Analogue apprenticeships are dead. Long live digital

27th January 2017 at 00:00
Enabling students to learn when and where they want would make apprenticeships more appealing
Flexible technology that fits into people’s busy lives could help to revive the appeal of vocational learning

The “earn while you learn” promise is no longer enough to entice modern learners to undertake apprenticeships. In our technology-driven society, apprenticeships are being left behind because they are failing to take into consideration our ever-complicated lives. Flexible and immediate access to information is now fundamental to our learning landscape; antiquated analogue apprenticeships simply do not hit the mark.

In a positive move by the government, apprenticeships are being revamped, with a commitment to 3 million starts by 2020. They have also been placed at the heart of the Post-16 Skills Plan. It’s estimated that the employer levy, beginning in April, will raise £2.5 billion, a billion more than present funding levels. Effective use of technology will be vital to achieving government targets while sustaining high quality.

Learning can and should take place anywhere, using the technology at our fingertips

Unfortunately, uptake of apprenticeships remains disappointing; this could lead to a skills gap in technical and professional employment, and even an economic disaster. According to provisional Skills Funding Agency statistics, the number of new 16-18 apprenticeship starts has continued to rise very slowly, and the level of new starters in adult provision has fallen. There’s no doubt about it: it’s time to drag apprenticeships kicking and screaming into the digital age or face the consequences.

When employers begin paying the levy in April, it will no doubt change the ball game. The shift could inject some much-needed flexibility, with the focus being on delivering skills that employers want and value. So how do we get the digital ball rolling?

Physical attendance

Turning up for meetings in person isn’t entirely necessary in the 21st century. Students may have family responsibilities, challenging commutes, or even just want time to socialise and strike that all-important work-life balance. Learning can and should take place anywhere, using the technology we all have at our fingertips.

Skype, FaceTime and other video-calling apps support collaboration with peers and can be used by assessors; they cut down on travelling and allow assessors to be more efficient, making the whole process run more smoothly. Importantly, such an approach would also widen access to outstanding national programmes, making apprenticeships even more appealing.

Ditch the paper

The more digital content is used, the more commonplace it becomes. Digital planning tools, expenses, timetables – removing the paper element here is a sure-fire way to kick-start the digital revolution.

Any time, anywhere

Online assessments and learning are now key for students; enabling them to learn when and where they want would make apprenticeships a lot more appealing.

If a student wants to study early in the morning or reflect on feedback during their commute to make the most of their spare time, they should be able to.

Digital capability

National employers want national delivery, and meeting more ambitious government targets and the high standards of quality required is simply not feasible without the use of technology. It’s clear that practitioners want to move to new models of delivery to meet evolving needs brought about by the growth of apprenticeships. The challenge is that we often assume that these practitioners will know how – and have the necessary skills – to embed digital technologies in the design and delivery.

Giving staff the confidence to deliver with digital tools saves a lot of time and money. Jisc has developed a quick guide to help (available at

Mix up delivery models

The use of blended, flipped and technology-enhanced learning not only engages apprentices but also allows learning experiences to be more flexible. Progress needs to be visible to students, so they can self-manage, and to employers and training providers, so they can monitor, motivate and support.

Data-driven decisions

Analytics can be used to assist data-driven decisions – with real-time intelligence – and smooth an apprentice’s transition through the different apprenticeship levels and providers, as they progress in their careers.

Sue Attewell is head of change for FE and skills at digital solutions organisation Jisc @AttewellSue

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