Emergency Online Teaching: Employability Enhancer or Labor Market Barrier?
by Javier Baquero
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the imposition of social isolation measures, including the closure of universities, shifting higher learning to an emergency online regime. Will the recent generation of university graduates be stigmatized by this fact as they enter the labor market? This article reviews the issues that may determine the future of this cohort, based on an analysis of the situation in institutions of higher education.
COVID-19 brought with it a worldwide emergency. Social distancing measures led to changes in the entire population’s way of life; among these changes was the displacement of education from a face-to-face format to an online one. Although the responses to the pandemic varied around the world, practically all countries temporarily closed their universities for a large part of the university term in 2020. Generic regimes were implemented without previous planning and objectives during the initial period of the pandemic, and as such may be interpreted as emergency measures.
The situation accelerated technological migration in education systems, but the emergency meant that this process was not carried out in the best possible way.
To properly carry out virtual education requires taking into account and coherently coordinating a number of different considerations. For example, depending on the pedagogical plan to be implemented, there may be different lecturer-student ratios, a different proportion of online classes may be implemented, and some sessions may be synchronous while others may be conducted asynchronously.
In this sense, it is necessary to differentiate between virtual education and the online regime employed during the pandemic. Virtual education, first of all, requires prior preparation—classes designed to be carried out face-to-face cannot be converted to virtual courses without accounting for their different needs. One very practical need is an initial investment to provide lecturers with proper equipment, which is indispensable for a virtual format.
During the pandemic, especially during the first weeks of university closures, none of these factors were taken into account, and the quality of teaching depended on the ability of lecturers to adapt and improvise while teaching classes and carrying out assessments. Lecturers had to change their classes without notice. They also had to adapt their teaching to platforms for which, in many cases, they did not have sufficient training. Added to this was the uncertainty about the duration of the situation, something that varies depending on the country you look at.
This led to negative student evaluations of the experience compared to the face-to-face regime, as reported in various studies.1 There may be several reasons for this: First, students confined by lockdowns lost contact with peers and campus life, so their motivation to learn diminished without the incentives inherent in university attendance. Moreover, as noted above, lecturers were forced to improvise on the spot without having a strong background in distance learning, inevitably leading to less structured instruction.2 It is important to keep in mind that reduced motivation among students had an effect on lecturers, as well, which may have led to a lack of motivation among instructors and an increase in stress and anxiety, as teleworking reports indicate more generally.3
In this context of change, the debate on the efficiency of higher education as a key driver of students’ employability is gaining momentum. For decades, the expansion of higher education in developed countries reduced the value of the university degree, above all, in the labor market. The working conditions linked to a university degree have been devalued, making the completion of higher education necessary but not sufficient to secure employment.4
The forced introduction of online teaching opens up a new avenue in the debate. At this turning point, the move to online learning may represent an advantage for these university graduates, who will be better prepared for the labor market of the future, in terms of online work.5 However, it could represent a detriment to this pilot generation, who may see their training as incomplete due to the lack of resources at universities to deal with this change. This scenario of uncertainty raises a key question for the future of labor market studies:
Will the university graduates who experienced online learning during the pandemic enjoy advantages in terms of employability, or, conversely, will they be disfavored in the labor market?
This question cannot yet be answered with confidence, but there are a number of factors that provide clues about the dynamics that may shape the future of this generation and, consequently, those to come. The pandemic has meant that university students have not developed their interpersonal skills and social networks within the university and the labor market to the same degree as under normal circumstances. Socio-economic research has an important role to play in this regard, as researchers must envision whether this historical event will be a catalyst for change in the future of work and human capital, or simply an impasse that will derail the future of a generation.
Different factors marking employability
Lack of internships and interpersonal communication
As mentioned above, a university degree has lost some of its value in the labor market. Employability has evolved as a concept, coming to be defined based on a set of generic and specific skills that are developed, in many cases, through dynamics far removed from the acquisition of knowledge through study.
In the literature, various classifications can be found for these competencies.6 In addition to conceptual differences, different authors group the skills needed for better employability according to different criteria.7 The most generalist classification, put forward by Becker,8 distinguishes between general and firm-specific competencies. This classification was extended by Nordhaug,9 differentiating between firm-specific, task-specific, and economic sector-specific competencies. As research progressed, the classifications became more complex, giving way to much more specific and heterogeneous definitions. For example, a recent study proposed six different skill groups: core competencies, adaptability, teamwork and interpersonal skills, computer literacy, employability competencies, and technical and domain-specific competencies.10
On the assumption that teamwork and interpersonal skills are valuable qualities in the labor market, the situation of social distancing has intrinsically prevented students from developing themselves fully. Firstly, they have lost out on interactions in class and on campus. Participating in university activities and being able to take part in face-to-face discussions with peers can equip students with interpersonal competencies and skills in interpreting teamwork dynamics. Involvement with the university is also linked to performance in their education, as there is greater engagement and motivation to complete their studies. Thus, by not being able to attend educational centers in person, university students have lost access to a not insignificant aspect of their training.
In addition to campus attendance, many students have missed the opportunity to combine their training with internships or employment contracts.11 These first work experiences can be advantageous in terms of employability competencies and valuation in the labor market.12 Those who were not so unlucky were able to complete these internships in an online format, enjoying the opportunity to gain experience in the labor market. Still, skills training may have suffered from lack of interaction with peers and the inability to soak up the work environment.13
Beyond the possible training loss, not being able to carry out these activities to the fullest has made it impossible to create social networks that can serve as a springboard into the labor market, especially in the period of insertion after graduation. This handicap may accentuate socio-economic differences, since the social capital established by parents will become more important in the job placement period, thus undermining the processes of social mobility.14 The contacts of parents who are better placed in the labor market are key factors, providing resources such as better information and reference support in the selection process.
