By Kate Holton and Paul Sandle
LONDON, March 26 (Reuters) - Britain's Pearson has seen an "explosion" in demand for online learning, with traffic across its platforms quadrupling as millions of children start to adapt to home schooling during the coronavirus pandemic, its chief executive said.
Pearson, a leading global education company, has made some programmes available for free and expanded others to help teachers, parents and students fill the gap caused by school and college closures that have followed the spread of coronavirus from China to other parts of Asia, Europe to North America.
The company has mobilised resources to train more teachers to deliver lessons online and provide digital content and a learning platform for schools and students, chief executive John Fallon told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
"We've seen a huge increase in the appetite for digital resources," he said. "Across all our platforms globally we are seeing about a 400% increase in activity (...) and that demand is growing day-by-day."
Pearson, which provides textbooks, assessments and digital services in 70 countries, trained an additional 24,000 teachers in online learning and gained 500,000 new learners in Italy, he said. Italy is the country with the most deaths, and the second most cases after China, to date in the pandemic.
One of its British products, The Maths Factor, created by TV maths whiz Carol Vorderman for students aged 4 to 12, was made available for free on Tuesday. "We had 41,000 new subscribers just on the first day," Fallon said.
In the United States, an additional 2,000 places were made available at its Connections Academy online school internationally for free. It has received 70,000 applications.
The rapid shift to digital learning follows an often painful journey for Pearson in recent years as it moved from traditional textbooks to online subscription tools, particularly in its higher education arm in the United States.
Its shares are down 66% since a recent peak in 2015, as expensive textbooks phase out, and the stock is now trading where it was in 2003.
A one-time conglomerate, Pearson has in recent years shed assets including Penguin Books, the Financial Times and the Economist to focus purely on education.
MAKING THE GRADE
In China, where the pandemic began and where pupils are now starting to return to classrooms, Pearson is helping teachers make up for the lost months by re-calibrating curriculums and looking at opportunities for summer schools.
In Britain, the company's examination body Edexcel faces the challenge of working with teachers to award grades after the country took the decision to cancel final exams due this summer.
Work is under way between the government, regulators and the exams bodies to make sure students receive the grades they deserve, Fallon said, adding that further information will be provided in the coming days.
While the company will not see any financial benefits from the current surge in demand, as it makes its services available for free, Fallon said he believed the take-up of online tools will not reverse once the pandemic has passed.
"As we work our way through, post the pandemic, I think this will show a defining shift towards online learning that will be irreversible and that is obviously good for us," he said. (Writing by Paul Sandle Editing by Frances Kerry)
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