Vocational futures

I was asked to write an article for The New Statesman speculating the future of vocational learning.  The first draft is below, the final version will appear here and in the printed magazine soon.

Education is a future-building enterprise.  One of the education system’s key roles is in preparing young people for the future world that they will inhabit and help shape when they leave formal education, whilst ensuring they are supported in making sense of the world in which they live now.  But in building learners’ capacity to live and work in this future world, it is vital to be mindful of the social and technological changes that have implications for the sorts of jobs, communities and relationships that will develop in the near future.   A child starting primary school this year will be leaving compulsory education in 2022.  So if we are to prepare these learners for this world, how can we begin to understand what they are being prepared for?

We can start by investigating a number of technological and social trends that have great implications for the role of formal education and in particular the aim of equipping people for specific vocations and the world of work.  Rapid improvements in digital synchronous communications and the development of virtual worlds are already challenging what it means to be ‘at work’.  In the same way, some of the technological developments that can be forecasted afford a range of new ways of organising learning and teaching: many already being investigated as new models for education.  The use of computer games as engaging activities where learners can play and investigate in different spaces, taking on a range of different roles and solving complex tasks and activities;  digital environments where learners can be immersed, not through graphics and sounds, but through investing their emotions in completing personally relevant challenges.  Computer simulations offer learners the chance to become involved in contexts otherwise inaccessible: dangerous environments (such as high risk laboratories) and remote or inaccessible places.  The opportunities afforded by the use of new and emerging technologies aligned with appropriate pedagogical approaches, offers new ways for learners to experience the work place and particular working practices.

Similarly, developing situated learning approaches that allow young people to learn within a real work context become possible and more realistic through developments in mobile, networked technologies.  Innovative examples of this approach to vocational learning can be seen at Boston College as part of the Learning and Skills Council’s MoLeNET programme, using mobile technologies to gather context appropriate assessments and providing appropriate support to students on a range of apprenticeship schemes.  At the same time, several companies are experimenting with linking their own bespoke training courses to national accreditation and to digital portfolios to support employees in demonstrating transferable skills to support them within a highly dynamic working environment.  These innovative projects may be signposts to wider scale developments in the future.

Other technological developments can support learning in activities that are currently prohibitively expensive. This is evidenced through projects such as the Haptic Cow where learning through manipulation and touch can become possible, but other complex tasks too can be assisted though haptic feedback: the ‘Phantom Haptic‘ is a design tool enabling budding (and experienced) designers to created 3D objects with force-feedback as the digital objects are manipulated and developed.  These technologies could provide ways for vocational learning to be moved virtually, if not physically, closer to the authentic contexts at which the training is aimed.

However, it is easy to imagine any future education as the current system with more technology.  Societal changes have equally great implications for the way in which the aims of education can be articulated and then successfully organised and achieved.  The forecasts of an aging population of 50% of the UK population aged over 50 and 25% over 65 years old is not a picture of a rise in the need for vocational training for nursing and caring.  Radical longevity represents a longer working life; a greater distance between the time of achieving school qualifications and final retirement, and a greater need for reskilling and later life training. The learners on vocational courses in the future may already have tens of years experience in other areas of work, so demand for vocational courses in this context may be job specific or even skill specific given the highly dynamic workforce that will be needed.  If data showing a below-replacement level birth rate and high levels of (inward and outward) migration is then taken into consideration, the requirements of diverse communities also becomes a factor influencing what vocational learning is needed:  Understanding how courses and training can be organised and delivered for a multi-generational, pluralistically financed, highly mobile student groups becomes a key issue for institutions and policy makers.  Does this then suggest a movement away from investment in formative education toward better funded re-skilling for older learners or does retraining become the responsibility of the commercial sectors or the learners themselves?

At school age, vocational learning may focus upon the skills, competences and attitudes of work-readiness.  Coping with change; working in highly diverse teams, and the ability to apply skills and knowledge to a wide range of contexts become the foundation of vocational teaching.  Other descriptors of ‘work’, such as effort, perseverance, dedication and target setting are those currently associated with the the literature on the benefits of playing computer games.  This broad range of skills and competencies may be covered then, by a range of formal and informal learning experiences.  But greater divergence in jobs means the specialism of specific industry may not relate to the expertise of teachers.  The role of the teacher becomes expert pedagogue whilst greater links with subject experts within industry bring the appropriate expertise into the ‘classroom’.

The implications of bringing work and vocational learning closer has obvious educational benefits, but what of other consequences?  Creative ideas generated by young people, as evidenced in projects such as Nuffield’s Young Foresite could be harnessed much more through links between industry and students’ access to 3D fabrication.  For the last 40 years, Moore’s Law has proved to be right and if it continues, as we expect it will, then a 3D printer that costs £0.5m today will cost around £500 in 20 years time.  Certainly affordable for every school and college, if not in most classrooms.  With creative learners producing production quality products as part of their learning experience, one could begin to question who is benefiting from the closer relationships between industry and learner, and the extent to which ‘vocational learning’ and ‘training’ are separated.

There is currently a growing recognition of the importance of vocational learning, not as a second choice to academic routes but as an equal (and even blurred in the case of some academies) route to success.  This developing trend has emerged from a range of campaigns and ties directly to current interest in personalisation: developing appropriate curricular and practices around the needs of the learner.  At the same time the voices of industry, highlighting the skills needed are becoming more clearly collected.  Yet is there a chance then, that as schools begin to take on andragogical approaches: listening to learner voice, providing greater choice and flexibility, an emphasis upon reactive teaching; that vocational learning for more experienced adults moves towards more traditional pedagogical models – where the teacher has far greater control over the aims, approaches and models used?  The focus of vocational learning becomes more strictly about short term responses to market need in a fast moving economy-driven market?

There are many possible long term vocational learning futures.  The important task now is to understand the preferable future and begin putting in place the practices and systems to work towards it.

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One Response to “Vocational futures”

  1. BETT to the Future : Online creative communications Says:

    [...] Dan Sutch has recently commented to this effect in an article on the BCH blog. In the terms he sets out, in the next few years, educational technology is going to become an even more exciting industry to work within, one of the most optimistic industries possible in the present economic climate. [...]