What constitutes innovation in vocational education?
We asked the popular Artificial Intelligence system ChatGPT for an answer. At first, the response of this chatbot to our question looked amazing: “Innovation in vocational education can refer to a number of changes or advancements that can improve the quality of vocational training and make it more relevant and effective for students. Some key elements that account for innovation in vocational education include …”. What follows are six such key elements, namely “relevant curriculum”, “technology integration”, “hands-on learning”, “industry partnerships”, “personalised learning”, and “continuous improvement”. Each of the six elements is explained by (exactly) one sentence; for example: “Hands-on learning: Opportunities for students to gain practical, real-world experience through internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning programmes.”
At this point, we don‘t want to enter the debate on whether artificial intelligence is superior to humans’. Rather, we take the AI response as a starting point to elaborate on a deeper understanding of what innovations in vocational education mean. We will map this along four propositions.
‘Innovation’ is a relative term. What is new for one country may be familiar to others. For example, a dual vocational education system is completely new for Albania (where the “Skills for Jobs” [S4J] project operates) with a long-standing practice of a solely school-based system but has an already long tradition in e.g., Switzerland. Specific teaching methods may be new for one teacher but part of everyday teaching practices of another teacher. Against this backdrop, many of the elements introduced as components of innovation in vocational education (e. g. technology integration, industry partnerships) are only innovative within specific contexts.
Very often, supposed innovations are not new altogether, but comprise an addition of specific elements to- or a new composition of known elements into a new entity that makes up the change. Only a few changes are fundamental. Most are incremental by integrating the new into the old. For example, the concept of blended learning in vocational education by integrating technology with face-to-face traditional learning was not entirely new for teachers in Albania in 2015 when the S4J project started. However, blended learning was taken to the next level by S4J partner VET schools when the project introduced learning management systems, open educational recourses, and digital learning materials.
People love innovations but (often) they hate resulting changes! Implementation of innovations requires changes in people’s attitudes, behaviours, and actions which not just mean adapting to the new but also detaching from the old. Or as Marilyn Ferguson puts it: “No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside.” For people, existing practices may be regarded as very rational while from a different perspective, they urgently need reforming. For example, VET schools in Albania were resistant to diversifying their offer in response to the articulated needs of companies, because this would jeopardize job security for a few teachers. When tracer studies were introduced, showing low employment rates of graduates thus confirming a mismatch of demand and supply, S4J partner schools committed to making their offer dynamic and started developing requalification programmes for teachers.
Skills for Jobs project promotes new ways of working in VET. Inspired by the Swiss model, the project supports local stakeholders to modernize the Albanian VET system. Among others, two areas the project has succeeded to bring about meaningful change are i) work-based learning in companies and ii) quality blended learning by integrating proven digital solutions.
The emergence of innovations is more likely if certain frame conditions are met. One enabler is an urgent problem to be solved and/or a distinct discontent with existing practices. A lack of qualified labour, a high rate of youth unemployment, the discrimination of underprivileged social groups, or a pandemic may be reasons to strive for innovation in a vocational education system. ‘Never waste a good crisis’ is a pointed phrase to indicate that the higher the pressure the more people are open-minded to get things changed. Also, innovations need consideration, leadership support, and sufficient time to thrive. The right leadership approach and an organizational culture that creates room for testing and trying the new, and that deals with failures as just another learning step, promotes innovation. A risk-averse culture that strives for full control will never be innovative, and hustle hecticness doesn’t serve as a fertile ground to create sustainable innovations. This goes hand in hand with the need to test and revise innovative ideas in order to make the good even better. The way from innovations to sustainable changes often is a journey which requires stamina and resilience to counter setbacks.
The four propositions presented here may serve as a basis for reflection on how to understand the context, motivate people to engage in little practical innovations every day, help them understand how they can benefit from new approaches, and bring stakeholders on board to create an enabling environment for lasting change.
Prof. Dr Dieter Euler has been Professor Emeritus of Educational Management and Business Education at the University of St. Gallen since 2000. As a scientist, innovation is at the very core of his profession. But, real changes do not just depend on innovations but on good implementation. The proof of the pudding is in the eating!
Fation Dragoshi is the Project Manager of the SDC-funded project 'Skills for Jobs" implemented by Swisscontact in Albania. His journey looks atypical: a musician by profession, then in arts management, cultural policy and cultural tourism, employment promotion and lately skills development. Connecting the dots - promoting innovation and human capital development.
Dr Erka Çaro is the Deputy Project Manager of the project 'Skills for Jobs". She has an academic background with an extensive experience in human mobility, skills development, and innovation in education. Exploring how to make innovation work for youth empowerment and engagement in developing realities is at the core of her work.