Meaningful and sustainable employment is key to creating and maintaining financial stability , high well-being , and social connectivity . Unemployment, underemployment, and low wages relative to cost of living are frequent causes of homelessness . At the same time, vulnerable individuals face obstacles far more substantial than the general public at finding and maintaining meaningful employment and education. Moreover, not all employment is created equal: an estimated 25% of urban homeless are currently working or have worked in the recent past.Footnote 2 ICT careers have the potential to be more remunerative than the low-income jobs that are associated with the working homeless.
Underprivileged students, those who are not already highly resourced and well-educated, rarely succeed in MOOCs and often fail to complete courses. While MOOCs have the potential to provide valuable skills and knowledge, they require a consistent effort, time investment, and access to computing resources. Further, the assignments can be theoretical and divorced from authentic practices Recent research in online courses has shown that real world tasks increase retention and resilience even if no monetary incentive is involved, and that the quality of work was comparable to expert online freelancers . Connecting learners with job training and a mechanism for demonstrable skills is critical to ensure they have the tools they need for long-term stability and success.
2.1 Barriers to Meaningful Employment
There are a number of pathways an individual may follow to employment. A standard pathway to employment generally starts with the credentialing process . An individual is credentialed externally (i.e., by completing a school degree or certificate) or in-house (i.e., on the job learning), and in some cases like technical training schools, that process is combined. While in some number of career paths a combination of experience and education are proxied for ability, in the knowledge sector a degree of certificate is generally a minimum requirement. These credentials vouch that an individual can be expected to have a certain set of skills (content-oriented and social skills) . The individual applies these skills, sometimes paired with others, in order to maintain continuous employment. In the optimal case this combination is sufficient for maintaining employment and financial security such that monthly salary is higher than monthly expenses. This is in fact the case of many knowledge sector careers. Underemployment occurs in the cases of over qualification (credential higher than requirement for position) and involuntary part-time work when full-time is desired (credential match but not employer/employee capacities). Underemployment can generally be understood as a contributing factor to those experiencing homelessness while currently in active the labor market [14, 15].
People experiencing homelessness often struggle with (untreated) mental illnesses, substance abuse, and other life traumas that contribute to their circumstances [14, 15]. Any individual factor is a known contributor to joblessness. Moreover, poor health outcomes and joblessness are reinforcing: when one occurs, the other supports its continuation . Vulnerable constituents (e.g.: experiencing homelessness, former convicts, those with chronic health problems or disabilities) already combat various employment barriers . In a competitive job market these barriers can become almost insurmountable, thus making it difficult to exit homelessness [4, 12]. Combining skill mismatch and/or low educational attainment with any of these factors is also a contributing factor to homelessness. In addition, individuals have a generally chaotic schedule while interacting with emergency or social services [12, 14], leaving many people experiencing homelessness without the ability to invest in long-term high-skill training opportunities. Such training is often time-intensive and requires a regular time commitment. The training opportunities which fit in well with a frequently-changing schedule are generally for service sector or labor-intensive jobs which tend to pay less than living wages.
The requirements to lowering barriers and increasing participation in knowledge sector work can be understood as the following:
The materials closely match in-demand skills of (local) industry such that a pathway to sustainable employment exists.
The learning materials are organized in a way that can flexibly meet individuals’ scheduling requirements.
The materials are broadly accessible in terms of time commitments, resources required for completion, and previous educational attainment.
Some sort of recognized credential is granted with successful completion.
We specifically focus on creating a solution addressing these points. The learning platform hosts content on the most up to date technological skills in demand, and is extendible to match niche market demands. Other than basic personal login data for credentialing purposes, Mooqita is open to any interested learner. The content is written in such a way that the minimum requirement is basic language and computer literacy. Finally, Mooqita links with internationally recognized services like UpWork and LinkedIn to provide learners with a digital portfolio. The platform aspects which fulfill the requirements are discussed in the coming sections.
2.2 Mooqita: A Tool to Support Online Learning on a Job
We lay out a four-phase plan to support participants in overcoming the aforementioned barriers to sustainable employment. The process helps participants gain self-efficacy, learn in-demand skill sets, engage with groups, and make initial steps in building a demonstrable work portfolio. Details about the Mooqita system can be found here .
