An Interview with Sheila Jagannathan of the World Bank

Nov 5, 2021 by

Sheila Jagannathan

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Who is Sheila Jagannathan of the World Bank and what excites her about education, capability building and reskilling in the 21st century?

Let me begin to answer this question by talking about what excites me working in the learning/ education and skilling for the 21st century.

It is the HUGE opportunity it represents to transform lives of individuals moving away from poverty to embarking on a path to prosperity, changing lives, and actually the destinies of individuals and societies.

Job creation is an immense global challenge. More than 200 million people worldwide are unemployed, many of them young people. Another 2 billion working age adults

a lot of them women

remain outside the workforce. And it is education and skilling that has the potentials of unleashing the learner potential and shaping the path from education to earnings and employability to economic transformation, independence and raised self-esteem and this will have the major impact on our collective futures

Education is at the center of building human capital. The latest World Bank research shows that the productivity of 56 percent of the world’s children will be less than half of what it could be if they enjoyed complete education and full health.

Delivered well, education – along with the human capital it generates – benefits individuals and societies. For individuals, education raises self-esteem and furthers opportunities for employment and earnings. And for a country, it helps strengthen institutions within societies, drives long-term economic growth, reduces poverty, and spurs innovation.

Now let me move on to answer the question WHO AM I?

Most of all, I am a lifelong learner and passionate about working at the intersection of digital learning and issues and technology use and education in emerging countries.

I have had 3 decades of experiences designing and implementing world-class solutions in challenging global environments, resulting in performance and productivity improvements. also provides policy advice and technical assistance to World Bank country-level capacity building programs (both government and training centers of excellence seeking to introduce technologies in their educational systems) in, East Asia, China, the Middle East and North Africa, Africa and South Asia.

My specialties include skilling and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 60-year curricula, workforce education, designing corporate universities, talent management, MOOCs, experiential pedagogy, online/hybrid strategies, immersive learning (AR/VR), use of disruptive (AI/MI, IoT, Blockchain, 5G) technologies in education, data analytics, LXPs, LMS and learning ecosystems. regularly writes articles for various peer-reviewed publications and journals.

I am on the advisory board and planning committees of major professional associations of learning such as the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, Global Distance Learning Network, Indian National Skills Development Council, George Mason University, E-learning Africa (Annual International Conference for developing E-learning capacities in Africa), International Conference on E-learning (ICEL),Skills Councils, UNSDG-Learn and UNICEF.

How did I get here?

Well, it’s a bit of a long journey over three and half decades. But let me give you the elevator pitch, three-minute version.

I came to the United States in the early 80s, to Boston University. This was at a time when Route 128 was acquiring new meaning. Tech firms were springing up, and it started to become a Mecca for education and creativity.

The real pivot came when I had the privilege of joining Seymour Papert’s famous lectures on thinking about learning and learning about thinking. This was a heady time, where Papert, who founded the AI lab at MIT, was at the center of three revolutions: exploring new ideas for education, recognizing the significance of the stirrings on AI, and deploying computational techniques in education.

Often, people get very surprised when I tell them that I studied AI in the 80s. People think it just started in 2017 or something like that. But really, after my summer internship with Papert, I was inspired to change my major to work on EdTech in education, with a focus on intelligent tutoring, which was really using AI-based computational techniques to mimic the student mind. And this is the beginnings of what we’re calling today as adaptive learning.

For me, these experiences, which started the journey, gave me a rich foundation and shaped my career of over 35 years, where I’ve been in private sector in DC working through many consulting firms, and then joined the World Bank about 20 years ago to bring in digital and blended learning.

And so that has evolved. I would also say that I rode the evolution of learning and development, which has been blindingly fast going from computer based learning to eLearning and then talent management, continuous learning, learning embedded in the flow of work. And now back to intelligent learning with AI. So, as each technology innovation unfurled itself, I was able to reinvent myself and continue on in this journey, I hope contributing to solving some of the global challenges through education and capacity building.

