Digital learning in VET: why COVID-19 is a wake-up call


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief both the need for and the inequalities in the use of digital tools in education and training. According to expert Andrew McCoshan, it is timely to think about where VET stands in relation to its use of digital tools.

VET in the initial part of education has some features that distinguish it from other educational sectors and affect how it can engage with digital learning. Two key features that have come to the fore with the pandemic crisis are: (i) VET’s unique combination of work-based, experiential learning of occupational “practice” and classroom-based learning of “theory”; and (ii) its learners, who have often (though by no means always) found traditional school education a less than rewarding experience, and who may also come from challenging socio-economic backgrounds.

To be beneficial, digital tools should not conflict with these distinctive features of VET. But, more than that, they should enable developments in teaching and learning that improve outcomes for learners.

Regarding VET’s learner base, COVID-19 has highlighted the scale of inequalities in our education systems, with young people from lower-income backgrounds unable to access the digital tools needed for remote learning. The tragedy of this situation is compounded by the fact that digital learning has the potential to support alternative pedagogies better suited to the learning styles of people disengaged by “traditional” pedagogies. It is almost a cliché to cite gaming in this context, but evidence is growing of the benefits of incorporating gaming elements into digital tools, such as the VRhoogte tool that teaches young people how to erect scaffolding. Gaming also helps to develop transversal skills like teamwork, where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may need support.

What of the other distinctive feature of VET – its focus on practical, experiential learning? COVID-19 has revealed the extent to which the work-based learning part of VET is lacking in digital tools to support remote experiential learning, despite their great potential. Immersive simulations like virtual and augmented reality are expensive to develop but can reduce the unit costs of learning, and provide new ways of teaching and assessing learners. Spray paint simulations like Simspray mean learners can spray-paint as often as they like and get instant feedback, which is more precise and detailed than is normally available. Moreover, ICT decouples learning from fixed times and places, which has the potential to supplant the physical separation of learning in two locations and to improve coordination of knowledge acquisition and practical learning, as in the REALTO platform. This is an area we have barely begun to explore.

There is a lack of evidence about digitalization in VET, but the little we have suggests that thus far technologies with the potential for more radical pedagogical change like simulations and games are less common than more basic technologies like digital text files, interactive whiteboards and digital cameras. The slow pace of engagement reflects a range of factors, which will vary from place to place. But, in the end, the depth of the effect on teaching and learning depends on both the inherent features of the digital tools in question and how teachers want to use them. The same digital technology may vary in its effects: in schools, the advent of the Internet and interactive whiteboards first enabled teachers and trainers to access more resources than ever before, whilst often there was little impact on learning processes; but the same technology also opens up possibilities for pedagogical change towards blended learning and flipped classrooms.

What makes the difference is how a technology is used. For this, both teachers and in-company trainers need to be given the right systemic supports – through training, impartial intermediary bodies that can help them navigate the confusing world of digital resources, and other measures. COVID-19 has revealed the negative consequences of not having such supports in place.

Andrew McCoshan

Dr Andrew McCoshan (@andrewmccoshan) has over 25 years’ experience in education and training, specialising in VET, and is a Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University. He is currently external consultant to the VET Working Group on innovation and digitalisation, coordinated by the European Commission.