Transcript of VET's response to Industry 4.0 and the digital economy: what works

28 May 2020

Vocational Voices: Season 4, Episode 4

VET’s response to Industry 4.0 and the digital economy: what works

Suzi Kuti (00:04)
And I'm going to be quite controversial here and suggest that the whole architecture needs to be flipped. At the moment, it's very educator-led. The experience I've had in the past is when we've gone out and tried to partner with an RTO and deliver accredited training, we've been dictated to into how it would be delivered. We had very little say and input into the program.

Steve Davis (00:28)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis and today's topic is Incorporating Digital Skills Into VET Delivery. Our Vocational Voices today are Michelle Circelli. Hello, Michelle.

Michelle Circelli (00:48)
Hi, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:49)
Michelle is Team Leader, Research and Data Analytics branch of NCVER. Her colleague, Bridget Wibrow, Research Officer, Research and Data Analytics branch of NCVER. Hello, Bridget.

Bridget Wibrow (00:59)
Hi, Steve.

Steve Davis (01:01)
And Suzi Kuti, head of organisational development and learning, Metro Trains Sydney. Welcome to the podcast, Suzi.

Suzi Kuti (01:09)
Thanks, Steve. Pleasure to be here.

Steve Davis (01:11)
Right. Well, let's get underway because it was late in 2019, an invitation only forum was convened by NCVER to develop some practical strategies for incorporating digital skills into VET delivery and to determine how any implications for the VET educator workforce could be addressed. Now, as a result of that event, NCVER has now published two good practice guides, one based on VET delivery and the other on the VET educator workforce.

Steve Davis (01:43)
Bridget, I'll turn to you first because underlying last year's forum and these new good practice guides is the assertion that the VET sector is lacking when it comes to incorporating digital skills. Are you able to put that into some sort of context for us? Has this area of digital skills suddenly become dominant or has there been a gradual widening of the gap between what industry needs, and users, and what the VET sector offers?

Bridget Wibrow (02:12)
There seems to be a key element at play here when it comes to setting the scene. So more generally, the pace of technological change is a lot faster than it has been before and there also is an increasing reliance on technology in everyday life and jobs. So just two examples from my own life at the moment. Currently working from home due to the pandemic, and all of a sudden being able to use video conferencing like a pro. And then I also live on a farm and just the use of technology in what was generally a traditionally manual labour role is a lot greater than it's been before. So they use stuff to check moisture in crops and cameras to see how much grain is in the bin. So, that's kind of just the general how technology has been changing.

Bridget Wibrow (03:06)
Also, as part of our research, we did some exploratory data analysis that connect digital skills related units of competency. And through this, we can see that there are, indeed, many digital skills related units in VET qualifications, but a lot of them are only elective rather than core. So, this means a person can complete a qualification without doing any of the digital skills related units. So, it's not that these skills aren't available in the VET sector, but more that they aren't necessarily incorporated in the best way yet. There's currently a digital transformation expert panel, which is developing a digital transformation skills strategy, and they're looking into this issue as part of that. So, I guess you could say it is more widening of the gap.

Steve Davis (03:49)
You've just raised a very interesting point there about this digital component being elective rather than core because in the real world, the digital impact is core for many of our lives, it's not something we can pick and choose from. So Michelle, could I turn to you? I mean, how does this issue of digital skills play out among VET educators? Do they simply need to learn about technology trends in industry or do they need to pick up the digital competencies themselves?

Michelle Circelli (04:18)
Well, Steve, there's a few different aspects to unpack here. Firstly, there's the expectation that VET educators are on top of the technology or technologies that are been used in the industry in which they are teaching, I mean, I guess, part of the need to maintain industry currency. And then as Bridget spoke about, because of the rapid changes in technology in the workplace and in everyday life, VET educators need to try as much as possible to ensure that their own digital skills are current.

