Rethinking Employment and Training
In a Post Pandemic Ontario
This report highlights the challenges faced and lessons learnt by EO providers in transitioning from in-person to remote service delivery and how this could be applied in a post pandemic world of learning and training.
It has now been over two years since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic that has changed the way we navigate our lives. Intermittent lockdowns and social distancing measures have led to a more virtual existence at both work places and home. The pandemic forced businesses and public services across Ontario into a balancing act – protecting the health and safety of their employees and customers while simultaneously continuing their operations. In order to survive, Ontario businesses had to be creative and embrace digital platforms. During the first three months of the pandemic from February to May 2020 the retail e-commerce sales in Canada nearly doubled (+99.3%) with some retailers relying more on this method of sale. Restaurants and the hospitality sector had to adapt – placing a stronger focus on delivery, takeout and meal kits. Many manufacturers, faced with supply chain disruptions and uncertainty around product sales; retooled their production lines to manufacture face masks, PPE and respirators. Public and private educational institutions had to adopt or increase online learning. So, while economic activity did decline, looking back, it could have been a lot worse if not for the ingenuity and resilience demonstrated by the Ontarians.
E-commerce Sales Increase February to May 2020
Jobs Lost in the beginning of the pandemic
Ontario’s employment and training systems were not immune to the challenges created by the pandemic. Indeed, at no time during Ontario’s economic history was the need for job search assistance and support more important. During the first several months of the pandemic, over 400,000 workers lost their jobs and were faced with uncertain futures. In March 2020 when the world changed, employment programs understood that they had to figure out how they could continue to support the public with social distancing measures in place. Like many other sectors of the economy, Toronto’s employment and training system, which relied heavily on face-to-face counseling and in-person employment workshops, moved quickly to online delivery of services. The move from in-person to remote service delivery presented two challenges. The first was the orienting and training of employment counselors and instructors on digital delivery approaches. The other was supporting clients with accessing and using digital platforms. In short, job-seekers and workers needed support and the system had to move quickly. At no time was Employment Ontario more important than at that moment.
In Toronto, virtual learning/training made great strides as employment service providers pivoted to remote service delivery in response to the crisis. Service providers quickly adopted digital platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, offered digital literacy training to staff and clients, offered access to digital devices through loan programs, supported clients further by hosting virtual job fairs and networking events. The crisis and the response to it exposed some weaknesses in the education and training systems and at the same time reshaped service delivery to a new paradigm that is more resilient and robust.
There is a general consensus among the service providers that the pandemic has made everything a moving target that requires dynamic responses. The pandemic also had a significant impact on the labour market trends. Given that labour market information (LMI) is pivotal to acquire the right skills in meeting the market demand, job counselors and career advisors were constantly updating themselves and interpreting the LMI to their clients. Like other sectors of the economy that have been permanently transformed by the pandemic, the way we deliver employment and training services has likely changed forever.
By all accounts and through discussions with leaders in education, training and workforce development, hybrid approaches (combining the best of virtual and face-to-face service) is likely here to stay. Remote service delivery allowed Employment Ontario (EO) agencies to save space and offer a broader array of training options to job seekers. For example, clients that face obstacles like finding child care or have trouble commuting found it easier to access service online. But not all programming and training can be best delivered online. In fact, online training for skilled trades (requiring individuals to learn how to use equipment) was rendered next to impossible. Also, clients with higher needs who face more employment barriers than others require more intensive employment support and career counseling. Online training and e-counselling may not be a desirable option for ensuring successful employment outcomes for this category of job seekers.
Remote Service Delivery Challenges
- Orienting and training of employment counselors and instructors on digital delivery approaches.
- Supporting clients with accessing and using digital platforms.
- Not all programs and training can be best delivered online. Remote learning for skilled trades was rendered next to impossible.
Given this new shift in service delivery, TWIG in this report will give a brief account of some of the immediate and ongoing obstacles faced by Employment Ontario service providers in Toronto and how they pivoted to resolve these challenges. As a part of this paper, we conducted key informant interviews to understand these challenges and disruptions faced by the EO network in Toronto and their clients, the best practices done and what according to them is here to stay to better assist the clients in the future. Interviewees also shared their success stores in the context of service delivery amidst the pandemic and what they believed were the critical elements that aided the process. We also wanted to better understand what service approaches adopted by employment and training programs during the pandemic are likely to remain in a post-pandemic world.
