Vocational education and training in Europe has many similarities but also many differences. The countries participating in the Dig4VET project follow this pattern also. A basic aspect of vocational training is directly linked to the definition of VET as education and training which aims to equip people with knowledge, know-how, skills and competences required in particular occupations or more broadly on the labour market (Cedefop, 2014). European VET is changing in many ways and the pandemic has forced this process. Responding to rapidly changing demographics, technologies and labour market, European VET is diversifying its programmes and qualifications and becoming more digital (Kampylis et al., 2015). To gain a broader understanding of digital skills and recent development directions in VET especially in partnering countries, we conducted a brief desk research. Partnering countries also contributed to data collection and gathered previous findings of research or reports conducted at the national level.
Digital Competences and VET — National Characteristics in Partnering Countries
VET in Latvia
The Ministry of Education and Science steers and supervises vocational education and training in Latvia. VET programmes are mainly school-based, with practical learning periods at schools or workplaces (Cedefop 2018a). Vocational education curricula can be implemented also as an apprenticeship type system, nationally called workbased learning, with flexible implementations including close co-operation with working life. The Latvian Qualifications Framework has eight levels corresponding to the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) (Cedefop 2018a). The VET system in Latvia has passed through substantial reforms since 2009. The reforms have led to vocational secondary education with equal shares of work-based and school-based learning (Cedefop, 2018a). In the concept of work-based learning, vocational programmes include workshops at schools and in-company training. Overall, all initial vocational education and training (IVET) students are reported to be enrolled in combined work- and school-based programmes. (Cedefop, 2017; Daija et al., 2019.)
VET institutions offer both initial and continuing vocational education and professional development programmes. IVET is offered at the second, third and fourth levels of the Latvia qualification’s framework (and EQF). Continuing programmes lead to a certificate of professional qualification of EQF level 2–4. Professional development programmes do not lead to formal qualification. They enable people regardless of their previous education to master systematised professional competences corresponding to requirements of the labour market. Vocational education institutions provide mainly full-time studies. The qualification achieved in vocational secondary education gives access to higher education. Continuing VET is offered at EQF levels 4 and 5, requiring a VET qualification or relevant competences. Higher education programmes can be academic or professional (EQF levels 5 to 8). Higher education institutions, including colleges provide full time, part-time and distance studies at all levels. (Daija et al., 2019.)
National Development Plan is the highest national-level medium-term planning document in Latvia. One goal stated in the National Development Plan of Latvia for 2021-2027 is “quality education for the acquisition of knowledge and skills applicable in business and daily -life for every inhabitant of the country”. Improving digital skills and introducing digital solutions in learning environment are mentioned as ways to measure actions (Cross-Sectoral Coordination Centre of the Republic of Latvia, 2020). In the Digital Transformation Guidelines for 2021-2027 it is stated that the national goal is to provide the opportunity to continuously and, on individual demand, acquire digital skills for everyday life, business, science, and research in order to move towards a society that bases its well-being on the effective use of digital technologies and creative development (Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, 2020). The document sets long-term strategic guidelines for Latvian digital development and changes to be implemented in all areas of economy and life. This strategy refers to the EU Digital Competences Framework and investment in the development of digital competences throughout the education system in Latvia is recognized as one of the key directions in the strategy (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, 2020a).
According to Daija et al. (2020), VET initiatives concerning digitalization are rapidly developed and implemented in Latvia, at both national and school level. At national level, contents of vocational education are reformed for flexible learning options, including implementation of modular vocational education programmes consisting of components focusing on, e.g., information and communication technologies. Schools can respond quickly to the entry of new technologies required in the working environment, which is appreciated by employers. In order to enhance teachers’ digital skills, digital literacy (DL) courses are organised for VET teachers both at national level and locally, offering new digital learning opportunities for teachers at the schools. These courses aim to help teachers in inspirational learning design by teaching the use of modern technologies and offering materials, for example, for digital pedagogy; tools to scaffold the learning process and digital assessment. One challenge in developing digital skills of VET instructors, is to engage teachers with lower lever digital skills in learning new technologies. It has been noted that teachers who already have experience with digital skills are also more eager to develop them (Daija et al., 2020). According to Rūdolfa’s (2018) research, the emergent nature of technological development was difficult to reconcile in the Latvian educational system. One of the problems was that pedagogical actors are not able to fully use the opportunities of digital solutions.
