The COVID-19 Pandemic and Accelerated Innovation: Learning and Training Anywhere, Anytime
This blog was originally posted on the Helvetas blog by Ermira Shyti, Denada Kakeli, Admir Malaj, and Zenebe B. Uraguchi and highlights how the RisiAlbania project and its beneficiaries have embraced online learning and collaboration in the context of COVID-19.
Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic fall hardest on young women and men. It is thus critical to support young people with the skills and tools to start in the labor market and progress in their careers. The reason is obvious: interruptions to education can have long term implications, especially for the most vulnerable. Yet, the pandemic also offers opportunities, mainly for accelerating digitization and innovating different delivery modalities. This is exactly how RisiAlbania, a project of the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC), has invested in and adapted online learning and collaboration to local contexts to ensure continuity of learning and training. Indeed, online teaching requires careful thinking about how learners and teachers are equipped for the shift. Different groups have different priorities and resources to access learning and training.
“I started attending a course in Java Programing at the Albanian ICT Academy. I wanted to continue the training, but the COVID-19 lockdown disrupted classes,” says Anxhelo Cenomeri, 18, from Albania. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges to all types and levels of learning, including schooling, apprenticeships, and skills development.
Young people, like Anxhelo, face uncertainty about the broken transitions from education to the world of work and the consequences of long-term unemployment. In countries such as Albania, where youth unemployment is more than 20%, the impact of a disruptive crisis can be considerable.
However, opportunities may arise from it, especially when young people and their parents, surprisingly to an extent, are prepared to face it. As the writer, C.S Lewis says, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” This is where RisiAlbania has invested in and adapted online learning and collaboration to local contexts to ensure continuity of learning and training.
Blended online training: a primary resource of learning
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about disruption in the daily lives of people in Albania, as it has to the economic, social, and productive fabric that sustains societies. Businesses and non-formal training providers are immediately affected, their activities and plans put on hold.
As in-class training has been suspended for all training providers, digitalization has increasingly become prominent and those training providers that had invested in digital learning were able to adapt fast to the situation and offer online training. They did not completely suspend their activity, but rather retained their trainees, and in some cases even acquired new ones.
The pandemic has accelerated the transition towards blended learning, an approach to education that combines online educational materials and opportunities with traditional place-based classroom methods. The approach is no longer complementary, but an important source of learning and training.
Shqipe Shehu, 24, is one of the trainees who had started online training in Front End Development before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The course is hosted by the Tirana Center of Technology, one of the training providers that RisiAlbania has supported.
“I enrolled in an online course because I live far away from the training center. So, the outbreak of the pandemic didn’t affect me. I have strong hopes of finding employment as a Developer once I complete the training,” says Shqipe.
RisiAlbania has been supporting the ICT sector for non-formal skills development for about two years. This did not happen by accident; it was based on a good understanding of the relevance and opportunities that skills development in ICT offers to the future careers of young people in Albania. With the changing nature of the world of work, future employment opportunities are for young people with digital skills in the coming years, with some economies predicting a talent gap for workers.
This is where it all began
Back in autumn of 2018, RisiAlbania supported two kinds of innovative approaches: the first relied upon virtual classrooms, delivered in real-time, with high interactivity and where generally one lecturer followed seven students. This was the case of the Tirana Center of Technology.
“Through an online platform, we wanted to allow participating in the training,” says Gladiola Dona, the owner of Hospitality and Tourism Academy. The opportunities are crucial for many young people who live outside Tirana, the capital. They cannot afford the costs of travel and accommodation. For some women, too, the lack of time to attend in-class training is an issue.
The platform has been very successful. “We have already trained 65 people and employed 59 of them,” Gladiola continues proudly. The Hospitality and Tourism Academy used a hybrid model in training in tourism, having 30% of the training as practice in the classroom and 70% as recorded videos.
In contrast, the second innovation is the online platform of recorded videos. This approach is used especially for the training in soft skills through the Unipro Balkan Academy partner that aims to help individuals complete their professional and personal profiles to facilitate access to jobs or retain jobs. The training platform was designed online as a business model, considering digitalization as the future trend for youth. The objective was to increase flexibility and inclusivity while lowering costs.
