Digital learning: Are we really exploiting the opportunities?

Reflections on technology integration in vocational education and training

Alberto Cattaneo

Technology integration is an increasing imperative for education, something which the coronavirus pandemic has boosted even further. When it comes to (dual) vocational education (VET), the question is to what extent we are really exploiting the instructional potential of technologies to support teaching and learning processes. The present paper comments on the results of a 16-year research project and starts from the assumption that we need a strong pedagogy first, not necessarily the most cutting-edge technology. Based on this, we briefly introduce the “Erfahrraum”, a VET-specific pedagogical model for technology integration conceived to better articulate learning across learning locations. We illustrate its effectiveness for learning and connectivity among the VET stakeholders by means of an example. Finally, we discuss these results through two summarizing labels – visual-based reflection and collaboration.

Premise: What do we mean for “digital learning”, and what we do not

“Digital learning” is a label which entails many different issues. It includes, for example, the assumption that new competencies are required on the job (e.g. related to automation and digitalisation of job-related tasks – see the “industry 4.0” debate) and have to be learned at school (e.g. related to computational thinking, to the critical use of media, to taking care of one’s digital identity…). In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this label has also been often confused and overlapped with “online learning”, or distance/blended learning. We propose to interpret the expression “digital learning” extensively, referring to “how to exploit digital technologies to foster teaching and learning processes”. In doing so, we will accord due consideration to its particular application in the vocational education (VET) context.

The primacy of strong pedagogy: the “Erfahrraum” model

The VET context has its own specificities. One intrinsic feature of dual VET systems is the alternation between learning locations. This implies that we need a VET-specific model of technology integration. We have developed such a model based on an educational research design umbrella project, “Dual-T” (cf. info box). The main research question concerned the specific role technologies can play in terms of bridging the gap between the VET learning locations and fostering “Lernortkooperation”. Our proposal is to think about technologies as boundary objects (cf. Bakker/Akkerman 2019), and we assume that the existing differences between the two learning locations have to become a dialogic generative force, functional to a reciprocal cross-fertilization. As one can see, this is a pedagogical-didactical reflection rather than a technological one. This is consistent with the growing evidence emerging from research, which states that a pedagogically sound, informed, and wise use of technology makes a difference towards supporting learning, not technology per se (e.g. OECD 2015). Against this background, we analysed our first design experiments and developed our pedagogical model: the “Erfahrraum”.

The Erfahrraum (cf. Schwendimann et al. 2015) has its foundations in existing experiential learning models (e.g. Kolb 1984; Schön 1983). These basically state that you can learn from (your) experiences, provided that you reflect on them. At the same time, the focus is on dual VET and its need to guarantee a better articulation of what happens across learning venues, namely the school and the company. The Erfahrraum is flexible enough to be implemented in several ways, but by generalizing it we are able to identify four main steps (which we exemplify via an illustrative case in the next section).

  • The first step allows the learners to collect traces about their (authentic or simulated) professional experiences. It often happens in the workplace, and mobile technologies can support the capturing process, producing raw artifacts in the form of pictures, videos, audio or written notes.
  • The second step is a preparation phase. It is intended to transform the raw artefacts – now available in digital space – into relevant artefacts. This requires a selection process – as not all experiences are necessarily meaningful for learning – and a structuration process. The optimal structure can be provided by the teacher (and the in-company trainer) or directly by the digital learning environment where the traces are collected.
  • In the third step, the relevant artefacts become learning materials thanks to a process of reflection-on-action. This process can again be orchestrated and designed by the educators, rather than being offered directly by the technology (e.g. through pre-structured reflective prompts) and can take place in different social forms (autonomously or involving peers, supervisors, tutors). The resulting learning activities often exploit typical processes, such as those of
    • enrichment (e.g. focusing on relevant details to support the development of professional vision; adding elements of theoretical knowledge to practical experiences as a result of a teacher-orchestrated discussion),
    • comparison and contrast (e.g. comparing similar procedures which are enacted differently in professional contexts that vary in terms of size or type of company; comparing experiences in which errors occurred with paradigmatic reference models; cf. Collins 2010; Schwartz/Bransford 1998).
  • The fourth step prepares the re-contextualisation (cf. Guile 2020) of knowledge in the workplace (e.g. through practical exercises, simulations) to apply what has been acquired and to make the link with the disciplinary and theoretical knowledge addressed at school more explicit. This step ends with a return to the professional context, where it should be possible for the learners to validate through a new professional experience what has been learnt through the reflective activities.

