Digital Skilling in the Time of Covid-19: Innovations and Outreach

Updated: Jul 22



This chart shown by UNESCO during the webinar, shows regional differences of access to technology and infrastructure – essential elements that allow for remote and continuity of learning.


The impact of COVID-19 has caused a complete disruption to the world of work, communities, economies and systems. As governments and other responsible bodies activate policy responses to address the economic fall-out from COVID-19, GAN Global seeks to stimulate dialogue between stakeholders who are able to drive a solutions based approach to tackle the challenges facing work-based learning (WBL).  In our efforts to explore how COVID-19 is specifically impacting training and development of employees, trainees, apprentices, interns and students and WBL programmes, the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) has hosted a series of webinars, bringing together GAN member companies, partners and networks to understand how businesses, governments, intermediaries and international organisations are adapting their WBL strategies to this massive and sudden disruption to workforces.

For this webinar, we focused on digital solutions to tackle the various challenges facing WBL. Digital skilling offers a practical solution to the challenge of ensuring that workforces and skills remain adaptable, flexible and aligned to changing market needs. At the same time, it is important to understand from stakeholders how we ensure that digital skilling, as a methodology, can be expanded to communities where infrastructure such as regular supply of electricity, access to data, hardware and software, may be lacking. It is critical that we leave no one behind when managing such a solution.

We see that the main challenges organisations face in terms of COVID-19 include:

· Leveraging technological advancement to optimise WBL in the current context, and,

· Preparing existing and future pool of employees, trainees, apprentices, interns and students ready to meet the needs of economies that will shift post COVID-19 and giving them the tools, they need to upskill and reskill.

The following thought leaders representing governments, international organisations, training providers, intermediaries, companies and academics explored in this webinar, how technology is being leveraged to continue skills development and training, giving examples from the EU, the UK, the US and Australia:


· Alison Crabb, Head of Unit “Skills and Qualifications", Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission (EC)

· Borhene Chakroun, Director of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems Division, UNESCO

· Jane Rexworthy, Executive Director, People 1st International

· Sandra Kelly, UK Skills and Policy Director, People 1st International 

· Naria Santa Lucia, Skills and Employability lead, Microsoft Philanthropies

· Nicole Collier, Director, Policy and Public Affairs, Nestlé

· Paul Champion, President, TranZed Apprenticeship Services

· Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partnerships Director, Kaplan UK

· David Summerville, Head Teacher, Technology, Callaghan College

· Nazrene Mannie, GAN Global Executive Director

In the webinars that GAN Global has been hosting since the pandemic, the emphasis of digital skilling, as a reliable and universal solution, has been a common denominator across all countries and sectors. From this webinar, we took away a few key trends:

We need to first understand to what extent the pandemic has on workforces and WBL. The EC has conducted a survey across its member states and found that the provision of apprenticeship will require diverse responses and that they have had to adapt to an environment where prior to the pandemic, virtual learning was not the norm. People 1st International highlighted several experiences from the hospitality and tourism industry in the UK, where many jobs have been furloughed. Understanding the impact on these particular sectors will help identify the re-and up-skilling required. People 1st further noted that current online skilling efforts sit at almost 60%, well above the national target of 50%. To ensure applicability and access, the challenge is that packages tend to be specific and tailoring, which can be expensive.

Digital skilling is more important than ever before, for many sectors. In the food and beverage manufacturing sector, Nestlé gave an example of the ‘Project Opportunity’ programme in the US, developed in 2015 to help people of all ages accelerate in their careers by gaining work experience and strengthening their skills. The programme includes apprenticeship, internships, on-the-job training, and co-ops, and has always included digital training aspects, which is an effective way to provide training in masses.

At its factory sites, Nestlé has been deploying an e-learning program for several years, developed by Amatrol, which specialises in power and energy, controls, manufacturing processes, design, fluids, fluid power, thermal, electrical motors, mechanical, communications, robotics, computer-integrated manufacturing and automation.

It is a company apprenticeship programme which along with the e-learning programme, also allows for training on-site. Five thousand Nestlé employees benefited from this program last year, which also assisted in further tailoring the program, especially for electro-mechanics and troubleshooting equipment. As Nestlé plays a critical role in food supply, reliance on this programme has increased during this period, and they are continuously adapting so that employees can continue learning safely. The challenge for Nestlé, as mentioned by other participants is that access to technology can be a hurdle to ensuring equity.