Michelle Circelli (04:53)
But simply being able to use technology does not necessarily mean that you know how to teach that technology. So, there's a need for VET educators to know and use the most appropriate teaching methods to teach with technology and to teach their students digital skills or how to use the technology. And it came up in our forum. There were a number of participants who emphasised that it's important to make this distinction between teaching technology or digital skills and using technology for teaching or for online learning. The skills that are needed are actually quite different.

Steve Davis (05:33)
I want to pick up also the fact that you talked, it's one thing to have digital competency, but to be able to teach and make use of incorporating digital is important. And in fact, Suzi, this does lead to the case study. You provided one of the case studies in the good practice guide for VET educators. It revolved around the use of augmented reality for workers who are manufacturing precast concrete panels for the Sydney Metro tunnels. Now, that helped raise some important questions about the nuances involved in incorporating digital elements into education. I wonder, could you give us a bit of the background by telling us about that project?

Suzi Kuti (06:15)
The group that we were training was about 450 workers and they really sort of came from the labour force area, so they were quite low-skilled labourers. So, there were already some challenges that we had to face in terms of upskilling them and giving them the necessary competencies to be able to perform their jobs onsite. So, we had to really account for their language, literacy, and numeracy. And something that we actually didn't factor in at the time, but we worked out later, was around their digital literacy.

Suzi Kuti (06:49)
So, the catalyst for us investing in the development of an augmented reality app was to overcome some of the challenges with accessing large plant equipment for training. So predominantly, the skill set was around safety and manual handling and the maintenance of the operating of machinery. So when we developed the app and we rolled it out, what we actually found was whilst it was a very interactive, instructional mode of delivery, it wasn't actually well-integrated into the actual training program itself. So, I don't feel that the learning outcomes were optimised. And the actual use of the device and the use of the technology was not optimised.

Suzi Kuti (07:36)
So it really, I guess, highlighted for us that there was a need to have a digital integrator role involved with this process because when it came to the actual delivery piece, we found we spent a lot of time, the trainers spent a lot of time in onsite support, and a lot of time was spent troubleshooting and supporting the students to accessing the actual technology themselves. So, it actually took a little bit away from the learning component of the program.

Steve Davis (08:08)
It's interesting to me how assumptions around technology is a blind spot for many of us, because when I heard about you using augmented reality in this project, you just mentioned language and things like that, I would've thought that would have overcome that because it's so visual. So, would you agree that that surprised people, that that was still an issue?

Suzi Kuti (08:32)
I think it did to a degree. Whilst it was very visual and it was very interactive, there are still some key messages as part of the learning tool. So there was a lot of text, there was some recorded messages and videos. So there was a lot of auditory learning as well. But for when we're talking about safety first, we can't compromise on safety. So, some key learnings out of that was we really need to probably spent a little bit more time in airing some tutorials or content for the learners to take into account all the LLN requirements, so that the learner felt comfortable with utilising the technology and we could overcome some of those LLN issues at the beginning. I think in hindsight, some preparatory work before would have helped us a lot and achieve a better outcome for the workers.

Steve Davis (09:33)
I think the notion of a digital integrator is quite novel. Michelle, how does the discussion around that digital integrator role sit within the other elements of the good practice guide for digital educators?

Michelle Circelli (09:46)
Yeah. I found this a really interesting concept that Suzi was talking about and it does fit in with what we were talking about at the forum. It suggests someone who's both a competent user of the technology, and then they can translate that into being competent in teaching technology. So that is, they understand how best to teach others how to use the technology. So now, a solution could be that a training organisation employs a specialist who sort of straddles that divide between developing the technology and then applying the technology in an educational setting. But that could be a pretty expensive solution and not really effective in the long run, in building the right skills in VET educators.

Michelle Circelli (10:37)
So, something that was coming out from the forum and listening to the examples that Suzi was talking about was, what are some of the ways that we can support the capability development of VET educators so that they can build their skills in both aspects? So getting a better idea about the actual technological tools, but how they can actually translate into the learning situation.