The dual-T umbrella project

Dual-T was funded by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation from 2006 to 2021 and was designed to answer the general research question on the role technologies could play in VET. The partnership was coordinated by the Technical University of Lausanne EPFL (Prof. Pierre Dillenbourg) and included the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education and Training (Prof. Alberto Cattaneo), the University of Fribourg (Prof. Jean-Luc Gurtner), and up to 2013 the University of Geneva (Prof. Mireille Bétrancourt). This uniquely long-term research scheme produced 13 doctoral theses in as many sub-projects, all contributing in different ways to answer the shared question: “Would the VET system benefit from learning technologies, designed in particular to better articulate the gap between VET learning locations?”.

More information at http://dualt.epfl.ch/ and https://www.ehb.swiss/project/dual-t

Evidence: does it work? The chefs’ case

The model was tested in many projects and with many technologies. The following remarks relate to  a mobile learning project in which apprentice chefs were able to use their smartphones to document their practice in the workplace via pictures of the different steps of a recipe and via an online environment in order to develop their own learning documentation (step 1)1. The environment – accessible by teachers and in-company trainers alike – is basically constituted by a structured recipe book (step 2) which apprentices are required to present at the final examinations. Each recipe or experience documented is also provided with a reflective part, where scaffolding prompts are integrated to facilitate reflection (step 3). At the same time, the teacher can select some content (step 2) to design situated and learner-centred lessons, stimulating reflection and confrontation among similar processes taking place in different professional contexts (e.g. the same cooking method realized using different recipes; step 3 and 4). Apprentices can ask for – and then receive – specific and contextualized feedback from their workplace supervisors, who can also access their apprentice’s recipe book and see what happens at school. These already constitute important affordances towards connectivity, as the workplace can enter the classroom through the pictures of the workplace practice, and at the same time what happens at school can be shared with the supervisors through the online environment.

The project has been object of multiple investigations over the years. We started with three classes of apprentices, two of which (n=45) were involved as the experimental group, whilst one (n=22) acted as the control group. This approach allowed us to show how this experience was wonderfully effective for apprentices’

  • learning in terms of declarative knowledge acquisition (measured through learning tests on professional knowledge content; see Cattaneo/Motta/Gurtner 2015),
  • metacognitive skills development (measured through the qualitative analysis of their reflections and analysis of the critical points of a recipe in the recipe book; see ibidem and Mauroux et al. 2016),
  • mastery in cooking performance (measured via an analysis by professionals of the apprentices’ video-recorded performance in the experimental and control groups using the same indices which chefs apply in professional contests; see Cattaneo/Motta 2020),
  • better perception of the links between theory and practice (measured through large scale questionnaires and learning analytics on the use of the platform; see Caruso/Cattaneo/Gurtner 2020 and Cattaneo/Gurtner/Felder 2021).

However, we are also able to show how the model fed back to the teachers at school and helped to inform their pedagogy (cf. Hämäläinen/Cattaneo 2015). The same applied in respect of the in-company trainers in the workplace and their behaviour related to the learning documentation. Ultimately, positive effects were produced for the whole system.

