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Research Briefs | October 14, 2020

Applying New Education Technologies to Meet Workforce Education Needs

Sanjay Sarma, William Boone Bonvillian


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This paper focuses on the question: What are the lessons from learning science and new technologies that could make online education, including workforce training, more effective?

Our current workforce education system faces many gaps, from underinvestment to a deep disconnect between the still-separate worlds of work and learning. However, new models for workforce education delivery are developing to help fill these gaps. New educational technologies, the subject of this paper, are high on the list of new delivery models that we must consider.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) introduces a new driver. It has particularly harmed the poor and working class, who have lost jobs or are filling riskier face-to-face “essential” jobs, as opposed to safer, at-home, “knowledge” work. It has underscored the need for a better workforce education system to create better quality jobs. The virus also seriously damaged some key sectors of the economy, where many jobs will not return any time soon. There is now a major need to make workforce education a policy priority, to upgrade skills for those being left behind, and to help others shift job sectors to areas where there will be work. The scale of the current workforce education system is not up to the job. To meet the needed scale, online education, which has been growing in recent years, could be a key tool. But online education is a very different medium than the traditional classroom, and there are lessons from learning science only now being understood that will apply to it in different ways. For online workforce education to work and to scale, it will have to be a better system, incorporating learning lessons and advanced technologies to optimize the new medium.

The world has also been going through a prolonged and unprecedented period of training in the use of digital education. According to UNESCO, 1.6 billion students were displaced in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 forced social distancing. This left hundreds of millions of students and teachers to rapidly deploy digital tools. Some children didn’t have them, and they were left out. Parents, too, have been exposed to this modality—whether helping their children or scouring the internet looking for resources. Anecdotally, this seems to have informed millions of parents about the affordances of online education—both good and bad. Many working adults, meanwhile, were forced to attend training sessions, conferences, and events over videoconferencing, further deepening the penetration of online modalities. While online education rescued many schools, the cost of COVID-19 in lost tuition and revenues will likely lead to the demise of many colleges and institutions. At the very least, it will lead to a rethinking in others about the need, role, and purpose of online education.