At the end of March 2020, wide surveys were launched in Latvia to evaluate the implementation of remote learning during the nation-wide Covid-19 outbreak in education. The surveys by Edurio for the Ministry of Education and Science of Latvia collected responses from over 27 000 parents, 23 000 students in vocational and secondary education, 9 600 teachers and 790 school heads. According to the research (Jenavs & Strods, 2020), teachers’, parents’ and students’ overall results were positive on managing to continue studies remotely. Teachers raised concern mainly for vulnerable students’ learning and those with less access to technology. 44 % of teachers also listed additional workload as one their top concerns during remote learning. Struggling with developing and adapting new materials, providing feedback, finding material, and planning remote learning might be factors contributing to the workload.
VET in Lithuania
The Ministry of Education is the main body responsible for developing and implementing national VET policy in Lithuania. The objectives of the National Education Strategy for 2013–2022 cover improving the quality of teaching, introducing a culture of education quality based on evidence, ensuring access to education and equal opportunities, and guaranteeing the efficiency of the education system and individuals’ learning decisions (OECD, 2021b).
In Lithuania, the admission to the newly developed modular vocational training programs was launched in 2015 (Cedefop, 2018c). IVET programmes are provided from lower secondary to tertiary education levels: Lower secondary two- or three- programmes, Lower secondary two- or three-year school-based programmes, Upper secondary two- or three-year school-based programmes, Upper secondary three-year programmes and Postsecondary one- or two-year programmes. Vocational education and training can be organised in school or apprenticeship formats.
The Lithuanian VET system comprises IVET at lower, upper and post-secondary levels, continuing vocational education and training (CVET) and higher education. VET is offered from lower secondary to post-secondary education in International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) levels 2–4, Lithuania qualification’s framework and EQF levels 2–5. Higher education colleges offer VET-oriented programmes leading to a professional bachelor’s degree at EQF level 6. EQF level 7 programmes are decided by universities. (Cedefop, 2018b; Cedefop, 2018).
Work-based learning plays a very small role in IVET. It can be school-based, including practical training, workshops simulating working conditions and training in enterprises (Cedefop, 2018c). Based on these facts there has been seeing a growing political interest in promoting apprenticeship and work-based learning in VET. The popularity of apprenticeship VET programmes raised, and numbers of learners doubled in the period of 2014–2018, but still the account is only 3 % of all VET learners (Hogeforster & Wildt, 2020; Cedefop, 2018c). 40% of VET institutions already offer apprenticeship programmes and the new legislation’s objective is to increase the share of apprenticeship students to 20 % of all VET graduates (Cedefop, 2020b).
Digital competence is listed as a key competence in VET in Lithuania and it is promoted at national and regional level (Cedefop, 2016). There are policy documents as well as regulations to support the development of this competence. For VET teachers’ professional development purposes, teachers can participate in various continuing professional development courses. Digital transformation has a significant impact on all aspects of life in Lithuania and the COVID-19 has accelerated the digitalization of learning and work (OECD, 2020b).
According to the Survey of Adults Skills (OECD, 2016) results, Lithuanian adults showed below-average proficiency in problem-solving, in technology rich environments compared to other participating OECD countries. The Survey of Adult Skills focused on three key information-processing skills that were literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in a technology-rich environment, that refers to the capacity to access, interpret and analyse information found, transformed, and communicated in digital environments (OECD, 2016). Every fifth (20.9 %) of Lithuanian adults had no prior experience with computers or lacked basic computer skills and over half (54.6 %) scored at level 1 or below in problem solving in technology-rich environments. This means the capability of using only widely available and familiar technological applications, such as e-mail or a web browser, to solve problems involving few steps, simple reasoning and little or no navigation across applications (OECD, 2016).