Post COVID-19, Nestlé’s broader observations are that learning will be forever changed, and that new methodologies using digital technology in recruitment, on-boarding, hiring and training, will continue to be part of their business strategy. Internally, the company’s use of LinkedIn learning platforms, has increased and they have taken a stronger stance towards digital learning.

For the short-term, People 1st International has been able to facilitate in the UK, a shift in skills from one sector to another. For businesses that have had to shut down (hotels, restaurants, non-food retail), employees are being re-deployed to other sectors that urgently require support. For example, restaurant workers are now working in care homes.

Preparing for such a transition has been supported by digital learning, as it is an already widely used method to teach cohorts. Tasks that apprentices have been doing in the hotel and tourism industry for example, can also be taught online, which allows for competencies to be shifted in different ways. In the UK, People 1st International has been able to show an incredible amount of digital shifting, as an assurance provider, in a matter of weeks.

In the short-term, the challenge has been to change the curricula swiftly from live to digital or more blended. Working with training providers in the UK and internationally has helped to fill in the gaps and provide various platforms for delivery. In the long-term, the challenge is to ensure consistency, and this can only be done if industry groups are involved. Post COVID-19, it could in fact be difficult to move back to our previous model after showing that many aspects of skilling can be done virtually.

Kaplan UK gave examples of how globalised and virtual learning have impacted its line of work, namely by being able to access teachers from anywhere, which was not possible ten years ago. Kaplan operates in all continents providing training, courses, and certification to various age groups, deploying various platforms. However, for home learning, Kaplan UK finds that the social aspect is still an integral component.

For their programmes on apprenticeship however, this is more adapted to the digital world, as there is both a work and study element. Technical and theoretical aspects can be provided online, where support is offered live and online. They are currently working on improving its assessments of workplace performance virtually and shifting exams online, which have traditionally taken place in physical spaces. Some innovations in this space include simulated environments and live recordings.

Post COVID-19, Kaplan UK believes that it is possible that the crisis will transform learning, similar to what virtual shopping has done for retail. How this applies to WBL and apprenticeship programmes will depend on employer behaviour, as employees may want to continue working from home more than ever. Progression is needed to facilitate virtual environments for assessment and recruitment however. Kaplan UK pointed out that in much of the Western hemisphere, it is normally at the end of a study year where students and apprentices are taking exams and/or prepping for the next year. Internet training programmes therefore will have to adapt for induction training, and methodologies using technology to facilitate this.

Bringing together these various thought leaders representing several industries across the globe, under one pandemic has shown us that the future of work is here and now. The examples of the various shifts in learning methodologies is testament to the fact that we are currently in a live test version, where shaping interventions that are inclusive and accessible is more important than ever, which brings us to our next point.

The issue of digital equality is universal. Callaghan College gave an example of its usage of online, blended learning which started with the Canvas Learning Management Platform four years ago, a multi-functional platform, allowing for interactive chats and discussion between teachers and students. Since the pandemic, teachers and students are still expected to teach and learn, however the main challenge has been equity, as the college is based in a lower, socio-economic area of Australia. To overcome this, the college has been lending devices to families, as remote learning is expected to continue over the next few weeks.

The EC raised the point of the need to unlock investments for various approaches to learning, including digital. The European Social Fund helps millions of Europeans improve their lives by learning new skills and finding better jobs, and takes into account the issue of equity, and shortly the EC will provide a revised budget proposal, which would hopefully take into account the need to invest and support digital learning.

Microsoft has been leading several innovations in this space by aiming to put the communities they serve at the centre. They do this by taking solutions initially developed for business and using them for non-profit communities. Across the company, integrating the needs of underserved communities underscores their work throughout the entire learning continuum from basic training and learning on digital competencies to more technical aspects. Some of the challenges faced include connectivity as many of the programmes they offer are video heavy. Microsoft is working on bringing connectivity to rural areas and ensuring hotspots in library buildings so people can leverage those connections to ensure wider accessibility to the internet.

Worldwide, UNESCO pointed out that currently, more than 1.5 billion students and youth are out of school and this figure does not include apprentices, informal apprentices, or lifelong learners. When developing online learning, we need to understand who has access and according to OECD figures, Africa and Asia Pacific have the most problems with connectivity. In addition, data shows that half of the world population lacks basic digital skills, and the majority of teachers in OECD countries do not have the digital skills necessary to engage.

