Tech-based Vocational Learning Evolves with the Times

March 15, 2022

By Iain Bain

EdTech ― the intersection of technology and training ― is rapidly transforming education around the world, and one specific area is poised to take off in emerging markets: vocational training. Vocational training is generally designed with specific occupations in mind, such as jobs in administration, health care, education, trades, as well as information technology and business. Through EdTech, vocational training has the potential to expand into new areas and support millions of workers in emerging markets that need a well-trained workforce to be competitive.

As these emerging markets expand their digital infrastructure and digitize their industries, EdTech within vocational training has evolved quickly as a disruptive force that can provide affordable, skill-specific training options to augment, or sometimes replace, traditional offerings.

Compared to traditional in-person approaches to vocational training, EdTech solutions extend access to skills by overcoming proximity and capacity constraints of brick-and-mortar classrooms, while also improving relevance and quality of content by using artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to customize the learning experience.

A navigation simulator at a training facility for sailors.
A navigation simulator used by the Namibian Maritime and Fisheries Institute, a training facility for sailors. Photo by John Hogg/The World Bank

The private sector has a significant role to play as this new field takes off, according to a new report by the World Bank and IFC on the future of EdTech for vocational education. The report analyzes the latest developments and provides context and recommendations on how to unleash the potential of EdTech for vocational training. As one of the authors of this report, I was struck repeatedly by how this technological expansion in learning is creating a win-win situation: for the private sector, there is a market opportunity in meeting the education needs of underserved populations; and for governments, EdTech solutions can offer a cost-effective way to build a workforce for the future.

Lessons from the pandemic

Limitations of the vocational training system ― especially its reliance on in-person learning ― highlight the need for alternative solutions through digital models. The new report demonstrates how COVID-19 has accelerated the existing need for digital skills and new digital learning models, showing why low-cost, scalable, and effective remote learning tools have taken on a new importance.

Vocational training is a critical link in a country’s skills training architecture. It differs from primarily classroom-based formal learning programs such as secondary (high school) and tertiary (university) education by offering learners technical training with a more practical focus on job-ready skills. With 65 percent of today’s children expected to work in jobs that do not yet exist, training systems need to do more to keep pace with technological change and provide access to lifelong learning pathways.

The need to reshape distance learning in the vocational field is especially important in sub-Saharan Africa, where each month more than 1 million people are entering the labor force ― the vast majority with limited job-specific skills.

Amadou Daffe, CEO of Gebeya, a leading EdTech training provider in Africa, recently told us that for African countries to leapfrog their development potential they need greater access to skills development and digital learning infrastructure. EdTech has become a driving force in Africa because it accelerates the availability of cheaper, remote access to vocational training. People trained on EdTech have more transferrable skills, Daffe said. Gebeya has so far trained around 800 software engineers,and roughly a third of them so far have found jobs in companies in Africa and around the world.

A portrait of Amadou Daffe, CEO of Gebeya.
Amadou Daffe, CEO of Gebeya, in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo courtesy: Creative Lab Africa

In India, where 60 percent of employers report difficulties in filling vacancies, insufficient job-ready skills are identified as a key constraint to growth. But EdTech can address this. For instance, the Indian company upGrad is using AI to extract data from job ads to predict employability, and then suggest to learners the skills they should acquire to improve their employment outcomes.

With upGrad and many other companies, the traditional one-way formal, institution-based training model is being augmented with a more dynamic, responsive, multi-way training model that links employers with learners as well as with training institutions. This will provide rapid, real-time information on the skills students need to be job-ready, and offer new customizable methods to deliver those skills.

EdTech-based vocational training offers a means to address skills mismatches and is in growing demand by both learners and employers. Services like upGrad are propelling India to become one of the fastest growing markets for EdTech: Holon IQ estimates that investments in EdTech in India during 2021 reached $3.8 billion ― representing a 65 percent increase since 2020.

AR, VR, and everything in-between

Examples of EdTech in vocational training can now be found at every point of the learning journey, in both formal and informal education settings. Korea’s Smart Training Education Platform (STEP), one example cited in the report, offers lessons in how to create an online marketplace for accessing e-learning content and providing support for training institutions to incorporate e-learning into their programs.

These new services, beyond purely providing access to online content, highlight the burgeoning range of approaches employed by EdTech. It can include simulation-based learning such as Virtual Reality (VR); Augmented Reality (AR); flipped classroom learning through open educational resources (OER); plug-and-play learning, conversational AI; adaptive learning; robotics; blockchain; and gamification.

For example, Cotopaxi Technical Institute partnered with Namseoul University in Korea to develop VR simulations that allow students to manipulate a virtual motor engine in order to make them proficient in repairing it. Such innovation can enhance the learning experience and make learning more flexible.

However, the EdTech field needs a supportive policy environment for its potential to be realized. The report recommends that policy makers consider how to develop EdTech for skills development to ensure it is used effectively.

Some steps that governments can take to build a foundation for vocational EdTech programs include:

  • Clarifying oversight and governance, such as clearly identifying oversight responsibility and presenting a coordinated skills development strategy;
  • Creating financing options for programs;
  • Building effective procurement practices that prioritize data-driven decision making and avoid being too prescriptive on the “how” of delivery;
  • And conducting targeted evaluations, including how the policy’s success will be measured and how lessons will be integrated back into future iterations.

EdTech is transforming how people engage with vocational learning ― breaking down barriers and allowing people to learn anywhere, any time. But to truly unleash EdTech’s potential, companies and policy makers need to work together.

Iain Bain is an economist and development lead for private equity at IFC.

Iain Bain is an economist and development lead for private equity at IFC. He is the author of a recent World Bank Group report on the future of education technology in vocational training.

Published in March 2022