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3 Questions: Sanjay Sarma and Bill Bonvillian on new technologies in workforce education

New research examines the application of online learning to workforce education.
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What lessons from learning science and new technologies could make online education, including workforce training, more effective?

Sanjay Sarma, MIT vice president for MIT Open Learning and the Fred and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and William B. Bonvillian, lecturer in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society and former director of MIT’s Washington D.C. office, recently produced a new research brief, “Applying New Education Technologies to Meet Workforce Education Needs.”

The publication, part of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future’s series of research briefs, asks: What lessons from learning science and new technologies might be drawn to make online education, including workforce training, more effective? The brief argues that the U.S. needs to make workforce education a policy priority, to upgrade skills for those being left behind, and to help others shift job sectors to areas where there will be work. Internet-based tools will be critical in enabling workforce education to meet growing needs. However, the brief argues that workforce education will not be able to scale unless it provides quality training, and to do this effectively, online training must incorporate lessons from the best science-based teaching practices.

Sarma and Bonvillian have been leading a research project on workforce education. A preliminary report on that project is available via MIT Open Learning, and a final report will be published as a book by MIT Press in January 2021.  

Q: Why is it especially important now to make workforce education a policy priority?   

Sarma: Workforce education programs in the U.S. are trying to make up for an education system that does not serve the needs of all. They are an educational safety net system for those being left behind, but it’s not that much of a fallback. Our education system has an early 20th-century design that winnows out the “capable” from the rest, in an archaic sense, and in the process locks in some fundamental imbalances. Our workforce education system needs to reduce the difference and improve the imbalance, but that will take rethinking and redesign.

Bonvillian: To complicate the problem, our workforce has been upskilling, with rote jobs in decline and jobs that require more skills increasing. We are a long way from the robots seizing our jobs, but there is an ongoing gradual shift with the introduction of IT and related technologies into the workplace, as the interim report of the Work of the Future Task Force set out. So, there’s a big job ahead in educating for new skills. On top of that, over 50 million have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus began, and when it lets up we will need to face a massive resorting of our workforce. Covid-19 has accelerated the decline of the in-person retail sector, which employed some 15 million in 2019. Restaurant, hospitality, and travel sectors have been slammed as well, and many of these jobs will not return. After World War II, the country had to cope with the return of 16 million soldiers and sailors, and in response passed one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history, the GI Bill. It brought new education, and with it a route into the middle class to millions. The redeployment problem after Covid-19 may be larger and may require equally creative programs for workforce education to bring new skills to the millions who will need them.

Q: Your brief describes the current gaps in workforce education, from under-investment to a disconnect between the still-separate worlds of work and learning. Can you describe some of these challenges?

Bonvillian: The gaps are many. There has been disinvestment in recent decades by both government and employers in workforce education, and our federal government programs have real limits. The Department of Labor’s training programs don’t reach the oncoming higher technical skills or help incumbent workers acquire them. In turn, the Department of Education’s programs focus on college, not workforce education, and don’t mesh with the labor programs. We have a vocational education system in high schools that has largely been dismantled, and have underfunded community colleges that lack the resources to provide advanced training in emerging fields. Most colleges and universities don’t see workforce education as their problem so aren’t linked to the other participants in the system. Overall, the education system is disconnected from the workplace, and a system for lifelong learning is missing. In a period of growing economic inequality in our society, we need to fix these problems.

Sarma: Let me add one more gap — the gap in scale. The need is growing, but the existing workforce education system operates at too small a scale to meet these needs. The system needs not only reforms, but also the ability to reach many more, more effectively. Online is a new tool that can help with the scale-up — if we apply it right.

Q: What are the key lessons from learning science and new technologies that could make online education and workforce training more effective? 

Sarma: That’s the core subject of this brief. Online education has been evolving for many years — but with the widespread availability of broadband technology through laptops and cell phones, it reached an inflection point in 2012 with the development of MOOCs [massive open online classes], and the establishment of edX by MIT and Harvard. EdX has now reached over 100 million enrolled users. Online has had limited use so far in training, but could be a new workforce education tool. But if online simply tries to replicate current classroom practices, which have had only limited change over the decades, and apply them to workforce needs, it won’t work well. With the new education technology, we need new pedagogical practices. If we collect together lessons from the fields of cognitive science and education, there is a new science of learning emerging. What are some of those lessons? We need to provide learning in segments, in 10-minute chunks rather than in lengthier lectures by talking heads, and we need to use “spaced practice” so that learning occurs and is reiterated over a period of weeks and months — it’s no longer studying for the single exam. Researchers have found that learning occurs best when the student has to struggle a bit — but not too much — to acquire it. This means building “desirable difficulties” into learning to challenge us. We need to use frequent low-stakes testing, with periodic assessment and feedback. And rather than teaching content areas in single, separate blocks, we need to “interleave” the subjects, mixing fields, moving from one to another and back again.

All of these ideas can be systematically introduced into both online courses and in-person workforce training modules. Online learning can also include computer gaming and simulations that encourage more creative problem-solving as a learning task evolves. And online can offer collaborative tools where fellow learners help each other by providing coaching and practice. Hands-on, active approaches to learning can provide benefits, and can be furthered by simulations, software prototyping, and incorporating new technologies like virtual and augmented reality into online offerings. These advances will be particularly critical in providing workforce skills, which must emphasize hands-on aspects. Artificial intelligence is only starting to evolve in education, but potentially can be applied to enable digital tutors and personalized coaching tools. 

To summarize, improved workforce education looks like it will be critical for a better society, and we have a new set of tools we can apply. We hope MIT can play a role in validating this new tool set.

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