This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Before the pandemic, labour market polarisation was an ongoing reality in many OECD countries. While upper middle classes were thriving, working classes were losing middle-skill jobs and being shunted into lower-end services sectors. The result: growing economic inequality. Then the pandemic created a problem within this problem. The coronavirus is forcing a massive reshuffle of the workforce, with significant numbers leaving disrupted sectors like hospitality, retail and travel. Now both middle-skill and lower-end jobs are down, workers will have to learn new skills in the post-pandemic economy to seek higher quality jobs.
This is a massive scale-up problem that conventional classrooms alone cannot solve. Online education will be a key tool in creating the lifelong education system we will need to shift to. Because of the pandemic most of education went online, often in a matter of days. It was an astonishing experiment—no major educational project had ever been attempted at such a scale and in such a short time. Like all experiments some things worked, some didn’t. Younger children, who need social context and teacher mentoring, had a difficult time with the online experiment. But for some high school students and many college students, it was a lifeline—and when well-organised for the new medium, many found it could work. Many faculties went from viewing online with contempt to having to make it work for their students, and some became quite creative. It will now have a place in formal education—but can it take a place in workforce education?
Read also the "OECD Digital Education Outlook 2021: Pushing the frontiers with AI, blockchain and robots" and explore how might digital and smart technologies transform education
We must first recognise that online education using Zoom-like video conferencing is far from optimal. Regular classroom lectures have recently gone out of favour because they lead to passive, and often disengaged, students. The science of learning tells us that students learn best when they are active and engaged: this is called the “flipped” classroom. Zoom lectures were regular lectures without the human element, and they are not good online education either. Done right, online education is “asynchronous” and produced with a number of cognitive psychological principles in mind, for example making videos 10-minute, bite-sized chunks to fit the way our short-term memories work. Proper online education can weave in cognitive principles such as the retrieval effect (a learner who is asked to recall material right after learning it shows more durable, longer-term recall); spaced practice (when learning is repeated in spaced manner, recurring just before a learner forgets, it is more durable); and interleaving (when different subjects are interspersed, rather than being taught in blocks). Good online education builds in frequent, low-stakes assessments to help ensure students are engaged. In short, quality online education can apply much of what we have been learning about learning. It is a new tool, and now not just students but almost everyone with school–aged children knows something about it. We’re now on the launch pad, but can we launch?
Online education is best-suited as a tool for lifelong learners. Early makers of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) found their largest audience was teachers trying to stay current and ahead in their fields. We work at MIT Open Learning, developing MIT’s online education courses and programmes, which run on edX. We have found that demand is greatest not for one-off, stand-alone academic courses, but for clusters teaching new skills and expertise that together yield a new credential. MIT MicroMasters certificate programs collect four or five courses, in areas like supply chain management, advanced manufacturing and finance, and now have over a million enrolled students. Online education works for students who want education while working, to upgrade their knowledge of their field or to shift to another complementary area. They often have obligations such as families or work and have limited time, and must study at their own pace. The apparent demand for online education to upgrade workforce skills has big implications for meeting the upcoming challenge of a disrupted workforce.
Much of workforce education involves hands-on learning—mastering equipment and technologies. A medical technologist, for example, will have to learn how to use a new ultrasound machine. That means workforce education can’t be entirely online, and optimal instruction must include a face-to-face instructor and time spent on actual equipment. So the mantra has become “blended and best”: there needs to be a mix of online and in-class learning with a division of labour. Online can do what it does best, the background and foundational material with self-pacing, feedback loops and built-in assessments; and the teachers can do what they do best, the hands-on coaching on the equipment. All the background and foundational content can be placed online, reaching thousands because that part of workforce education is not limited by available physical classrooms and a ratio of one teacher for every ten or fifteen students. Online elements can scale.
Find out more about the MIT Open Learning initiative striving to transform teaching and learning through the innovative use of digital technologies
And more technology may be on the way to help us extend the blended learning balance. Computer gaming can lead a student through a series of tasks and create feedback and rewards so that learning occurs naturally, and it can also be coupled with other new technologies. The American military has now shifted much of its training to computer gaming modules using virtual reality (VR), and is finding that it is almost as good as learning on the actual equipment; the training costs are dramatically lower, and the online skills rapidly translate to the real technologies. Equipment costs for VR, and its cousin, Augmented Reality (AR), are dropping fast. And with VR, you can skip the headset and do the same programs on a laptop touchscreen. While development of VR and AR programs is not cheap, the scale they can achieve makes this a manageable cost if, for example, groups of institutions were funded to develop them. While these technologies are ready now, others may be on the way. Intelligent tutoring systems model the student’s preexisting knowledge of a field and adapt the instruction and feedback as required. Artificial intelligence is progressing, and over time will help us improve this technology for optimal learning pathways suited to each learner.
Before the pandemic, OECD nations faced a major upskilling task to move more workers into new technology areas where quality jobs are growing. With the pandemic, that task multiplied—we have a major additional challenge for workers who have had their jobs disrupted. Both groups will need to shift to a new system of lifelong learning connected to expanding parts of the economy where there are growing demands and jobs, such as health or information technologies. The sheer scale of this workforce means we will need new tools to get there—and online education will be critical.
Rea also the report: "Skill measures to mobilise the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses"