Harnessing Online Learning for Economic Recovery:
The Potential of Online Learning Platforms For Supporting Workforce Resiliency
The COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the economy has been far reaching, impacting nearly every sector and causing mass unemployment. In response, governments have had to find ways to spur job creation and employment, a difficult but critical task. Globally, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization reports that 255 million jobs were lost in 2020 alone, and the World Bank predicts that roughly 119–124 million people were pushed into poverty. The impact of these changes on the economy is significant. It is estimated that global labor income decreased by 8.3% in 2020, or nearly 4.4% of the world’s GDP. Certain industries suffered even greater losses, such as accommodation and food, which saw employment decreases of over 20%.
Drastic industry changes and virtual work has expedited digitalization and accelerated the emergence of new industries. In many cases, this has required that workers learn new skills and navigate online platforms. Yet this has not been an easy transition, as numerous workers find themselves needing to quickly learn new skills and have access to technology in order to be competitive in this new labor marketplace. Governments globally have needed to address the skyrocketing rate of unemployment and skill mismatch in the labor supply. A problem that has always been challenging was made even more so during a pandemic.
Latin America and the Caribbean as well have faced employment challenges during the pandemic. The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) predicted that 2.7 million businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean will close during the pandemic, causing the loss of 8.5 million jobs. Finding ways to support workers across the region has been made more difficult due to historically high levels of informality in the region. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that nearly 60% of workers in Latin America are in the informal sector; these workers are often harder to reach and include in government assistance programs, such as unemployment programs.
Therefore, innovative approaches are needed to address these challenges and ensure inclusive economic recovery and future resiliency. Increasingly, many are looking towards educational platforms and online learning as a tool for reskilling workers and providing affordable access to education that can help empower people in the labor force. While these programs do have limitations, and often must address the lack of digital access in communities, online learning platforms can be a useful option for job recovery if properly organized and implemented.
In Paraguay, the government was able to harness the potential of online learning platforms to help workers reskill as they sought to find a job and increase their employability.
Like much of Latin America, Paraguay experienced rapid job loss due to the COVID crisis. Between Quarter 2, 2019 and Quarter 2, 2020, there was a 4.3% decrease in employment nationwide (ILO), and at the end of April 2020, nearly 16% of workers in the formal sector had their contracts suspended. For the community, social, and personal services, it reportedly went as high as 21% (ILO p 11). Job supply, labor informality, and access to education were challenges that existed before the pandemic for much of the region, but have been especially amplified in 2020 and 2021.
Paraguay sought to address these critical challenges through innovative partnerships, leveraging technology, and knowledge sharing. The National Innovation Strategy (ENI), a unit within the Presidential Delivery Unit, is focused on articulating and connecting the innovation ecosystem in the country. One of ENI’s key initiatives is ‘Talento del Futuro,’ meaning Future Talent, to further skill development and capacity building for young citizens.
At the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, ENI collaborated with Coursera — an online site that provides Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) — on their Economic Workforce Recovery Initiative. This was part of a broader program launched by Coursera and over 325 government agencies globally. The company offered thousands of classes, giving free course certificates, so that government agencies could run programs to assist with upskilling economically displaced, newly unemployed, and/or furloughed workers. The National Innovation Team coordinated amongst various public and private sector partners, such as the Ministry of Technology, Information, and Communication (MITIC), to design and implement this program, allowing thousands of Paraguayans from across the country to take courses. Interest was high, participation was significant, and insights were plenty. The program’s success demonstrates the potential that such programs can have for job reskilling.
Below are some insights from the Paraguayan team, and how these lessons can be valuable for others contemplating similar initiatives.
1. Innovative Partnerships Magnify Impact
To have broad reach and inclusivity, working closely with organizations and government entities is necessary. One of the first steps ENI took was to build a network of key allies who could share information about the program in local communities to increase visibility. In total, 33 organizations — from the Industrial Union of Paraguay to universities and the community foundation Fundación Paraguaya — worked with ENI to implement the program. Strategic alliances with government entities, such as the Presidential Delivery Unit, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, the Ministry of Finance, and the Secretariat for Planning Economic and Social Development, helped foster public sector support, resulting in applications from 253 cities in the country.
