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Making Lemonade from Lemons: Pandemic-Driven Improvements in Workforce Instruction and Training

In a time of uncertainty, while technology continues to evolve past what was once thought possible, higher ed has to adopt what is new or risk becoming stagnant.
In a time of uncertainty, while technology continues to evolve past what was once thought possible, higher ed has to adopt what is new or risk becoming stagnant.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, educators and students worldwide were forced to pivot to technology-enabled learning. Educators quickly shifted into triage mode, getting up-to-speed on new technologies and creating online learning environments to replicate the in-class experience1.

But the shift wasn’t always smooth. Both educators and learners quickly saw how moving a physical class to a video conferencing platform can exacerbate ineffective pedagogical practices. Anticipating these challenges, some Workforce Development programs saw an opportunity: Technology could be used differently by changing classroom structures and instruction to align with theories of human development.

Based on foundational human development research and best practices unlocked during the COVID-19 pandemic, I argue that successful technology-enabled learning in Workforce Development education requires a mindset shift. Three, to be specific.

Mindset shift 1: Fromteacher-student interpersonal relationships existing only in physical classroom contexts tofostering these relationships via collaboration technologies.

At the start of the pandemic, Urban Alliance, like many other Workforce Development organizations, announced detailed plans to make classrooms virtual, provide hardware and software support to students, and offer students pandemic financial aid2 3. However, something was different about their announcement: They changed their operating structure to prioritize one-on-one interpersonal relationships between educators and their students via technology. Urban Alliance centered its approach around leveraging collaboration technologies, such as virtual presence, constant flowing communication, observation of activities, and joint participation in activities.

These collaboration tools, such as video conferencing, instant messaging and sharing screens, can be used to maintain and foster interpersonal learning relationships digitally. To enable learning and development, interpersonal relationships must be positive and strong. By virtue of the strength of this relationship, the balance of power in the relationship slowly shifts from the experienced person to the learner4.

Many theories surrounding interpersonal learning relationships have focused on the developmental relationship between mother and child. But empirically based extensions of this theory demonstrate how it can be applied to higher education and Workforce Development to describe mentorship, apprenticeship and other situated interpersonal relationships5 6.

The success of Urban Alliance’s approach demonstrates the effectiveness of leveraging digital technologies to enable interpersonal learning relationships. Interpersonal teacher-student relationships can exist beyond in-person instruction, and these digital approaches in fact allow greater access to mentorship programs, cognitive apprenticeships and other situated learning relationships.

Mindset shift 2: Fromteaching knowledge in a didactic way on slides or worksheets tosituating learning with immersive technologies.

Goodwill International supports nearly half a million Americans each year to find employment. As they transitioned to primarily digital delivery with the proliferation of the pandemic, Goodwill International did not want to lose their one-on-one and situated elements7. One response was Project Overcome, an immersive and technology-enabled learning experience for previously incarcerated job seekers to practice interviewing with a hiring manager and speaking about their incarceration in a safe and low-stakes context.

By situating this learning in context, learners have the opportunity to build knowledge connected to the environment in which it is applied8 9 10. This deliberate transition from learning didactically to situating learning improves a learner’s ability to apply learning to performance contexts11 12. Learning in situ is cognitively more durable, as new learning is connected to existing knowledge units and memory circuits13. Situated learners are better at applying prior learning from similar contexts, as the environment cues in that knowledge in and is deliberate on its application.

Technology-enabled immersive learning, like the virtual reality experience in Project Overcome, effectively situated learning “by creating immersive, extended experiences with problems and contexts similar to the real world14. ” Advanced graphics, audio and haptic, immersive realities foster situated learning by putting learners in virtual contexts that simulate real life1516. One apt example of this is in Bailenson’s research17. He describes how VR participants at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory react to being immersed in a VR of an earthquake by crouching or crawling under a virtual table. In immersive environments, learners can learn and exhibit behaviors aligned with actually being in the situation they are virtually experiencing.

There are many reasons Workforce Development organizations and educators have not aggressively pursued immersive reality technologies as a learning tool. They’re technologically complex and have historically been prohibitively expensive. Yet Project Overcome highlights how valuable they are for fostering situated learning in an in-person or virtual classroom. Furthermore, by moving away from default digital tools like presentation slides and worksheets that promote passive consumption toward ones that prioritize situated learning, the sector has the opportunity to better serve its learners.

Mindset shift 3: Fromthe digital lectern toenabling personalized learning with educational technologies.

When the world was largely forced to switch to online learning, many educators continued using existing materials and approaches to learning but simply applied them in a digital setting. For many, Zoom became akin to a virtual lecture lectern or teacher’s desk, replacing the physical one they were used to1819. Year Up, a national opportunity youth-focused Workforce Development provider, initially embraced the digital lectern approach. However, educators noticed that moving a class from a live lectern to a digital one was not working20.

In response to what they were seeing, educators at Year Up made a series of simple changes that profoundly impacted the students’ learning experience21. First, they flipped their classroom and provided a digital learning path ahead of the class, so learners had control over their own pace and learning. They broke the course down into 30-minute micro-video conferences, so learners could master content progressively. Additionally, they leveraged one-on-one video calling, instant messaging and screen sharing to ensure educators could provide insight into the discrepancies between the learner’s attempts and the ideal solution. Finally, they leveraged large group video conferences and discussion boards, so the cohort could continue moving forward as a unified group with socially situated learning.

Through these adjustments, educators were able to tailor support for learners to close the gap between what a learner can do alone and what they can do supported by an experienced peer2223. The Year Up educators’ transition from the original plan of the digital lectern to a more informally personalized and scaffolded learning environment highlights how technology can be used in classrooms by making some intentional design shifts in their application. Personalizing learning with technology doesn’t need to involve complex Artificial Intelligence. Sometimes it can just be about following the same steps we would use to personalize learning in a classroom setting: 1. Incorporating the participation of a more experienced and skilled partner. 2. Enabling interpersonal interactions that allow the learner to observe and participate. 3. Providing scaffolding to support the learner in practicing new skills disappears as a learner achieves mastery24.

These mindset shifts draw upon a mixture of pandemic-driven improvements in technology use and human development research to make lemonade out of the many lemons the COVID-19 pandemic presented to educators. Together they demonstrate the importance of analyzing and considering how best to use the affordances of educational technologies, just like many other instructional methods and moves. Similarly, they show that not every educator needs to be a technology expert.

However, as we face an increasingly turbulent and uncertain era and have access to rapidly increasing affordability and prevalent technology, the sector needs to institute some foundational procedural and practical methods of technology use. If only for the practical reason that next time society is shut down due to public health, climate change, national security or simply a snow day, learning is not lost to the extent it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic.


I’d like to acknowledge Harvard Faculty Tina Grotzer and Chris Dede for their leadership of the Next Level Lab, where many of these ideas originate. The Next Level Lab, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, brings together expertise in cognitive science, neuroscience, the learning sciences, and innovative learning design and technology to address emerging and urgent issues in K-12 and workforce development. Thank you also to Natasha Bach for her input and feedback, as well as to Robin Boggs and the Accenture Corporate Citizenship team, whose funding supported the establishment of the lab.


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