Special Report
Future of Work

How Virtual Learning Is Falling Short on Preparing Students for Future Careers

By Alyson Klein — March 02, 2021 7 min read
Teacher Aaron Volkoff demonstrates  via Zoom how to monitor a heart rate for the students in his Exercise Science  class at Lakewood High School in Long  Beach, Calif.
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It’s easy to imagine that many of today’s 2nd graders—future accountants, computer programmers, lawyers—will rarely see the inside of a traditional office.

The pandemic is likely to accelerate a trend already well underway: allowing workers to telecommute at least some—or all—of the time. That includes those in professions that, right now, are tough to envision in a largely virtual context.

You might expect the changes to education during the pandemic—during which just about every K-12 student got at least some experience with online learning—would help get most kids ready for the digital workplaces of the future.

But you’d be wrong, experts say.

“I don’t think it’s going to help much,” said Kyle Hartung, the associate vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that concentrates on education and workforce alignment. “There was no systematic or pedagogical approach for learning remotely.”

Shelly Culbertson, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, was similarly skeptical.

“I’m not convinced that they are coming away with a set of skills that enable them to have the self-discipline and the attention span” needed to work remotely, she said, given that the quality of online education has generally been poor for many students. She cautioned, though, that there hasn’t been comprehensive research on the question yet in the context of the pandemic.

Students from low-income families are likely at a special disadvantage in mastering those skills, experts and educators say. At the start of the pandemic, about 30 percent of students didn’t have the kind of connectivity or hardware needed to learn online, according to a survey taken last year by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit.

Many school districts have been able to bridge the gap by purchasing laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for kids, thanks in part to federal relief funds.

But there are other, subtler problems, Culbertson said. Low-income students may be less likely to turn their camera on, for example, because they may be ashamed of their surroundings. Or they may just not have a quiet place in their home to attend school.

If their parents don’t speak English, they may be of limited help in supporting online learning. And students in special education often can’t get the accommodations they need in a virtual context.

In fact, in a survey conducted in January by the EdWeek Research Center, more than a third of educators—34 percent—said they expected low-income students were losing the most ground of all special populations during the pandemic.

Nearly another quarter said students in special education were most at risk. Eight percent of educators picked rural students, while another 8 percent chose English-language learners.

The new skill sets for ‘leaders of the future’

The shift to widespread virtual learning has made it clear that students need more help with certain skills that will likely be essential to the digital workplace of the future.

For instance, more than 60 percent of educators thought students needed more help learning how to work independently, manage their time, and/or show self-motivation. More than half of educators said their students needed to get better at paying attention in a remote context. Also high on the list: communicating and collaborating in a virtual context.

“The kids who are able to develop those skills are going to be the leaders of the future,” said Tom Berriman, the principal of Alpena High School in northeastern Michigan. “There’s definitely kids who are developing new skillsets that they absolutely would not have developed pre-COVID.”

Rosa Hardesty, a knowledge advisor at the Society of Human Resource Management, a trade association for human resources professionals, agrees that students who can benefit from quality personalized learning are gaining abilities that will serve them well in future jobs.

“To even log into your class and be on time takes a different side of your brain than walking to your classroom,” she said. “It’s really putting the ownership on them and making them independent.”

But she thinks the pandemic is going to exacerbate the divide between students who have been able to learn online and those who haven’t, whether that’s because of chaotic home circumstances, lack of internet connectivity, or something else.

“I think it is going to create a gap,” Hardesty said. “As a working parent, it takes a lot to juggle and manage [online learning]. If some of these kids don’t have someone there to help them, if they don’t have the technology, if they have a parent that English is not their first language or they have a learning disability. [They may develop] that habit of closing the computer and quitting. It’s equivalent to ditching school.”

Helping students with the greatest economic need

Given that collaborating and communicating in a virtual context is likely to be a key competency in the future, schools will need to figure out how to help students master those skills. The question is: “How do we get it from a place where it’s happening by design as opposed to happening by chance,” including for the most vulnerable kids, Hartung said.

That’s something educators across the country are struggling through in remote, hybrid, or socially distanced learning environments.

The NYC Center for Youth Employment, located in the Big Apple, had to shift one of its most popular workforce learning programs on the fly when the city became an early pandemic hotspot. The center, which operates out of the mayor’s office, has created a Summer Youth Employment program that matches students with summer positions that complement their skills and interests.

The program, which had over 75,000 participants in 2019, is designed to help students explore potential careers and improve “executive skills” such as problem solving, teamwork, and communication, said David Fischer, the center’s executive director.

I think these are really new skill sets for a lot of people. You have to see what it looks like in practice. If we want to prepare our kids for this new age, we should be doing that.

So last summer, the center created an online version that included a career exploration component through an application called Hats and Ladders, project-based learning activities chosen by community partners and participating students, and a Workplace Challenge, in which small teams of participants worked together to solve “real world” problems presented by employer partners.

Only 35,198 young people were able to participate, fewer than half the previous year’s total. But the city put a premium on targeting students with the greatest economic need, including kids living in homeless shelters or foster care.

Using online learning to prepare students for jobs

The Long Beach Unified School District in Southern California is also working to make sure its students are using online learning to prepare for the workforce.

In the past, the district taught appropriate online behavior as part of learning digital citizenship. But now those are just the rules of the classroom road, said Nader Twal, a program administrator in the district. Kids have to consider things like: When does your camera go on? When does your camera go off? What does it look like when you go into the breakout room? How do you write an email that you are sending to your teacher?

“Their daily operations are some of the best experiences that they are going to get to approximate a workplace,” Twal said.

The district has also continued to offer other connections to the world of work, including organizing students into different career pathways based on their interests, such as engineering or health science. It has invited guest speakers from different companies and occupations to chat with students, and had students go through mock job interviews and participate in online career fairs. All of those activities usually took place in person before the pandemic, but the business community has been able to lend a hand during virtual learning.

To ensure every student has access to those experiences—and to school itself—the district has handed out Wi-Fi hotspots and devices to those who need them.

But even though the district is doing its best to reach all students, Long Beach realizes that some of them face significant challenges, including having responsibilities at home that might get in the way of their schooling and their ability to develop virtual working skills.

“Obviously, students are being left behind” compared with where they would be with in-person learning, said Cynthia Bater, the district’s program administrator for linked learning. “All students are suffering from this pandemic.”

Still, those who study the workforce expect that teleworking skills will be in high demand going forward. In fact, after the pandemic, 20 percent to 25 percent of employees will likely be able to work from home at least three days a week, according to a report released Feb. 18 by the McKinsey Global Institute.

That has some educators wondering if remote working needs to be baked into the curriculum, even after the pandemic ends.

For instance, Frank Jesse, the superintendent of the Chambers school district in north central Nebraska, wonders if high school students should be required to take at least two online courses before graduating.

“I think these are really new skill sets for a lot of people,” Jesse said. “You have to see what it looks like in practice. If we want to prepare our kids for this new age, we should be doing that.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Virtual Learning Is Falling Short on Preparing Students for Future Careers


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