ChatGPT and other EdTech: Disrupting VET
Since its launch at the end of November 2022, educators around the world have been discussing how to deal with ‘ChatGPT’. Questions being asked include:
- Should ChatGPT be banned in education and if so how?
- Alternatively, would banning it be like banning the calculator in education?
- What about if/when ChatGPT technology is available in tools such as Microsoft Word?
- Are ‘AI’ detection tools reliable?
- What are the privacy and ethical implications of using detection tools?
- Can and should ChatGPT be incorporated into learning, and if so how?
- What are the equity implications of incorporating it when it may not always be freely available for all students?
While these are important questions, and they make the argument in the first instance for a much lesser reliance on written assessments, it is likely that (as with the invention of pocket calculators and the internet itself) educators and learners can and will adapt to this technology.
What educators in higher education and vocational education and training (VET) will also need to be thinking about is the impact of ChatGPT and other AI in the workplace.
With the pace at which AI is being incorporated into different job roles, tertiary education institutions will need to frequently adapt their course content to reflect how AI is changing the work performed by designers, lawyers, social media marketers, coders, and a vast number of white collar workers. It is here where the structure of the Australian VET system will be placed under significant stress by the recent advances in, and adoption of, AI.
Universities are self-accrediting institutions, meaning they are able to adapt and update their course content as needed – typically within a matter of weeks.
The same is not true in the Australian VET sector, which is instead built around national Training Packages which were designed 30 years ago and are updated through national consensus in a process that takes months and even years. The Training Package process is not nimble and flexible enough to keep course content up-to-date for learners and their future employers when work is changing rapidly due to the uptake of AI. At present the business services sector, as well as parts of the IT and the creative industry sectors are undergoing significant change due to ChatGPT and other AI tools, and can be expected to continue to do so. When and how will the relevant Training Packages be updated? And updated again, and again to keep pace…?
And if all of that wasn’t enough for the VET sector, there are further significant changes ahead for VET educators as personalised learning and assessment (backed by AI) and the use of VR and AR technology increasingly become the norm.
Much debate about ChatGPT has focused on assessment issues in secondary schools and higher education because of their heavy reliance on written assessment tasks. However, artificial intelligence technology will also affect the vocational education and training (VET) sector and potentially in much more profound ways.
The VET sector operates in strange and mysterious ways to the majority of outsiders. And it is the reforms introduced in the 1990s, most specifically national training packages, that will soon have havoc rain down on them thanks to ChatGPT and AI.
Training packages were introduced to bring greater national consistency to what the TAFE sector and a small number of other providers were teaching. Governments listened to the demands of employers to ensure plumbers, electricians, real estate agents, administrative assistants and all of the other occupations served by the VET system, were all taught the same skills irrespective of where they lived.
The national training authority at the time worked with others to specify the competencies or skills workers need for different job roles. These competencies were collated in qualifications and then training institutions designed courses to teach them.
It took a lot of work to reach agreement on the different competencies – and the problem for the VET sector is that it still does.
Industry representatives still meet regularly to discuss the skills needed in various occupations. Their feedback is used to specify new competencies, then national consultations are undertaken, and then updated training package are released.
TAFEs and other training providers then amend their curriculum, professionally develop their teachers to deliver the new competencies, and then apply to their regulatory body for approval to deliver the new and updated qualifications. Only then are they allowed to start advertising the new courses, enrolling students and teaching the new skills industry needs.
The entire process from start to finish takes years despite the best efforts of all involved.
The process is being improved but it is never going to be as fast as the weeks-long process universities use to update the courses they offer. And that’s because universities and a small number of other higher education providers have self-accrediting status. That is, they can update their courses using their own established processes whenever they need to.
Not so for TAFE institutes and other vocational colleges.
The VET sector does not allow any provider to accredit their own courses, no matter how good their regulatory and quality control processes, or how good their relationships with industry or their student outcomes.
The training package approach made sense in the 1990s when the emphasis was on greater national consistency and employer input into the design of qualifications.
Today when AI and specifically ChatGPT is radically and rapidly changing white-collar work, the work of coders and other IT specialists, and those working in some parts of the creative industry, the VET sector needs an honest debate about whether the mechanisms designed 30 years ago are still fit for purpose in some industries and occupations?
No doubt there is good reason to continue with the training package model in industries which are not currently beset by rapid technological change, but in the weeks since GPT technology was made publicly available it is already changing the way white-collar work is done in a wide variety of businesses and job roles.
Even more crucially no one knows what future changes AI will bring or how quickly the changes will occur.
In the face of the profound change caused by AI, can the VET sector afford to cling to outdated training package processes in the teaching of business, IT and some creative skills?
Should it further prioritise national consistency in these fields over flexibility and responsiveness, or is VET doing students and employers a disservice by sticking with processes that take years to accommodate change?
How can the VET sector meet employers’ needs if learners today are being taught business skills which have not been updated in the last 12 months let alone the last few weeks?
ChatGPT means it is time for a difficult conversation in VET about following higher education’s lead and granting some VET providers self-accrediting status for their business qualifications and for some of their IT and creative industry qualifications. To do otherwise runs the risk of the sector becoming irrelevant in these fields.
Claire Field is the principal of Claire Field and Associates.