Jeremy Auger is the Chief Strategy Officer at D2L – a world leader in education technology. D2L works with national and sub-national governments to deliver learning and skills development to individuals anytime, anywhere. D2L is member of the 21st Century Skills Coalition joined by different public and private organizations to promote the development of 21st century skills in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Though just a few months ago, it is hard to recall the world before the emergence of COVID-19. Only two months ago, governments were focused on preparing their citizens for the jobs of tomorrow. The global economy was humming along, and the looming crisis was the increasingly rapid pace of change in workplace skills demand and not having the education system necessary to keep individuals skilled effectively throughout their careers.
Today, governments globally are struggling to keep health systems afloat until tomorrow and doing their best to keep economies from imploding over the next three months. Healthcare and direct economic aid have been the primary focuses of governments (rightly so) since the WHO labeled COVID-19 a pandemic, and the future of work and learning is a problem for another day.
In this time of crisis though, governments need to be looking towards their education systems as the third critical focus area in response to COVID-19 and invest in learning access for all ages. Students are out of school and many adults are out of work, but time is still moving forward. Students are aging without gaining skills and knowledge. Technology is advancing, and those businesses closing now may be replaced with others or look very different at the end of this crisis.
Investments in education and learning are one of the greatest drivers in long-term economic growth – nearly 9 percent. If education and investments in lifelong learning are put on pause now, it may not matter whether your economy imploded during this crisis. When the global economic engine starts moving again, countries that allowed their knowledge and skills to shrivel will be even further behind those countries that continued to make lifelong learning investments. The jobs and other economic opportunities of the future will follow.
Government investments in lifelong learning today should enable individuals to lead a “Learning-Integrated Life”– where every person (students and adults) engages in ongoing learning and skills development as an enabler of employability, success, and purpose – during, and after this crisis.
Investments in lifelong learning during this crisis can strike a balance between direct economic aid and enabling the learning-integrated life. For example:
Universal access – as part of an economic aid package, invest in school and home access to internet and devices. This would support jobs today, installing network infrastructure, and access points while providing a basic level of access to digital learning opportunities and knowledge to every home where adults and young learners can continuously engage in learning – allowing individuals to adapt to changing workforce demands.
As an example, Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal provides devices and internet to every student and a growing number of adults in the country and has nearly eliminated the digital divide.
Online teacher professional development – while students are out of the classroom and many are lacking internet or device access, teachers are far more likely to still be digitally connected. Leverage this opportunity to provide high-quality professional learning that will increase their skills throughout their career and prepare them to provide interventions and improved learning outcomes for students when they re-enter the classroom.
As an example, Tu Clase, Tu Pais has been delivering engaging online teacher professional development across South America.
Mobile-based learning opportunities – while many students and adults lack Wi-Fi or computer access, the vast majority of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean have access to a mobile device and cellular service subscription (according to the World Bank). Leveraging mobile accessible technology, governments can start delivering basic learning to students and adults today, including updates on COVID-19, reading opportunities, video lessons, and even skills development, and set the stage for more robust online learning in the future. Working with local telecom providers, governments can have these educational websites ‘zero rated’ so they will not count against data plans.
As an example, dairy farmers in Canada access their professional learning materials and connect with their peers through a mobile-friendly learning platform provided by Gay Lea Foods, a dairy co-operative.
Because of the challenges facing governments today, the necessity of investing in a system of lifelong learning is more critical today than it has ever been. If we save our people and save our economies from total collapse but do nothing to prepare them for what comes after this crisis, any recession caused by COVID-19 will persist indefinitely.
With simple interventions now, governments can blunt knowledge and skills loss across their populations, prepare teachers and learning systems to better support students when they return, and keep adult populations in a learning mindset and able to adapt to any challenges facing them when businesses reopen.
 Isabel V. Sawhill, J. T. (2006). The Effects of Investing in Early Education on Economic Growth. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-effects-of-investing-in-early-education-on-economic-growth/