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A reflection on my VET journey
Have you read the Quality of assessment in vocational education and training – Discussion Paper? Are you considering answering the questions that sit under each focus area?
You can read the paper here.
The three areas of focus covered in the paper are:
- Foundation reforms – competence of trainers and assessors,
- Reforms to the assessment of VET students – engagement of industry to ensure that assessment is relevant and,
- Reforms to the regulatory framework – detection of poor assessment practice and action against RTOs.
I’m all for continuous improvement to assessment practice and improved detection of poor practice. I also agree that engaging the industry in assessment validation is essential. Of course we should also be looking for ways to enhance the competencies of our trainers and assessors. But has the VET sector lost sight of its real purpose?
Before leaping in to answer this question I wonder if we could learn something from a history lesson – let’s look back to the early 2000s when Training Packages were still quite new? The word ‘Workplace’ was part of the Cert IV qualification back then. Stay with me for a while as I tell my VET story…..
My VET Story: Real Workplace Assessment
When I first came into this sector in 2000, the Certificate IV in Assessment and Workplace Training (AWT) was a new qualification. At that time I helped set up an RTO within a large University and started delivering units from the Cert IV AWT.
The Train Small Groups unit, in particular, was taught to staff across the organisation, however the whole qualification was also delivered. Our staff development unit used this program as an organisational development activity. Our ‘industry’ was the various University work units and our students were employees within those work units.
Training was conducted face to face and assessment was conducted in the student’s workplace. As we trained more people in assessment, our team of assessors grew and we took them along to observe our students and ‘practice’ their newly earned assessment competencies. We supported them as they developed their practice as trainers and assessors. We built up an amazing community of trainers and assessors consisting of both professional and academic staff who acknowledged the value of well planned and executed training and assessment. These new trainers were keen to learn and keen to be given as many opportunities as possible to practice their new skills and knowledge in a supported environment.
How did we achieve this?
1. Built relationships of value
Our students came from different work units from across the University. We worked hard to build relationships with our ‘industry’ (managers of the various work units) which resulted in a steady stream of students being sent along to our training because the ‘industry’ recognised the benefit to the workplace. For example, the students designed training programs for their workplaces such as orientation and workplace safety programs. The student was able to conduct real work while participating in the training program and the workplace immediately benefited.
2. Conducted collaborative validation
When it came to validation our team of trainers invited the new graduates to participate and the ‘industry’ was also consulted to determine the suitability of assessment, review the processes used and discuss further training and assessment needs for staff. This provided ongoing professional development for our graduates in a controlled and supported environment that was relevant to the workplace.
3. Controlled Costs
Work units paid a fee for training based on the individual units or clusters of units. The fee covered the cost of materials and enrolment/administration.
4. Engaged our industry in further development of programs
Once we had established our client base and built strong relationships with our ‘industry’ we added the Certificate IV Frontline Management to our scope and delivered units to staff in frontline roles across the whole university, building on existing skills, meeting needs of ‘industry’ and clients and building the capability of the workforce.
What factors most influenced the design of training and assessment?
The interesting thing about this program was that back in these early days of training packages there was very little scrutiny by regulators with regard to course length or suitability of assessments. Program development was, of course, based on the evidence requirements for the unit(s), the needs of the ‘industry’ and the individual students as determined through training needs analysis. The amount of time allocated to training was scheduled to enable interactive, skills based training and opportunity for practice. Work completed both in the classroom and outside the classroom was tailored to ensure that each student had every possible opportunity to prepare for the required assessment. Our students completed their assessments in the workplace. A process of discussion and negotiation was undertaken with each student to ensure that assessment would be conducted when the student was deemed ready, at a time that suited all stakeholders and to determine that the student’s needs would be met during the process.
Why was our program such a success?
- Our program was designed with the ‘industry’ needs in mind
- Our program was designed with our clients in mind and using a flexible approach to both training and assessment i.e. student centred focus.
- We did not design our training and assessments just to meet rigorous standards and expectations of auditors
- We built a community of trainers and assessors – there was a sense of belonging and a desire to keep learning
- Our graduates developed an identity through completion of the training and participated in mentoring in the workplace and the development of other staff development initiatives including development of networks and communities of practice.
What I have just described is a situation where the training organisation worked closely with the ‘industry’ to design and deliver customised training and assessment that met the needs of ‘industry’ and provided real value.
I believe that it would be difficult in 2016 to find a training organisation using this approach so successfully. From our experience over the past 15 years our observation is that a large part of the VET sector today is disconnected from the industry or give lip service only to industry connection. As we work with RTOs as consultants and advise them about how to engage industry, and how to involve industry in validation practices, we often find that the RTO struggles to even find contacts. If they can make contact, there is often no meaningful engagement. I believe that this disconnect is the crux of the problem today.
Why is it so hard to create meaningful engagement with industry?
We need to consider some key issues:
- Is the training sector designing training and assessment for its own benefit or for the benefit of industry?
- Should RTOs be delivering training and assessment if they have no valid connection to an industry?