According to Kaminskienė and Chu’s (2021) extensive study of Lithuanian school leaders’, Covid-19 pandemic has required collective efforts from schools and teachers’ strong autonomy to deal with the challenges of sudden transition to distance education, during the school lockdown. Main challenges that occurred during distance education were (p. 130):
- poor responsiveness of students,
- evaluation and assessment of students’ achievements,
- ensuring equal opportunities for all students and,
- maintaining regular communication with parents and caregivers.
Uncertainty about students’ learning outcomes was an emergent concern upon schools’ reopening. Another recognised challenge was keeping contact with students and maintaining their engagement during the learning process. To tackle these challenges there were three actions pointed out in the article: increasing the interactivity of work, making better use of the peer-to-peer network, and emphasising self-guided learning (Kaminskienė & Chu, 2021). The face-to-face instructions are mentioned as the central pillar in the back-to-school process also in UNICEF’s (2020) recommendation to educators. Rapid transition is seen as a common challenge, but technology also supports the turbulent disruption for instance allowing teachers to notice struggling students when in remote teaching. However, teachers also need enough time and space to get used to applying these new digital platforms that offer easy-access-data on the immediate progress of students (Hegarty, 2020).
VET in Portugal
In Portugal, both vocational education and training, as well as adult education and training are the joint responsibility of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (EC, Eurydice, 2022). Higher education is the responsibility of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education. Portugal has been investing heavily on the role of VET in public education and training policies, either through its extension to the public-school network, or through the definition and creation of other training offers of a vocational nature (The Directorate-General for Employment and Labor Relations, DGERT, 2019). According to EC (2016) report, the main challenges of VET providers in Portugal are to increase youth employment and foster the ability to face social exclusion and disadvantages. Due to low level of qualifications and high levels of underachievement at school and school dropout, there is an urgent need to target public policies especially to those who are not in employment, education, or training.
Since 2009, compulsory education has been extended to 12 years of schooling, comprising two major stages: basic education (1st–9th year) and secondary education (10th–12th year) (DGERT, 2019). VET in Portugal offers a wide range of programmes (EQF level 4): professional programmes, education and training programmes for young people, apprenticeship programmes and art education programmes. These programmes are flexible in type and duration and lead to a double certification: an education and professional certification. VET for adults is an integral part of the national qualification system, having education and training programmes and identification and validation of prior learning as key elements (DGERT, 2019). Tertiary education is offered in universities and polytechnic institutions. Higher education programmes can be general and VET programmes (EQF levels from 5 to 8). Responding to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal has increased its focus on revitalising adult learning by supporting both the up- and reskilling of adults and the transition towards a digital economy (Cedefop, 2021).
Approximately 40 % of upper secondary education learners attend VET programmes which grant double certification: education and professional certification. They comprise four components: general, scientific, technological training and WBL. Depending on the type of VET programme, the amount of WBL in general varies between 14 % to 40 %. Share of WBL can also be determined individually. WBL is usually divided between workshops in VET institutions and learning at workplaces. In apprenticeship training, work-based learning is emphasised, and students spend 40 % of their time in workplace training. In contrast, in professional courses only about 19-27% of students’ time is spent in workplace training. (DGERT, 2016; DGERT, 2019; Liebowitz et al., 2018.)
Key competences, or as in Portugal also called basic competences, have been included in national legislation on secondary general and vocational education and training since 2001 but more attention has been paid to them since 2009 (Ferreira, 2016). One of the key competences is digital competence and it is a compulsory subject for all VET programmes at upper secondary education. Digital competence is also a subject of continuing training for VET teachers and trainers.
In several recent policy documents, promoting digital competence has been one key focus in Portugal (Cedefop, 2021). The Portugal INCoDe.2030 is the National digital competences initiative for 2030 and together with the Industry 4.0 (National strategy for the digitalization of the economy), they form an integrated public policy to enhance digital competences in Portugal. The INCoDe.2030 (2018) aims at providing the population with the right competences to use digital technologies effectively. The purpose of these is to strengthen the basic ICT skills of the Portuguese population and prepare them for digital based employment opportunities (Ferreira, 2020).