In contrast, some authors argue that, although they may have lost out in some respects, the educational gains in terms of new technologies, related to technical and domain specific competencies, and adaptability may boost the future employability of this university graduating class.15 Social distancing measures have led to an accelerated adoption of digital tools for study, work, and leisure, so that society in general, and students in particular, have discovered software such as Google Classroom, Zoom, Discord, and so on, which can give them advantages when it comes to being able to work from home. At the same time, being forced to change their routines, to adjust to autonomous learning, and to accommodate other assessment methods, may have increased this cohort’s capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.
Possible changes in the labor market
Based on the above, the employability of these students will depend on the skills required in the labor market in the near future.16 Authors arguing the university students that lived COVID-19 situation are better prepared, suggest that there has been a paradigm shift in the labor market and identify the pandemic period as a catalyst for this change. It seems clear that this generation is better prepared for a teleworking scenario, but the continuation of this situation after COVID-19 is uncertain. Since the relaxation of pandemic measures, most companies have asked their employees to return back to the office, bearing in mind that few occupations can be carried out on a non-face-to-face basis.
So far, the evidence suggests that the shift toward teleworking is likely to be less aggressive than expected in 2020, so the argument that students are better prepared for new ways of working loses some of its weight. That said, the extent of this factor of change will need to be assessed once the pandemic uncertainty is over, as, at present, with the existence of infection quarantines, many companies will continue to prefer teleworking or mixed models to avoid losses due to an outbreak within the workforce. Even so, the emergence of new occupations, related to artificial intelligence and data mining and analysis, and the advance of the digital world within the workplace will mean that the IT tools acquired during the pandemic may be useful and valued in one way or another.
Another issue that conditions all of the above is the increased inequality that the pandemic has caused among university students.17 Firstly, there are differences between urban and rural areas in terms of access to online education. The quality of internet connections in rural areas is generally poorer and therefore the ability to attend classes during confinement periods has been very limited. Socio-economic status also plays an important role in this respect. Online learning requires the use of devices to follow courses, as well as it can entail the introduction of new tasks such as video editing or the handling of graphic documents with a certain resolution.
Beyond the purely material aspect, the family environment and the space available at home must be taken into account. The fact of having one’s own space to study, free of noise and distractions and with the requirements mentioned above, is a significant consideration; so too is the family’s economic capacity, which can affect the student psychologically, leading to periods of demotivation and anxiety. These situations were aggravated during the pandemic, putting many households in extreme situations. This, in turn, has repercussions on academic performance, which may lead to delays in graduation or even to students dropping out of their programs due to the additional fees associated with higher education.
Labor market situation and macroeconomics
Finally, the economic situation in terms of employment can also undermine the development of university graduates, especially as they enter the labor market. Entering the labor market in an unfavorable situation may delay the time it takes to find a job, as the level of unemployment is higher than usual and competition for vacancies will be greater. In contrast to this theoretical premise, dynamics of labor supply empowerment have been observed during the recovery from this exceptional crisis, as in the case of the United States. Still, empirical research has predicted that this situation may lead to wage losses in the first years of work among young people entering the labor market.18
This presumed problem may be temporary and improve as the economy recovers, or it could become entrenched and cause these young people to carry this disadvantage for much of their careers. Much depends on how the economic outlook evolves and how responsive states stimulate their economies. There are likely to be significant regional differences on the issue, and the evolution of inflation and rising production costs will also be determinant, since the challenge of avoiding a possible stagflation scenario—which could aggravate all of the above—is on the horizon.
The pandemic has had many social consequences in addition to health-related ones. After the most pressing moments of crisis, a scenario of socio-economic recovery is emerging that looks to be leading us to a new normal. Many questions remain about the society that awaits us after this turning point, including who the losers of this exceptional crisis have been. Among the main stakeholders are university students who had to complete their instruction in an emergency scenario. The professional development of these graduates will depend on the direction of the labor market and the economy in the short-term.
The shift toward a non-face-to-face working regime may give them an advantage over other graduating classes, as they will be used to working autonomously in an online format since their university education. However, these new dynamics may be reversible and recruiters may see these individuals as a less educated generation. This, coupled with an unconsolidated economic recovery, may cause significant delays in their careers.
The opening of the socio-economic gap that the pandemic has created, leading the most disadvantaged to a situation of educational deprivation, deserves special attention. Institutions must be aware of this and should draw from the funds earmarked for recovery from the pandemic crisis to create educational reintegration programs for those who have been forced to drop out of university. Universities should also be provided with the tools to deal with this type of situation, both through the purchase of equipment that allows for the possibility of including mixed attendance regimes and by reinforcing the staff and offering them effective training, given that teaching in this exceptional context has been accomplished largely by overloading professors with work and placing the burden of navigating remote teaching onto their shoulders.
Finally, this context opens new lines of research for socio-economics both in terms of evaluating the pandemic and interpreting the new social dynamics underlying it.
The widening of inequalities should be a central theme in the academic debate, given that it is necessary to quantify the evolution of differences between social groups within the cohort of university students and graduates.
On the other hand, the academy must delve into the possible emergence of new inequalities linked to the application of teleworking and a possible asymmetric economic recovery.
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- García-Aracil, A., & Van der Velden, R. (2008). Competencies for young European higher education graduates: labor market mismatches and their payoffs. Higher Education 55(2), 219-239.
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