Innovation in teaching and learning in vocational education and training: International perspectives

By Yvonne Hillier Research report 28 April 2009 ISBN 978 1 921413 01 8 print; 978 1 921413 02 5 web


This publication explores both the characteristics and examples of innovative teaching and learning practice internationally. It found that technologies can be used to support networks of practitioners and resource banks to foster better professional practice and help practitioners exchange ideas and resources. In addition, it is important for practitioners to be able to step back from their 'daily grind' to think about what they can do differently and how. They need to be supported to test out new resources and pedagogies in a culture of active experimentation.


About the research

Teaching and learning is the core business of vocational education and training (VET) providers. Finding ways to improve these practices is at the heart of a high-quality VET system. That is why in late 2007 the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) commissioned two authors to examine the characteristics, and find examples, of innovative teaching and learning practice in Australia and in Europe.

This is the international paper, written by Yvonne Hillier, whose approach was to draw on information available from websites and other literature, as well as from personal contacts and experience. It is not written to provide solutions. Rather, it aims to open our minds and thinking to other possibilities, drawn mainly from the United Kingdom and Europe, which may still need to be contextualised to work effectively in Australia.

What follows, along with Jane Figgis’s study of developments in Australia, was designed to inform a series of workshops across the country, where NCVER heard how practitioners can best use this research, and gathered further contributions to our knowledge of good teaching and learning in VET.

Key messages

  • It is important for practitioners to be able to step back from their ‘daily grind’ to think about what, and how, they can do things differently. They need to be supported to test new approaches in a culture of active experimentation.
  • Networks and centres of excellence are very important in promoting better teaching and learning. Technologies can be used to support networks of practitioners and resource banks to foster better professional practice and help practitioners exchange ideas and resources.
  • New technologies and the workplace can also be used to support learning. Brokerage and partnership arrangements are particularly important in supporting effective work-based learning and better engagement between providers and employers.
  • Collaboration across educational sectors can be beneficial. The creation of ‘foundation degrees’ in the United Kingdom provides a way of developing employment-focused awards involving both further and higher education and employers.

Those interested in this work should also read Regenerating the Australian landscape of professional VET practice: Practitioner-driven changes to teaching and learning by Jane Figgis, available at <http://>.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Vocational education and training (VET) helps prepare people for work, develops their skills while at work and changes what they are doing so that they can work in new or different occupations. Across the world in recent years, VET has been expected to meet the demands of the rapidly changing global environment. This means that we have to find different ways to support the vocational learning of people already in the workplace, as well as those who are about to join it.

This paper, which is likely to be of most interest to those with responsibility for teaching and learning policy and practice, attempts to capture innovative ways that VET practitioners practise their profession in response to the changing face of vocational learning. It is an overview of provision across many countries but particularly countries of the European Union and with specific reference to the United Kingdom. The paper includes specific examples of innovative provision, as well as an appendix with an annotated list of useful websites.

Identifying innovative practice

The search for examples of innovative practice began in the international literature but it soon became clear that little was available on this topic, since those who are developing new and different ways of teaching and assisting people to learn often do not publish what they are doing. A web search provided a better source of examples of innovation, including a large number of relevant web-based networks that could be interrogated for examples of current innovative practice. These websites provide resources for practitioners, including downloadable learning resources, examples of innovation in sector-specific occupations and opportunities for practitioners to share their practice in formal ways through conferencing and, informally, through wikis and blogs.

The literature (what there was) and web search identified four dominant trends in current teaching and learning practice, each reflecting the current international imperative for highly skilled and highly motivated expert workforces with the inherent capacity to meet the challenges of global competition, an ageing population and evolving technology. The examples that comprise the innovative practices described in this report basically fall into four categories: closer engagement in work-based learning; new technology facilitating learning; networks, centres of excellence and resource banks; and networks in professional practice.

Closer employer engagement in work-based learning

Over the years the involvement of employers and stakeholders has been crucial to the successful operation of the VET system. This research found that employers are being engaged and are engaging in innovative practices in a number of ways, each of which represents a unique approach to an old practice:

  • Partnerships and government-auspiced brokerage services: designed to create new institutions to build skills differently by putting employers in touch with the appropriate providers, by involving the unions and by giving employers a stronger voice in determining training content.
  • Collaboration between sectors: cross-sectoral cooperation now also involves industry as well as the various education sectors, for example, ‘foundation degrees’ in England are delivered in further education colleges in partnership with higher education institutions, and developed with industry assistance.
  • New teachers: mentors in the workplace involving experienced employees working with newer/less experienced employees and auspiced through the VET provider or the employer.
  • Motivating the workforce: employers are now using competitions, quizzes and games to promote workplace learning that is fun—and effective.

