The World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics (WFCP) has released its first ever “Global Statement” calling on all vocational, professional and technical education and training institutions around the world to coordinate education, training and skills strategies that speed up economic and social recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement – a major and extensively researched report – highlights the importance of professional, technical and vocational training in reshaping economies and ensuring that a post-pandemic global landscape has the requisite skills, knowledge and competencies to rebuild the global economy increasing its resilience for the future. (Download the full Statement in PDF here.)
“The WFCP statement has strong resonance for Australian vocational education and training (VET). It shows that Australia is not alone in the negative impact of COVID-19 on training, and the importance of re-engagement and return to training, especially for many disadvantaged learners who were unable or unwilling to shift their studies to online and remote learning,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA).
Selections from the Global Statement follow.
Impact of COVID-19 on Learning
Social distancing requirements disrupted the traditional face-to-face provision of education and training. A global survey of training providers carried out by the ILO, UNESCO and World Bank across 126 countries identified extensive disruption to teaching and learning, including:
- A complete closure of training centres in 114 of the 126 countries surveyed
- Significant disruption in assessments and examinations, with the assessment of practical learning outcomes being judged particularly difficult to assess
- Particular difficulties for learners in acquiring hands-on experience due to the closure of businesses who would otherwise provide opportunities for work-based learning
- Concerns around the challenges of engaging learners using remote methods, with an increased risk of learners dropping out of courses
- Significant challenges for teachers, including an increased workload associated with pivoting to remote learning, and in some cases
To support continuation of learning, many providers and education systems moved quickly to pivot to technology-enabled distance learning. While the extent of closures varied across geographies, many systems are projecting significant learning loss.
Lack of reliable infrastructure led to differences in the extent to which learners were able to access remote learning. Within both high-income and low-income countries, disparities in access to the internet (or mobile data) and to devices led to inequalities in learner’s access, in spite of efforts by governments, private sector actors such as telecoms companies, and providers themselves to support learners to overcome shortfalls in infrastructure.
While many innovative approaches to digital learning were developed over the course of the pandemic, it is more difficult to provide quality distance learning alternatives for practical elements of VET courses. Experts have raised concerns about what is lost through VET that is delivered in the absence of “work context or the support of experienced workers and VET professionals”. Responding to COVID-19 has accelerated an existing wide-spread trend of digitisation of VET systems that was already taking place in further education systems.
Potential Solutions for VET Response, Recovery and Reimagination
While very little VET provision can be solely delivered online, there are some good examples of how provision can be transformed to make the best of digital and in-person learning. It is important to distinguish however between the emergency deployment of education delivered using digital technology that we have seen during the pandemic, and the future opportunity to create VET systems making optimal use of Edtech (Commonwealth of Learning, 2020). A review of the use of digital technology during the pandemic by Jisc, the UK agency for digital technology in further education, concludes: “the use of technology was often simplistic and not always as engaging, exciting or collaborative as it could be. It sufficed as a stopgap but we need a more ambitious model for the future”.
There are significant opportunities to improve learner outcomes and experience through enhanced use of digital technology in VET systems:
- Continued use of remote or blended learning to make it easier for those already in work (or with caring responsibilities) to access learning opportunities.
- Enhancing student engagement with learning through gamification of learning, changes to learning design, and developing high-quality digital learning content.
- Making use of virtual reality (VR) and simulation to allow learners to practice tasks without having to be in a workshop or real-world environment, allowing greater opportunities to practice hands-on elements of training using industry-standard materials and equipment that may otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
- Using blended or flipped learning methods (which involve learners reviewing material in advance of a session, then discussing the topic in person during a session) to support more effective use of classroom time.
- Using data from digital solutions to give early warning of student disengagement, provide insights into learner performance, and enable greater personalisation of learning
In countries that had been able to switch to online learning during the pandemic, there was significant praise for the work teachers had put in to adapt courses, but also a recognition that the teaching and learning workforce more broadly need support to make the best use of digital technology in future.
Also affecting teachers directly is the quality of digital learning resources. While huge amounts of learning resources and digital content are available to support learning, including large amounts of open-source material, the quality of resources (in terms of both content and design/interactivity) is highly variable. There are also challenges around the discoverability of high-quality resources.
Digital Infrastructure, Inequality and Expanding VET
The pandemic exposed the lack of digital infrastructure in almost every country in the world, whether for the majority of the population, for particular groups of people without access for financial or geographical reasons, or due to a lack of sufficient devices.
Digital learning requires access to devices, either for individuals, or through provision in public and community buildings like libraries and community centres. One workshop participant from Australia noted that their adult learners relied heavily on libraries and community centres for internet access, and so it was incredibly difficult to support learners when these lifelines were shut during the pandemic. For many higher income countries, ensuring their learners had access to devices was also a challenge, particularly in larger families or amongst those on lower incomes. Future extension of digital learning needs to take into account the ability of learners to access the internet on a suitable device from home, and have somewhere appropriate to study.
Women, ethnic minorities, and older people have all been hit hard by the pandemic. Specific and targeted support for these groups already exists at many providers, but funding, particularly in the long term, can be scarce. Providers should ensure the design of such provision (including modes of delivery, outreach, and content) is inclusive and caters for new groups of learners entering the training system for the first time.
Programs for those returning to the workplace, whether women with caring responsibilities or older workers more generally, may require learning to be delivered in bite-size chunks, with learners building up qualifications over time. Ensuring that these kinds of programs continue to exist and are expanded after the pandemic will be crucial to ensuring training is accessible to these groups.
There is a need for maintenance support for those needing to re-train: the availability of maintenance support is a key deciding factor for many people looking to change careers or gain the skills they need to move back into the workforce.
Many organisations across the world have experience of providing flexible learning in an informal way, but the greater use of online learning will likely create more opportunities for learners to undertake more formal flexible learning, particularly through modules that are taught fully or mostly online. Flexible formalised learning can provide introductions to topics (often for young people or those unsure what course to take), very specialised learning (for those in work or upskilling in a particular area), or something in-between.
Micro-credentials are one way that many providers, employers, or education systems have decided to accredit short mostly online courses. These credentials, which include ‘digital badges’ and certificates from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are used as a supplement traditional courses, or by established workers looking to learn something new. However, there are concerns about the recognition of these types of credentials, with many employers and recruiters reporting a low level of understanding of the value of these new kinds of accreditation, preferring to assess candidates for jobs based on more standard qualifications. There are concerns that micro-credentials risk driving further growth in the ‘gig economy’, particularly in higher income countries, with their availability meaning employers can demand workers have specific skills evidenced through micro-credentials. Micro-credentials that only involve digital learning have similar challenges to those for wholly digital mainstream learning: lack of engagement with other learners or the teacher/lecturer and lack of ability to include practical learning in person.
One of the advantages of micro-credentials is that they can be more accessible to those with additional challenges, for example due to disability, location of training provider, caring responsibilities, or work. Micro-learning can provide a way of learning and building up new skills more slowly (or more quickly) than traditional learning and at an appropriate pace for the learner. Despite the challenges, micro-credentials are still relatively new and could be a way of expanding VET provision to those who might not be able to access it.