Steve Davis (11:04)
Actually, just picking up on that, it's going to be imperative for VET educators to increase those competencies because another little novel observation that was being made in this document is there'll come a time very soon, if it's not already here, in which the students, that those being taught, have greater digital competency than the VET educators where they are at the moment. Do you think that is getting through and are there protocols and guidelines that we can pick up from other parts around the world?

Michelle Circelli (11:36)
Yeah, yeah, it is true, isn't it? And I guess you can sort of look at, if you've got children, some of your own kids and I guess sometimes I think, "Oh, Mum, you're just not getting it." And I guess that is that aspect that in many cases, the learners will be younger than the educators and may well have or be more comfortable in using the technologies. But certainly, this is a message that's coming through that we do need to help VET educators themselves develop their digital skills. It's certainly gaining traction in Australia, but internationally. And it is actually something that's still relatively new. We have primarily been focused on integrating digital skills in the actual learning itself but have sort of forgotten about, oh, actually there's someone who has to then teach those digital skills.

Michelle Circelli (12:31)
So, even internationally, it is sort of relatively recent that people are looking at this issue. Yeah, so in developing the good practice guide, and we shared this with the forum participants as well, we did come across a few international models that can, I guess, direct us or help us sort of frame this. And one that's really interesting is the European Framework for Digital Competence of Educators, or short-term it's DigCompEdu. They have these nice little sort of shortening of things. And it's a really comprehensive framework. If I may I'll describe it as briefly as I can, but there's six key aspects and they focus on the educator's professional activities, so their professional competence, their pedagogical competence, but also the learner's competence, which is an important thing.

Michelle Circelli (13:29)
So the six aspects, very quickly, cover professional engagement, so how you use digital technologies for communication and collaboration and professional development. Digital resources, so the sorts of materials that you're using to actually create the materials that you want to share with the learners. Teaching and learning, obviously, how you actually use these digital technologies for teaching and learning. Now, assessment, and this is a really key area, and I guess we're all sort of learning how we do assessment using digital technologies and strategies to enhance that as well.

Michelle Circelli (14:06)
But then there was these other aspects to it that focused on those learners' competencies. So empowering the learners themselves, like how best to use digital technologies, how they can personalise it and make them really become engaged actively in their learning. Then the last one was about facilitating their digital competence so that they actually took responsibility in using information, communication, creating content, using it for problem-solving. So I guess almost in some ways, transferring the skills that the educator has learnt and really making sure they've passed those skills onto the learners and how best to make the most out of the digital technologies.

Michelle Circelli (14:49)
And again, just very briefly with this, this framework is very extensive, but within those six key areas there's 20 or 22 competencies and the educator can go and have a look at where they sit against all of these competencies. There's a bit of a scale of proficiency and I think it's quite a nice little scale. It starts from around, you're either a newcomer or explorer, and you go all the way up to, say, a leader or a pioneer. It's comprehensive, it's extensive, and it's a really nice starting point to get a sense of where you sit in terms of capabilities.

Michelle Circelli (15:31)
Now, more locally, look, there's other frameworks within Australia. And so, one that's quite interesting, actually, was developed for the agricultural industry. It's a self-assessment questionnaire, whilst it is specific to the agricultural industry, and it's available through the Cotton Research and Development Centre website. But there's some things there that focuses on digital communication, digital literacy, personal learning and mastery. So again, it's asking those questions, "Hey, how often do you use digital technologies in framing your work or using them to analyse and communicate that information?" So again, you can use these self-assessment frameworks to see where you sit and then I guess then to see what professional development or what things you need to do to get more, I guess, au fait and more comfortable with using these technologies.

Steve Davis (16:34)
And in fact, I noticed that in that particular good practice guide, there is that emphasis on that self-assessment at the beginning of this journey.

Michelle Circelli (16:41)

Steve Davis (16:42)
I want to turn to the other good practice guide, the one on VET delivery and turn to Bridget with this because there is a mention there that digital skills should become a key component of foundation skills, receive the same prominence that currently occurs with language, literacy, and numeracy. That's pretty profound, Bridget. Why is that so important?

