Olena Bekh

The green and digital foundations helping Ukraine to build back better

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused widespread destruction and, according to the United Nations, adversely affected the education of 5.7 million children and seen at least 130 vocational education and training (VET) institutions damaged and destroyed.  The country has, however, proved to have some powerful assets, which include an advanced online learning infrastructure (due to the pandemic), high levels of inter-ministerial communication, and an advanced digital platform for e-governance (Diia). Despite the enormous current challenges, these strengths are contributing to Ukraine’s resilience and reconstruction.

The European Training Foundation (ETF), as the EU agency which supports human capital development through reforms of VET systems and employment policies in EU neighbouring countries, is assisting Ukraine in this process.  But as Olena Bekh, the ETF’s Senior Human Capital Development Expert and Coordinator for Innovative Teaching and Learning, explains, the idea is not just to replace what was there before, but to ‘build back better’ by incorporating green and digital technologies into a future state-of-the-art country.

“Ukraine is full of minefields and destroyed buildings, so whatever happens, there will be a lot of reconstruction,” says Bekh. “If some heavy industries have been bombed or seized, then they have to be left in the past, because the future must be green, digital and highly advanced.”

E-learning in times of conflict

In early 2022, the ETF joined forces with Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science and a group of local employers and VET providers in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, to pilot the collection of e-learning resources from the EU which could be adapted to the Ukrainian context.  Entitled, UA Re-Emerge(ncy): e-learning and skills development to rebuild Ukraine, it focused on three, key areas of skills – energy efficiency, construction and restoration, and green energy.  From this, eight blocks of competences for learners were identified as being the most important and relevant for the immediate reconstruction needs.

“During discussions we realised that it would be better to provide e-learning for short, targeted learning experiences or ‘micro-credentials’, which provide a record of learning outcomes acquired after completing a short course.  This flexible approach is particularly suited to disadvantaged and vulnerable learners, such as temporarily displaced adults, refugees or those who are unemployed, as it provides access to a ‘short cut’ to interim employment upon completion of a short course.” 

These eight blocks of competences can prepare a learner for a certificate that corresponds to European requirements for a micro-credential, and this helps people to develop their knowledge, skills and competences. The ETF’s experts developed the innovative and flexible micro-credential template and mapped it to the Ukrainian system and ensured the eight learning programmes contain both European guidelines and Ukrainian linkages. 

“It is a very complicated process, which is why we have partnered with the French Agency for Adult Learning (AFPA), and two large European training provider networks EVTA and EVBB,” says Bekh. “It is much more productive to work strategically with big partners than collect small pieces and have to translate them for our Ukrainian learners – that would never cover the need and the material would all be scattered.”

Some argue that micro-credentials might not be accepted by employers.

“Not just employers but anyone, because they are new,” Bekh replies. “However, they are a concept that supports flexibility – you could have many micro-credentials to build your own professional career profile. Some systems operate with more classical qualifications, like in Germany, for example, while others are more flexible, like in France or Finland. Employers in Ukraine were very receptive to this approach and repeated on many occasions that for them it is a very interesting collaboration and an opportunity to learn from different countries.”

Benchmarking qualifications

The ETF has also been assisting with the certification and updating of qualifications through a comparative study of the Ukrainian and European Frameworks.

“Both the learning programmes and the methodological approaches we are developing are also linked with the full qualifications in Ukraine – so we will be able to map on the one side the Ukrainian qualification system (NQF) and on the other, the European system (EQF). Given Ukraine’s European candidate status, there will also be a need to match the policies and procedures, so we are working at system level on that,” she adds. “The comparison of the Ukrainian NQF and the EQF that was completed recently is a big step forward.”

Virtual Reality in a war zone

The ETF’s Network of Excellence – GRETA programme (Greening Responses to Excellence Through Thematic Actions), which launched on 7 December 2021 and focuses on greening of curricula, has 17 active Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) from eight countries. Incredibly, eight of the centres are from Ukraine, testimony to just how central the green transition is to education and training in the country.

In addition, at the European Vocational Skills Week in 2022, the European Commission awarded ETF's GRETA programme a ‘special mention’ as part of its VET Excellence Awards. In particular, the special mention recognised the strategic approaches implemented by Ukraine to incorporate green and digital skills into its training programmes. And this, at a time when the country was facing incredible and unprecedented challenges.  How did it do that?

“I can tell you from my two decades of working with Ukraine that it is amazing - that’s the reason! There is a well-known example of Russia attacking Ukrainian servers and key governmental institutions but failing to destroy any data centres or critical digital infrastructure, because Ukraine has been focused for some years now development of its critical digital infrastructure and data centres. Some years ago, it produced ‘Diia’, which is both a government platform and an app that gives Ukrainians digital passports, driving licences and access to so many governmental services. The ETF cooperates on a number of issues with the Ministry of Digital Transformation which drives many developments of high international value. Ukraine has many excellent organisations with strong capacity, so for me to learn that such a high percentage of CoVEs were from Ukraine is not surprising.” Bekh explains.

The ETF has also built a public-private collaboration with a virtual reality (VR) learning provider to support learners in Ukraine with practical workplace skills. “Employers are working under huge pressure and demonstrate incredible resilience, the Dnipro region, for example, is under missile attack almost every week. The economy must not fail, so to give learners an opportunity to gain practical skills while minimising pressure on employers we can use VR. In some occupations it is even better to be trained virtually: for example, in electro-welding a trainee can ‘burn’ a lot of material at zero cost, and then we can use VR to assess their skills.”

“We are also delighted to join forces with the International Labour Organization (ILO), our partners in setting up some pilot centres where immersive learning will be supported due to the provision of several VR sets in each,” she continues. “We are currently launching two VR-based learning modules, and if it goes well, we hope to extend it.”

Ukraine has ambitious aspirations for a better future by applying green and advanced digital technology, despite the relentless pressures caused by the ongoing Russian aggression.

“For us VR is nothing strange during a war,” Bekh concludes, “on the contrary, it is just the right moment to do it.”

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