What COVID-19 is Teaching Us About Virtual Learning

Enacting smart policies will help address the inequalities in educational opportunities that have been brought to light during COVID-19 and give an opportunity to those looking to be reskilled and upskilled in their career.

CITFF_50c3-0199 (1)The coronavirus pandemic has had a monumental impact on our nation’s education and workforce systems. As a result of stay at home orders across the country, virtual learning and online tools have never been more in demand. Right now, global school closures are impacting more than 91% of the world’s students. In the United States, 23 states and 3 U.S. territories have either ordered or recommended schools close, impacting over 41 million students across almost 124,000 private and public schools.

This is impacting students from preschool through postsecondary education. With the economic fallout from this pandemic expected to exceed that of the Great Recession of 2008 – U.S. Department of Labor statistics show about 30 million Americans sought unemployment aid from mid-March through the end of April – we can expect to see many adult workers head back to the classroom in the coming months and years. Historically, during previous times of economic uncertainty, enrollment in postsecondary education and training programs increases. For example, during the Great Recession, enrollment in 2-year colleges grew 33% across the U.S. Unlike a decade ago, students today don’t need to be in a physical classroom to get educated, trained and certified. 

Virtual learning has quickly become front and center for students of all ages. Now more than ever, it is clear that school districts, universities, governments, and private industry must prepare for online and distance learning to ensure students from kindergarten, college and beyond have access to robust virtual opportunities with measurable outcomes. Ensuring these programs are accessible and effective means focusing on how foundational IT infrastructure is critically important. As we think of how to implement new virtual education programs, policymakers and education leaders must confront these critical questions and take action.

Addressing an IT Worker Shortage and Need for Essential Skills Training

Before the pandemic, states were already facing labor challenges. In the U.S., across sectors, 7 million jobs were unfilled as employers consistently cited trouble finding qualified workers. Government and education leaders must assess the availability, accessibility, relevancy, and time-to-completion of workforce programs, making investments where needed. Availability and accessibility require financial investment and support services to help displaced workers across all backgrounds including veterans, minorities and those in underserved communities. Providing skills-based training and certification that is reflective of industry need is important to building a future-ready workforce. For example, according to CompTIA’s Cyberstates report, occupations in IT services and custom software development accounted for two-thirds of job gains since 2010 and as we’ve seen during COVID-19, this need will only grow as businesses become more reliant on technology. As seen in Cyberseek, a national heatmap of cybersecurity employment sponsored by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education there continues to be a shortage of IT employees across the nation despite the increased wages and benefits associated with those jobs. Moreover, IT professionals who have certifications before starting their first job are 50% more likely to get a promotion within one year of first being hired than individuals never certified, and their rate of promotions is almost twice as often.

To help address this need for trained and certified professionals, CompTIA is currently offering free e-learning for CompTIA IT Fundamentals, the only pre-career certification that helps potential career changers and others determine if they have the competency for and interest in a career in information technology. CompTIA launched anywhere, anytime online testing option for its certification exams, is offering free online resources to help students attending partner schools through the end of the school year, and other online tools to assist displaced workers, career changers or anyone else who has ever thought about working in IT. Based on data collected from CompTIA’s Creating IT Futures Foundation, displaced workers can become IT-ready in as little as eight weeks. However, states must cut red tape and other factors impeding the rapid deployment of workforce programs, especially online programs. Onerous application procedures and antiquated eligibility standards for government grant support prevent the fulfillment of workforce training needs.    

Confronting the Digital Divide and Addressing Broadband Inequality

Many school districts have turned to technology as an alternative to in-school instruction. This move to distance education has exposed the digital divide that exists even in the wealthiest countries. In fact, it impacts the same students who are already at a disadvantage due to economic disparity.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “5 to 17-year-old students living below the poverty threshold have lower rates of home internet access than students living between 100 and 185 percent of the poverty threshold and students living at greater than 185 percent of the poverty threshold. Also, American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic students have lower rates of home internet access than their peers who are White, Asian, and of two or more races.” While many students experience education through blended learning modalities, the almost overnight switch to online-only education has left many students behind, and those with access are still experiencing interruptions and inconsistencies in learning. Even in California, home to Silicon Valley, only 56% of low-income households have broadband service. Successful delivery of virtual education is incumbent on access to the Internet, devices, and learning tools.

In the Tampa Bay, FL area, school districts were able to quickly prepare and distribute 35,000 devices to students after COVID-19 related closures. But many low and middle-income school districts are simply unable to deliver devices at the same level. To help build a more secure future and equal education experience for all, states must take necessary actions now to mitigate the effects of protracted school closures and help shrink the achievement gap once and for all. Policies that improve broadband availability and remove regulatory obstacles in deploying essential broadband infrastructure are necessary to ensuring access. In addition, encouraging more private and philanthropic investment through incentives and policies, especially in America’s more rural and underserved communities, will assist with deployment and will help students learn more effectively.

Adapting Lesson Plans for Distance Learning  

Most brick and mortar colleges in the U.S. have moved students to online classes since the start of the pandemic, and higher education, in general, is offering online programs and certifications. However, many K-12 school districts have struggled to launch virtual lessons for various reasons. To demonstrate a successful transition to a virtual environment, the curriculum provided should include opportunities for virtual engagement between teachers and students, collaboration with other classmates, continuous review of student progress, and timely teacher feedback. A recent national survey covering 82 school districts serving approximately 9 million students has shown us that schools are struggling with online learning. Results indicate that the majority of school districts surveyed provide links to general online resources but do not provide additional direction. Only 38% provide a formal curriculum but no instruction and 6% of districts have given no information about distance learning plans or general resources. Of those that do provide instruction, most do not track student progress or offer a formalized curriculum. This may change in the coming weeks and months as social distancing remains prominent throughout the country, but this underscores the importance of online education and preparedness.  Policymakers need to replicate what successful school districts have done by making the necessary investments in instructor training and planning statewide to ensure online instruction is incorporated into traditional classroom-based curriculum on a consistent basis.

Once our nation has flattened the curve on COVID-19 and the economy reopens to its new normal, decisionmakers must look ahead and make critical investments to help further deploy and grow virtual learning opportunities at every level. Enacting smart policies today will help address the inequalities in educational opportunities that have been brought to light during the pandemic as well as give an opportunity to those looking to be reskilled and upskilled in their career. We can’t wait for another pandemic or national crisis before we meaningfully invest in virtual education and online training and certification programs. Efforts must be made to close the digital divide and ensure the ability to learn is available to all. Our future-ready workforce depends on it.

This is the second in a six-part series on how COVID-19 is impacting state governments.
Part 1: Updates to IT Infrastructure Will Help Those Impacted by COVID-19

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