Bridget Wibrow (17:08)
Well, it's important because those skills, as mentioned before, are becoming more important in everyday life. So, you can now book doctor appointments online and even check-in online, so you don't need to queue in the waiting room. But then also in many regular everyday jobs. So, you can think of a waiter now using a tablet to take orders instead of paper and pen, or meter readers are now using GPS technology as well.

Bridget Wibrow (17:34)
So, by including digital skills as a part of foundation skills, it will help to prepare the future workforce, so they'll have the baseline skills needed to meet the requirements of these jobs. This is something that is also recognised by the Commonwealth government. They currently have a project underway where they are including digital skills alongside language, literacy, and numeracy as a part of foundation training in remote areas.

Steve Davis (17:59)
Actually, also just want to pick up on one thing. This is my own little bug bear and it picks up on what Suzi mentioned before about some of the workers in her case study who came from a lower level of literacy and different language backgrounds, and it's this, it's digital literacy and competency in the area of cybersecurity. Because, if there's one thing I know from my work is many Australian businesses are being undone at the moment by cybercrime through someone way down in the chain who accidentally succumbs to a phishing scam and hands over the keys to the kingdom. I'll just open that up to anybody on this panel. Is there a case for something like this to be singled out as a mandatory component?

Bridget Wibrow (18:45)
Cybersecurity, as you said, it's definitely something that everyone needs to be aware of in the workplace. Because, you click on a dodgy link in an email, it can bring down your entire work network. But in fact, there was a recent cybersecurity cross-sector project led by Skills for Australia, which has developed vocational training in cybersecurity relevant to multiple industries. And these cross-sector units were endorsed at the end of the year.

Bridget Wibrow (19:11)
So, what's really important about having these units of competency that can be used across sectors is that they can help fill in skills or knowledge gaps for the current workforce. So, it means people can upskill without having to complete a full qualification. And if you think about it, if you did your training 20 years ago, these sorts of things would not have been covered. So, it would help with those sorts of workers.

Steve Davis (19:34)
And I suppose some of that, there's a psychological aspect. Suzi, if I can turn to you, typical of many organisations like yours, there'd be pockets of people who just say, "No, no, I don't need to do any of this digital stuff. It doesn't impact me." How do you address that? How do you work out who needs what level and what mode of training within an organisation, from your experience?

Suzi Kuti (20:01)
Yes, that's a great point and I have found over the years that there are pockets of that, resistance to change and resistant to adopting new technology. I've worked with some trainers who just refuse to embrace a new tool. Look, it is challenging. And I think as we move into the new era of technology we've got to really keep pace with what's happening in the workplace and embrace these types of devices and technology to ensure that our workers are skilled and we are minimising the impact on operations.

Suzi Kuti (20:45)
We did find at MTS that there was very little resistance to the acceptance of the new Suite digital tool. They really embraced that and they engage with it really well. When we moved into the classroom learning we found that the engagement levels were very low. So, I guess to deal with those sorts of challenges is to probably spend a little bit of time beforehand when you're in that development stage to talk about the new tools, to get some experience, get the users playing with the materials in the sand pit, getting them touching and playing with the materials to see how the technology works, to really get their buy-in and get them feeling comfortable with it.

Suzi Kuti (21:31)
Quite often, I feel that the reticence is probably more from fear and they don't feel comfortable delivering, using the new sort of learning tool because they haven't had to play with it before. When we launched a different program using augmented reality and had the headsets on, we had a lot of trouble with the trainers picking it up quickly. They just couldn't get it. So, there was a lot more time spent getting them more familiar and comfortable with that. But to me, the key, I think, for learning is a higher degree of experiential learning, making sure that we're taking that learning out of the classroom and into the workplace.

