Digital and Online Learning: European Training Foundation Research Project

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Image by kreatikar used under license from Pixabay

Real Time has just begun work on a new digital and online leaning (DOL) research project as part of ETF’s Creating New Learning’ (CNL) initiative.  The initiative identifies solutions which can boost innovation in vocational education and training (VET) and ‘lifelong learning’ in diverse contexts. Other intersecting CNL themes are learning environments, pedagogy, VET teachers and teaching qualifications and VET curricula.

The DOL research explores how digital tools and pedagogies might enable educators to create engaging experiences for learners in vocational education, in the workplace and for those working or learning from home. It also investigates how we can connect and consolidate learning across these scenarios. The 6-month project builds on ETF’s important 2018 position paper ‘Digital skills and competence, and digital and online learning’.

So what might emerging themes of research into DOL in VET in 2020 be? A brief examination of 2 key research works may give us some clues.

The 2020 Dublin City University / Open University report Innovating Pedagogy examines innovations which hold ‘the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice’. It foregrounds animation, ‘esports’ (or serious gaming), artificial intelligence (AI), multi-sensory learning, Open Data, networked learning and learning laboratories as key emerging themes.

Examples include student-facing AI ‘automatic writing evaluation’ (AWE), the authors noting that ‘most teachers would be happy to save hours of marking each week’. AWE provides formative feedback suggesting improvements to writing structure or language use before students submit their work for summative assessment by a tutor.

There is also a strong theoretical, even philosophical, focus in the report’s consideration of data ethics, social justice pedagogy and posthuman perspectives. The fascinating posthuman focus invites us to reflect on what it means to be human and how our identities can extend beyond the physical body. Posthumanism considers the potential of animals and machines as learning partners, interactions with ‘chatbots’ and robots and the enhancement of human capabilities with implants. It adopts a critical stance, also examining the challenges and dangers these innovations may bring.

The report invites us to reflect on the ethics and implications of use of robots in learning, noting that in Japan a ‘concerted effort has been made to develop robots which can assist in classroom instruction, with over 500 expected to launch in language classes over the next year’. Finland’s alternative approach uses robots ‘to provide friendship and camaraderie’ to students.

Cedefop’s 2020 work on Vocational education and training in Europe, 1995-2035 invites us to adopt a cautious stance to innovation, noting that though digital technologies may be ubiquitous in many homes and workplaces, digital penetration into VET has not been so swift or deep. The report concludes that technology provides better methods of ‘capturing individual capabilities, potentials and achievements’ and improved ‘systems for documenting and valuing all learning experience’. Cedefop’s emerging trends for 2035 are increases in ‘VET at higher levels’, more ‘work-based elements in curricula’ and the need for enhanced ‘responsiveness to the labour market needs’.
This complex picture of VET needs was acknowledged when research for the OU and Cedefop works was in progress a year ago. Much has changed since then. Scoping activities for the DOL research began as much VET activity was moved to online or blended learning models or temporarily suspended due to COVID-19 distancing measures. We can learn much from organisations who were well-prepared for the paradigm shift to DOL and also from those who created innovative, spontaneous ‘emergency’ solutions to meet VET needs. The DOL research will call on interim research and ‘grey data’ beyond more familiar channels to capture emerging innovations.

The CNL and DOL research is exciting, necessary, timely work. Future blogs and vlogs will chart progress and emerging findings, leading to a summative report at year-end, 2020. We warmly welcome suggestions from the Open Space community which can help inform this work. What do you think are the key challenges and innovations that will shape the future of DOL in VET?


Brolpito, A. (2018). Digital skills and competence, and digital and online learning. ETF Report.

Cedefop. (2020). Vocational education and training in Europe, 1995-2035.

The Open University. (2020). Innovating Pedagogy:| Open University Innovation Reports.

A version of this blog post originally appeared in the European Training Foundation’s (ETF) ETF Open Space pages on 04/07/2020.

Published by ltaylerson

I am a former FE Computing and Teacher Education Curriculum Leader and ex-BBC engineer and trainer. Worcestershire-based, I specialise in teacher education and CPD, educator mentoring, digital skills and pedagogy, I am director of Real Time Education, an independent provider and a keen commentator on further education and digital skills on social media @realtimeedu. I completed a PhD in Education investigating teachers' use of informal social media dialogues for professional learning in April 2020.

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