Ventspils and Valmiera pilot innovative EdTech solutions to prepare young people for the future of work
The world of work is changing. Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics will make this change as significant as the mechanization in prior generations of agriculture and manufacturing. While some jobs will be lost, and many others created, almost everything will be different compared to today. No one can predict the future, but among the many studies available worldwide on the future of work, technologies will significantly impact the way we work, and the place humans will have in the job market.
Employment outcomes differ locally depending on the innovation capabilities of territories, their business dynamism, and available workforce skills. A recent discussion paper by the McKinsey Global Institute titled “The future of work in Europe” shows that in the old continent 48 megacities and superstar hubs produce 55 percent of EU high-tech patents, versus 39 percent for stable economies and just 6 percent for shrinking regions. They account for 73 percent of start-ups, compared to 25 percent for stable economies and 2 percent in shrinking regions. Twenty-nine of these cities are home to almost 80 percent of the 126 European companies in the Fortune Global 500. Moreover, the 48 growth hubs are home to about 83 percent of STEM graduates, and 40 percent of the resident population has tertiary education; this compares to less than 25 percent in some clusters within the shrinking regions category.
The employment impact of COVID-19 may hasten the workforce transitions to new jobs with different skills for many. The crisis could also accelerate existing inequalities within European countries, between better-educated and less well-educated workers and regions, as well as among young people. Automation is not the only force shaping the workplace. Europe’s mix of sectors is rebalancing as manufacturing and agriculture continue to recede while services gain more relative weight. Now automation is amplifying the shift toward more knowledge-intensive sectors, such as education, information and communications technology, and human health and social work.
STEM-related occupations and business and legal professional roles could grow by more than 20 percent in the coming decade. Activities that require technological skills will grow in all industries, creating even more demand for workers with STEM skills (increasing 39 percent), who are already in short supply.
Against the backdrop of this context, the NextGen UIA project has the objective to demonstrate how European micro cities can find their place in a new global era, one where human capital can make a difference in the capacity of these cities to compete for jobs and growth. It seeks to overcome challenges related to skills shortage and lack of high-level specialists in micro cities by creating new and innovative solutions in education, business and governance. To reduce skills mismatch, the project will implement an experimental Education Technology plan.
As this article is being published, four NextGen partners are launching new initiatives where technology becomes a tool for educating younger generations in order to prepare them for the future of work that will be.
Valmiera Vocational Training Center is the leading VET center in technical study fields as mechanics and metalwork, mechatronics, coding, telemechanic and logistics. They already offer modern education that meets the trends shaping the job market. Within the UIA project, their goal is to test the latest digital technologies to engage students in new and innovative ways and enable teaching staff to facilitate learning. In particular, the training center has purchased a 3D virtual CAVE – a modern and innovative teaching equipment which is an immersive virtual reality environment where projectors are directed to between three and six of the walls of a 3.5m x 3.5m room-sized cube. In this kind of virtual environments, prototypes of parts can be created and tested, interfaces can be developed, and factory layouts can be simulated, all before spending any money on physical parts. This gives engineers a better idea of how a part will behave in the product in its entirety.
CAVEs are also used more and more in the collaborative planning in the construction sector. In Valmiera Vocational Training Center, the CAVE will be tested in at least four educational programs impacting 600 students: “Mechanics and metalwork”, “Mechatronics”, “Programming” and “Telemechanic and logistics”. The center is planning to train teachers and specialists on how to use this new teaching equipment, providing details on how certain software can be used for different subject lessons at upper-secondary, postsecondary level studies and for lifelong learning courses. The CAVE will also be used to foster interdisciplinary cooperation among teachers and students of different study fields, encouraging development of new ideas, problem solutions and creative thinking, soft skills that will play a key role in a technology-driven job market according to the European e-Competence Framework.
Linda Riba, Project Manager at the center, comments: “this technological solution will provide our students with a powerful tool to imagine the future.”
At the same time, another project partner, the Ventspils Vocational School, is implementing a VR (virtual reality) classroom, which has the ability to simulate several topics in both general education and vocational subjects. The school will improve existing study programs by providing learning and testing opportunities on three study subjects: work safety, tourism and mathematics.
“The scope of subjects will widen progressively in order to impact around 600 students”, says Elvis Binders, project manager at the college.
