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26 May 2020 | Community

COVID-19 as a digital learning accelerant

The past few months have been an overwhelming time of community support and togetherness despite our physical distance from each other.

Plans, schedules and routines were uprooted in the blink of an eye, and it was a sustained effort to reconfigure and adjust to our new realities as the weeks went on.

The change was easier for some than it was for others. In our eyes, COVID-19 illuminated the already glaring gaps that exist in our society between those that are socioeconomically well-off, and those that are not fortunate enough to have a disposable income and support network at the ready during a crisis.

One of the biggest gaps that has been illuminated at this time is in education. For the hundreds of young people participating in our youth and gateway programmes, like P-TECH and Blue/Red Shirts in Schools, hitting pause on the programmes just wasn’t an option.

Instead, we were able to help these students continue to thrive in their lessons and keep earning their credits. In this time, we’ve learned how leaning fully into digital-first behaviours can benefit our business and the impact we have on others.

P-TECH

We’re proud to partner with IBM to roll out the first cohort of students in New Zealand as part of the global P-TECH programme. The initiative sees industry, high schools and tertiary education partners working together to create a talent pipeline with the digital skills the industry needs.

Pre-COVID-19, the programme was ticking along, with mentors from The Warehouse Group and IBM meeting with the student mentees at Manurewa High School and Aorere College in Auckland. As schools closed and stay at home orders came into play, the programme needed to shift rapidly.

More than just figuring out how to continue the programme, it was discovered that several students lacked access to a device to continue their coursework.To help facilitate internet connectivity for households who needed it, The Warehouse was able to provide new laptops to schools for students who were in need.

The programme shifted to a weekly, hour-long digital session, enabling the students to continue learning.This also allowed for time to simply catch up and continue building the mentor/mentee relationship.

The teachers and P-TECH facilitators redesigned the curriculum to suit the new digital route and developed a six-week outline of work based around NCEA standard on Human Computer Interactions. The course sees the students learning the basics of databases and making websites easy to navigate and as easy to use for customers as possible.

“There’s no other programme in New Zealand that offers a way for commerce to integrate with education the way P-TECH does,” says Des Flynn, Head of Stakeholder Engagement at The Warehouse Group. “This programme is an excellent example of blending a commercial reality with the educational system to provide meaningful and solid career preparation. The fact that we, together with IBM, were able to continue supporting these students and keep them on track with the programme during this time is a testament to the dedication of those in the programme, from the school staff to the students and the mentors.

The progress of the programme hasn’t come without its challenges though, and even with the extra devices to students in need, there are still barriers to overcome when transitioning to digital learning. Many students have responsibilities at home to juggle along with their own learning, like watching siblings while their parents are at work, or caring for other family members.

"Lockdown meant a different approach for P-TECH, focussing more on the bigger education picture and well-being and support. I was so pleased P-TECH mentoring continued," said Monique Simpson, IBM P-TECH New Zealand Industry Liaison. "It was critical for student well-being and helped with motivation and engagement. It was great to see meaningful and open conversations develop between students and mentors as they shared challenges and experiences together."

Gateway Programmes

Our Red Shirts in Schools (RSIS)and Blue Shirts in Schools (BSIS) programmes for The Warehouse and Warehouse Stationery offer year 11 to 13 students around Aotearoa the chance to gain credible work experience in a retail environment.

Since the programme’s inception in 2009, the impact has been incredible, with more than 7,700 secondary school students having gone through the training and 75 The Warehouse stores involved. It has since expanded into all of our physical retail brands.

Given that the objective of the programme is to offer in-store, hands-on training in a retail environment, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns threatened to derail progress.

Together with our partner Service IQ, we re-evaluated the programme to determine what could be completed online.Once the training was moved online in the form of instructional videos and online sessions and in-store training was reduced to five days instead of the usual ten, we were able to get two cohorts of students through the training instead of just one.

If we were to continue at this pace and incorporate more digital learning in the programme, we would be able to double the amount of programme participants. This realignment will also allow us to reach areas not currently being serviced by the programme, allowing more students the option of participating. Thanks to the challenges that COVID-19 presented us, we were able to discover the value that embracing digital learning can bring.

As businesses across industries evaluate their learnings from this time, including ourselves, we should all be asking how we can continue to address the digital divide and embrace new forms of learning.

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