Reflections on our learnings so far

The VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning

Louise Rowland, Deputy CEO, and the Ufi team reflect on our achievements and learnings from the VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning. You can download the full report here.

Interested in our current VocTech Challenge programme? Visit VocTech Challenge: Skills for an Economy in Transition.


Dictionary description of VocTech


Ufi supports the development of digital technologies and pedagogies that help us all obtain the vocational skills we need to get more out of our working lives.

We have a particular role in unlocking economic potential in the communities, sectors, skill levels and geographies that are not well served by mainstream provision, so that everyone is included, and no one is left behind.

Back in November 2020 the big challenge we foresaw was that the communities who are not traditionally well served by mainstream vocational skills and training provision, and who are the focus of Ufi’s strategy, were more at risk than ever from being excluded from education and training and being able to access employment.

In response, we launched the 2021 VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning to explore, with an open mind, where Ufi can best use its resources to mitigate this risk and help ensure that people have the skills required to thrive in work.

Placing learners at the centre and using design thinking principles, we embarked on a two-year programme of activity. We started with a consultation involving over 100 people, partners and organisations. This discovery process allowed us to better understand the issues and helped us to define the problem we wanted to explore:

"How can VocTech – technology to support adult vocational skills - improve 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?"

Our findings were set out in a series of problem statements/opportunities in a Green Paper.

We then asked, “how might we, and others that we work with, make a real difference in relation to these key themes?”. We chose the best of those ideas to take forward in our White Paper  and have been developing and delivering those commitments since June 2021.

Where are we now?

Which brings us to the purpose of this update. As Ufi embarks on its latest VocTech Challenge: Skills for an Economy in Transition it seems like an appropriate time to recognise the achievements to date, the ongoing themes that our partners and projects are tackling and, importantly, make sure the insights and learnings inform ‘what comes next’.

We have learnt a lot from VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning and we have produced a brilliant report, reflecting on the delivery of the commitments set out in the White Paper. You can download the full report below, or read on for our key reflections.

Reflections on the VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning [download .pdf]

Confidence is key to levelling up learning in the UK

Our work has shown that confidence and motivation present major barriers for learners most impacted by the digital divide. Without finding new ways of engaging these groups and communities there is a real threat that people and employers in the UK won’t have the skills needed for work, now and in the future.

We know that learning begets learning. The Rebalancing Adult Learning report, developed in partnership with the RSA, shows the more ‘qualified’ you are – the more likely you are to learn. Which means the less ‘qualified’ are less likely to embark on learning or training to get new skills – and more likely to miss out on opportunities and the benefits (social, health, wellbeing, as well as financial) that go with them.

Scale that up and the opportunity cost of not including everyone impacts the health, wellbeing and prosperity of UK society as a whole.

Our work has shown that learning technologies and digital tools have an important role to play in helping to get more people into learning and sheds light on what might be holding learners back. By understanding the needs, motivations and barriers to learning of those furthest from traditional education we can develop digital and blended solutions that really tap into confidence and motivation and ‘level up’ access to skills.

How does confidence impact learning?

The projects that were awarded VocTech Challenge grant funding each undertook a deep dive into the needs of their target learner groups to really understand how confidence was having an impact on their motivation to start, or stick, with learning.

Drawing on the lived experience of learners, we discovered this was often impacted by personal, emotional, and social factors.

Confidence diagram

  • Confidence to get new skills: What’s the point?
  • Confidence to try: I can’t, I’ll just look daft, my mates will take the mick
  • Confidence to commit: I’m too busy, no time, I’ll fail and then it’s wasted my time
  • Confidence in the education system: I’ve had bad experiences in the past

How can digital tools and pedagogies help improve learner confidence?

We have seen through our grant funded projects and the partnership work that resulted from the White Paper that vocational technology can support learner confidence in many ways.

  • Technology can provide a ‘safe space’ where learners can gain and improve skills without being judged. They can keep trying again until they get it right without anyone else necessarily knowing or judging.
  • Technology can provide flexible and accessible ways for people to learn skills in ways that suit them.
  • Nudges can keep people engaged and provide encouragement and motivation.
  • Tech can be transformative. There is a ‘you’re worth it’ factor to using tech for those furthest away from learning. Many people really struggle in ‘mainstream’ settings, manifesting in getting into trouble, poor attendance, or poor grades and might not have had their achievements celebrated. Learners can internalise an ‘I’m not worth it’ ideology that well designed non-judgemental tech can help overcome.

Being shown that 'cool stuff' is for these learners obviously has a very powerful effect.

After a year of delivery, what have we learnt about HOW to do this well?

Our work is supported by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) who are leading on 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. Drawing on the initial insights report and the projects we’ve funded, this is what we have learnt so far.

Putting learners at the heart

The key lesson we’ve learnt about designing inclusive digital products, services and systems is that while it can be challenging and requires effort, putting learners at the heart is crucial to developing digital and blended solutions that really support confidence and motivation.

  • Know who your learners are
  • Understand their needs
  • Design products, services and tools that work for them
Untangle graphic

Successful projects focus on the learner, not the technology. If you keep the user at the heart of your tech you’ll keep them engaged, otherwise you’ll lose them.

Caroline O'Donnell, Project and Partnership Manager
User centric design

There needs to be a ‘relentless determination’ to involve those who need to be involved. Engagement models need to be deeply embedded within learner communities. Trust is important.

‘Design Thinking’ methodologies, like the Design Councils ‘Double Diamond’ and personas, provide useful tools to unpick assumptions and really understand user needs.

Input is required from the learning professionals that support users to explore what learners need to make the user experience better.

These learners are not all hard to reach, it is just that the will and the resources are not usually there to allow providers to spend time with them where they are in their day to day lives.

The Tech

The learner community’s needs and purposes must lead innovation and inform digital pedagogy, rather than use of ‘technology for technology’s sake’.

The simplest tech solution delivered really well can often be the best.

Innovation is most effective when designed in close collaboration with end-user communities using extensive prototyping and feedback. Consider co-design to make the user experience better.

Scaffolding is the ‘prequel’ to successful learning

For those furthest away from learning, with the lowest confidence and motivation, tech needs to be a part of a wider supportive network. This ‘scaffolding’ is a vital part of supporting people to take their first steps towards learning.

Wrap around support from other supportive bodies/people is needed throughout the learner journey, including support for learners to gain the digital skills and confidence needed to access and benefit from the learning or support.

Celebrate the small wins

In an organisation, be realistic about how many levers need to move to make things happen.

For the individual, work can feel an unimaginably long way off. Start by taking small steps to making them feel comfortable in a work environment.

Ufi Graphic: helping up steps
What next?

VocTech Challenge 2021: Levelling up learning was a major initiative for Ufi, the outcomes of which will continue to shape our activities for the coming years, including future VocTech Challenge programmes.

To explore our current programme, VocTech Challenge: Skills for an Economy in Transition, and to sign-up for updates and news of our grant funding call, please visit:

Useful resources from across the site