Among the many sectors facing severe disruption from COVID-19, education has been directly in the firing line.

Schools across the country are weighing up semi-permanent closures, with a number of students testing positive.

And major universities are moving towards online teaching solutions to ensure curriculums can be completed off-campus as large gatherings are disbanded.

Such an unexpected health crisis calls for drastic measures. But looking at the sector more broadly, Australia’s multi-billion dollar education industry has been grappling with technological disruption for a while now.

Speaking with Stockhead recently, higher education specialist Claire Field said one effect of the virus outbreak was that it could accelerate shifts that had been underway for a number of years.

Field pointed to the 2018 year, which marked the first time that online enrolments for post-graduate study by domestic university students were higher than on-campus enrolments.

“You’ve got universities across the country who are scrambling to put more content online and to make it more engaging,” she says.

“But across the sector, it’s not standardised yet. It operates on a faculty-by-faculty basis with different lecturers and different courses. Some (universities) are doing very advanced things online, while others are still more traditional.”

She highlighted the University of Melbourne and ANU as two tertiary institutions openly exploring tech solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, such as online courses for students stuck in China.

And this week, the University of Technology in Sydney announced it will stop all course work for a week to allow time for the rollout of a new online teaching method.

“I think this has given the university sector a real push. Where previously the move online has been a bit sporadic across each institution, with different people more (or less) passionate about it,” Field said.

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“Depending on how long we go through with this virus, this could be the step-change for the education technology (edtech) sector that takes it from tech that’s starting to disrupt the space, into something that’s part of the mainstream product offering.”

For ASX investors, it’s a sector that’s worth keeping an eye one — even as viral health fears spark what’s been an unprecedented selloff on global stock markets.

Stockhead recently spoke to representatives from two companies — OpenLearning (ASX:OLL) and Janison Education Group (ASX:JAN).

Yesterday marked the worst intra-day fall on the ASX since 1987, but shares in both companies stayed resilient to finish the day around 3 per cent higher.

For Janison chairman Mike Hill, the COVID-19 outbreak is an important juncture for the company to drive the value proposition of its core product — a digital examination platform that allows for secure and accurate off-site testing.

“Every one of these bodies from schools to higher education — a lot of them have been talking about the move (to digital). Now they’re faced with universities closing and gatherings being postponed. You need platforms to be able to deliver high-level digital solutions and that’s what Janison’s got,” Hill said.

“Historically, education bodies take a long time to make decisions. And moving away from pen-and-paper learning is a big decision.

“But now they might not have a choice. And if they can’t put 300 people in a room to do an exam, they’ve got to modulate it in a different way.”

For OpenLearning CEO Adam Brimo, the current dynamic is an opportunity for the business to help university clients address those changes, given that its core product offering is in online learning solutions.

Brimo said that as part of the shift to online, tertiary clients faced two main challenges. The first is what type of platform they use that aligns with their existing values and teaching styles. And the other is whether they have the resources and expertise to build those courses.

“It’s not just about taking a PDF or Powerpoint presentation and putting them online. It’s about designing quality online course outcomes; considering the ways students interact and how they develop skills. That’s called the learning design process,” Brimo told Stockhead.

“And it’s a process that takes a lot of work. In a time like this when there’s too much work to be done to move a large amount of courses online, our team can step in and help.

“We can also help build courses that are much more engaging and project-based, so university clients can deliver high quality outcomes.”

Janison CEO Tom Richardson said he’d noted a change in conditions on the ground, as more universities contacted the company about offsite solutions for exams and “proctoring” — supervision to ensure the identity of exam takers and integrity of the test.

However, while university clients scramble to make ends meet, Richardson is taking a more long-term view.

“I think trying to profiteer from this crisis is a bit of a short-term lens. What it really does is provide the catalyst to broaden and deepen client relationships,” he told Stockhead.

“It’s pretty profound what’s going on. And I think it will be the catalyst for some wholesale changes.”