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Listen… to the practitioner’s voice

Today is a big day! Together with colleagues from all across the UK, I am heading to London. It’s the Week of VocTech, and the annual showcase of everything that’s happening across the sector.

I feel fortunate to be continuing my work as Strategic Lead for the partnership between ALT and the Ufi VocTech Trust even though I stepped down as ALT’s CEO earlier this year. There’re a couple of reasons why: from a personal perspective, I love working in Vocational and Further Education because that’s where I took my first steps from alienated high school drop out to finding my way into further learning. Next, I love being part of a partnership where so much actively happens (and we have achieved much in the last few years). The biggest reason however is AmplifyFE. Yes, it’s a project, yes, it’s working in partnership, yes, there are awesome people involved, and it is also so much more than that: it’s a grassroots community of practice that is connecting the dots between individual practitioners, innovators and industry for the benefit of the learners furthest from opportunity. Since it’s launch in October 2020 (remember that time?) our community has grown to connect 2,700 practitioners.

Over the past twenty years I have worked with lots of projects that tried to achieve what we have done, and my bookmarks bar is a graveyard of moribund communities of practice in which tumbleweeds flourish. So what is the secret sauce of our success?

As we enter our fourth year, here are my reflections:

We connect, we don’t compete

When we first started setting up AmplifyFE, we were very clear that we were building a network of networks, not a new network. This distinction is key to our success: we don’t aim to replace or take over existing networks, we act as a meta network, an overarching connection that links one specialist group with another, one sector event with practitioners who don’t know where to start. We don’t wait for you to come to us. We try to find and come to you.

Part of our mission is to help those who are isolated within their institution or specialist subject, those EdTech or IT teams of one, to connect with people who speak their language and share their concerns.

We put everyone on the map

All of our artwork is created with Bryan Mathers via a Visual Thinkery process. Our community map was one of the first things we developed, and it was born out of a desire to show the communities and conversations that we already knew about and to allow others to (literally) put themselves on the map.

That’s a very powerful message to send. We say: put yourself on the map, and we will help others find you, join in and contribute. We want to map where the conversations about practice are really happening, no matter how informal or niche your interest. In a sector in which everyone is under pressure, short of funding and faced with mounting challenges, let’s connect you with the people who are in the same boat. We are not gatekeepers, we are map makers.

We reflect our community in our research and case studies

We also take a deeper diver into how learning technology and digital tools can be designed and deployed to support vocational learners most impacted by the ‘digital divide’. We explore what key advice can we give to those beginning or continuing an innovation journey in VocTech.

Our Insights Report shares fresh research and case studies that show what makes for truly successful co-creation between vocational educators and digital design project teams. We unpack how we can create effective learning solutions working in partnership with vocational learners to help narrow the ‘digital divide’ for those most in need of workplace skills development. Basically, we find practical examples that show what is the difference between what really works and what doesn’t deliver.  

We learn from others

One of the phrases we think a lot about is ‘by the sector, for the sector’. I am always curious about what people mean when they say it. How much do you know about ‘the sector’ to begin with? How do you take part? How do you contribute? And what are you asking in return?

We work with a community that suffers greatly from the ever-changing policy and funding changes starting at top-level government policy, to sector bodies and then filtering down to the local level and to individual institutions. Excellent programmes are launched, and then disappear again 3 years later. Or funding is cut for frameworks and skills training that had been invested in for years.

From the outset, our work with AmplifyFE was designed to learn from that. We wanted to find the data that shows how much the constant changes impact on professional development and innovation. Since 2020 we have collected and analysed this data annually, and published the results in our sector audit.

It’s a fantastic piece of work that really shines a spotlight on the scale of change that Further and Vocational Education has to weather. We learn from that, and we aim to change that.

We use our funding to stay free and open

Thanks to the funding from the Ufi VocTech Trust and the partnership work between the trust and ALT, we benefit from three decades of expertise in how to run an independent community of practice and we can stay free and open to all practitioners to join.

We are able to amplify the voices from networks across the sector via regular events, blog posts and podcasts as well as the long term work we do via our annual audit and research.

And that brings me to the biggest lesson I learnt over the past three years:

We are here to stay

Building trust is key to our success. Our team (the fabulous Emma, Lynne, Chloe as well as Lou and also others) includes only people who really understand the sectors we serve, who have worked in Further and Vocational Education and often they still do. We are transparent about our aims and also what we won’t do (i.e. commercialise our community) .

Active communities of practice that grow are gold dust. We know from our sector audit how many communities disappear each year, either because no one is active or because of funding or policy changes. Or sometimes simply because a certain social network is taken over by madness. Remember the sector forums that suddenly closed? Or the demonstrator programme that stopped? Or the skills training that was cut? Well, we do, too. And that is why we are here to stay, actively supporting our community and amplifying what is happening across sectors as an independent network of network.

You are welcome to join us.

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