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Lifelong learning for everyone: What we’ve learned from our European social innovation partners

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The skills needed in today's workplace are changing fast. A recent report from McKinsey forecasts that the demand for technological, cognitive, creative and interpersonal skills will accelerate by 2030.

Despite technology offering more learning options than ever before, we haven’t yet figured out a way that this can truly benefit everyone. Take, for example, the early enthusiasm for bringing university content online to democratize higher education—and the sobering reality that these online courses are overwhelmingly used by people who already have a higher education. We learned from a recent IPPR report that it is vital for digital skills programs to address a diverse audience and provide skills for the future as well as skills for immediate use. And as the labor market transforms, it's clear we need a more flexible model for facilitating reskilling and lifelong learning for both current and future workers.

So how can we make sure that technology supports lifelong learning for those who need it most? About a year ago, we launched the Work Initiative, a $50 million fund to support social innovators tackling this question. In addition, since 2015 our Grow with Google programs have been equipping people with the digital skills they need to succeed in the digital economy. What we’ve learned from our and Grow with Google collaboration with European partners and social entrepreneurs is that making lifelong learning a success requires four tactics: working with organizations who are on the frontline of serving the most disadvantaged, developing clearer signals about the pay-off of engaging in learning new skills, using technology to drive incentives to persevere throughout the learning experience, and developing better ways to signal skills to employers.  

Technology can make learning more accessible

First and foremost, learning must continue to become more accessible. The biggest opportunities for people to upgrade their skills are at work, but the options to retrain are few for those without a workplace. According to research from the European Commission, only 9 percent of people who are out of work have access to upskilling opportunities, compared to almost one in two people on permanent contracts.

To tackle this, public institutions and nonprofits must integrate skill-building opportunities into their programs. grantee Bayes Impact, a tech nonprofit in France, is an example of this approach in action. Bayes's machine learning-powered search assistant recommends training resources and learning opportunities for people who are out of work. With an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent in France, Bayes helps millions of job seekers fill their skill gaps through smart technology and a partnership with the country's national unemployment agency.

The pay-off of learning needs to be clear

We know that time and financial investment are key considerations when people think about engaging with new learning opportunities. This means that the pay-off must be clear for learners from the outset. If people don't feel like training will lead them to a better life, there's little chance that they'll take advantage.

A practical way to address this is by helping learners clearly identify the benefits of engaging in a particular course at the beginning of their journey. OpenClassrooms, one of Europe's leading providers of vocational education online and another organization we’re supporting, does this by promising to reimburse course fees if learners haven't found a job six months after completing their certificate. They've also partnered with European government agencies to get official accreditation for several of their courses, further ensuring that the value of a commitment to learning is clear.

Targeting completion is key

The most effective learning experiences are those built with completion in mind. A couple of years ago, the online learning platform Coursera shared that only 4 percent of its users completed the course and earned a credential. When we built the Google IT Professional Support certificate—a Grow with Google program that enables anyone to become an IT support specialist in eight to 12 months without a college degree—we thought carefully about how to ensure as many people as possible complete a course.

One thing we found to be useful is to support blended learning experiences, where online learning is complemented by in-person coaching and meetings with other students. To achieve this, we've partnered with nonprofit organizations to bring an additional layer of support for students to the Google IT Support Professional Certificate. In Germany, we've piloted this approach with Kiron, a nonprofit that is supporting refugees to continue their education and provide access to employment opportunities.

We’ve also been experimenting with using machine learning to identify when students might be in need of support to help them keep going with a course. For example, we’ve rolled out machine learning prompts that show up at key moments as a means to motivate learners.

Capabilities must be expressed in new ways

The final piece of the puzzle is to enable people to showcase their abilities in a format that's convincing to employers. French social enterprise Chance, another one of our grantees, uses a semi-automated system to match companies with candidates who have the capabilities they require but don’t necessarily have access to the professional networks who can help their resume stand out of the pile, or don’t know what employers are looking for and therefore don’t know how to express their own abilities. Backed by AI, projects like these enable a wider pool of job seekers to find the right opportunities for their skill set.

The labor market will continue to evolve, and technology can ensure we keep pace with the growing demands of the future workplace. As our European partners show, it's possible to improve the access, design and experience of learning new skills—putting lifelong learning for everyone firmly within our grasp.

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