Although COVID-19 disrupted the day-to-day operations at employment service centers and training programs (such as literacy and basic skills or second language learning), many programs used this as an opportunity to adjust their workforce development activities and/or accelerate their digital footprint in ways that supported the economic recovery for Toronto and its labour force. Furthermore, workforce employment and training programs are thinking about how much of what they will do in the future can be delivered through online and remote instruction. Online and remote learning represent sharp breaks for many programs, which have traditionally relied on in-person, and hands-on instruction. This report highlights the lessons that have been learnt in the process and how this could be applied in a post pandemic world of learning and training.
E-Learning Market following the Pandemic
The overall market for online education[i] is projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. Whether it is language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software, there has been a significant surge in usage since COVID-19. Distance education did experience modest yet steady growth prior to the pandemic but the transition process accelerated after COVID-19 hit worldwide.
- Online learning platform Coursera recorded 20 million new student registrations in 2021 equivalent to total growth in the three years pre-pandemic. Total registered users in 2020 grew 65% over 2019.
- Coursera saw 59% revenue growth year over year, largely due to a pandemic-induced boom in digital learning.
- Canada recorded 2.4million remote learners on the Coursera platform.
- Enrolment numbers more than doubled in 2020 and increased by 32% the following year, peaking at 189 million.
- According to the Google Classroom company data, between 2020 and 2021, the Google Classroom number of users have increased from 40 million to over 150 million users.
- Zoom generated $4 billion revenue in 2021, a 53% increase year-on-year. It was one of the fastest growing apps of the pandemic; meeting participants increased by 2900%.
According to the 2021 Workplace Learning Report by LinkedIn [ii], across every country surveyed, the learning and development leaders cited digital literacy as the second most important skill after resilience. According to a McKinsey & Company[iii] 2020 report, six best-practice actions, ranging from the immediate and tactical to the strategic, can build a new foundation for effective virtual learning and maintain the momentum and benefits of workplace-learning programs. These actions are establishing a learning-response team, protecting employees in in-person programs, adapting delivery, promoting digital learning, exploring alternative digital strategies, and practicing and preparing for multiple outcomes.
In July 2021, in response to the job crisis triggered by COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Ontario in partnership with LinkedIn and First Work[iv] launched a free skills-based learning initiative that has helped upskill over 40,000 Ontarians. The free LinkedIn tools were made available from July 2, 2021 to March 31, 2022. These resources were made available across Ontario’s broader Employment Services network through close collaboration between LinkedIn and First Work. The initiative offered the following services for free:
- LinkedIn Talent Insights licenses to support employment service providers access real-time labour market data and talent pool insights to create job pathways for their members.
- LinkedIn Recruiter licenses to help employment service providers pinpoint and connect with local organizations that may want to hire youth learners.
- 100,000 LinkedIn Learning licenses to empower job seekers to build the in-demand skills they need to get hired.
Through rapid upskilling and micro-credentialling, this collaboration positively impacted Ontarians looking to increase their employability. Certainly, the powerful LinkedIn recruitment tools and the human services delivered by community providers combined together better capacitated the employment service providers to support regional economies.
Digital literacy has been cited as the second most important skill after resilience.
According to a latest LinkedIn news during this time period:
- On average, job seekers secured 609 jobs per month.
- 26,157 micro-credentials have been earned with nearly 38,000 hours of learning.
- Participants developed 1,297,140 new connections and earned 63,334 skills.
- Top industry employers included Information Technology & Services, Non-profit Organization Management, Higher Education, Retail and Government Administration.
Finally, it would appear that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of microcredentials. A survey conducted by HEQCO with Ontario Colleges conducted in December of 2020 revealed that 51 per cent of colleges were already offering microcredentials while 83 per cent said they were developing online microcredentials.
Lessons Learned about Emergency Remote Learning
- Online and blended learning is expected to increase substantially into the future.
- Availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
- Regardless of the learning modality and available technology, teachers play a critical role.
- Support for instructors is essential for quality online learning. Regular and effective pre-service and on-going teacher professional development is key.
- There is need for more flexible assessment methods and learning spaces.
- Administrators need to plan for flexibility and resilience in delivering teaching.