Suzi Kuti (22:18)
So, we do a lot more training on the stations, on the trains, and we've found that the students really respond well to that. They feel very empowered and engaged. We use more of a perpetual accreditation model, which is shorter sessions, higher frequency, so that the students can build that muscle memory and really retain all that knowledge and improve their skills in the workplace, which leads to more, I guess, that e-learning and agile learning micro modules, which gives the student or the learner more flexibility and more choices of when they learn and how they learn.

Steve Davis (23:04)
If there's one theme I've noticed in my years working with NCVER and just out in society, it's that life and career is just going to get harder and demand more of us all the time. And I want to turn back to the educators' good practice guide here, Michelle, because there is a section there that talks about how educators need to ground their learning in workforce reality and the suggestions are educators joining industry associations. But also, people from industry getting involved with educators. I mean, it's a two-way street and demanding. Is that realistic?

Michelle Circelli (23:44)
Well, I guess for many VET educators it's not unrealistic as they also are still working in the industry. But for those who are working full-time as a VET educator, I mean, there are ways that they can engage with the industry such as through online forums, joining LinkedIn groups, joining relevant industry associations. But acknowledging that for so many of us, and as you said, Steve, doing such things does take additional commitment and energy on top of our already busy workloads, I'm sure. But it is interesting to pick up on what Suzi was saying about that experiential element that really helps learners. Well, the same thing surely should apply to VET educators. So, to bring in that experiential, to see actually what they're teaching, how it is actually applied in the real world.

Michelle Circelli (24:36)
But it is, it is definitely a two-way street. And we do suggest in the good practice guide that one way is to ensure industry currency is to bring in the industry experts to the learning science and to share the latest technologies and learnings with the educators. But I guess for that to happen, one of the key elements is that you have to have organisational support to allow that. That is really, really important because it's all very well for us to say, "Educators need to go and do PD and they need to go and join various groups," and what have you, but if they're not getting the support from the organisation, so if they're not getting either the financial support or the time off work, the educators shouldn't be expected to develop their own digital skills capability on their own or in isolation, as it were. And that's a very common term that we're throwing about these days.

Steve Davis (25:32)
Yes. Suzi, what's your quick reaction to the thought of VET educators descending en masse at the workplace to take up this integration process?

Suzi Kuti (25:45)
I would welcome it. I think that's great. I mean, our success has really been based on the educator and the employer working hand in hand. I really see it as a true partnership. We approach it as a co-delivery model. And I'm going to be quite controversial here and suggest that the whole architecture needs to be flipped. At the moment, it's very educator-led. The experience I've had in the past is when we've gone out and tried to partner with an RTO and deliver accredited training, we've been dictated to into how it would be delivered. We had very little say and input into the program.

Suzi Kuti (26:23)
So, I kind of feel like there's a lot of training and a lot of learning that happens anyway in the workplace and really that should be looked at, harnessed, and then looking back to the training package, back to the qualification and seeing how does that align? Where are the gaps? And making it very employer specific and putting, really, the customer or the employer first. That the educator should be there to support the learning and work together to reach that goal. I still feel it's very regulated and very inflexible in terms of what we can do. And for me, it's about providing the roadmap with some guidance of how to get there, but we shouldn't be letting the rules dominate the process and stifle innovation.

Michelle Circelli (27:14)
And I wonder, Suzi, the federal government have got those skills organisation pilots that are happening at the moment and there's one that's specifically focused on the digital technology area. And I know whilst where you work is not specifically digital technologies, but they've got some pilots happening in the health sector and mining. And the idea, I believe, of those pilots is to work extensively with industry to really direct the VET focus and the learning. So, I don't know if you've got a view on that and whether or not you think that that might help flip the way that we actually do VET these days.

Suzi Kuti (27:59)
I think that sounds very promising and certainly the discussions around that are heading in the right direction. I mean, I've worked in both sides. I worked for the largest VET provider in the Southern Hemisphere for 13 years and then now I've moved onto the other side as in working in industry and as an employer. So, I have seen both sides of the spectrum. And when you do things with a like-minded educator, you can really make wonderful things happen. You can really get such great results. And it really just requires a more consultative, flexible, open-minded approach. As I said before, it's a 50/50 partnership. It's not one party having dominance over the other or dictating business. It's more of a collaborative effort with a common agenda, which is getting our workers skilled, making sure they're confident and competent to do their jobs and making sure that they can go home safely at the end of the day.