  1. NNow, how do you define “ upskilling”?

While the terms upkilling and reskilling are often used interchangeablly, I think there is a difference.

Upskilling often involves continous, life-long learning to help keep a person/worker up-to-date in his/her own practice so they can improve performance and serve better in their current role . It entails learning about the latest thinking and new tools in the practice to enable them to perform better and aspire towards career growth and promotions etc. For example, a water resoruces planner has to learn how to apply new distruptive technologies and climate in redesigning the water infrastrcuture.

Reskilling, on the other hand, involves learning entirely new competencies and capablities in order to transition to a completely new job/role. Involves a person learning a set of new competencies for a new and different job, not related to their current position. Often involves a career change. For example, an auto workers in an assebly line learing new competencies to be relevant for electric car assembly.

Both upskilling and reskilling are vital to being successful in the 21st centry to address future of work accelerators.

Skills Are the New Currency in the Labor Market

My book address the skilling being the new currency of the labor market and the need to address the massive skilling and upskilling requires via continous capacity building interventions that is not possible without using educational technologies and innovative pedagogies to achieve scale, impact and equity.

Technological changes propelled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution are rendering many existing competencies and skills redundant. However, they are also opening up sustainable career opportunities to persons who have cultivated the right skills, expertise and mindsets that adapt to these ongoing changes. Intelligent digital automation is disrupting safe jobs and careers, but can be leveraged by persons with flexible mindsets invested in life-led learning.

Realistically, the only way to navigate the these challenges is to reskill continuously to access employment and a path to economic independence. These new skills attach value to life skills, such as teamwork, creativity and innovation, as essential to survive in a human+machine world.

  1. Educational Technologies are certainly important- but how on earth does the average professional keep up with the ever changing landscape of these technologies? If I wanted to get “ upskilled “ where would I go, and what would I encounter?

Edtech is both an art and science so some basic foundational structured learning via degrees, specializations and short courses and micro masters would be beneficial.

Followed by continuously learning via short nuggets and short bursts of micro learning through a menu of

  • Short ted like talks (
  • Podcasts (
  • Gamification
  • Immersive learning through small sims
  • Join MOOCs (,
  • Join discussion fora and community of practice where they can interact with peers and experts, ask questions, crowd source ideas.
  • Follow thought-leaders via twitter and other social media, blogs, interviews.

The future belongs to the learner who is learning continuously in order to pivot multiple times throughout their careers.

For example, an organization like PWC, have built a digital fitness app that provides each employee with a personalized assessment of their digital acumen, and guides them to the tools and learning resources they need to fill gaps and make improvements including a customized learning paths. Such initiative are also tied to workforce planning and skill development strategies.

60-Year Curriculum Offers New Life-Led Learning in the Digital Economy

Chris Dede, a contributing author to my book, notes that the “60 Year curriculum” (60YC) lays out an alternative roadmap to upskill or reskill oneself continuously to respond to the future of work uncertainties.

The 60YC questions the current paradigm of frontloading education during the first two decades of one’s life, followed by a long work-life assuming stable careers and a third retirement phase.

The thesis is that a typical millennial of today will have to switch several careers because the jobs of today may disappear tomorrow. Some “unlearning” is also required to prepare for new work opportunities that have little in common with previous job roles and responsibilities.

In addition, any organization embarking on digital transformation of learning must Empower Learning Providers – Faculty, Teachers and Designers. My book stress below section.

The Learning Curve—everyone talks about it- but how do we really help professionals learn the new technologies that appear? A good example is the recent pandemic forced people to learn ZOOM- almost over-night ! How can we help professionals learn the new technologies, and how can we help those who are somewhat technologically illiterate?

Teaching online differs greatly from teaching in the classroom and therefore requires a different skill set. Few teachers can be expected to easily transition to online learning without adequate guidance and institutional scaffolding. The entire learning provider community, including faculty, teachers, trainers, instructional designers, subject experts, course administrators, IT teams and help desk staff, must be empowered to support teaching and learning online.

