‘… businesses have had to wholeheartedly put faith in remote working methods’

Simon Tindall, head of skills and innovation at The Open University, talks about how COVID-19 has been catalytic in boosting online learning in business

Q. How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted work-based learning?

After three months of tumultuous uncertainty, organisations and their employees are now gearing up for the subsequent economic downturn.

For both employer and employee, the focus now is undoubtedly on preparedness and adaptability as they begin to prioritise the development of their collective and individual skill-sets.

As such, with coronavirus uncertainty affecting half (49%) of current job roles across the UK, we have seen employees taking ownership of their own skills development. A quarter (24%) of workers have taken on additional distance learning opportunities to boost their employability and protect the value of their skills.

This turn toward employee-driven, work-based learning is particularly prevalent among younger workers, who are most fearful of their skill-sets becoming obsolete, with more than a third (39%) of 18–34 year-olds saying that they would put their own money towards development opportunities if it made them more employable.

While there has been a growing interest in access to bite-sized, life-long learning over the past few years, the acceleration that COVID-19 has provided is nothing short of remarkable.

Q. Can this be a positive thing for employers and employees alike?

At The Open University, we believe this new-found appetite for learning could actually prove to be a positive side-effect to the challenges employers and their people currently face. Data from one of the UK’s largest free learning sites, the OU’s OpenLearn platform, has indicated an increased demand for accessible online learning, reporting a marked spike in course admissions since lockdown. The site has logged a three-fold increase in course enrolments since lockdown began, with over a million new students registering on courses during this imposed period of self-isolation.

Although much of this initial interest stems from fears over job security, the driving forces behind this upturn are not exclusively born out of concern. In fact, with the nation shut down, many employees have had the opportunity to evaluate their current professional situation, and some will have found a strong desire to catalyse their careers with retraining and development.

The positivity doesn’t end there, either. In addition to helping employees remain employable, it is vital to helping businesses manage their changing requirements without the challenges and expense of hiring new staff.

As a result, the pandemic-driven boost in online learning actually has potential to positively affect business for the long-term, if employers are willing to continue their investment, even after the initial crisis is over.

The OpenLearn site has logged a three-fold increase in course enrolments since lockdown began, with over a million new students registering on courses

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Q. Is this a trend you expect to continue ‘post-lockdown’?

In short, yes. Where we had previously seen a very slow and steady move towards flexible, continuous learning, we are now in a situation where any lingering ‘distrust’ has been overcome as employers and their people look to meet immediate needs.

To quantify this, it’s important to consider how perceptions of remote working as a whole have dramatically changed.

At the turn of the year, most companies would shy away from even a part-time work-from-home model. Now, thanks to remarkable innovation – and obviously the unnegotiable situation we find ourselves in – and the adaptability of their people, businesses have had to wholeheartedly put faith in remote working methods. As a result, the professional development aspect to any role has also made the transition to the remote, digital model.

Likewise, the distance learning ‘boom’ will also continue to be fuelled out of necessity. It’s impossible to name one industry that hasn’t had to reconsider its entire digital operations as a result of COVID-19.

This means that employees – right the way from junior staff to senior leaders – will need to keep abreast of evolving technologies and develop their skills accordingly, if they are to thrive in a post-coronavirus business landscape.

Q. Are there any specific technological innovations that will shape corporate learning in the years to come?

Given the remarkable rate of innovation we’ve seen in recent months, it’s difficult to pinpoint what supercharged technological change will define learning in the years to come.

However, one trend we’re already seeing at the OU is the modularisation of skills training, and COVID-19 stands to radically accelerate this shift. In response to the rapidly changing business landscape, learning is becoming ever more bite-sized. At a time when adaptability is key, making training easily digestible for learners is crucial. Ensuring employees are able to flexibly engage with training when and where needed is equally paramount.

From our own OpenLearn platform, we know that online certification is something that learners are increasingly asking for.

With badged courses, learners partake in certified programmes where the acquisition of knowledge becomes tangibly incentivised.

In an age where demonstrating that one has the right skills is becoming ever more essential, these courses serve employees as an effective means of showcasing their upskilling.

And, in turn, this benefit can be felt by employers: incentivising training with obvious rewards such as digital badges can be a crucial means of keeping employees engaged during this time of seismic change – providing organisations with that extra catalyst to boost their adaptability and agility.


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