Digital learning for the future of work


The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally shifted how people of all ages view work and skills. Emerging technologies will generate 133 million new jobs by 2022 in place of the 75 million that will be displaced, the World Economic Forum estimates. Yet even before COVID-19 rapidly accelerated digital trends, the UK was suffering from a skills gap that will mean many of these jobs will be left unfilled. Last year, nine in ten organisations admitted in a study by the Open University that they have a shortage of digital talent.

In August, Pearson released its second annual Global Learner Survey, which quizzed more than 7,000 learners. The findings show COVID-19 is a major turning point for learning, with online schooling and the need for more digital skills leaving a lasting mark. Nine in ten UK respondents said they believe online learning will remain a permanent part of primary, secondary and higher education, and workers are responding to economic uncertainty by seeking to bolster their digital skills through vocational training.

There has been a fundamental shift in the skills that are vital to deliver through our national education system

The pace of innovation means work was already changing at unprecedented speed, but the pandemic has added a truly palpable urgency to the need for digital skills. In the UK, 87 per cent of respondents said the economic disruption means people now need to be comfortable working remotely and in highly digital environments, and 77 per cent said it has taught them that digital work requires new skillsets. Traditional education programmes won’t be enough, with 88 per cent saying skills such as virtual collaboration and data analysis are required to move forward in this economy.

“People believe education is more important than it’s ever been,” says Rod Bristow, UK president at Pearson, which equips learners with the skills they need to succeed in the changing world of work. “Education’s purpose as a means to a better life is in sharper focus and better access through technology is critical. These changes in consumer perspectives will change what’s learnt and how it’s delivered. There is no going back.”

The pressure is growing to deliver the digital skills that will sustain people through the pandemic and beyond, and with half of the employed respondents to Pearson’s study in need of education because their job status has changed, upskilling and reskilling is vital. Through online learning, adults can not only get back to work, but also become more economically resilient as the global business landscape continues to transform digitally.

The urgency to build skills for employment includes a new breed of digital soft skills as well as an emphasis on English language skills. In a difficult economy, people tend to embrace the practical path, and trade and vocational education often render better results than a university degree. In Pearson’s research, learners believed universities have the opportunity to help drive economic recovery, but 87 per cent said they should offer shorter courses or lower-cost options to help the unemployed upskill or reskill.

“Digital skills are no longer optional,” says Bristow. “There has been a fundamental shift in the skills and knowledge that are vital to deliver through our national education system. The ‘Three Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic – are critical career skills of the future, but people now care deeply about the digital fluency that underpins creativity, problem-solving and social skills in a world that’s gone online.” Pearson pull stats

Pearson’s study found tech skills, teamwork and communications skills are now seen as important as the Three Rs to learn at school. There was widespread agreement that primary and secondary education should teach practical life skills alongside the fundamentals, particularly in the UK where respondents gave the lowest mean age (11 years) at which young people should learn basic skills to support future careers.

“It’s time to put digital fluency at the heart of the system,” says Bristow. “The future of work demands better digital skills with online learning a critical means of acquiring them. Access to that technology is foundational to a fairer society and opening opportunity to all. It is becoming as important as providing inclusive access to good school and university buildings.”

The sudden upheaval of COVID-19 disruption, which pushed many into full-time online teaching and learning for the first time, saw increased usage of Pearson’s digital learning materials and the heightened demand continues despite lockdown restrictions being eased. Since the emergence of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of secondary school-students have used Pearson’s digital learning space ActiveLearn, which includes resources, ebooks and courseware supporting GCSE, A level and BTEC curriculums.

As the shift to online learning accelerated in the wake of the virus, Pearson also acted quickly to launch new initiatives. UK Learns is an online portal that curates a selection of online courses to help workers who are furloughed or out of work to learn new skills and earn qualifications or accreditations that could improve their career prospects. Meanwhile, more than 350,000 primary school parents requested access to Carol Vorderman’s online learning site The Maths Factor after Pearson offered free lessons.

Such efforts will prove particularly important as the pandemic drives an even greater chasm in the digital divide. Although respondents in the Global Learner Survey agreed education delivers opportunity, 73 per cent of UK learners felt the pandemic will deepen education inequality, especially among young students. And 88 per cent said they’d like to see schools doing more to address economic and digital inequalities.

“As the world’s learning company, we have had a special responsibility to listen and address all these issues for learners,” says John Fallon, chief executive of Pearson. “Education has the potential to improve lives and enable economic mobility. It is the single biggest force for change in our world. During this time of such uncertainty, we must ensure it can continue to deliver the hope and opportunity that is needed now more than ever.

“We are in the midst of a moment in which we can rewrite the future of education to make it more accessible and equitable. We don’t know what the future holds. But what is clear is that all of us – employers, educators, parents and students – have a role to play in helping to adapt and thrive in a post-pandemic world.”

For more info on UK Learns please visit

For more survey info please visit