Teaching and Learning International Survey TALIS (OECD, 2018) provides information about the use of technologies in Portugal before the COVID-19 pandemic. On average in OECD countries, only a bit more than half of lower secondary teachers (53 %) reported letting students use ICT for projects or class work frequently or always. In Portugal, the number was a bit higher than that (57 %). 47 % of teachers reported that use of ICT for teaching was included in their formal education or training which is lower than average in TALIS. However, 88 % of teachers felt they could support student learning using digital technology quite a bit or a lot and that is higher than average in the survey.
It is important that teachers get access to in-service training to update their digital skills because learning technologies are changing rapidly (OECD, 2020c). Based on TALIS, 59 % of Portuguese teachers agreed or strongly agreed that most teachers in the school are open to change, which is lower than the average of OECD countries. Also, participation in collaborative professional learning at least once a month was very low (5 %) in Portugal, since the average in participating countries was 21 %. (OECD, 2018).
The Portuguese education system’s initial response to COVID-19 pandemic included several actions (OECD, 2020d). As in most countries, the majority of educational institutions were closed during the spring 2020, when the pandemic hit. Securing the continued access to the learning possibilities and to the flexible educational pathways, were the key factors that ensured the education system’s successful responses to the challenges caused by the pandemic. In Portugal, the Support Schools website was established to share tools, resources, and guidance for online learning. Further, Training for Digital Teaching -online course was launched with around 750 schools and school clusters registered already for the first session. Teachers were also sharing resources via online communities and uploading classes to YouTube. In higher education, learning and assessment continued through digital platforms. Targeted support was provided for vulnerable children and families. From the point of digital skills, these actions included providing technical support to teachers and schools and supporting families to transition to online learning (OECD, 2020d).
The Role of Leaders, Teachers, Students and WBL Tutors in VET
VET Leaders Manage and Lead Development
The Handbook and the Competence Framework for VET Professions (Volmari et al., 2009) hope to contribute to a wider understanding of the roles and responsibilities of VET professionals in the development of vocational education and training. The descriptions developed by Cedefop and the Finnish National Board of Education reflect the complex activities and competences required of those working within vocational education and training. The role of VET leaders is defined as “one or several persons in charge of VET institutions, such as vocational upper secondary institutions and further education colleges or training centres providing continuing vocational education and training” (p. 10). The main responsibilities of VET leaders are the overall responsibility for the running of an institution, and the implementation and development of a new curriculum, and student advisory services and students’ social needs, as well as managing networks. Later, the increasing evidence of the importance of leadership in education was emphasised in Cedefop (2011a) working paper. VET institutions should widely acknowledge the role of those managing and leading. VET leaders are crucial in implementing reforms and policy initiatives.
In the recent OECD (2021a) report, VET leaders are referred to individuals who are appointed or employed in a recognised leadership position to oversee VET programmes and institutions and have responsibility for the goals set by VET institutions. The same report states the roles of VET leaders. They play a crucial role in the learning environment. Their task of developing and supporting teachers to engage multiple stakeholders and improving the quality of VET through the allocation of resources and provision of instructional guidance has given them a very special responsibility.
The world of work changes constantly, and VET must change accordingly. The skills the labour market needs are changing and increasing, reinforcing the need for VET teachers to keep up to date with the changes of the labour market. The unique role of VET leaders is to attract and retain VET teachers with the right skills and to provide them with new opportunities for professional development (OECD, 2021a). With this respect, the ability of managing networks is even more important in a changing labour market.
VET Teachers – Competent Dual-Professionals
VET teachers are generally recognised as being “dual professionals” – requiring knowledge and skills in the industry areas for which they teach, and the ability to convey those skills to students, as well as need to update their knowledge continuously in response to changes in technology and working practices (Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; OECD, 2021a). The UNESCO-UNEVOC´s (2020) Future of TVET teaching report states that employees in today’s workplaces need not just occupation-specific and technical skills but also stronger basic, digital and soft skills.