- Careful planning of new options can overcome longstanding barriers.
- More attention needs to be paid to online access and equity.
- Asynchronous modules can be of more helpful for learners with multiple commitments apart from learning goals as they can complete modules as per convenience.
- We need more (and better) data.
Employment Ontario Network in Toronto Responds to the Pandemic
Employment Ontario delivers employment and training, apprenticeship and adult education programs at over 700 Employment Ontario delivery sites across Ontario. It is a comprehensive suite of over 30 programs and services delivered by the government and third-party organizations. Services are offered to all Ontarians: unemployed, people with disabilities, youth, Indigenous peoples, women, newcomers, apprentices, employers and businesses.
Even before the pandemic started, the province was in the process of transforming and modernizing employment services to offer high quality employment support to job seekers and businesses. Integrated and coordinated service delivery has been considered as one of the keys to achieve sustained employment outcomes for all individuals and businesses. Digital delivery was one of the proposed components for the integration of employment services. As a part of this process, the government has been exploring an opportunity for improved service access by offering a single client-centered online channel to support job seekers in their employment journey. The government saw the potential for a cost-effective digital channel as it would support expanded access when delivering services for job seekers. So, the process of digitization was already underway and the pandemic just accelerated the process.
The Covid-19 crisis meant that the employment service providers had to remain both focused and agile as service delivery conditions were required to change based on constantly changing regulations around social distancing. Amidst the challenging employment environment EO had to respond immediately by successfully offering practical training programs and services. Like all businesses, physical distancing measures forced service providers to transition to remote service delivery. Service providers quickly developed a series of modules which could be delivered virtually. For most, the lack of technical resources (such as access to computers and reliable internet connections) was one of the significant barriers to implementing online learning and training. . Also, school and daycare closures meant many had to stay at home which further impacted the employment rates and the intake process for new programs.
EO programs have always been defined by geography and they have had informal catchment areas. The lines around these catchment areas have become fuzzy during the pandemic. As services became online technically this gave the service providers the liberty to assist not just at a local level but anyone anywhere in Ontario. Early in the pandemic, the world was under the impression that the crisis would end as soon as the vaccines rolled out. However, as the virus circulated in different waves and variants, people, businesses and communities started to adjust to the new normal. The EO was no different and like all other service providers pivoted in a way to address the pandemic as a long over-haul.
The EO agencies pivoted to the remote delivery of client service by enhancing the use digital learning platform. They integrated in-house digital platforms for learning, communications, and data management leading to an increased capacity to deliver flexible, hybrid services. Over the years, these agencies not only adopted new technologies but they planned further to develop and update own tools. Digital roadmaps were developed, as a first step in an ongoing transformation, a blueprint for action that will help align future digital initiatives with both short- and long-term business objectives.
The EO agencies responded to low digital literacy and limited access to technology by offering digital training to both staff and clients. Clients who did not have access to computers at home were supported through laptops lending program. Some agencies replaced many PCs and laptops, and provided the older computers to students in need. Participants received direct assistance to learn new computer skills and access virtual platforms like Zoom, to build confidence, knowledge and skills. This enabled participants’ access video mock interviews. Virtual job fairs and networking events were also offered enabling clients to explore virtual job opportunities.
The pandemic resulted to a surge in demand for essential workers. As a response to this EO agencies customized training programs, conducted workshops on health and safety measures and virtual interview skills for both hiring managers and candidates. Some launched innovative language assessment protocol to allow remote assessment allowing immigrants across Canada to access online English classes. In some cases, for parents who struggled to participate in the virtual workshops’ virtual child visits for children of ages 4-14 years were also offered. Allowing children to participated in interactive and educational group sessions.
The hospitality industry was one of the hardest hits during the pandemic. To provide immediate aid to the hospitality industry employers and their workers, Hospitality Workers Training Center (HWTC) quickly came up with the Rapid Response pro-active, solution focused strategy. The program highlights were- PIVOT and CALM. PIVOT– for displaced hospitality workers looking to transfer their skills to industries that are hiring by attending holistic workshops and working with a career coach and job developer to create a strategy and action plan for the next career move. CALM– Connecting and Learning to Manage through Covid-19 (CALM) for Ontario Works (OW) recipients.
