Changing Channels of Vocational Training: Targeting a Better Tomorrow

TEXT: Winfried Heusinger, Irene Jonda, Katharina Walker – 24. September 2019

It was noon. Mimosa looked at the little bed where her 10-month-old daughter was asleep. The next big city was only 30 kilometers away. The road was rough and the terrain mountainous. The baby slept soundly; Mimosa could hear her steady breath. She sat down at the table and pulled out her mobile phone. Still a little awestruck, she turned it on and tapped on the app. This meant hope. Perhaps, her key to self-reliance.

At school, Mimosa's teachers were often unmotivated, and so she hadn't been able to learn much. Then, she became pregnant and could no longer complete her education. But this mobile app had given her hope. And it had given her the opportunity to learn something that would open up new perspectives – taking her towards being a financially self-sufficient woman.

Virtual learning – replacing traditional models

Mimosa is very interested in photovoltaic systems. Using the mobile app, she has been educating herself on how such systems work, their installation and cost calculations. She wanted to continue working on this learning sequence. As she tapped into the mobile phone, the familiar face of her supervisor appeared on the screen. "Hello Mimosa, how are you? I haven't heard from you in a while," he asked.  "Oh, the little one was sick, and I was just too busy. Now she's healthy and happy again," Mimosa replied as she felt reassured by the fact that someone cared about her learning progress. "That’s good to hear," said the voice from the device and the face smiled. "You know, you can always send me a message. I am happy to support you. For now, I hope you enjoy the photovoltaic (PV) system calculations."

The face disappeared, and characters from the story that she had worked on last week emerged onto the screen.

It was a scenario that could have been conceivable in her village. A family wanted to purchase a PV system. Could this fictitious family afford the investment? Would Mimosa earn enough profit if she took on the installation. It was a matter of calculations. The learning program is interactive. So, she can always ask questions and receive help from other learners and mentors. The tasks are so realistic that the applicability of the necessary theoretical knowledge is apparent. Upon completion of the learning sequence, she can qualify for a practical training, during which she can practice connecting the cables and parameterizing the PV system using a practical example in a workshop; or even with a real customer. If she is then able to prove to an audit committee that she can successfully plan and commission a PV system, she will receive a state-approved certificate. More importantly, she will then be able to start her own business and earn her own money.

Automation and digitalization are here to stay. The challenge lies in embracing change and getting set for a different reality 

Digitalization: changing lives

Digitalization and the internet have made it possible to arrange learning processes in new, realistic and inspiring ways. The dependence on the physical presence of a teacher is reduced and a higher didactic level can be achieved. This is attained by the learning app’s capability to draw upon completely different economies of scale than a traditional training institution.

Mimosa’s story exemplifies how new learning applications made available to everyone via the internet offer a considerable opportunity for many people. With the efficient use of existing information, practicable knowledge and professional skills can be widely and rapidly disseminated. Unused talents from all over the world can be identified and promoted.

Everywhere in the world, people feel the effects of rapidly alternating technical innovation cycles. New technical aids not only determine working life, but increasingly impact social life, working their way into the midst of society. Nowadays, basically everyone carries around a computer, laptop or a mobile device; getting direct access to all human knowledge. As a result, the perceived speed at which life takes place is constantly increasing.

Automation and the changing social order

 All work processes are under continuous pressure to optimize using adapted and inexpensive technical aids. At the same time, increasingly cost-effective and ubiquitous computing power is leading to continued automation. Consequently, stressful and monotonous activities can be taken over by algorithms. This shakes up the foundations of our traditional social order by forming a construct in which human cycles generally follow the unquestioned automatism, that leads them from childhood to school and vocational training, and then into working life; slowly fading away after reaching retirement age.