The VET teacher identity can be seen as dual, an occupational identity and a teacher identity, being shaped through participation in and boundary crossings between different communities of practice: work in their initial occupational practice, teaching in the practice of VET, and learning through teacher training (Köpsen, 2014; Vähäsantanen & Hämäläinen, 2019). The dual VET teacher identity to be an ongoing balancing act and identity formation, mainly due to VET teachers’ boundary processes and boundary crossings within a landscape of communities of practice related to their teaching. Furthermore, there can be the harmonious and ensioned relationships between these elements of the work and teachers’ identities (Köpsen, 2014; Vähäsantanen & Hämäläinen, 2019).
VET teachers prepare young people for work by teaching not only occupational skills but also transversal skills, such as basic and soft skills. They support the students for the labour market with diverse backgrounds, including those who are struggling with studies, and adults in need of updated or improved skills. They also have the main responsibility for the learner and their overall progress. Interplay between working life and school is essential within VET, and VET teachers have a central role as the link between school and working life. VET teachers’ updating of their knowledge to retain industrial knowledge also requires interaction with and presence in working life where the occupational knowledge they teach is situated. Lehtonen et al. (2018) conducted the research on vocational teachers’ professional identities. The findings showed how boundary crossings between school and working life can be of value for VET teachers’ professional development, and for the development of teaching in alignment with working life.
By using the definition of OECD (2021a), the teaching workforce in VET programmes or institutions can be divided into two different types.
- VET teachers can be teachers of vocational subjects, regardless of programme orientation. These VET teachers teach vocational subjects in vocational and/or general programmes.
- VET teachers as teachers in VET programmes, regardless of the subjects they teach. These VET teachers teach any type of subject – including general subjects – in VET programmes, while general education teachers in this definition teach any type of subject in general programmes.
According to OECD (2021a) report the landscape of teaching and learning in VET is changing, as are the skills the labour market needs, reinforcing the need for VET teachers to keep abreast of new pedagogical approaches. For example, increasing demand for basic, digital and soft skills in the labour market means VET teachers need to have these competences, as well as foster the development of these skills in their students.
Vocational education teachers need opportunities to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. In particular, the close links between VET and working life practices bring new challenges to teachers’ competences. Vocational teachers’ views on their professional competence and cooperation with working life were examined by Lehtonen et al. (2018). The data was collected by interviews with vocational teachers who worked in the social and health service sector, construction work sector, and business sector. Vocational teachers’ competence was constructed based on cognitive, operational, social, and meta competence. The findings showed some important challenges in teachers’ working life cooperation. Cooperation was sometimes seen as balancing between the needs of students and workplaces. Teachers were even considered to have very limited opportunities to intervene when any problems occur. However, working life cooperation was described as favourable development of learning environments (Lehtonen et al., 2018).
Vocational Qualifications Relevant to the Labour Market Promote Employment and CPD
The participation in VET has many benefits for individuals. These benefits might include, for example, improved participation in society and active citizens. Some benefits, though, are not immediately realisable but may be thought of as being resources which students might draw on in future. These benefits include resilience and self-esteem. Learning may also enable personal development, increase social value and it may also enable individuals to sustain what they have achieved (Cedefop 2011b; 2020a). Citizens participate in different vocational programmes to acquire the knowledge, skills and competences specific to a particular occupation, trade, or class of occupations or trades (UNESCO, 2011). Successful completion of such programmes leads to vocational qualifications relevant to the labour market.
VET students have different pathways of educational progression, to achieve professional qualifications (Cedefop, 2020a; EC, 2018). IVET usually takes place during upper secondary education. It takes place in school and in workbased environments. This varies from country to country, depending on national systems. CVET is understood as job-related formal and non-formal education and training for adults following the completion of IVET, or this can take place after beginning working life. On average, 50 % of young Europeans aged 15–19 participate in IVET programmes at the upper-secondary level. However, the participation ranges from 15 % to more than 70 % in different regions (Cedefop, 2020a; EC, 2018).
According to Cedefop (2020a) research, one of the trends within VET is that it has become more flexible by increasing modularisation, and by allowing students to make more individual pathways or to use individual learning approaches. Furthermore, from the point of view of students an “age neutral” approach would need to give priority to the development of individual learning plans, for example accreditation of the prior learning and validation, and guidance services.
