Ufi Deputy CEO, Louise Rowland, reflects on the VocTech Challenge 2021, 12 months on from the launch of our White Paper.
It’s been 12 months since we published our White Paper – Levelling Up Learning, with a £2m commitment to grant funding, best practice sharing and sector partnerships to unlock the potential of digital technology to level up access to vocational learning in the UK.
Following on from the VocTech Challenge Green Paper and consultation period, our White Paper represented the culmination of three months of dialogue with the vocational education and technology sector to explore the question:
How can VocTech improve vocational outcomes for people most impacted by the digital divide and at greatest risk from the long-term impact of the pandemic on access to training and jobs?
How do we then link those vocational skills to real employment opportunities?”
Our Chief Executive, Rebecca Garrod-Waters wrote at that time “The figures are stark and the differential impact of the pandemic across the UK has the potential to become a long-term and severe problem if we do not recognise the problem and work quickly to mitigate it. Ufi has a really clear role to play in supporting technology that can benefit the hardest hit.”
12 months on this remains the case. In my recent DigiFest presentation I reflected on just how persistent these inequalities are; those least likely to engage in learning are those who could most benefit. This is especially important at a time when the UK workforce needs more and better skills now, as well as the capacity to respond and adapt to demands for new and emerging skills in the future.
Levelling up learner confidence
At the heart of the Ufi VocTech Challenge White Paper is a focus on learners who are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide and absolute and relative digital exclusion.
What was interesting was that although technology was seen as one of the many causes of the learning divide, it was also found to have the potential to be one of the most effective parts of the solution, by overcoming barriers to confidence and belief which too often prevent adults engaging with lifelong learning.
Time and again our work found that it is often personal, social and emotional factors which underpin this lack of confidence and motivation to learn. Whether it be confidence to get started with learning or to aspire to a fulfilling career, or motivation to continue with learning after prior negative experiences.
Technology - by enabling improved accessibility, supportive learning environments and increased personalisation - has the potential to create a real step-change in learner confidence.
The process of developing our Green and White Papers, using design thinking principles, helped us to unpack the scale of the ‘confidence’ challenge, and with that, the opportunity to really transform how vocational learning happens for the benefit of individuals, employers, and the UK as a whole.
Done well, digital tech can really enhance the learning experience, improving learner confidence, helping employers find the skills they need and ensuring the UK has the capacity to respond to demands for new and emerging skills.
If, collectively, we can create more positive experiences of learning for those least likely to have had them, we will create a virtuous circle to keep going.
Change for a better future
These are complex issues requiring a multifaceted approach.
Ufi is well placed to help bring this work together (an embodiment of our four strategy pillars) by leveraging our grant funding, advocacy, willingness to experiment, support of practitioners and an engrained understanding that impact is best achieved through partnership.
So, 12 months on, where have we got to?...
A £1.5m commitment to the VocTech Challenge grant fund
We have made commitments to 14 projects working to test and pilot how tech can help adults most at risk from economic and digital exclusion so they can gain the confidence to get the skills they need for work.
We have also developed several workstreams in collaboration with our Strategic Partners.
In June, we launch a piece of joint, national research with the RSA to better understand the barriers people face when engaging with learning and how VocTech could potentially be deployed to address some of those challenges. The intended outcome is not an academic paper on the socio-economic conditions of these learners, but an actionable report that can influence future Ufi strategy and delivery and help change policy thinking and practice.
Place based collaborations
Building on previous collaborative work we are looking at the importance of ‘place-based’ interventions, underpinned by technology, and how they can transform opportunities within a local area.
As well as with the RSA, we also have a Strategic Partnership with iDEA who we are working with to surface lessons and insights around how place-based solutions can be deployed to improve access, motivation, and retention for learners most impacted by the digital divide.
Building the VocTech Community
Crucially, Ufi are also investing in the future of the vocational educational profession by supporting those championing CPD and networking in the sector.
In partnership with the Association for Learning Technology, we are strengthening the AmplifyFE network with the AmplifyFE Community Space, to be launched in May.
Practitioners will also support a piece of action research to gather evidence, theory and good practice on how to develop and deploy learning tech to best support adults impacted by the digital divide and furthest away from learning.
Piloting new approaches
A discovery phase is underway to explore how innovative and disruptive solutions to assessment could help improve learner confidence and motivation.
Advocating for change
As Rebecca said in the White Paper, there remains a wider context of socio-economic issues that we cannot tackle ourselves but are fundamental to the long-term success of our mission, such as access to data and devices.
Through advocacy we offer a relentlessly practical approach to demonstrating what ‘good’ looks like, so that policy makers and those with wider responsibilities can use our community and our thinking to help to shape future actions themselves.
So 12 months on we have achieved a lot; by working with others as passionate as we are that change is needed - confident in the knowledge that our collective efforts will make a bigger difference.
And the work will continue, with the learnings from the VocTech Challenge programme feeding into a much wider eco-system of partners and activities that we have initiated during this process.