Conversations with Employment Service Providers
TWIG conducted three in-dept interviews with Employment Ontario program planners and managers to explore the motivation, behavior and perspectives of the service providers in the context of service delivery amidst COVID-19 pandemic. The aim was to understand their successes, challenges, disruptions and best practices and what according to these service providers are here to stay to better assist clients in the future.
The interview questions covered themes such as immediate and ongoing challenges faced in service delivery due to the pandemic, digital training for staff and clients, digital resource support for clients, stories of success and critical elements that aid that process, hybrid model of service delivery and possible danger if any. Below is an overview of the key informational interviews covered with three EO organizations:
ACCES Employment is a leader in connecting job seekers from diverse backgrounds with leading employers. ACCES looks for opportunities to leverage our expertise and best practices to support jobseekers, newcomers starting a business in Canada, and employers and business partners seeking skills and talent for their workplaces.
ACCES Employment was in the process of a digital transformation long before the pandemic hit. The goal of leveraging technology to improve service delivery was set in the organization’s strategic plan for over 10 years. The systematic and phased approach was however rapidly accelerated due to the pandemic. E-learning, zoom meetings, online platforms for clients to register virtually were already in place. However, the usage of these were concentrated on certain programs only. So, at the onset of COVID-19, although the practice of using digital tools was there, the immediate challenge was a matter of expanding and spreading that practice to all programs and amongst all staff and clients.
While there was an existing set-up of digital tools and devices in the office, following public health measures of physical distancing ACCES needed to make a meaningful transfer so that services could be offered remotely. Not every staff had a laptop and more Zoom subscriptions were needed. While the organization managed to immediately begin remote delivery at the onset of the pandemic, it did take about three months for all staff to gain access to all the tools and systems that were needed.
Interviewee reported that the existing set-up allowed them to quickly transform into a remote call center, then layers of services were added on. Clients facing difficulty with digital services were walked through the process using phone and e-mail. Some clients also needed support to access the digital devices. There were laptop donations initially and ACCES then applied for funding and used the emergency response funds to purchase laptops and tablets that were loaned out to clients. They also tapped resources that would support clients to purchase their own laptops. They were quick in trying to create options for clients.
As ACCES continues through this accelerated transformation of services, they recognize one key challenge will be the need for ongoing investment of resources. They are already having conversations with partners and funders to ensure resource planning that will support continuous improvement of service delivery. As they start to go back to the office, they will explore how best to set up and utilize the already available webinar rooms/ workshop rooms at an optimal level, and at the same time consider health and safety regulations and best practices.
Interviewee was asked if there has been any digital skills training offered to the employees and clients following the pandemic. It has been highlighted that ACCES has an existing team of IT and Digital Tech support that continues to build on the online content and curriculum. Also, most staff had some level of digital literacy. However, when all services went remote and staff had to navigate multiple online platforms using different features, ACCES had to offer a range of digital training to their staff. Digital literacy of clients was also enhanced.
It was worth discussing whether e-learning worked well in certain programs and whether it was difficult to implement in some other programs. Like most other service providers ACCES also considered remote training particularly difficult for clients seeking employment in areas such as constructions trades. As a result, it had to accommodate learners for physical/in-person training in small groups. However, in recent times the agency introduced some new modules in trades that use virtual reality to offer training on key skills such as safety, working at heights, measuring, etc.
It has been highlighted that there was a huge demand for personal support workers (PSWs) during the pandemic and those with training were placed in full-time positions with better pay. Also, there was a significant uptick in the number of tech jobs. Employers had a huge demand for graduates from the bridging programs offered by ACCES in the area of tech. Certain manufacturing jobs also saw an increase in demand. For example, skills needed in the manufacturing of PPE, electronics and other tech items supporting remote work saw a huge rise in the labour market. As most of these roles require physical presence posing health risk for potential employees ACCES advocated for better wages to compensate them for this risk. Certain other jobs in the retail and the hospitality industry saw a sharp decline.
Libia Herrera arrived in Canada on a humanitarian flight from Colombia in April of 2020. For her and her husband, who were granted Express Entry to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, settling and finding work during a global health crisis was a scary prospect. “The pandemic was a big obstacle. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic had us worried. Looking back on that time, I feel very lucky I was able to do everything online, from enrolment to webinars to training.”
