The role of tech in levelling up adult learning

Following the recent publication of the Government's levelling up white paper and Ufi's response, Louise Rowland, Ufi's Deputy CEO, was invited to speak at Digifest 2022 on the role of technology in levelling up adult learning.

In the following transcript from the session, Louise explores how technology has a key role to play in helping level up adult learning across the UK to give everyone the chance to get the skills they need for work.

The session highlighted how the best technology, developed and deployed as part of the solution to upskilling the UK workforce, can provide the capacity to respond to the challenges of rapidly changing business models, an increasing need to adapt to the forces of the global economy, and greater demands for new and emerging skills.

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The role of tech in levelling up learning

"Good morning, everyone, I am Louise Rowland, Deputy CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust. In today’s presentation I will be sharing nine ways technology is helping level up vocational learning, opening up access and opportunity for post 16 learners.

But first, a little bit about us...


We are an independent grant funder, investor, and supporter of adult vocational skills.

As a Charity we have a particular focus on those learners who have been poorly served by traditional or mainstream provision​.​​

We started providing grant funding in 2014 have awarded over £23 million in grants to 240 organisations, and invested £2.5m in start-ups that share our mission.

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Why is it important to 'level up' opportunities for post-16 learners?

In the UK we have a skills crisis.

Immediate shortages are coupled with increased demand for the skills we need to support our ever-changing economy.

In the UK, we're also living and working longer and the nature of jobs available is changing due to the automation of skills; changing consumer and employee demands; and working environments accelerated by the COVID pandemic.

These factors are creating the need to reskill continuously throughout our lives.

Against this backdrop, adult participation in learning and training remains stubbornly low and where it is happening it is not spread evenly across the UK.

Whilst the recent Leveling Up White Paper highlighted some of the issues and impacts it’s important to note that these are not new challenges.

The Learning & Work Institute recently reflected on just how persistent these inequalities are, for example:

  • Several of the areas targeted by the 1934 Special Areas Act, including Cumbria, parts of Tyneside and south Wales, still have some of the lowest employment rates today.
  • Since 1996 adult participation in learning in the past 3 years has trended at about 40% across the whole of the UK.
  • Which means the other 60% haven’t.  In fact 35% of adults haven’t done any learning or training since leaving school.

And this is a problem because those least likely to engage in learning are those who could most benefit and at a time when the UK workforce needs more and better skills now, as well as the capacity to respond and adapt to greater demands for new and emerging skills.

For a number of reasons too many adults in the UK have not been well served by mainstream provision. These learners are at the heart of Ufi's strategy. There are many factors that contribute to this, for example geography, age, race, sector, job level, skill level or community.

The question is how do we solve this?  How do we grow the pool of talent available by supporting those who are furthest away from learning, to get the skills they need for work?

To me it is clear that more of the same won't work, we need to fundamentally change how we tackle the skills crisis and level up learning.

Whilst a continued political interest in the skills crisis abounds, funding and accessibility for adult learning has not matched rhetoric.

Acute skills gap crises headlines have created short term policy changes, for example, visas for lorry drivers, but what’s really going to stick?

How can technology help?

We believe that technology can support the ambition to challenge geographical inequality in the UK and give everyone the opportunity to flourish.

I’d argue that technology can enable things to happen in new and different ways and this gives me hope.

The use of technology is far more ubiquitous and is connecting people to resources, ideas and community. We have the ability to offer alternatives to those who have had limited experiences of learning, to show that there are better ways to deploy more accessible training and education.

Even though it takes time, it IS worth it. We have a great history of reform, most recently there have been some impressive transformations within businesses and training providers that really demonstrate what ‘good’ looks like in digitally supported learning.

There has been a shift in what ‘the art of the possible’ might look like – it’s not about tech replacing the human, or purely remote or online learning, but a diverse set of tools that can break down barriers and give everyone the chance to flourish.

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At Ufi we work to fund organisations directly involved in tackling the issues that need to be addressed to ‘levelling up learning’. There is a whole world of accessible learning which is making a real difference on the ground, and I’ll share some practical examples:

1. Opening up access

The pandemic has shone a light on the potential for tech to open access to learning and accelerated the pace of change in the adoption and deployment of learning technologies.

In doing so it also highlighted those who are most impacted by the digital divide, where lack of access to devices and data exacerbates the risk of learners being left behind.

In response, last year we launched our VocTech Challenge Green and White Papers – Levelling Up Learning, how VocTech can address the growing digital divide.

What was interesting was as much as technology was seen as one of the causes of the learning divide it was also found that tech has the potential to be one of the most effective parts of the solution by breaking down barriers to confidence and belief, which too often prevent adults engaging with lifelong learning.

By adopting user centric design thinking we can really, really understand the needs of learners and develop solutions that work.

For example:

  • The challenge of engaging with learners is a very real issue for employers and providers. At York College they noticed students of hair and beauty were finding it difficult to relate to the English and Maths being taught.