Take home messages

With no pretention of being exhaustive and mainly referring to our direct experience, we would propose some take-home messages, the first being already announced in the introduction:

You need a strong pedagogy, independent from the technology you will be able to integrate. No need to run after most recent technology, as the instructional rationale matters most. In the chefs’ experience as well as in several others, we contrasted an Erfahrraum-compliant pedagogy with a different one. For example, in the questionnaire we used to assess the effectiveness on the perception of connectivity (cf. Caruso/Cattaneo/Gurtner 2020), we have proof that it was the pedagogical approach which brought about the difference we are able to demonstrate.

Visual technologies provide excellent opportunities to exploit the added value of technologies in VET, as they capture and represent the professional situations in their situatedness and richness. It is astonishing to realize how many professional details lie in a simple picture that an expert chef can discern. A novice will fail to notice these. It is a matter of instructional design to make this richness functional and handy, instead of overwhelming (cf. Cattaneo/Aprea 2018). Beyond the illustration about chefs, annotation features constitute a powerful instructional tool to fully exploit the potential of visuals. Annotations allow analysis of and reflection on practice in different learning activities. This can happen by putting short graphical annotations on pictures to work on identification and categorization of details (cf. Coppi/Cattaneo 2021), as well as by sharing longer written comments in videos when analysing more complex situations, in order to discern the link between the visible details and the knowledge base behind them, for example during debriefing activities with healthcare professionals (cf. Cattaneo/Boldrini/Lubinu 2020). Depending on the professional context, authentic or simulated practice can constitute the entry point.

Technologies in VET should exploit their collaborative potential, collaboration being meant as both a horizontal and a vertical factor. In the former case, we refer to the pedagogy enacted within the class for carrying out collaborative learning activities. In the latter, to the ways in which technology provides better and stronger connections between learning locations and their stakeholders, as is illustrated for the chef’s online environment. The chefs’ experience prompted us to develop the social platform Realto2 – ideally usable by any profession whilst at the same time being customisable to the specific exigences of each profession. Realto enables

  • apprentices to share the traces of their professional experiences with their schoolmates,
  • teachers to exploit these traces creating learning activities based on them and
  • in-company trainers to monitor the learning documentation of their apprentices and its relation to the content handled at school.

Additionally, cross-views are also possible (teachers can view the learning documentation and trainers the class flow). These tools constitute concrete opportunities to enhance the “Lernortkooperation”.

We have seen in previous examples that technologies can be used to collect, elaborate on, share and connect experiences. Although we stated cutting-edge technologies are not necessarily a pre-condition of this, immersive solutions offer new opportunities to augment and expand experiences beyond physical space and time. This was the case, for example, in the fields of logistics and carpentry, in which augmented reality solutions coupled with tangible objects have been used to facilitate abstraction tasks and learn the rules of logistics (e.g., the storage capacity of a warehouse) and of statics (e.g. the distribution of forces on the joints of a roof structure; cf. e.g. Cuendet et al. 2013).3 Further experience was gained in the field of horticulture, where a virtual reality application allowed the design and direct experience of a garden via a head-mounted display, manipulating time to see how the garden would look in different seasons and how the plants will grow throughout the years (cf. e.g. Kim et al. 2020). Far from losing coherence with the Erfahrraum, these examples allow us to expand the model as well as the way to conceive “experience” other than the traditional meaning, and to allow access to it not only in the physical workplace, but also from other technologically rich contexts.

Further perspectives

In this contribution, we briefly illustrated that technologies change the way we learn, but also the way we teach. We need students to develop specific competencies, and the same applies to teachers (cf. Cattaneo/Antonietti/Rauseo 2022). While in both cases we can see the opportunities, a lot of exciting work still remains to be done. This concerns

  • teacher training and competence development, to fully harness the areas of potential briefly sketched in the take-home messages,
  • the further test of the Erfahrraum model and its phases, to the full exploitation of traditional and innovative visual tools, and finally
  • the aim of using technology to improve connectivity and collaboration between VET stakeholders.

The agenda is rich, and the premises are good to make the most out of it.


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(All links last accessed: 02/05/2022)

Alberto Cattaneo
Head of Research Field at the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education and Training SFUVET, Lugano