Libia enrolled in the HR Connections program at ACCES. She had practical experience having worked in international HR roles prior to arriving in Canada. For Libia, the program made an important connection between her previous practical experience in human resources and more formal, academic approaches to the field. “The program, for me, provided great insight into the academic side of HR. Being able to learn and study with ACCES, through its relationship with Sheridan College, was really helpful—I was able to make use of a lot of research tools. Learning about Canadian policies, legislation and best practices was very useful and has proven even more relevant now that I am working.”
Libia used the professional connections she made during the program, as well as the coaching she received in job search and interview strategies, to obtain a role as an HR Coordinator at Computek College. Her advice to other newcomers is to be bold enough to ask for help: “Newcomers should be encouraged to take advantage of the programs that are in place. Keep asking questions and you will get the help you need.”
ACCES emphasized that their goal has always been to reposition every client that were left behind. As pandemic led to every business and services to go remote, it created opportunities for such clients that faced barriers before. In other words, virtual service delivery attracted and served a broader client base.
Interviewee was asked if they anticipate making a permanent move to online training/service delivery or do they plan to revert back to physical classroom or were they planning a hybrid approach. Interviewee responded that ACCES’s decision on the mode of service delivery be it virtual, in-person or hybrid will be determined considering the safety of staff and clients as the first priority. The current plan is to return to the office through staff rotation and to provide clients the option for face-to-face services. The hybrid service model will be planned and implemented in stages and will evolve based on client needs. It has been conveyed that at this point, ACCES is looking at different service elements that are being offered and evaluating what can be done online and what should be available in-person. For example, intake and registration into a certain program is achievable online. ACCES wants to ensure that the clients are offered a reasonable choice between online and physical service delivery. So, looking at it from a client centered approach what is the best way to make sure that client has seamless access and that no one gets left out.
On asking about whether interviewee saw any possible danger of going hybrid, we were told that ACCES’s priority is to mitigate that risk and find that right balance. They were looking to see what’s optimal in terms of team building and mentoring, what’s the best way for clients to interact with employers in a job fair or even a graduation or last day of workshop- in person or virtual. The focus of the organization is to find missing pieces if any and incorporate that into the system. They are also working to see how to set up the expectation of clients so that it fits with the new model.
Hospitality Workers Training Centre
The hospitality industry was amongst the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to a massive lay off in the hospitality industry leading to a need to re-evaluate mindsets and think about transferable skills. During this crisis, Hospitality Worker Training Centre (HWTC) played a critical role in helping to support the displaced industry workforce. HWTC has been providing industry valued training solutions for the hospitality industry since 2003. HWTC has a strong reputation for working with both hospitality employers and workers to ensure that their training programs meet the industry’s hiring demands.
In an interview with HWTC, we asked what were the immediate and ongoing challenges faced by the organization in the wake of the pandemic and how they addressed these challenges to ensure fewer interruptions to service delivery. At HWTC, prior to the pandemic, all services were delivered in-person. However, at the onset of the pandemic like any other businesses, they transformed into a digital environment. This brought in multiple challenges. The key to resolve these challenges was to first identify the hierarchy of needs. HWTC prioritized the creation of a database for displaced workers to access basic needs that were threatened by suddenly being out of work. Next, HWTC quickly made the shift to on-line learning, acquiring technology and building new curriculum content to respond to emerging needs. This was critical to remote service delivery and HWTC was able to do that fairly quickly ensuring all systems in place.
A significant obstacle to service delivery was some clients did not have access to digital resources or knowledge necessary to participate in remote services. HWTC eliminated this technology gap by building a laptop loan program. Digital literacy continues to be an ongoing challenge but HWTC staff are always there to help clients navigate the remote system.
As the organization expands to meet industry needs, it is becoming apparent that HWTC will need to continue to expand its digital footprint in workforce development. HWTC believes that virtual service delivery means that connection between a participant and career consultant is just one click away. This has dramatically reduced barriers to enter their programs. For example, participants with daycare needs or mobility issues can find commuting challenging. As services became online, these categories of clients can access services with ease. Unfortunately, like most EO agencies, it has not been possible by HWTC to install vocational training online.