More partners are recognizing the benefits of reaching out to additional trainees. The Albanian ICT Academy is another training provider that embraced the online training on software development courses. This shift has also brought new opportunities by incentivizing new trainees to the Academy’s recently advertised online courses.
'Reality bites': not all courses can be delivered online
“It was a bit difficult in the beginning because I was not used to this learning methodology,” recalls Anxhelo Cenomeri. With more familiarity, she is now adept at online training and is looking forward to attending a second online course.
Unlike the experiences of young people such as Anxhelo (18) and Shqipe (24), who were interviewed for this blog, some processes can be learned only in classrooms, face-to-face, and need kitchens, dining rooms, or other places to gain the real experience of the training, similar to working in hotels, bars, and restaurants for tourism and hospitality training. Or they may need ICT labs with specific devices such as hardware for training.
“To be honest, not all courses can be delivered online,” stressed a trainer at the Tirana Center of Technology. While online platforms helped training providers continue their services, courses that require hardware need meeting in-person. “With the online methods, we are now operating with 50 to 60% of our total trainees and 75% of programming trainees,” says the trainer from Tirana Center of Technology.
This was also the experience of Gladiola, from the Hospitality and Tourism Academy. “I managed to shift the face-to-face courses to online and keep up with the delivery of the course. However, uncertainties remain with payments since trainees don't have income sources right now. The nature of these courses needs a 30% practice in class so that people have the necessary skills and practice to start a job and be successful.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the income sources of many, decreasing the ability to pay for the training offers. Some trainees are still hesitant about online delivery methods. They prefer to wait for face-to-face delivery, even though some training providers have reduced fees of online courses to better sell them.
Additionally, requests for training have decreased as people are uncertain of the future, especially in the tourism sector. “I have suspended all the courses,” says Arber Avdija, who offers job-related courses in tourism and hospitality in the coastal area of Lezha, in the north of Albania. For Arber and the trainees, the lockdown due to the pandemic coincided with the time for practical training that needs to be delivered face-to-face and supervised closely by the trainer.
The trainees are young women and men from the area, where Arber has built strong social capital as a trainer and has a good reputation among the business community and trainees. This helps to place at (almost) 100% every young woman and man who finishes the courses successfully.
Leaving no one behind
Never has the ‘leave no one behind’ pledge felt more urgent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as digitalization has spread to many parts of the world, knowledge isn't yet a mouse-click away to millions of young people. It is important to keep in mind that disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and those already affected by other crises are in acutely precarious situations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arber Avdija, from the tourism and hospitality industry in Lezha, does not hide his concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Most of the trainees come from low-income families that are highly impacted by the situation and they won't be able to pay for the remaining part of the courses. I hope to support them financially in some way, through discounts or loans, but I might not be able to support all of them.”
RisiAlbania has a strong gender and social inclusion focus, aiming to support those that are more in need, the most excluded. A recent case is the partnership that RisiAlbania has with the Albanian ICT Academy, which seeks to train young female orphans who are in the transition to leave the orphanages once they reach the age of 18.
“The best support for these girls will be precisely a safe profession for their future,” says the director of the Albania ICT Academy. The idea is to support the girls with a profession that will provide them not only with income but also independence for a safer life in their future. “Thanks to technology, today everything is possible,” stresses the director of the Academy. Responses to the pandemic require integration of a gender and social inclusion perspective.
RisiAlbania remains committed to delivering vital, evidence-based and gender-responsive technical assistance to those in need, especially marginalized, vulnerable, and disadvantaged groups. The project is aware that addressing the needs of the most vulnerable groups like young people whose families are strongly hit by the pandemic, or the orphan girls, by subsidizing their training is an emergent solution in this situation.
However, in the long run, it is important to work on the sustainable financing of skills development. This is where RisiAlbania, together with other similar projects in the Western Balkans, has been taking the lead to a search for and test different models, including channeling public money to private training providers.