Teaching with technology requires a thoughtful design approach that considers the affordances of various media choices and builds scaffolds for the learners to experience and leverage for optimal outcomes. It is not just about adding a webinar to a course or offering learning materials via an LMS – it is about carefully selecting technology and design approaches to create a new learning experience that adds value to learning and helps achieve what could not be done before by only using in-person teaching (Bates, 2019).

While the general principles of sound pedagogy remain valid in digital and blended learning contexts, there are other issues to consider. A robust teacher and designer upskilling program could offer evidence-based courses, microlearning and consultations to help shift from in-person to online and blended learning.

At a minimum, such a professional development program optimized for learner inclusion and engagement should cover:

• Application of current research on teaching and learning to course design;

• Step-by-step guidance to plan, design and deliver digital and blended learning;

• Selecting and teaching with technology, including strengths and weaknesses of each media;

• Approaches for online teaching (both synchronous and asynchronous), including engaging in e-discussions, structuring group work and collaboration, assessments;

• Digital skills refresher.

Such support should be provided in a variety of formats, including:

• Structured, mandatory training programs (both online and in-person);

• One-to-one consultations to help with course design, technology selection or general support needs;

• Cloud-based, virtual help desk to support the learning community just-in-time;

• Resource hub with curated list of evidence-based resources, articles, how-to-guides, lesson plans, activity ideas and FAQs;

• Knowledge exchange among the learning community within and across institutions, to share, crowdsource, collaborate and spread good teaching practices.

Research highlights the strong link between the quality of education and the quality of teachers, and stresses the importance of teacher (virtual) presence in blended and online environments to reduce dropout rates and humanize and personalize the learning experience. This requires investing in ongoing teacher professional development and empowering them to interact, engage, guide and assess learning.

Such support helps teachers move away from the lecture-style delivery that they are familiar with to being facilitators of learning in a digital age and to help learners become successful to meet the skill demands of the 21st century.

4a.Data Analytics- is something that we have known about since the 1980’s- if not before- why is it taking so long for people to understand the importance of it?

The reason it has taken so long is that until most aspects of learning have a digital footprint it is difficult to operationalize data analysis. In addition, there is the 1984 syndrome of data privacy issues.

Data only becomes an asset when it’s leveraged to inform decisions. Interest is picking up in data-driven learning decisions, and while some organizations are able to quickly leverage investments using business intelligence, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, others may take time to fully embrace

Today as you are well aware, everything in an online environment is tracked (every click, every response). The Analytics that are collected everywhere and gives us a valuable insight into learner behavior and the efficiency of various processes

“Feel-good” statistics, like completion metrics, are not as relevant or useful.

4b. What is the right information to collect to make decisions about learning?

Learning analytics provide tools to track learner interactions and help mine, collect, analyze, and report data about learners while they are learning, to enhance the overall learning experience.

Specifically, to collect data to:

  • Find and help fix performance gaps
  • Patterns that emerge from data can help to understand learners’ preferences, strengths, and weaknesses, predict performance (such as pass, fail, and need support), reduce dropout rates, increase retention, and facilitate overall learner success.
  • In addition, such insights help create personalized experiences that target skill gaps, provide actionable feedback, and even improve efficiencies by uncovering consumption patterns, the impact of various delivery models, and the quality of courses and content.

Important for organizations to start small pilots by:

1: Get senior stakeholder buy-in early to understand benefits.

2: Buy, build or borrow data and analytics skills, and start measuring 3 things

  • Engagement:How are learners progressing through training?
  • Experience: How memorable and excited are learners to participate
  • Effect: has training improved business outcomes and skill adoption
  1. Understand what tools are needed: The key tool in this area is a learning record store (LRS) to collect experience API (xAPI) statements from different learning events and connect to business data. Many of the tools you need to get started are already available in learning management system (LMSs) or Learning experience Systems (LXPs).