The key element to their success was the holistic approach they have always used, even before the crisis. Recognizing early on that the same principals applied to a virtual world as a pre pandemic world meant they could apply them in the switch. Workforce development is more than just focusing on resume building or drafting cover letters. HWTC programs and trainers introduce other tools to the participants. For example, preparing an elevator pitch, teaching the participant how to portray where they are at in their life etc. and develop work readiness training programs like PIVOT to engage the laid off industry workers.
The rebuilding of the database and integrating program components online, the multiple funders initiative in supporting the laptop lending program all helped a smoother service delivery. HWTC also partnered with the Health Care Housekeeping Association of Ontario to develop work readiness training programs to credentialize hospitality housekeepers to transition to healthcare housekeeping jobs.
Ellis is currently participating in the Fast Track program held by the HWTC. She finds the program to be helpful and inspiring. The staff are very welcoming and friendly to all candidates participating in the program. One thing Elis loves about Fast Track and the staff there is that they are always available to help candidates participating in the program. She particularly mentions the one on one coaching with Vanessa that is always very inspiring. They got Elis a job placement and connected her with Employment Specialist Andrea who helped her with mock interviews. Eventually the interview went fantastic. Ellis believes that Fast Track is an amazing program and she would highly recommend it to others interested in the hospitality industry.
The HWTC expects that it will likely go to a hybrid approach to training. Modules are designed and delivered by synchronous training. The only asynchronous approach they are currently using are e-learning modules that reinforce content from synchronous learning modules. However, they are working to develop some stand-alone learning modules so that trainees can access training materials independently. As a result, they can go through the information at any time and from anywhere.
In April 2021, HWTC along with its project partner Bow Valley College launched Micro but Mighty: Micro-Credentials for a Recovering Hospitality Industry. This Ontario-wide digital certification program recognizes and validates in-demand skills in the hospitality and food service sectors. This quick and easy way to certify attainment of the skills and core competencies is critical to the sector’s recovery. It will also help employers easily recognize the achievement of these skills
Working with industry employers, HWTC will develop a catalog of 22 to 25 micro-credentials that, with the support of Bow Valley College, will validate individual skills and core competencies, like customer service and team leadership. It is anticipated that 350-400 vulnerable and displaced hospitality workers will earn up to 500 separate digital certifications during the first two years of the program.
Based out of two locations in Toronto, PTP serves individuals facing complex barriers to long-term work. A leader in the delivery of essential skills programs, PTP has a rich tradition of providing innovative and client centred learning and employment solutions. Their integrated service approach ensures positive and sustainable outcomes and a seamless client experience. PTP also offers job search programs, job training in the food and beverage sector, and high school equivalency (GED).
The pandemic presented additional challenges to PTP’s participants who in many cases were already experiencing isolation and barriers to stable employment. During the early stages of the pandemic, PTP staff understood that it was critical to maintain connections with participants and ensuring that learning journeys stayed on track. Fortunately, PTP was already well on the way to the digitization of some services, with the pandemic merely accelerating the adoption of new technology.
As soon as the first lockdown went into effect, staff contacted every client, checking in to identify their needs, whether it was help with technology or childcare or putting a nutritious meal on the table. PTP was already using Moodle, the world’s largest open-source learning platform, to provide supplementary learning materials in the context of a blended learning environment. When PTP closed their centres for in person learning, Moodle quickly became their main learning platform for delivering materials and learning activities. Since the Moodle was in place, its adoption was very quick.
The Elevate program is an invaluable resource to job seekers in Toronto who wish to develop the skills for long-term employability. Ellen, came to PTP in the midst of the pandemic, looking to find training that would support in efforts in obtaining a good job. Using a digital platform, Ellen was not only given the practical training needed to excel in the food manufacturing sector but also the soft skills, essential skills and employability skills needed for a long and meaningful career. She received support from a team of skilled employment counsellors and job developers, along with mentoring and job coaching services. Despite the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19, the client’s learning continued with ground-breaking virtual resources and instruction. After overcoming the initial challenges of virtual learning, this student was able to leave the program with an added advantage: new proficiency in necessary digital technology! As a graduate of Elevate, she found a job in food production as a line worker. She has since been promoted and enjoyed a corresponding pay increase.
