COVID-19 Is Accelerating the Digital Blending of Working and Learning

Jun 19, 2020

In the last few months the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and triggered an economic plunge in the U.S. that is now officially a recession. Even before this crisis, concerns were rising about a potential loss of jobs and the rising demand for digital skills due to technologies such as automation and AI. Now that potential is even greater, since historically recessions tend to accelerate automation and the long-term loss of jobs in routine occupations.

And because of social distancing, we find ourselves living in world that is even more digital–and the evidence of that shift is all around us. Knowledge work has moved online as professionals work remotely. E-commerce purchases of all types have surged. Restaurants have rapidly shifted to online and mobile ordering, and are speeding up the deployment of digital kiosks that replace human workers. Retailers such as The Gap are accelerating the adoption of robots in their warehouses.

These trends present great risks in a job market that is already polarized and biased toward knowledge work and technology skills, with growing gaps based on educational attainment. While some economic disruptions and job losses will be temporary, we must recognize that this is a major structural shift that puts an even greater premium on higher levels of education. This is already evident in the latest national job-market data, which shows a 15 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college and 13 percent for those with some college or an associate degree—compared to 7 percent for individuals with a bachelor’s or higher. What’s more, recent job losses have disproportionately affected Black and other minority workers, who make up a larger share of front-line service jobs that have been most impacted by the pandemic – contributing to the growing sense of injustice and social unrest in the country.

There is growing acknowledgement and new evidence that this situation is worsening equity gaps in the job market and within higher education.

What we need in this environment is to step back and examine how the post-pandemic economy and postsecondary ecosystem are evolving as they move online. Here are three key areas that offer the most promise:

Digital Hiring a Potential Catalyst for Credential Innovation

Like other business activities in the world of empty corporate offices, the transition to remote work moved a much larger share of the hiring process online. As a greater portion of the application, screening, and interviewing process takes place in digital forms, this has the potential to accelerate what was already a steady trend—employers’ use of next-generation application-tracking systems, talent analytics, online pre-hire assessments, and even simulation-based hiring, where candidates are asked to do tasks during the hiring process that they’ll do on the job if they land it.

In a 2018 survey of hiring leaders, we found that online pre-hire assessment was the single most likely “disruptor” of the reliance on degrees in hiring, followed by simulation-based hiring. It is still early in the adoption of these digital hiring practices—and how employers deploy them is still very much a “black box.”

As those hiring methods go digital, they could speed adoption of new kinds of microcredentials and digital badges designed to show employers the fine-grained skills achieved during educational programs. And more students may seek out more affordable short-term microcredential programs as they seek to reskill quickly or struggle to fit education into their disrupted work lives.

While there is anecdotal evidence that the pandemic is driving growth in microcredentialing, we need to monitor and better understand how consumer demand, employer receptivity and educational providers’ capability in this area is evolving.

In the COVID-19 era, microcredentials can also be a solution to the need for “learning continuity”—providing waystations as students cycle in and out of educational experiences and work. Traditional colleges may drive some of this growth, as they embed such microcredentials into their degree programs. That’s an approach that many community colleges are already doing, and these institutions could be at the epicenter of post-pandemic workforce solutions.

Learning in The Flow of Work—Wherever Work May Be

Just as COVID-19 has blurred the work and home lives of many, it is further blurring the boundaries between learning and working. It seems certain that more professional learning will happen outside of traditional institutions and campuses – especially if colleges fail to adapt. Learning is increasingly happening in the workplace, or “in the flow of work.” Major employers are embracing libraries of video and MOOC courses, tuition-assistance programs for online courses, and bootcamps focused on tech skills (which have themselves moved online). And workers who are not at desk jobs may be more likely to consume learning in short bites of mobile microlearning.

Career-oriented lifelong learning is now even more of a societal and economic imperative. Interestingly, in our past surveys, 70 percent of Americans reported that in the event their skills and education were to become outdated, they’d look primarily to on-the-job training or other learning offered by an employer over traditional educational institutions and other vehicles.

As the country engages in broader discussions about social safety nets and support structures, we must recognize that we need a new working-and-learning infrastructure that will require deeper engagement with employers. We also need a better understanding of emerging educational options, and how individual workers’ and employers’ incentives for and barriers to learning and development may be shifting.

The Online Experiential Frontier

The increasing fluidity between working and learning in this digital environment calls into question another dynamic for educational providers – the value of work experience and the learning models that embrace it.

Before the pandemic, work-based learning models such as internships and apprenticeships were already growing in popularity and significance. With the emergence of COVID-19, the entire internship and work-based learning landscape is being rapidly transformed as these experiences suddenly move online.

In many ways, this conversion of traditional place-based internship programs to an online or “virtual” format mirrors the sudden shift of college and K-12 education to online learning or “remote instruction”—serving exponentially more students, while also creating a variety of opportunities and complications for both the near- and long-term.

If employers’ experiments with online internships and other virtual modes of work-based learning succeed, this could be a major catalyst for future growth. But that assumes a positive experience, and that is something that remains to be seen and needs to be studied. Even before the pandemic, it was a challenge for employers to scale these models (online or otherwise)—and to truly fulfill the promise of job placement and economic opportunity, we must do more to ensure access and quality student experiences. This is an exciting frontier that we are continuing to study and pioneer at Northeastern—and we are eager to engage partners in this work.

While most college and university leaders are appropriately focused on online course infrastructure and the potential fall reopening of campuses, the long hot summer of 2020 is also a crucial moment to take stock of the more foundational shifts in the economy and prepare for a more integrative, digital working and learning future.


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