Placing flexible learning at the heart of vocational education

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Invited Contribution

Oonagh McGirr, Deputy Chief Executive for Learning and Teaching Services at Otago Polytechnic and a Director of the Open Education Resource Foundation, currently seconded as Senior Advisor (Quality and Academic) to Te Pūkenga, highlights the opportunities to innovate through new strategies and systems, to place flexible learning at the heart of vocational education.

Innovating for inclusivity

Delivering flexible learning for vocational education

We are living in exciting times of change for tertiary education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Like many, our sector is being challenged as never before by the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, the effects of which are far-reaching and likely to be long-lasting. This global-bombshell virus has left us thinking about what we do, how we do it, and crucially, how well we are able to do it.

With a sharp drop in international learner numbers for many of our tertiary institutions and an increment in the number of domestic learners, our strategies are put into sharper focus as we test our insights on the future in an ever-changing context and recalibrate how we resource the daily operations of our entities to support an optimum learner experience.

The key emerging themes, presented in the significant canon of COVID-19 literature, point to future-proofing through collective sense-making at the time of this critical pandemic:

  1. Enacting robust academic leadership at all levels
  2. Repurposing of Learning and Teaching to enable access
  3. Providing a more flexible offering for all learners, irrespective of physical location
  4. Ensuring holistic support for all – onshore and offshore
  5. Delivering of finely tuned, seamless connectivity and fully integrated digital learning and teaching platforms

These themes also inform our nascent national body for Vocational Education – Te Pūkenga, established on April 1, 2020. With its well-documented purpose to serve all learners across our islands and beyond Aotearoa, we see the same challenges, highlighted by the need to bring all stakeholders together in the delivery of an inclusive education and training offering: community partners, industry training organisations, institutes of technology and polytechnics, government and private sector industry partners, and of course our learners, whānau and iwi throughout New Zealand.

As Te Pūkenga works to stand up its integral frameworks during 2021, there is a sharp focus on the integration of systems and strategies with the aim of providing a seamless learner journey, and one which enables the learner to choose how they learn, where they learn and, to a large extent, how their learning is defined in the workplace. Such considerations behove us then, to consider the value of open and flexible resourcing which may bear the tensions of truly integrated programmes for all.

The aspiration of fully inclusive education and training is logically underpinned by all that Open Education has to offer – expanded access to learning, agility for and of curriculum development, easy access, harnessing innovation, sustainability and scalability, rapid and extensive reach and the ability to embed continuous improvement into our systems (and) thinking.

I have long believed that the value of Open and Flexible Education has been underplayed and undervalued, perhaps because it may seem too good to be true!

We do well to reflect on the purpose of our endeavours and who we are here to serve. If our response to that question is ‘those we have failed to serve in the past,’ then this coronavirus-gifted opportunity should push us to do that which we claim to do – innovate!

Wouldn’t the most radical thing of all be to truly honour our unwritten social contract to engage with each other in the spirit of lifelong learning – by providing low-cost, high-quality, co-created relevant learning and teaching opportunities for all? In summary, the trick for us in our new VET era for Aotearoa is to embrace that which is inclusive, sustainable and equitable.