The business of online learning is booming. Because of the conditions brought on by the pandemic, employers looking to prepare workforces for uncertain times are delivering all or most training online for the foreseeable future.
"We were already hitting a pace of change and skill development that was pretty rapid," Shelley Osborne, VP of Learning at Udemy said. "The pandemic has just put that into hyperdrive; [...] traditional learning isn't built for the world that we live in anymore, and the pandemic really, really ushered that forward, at a speed that we couldn't have predicted."
Many large names entered the online learning space during the past few years. Google, LinkedIn (Microsoft) and Salesforce, for example, have all made significant investments in coursework, including certificate programs aimed at indicating proficiency. Major retail and food service employers such as Wal-Mart and Subway have started offering online education as a worker benefit, too.
For years, companies like Udemy, Khan Academy and Lynda.com operated under the premise that quality training and skill development could be administered via the web. The pandemic has made these offerings more relevant than ever, and accelerated a shift that was already well under way.
"I think our world is evolving so rapidly," Tara Ataya, VP of People at Hootsuite, said, "and this boils down some of the specifics around what areas companies are focused on in terms of talent."
Winds of change
Beyond the pandemic, Ataya, Osborne and peers have said that a number of other trends were also incrementally speeding up adoption of online learning. For example, many experts and business leaders have observed a gap between the skills those entering the labor force offer and the skills employers need.
"The delta between the philosophy and ideas that are taught in higher education and the reality of the digital skills gap [forces employers] to catch up when they bring people in that have that gap. Ultimately, the more we can do up front to train people, I think, the better," Ataya said.
Comments like Ataya’s and corresponding research suggest that colleges and universities have been sending graduates into the workforce inadequately prepared for workplace success. Moreover, candidates seeking the qualifications for high-paying jobs often need to attend an elite university or at least a computer science program, a barrier that has perhaps contributed to the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry writ large some say.
Stakeholders have predicted that online offerings could disrupt or even replace higher education; however, the companies creating online learning say they’re more focused on teaching employees.
"It's not about competing [with higher education], I think it's about partnering," Kris Lande, SVP Trailhead Marketing at Salesforce said. Trailhead is the software company’s free online learning platform. "I do see more integration happening where high tech companies and higher ed can work together to really bring in timely, relevant skills."
Lande expressed a sentiment shared by her peers, who ultimately see their services as a way to diversify workplaces and help employers maintain a culture of continuous improvement.
"It creates this symbiotic relationship where you're designing a program to fill tomorrow's needs," Ataya said, "and also allowing for employees to stretch and grow and create higher engagement levels."
Improving access for better business outcomes
Across conversations with leaders at companies like Udemy, ExecOnline and others, one of the main themes that emerged was the idea of "meeting people where they are," or, that people learn in different ways and have the appetite and capacity for pursuing learning at different times in their life. This speaks to employees’ desire for personalized training as well as employers’ interest in better-trained workers.
"I think [recruiters and talent managers] should focus on candidates building skills and knowledge rather than attending an institution […] it just allows for more diversity and inclusion," Ataya said. "It also removes cost barriers for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, […] and removes a lot of the other barriers that come with higher education."
Even beyond higher education, access to leadership training and other development opportunities within companies may be walled off for most employees.
"I really believe that we need to democratize learning," Osborne said. "I've seen a ton of forward-thinking HR and L&D leaders come along that journey as well, where they want to open access to learning and education within their organizations."
When he founded ExecOnline in 2011, after five years as CEO of Frontier Strategy Group, Stephen Bailey said he noticed employers having challenges developing leaders at scale and providing equal access to learning.
"What you had was essentially development for the few that were senior leaders in the organization," Bailey said, "and then there was a small cross section, call it 1-2% of middle management, that were treated as high potentials and had access to the same types of opportunities."
Bailey and Ataya said they believe this restricted access is as bad for employers as it is for the people blocked from learning opportunities.
"It's bad, obviously, for individuals’ careers; it's also bad for companies," Bailey explained. "Because they don't really have the succession pipelines over time that they need, particularly as businesses are changing and pivoting so rapidly."
Broader access to learning content can bolster internal talent pipelines. "It's allowing for a lot more internal mobility of your employees," Ataya said. "So people can be multi-faceted and cross functional. It breaks down silos in organizations [...] and I think it's going to change the way that we look at candidates and recruitment and upskilling of our talent."
For those in the business of training, improving access can also be a motivator, as is the case for Jolie Miller, head of business content strategy for LinkedIn Learning. Miller worked at Cengage Learning before becoming one of the first employees of Lynda.com, which was eventually purchased by LinkedIn.
"We've seen a really interesting expansion in the business with LinkedIn Learning," Miller said, "because we're using real time data insights from the LinkedIn network to understand what skills are important today for employers and employees, what jobs are available, and how we can supplement and enrich that conversation with learning that helps people be successful and getting those jobs."
Digital learning communities
One valuable aspect many believe is lost when training goes online is the element of group work or opportunities to discuss new topics with peers. Online providers are looking to overcome this obstacle through digital forums where learners can replicate some of that interaction.
Lande said Trailhead has had an active community for some time. "This community is just like no other," Lande said. "They are helping each other learn. They're helping each other network. They're mentoring each other, and they're helping each other find new opportunities in the Salesforce ecosystem."
At LinkedIn, Miller said the pandemic has increased activity in its "learning groups" by 1100%, in part because it "is giving people that connection piece that they’re craving."
Learning groups, whether online or informal among peers, can also be good for discussion of ideas beyond the context of training content. Miller and her team took an unconscious bias course and took time to see how it might apply to their organization.
"One of the great learning moments we had this past month was reflecting on the course on unconscious bias and talking about all the different forms of bias that are out there and sharing examples of when we might have seen bias in action, and how we might look at that bias a little bit differently with the increased learning and the increased awareness," Miller said.
Another benefit of online technical training is the opportunity to try out new concepts. This type of learning helps ensure efficacy. "We're all about applied experiential learning,” Bailey said. "That's what has generated the results that we've had in the market. And that's really hard to do well, and it's really hard to do well at scale."
'Learning is work and work is learning'
One barrier to development for employees is carving out time on a regular basis amid everyday work and, in the case of today’s workers, an ongoing public health crisis.
"There's been historically a separation between this idea of learning and work," Osborne said. "And they do need to be melded together; learning is work and work is learning."
This attitude speaks to the new paradigm for learning: a continuous, life-long act of improvement for the betterment of people and organizations. The rate of change for the skills desired by employers is too fast to rely on an education that may be several years old, the experts said. "Learning is not just a one-time thing that you do in school or in college," Lande said. "But it is part of your career, and as part of your journey."
To ensure positive learning outcomes, it’s not just enough to encourage employees to do it, they said. Companies need to create the space and develop a culture that is accommodating of learning activity: "I think that it's important to note that everybody owns a culture of learning," Osborne said. "We all have that responsibility to build it. So whether or not it's an HR leader, whether or not it's an L&D leader or a business leader within the organization, it really is incumbent upon all of us if we want to create these thriving organizations that can can sustain this kind of change, and really thrive in these moments where innovation is needed."