Steve Davis (29:01)
Hearing this positive disposition towards collaboration, there's just something nagging me at heart. And it was an example, the WA government, South Metropolitan TAFE and Rio Tinto collaborated to develop some qualifications and skill sets in automation to meet future needs of industry. One of the outcomes was to make sure what they came up with could be applied across industry, not just for Rio Tinto. What I don't understand is what's in it for Rio Tinto? It seems like largess to be stepping in. Am I misunderstanding that, Bridget?

Bridget Wibrow (29:42)
Well, I can't speak for Rio Tinto specifically, but what's my understanding from this case study is, yes, they provided the funding to develop these qualifications. But also, as part of that process, they had other industry representatives involved just to help ensure that the skills were needed by everyone and were best practice and stuff. But also from our research and the forum participants, other benefits for employees in being involved in developing the VET training is that they're at the forefront of the training and they're seen as an industry leader. They're also able to specify what skills are required in the training and ensure any practical elements or simulations meet the current best practice. So these employers, not only are they helping the VET sector with developing the training, it also helps for the employers to ensure that their current and future workers are undertaking training that will meet their needs.

Steve Davis (30:50)
Unfortunately, time is really pushing against us at the moment. And I want to finish on the note of time. The Joyce Review noted some time ago that it can take 12 months to even a few years to create new qualifications, by which time sometimes those qualifications are out-of-date. So, I'll turn to all of you one by one, if you've got a thought about this. I'll start with you, Suzi. With that dilemma of the time lag, how much of that progress do you think depends on VET educators incorporating digital skills themselves as being the thing that slows down this ability to adapt?

Suzi Kuti (31:26)
That's a tough one, to be honest. I had a thinking about that. I mean, if we're looking at training packages, the cycle for the upgrades, it can take a few years. Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, so I wonder how we could keep those both to align. I actually would say that the focus really should be more on the actual technology access to the actual technology in terms of its development. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of support for that as an employer. If we wanted to utilise those sort of technologies, we'd have to look at investing that. So, I put the question out there, is there any plan for some sort of government subsidy or support mechanisms where employers, organisations could work with educators in accessing these vital tools, digital tools?

Steve Davis (32:23)

Bridget Wibrow (32:24)
There is the risk that the training is already out-of-date by the time it can be delivered, but I also think on a positive note this is something that's recognised and is being looked at in the VET Reform Roadmap. So, it is something that they're looking at to streamline, so that can only be a good thing.

Steve Davis (32:42)

Michelle Circelli (32:44)
Yeah, the time lag is difficult. And I think, as you were suggesting, there's a period of adaption. So, we do have to start investing in the digital skills capability of our VET educators. I'd like to think that once you start doing that, and that will take a lot of money and a lot of effort and should probably be looked at more nationally, but if you start doing that and there has to be a point at which the VET educators, their baseline level of skills, for a start, have risen. And so, therefore their ability to keep up with changing technologies may be better. And so, the lag in their knowledge in terms of how the technology is changing may lessen. But also, just to end, I think there's another interesting part or point about collaboration, which Suzi sort of alluded to there, about how we can better collaborate and be working very closely with the actual developers of the technology themselves. So right from the very outset, they're developing it with the pedagogy in mind, not trying to retrofit it.

Steve Davis (33:50)
On that note, Michelle and Bridget from NCVER, thank you for joining us.

Michelle Circelli (33:56)
Thank you for having us.

Bridget Wibrow (33:58)
Thank you.

Steve Davis (33:58)
A special thanks to Suzi for showing that there is a positive light at the end of the tunnel.

Suzi Kuti (34:05)
Thanks so much, Steve. It's a pleasure.

Steve Davis (34:06)
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