What works for adult online learning: An evaluation of the CareerTech Challenge


A new report from Learning and Work Institute and Nesta highlights what we’ve learned about supporting adults who are most vulnerable to workforce change, to upskill and retrain online.

To state that the labour market is in a state of flux would be an understatement. On top of an already challenging employment landscape, over the past 18 months, the global COVID-19 pandemic has caused what the OECD describes as “a tsunami on top of broader economic, social and demographic shifts already reshaping local labour markets.

Although the labour market is starting to show signs of recovery and overall labour demand is rising, It’s not all good news. As highlighted by our Chief Exec Stephen Evans in June 2021, “To fix the mismatch between some employers finding it difficult to recruit despite increased unemployment, we need high quality job search support and better retraining help for those affected by coronavirus-related changes in our economy.” Understanding how best to support workers who are most at risk from changes to the labour market, to upskill and retrain is one of the key challenges of our time.

A key aim of the CareerTech Challenge was to build the evidence base on ‘what works’ to support adults to engage in online learning and build skills for future labour markets. Innovators were required, with support, to design and deliver an evaluation of their intervention. We were commissioned by Nesta to act as the evaluation partner for the programme, supporting 11 innovators to design and deliver a process and outcome evaluation of their intervention. Evidence presented in each innovator report is drawn together to identify the key themes. This report also follows our recently published work on the complexities of assessing labour market data based on the experience of the remaining 20 CareerTech Challenge innovators.

When Nesta launched the CareerTech Challenge in October  2019 in partnership with the Department for Education and Nesta Challenges, a global pandemic and its effect on the labour market weren’t something any of us had considered. Our main aim with the programme was to support the development of innovative tech solutions to help people to develop career adaptability skills that would enable them to find rewarding future careers. The programme was designed to support adults who were most at risk of rapid labour market change such as those in precarious work and with low levels of education.

The CareerTech Challenge was inspired by a rapid evidence assessment led by Nesta and CFE Research that explored what motivates adults to learn.  This research reinforced the importance of the link between individuals’ motivation to learn and their psychological readiness when considering positive career outcomes and demonstrated that motivations to learn can be intrinsic and extrinsic.

Online learning courses typically have a completion rate of around 12% so through the programme, it was not simply a case of “if you build it they will come” but needed to be led by a desire to create innovative online learning platforms that would engage and sustain learners.  From a wider cohort of 31 innovators, the CareerTech Challenge awarded funding to 11 innovators to design and deliver online learning solutions for people who are most vulnerable to workforce changes. Innovators comprised a mix of tech start- ups and established adult learning providers.

As restrictions continue to ease and the country shifts back to being open for business, it’s important that lessons from programmes like this are taken on board by innovators and policy makers alike. This should ensure that workers are able to pivot and adapt to enable them to have a stable and fulfilling future career. What will you do to make sure that happens?

Alongside the main report, we have also published the findings from 3 of the innovators in more detail which you can find below. You can also read each of the innovators’ reflections on their work by exploring the links on the main CareerTech Challenge page.

Case studies from the CareerTech Challenge