Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

The economic rebound of last summer has stalled, with new layoffs piling up. Toward the end of 2020, Disney announced it was letting 28,000 employees go, Allstate said it was cutting almost 4,000 positions, and American and United Airlines unveiled plans to furlough more than 30,000 workers. Even companies like Goldman Sachs are shedding more jobs.

These layoffs are no longer a short-term response to staunch the bleeding but a sign that companies are beginning to “retool for the new world,” as Bain & Company partners Hernan Saenz and Dunigan O’Keeffe put it. And, in the words of The Economist in an article titled “The pandemic has caused the world’s economies to diverge,” that world will be “less globalised, more digitised and less equal.”

As companies adapt to meet that challenge, online educational institutions can provide some hard-won lessons in how to remake an industry when the old, face-to-face model isn’t working.

Digital Experiences Are Different

When colleges first took postsecondary education online, they tried to replicate the old experience — hour-long lectures, static course materials — in the new environment. Not only was the experience not better, but it was worse. We saw this scenario replayed this past spring as hundreds of thousands of in-person classes were rushed online. The Zoom lecture quickly became a dreaded ordeal.

The lesson here is clear: Digital experiences are fundamentally different. A college’s or company training department’s goal is the same — to educate — but the approach is wholly new when it’s taken online. Online education finally took off, and student outcomes increased dramatically, when colleges restructured the teaching and learning experience to take advantage of the digital environment. Now, instructors regularly incorporate digital tools to increase engagement, personalization and feedback into classes that primarily meet in person, because they improve the overall learning experience.

This shift was possible in part because of advances in technology, but it also resulted from advances in the industry’s thinking. To create online education, colleges had to design for the medium.

To Maximize Online Learning and Work, Employees Need Structure and Support

When people move from in-person to remote work, interpersonal dynamics and reward structures shift. Educational institutions have developed deep insight into how to collaborate virtually, manage and motivate employees in remote locations, promote workplace equity in the online environment, and support employees’ mental and physical health virtually.

For example, businesses might consider using operational scorecards, which have proven successful at Colorado State University Global. The institution uses them to ensure its remote employees are clear on departmental and individual expectations; to track tasks and quality of work; and to provide data and information for collaborative, ongoing feedback. Additionally, to facilitate its employees’ success, the university also uses technology to provide 24/7 technical support services, anytime/anywhere entry to online training courses, and access to its data and student operations’ systems for quick and easy information retrieval.

That kind of structure is critical in the online environment. And, as many businesses learned long before the pandemic, expectations around employee availability and response time shift when you move online. Other companies, especially in services that previously operated face to face, are just learning that lesson and discovering tools to help them meet those heightened expectations.

At Georgia State University, for example, chatbots have proven to be as invaluable in walking students through complex enrollment and financial aid processes as they are for businesses in helping an online shopper find jeans that are the perfect fit. When implemented with panache and personality, such tools not only provide support any time of day but also increase engagement and loyalty.

Retooling Must Be Faster and More Flexible Than Ever Before

Companies looking to restructure will need to retool their workforce, and the ones that can do so quickly will have a distinct advantage. Reskilling employees is one of the real strengths of online institutions, with providers rolling out a range of micro-credentials in high-demand fields like artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing within weeks of the pandemic taking hold. Others have stepped up to provide new certifications for health care workers and caregivers in response to COVID-19. Still others are providing in-demand certificate programs in project management, information technology (IT) security and Apple coding.

These institutions can serve both as models for how to retrain employees and as partners in the effort. Online institutions often lead the way in working directly with employers, especially when it comes to creating programs to reskill and upskill the frontline workers most at risk as the nature of work shifts.

The most successful colleges and universities approach this work with flexibility and a deep commitment to collaboration. They also are prepared to quickly scale programs and to provide robust wrap-around services, especially for programs designed for frontline workers, who often have complex lives even outside of a pandemic. To retool quickly, workers need training that is both flexible and highly supportive.

As companies — and entire industries — begin the work of remaking themselves, they will need models of success and partners in that work. Online institutions are well positioned to serve as both. Business should take them up on it.

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