New technology facilitating learning

If there is one factor which has fostered innovation in new teaching and learning practices more than any other, it is technological development. Globally, the use of e-learning through virtual learning environments (VLEs), multimedia hardware and software, and through social networking has helped people learn at times previously impossible. Virtual learning environments provide opportunities for people to download resources, follow links to websites, discuss their work and ideas through discussion boards, add to their ideas through wikis, and socialise through chat rooms and blogs.

Some of the newer technologies are also being used to encourage disaffected young people to engage in VET; for example, mobile phones, PDAs, ultra-mobile personal computers, mini notebooks, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS games machines, handheld voting and GPS devices, MP3/MP4 and multimedia players are being used to engage hard-to-reach learners.

Networks, centres of excellence and resource banks

There has been a huge increase in the number of networks in the VET system. These range from very informal, between practitioners, through to large, international networks. Some networks focus on subject specialist content and share resources online. Others provide opportunities for practitioners to meet and discuss their work. Still others provide case studies of innovation, along with opportunities to test out activities in different contexts.

Networks in professional practice

The changing workplace environment offers many opportunities for innovative teaching but the problem is keeping abreast of all of these exciting initiatives. Furthermore, the rapid technological advances are placing demands on VET teachers, and resources need to be made available to help VET practitioners benefit from these advances.

Teaching performance has become an increasing worldwide issue. The most likely scenario for VET is that trainers will need to prove the quality of their teaching more frequently. This also has implications, including the need to increase teacher training capacity. The status and position of VET practitioners varies across countries and is reflected in the level of qualifications required for teachers to practise. Equal esteem with academic/general education teachers is another indicator of parity.

The challenges of keeping up to date and also gaining the appropriate qualifications to enable practice suggest the need for innovative networks for practitioners which focus on their practice and on their learning needs.

Issues for the Australian context

International examples of innovation in teaching and learning practice demonstrate how practitioners are trying to link the content of their VET programs more effectively to employer needs. Practitioners cannot change the system but they can work within it. The most fruitful paths to innovation, then, are through contact with employers and by collaboration and networking and by establishing, with the help of government and the industry partners, including the unions, initiatives that reflect the changing work environment. Innovations also include new ways of looking at old practices, for example, workplace mentoring auspiced through the VET provider.

The new technologies hold out great promise for vocational teaching and learning, particularly in the workplace. Bur first we need to look at the new information communication technologies (ICTs) and determine their potential for helping trainees learn and then test and evaluate them through experimentation (before going ‘live’ with learners).

Not all the networks described in the paper will contain resources appropriate for Australia; many of them are so highly contextualised that they will need considerable adaptation if they are to be useful. However, the key is to experiment and change what is not relevant.

Challenges ahead

Innovation does not arise in a vacuum. There is a tendency for policy-makers to assume that, by upgrading the qualifications of vocational teachers, the pedagogical quality required in the knowledge-based economy and society will follow, and then ICT will do the rest. Despite ongoing day-to-day challenges, practitioners are being innovative in a variety of ways. What is clear is that they need spaces to enable testing of new ideas and then to share these with their peers. There needs to be a culture where experimentation is possible, in a context of learning from experiences—including failure—without fear of reproach.

Networking, including sharing practice through conferences and workshops, has a huge potential for cross-fertilisation of ideas and active experimentation. A range of bodies in Australia are well placed to foster such networking by helping practitioners to answer the ‘what works?’ questions. To assist practitioners to fully engage in innovation in their professional practice, systemic support and recognition for formal networks and partnerships must be forthcoming. And, crucially, the cooperative involvement of practitioners, managers, employers, industry, business and government is key to successful learning.

The frenetic pace of change and the current economic uncertainties only add to the challenges, but with an ongoing commitment to seeking ‘what works’, VET practice will be able to be proactive in its aim of helping people to acquire skills and knowledge to ensure their successful participation in society.


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