Work-based learning provides students with opportunities to develop practical skills related to their training and to apply them in workplace settings. Practical and conceptual skills can be learned through the combination of the classroom and the workplaces, as well through socialisation in the workplace. According to the European Training Foundation (EFT, 2013) report, WBL has the potential to offer VET students a variety of benefits. These range from the development of an individual’s expertise benefits (i.e. hard skills, technical expertise and tacit knowledge, and soft skills, other competences and behaviours), and to general benefits (i.e. socialisation and motivation). Apart from the benefits it clearly offers to students, WBL also has specific advantages for students. It has been shown to have a positive effect on self-confidence, self-efficacy and learner motivation, as well to develop career awareness and career management skills (Mäenpää, 2021). Mikkonen et al. (2017) also emphasise how the learners’ self-regulative skills can be of value for the learners’ prospects for developing expertise in workplaces. The learners’ skills, such as responsibility and the ability to take the initiative and to actively seek guidance, affect how guidance is afforded to their in the work community.
Achieving a Successful WBL Process
Work-based learning is a fundamental aspect of VET by serving as a springboard for jobs and belonging to society. WBL tutors play an important role in achieving a successful WBL process. They improve a citizen’s employability and opportunities in life by providing the skills and competences needed in the labour market and support personal development (EC, 2013). According to Cedefop (2020a) research, in the preceding 20 years in and across Europe, WBL within companies has become standard practice in any of the educational programmes.
When WBL is discussed in the context of vocational training, it is usually understood as apprenticeship training. Although two concepts are indeed closely interlinked, a separation does need to be made between them (Maurer, 2018). Cedefop (2014) defines WBL as a combination of training in a workplace and complementary classroom teaching and practical learning processes in VET school environments. One of various ways to organise WBL is apprenticeship, including long-term training alternating periods at the workplace and in an educational institution or training centre (Cedefop, 2014).
Workplace tutors, who implement and organise WBL in companies, have an important role with hands-on approach to practical learning guidance at the workplaces. As Mikkonen et al. (2017) notes, that guidance provided by tutors opens up opportunities for learners to participate in collective practices by gradually assuming more responsibility and more demanding tasks as their skills develop. Typically, they are experienced supervisors or advisers, responsible for promoting work-based learning or experiential learning in enterprises (ETF, 2018).
To have the same understanding of WBL process, quality standards and responsibilities of each side, Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have promoted and agreed on basic requirements for competences of WBL tutors, including core knowledge, skills and competences, and attitudes for working with WBL students (Krastiņa, 2020). The required competences are reflected in a common Baltic competence profile for WBL tutors. The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training and the UNEVOC network emphasised tutor profiles with two features, firstly the attitudes or experiences and personal background of the tutor and secondly tutor’s competences and skills for guidance (Jacinto et al., 2019).
Within the tutors’ role one can identify a number of challenges that can be due to the nature of the role. WBL mentor has an essential role to play in providing the necessary training to apprentices and other students in different workplace environments. From the point of view of promoting learning, it raises questions on how learning and training at workplaces are pedagogically led and how the connection between these two learning environments is arranged. According to Mikkonen et al. (2017), the workplace guidance is quite often disrupted by weakly defined responsibilities and lack of resources or guidance awareness at workplaces. Airila et al. (2019) also brought up the concern of poor guidance skills, and lack of the pedagogical and guidance resources in workplaces.
According to Cedefop (2015) research, WBL tutors are entrusted with training tasks more likely based on their substantial experience than training-related certificates. There are also states that policy-making should take more recognition to support tutors’ competence and professional development because those opportunities have been limited so far. Based on the research report (Kaikkonen et al. 2020), by training and coaching VET school tutors and workplace tutors together, can be generating closer and more diverse collaboration between educational institutions and enterprises or workplaces. Therefore, so-called tandem training can be considered useful overall, especially from the point of view of individuals’ knowledge, skills and attitudes.
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