Private sector partnerships are equally powerful for elevating such programs. ENI collaborated with two Paraguayan companies — Yoíca and Curricool — to offer selected participants scholarships for getting personalized feedback on their CV and training for interviewing and job applications. Such opportunities can help participants apply what they learned through their online courses and connect them with professional development consulting and feedback to increase employmenabilty. This is just one example of how working across different sectors can help create a more holistic program and better connect people with job opportunities.
2. Demand for Education and Personal Development Classes
After just a few days of opening the application, thousands of people applied, far exceeding the number of spots and demonstrating the potential that this type of platform offers. Understanding which classes were completed provided useful data for the government as it sought to understand what skills that people want to develop and where demand lies for different training programs.
A number of the most popular classes were about personal development and learning business and career skills. Among the top courses for personal development were ‘How to Speak Well in Public”, “How to be More Creative”, and “Learning How to Learn.” There was simultaneously high interest in learning skills that could be applied to a personal or career, particularly in the digital space. “Business English”, “Applied Excel for Businesses”, and “Pillar of Digital Marketing” were also highly sought after too. Analyzing participants’ specific feedback has also been important and indicates some of the top reasons why people applied, all of which are valuable for designing and tailoring additional learning opportunities. While people reported that they wanted to learn a new skill, by and far the majority of people said they wanted to improve their pre-existing understanding on a specific topic. This seems to indicate that prior awareness of a topic was an important decision-making factor, and that efforts to increase students’ learning on new topics — -such as coding and programming — would first require greater awareness-building efforts
3. Consider Innovative Ways to Provide Necessary Resources
While online classes have advantages over in-person learning, they still have some unique challenges that can make virtual learning difficult. In particular, the lack of community as a source of support can make remote learning feel distanced and/or frustrating. The desire to have a group to learn with was evident, as participants reported that not having someone to share their questions and doubts with as a major barrier. To address this, an innovative approach the ENI team took was to encourage participants to invite a friend or family member to also sign up for a Coursera class with them. This was an attempt to bolster participation and provide a partner for support.
Digital access also proved another barrier, especially in more rural areas. Lack of stable internet and/or the cost of being connected can be a significant barrier, particularly when processing videos and interacting with online education modules. Partnerships with other organizations and governments can play a role in addressing some of these barriers. For example, in Paraguay, the Ministry of Technology, Information, and Communication provided public spaces for students to access free wifi so they could download the app, and/or take their lessons. These alliances helped Paraguayans complete over 299,000 clases and more than 215,500 hours of training during this period. For other countries and organizations implementing similar programs, thinking about creative partnerships with technology companies or government agencies can be useful for reducing digital inequalities and barriers.
The success and reach of this program has shown ENI that opportunities abound for innovating in the digital learning space, and that interest is high. From public-private sector partnerships to increasing digital access, the insights, takeaways, and learnings from this program have been valuable for informing future iterations of this program and ways to make such initiatives as equitable as possible. Strengthening pathways to employment through scholarships, private sector mentoring, and CV consultations are the next step in scaling online learning to job opportunity. As the global community begins to recover and build back from the pandemic, initiatives such as these will be needed to work towards a more inclusive economy.
The National Innovation Strategy is a public-private entity, formed by Presidential Decree 2314 in 2019. Positioned within the Presidential Delivery Unit, the National Innovation Strategy works to articulate and map the innovation ecosystem in the country, supporting efforts for social, public-sector, and entrepreneurial innovation in the country. The Strategy is tasked with coordinating innovation initiatives and designing roadmaps for addressing five national challenges that arose from public and expert consultation around the country. You can reach the team at email@example.com, visit our website and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Medium.
About Isabelle Foster
Isabelle is the Coordinator of International Positioning at the National Innovation Strategy. She first started working with the team while in Paraguay for a Fulbright Fellow in 2019–2020 and helps the team by coordinating strategic international alliances, forming partnerships, and connecting the ecosystem globally.