COVID-19 shines a spotlight on digital skills: Updates and key questions for advocates and policymakers

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, April 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the importance of digital literacy for American workers and students alike. National Skills Coalition is providing this overview to help education and workforce advocates understand 1) what changes are occurring, 2) how organizations are responding, and 3) what questions advocates and policymakers should be asking to inform their responses over the short and mid-term.

For more resources on digital skills, check out our industry-specific fact sheets on health workers, manufacturing, hospitality, retail, construction and transportation, as well as Applying a racial equity lens to digital literacy. You can also read further details on Medium and register for our May 5th webinar.

The current snapshot: Major changes in the education and workforce landscape

In just a few short weeks, millions of Americans have shifted rapidly to a new way of working – remote, separated from their colleagues by distance and sometimes by time zone, tasked with quickly getting up to speed on an array of digital tools with which they may not have had any previous experience.

Meanwhile, millions of other workers are still at work on job sites across the country, including many frontline workers whose jobs require extensive contact with the public. Now they too are being asked to use mobile apps, online reporting mechanisms, and related tools in order to keep their jobs and adapt to new customer and employer demands for contactless interactions and improved health and safety amidst a pandemic.

All of this is occurring while key institutions that have traditionally helped Americans build digital skills are staggering under the weight of new responsibilities in this quickly changing landscape. Many public libraries, which have long been at the forefront of digital skill-building, are closed to the public. Librarians are scrambling to identify the best ways to ensure that WiFi hotspots remain accessible to the public even during building closures.

Thousands of adult education programs, many of which were already providing digital skill-building before the pandemic, have had to convert almost overnight into fully online learning experiences. Higher education institutions are facing similar demands. Teachers and administrators are being forced by circumstance to upskill themselves in the moment, while also assisting learners who may lack a computer, reliable internet access, or the skills to participate.

Families are struggling to support children, youth, and adults whose educational institutions have moved classes and coursework online. Professors and other instructors are wrestling with converting in-person formats into digitally interactive ones overnight, while trying to ensure equity for students with disabilities and/or limited tech access.

The weight of all of these developments is falling unequally on Americans who are more marginalized, more vulnerable, and less connected than their peers. Workers who are able to work from home are disproportionately Asian or White, leaving Black and Latinx workers more likely to be on the front lines. Households without broadband access are also more likely to be comprised of people of color. Rural communities that lacked broadband access before the crisis are now facing additional ripple effects from those digital gaps — affecting their workforce, businesses, and broader economies. Compelling new evidence indicates that students with smartphone-only internet access face major academic disadvantages compared to their peers who have home broadband access.

Hitting the ground running: How education and workforce leaders are responding

Education and workforce practitioners have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a combination of rapid-response and mid-term solutions. In the immediate term, many organizations have temporarily closed their physical offices, often due to state or local mandates shutting down non-essential businesses.

But even as physical locations have shut down, services have moved quickly online. Staff are working feverishly to assess the digital capacity of their learners and jobseekers, even while trying to ensure that their own personnel are equipped to provide (some) services remotely. At the state level, officials are hurrying to provide guidance to local program administrators amidst a quickly evolving landscape.

These are just a handful of the many hundreds of examples of how skills advocates are responding:

Program level:

