Vocational excellence conference delegates' react to ETF case studies on applied research, greening and digitalisation

At ETF's two-day conference in Turin, 10 -11 Novembre, ("Building a Strong International Cooperation on Vocational Excellence"), three flagship studies - on the role of centres of vocational excellence in the digital and green transitions and applied research - were presented to 90 delegates from 20 different countries.

The three studies, introduced by ETF's Stefan Thomas and Inna Dergunova, showcase how very different Centres of Vocational Excellence (COVEs) from across the globe are driving transformation and reinventing vocational education.

In the digitalisation study, the importance of a whole-institutional approach was clear, requiring strategies for both "internal" and "external" digitalisation: not only the digitalisation of the curriculum and learning environment, including gamification and the continuous upskilling of teachers, but also collaboration with industry and external stakeholders to refine digital learning programmes, organise placements and provide funding. 

The green transition study unearthed contrasting approaches, with some centres preferring a flexible and evolving approach, and others opting for fixed goals and action plans. Because of the rapid evolution of green technologies, many COVEs are moving away from a fixed syllabus in favour of nurturing critical, independent thinking and practical, hands-on experiences.

The greening of the campus, and of courses for professions considered "non-green", was seen as essential, as was collaboration with industry partners and the seeking of inspiration from across the globe.

The study into COVE's applied research practises revealed widespread benefits for students: engagement in real-world research developed their soft-skills - teamwork, communication, presentation skills, problem-solving and leadership capabilities - as well as familiarising them with concrete work-place issues around budgeting and time management.

Through applied research, students became not just the recipients of new knowledge, but the co-creators of it. At the same time they gained labour-market insights and opportunities to improve their CVs and cognitive competences.

The benefits to COVEs of applied research were equally clear: a diversification of funding, the retention of intellectual property rights and deepening links to external stakeholders.

Responding to the research, Karolina Sikala, International Coordinator at the Green Academy (Denmark) described how the green and digital transitions go hand in hand: "for us, 'green' isn't just a word, it's something we're trying to model, with solar panels and green roofs full of insects. We're trying to make sustainability visible".

Anass Ait Laachir, from IFMEREE (Morocco), echoed the point: "we're already autonomous and self-sufficient in terms of energy during the day. These installations - wind power, solar panels - increase awareness within civil society, popularising clean energy."

"We're trying", said Sikala, "to go to the next level in digitalisation. One of our teachers has created an app so that you can click on all the plants on our campus and get lots of information. We've bought virtual reality glasses so that - instead of damaging thousands of real trees - students can learn to prune virtual ones."

Virtual reality is also used, said Sikala, to see in advance if students are scared to work at height. "We can give foreign students a guided tour of the campus before they arrive."

Many delegates emphasised that the greatest obstacle to both transitions is capital costs. "The hardest thing", said Najib Hamouti, Head of the International Relations at ESITH (Morocco) "is how to implement this strategy, because there's always a price you pay for it. Maybe you have to replace your heating machinery with PV panels or invest in new software."

Tamar Zakarashvili, Director of Georgia's college Construct 2, agreed: "The biggest challenge is that there are not sufficient funds for the transitions. Innovation is very fast - this year we have one type of product, then a new product next year. The college can't buy a new device every year. There's a limited budget and you have to live with it."

But she highlighted one way they resolve the issue. "We outsource the practical parts of the syllabus: if a company has the custom part we need, the students can go to the company, although you don't want a newcomer to hop on a $3million caterpillar and do serious damage!"

Many delegates identified an ageing, often conservative teaching staff as an obstacle to digitalisation. "Teachers who are used to doing things in a traditional way feel challenged", said Nino Revishvili, Institutional Development Leader at Skills Agency Georgia, "especially in vocational education which is about doing things with your hands."

But according to Revishvili, teachers are becoming appreciative of the transformation: "digitalisation can simplify their daily routine. Teachers always complain that they do not have enough time to work on practical tasks. Digital platforms are thus an opportunity: everything on the instruction side can be placed on a digital platform, so that face-to-face time is spent on what they really want to teach, the practical side."

There's also the challenge of knowing what to buy. "It's not always easy to get advice", said Hamouti, "it's not easy to purchase the right software. You can buy the services of a platform which turns out to be rubbish, expensive and costly. We were not advised well and made mistakes in our purchasing..."

The need for cooperation with externals - other colleges, companies and countries - was a constant throughout the conference. "What was inspiring for me", said Lilia Zestrea, Head of Life Long Learning at the Centre of Excellency in Construction (Moldova), "was seeing how collaboration between Government, VET centres and economic agencies can work, hearing good examples and practises."

Zestrea maintained that building materials are evolving so fast that "companies come to us to explain what is going on with hempcrete, straw and smart (passive-heating) houses. We go to their sites, and they give us materials to show our students. Without company involvement it's hard to develop competences in cutting edge materials."

"Construction is one of the most rapidly evolving industries”, Zakarashvili said, “and every new technology affects a company's success. If the company is involved in VET, VET schools receive information very fast, and companies can find well-trained employees."

"When a new material - the ytong block, a sort of aerated brick - was being introduced, the information came to us right away because we have the biggest construction company in Georgia as a founder, and it took only a month or two to redesign courses and include it in the curriculum. That's why it's crucially important to be involved in private sector."

Those connections can also help with the content and duration of the curricula. “When we were creating a new module on biodiversity”, said Sikala, “we didn't know where to start so we asked within our network. One partner said 'we already have a course, contact Heidi, she'll help you'. It hugely sped up the process of developing a new course. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, just adjust it and make it run faster.”

Zestrea described how understanding workplace contexts can help fill courses. "Initially we were offering long courses, for say three months, and it was difficult for workers to participate for that length of time. So we altered our training courses, making them only two or three days long, and that clearly suited workers and their companies.”

Delegates frequently highlighted how vital international links were for their campuses. “The international dimension is very important for economic development”, said Laurent Renaux, from the Association Campus d'Excellence Industrie du futur - Sud (France). “To be making helicopter parts in Romania and Germany is a very good way to leverage cooperation, convergence and a recognition of competences.”

Renaux maintained that COVEs have “an important role in creating citizens of the world. That’s why we have partnerships developing software in South Africa.”

“We don’t just train for the sake of training”, said Ait Laachir, “we are trying to improve our training offering to integrate people into the labour market. We work a lot with the British Council and with some universities in Northern Ireland, with another in Exeter, another in Africa. We’re training the trainers in Senegal in order to launch a new factory there...”

There was widespread enthusiasm about the benefits to COVEs of conducting practical research on behalf of external stakeholders. “We have an R&D department", said Hamouti, "and from the very outset research has been applied and we’re working with companies so that it becomes an income generator. It's a virtuous circle, enabling us to enrol more PhD students and give them scholarships. If it's our research, we can also protect the patent."

"With textiles”, he said, “there's always something to improve. We worked with a famous company in the automotive sector on the textiles for their upholstery in order to make more sophisticated coverings..."

Closing the conference, Manuela Geleng, Director of Skills at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said “the work that the ETF has done has been very helpful. COVEs are a bottom-up approach that links together different centres, building bridges across regions, countries and borders and the ETF has a vital role in connecting the dots that are out there.”

“Vocational education will be at the forefront of the deep transformations we are living through. The ETF is making sure there is coherence in the approach to really support transformation, competitiveness and social fairness.”

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