    Too often students were not attending classes because there was a (wrong) perception that doing a vocational course does not require these skills, coupled with a fear of failure from previous exam experiences.

    To change this York College are working with employers to demonstrate the practical use of English and Maths in hair and beauty through a series of short, snappy media clips, to engage learners, mobile first, in their natural habitats of TikTok and Instagram.

    Explore the York College project

  • One size doesn’t fit all and what’s great is that digital offers many ways in which tech can help tackle adult literacy. City of Glasgow college have developed a blended approach to delivering phonics based literacy training.

    Citizen Literacy is a free smartphone app using interactive multimedia gameplay, with handwriting and voice recognition to support users to complete exercises.

    It can be used to support the delivery of face-to-face or in standalone mode to allow learners to develop at their own pace, overcoming the considerable social stigma that can be attached to low literacy levels.

    They’ve really thought about how to make this as accessible as possible. For example, content has been created with low data requirements for mobile use to keep user costs down.

    Explore the City of Glasgow College project

  • The National Literacy Trust estimate that 8.6 million adults in the UK have very poor literacy skills. Too often they are locked out of the job market or unable to improve their skills to be able to progress in work. How can tech help?

    At Playlingo they’re using ‘chat fiction’ in a genuinely entertaining way to help people improve their literacy.

    They have shifted from ‘delivering content’ to creating experiences that can help change attitudes to learning by developing a product that is fun – and that is really important when you’re working with adults who have not had a great experience up to now.

    Explore the Playlingo project

2. Improving assessment

With the right technology, Further Education institutions and training providers can rapidly help identify problems, tailor solutions and present material in new and engaging ways, preventing learners reach the point where they want to give up and supporting them to continue to develop confidence with subjects and improve their skills.

The use of voice-controlled devices continues to increase at a rapid rate and it is predicted that by the end of this year voice will overtake typing as the main search input method.

For example:

  • The Audactive App, a free resource for FE developed by Pembrokeshire College - is transforming the way educators and learners interact with course materials through voice and sound. Learners and teachers can listen to a document, dictate comments and notes and answer questions by utilising text to voice and vice versa within the same document.

    The ability of the app to work both ways over a range of content is one of its most engaging and innovative features – giving learners choices and options around how they experience learning and how they get summative feedback along the way.

    Explore the Pembrokeshire College project

  • For some adults the thought of having to do an assessment can put them off taking that important first step towards starting a course because they lack confidence in their basic literacy skills.

    The First Step Trust have developed a solution. Using Virtual Reality as a tool students can demonstrate progress towards Level 1 Motor Vehicle Maintenance. Taking away the need to read and write at the entry level significantly improved motivation to continue with their training and get on a pathway to work.

    A great example of using established tech in a way that is focused on where and how it can make a difference for the needs of their learners.

    Explore the First Step Trust project

3. Supporting practitioners

To level up learning we need to invest in the amazing people working in our FE colleges and providers.

Our long term goal at Ufi is to help equip practitioners with the skills and confidence they need to adopt digital tools and pedagogies.

  • 2020 has brought into sharp relief the need for trainers and educators to have access to great online resources - to enable them to support their learners at a distance or in blended learning situations. Working with Jisc and the Open University VocTeach will deliver an online platform for practitioners to access and share information about digital resources, mapped to their specific needs.

    Explore the VocTeach project

  • And we need a supportive community to embed ‘what works’ across the sector. That is why, together with the Association for Learning Technology, Ufi supports #AmplifyFE a strong community of practice to share, collaborate and learn using social media, online events and digital resources. This growing network enables vocational teaching staff to acquire, develop and share the skills they need.

    Explore the #AmplifyFE project

  • And we are really pleased to be working with Jisc on the Digital Elevation Tool; helping the sector get a clear picture of their digital elevation journey with access to resources and services to support next steps.

    Explore the Digital Evaluation Tool
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The 21st century demands that we take adult skills seriously and level up access to skills and training. There is the need to reskill continuously throughout our lives; we can no longer rely on the support of an education starting in 2022, if we are retiring in 2088.

Digital, done well, has a role to play in creating learning experiences that help overcome confidence and fear of failure.

Conclusions

The practical examples I’ve shared have all used digital tools, in different ways, to make a real difference for learners on the ground. What do they all have in common? The conditions for success, if you like.


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  1. Firstly they embrace user centric design – they challenge their assumptions about what the problem really is – and are therefore more able to work out how the right tech solution could help - for example removing stigma and delivering a fun experience.
  2. They take the experience to the learners, meeting them where they are, from TikToc to Twitter.
  3. And they do simple things well. It's not necessarily about ‘new technology’ but about doing what is needed to solve the problem well. Like the First Step Trust using VR to take away the need for learners to read and write at the ‘entry point’ of the course.

It is because of these features that tech can help level up vocational learning, opening up access and opportunity for post 16 learners, and giving everyone the chance to flourish."

This presentation was delivered by Ufi Deputy CEO, Louise Rowland, as part of Digifest 2022.

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