Virtual reality can be used to enhance student learning and engagement. VR education can transform the way educational content is delivered; it works on the premise of creating a virtual world – real or imagined – and allows users not only to see it but also to interact with it. Being immersed in what you’re learning motivates you to fully understand it. It willl require less cognitive load to process the information. VR in education provides an experience anchor to the instruction. With VR education, learners are inspired to discover for themselves. Students have an opportunity to learn by doing rather than passively reading. The School has received 16 VR glasses and 2 Z-Space stations and it is now in the process of setting up and rolling out the use of the equipment in the first courses.
A third NextGen partner, the Vidzemes University of Applied Science in Valmiera, is implementing two EdTech innovations: an Active Learning classroom and a virtual reality system to train mechatronics students.
Active learning classrooms (ALCs) are student-centered, technology-rich classrooms. They are easily identified with their large student tables and moveable seating designed to facilitate and promote active learning. Each table is accompanied by a whiteboard and flat screen monitor to display student work and larger rooms frequently have microphones at each table. ALCs also have a teaching station that allows the instructor to select and project and highlight student work from any particular table. They are also suitable for distance learning, connecting more classrooms at the same time.
Before deciding to go for ALC, the University performed a background research around the world. The focus was not solely on technology, but on a solution that would create a supportive environment for collaboration and active learning. The identified solution, in fact, is designed to facilitate a student-centered approach, one in which students take responsibility for their learning, providing a flexible approach to different learning styles, subjects and needs.
“Those are classrooms designed to prepare young generations for future work places. This is a real trend, this is the future”, says Kaspars Osis, Associate Professor of the Engeneering Facullty at the University.
The other innovation that the University is piloting within NextGen is an interactive, fully immersive 3D environment, which will be used in the bachelor study program on "Mechatronics", and in particular within two courses: "Organization of production and services" and "Electric drive". At current stage of development, the environment provides:
- a step-by-step training mode where trainee visually follows the steps of assemblage and dis-assemblage of electric motor,
- a step-by-step training mode where trainee accordingly instructions by himself assemble and disassemble the electric motor, by choosing correct parts in correct sequence.
Future developments include the implementation of a grading and feedback system for achieved tasks during assemblage and dis-assemblage process; an increase of scenarios complexity and the development of data collector for executed activities, to measure effectiveness of production process according LEAN principles.
Lastly, a fourth NextGen partner, the Ventspils University of Applied Science (VeUAS), is upgrading one of its classrooms into an Interactive Digital Classroom to test it in 3 existing study programs: "Programming Specialist", "Computer Science" and "Electronics". This technologically richest classroom is and will be available also for other faculties, therefore providing interdisciplinarity in technology usage between lecturers. A digital classroom is typically one that incorporates electronic devices and software into the learning environment. A digital classroom is where a physical classroom extends into a digital space. In particular, VeUAS has made investments in hardware and software technology to install interactive monitors and virtual conf call software. Therefore providing the possibility for an easy and handy way to teach students who are outside of class (distance learning).
The Digital Classroom will also become a gateway to develop new courses created for MOOCs. This kind, of course, will be specially adapted for distance learning (education), where video studios will be the main part of this purpose. The local MOOC platform and video studio will provide an opportunity to improve the quality of VeUAS courses and to attain the level required for a MOOC course be included in international platforms.
Maija Cebere, Deputy Head of R&D at VeUAS, states that “already in a Covid 19 context the investment has paid back as distance learning has been a new model for delivering classes to students all over the world.”
These four project partners are paving the way in Latvia for advanced and innovative education technologies, preparing their students for the future of work to be. It is important to underline that the technologies implemented are only part of the story. What counts is the approach to a more active learning role performed by students, and the attention to soft skills like collaboration, teamwork, problem solving and creativity. Both will be essential in the new job market. The ability to learn throughout life, to learn new things and be flexible, coupled with a set of competences that enable the capacity to invent, collaborate and lead, are the best guarantees to find good quality jobs in a market where technological features will evolve at an increase pace in the foreseeable future.
The notion that two micro cities are leading an innovative and complex project like NextGen, piloting these solutions within their education and training ecosystems, carries an important message: in an increasingly globalized and technology driven world, the only sensible response in order to maintain competitiveness has to come from organized territorial communities led by capable local administrations.
 You can view the video showing the construction of the CAVE at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAz3fRAenuE&feature=youtu.be
 You can view the video showing the Active Learning Classroom at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Le4Q1U6gsc&feature=youtu.be