The Future of Education, Work is Changed Forever Due to Covid

As students return to campuses and in-person classes resume across the country, colleges and universities are operating differently now than they did pre-pandemic. Similarly, as people start to return to their workplaces after working remotely for more than a year, they are discovering they are not returning to business as usual, but are facing a new normal.

John Baker, President and CEO of D2L believes the future of both work and learning will not look the same as before, and that technology will help learning and work become more human. “We can say with a lot of certainty that a blend of options will be the norm in the future,” Baker pointed out. “We will still have traditional classroom learning but learners will have a lot more choice.”

Baker recently spoke at a featured session, What Comes Next May Surprise You: The Future of Work and Learning, at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Accelerate 2021: Accelerating Online Learning Worldwide virtual event. The event focused on online, blended and digital learning and included sessions that included discussions of how educators and institutions met the challenges of the past year, the lessons learned and how to move forward. 

“Because the pandemic removed many of the barriers that were in place for online learning, many of the excuses for not doing distance learning suddenly didn’t matter as we scrambled to meet the demands of the school year,” Baker said. “There were a lot of successes and some assumptions people had about online learning were proven incorrect, like students wouldn’t be productive or engaged.”

He added that no matter how far technology takes us, our human connections are most important. “During COVID-19, we saw educators go above and beyond for students, whether corporate learning and development professionals elevating their game to keep people engaged and learning and progressing forward in their careers or professors rising to the occasion by adapting and delivering the same course but in different ways to be different needs and quite often in different time zones,” Baker explained.

He added that due to the pandemic, millions of people will need to be upskilled and many will need mental health supports and social and emotional learning mechanisms for coping. “Learning needs to be a bridge to help people get those supports as they experience disruption, businesses can’t train workers alone, and neither can universities and colleges. It will take a creative partnership,” he noted. “But for me, what comes next is using technology to make our world more human.”

Gerry Hanley, Executive Director, SkillsCommons, pointed out that a third of employed Americans are considering quitting their job and 60 percent are considering career changes. Executives think there will be a conflict with employees about returning to work requirements. “In the U.S., we’re looking at a five percent drop in student enrollment, with three quarters of a million students deciding not to enroll in the spring,” Hanley said. “There are consequences of changes in the power of who decides how education is delivered so now we have to take into consideration what students want, what adult learners want, what parents of students want. This will be an important change. By giving people choice, you empower them for learning. Authoritarian management magnifies our incompetence.”

Jill Buban, Vice President & General Manager, EdAssist Solutions stressed the importance of work education. “We see that 87 percent of workers see new skills as important for their growth, two out of three expect education benefits and 94 percent would stay at a company longer if it offered education,” she said. “Upscaling employees to drive revenue is the number one challenge for CHROs and more than have of CHROs are planning to implement upscaling initiatives.”

Buban added that the kind of accelerated pace of evolution and disruption in this competitive business landscape demands that workers aren’t only technically proficient but exceptionally agile in their capacity to think and act creatively and quickly learn new skills. “Leaders in the higher education field not only think about skills-based learning, but evergreen or horizontal skills. We need to continue to influence skills in the area of teamwork, leadership, communication and critical thinking,” she said. “Let’s show learners pathways, how to get where they want to go. Let’s show them how to achieve their goals each step of the way. Let’s talk about experiential learning with our workforce.”

Abra McAndrew, Assistant Vice President, The University of Arizona, explained that technology is facilitating a connection rather than a boundary and an acknowledgement that the workers and learners are increasingly the same people at the same time.

“Employers are acknowledging that the talent game now requires an investment and a plan to invest longer term strategically in continued education of the workforce,” she said. “There are always going to be universities and colleges that are able to provide an isolated experience of learning. At the same time, we have an opportunity, particularly as public institutions, to be more inclusive and to define ourselves by how many we can include at different stages of life. We can support and connect to learners and workers as the same people.”

For more articles from OLC’s Accelerate 2021 event see: