The vocational education and training (VET) sector must incorporate digital skills into its core curriculum, a pair of new industry reports have argued in advising the sector to embrace continuous training, micro-credentials and other self-development technologies.

Digital skills should, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) good practice guide concluded, be positioned alongside the existing five foundational skills areas – learning, reading, writing, oral communication, and numeracy – as a sixth core training area for Australia’s more than 4.1 million vocational students.

These skills would be best developed through the creation of short courses and other units of competency that would supplement traditional training with digital skills needed to satisfy the needs of Industry 4.0, the guide – which was developed in consultation with industry, training providers and practitioner bodies and other experts – recommends.

“Digital skills have now become essential for almost all occupations and workers in Australia,” NCVER managing director Simon Walker said in launching the reports.

“Short courses and micro-credentials that focus on digital skills development could prepare the current workforce to adapt to and manage changing roles at work.”

Trailing behind the future of industry

Industry 4.0 connects the digital and physical worlds using technologies like machine-to-machine communication, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor technologies.

It has been recognised by industry groups, educators and other bodies as fundamental to the progression of industry in Australia and around the world, enabling complete overhauls of industrial processes that improve efficiency, save money, boost revenues and create opportunities for previously unthinkable jobs.

Yet, as the Australian Industry Group has found, 75 per cent of employers can’t find the skills they need – particularly in areas like technicians and tradespeople – and are having trouble recruiting staff with appropriate STEM skills.

A recent KPMG report found that most Australian businesses are still relatively immature when it comes to Industry 4.0, with average maturity scores of around 2 out of 5 and cloud computing – an enabling technology – the only area where organisations considered themselves as being mature.

NCVER’s analysis singled out issues such as the structure of training packages and “the way they are used for regulatory purposes [that] currently limit their adaptability”, suggesting that VET providers focus on developing competency training that can be used across multiple occupational groups, with each industry reference committee required to demonstrate their progress against digital skills requirements.

VET providers and training package providers should partner with employers in designing units of competency, NCVER advised, noting that updates to qualifications currently take so long that many “are out of date before they are taught”.

Overhauling VET training structures also requires support such as revised funding models to allow a larger number of smaller, modular programs that are taught to “connect with industry practice”, as well as developing something like a ‘lifelong skills account’ that subsidises ongoing skills development.

New imperatives for educators

As well as reshaping the nature of skills development in the VET sector, the changes recommended by NCVER also extend to the sector’s more than 71,000 educators who will, the companion good practice guide on teaching digital skills noted, rely on educators developing their own digital capabilities.

VET educators must be able to use technology effectively in their teaching, the guide notes, with technologies relevant to industry and instruction that focuses on helping learners develop their own digital skills.

A “whole-of-organisation approach” to digital skills will be critical to helping VET educators build their own digital skills, with “both technological and pedagogical competencies” crucial to developing learners suited to the demands of Industry 4.0.

Educators must, NCVER argued, become ‘digital integrators’ with skills in both using digital tools, and integrating them into pedagogic practice to map key learning outcomes and embed technology seamlessly into the course.

The guidance of comparable overseas frameworks, such as the UK’s Digital Teaching Professional Framework and the EU’s Digitally Competent Educational Organisations framework, offer guidance for educators to build their digital competence.

Meanwhile industry initiatives, such as the Cotton Research and Development Corporation’s Digital Capability Framework and self-assessment questionnaire, would help educators benchmark their existing skills, with tools like Chisholm TAFE’s Educator Passport app helping them monitor their professional development over the course of their careers.

“If we’re going to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology, the VET sector will need to partner with employers to ensure training options deliver skills that are relevant and up to date,” Walker said.

“The key to successful uptake of professional development by VET educators is a whole-of-organisation approach to digital skills capability development within registered training organisations.”