Lessons from the pandemic for the future of lifelong learning systems

Investing in lifelong learning and strengthening it against future shocks is essential to enabling people and societies to adapt to the changing world of work, writes Francesca Borgonovi of the OECD Centre for Skills

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The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst health crisis in a century. It has caused deep shocks and scars in economies and societies throughout the world. The pandemic continues to cause major difficulties for businesses and to challenge individuals around the world, creating disruptions to trade and labour shortages at a time of increased energy prices. At the same time, the recovery plans that many countries put in place to heal the scars of the pandemic could now be threatened by the war in Ukraine, the associated geopolitical instability and its consequences for the global economy.

Now, more than ever, it is important to invest in lifelong learning to ensure that individuals and societies will be able to navigate and integrate into a rapidly changing world of work. Learning from the past two years is critical to strengthening the resilience of lifelong learning systems to future and ongoing shocks.

The pandemic made clear that ensuring that lifelong learning becomes a reality for all depends on making sure that individuals build solid foundation skills. Without these, access to lifelong learning opportunities is difficult, if not impossible. During the pandemic, individuals who did not have basic digital skills found it hard to operate and develop new skills because learning opportunities had to take place remotely. In the future, technology will increasingly be used to deliver training and a lack of familiarity with digital devices will hamper individuals’ skills development. Harnessing the power of technology to expand access to lifelong learning opportunities will be key but it will be important to monitor and reduce the inequalities technology can create.

Overall, data from the OECD’s Skills Outlook 2021: Learning for Life and from the EU Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS) suggest that participation in education and training decreased because of the pandemic. For example, in 2020, 9.5 per cent of employed adults in the EU-27 had taken part in education and training in the previous four weeks, down from an average of 11.4 per cent in 2019. Estimates suggest that, during generalized lockdowns in OECD countries, the number of hours workers spent in informal learning may have decreased by as much as 25 per cent and the number of hours workers spent in non-formal learning may have shrunk by as much as 18 per cent.

During the pandemic, businesses from around the world found innovative ways to organize learning opportunities for their workers, helping them build the new skills needed to maintain production and service delivery during lockdowns while complying with health regulations. Many individuals also put great effort into building their skills. In Canada, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, searches for terms such as ‘online learning’, ‘e-learning’ and ‘massive open online courses’ (or ‘MOOCs’) increased up to fourfold between late March and early April 2020, as strict lockdown rules came into force in most OECD countries. At the same time, remote working conditions and business closures meant that many workers were unable to benefit from informal and non-formal learning opportunities because no effective alternative to face-to-face delivery was identified. Young people who had just entered the labour market were especially penalized in their skills development efforts because of a lack of training delivery.

The pandemic led to great innovation in training provision, which should be promoted also in the future. However, it is important to identify successful programmes, develop information systems that help monitor the effectiveness of different initiatives, and promote strategies to bring successful initiatives to scale through continuous monitoring. Moreover, it is key to identify programmes that reach those at the highest risk of faring poorly in the labour market because of a lack of skills and take into account the emergence of other ongoing trends.

Finally, a key lesson from the pandemic is the power of partnerships. During the pandemic outbreak, successful initiatives to expand access to learning opportunities relied on strong partnerships between different stakeholders, including schools, the higher education sector, vocational education and training institutions, employers, associations and civil society organizations. The pandemic has taught us that we are stronger together and that the well-being of communities depends on the willingness of us all to chip in and do our part. Creating a climate that enables lifelong learning in a rapidly changing and uncertain world requires, first and foremost, the creation of strong partnerships across all relevant actors, mobilizing the skills and will of relevant stakeholders to maximise learning opportunities for all.

Francesca Borgonovi is Head of the Skills Analysis Team at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Centre for Skills

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