Of course RTOs need to make money to survive, but has market competition become the key driver of how training and assessment is developed and delivered? Have we lost sight of the focus of this sector – that we are preparing students for a job role in a real work place? For the development of effective training and assessment, this sector demands partnership between industry and the training sector. Industry should be integrally involved in the design of training and assessment.
What needs to happen?
RTOs need to:
- identify all relevant industry stakeholders
- invest in relationship development with them
- communicate the value of partnership and,
- plan training and assessment activities together with industry to enhance job readiness and maximise the employability of graduates.
Training and Assessment Delivery
We unfortunately see a great number of training programs that are delivered in very short time frames and incorporate very poor quality assessment i.e. training and assessment designed for ease of administration rather than for the valid, reliable, flexible and fair assessment of units of competency. This a particular problem with online learning and in industries where multiple regulators dictate length of training and types of assessments to be used. Students may never be required to practice skills let alone be assessed on the application of skills and knowledge.
Why is this happening?
There are a range of reasons including:
- ease of delivery,
- demand from students,
- time and market pressures,
- inability of the regulators to close down poor performing RTOS and
- pressure from industry for quick training.
Why should this be rectified?
The sector is not meeting the real needs of the workplace if the market is the key driving force and programs continue to be shortened to maintain a competitive edge. If uninformed employers are allowed to contract poor quality training solutions just to save money or training time, there will be short term gains at the expense of long term capability building.
Do we just need more rigorous auditing and strict application of volume of learning requirements?
Should there be a requirement for more rigorous alignment with industry needs and development of partnerships with industry to help shape programs that enable graduation of students who are job ready?
Remember my university case study? In the absence of rigid auditing but with the real desire to work with industry we established helpful programs that built capability across the organisation. There will always be a need for the carrot and stick approach to monitoring assessment practices but we always encourage the ‘good for business’ approach which assumes a positive and proactive approach to compliance, resulting in practices that become part of good management practices. This approach combined with a genuine desire to build industry partnerships will lead to quality student outcomes. There is no doubt that there is value for the VET sector in including industry in assessment validation practices but effective validation can only be based on true partnership where each partner understands the value of the relationship.
Trainers and Assessors Qualifications and Professional Development
I believe that all educators, across all education sectors (i.e. school VET and higher education) should be held responsible for their own professional development and currency and that this should be related both to their own professional journey and to the requirements of the organisation. As educators we should always be learning and we should also strive to maintain an interest and indeed a passion about best practice education – if we cannot do that for ourselves how can we do this for our students?
The VET trainer/assessor role is often seen as:
- an easy profession,
- an easy path to retirement, and
- something you don’t have to prepare very hard for!
There is an expectation that it should be quick and easy to complete a Cert IV in Training and Assessment and many new trainers are unable to find opportunities to practice their new skills. Coaching and mentoring programs to support new trainers and encourage reflection on training and assessment practice could improve the quality of training outputs by new trainers. We find that trainers often lead a lonely existence in this sector, particularly if the RTO employs trainers on a contract basis. Coaching and mentoring can provide a sense of security and belonging for new trainers, providing them with confidence to improve their practice. So, whilst I would support the return of more rigorous training on assessment to the Cert IV in Training and Assessment, I believe that ongoing support and perhaps work placement for new trainers would assist in raising the assessment capabilities of professionals in the VET sector.
Professionalisation of the sector through establishment of a professional association could also assist in raising the standards. Whilst there are currently requirements for trainers to maintain currency and participate in professional development it is the RTO that monitors this. There is also a tendency of the trainers to resent the requirement if it is being insisted on by the RTO. It also requires a great deal of effort on the part of the RTO to monitor and keep up to date all of the staff files with regards to PD and currency. This results in significant costs for large RTOs.
So how can professionalization be achieved?
I suggest that all of the following key ingredients are needed for success:
- a national professional association administered in States and Territories,
- a set of standards for trainers and other VET practitioners (including managers, student support and compliance workers),
- a requirement for Continuing Professional Development for the practitioner to maintain membership and,
- a requirement stating that the individual can only work in the VET sector if they are a current member of the association.
There are teaching standards in the secondary school sector but none in the university sector so the message is not consistent. Why not develop teaching standards across the whole of the Australian Qualifications Framework so there is consistency of expectation and equal importance placed on the profession of teaching across all sectors.
Returning to my first question: But has the VET sector lost sight of its real purpose? Yes! We need to refocus the sector on industry needs. Of course industry consultation is a focus of the discussion paper but mainly in terms of validation. Effective assessment validation and professionalisation of the sector will only be achieved if all stakeholders are aligned in terms of their desired outcomes and if there is respect for all partners in the relationship.
What’s your opinion on quality of assessment in the VET sector? Take the time to reflect on your VET journey, what you consider to be good practice and what needs to be improved. Why not contribute to our conversation as you formulate your answers for the Quality of assessment in vocational education and training – Discussion Paper – Department of Education and Training.
We would love to hear from you if you need help with industry consultation and or assessment validation. We can also help support your staff by providing expertise and training in coaching and mentoring.
You can read more about compliance being good for business in our book The Essential Guide to RTO Compliance.
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