The participants progress is documented online that allows tracking of learning success and display work samples . Based on participant’s successes, Mooqita compiles a digital resume for participants highlighting and validating their abilities and achievements. This resume will ultimately be helpful in gaining job opportunities. The system also provides a peer review system to improve learning outcomes and assess the quality of individual assignments. An essential benefit of peer reviews is that students learn by providing feedback to peers . Learners practicing revision skills strengthen their ability to identify and solve problems . Feedback and practice are key elements in developing new skills  and gaining insight to better understand how one’s work is perceived by others . This additional practice helps learners build their resume as the solutions and reviews are persisted and evaluated.
The first phase of the course focuses on igniting participants’ interest in the relevant topics while laying the foundation for learning computer science skills. Activities will provide opportunities for participants to establish self-efficacy and mastery orientation. Broadly concentrating on computational thinking skills, learners also gain the ability to analyze and problem solve in the future. In the second phase, we introduce technical skills such as the Python programming language. In the third phase, participants work on simulated real-world tasks from UpWork, such as implementing a provided design in HTML. Thus they will practice the gained skills within an online freelancing platform and with structuring a work schedule appropriate to such a platform, while continuing to learn. During these simulations, participants will be paid for their work. The specifics of the payment schemes are structured to match as closely as possible other career training or internship programs offered by our partners, to avoid providing an unfair incentive to participate.
In the last phase, participants will work independently on UpWork, receiving support from the project in finding and applying for the jobs. They can thus gain validated credentials from UpWork, improving their chances of getting future freelance jobs, and start building a resume that will be valuable in traditional job markets. Participants will also be encouraged to import their credentials to professional social networks as digital resumes; for example, LinkedIn and UpWork profiles can be linked directly.
The model is iterative, integrating feedback from our partners and learning community into necessary modifications for learning pathways. The Mooqita platform provides participants with an online environment that is able to persist and publish learning outcomes, achievements, and work experience. Every homework assignment is available in the system and participants can decide individually which assignment will be shown to employers. Together with the assignments and solutions, the system also stores peer reviews. The review process can be seen in Fig. 1.
In the current job market certain social skills are of grave importance. A core component of Mooqita is online team work. This helps participants to develop and demonstrate required social skills e.g., reliability, cooperation, or mentoring abilities. In contrast to other peer review systems Mooqita also allows to assess the quality of reviews. The system asks participants to provide feedback and ratings of reviews they received. As participants will write peer reviews for each other and rate the reviews they receive the system can aggregate indicators for these social skills. Additionally, participants perform group tasks in teams. For these group tasks the system provides an interface to collect feedback on the group experience of each participant.
2.3 Simulating Work
In the second phase, we select learning material from existing, validated online content and courseware, for example, Khan Academy for the basics, and edX and Coursera when participants are ready for more advanced training. This will allow participants to establish recognizable credentials, and will provide a known benchmark for learning outcomes. While learning relevant skills is important we want to provide a more holistic experience to participants. For that reason, we simulate the situation of online work environments. In the third phase, participants will start to work on real-world tasks on UpWork, to get practice with online freelancing, and with structuring a work schedule appropriate to such a platform.
Participants are using the Mooqita platform to post and work on tasks as described above. In the group setting participants will still provide reviews individually but submit solutions as a team. After the group assignment participants will reflect on their experience in the group assignment. They are asked to fill out a questionnaire on the platform.
Our team will identify typical freelance tasks that correspond to the course material. The team will select these tasks from online labor markets such as UpWork. Such tasks tend to be underspecified and require more detailed explanations to be useful as learning material. The onsite team will therefore provide additional information on how to solve tasks in this phase. Participants will work individually on their tasks and submit solutions to the Mooqita platform. They also provide reviews for their peers and rate the reviews they received (Fig. 2).
2.4 Linking Learning to Careers
In the last phase, participants will work on their own on UpWork, receiving support from the project in finding and applying for the jobs. They can utilize the resume they created over the course to find jobs on UpWork. They can thus gain additional experience with actual work on online labor markets, improving their chances of getting future freelance jobs, and also start building a resume that will be valuable in more traditional job markets. Participants will also be encouraged to port their credentials to other professional social networks; for example, LinkedIn profiles can link directly to UpWork. While participants still continue building their skill set taking online courses using the Mooqita platform to persist their achievements. They also have an income through online freelance work. Participants now have the chance to transition between education and work as required.