The Challenges of Undertaking Research into Effective, Innovative Digital and Online Learning in Vocational Education and Training

Image of Connecting Cogwheels by art130405 used under CC license from Pixabay

This blog reflects on the process of gathering, sifting and analysing thematically the research on Digital and Online Learning (DOL) in Vocational Education and Training (VET) performed for the European Training Foundation’s (ETF) Creating New Learning (CNL) initiative. It is important, as well as collating findings to produce coherent final research reports, that researchers take time to review, reflect and comment on the evidence base itself.

When examining the evidence base for innovation in DOL, especially in times of significant disruptions such as those we are experiencing in 2020, it is important that we work wherever possible with current, relevant literature. In any areas of significant innovation, insightful articles on research written even as recently as 2015 can have been overtaken by events and hold less currency than they did at the time of publication.

The availability of contemporary, emerging research conducted in VET still does not solve all of our problems regarding the relevance of our sources. On examination, we find that many journal articles and papers may largely duplicate previous research, or conclude that further innovations are necessary, without further clarification on exactly what or why.

Other research conclusions promote generic findings, ‘gamification may increase learner engagement’, ‘online collaboration can build soft skills,’ phrases which we read back in 2010. That is not to say that this research did not hold value for the VET practitioners or learners participating, for the authors producing it or for many readers, as engagement with research into practice always holds some value.

An emerging conclusion from reflections on the available DOL in VET evidence base, however, is a significant need for further research which analyses or draws together specific, successful use of DOL use across all VET scenarios. To add to our body of knowledge, we need to be told the ‘how’, the ‘who’ and  the ‘why’, of DOL effectiveness, rather than simply being told ‘what is needed next’ or ‘what may occur’ in future. This will require calls on theories of learning, motivation, individual and group behaviour and consider barriers to and inequalities in DOL use.

An additional, persistent challenge is that much valuable DOL research is undertaken with school-age learners or university students rather than in the many and diverse areas of VET, workplace development or wider lifelong learning.

Though significant, validated, large-scale research on the benefits of DOL across all aspects of the diverse VET provision cannot be said to be significantly present, there are valuable, detailed, small-scale studies which can be drawn upon. Many of these research studies involve significant emerging literature, so a fruitful approach might be to reframe the concept of data itself in terms of ‘what has value’, particularly in these extraordinarily disruptive times.

Gardner, Holmes and Leitch (2008:95) note that an ‘obsession’ with the search for large-scale, quantitative data (particularly as measures of educational success and impact) can lead researchers to neglect ‘subjective, anecdotal or impressionistic’ data. This oversight can occur even when the gathering of more conventional quantitative data due to timescales, resources or ‘complex and untidy’ social scenarios (such as impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic) make the process unrealistic. We should consider that ‘much-derided’ subjective data is ‘a powerful source of evidence’ (ibid:96), giving a researcher opportunity to gather ‘multi-various items’ of data which can ‘cohere into a mutually supportive and therefore arguably credible source’ of evidence of impact (ibid:97).

Multiple corroborating arguments of DOL impact from different areas of VET and workplace training/CPD can be threaded together to form a complex yet strong cable ‘whose fibres may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected’. Impact and value of DOL can be identified through a reasonable interpretation of the ‘strength and variety’ of subjective, anecdotal data because ‘where there is smoke, there is the potential for fire’ (ibid:98). Adopting this approach would mean that some smaller-scale, specialist research studies can be threaded together to potentially make a powerful argument for the impact and value of DOL in VET.

The final DOL research report (published at the end of 2020) aims to summarise key DOL innovations and development needs and drawing some conclusions for likely future impactful uses of DOL in the next decade.

(This blog is also published as part of ETF’s ‘Open Space’ CNL blog series on 25/09/2020)

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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