Working with funders and their own budgets, PTP was able to assist many participants who had limited financial resources to purchase technology so they could continue to participate in programming. PTP also designed and implemented a new program, Let’s Connect, which provided one-on-one counselling and other supports to any client who is struggling. Let’s Connect proved to be a lifeline for many during the pandemic. PTP’s instructors and counsellors also created a sense of community through online activities. Virtual learning classrooms allowed teachers to explore and identify signs of depression, anxiety, and other Covid-19 challenges among some vulnerable learners. The schedule of online classes helped provide structure and accountability for these students, while keeping them connected to other people. Participants who were unable or had difficulty adapting to online learning were provided services through telephone calls or would be sent learning material through mail.
During the pandemic, PTP realized the potential of digital tools and recognized that they could be key to future efforts, driving both success for clients and greater access to their programs. PTP designed a roadmap to build digital maturity in two phases. In phase one, their highest priority is to focus on initiatives related to business continuity and cybersecurity, management of learner/client relationship data, and build a unified culture across locations and share resources. In phase two, their priority will be to optimize by focussing on technology education and enablement. PTP is also trying and testing digital tools with an eye to finding ways to extend their reach, accelerate learning and to take advantage of micro credentials. With the re-opening of its centres now occurring, PTP recognizes the importance of finding the right balance between online and in-person learning. In most cases, PTP individualizes the approach to each client. For thirty years, PTP has been a bricks and mortar institution. Much as the concept of literacy has moved from print-based to computer and digital literacy, PTP is using what it has learned during the pandemic to build employment-related and skill-based competencies in the digital environment.
Will Hybrid Programming and Learning Become the New Norm?
With the onset of the global pandemic as the global education system experienced a significant shift switching from in person learning to distance learning, hybrid learning model started to gain increasing attention. The predominant mode of distance learning is online learning where the learning experience is delivered via the internet but distance learning could also be offline where the learning experience is fully remote but does not use internet technology, such as a course being delivered in print format via mail. In-person learning takes place entirely within a physical classroom with one’s peers and instructor physically present.
The dividing line between distance learning and in-person learning is placed at the centre of hybrid learning. According to the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, hybrid learning is a learning experience that is designed to combine both online and in-person instruction. Under this model, the theoretical component of the learning material is mostly delivered online and labs delivered in the classroom. So, it’s a mix of online and in-person interaction, involving the use of technologies to facilitate multi-modality, flexibility, and student choice.
The term hybrid learning is an umbrella term that captures all different types of hybrid learning such as flipped learning, hyflex learning, and online learning with an in-person intensive component. HyFlex (Hybrid + Flexible) prioritizes freedom and flexibility. On a day-to-day basis, learners can choose how they wish to engage in learning (i.e., in-person or virtual).
There is strong indication that hybrid learning will play a critical role especially in post-secondary education as well as the training program offered by Employment Ontario. In February of this year, the province launched a preview site for online courses, to help students explore and choose courses for the fall of 2022. As of now, it is challenging to accurately track and measure the growth of online and hybrid learning over time as there are inconsistencies in the way institutions define their course offerings.
Ongoing conversations with EO providers have suggested that as COVID hit, it has been challenging for them to shift from in-person to digital in a short span of time. But as the global pandemic unfolded, the fact that EO providers swiftly evolved nevertheless to digital tools of service delivery indicated resilience and success. Certainly, the global pandemic will keep changing the way services are being delivered and the evolution of the digital mode of service delivery in education and training will continue to feature opportunities and challenges for all stakeholders. The objective is to fine tune to achieve that right balance of digital and in-person mode of delivery. Not all services in employment training and workforce development can be offered online.
As educators and practitioners turned to remote services making virtual learning a reality, many believe that distance learning is going to be a central part of education and training for the foreseeable future. Our discussions with employment and training programs indicate that most are pivoting towards providing clients with both in person and digital learning opportunities. But to ensure a smooth delivery of distance learning, access to technology and digital literacy is crucial. Access to reliable internet and devices are key. Not everyone may be familiar with the use of digital tools and devices. Many job-seekers (often those most distant from the labour market) may find it challenging to navigate online platforms and programs. The ingenuity, resourcefulness and culture of caring inherent in of Toronto’s workforce development system strongly suggests that we are up to meeting the challenge. Indeed, with the harnessing of the power of digital options, there is every indication that our employment and training system is emerging from the pandemic in a way that will give job-seekers and employers with more options and more individualized approaches.