Data is the fuel of the 21st century and I see the following trends evolving in the next few years or so

  • Data-informed learning design, where we use data to help improve the learning experience to support centrality of learners, ensure their success and motivate them to come back for more.
  • Data-driven learning experiences, that moves away from one-size fit all training to personalized learning paths or adaptive learning as it is called, including discovery and recommendations of learning.
  • Data-informed decision-making about impact, ROI and so on.

For the above to happen, mechanisms for storing and securing data, verification of credentials and visual reporting needs to be strengthened.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about the field, the book, and the challenges of the future?

What is the Title of my Book and where to find?

My book is titled Technologies for Sustainable Development: How Upskilling, Data Analysis, and Digital Innovations Foster Lifelong Learning, by Routledge and Francis & Taylor, June 2021.

You can find more details. (

What is the book’s key messages on the importance of skilling?

I start the book with a quote by Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be the one who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

And so that’s really the core theme of the book. These are targeted towards US and emerging countries, practitioners, stakeholders who support capacity building, knowledge, learning, and skill development, and can include government officials and civil servants, national skills development councils, private sector and EdTech startups, academia and so on.

And in my career at the Bank, where I’ve had the privilege of heading the Open Learning Campus, I frequently talk to many of the stakeholders, and they’ve expressed time and time again that how do we go from brick and mortar to this digital and blended, and how do we modernize learning by harnessing education technology?

So, this book is really about how to get started, how to navigate the choppy waters of market driven digitization, and how to incorporate unique community and local priorities to build quality learning institutions that incorporate education technology.

And so, I’ve got 26 chapters curated by some of the most influential thinkers and policymakers and practitioners, providing strategic direction and guidance on how to effectively harness the power of technology for learning to solve some of the complex development challenges and help achieve some of the goals for development that we talked about earlier.

Challenges and mitigation

However, scaling up this vision in developing countries and even in some parts of rural United States, has its challenges as only around 60% of the world’s population is online. Although the global pandemic has led to a massive switch to digital learning in all parts of the developing world, it also sheds light on stark inequalities in digital infrastructure access, lack of skills among teachers, lack of data on learning deficits of vulnerable groups, high dropout rates and very limited funding for modernization. Global initiatives such as Reimagine Education (UNICEF n.d.) are bringing together a coalition of private sector partners (such as Microsoft, Ericsson, PwC, SAP and others) to improve access for youth to digital learning and 21st century skills. The chapters throughout the book discuss other mitigation measures.

To sum up, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and other shifts create new demands on labor markets, education and massive reskilling will be crucial to foster inclusive economic growth, eradicate poverty and leapfrog to a future of opportunity for all. Education needs to be viewed as a collective enterprise, which will flourish if individuals and organizations proactively seize the available learning opportunities to invest in their own futures. This book with contributions by eminent academics and practitioners in EdTech, data science, education and capacity building, will help organizations reimagine education models to prepare learners to thrive in the 21st century.

  1. What are some key take aways in this practice for learning leaders to apply in their own contexts.?

Let me start out by saying that I think the first key point is that the technology enhanced learning, or any learning in the 21st century, requires a mindset shift. It’s not about taking a technology and then adding it to an existing approach. It is about thinking through how do we create new experiences using these technologies to create value to the learning, to the learner, and what can we do that we’ve not been able to do before? So, I think a mindset change is going to be very important.

I think as we’re going through this, we need to focus more on workforce readiness and how do we build a culture for learning within the organization that is recognized as well as supported. And I think in all of this, let’s not get complacent because I often find that an essential part of growth for the CLOs or leaders in this organization is today the skills that we’re dealing with are not the skills we know. We already know that the shelf life of skills is going to be less than five years.

So, an essential part of growth is to put ourselves into situations that involve uncertainty, knowing that it may not work, and we if we fail that’s fine. We still learn something fast and move along.

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