A successful working life depends on the availability of jobs, but the future of our civilization will be challenged by the need to reinterpret our traditional understanding of a job. Activities that consist primarily of performing simple tasks are beginning to disappear, precisely to the point where automated solutions become more cost-effective. Of course, the programmed routines - which are still far from artificial intelligence - are not yet able to control all complex processes of life. However, technical innovations continue to progress unstoppably, and we will witness many new developments that will integrate themselves into our lives. The described interface defines the framework of our lives in all its phases of development, and naturally also impacts the future of vocational training.

In a world in which production methods and economic processes are increasingly converging due to automation and the availability of individualized and demand-oriented information, people have a new role to play. The future focus of education will be on equipping the learner with the evolving skills and abilities necessary for mastering work processes supported by technical aids. The challenge to overcome is the constant transformation of the information available into competences that enable people to find their place on the labor market of the future.

Technical aids have become our permanent companion, and context-related help can be provided at any time. We therefore assume that the separation of planning and executing functions is becoming obsolete. Instead, planning processes are supported by information technology aids and permanently checked for feasibility and effectiveness. Practical installation processes are supported by tailor-made tools, whereby craftsmanship becomes a partial aspect within the realization of a work process.

For vocational education and training, the response to this challenge must be a paradigm shift away from imparting pure knowledge or training manual skills towards developing a professional and autonomous skilled worker who is at the center of a vocational education strategy.

It's time to take note of the changing educational needs and the evolving approach to training

A "stockpile" approach to learning, which is still at the forefront of traditional educational institutions, and the separation between practical and theoretical training must be replaced by action-oriented approaches that focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Success factors

From experiences and emerging trends, we identify the following factors as essential for translating the shift towards action-oriented approaches.  

Identifying and developing learner-based strategy

Each learner must develop the most effective strategy to identify and interpret relevant information and find the best solution for the client. This involves assessing people who need to be involved and safety and environmental standards that need to be observed. Available technical aids must be used efficiently in order to comply with the relevant quality characteristics. We assume that all work will be documented in the future, whereby error analyses can be automated, and the work carried out with the corresponding data can be accessed during subsequent repairs.

Application of self-directed learning

A skilled worker must be able to efficiently apply self-directed learning. Appropriate, individualized and online learning guides will help the learner acquire new knowledge in the specific context. She or he must be able to grasp a work process in its entirety and be capable of assessing factors that must be considered in order to realize a process according to relevant quality standards. The learner can only develop the essential vocational action competence if the necessary methods have been mastered.

Encouraging and strengthening independent learning

Vocational training must be structured in a way that encourages and strengthens the ability to learn independently. Since learning is no longer based on building up a stock of knowledge, the learning process can be designed flexibly and individually. Technical aids, such as mobile phones, should be used as educational tools, and distinctly separated from entertainment processes. Learning guides (human or online) can then determine the level of action competence that has been achieved.

Especially at the beginning of the training, it is important that the learning guide instructs the learners on how possible problem-solving strategies and basic methodical competence can be developed. The more advanced this methodical competence becomes, the more freedom the learning companion can grant the learner.

The changing roles of teachers

The role of the teacher will undergo a fundamental change in the future as he or she will no longer be the person who presents theoretical knowledge in an adapted and digestible way. Rather, the teacher will increasingly support the learners in independently using the available information to enhance their own individual learning process, creating a foundation for lifelong learning.

Adapting future learning to realities

The real challenge for the future of vocational education and training is to overcome the traditional construct of education, in order to adapt to the realities of our current society - a society that has unprecedented information technology tools at its disposal not only change work processes, but also redefine human coexistence. Even though these changes remain difficult for some to accept, education must be rethought since the goal, of vocational training especially, is to prepare the learner for the challenges of working life, and this cannot be detached from reality. For some, this new way of learning will be a challenge, but for many it is an opportunity. The correct use of the information technology tools undoubtedly has the potential to significantly improve the quality of vocational education and training worldwide. The main reason being that quality vocational education and training today is simply available at your convenience – and goes beyond any socio-economic, or physical borders or boundaries.

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