Professional learning networks: are these something we need to be taking more seriously now?

Networks, communities of practice and special interest groups have been around for a long time in VET, but maybe the time is ripe to re-invigorate and better support the concept?

Here are some of the usual suspects and better-known ones

These include TAFE Directors Australia (TDA) and its affiliate the Victorian TAFE Association (VTA) (the VTA has a number of special interest networks listed on its website), the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA), the Enterprise Registered Training Organisation Association (ERTOA) and Community Colleges Australia (CCA) and ACEVic as well as others focused on research (AVETRA), international education (IEAA), but many of those that were around in the past have now folded. There are, however, other long-established ones like WAVE (Women in Adult and Vocational Education) and others we have not included here.

Why are networks and partnerships a good idea?

Many of those listed above are advocacy groups for their part of the VET sector, and that’s an important function. But other types of networks are of great value too. In work going back to 2006 (and entitled Quality is the key), an NCVER report focused on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. The report’s authors highlighted the need for VET practitioners to adopt a variety of methodologies to develop new skills. These approaches focus on work-based learning approaches, including coaching, mentoring, industry release and work shadowing “as well as participating in networks, communities of practice and professional conversations.”

In addition, one of the report’s key messages was that:

“Partnerships and networks support the achievement of high-quality teaching, learning and assessment by encouraging the exchange of information, ideas, techniques and approaches between VET practitioners, their clients and industry representatives.”

And maybe at this critical time in the development and reform of the VET system this is what we need to be doing more of?

An accompanying paper to the report we just highlighted discusses the range and types of networks, and why they are important. It sees them as having considerable value “both for the individuals involved and for their organisations.” This is because networks “can provide the individual with access to information and knowledge and are sometimes essential to the success of the VET provider they work for.” A network “is one of the most powerful assets any individual can possess. It provides access to power, information, knowledge, and to other networks.” So, “Networks are always needed in VET, to assist practitioners to improve their practice, to build relationships between the varied stakeholder groups and to enable the sector to remain responsive to changing client needs.”

Networks can take many forms too. They can be open to all or have a closed membership. They may be complex and can require sophisticated facilitation and management. They can be intense and short-term formed to meet a particular purpose. Others are longer-lasting, “demonstrating their value to the members and their importance to the sector” over a far longer period of time.

Both networks and communities of practice “are groups of people brought together by common interests, experiences, goals, or tasks; and both imply regular communication and bonds characterised by some degree of trust and altruism.” What they really need, though, is a group or a small number of individuals that work hard to build and sustain the network.

Research going back as far as the early 2000s “indicates that many more networks and partnerships involving industry and training providers are required to more fully respond to the many challenges of implementing a national training system.” The same is true today and is even more so with time-poor staff often focused on addressing other needs (e.g. regulatory compliance). However, the question needs to be asked, is this compliance focus the best way of spending their time, or could better and well supported networks be a better way of continuously improving quality and promoting innovative practice? The move to self-assurance we highlighted in the self-assurance article of this edition of VDC News will certainly help this.