COVID-19: how can VET respond?
All over Europe, practitioners and policy-makers have been moving as fast as they can to implement distance learning. Andrew McCoshan reflects on some of the key challenges and opportunities emerging.
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’
The challenges for VET created by COVID-19 are unprecedented. At this time we need some examples to inspire us – both those that might be of immediate use, but also those that help raise our heads to look to the future. The situation is difficult but it also presents opportunities to speed up developments already underway or embrace new ways of teaching and learning.
Equipping teachers and trainers
Teachers and trainers vary in their readiness for the current challenge. Part of the challenge is knowing what’s available: the choice is large and confusing. They also need to be able to share information on which tools work best. Ministries have been working hard to diffuse information about existing tools and to share or open existing platforms and to deliver free access. The Estonian Ministry of Education and Research has announced that it will open up all its digital learning tools for everybody to use.
Teachers and trainers also need opportunities to create content. Many general collaboration tools exist, which are available in several languages, as well as many platforms that facilitate the creation of digital content. The Croatian Agency for VET and Adult Education has set up a portal and invited VET teachers, employers and other stakeholders to develop and share their digital education materials related to vocational subjects.
Teachers and trainers also need ways to continue to communicate. Existing social media and other platforms are already helping schools and companies to stay in touch. But there are also tools that go a step further. For example, REALTO, aims to strengthen the bridge between school and workplace by improving the integration of theoretical and practical learning: e.g. teachers can assign practical activities to collect photos about a certain topic that will be discussed later; and learner-generated content can be used as practical examples to illustrate abstract concepts.
Replacing the physical classroom
Some countries have developed TV and YouTube channels for learners to follow general and VET lessons: teachers and trainers record their lessons on video and broadcast them. Other countries have learning platforms like Moodle that can be used. In Ireland, the country’s online eCollege has been made available free of charge to benefit both people already doing a Further Education & Training course who wish to supplement their learning and those who have recently become unemployed or had their hours reduced and who wish to upskill and reskill in digital competence. eCollege provides online courses including computer programming, data science, and web and graphic design, and involves both tutor support and independent study.
There are also opportunities to develop new forms of learning, not least social and collaborative learning. Young people do this anyway informally using existing social media platforms, which are ideal for further development. Many examples are emerging of group challenges assigned to learners, to foster team cooperation.
- Not every aspect of the curriculum of programmes lends itself to distance learning and in VET this is particularly true of the work-based learning component. Digital solutions tend to focus on theoretical knowledge; in a few cases, demonstrations in ad hoc videos, or step-by-step instructions are used to show the more practical skills linked to a specific VET profession.
- Augmented Reality or Virtual reality offer inspiring solutions, for example VRhoogte has developed a high-quality virtual reality training module for secondary VET students to learn how to work safely in high places, such as high-voltage pylons or wind turbines.
These are very challenging times for people who face extra obstacles to learning: there is great inequality in access to the internet and widespread concern about some groups, e.g. immigrants and low-income families. However, digital learning also has great potential to engage people who might struggle with traditional forms of learning. The European project ‘REACH’ has developed ways to engage young hard-to-reach learners in workplace training using mobile assisted learning. The SRH Neckargemuend, a German VET provider, has 20 years’ experience in using e-learning (and now virtual reality) for students with disabilities.
Assessment and examinations
There are concerns about forthcoming examinations since learners cannot prepare as they normally would, in particular for practical exams. Extensions to school years and apprenticeship contracts are being explored but have many consequences. Spain has just agreed the flexibility of the work-based learning component of its programmes, extending the calendar for work placements, and also taking into account university entrance exams; and the work-based learning component will be shortened and integrated into a tutored project module.
Changed assessment methods may also be necessary and could take inspiration from practice that already exists. For example, some practical tasks could be undertaken at home, e.g. using camera phones to record activities like hairdressing. ePortfolios in which students collect documents to show their achievements (e.g. transcripts, audio recordings) also offer solutions, and can be implemented through elearning management systems, such as Mahara and Moodle. There are also projects like the German initiative, ASCOT, that promote technology-based learning and assessment in VET.
What next: beyond COVID-19
Practitioners report a growing feeling that COVID-19 will lead to permanent changes in the practice of VET. As we respond to the immediate issues, we should also therefore try to have one eye on the future. Hopefully, we shall emerge from COVID-19 not only better equipped for the ‘normal’ challenges of work and life but ready to continue with the changes that have been set in motion.
Acknowledgements: The author is indebted to information freely provided by colleagues in several European countries and to data from the European Commission’s survey on the impact of COVID-19.
Andrew McCoshan is a senior expert in VET and Director of Plexus Research & Consulting. He is currently the external consultant to the VET Working Group, coordinated by the European Commission, which is examining innovation and digitalisation. He is also a Senior Research Associate and Visiting Researcher at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University. @andrewmccoshan