July 18, 2024

Will COVID-19 push online workforce education to its tipping point?

Author: Ashley St. John
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The COVID-19 crisis has created an unfortunate and tragic shock to the world’s economy. This global pandemic has driven the world’s economic indices into territories not seen since the financial crisis of 2008. Thousands of businesses have been forced into self-isolation in order to protect the greater community. Retailers and restaurants are operating under reduced hours or closing their doors completely. This economic shock, simultaneously coming from the demand and supply side, is expected to fundamentally change the way we operate in areas such as public health, national security, disaster preparedness and remote work.

One area that COVID-19 will affect fundamentally is workforce education. Even before the pandemic, uptake was inconsistent. U.S. corporations spend $180 billion dollars a year on education and training programs, including $28 billion in tuition assistance. Yet, only 40 percent of employees even know about these programs, and actual enrollees are less than 2 percent.

As businesses look to persevere through the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 and rebuild for the future, there is an even greater need to hold workforce education accountable for career growth and business impact. We believe that in the middle to long term, the crisis will push online workforce education to its tipping point, with accelerated adoption coming from both the demand and supply sides.

Demand-Side Boost — Corporations Adopt Remote Work, at Scale

To maintain operations, corporations have moved core business processes online, canceling meetings and travel and having their employees work remotely. Virtual collaboration technologies and tools have existed within companies for some time, with almost 25 percent of the workforce being able to work remotely even before the crisis. Messaging programs streamline correspondence while video conferencing allows for virtual meetings, with 70 percent of participants more willing to engage in discussion on such platforms.

As we optimistically look toward a post-COVID-19 future, employees will question why corporations are unable to make online workforce education the standard. Having already demonstrated their support for remote business processes during this crisis, corporations will increasingly leverage online workforce education, which offers increased flexibility, faster acquisition of new knowledge and skills, and high-quality instruction that benefits both the corporation and the employee-learner.

“As economically devastating as the pandemic has been for so many, there are some things we can take from it,” said Jaime Fall, director of UpSkill America. “Companies need to be sure they are speaking to the importance of ongoing learning from the executive level and creating policies and practices that make it possible and rewarding. That includes making sure workers have the digital skills and capability (adequate internet access and equipment) to access learning, opportunities to continue learning throughout this downturn and on through the recovery as well as a clear understanding of why learning is important to the future growth of the company and to the careers of the individuals.”

Corporations have good role models to follow. Many forward-thinking companies such as Starbucks, Uber and Aramark have already been educating, reskilling and upskilling their employees through online learning for the past few years. Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan alone has graduated nearly 4,000 learners. Uber offers its drivers the ability to use its education program for themselves or a family member, while Aramark offered its plan to its frontline workforce employees last year. These employers have created impactful partnerships with leading universities that can support their need for rapidly changing skills training, while also demonstrating positive impact in the lives of their employees.

Supply-Side Boost — University Instruction Forced to Go Online

The higher-education system is often known for moving slowly, and even leading research universities have been slow to adopt online learning. Research has shown that faculty members tend to lack motivation for teaching online because of the preparation time required, the need to teach students about technology and lower compensation. There also is a perception in higher education that face-to-face lectures drive better outcomes.

Today, there is no choice. Learning institutions are losing almost an entire semester of in-person teaching and learning. With physical campuses closed, most universities have been forced to ramp up their online capabilities quickly. Stanford, for example, has offered advice and instructions for students to continue learning online. The first U.S. institution to close its residential campus, the University of Washington, called upon its Continuum College to help accommodate moving the entire student body to online classes. The Ohio State University has asked its teachers to use the extended spring break to prepare a fully remote curriculum since the university is “suspending face-to-face classes and transitioning to virtual learning.”

Universities, amid this unprecedented shift, can draw inspiration from innovative, research-grade institutions that already provide, at scale, the same quality instruction online as they do in the classroom. Arizona State University, ranked as U.S. News’ No. 1 university for innovation for five straight years, annually graduates more than 7,000 learners from more than 200 online programs. The CUNY School of Professional Studies, ranked in the top 5 percent of the U.S. News’ Online Bachelor’s Degrees, offers most of its academic programs in a fully online format that is “as rigorous, informative and rewarding as one taught in a classroom.” Harvard Business School Online now boasts more than 19,000 enrollees.

As tragic and severe as the COVID-19 crisis is, we believe it will accelerate acceptance of online workforce education. The technology infrastructure exists, and the cultural hurdle is being overcome as corporations, educators and employee-learners gain hands-on experience with the technology and recognize the increased need for its adoption. Collectively, visionary CEOs and academic leaders must take advantage of this watershed moment to create significant social impact that will benefit employees, their families and their communities for years to come.

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