is the ‘something better,’” says Brimo.

The other major pivot for OpenLearning came last week, when the company announced a five-year agreement with Sydney-based Top 50 global university, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), to design and deliver an online “pathway” program for international students coming into UNSW, for the university’s global arm, UNSW Global, through its OpenLearning platform.

OpenLearning first partnered with UNSW Global in May 2020 to launch the online University English-entry course: the first batch of students had high satisfaction and completion rates for the interactive ten-week course, and the university was impressed enough to extend the partnership into OLL running UNSW Global’s online transition program.

The first cohort of students will commence the new online Transition Program in early 2021.

The program, which will be a four-month commitment by students, is based on a pre-existing on-campus program: while it will offer the same learning and pathway outcomes as its face-to-face counterpart, the delivery style will be completely different, says Brimo.

“Our specialisation is project-based social learning to encourage interaction, and we’ve reimagined the UNSW Transition Program along those lines. This will be the first time that our socially constructive and community-driven approach will be combined with a teaching model that integrates personalised coaching in a small group, along with continuous portfolio-based assessment and interviews instead of exams,” he says.

“The program offers students more feedback from teachers along with a high level of peer interaction. This is a progressive shift from teacher-led to student-led sessions that provides accountability for students, but even more importantly, great support,” says Brimo.

OpenLearning is responsible for the design and delivery of the program, from student applications through to delivery, student support and assessment while UNSW Global is responsible for curriculum, content, marketing and quality assurance. An individual online portfolio is automatically generated to help teachers track their students’ progress during the program. Brimo says this arrangement makes it possible to tailor coaching and support for every student, while monitoring academic integrity.

“We think there’s going to be very strong demand for this style of program even when international travel resumes, because students and their parents will be looking for a cost-effective, high-quality pathway that they can complete from home. And it enables them to get into one of Australia’s top universities,” says Brimo.

The deal is “transformative” for OpenLearning, both in terms of the additional revenue stream it provides and the nature of the work the company will undertake, Brimo says. “Prior to COVID, we were solely focused on a fee-for-service model, whereby we charge for our platform and learning services. And our revenue from that model has continued to grow, but in light of the challenges posed by COVID, we began to discuss co-investment and revenue-share models with our customers, and our partnership with UNSW Global is the first significant example of this.”

The revenue-share model is also likely to come into play in OpenLearning’s major new growth plank, its OpenCreds product, launched in July. OpenCreds enables education and training providers, companies and industry associations to create “stackable” courses that lead towards credit, which could be a formal qualification, recognition by a professional body, a component part of employer training, part of continuing professional development requirements, or simply, recreational learning.

Brimo says OpenCreds is mainly aimed at the professional development/upskilling market in its key Australian and Malaysian markets – any industry where people need to continue to upskill to stay relevant, to stay ahead of technological change and automation, or any industry where there is a high level of professional development. “You’re talking about technology, teacher professional development, business skills, leadership. These are markets where companies would previously have sent executives or managers to a face-to-face course or workshop, but now it can be done online,” he says.

The company is handily cashed-up, after tapping the market last month for a $5.94 million raring through a share placement that used its full 15% placement capacity (that is, without requiring shareholder approval), a deal that in the first instance will help fund the set-up of the UNSW Global program. With the existing cash balance, Brimo says OpenLearning has more than $10 million in the bank. “We’ve got a lot of growth initiatives planned, but that’ll definitely give us the resources to execute on those opportunities,” he says.