The provision of apprenticeship programs in the current context depends on the digital skills of both trainers and learners. According to the EC, there are various experiences across the EU countries, but equality is an issue spanning the entire region. And when it comes to distance learning, there is a gap between digital skills already available between trainers and learners. This point was also confirmed by UNESCO who added that there are gaps in access to technology.

Therefore, UNESCO proposed two solutions to combat inequities in digital skilling:

· Deployment of the right mix of high, low or no-tech solutions such as mobile, radio and TV to reach all groups.

· Multi-stakeholder partnerships – government agencies and ministries charged with education, TVET and/or skilling cannot tackle this issue alone, which brings us to our next point.

A broader stakeholder environment including the private sector, civil society and the UN is needed for a more holistic approach. UNESCO referred to the importance of partnerships to build resilient systems. Their COVID-19 Education Response was its launch of the Global Education Coalition, bringing private sector and civil society together including the ILO and Microsoft to leave no one behind. The coalition seeks to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption, by providing appropriate distance education for all learners.

People 1st International also stressed the need for a multi-stakeholder approach, citing their work in over 40 countries where industry and employer partnerships are essential. More best practices can be shared and leveraged through public-private partnerships, and they highlighted the value of peer-to-peer engagements such as the approach of GAN Global where the key need is to work with passionate industry partners who can drive thought leadership and shift policy and behaviours. Microsoft’s approach to partnerships is to assist where they can, whether it is working with government, across supply-chains, internally or with civil society. Cross-company, they are ensuring that students and beneficiaries can continue to learn so that there are opportunities for them post COVID-19.

One example is its LEAP Engineering Acceleration Program (LEAP), an apprenticeship program created to introduce more people to work in the tech industry. The program offers an immersive 16-week apprenticeship for those who have a base foundation of technical training, which has since been moved online. Microsoft is currently working with partners in the industry to ensure continuity for the beginning of the school year.

Another way that Microsoft has been able to effectively harness partnerships is through its ability to deploy Teams in public spaces so teachers and students can continue to interact – as Callaghan College pointed out as one tool to ensure internal alignment with staff and teachers. In terms of delivery, Microsoft has noted that it is harder for those starting their careers in an online environment, especially those from vulnerable communities. Recently, they launched with UNESCO, a Microsoft community training that works in low connectivity areas, targeting displaced people and vulnerable communities.

As another solution, Microsoft proposed to work with GAN in partnership to ensure successful internship, traineeship and apprenticeship programs online. Currently, they are looking into stimulus investments to understand how governments plan to upskill, as an example of how the private sector can work with governments. With partners at LinkedIn and LinkedIn learning, Microsoft has also developed a repository of courses, encouraging people to learn and skill, which can help for reskilling those that have been furloughed.

TranZed Apprenticeship Services is an intermediary in the US aiming to scale apprenticeships across the country in sectors outside of the traditional trades, including tech and healthcare. To develop and scale these programmes, they work with partners across the US. They also stressed the importance of balancing streamlining procedures for employers, with quality assurance. As employers provide apprenticeships, they also need support in development, registration and quality assurance procedures. To engage with employers and apprentices online, TranZed Apprenticeship Services built an apprenticeship connection platform allowing interaction during all stages - from inception, to recruitment, compliance, management and delivery. The platform was developed before COVID-19 and it has now has seen increase in apprenticeship interest since.

Agile and diverse partnerships are also key to the EC’s work. With its re-launch of a digital skilling agenda, there is more of a focus on higher learning, including lifelong learning and VET. For this, they are partnering with centres of vocational excellence, public and private partners, including business and professional training centres to propagate this agenda at a regional level.

Partnerships can also aid in ensuring quality. It Is clear that initiatives focusing on micro-credentials for off and online learning will be a key approach going forward. One of the Important aspects of micro-credentialing will be to ensure that the issues of quality assurance, portability and currency of skills are in place.

GAN Global is also exploring quality assurance of micro-credentials and looking to the EU, ILO and UNESCO on further developing this work. GAN will continue engagements with our members and partners to ensure that the Issue of digital skilling is addressed in a manner that allows for universal access, development of quality programmes, and support to practitioners and learners in this space.




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