Thoughts: Future proofing technical, professional education and skills training with the use of digital technology and AI
Before the start of this decade, if you had asked most leaders in further and higher education providers how long it would take to operationally move the entirety of their institution’s learning provision online, the answer would invariably range from several years to, in all likelihood, more than ten. Yet in March 2020 schools, colleges, universities and all other training providers moved ‘metaphorical mountains’ in a matter of just a few weeks and days. The rapidity of this response demonstrated how, when faced with an urgent need, staff delivering education and training can work together, effectively, to adopt new technologies, modes of practice, resources and ways of working, and at pace.
Previously, where leaders and governors would ask “is this possible?” when faced with a decision about investment in digital, they now know, “yes, it most certainly is”. There is no doubt that the whole educational community experienced what has been described as a ‘gravity assist’ (Barber, 2021) in which digital and online learning and teaching and assessment practices were propelled forward.
Indeed, 2020 accelerated what was a slow move towards online and digital methods to support further and higher education delivery of technical, professional and vocational programmes including apprenticeship provision. What followed the initial emergency pivot to online teaching and learning was a shift to better thought out and more pedagogically effective use of technology. Back then, those emergency measures to deliver online education were considered ‘good enough’ but we are now concerned with what we can learn from the emergent context and how we might build on earlier developments and adaptations and shape the future. As schools, colleges and universities negotiate the next shift in digital and AI, they do so against a backdrop of multiple pressures often described as the “VUCA world”; volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous. The Covid-19 crisis is just one example of the challenges the skills sector will face.
UVAC, the higher education representative body that champions higher technical education and skills including higher and degree apprenticeships, has carried out recent research that concludes digitally enhanced learning and teaching going forward has become a much more nuanced offer than the ‘online learning’ of the pandemic or the post-pandemic return to talking heads in large lecture halls.
A seamless mix of face-to-face components, digital elements, the physical and the virtual… the ideal education merges the best of what has been learned about these different environments. Digitally enhanced learning and teaching (DELT) – another new concept and acronym – must now integrate digital tools seamlessly into the learning journey to improve and augment it and, as a result, achieve better inclusion, engagement, accessibility, attainment and outcomes.
From today’s standpoint, what is needed is a maintained focus on rethinking and redesigning practice. Staff and learners/apprentices have realised the benefits digital can offer, but the next step is understanding how to integrate technology (whether that is AI, AR, VR or not fully digital but blended or initiating a ‘digital first’ principle) in a pedagogically informed way. For example, what are the creative ways to use digital tools to support learners/apprentices with collaborative group work synchronously or asynchronously? It’s not just about having the digital skills and confidence; it’s about redesigning learning and assessment to realise the affordances digital tools can offer and ensure students are prepared for an ever-increasing digital workplace.
One of the major ongoing aspects for consideration is how to directly influence practitioner competencies and ongoing professional development in digital pedagogy. How are we building back better in relation to digital pedagogy and vocational education and training. In terms of individual practitioner development needs, four key areas can be identified.
1. The first is about understanding and using the available technology effectively.
2. The second is developing capability in digital and blended learning pedagogy, both to support the design and delivery of individual sessions and components and to aid design at programme level.
3. The third is fluency across methods that make use of digital means to support learning in and through work, including through reflection on practice, undertaking projects, systematic enquiry and reviewing learning (Garnett, 2020); this is something that will typically involve employers and relates to the more general need to improve engagement with the world of work as a primary source of learning.
4. Finally, institutional systems, policies and management need to support emerging practices. Regulations, guidance and frameworks for quality, ethics and accessibility need to be updated to reflect digital teaching and learning; staffing structures may need to change to accommodate more collaboration both across academic staff and between subject-specialists, tutors, work-based mentors and coaches, learning technologists and information specialists.
Dr Mandy Crawford-Lee
Chief Executive | UVAC