  • From Washington DC, the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, a major provider of adult education and workforce development programs, reports that “From quickly developing distance learning materials and making creative online spaces to connect; to establishing additional phone lines answered by Student Services team members to provide supports in English, Spanish, Amharic, and French; to holding classes via Zoom, Schoology, and QR-code enabled smartphone lessons; our mantra is: We’ve got this!”
  • From South Texas near the US-Mexico border, Maria Cris Gonzalez of the state’s Region 1 Adult Education Program notes that she has done a rapid-response survey to understand staff technology gaps among the 85 teachers serving 3500 adult learners in her programs. Teachers with varying degrees of digital literacy skills have been racing to get up to speed with tools such as Zoom and WebEx. Meanwhile, the Integrated Education and Training welding program is still on track; their community college partner has helped shift it to an online format. Despite the epidemic, adult learners are persisting, Gonzalez adds: “I have students who live in cars. I have students who live in homes with dirt floors. But they are still attending class via their cell phones.”
  • From San Diego, Tech Hire has teamed up with ServiceNow and the San Diego Workforce Partnership to offer a new 5-week intensive virtual training for IT Service Managers. The training will help participants earn two certifications, preparing them to hit the ground running in IT careers.
  • From Illinois, Becky Raymond of the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition notes: “Our recent work in the Illinois Digital Learning Lab (IDLL) showed that 85% of the adult learners participating in the program tested below a proficient level on basic computer skills. Now more than ever, I am heartened by the work that CCLC’s team has done to bridge this divide. Through our technology projects, low-scoring adults have been connected to critical apps and websites such as Chi311, MedlinePlus and the Center for Disease Control’s online resources…. Over the past year, it has been inspiring to work with adult educators across the state to help them set up online learning platforms for their students. We didn’t realize how critical these platforms would be in continuing connection and learning for low-scoring adults during this time. We understand that many adult educators will not be able to implement an easy switch to distance education and we are committed now more than ever to helping adult education programs and instructors facilitate learning at a distance.”

State level:

  • California’s Adult Education Program has reminded its providers that recipients of the state’s $500 million adult education funding stream (as distinct from federal adult ed funds) are funded based on need, rather than seat time or testing results, thus relieving them of concerns about providing in-person testing at a time when many locations are closed. CAEP also provided a list of resources for adult educators who are needing to convert their classes to an online format. OTAN, one of the state’s technical assistance providers for adult education programs, has set up a Field Support resource page.
  • Maine Governor Janet Mills has signed an executive order suspending certain restrictions on job training funds managed by the Maine Community College System’s Maine Quality Center (MQC) program. Suspending those restrictions, such as eligibility and employer matching funds, gives the MQC program more flexibility to rapidly provide free online training to people who have been displaced by the recent effects of COVID-19. “So many people have lost their jobs because of COIVD-19. But overnight there is a huge demand for workers in certain jobs, such as medical assisting and pharmaceutical technicians,” notes Maine Community College System President David Daigler notes. “We need to give people the training and skills they need to step into those jobs as quickly as possible.”

National level:

  • The US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education (OCTAE) has issued guidance for WIOA Title II-funded adult education programs as many make a shift to distance learning formats
  • The federal LINCS bulletin board is hosting a lively discussion among adult educators on how to move to online education
  • The EdTech Center at World Education has launched the Tips for Distance Learning website to assist adult basic education programs in launching or improving their distance learning program.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education has created an educator help desk
  • The National Digital Inclusion Alliance has created a COVID-19 resources page

Key questions for advocates and policymakers to be asking

As the pandemic evolves, both skills advocates and policymakers will be called upon to develop effective and evidence-informed responses to quickly changing needs of businesses and workers. Below, we outline key questions to consider as these decisions are being made.

  • How are new digital demands in specific industries such as healthcare or transportation, distribution and logistics affecting workers’ ability to function effectively in the current environment? What reskilling or upskilling interventions need to be provided to assist them? (Note: An industry snapshot released by National Skills Coalition before the pandemic highlighted the stark need for digital literacy skills among healthcare workers.)
  • How are new state investments in COVID-19 rapid response supporting education and workforce development activities? How could they be strengthened?
  • How is existing expertise in digital skill-building — whether from experienced adult educators, higher education instructors, or other partners — being drawn upon to inform future program design and funding decisions?
  • How are digital skill-building efforts being woven into existing upskilling programs and policies? In particular, how can workforce development and higher education providers ensure that explicit digital skill-building activities are incorporated, as appropriate, in their programs?
  • How do digital skill-building policies and programs connect to the other “two legs of the stool” on digital inclusion – namely, broadband internet access and digital devices such as laptops and tablet computers?
  • What lessons learned or evaluation results can be captured from recent events to help illuminate the pros and cons of online learning for specific populations of workers, such as those with limited literacy or English skills?