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Ākonga at centre learners looking at wall posters

Ākonga at the Centre is underway

Te Pūkenga’s commitment to ensure a reimagined vocational education system with learners at the centre is taking shape. The Ākonga at the Centre national research project has started.

Te Pūkenga’s commitment to ensure a reimagined vocational education system with learners at the centre is taking shape.

What exactly are the barriers and the enablers for tertiary learners? With our learners, both potential, current and previous, all being so unique, different things work or don’t work for different people. So, imagine a vocational education system that can fit around the lives of learners – rather than one that learners must fit themselves around.

It’s a journey that will take some time to firstly understand, plan and then implement, but Te Pūkenga has taken the first step. Our ethics approved national research programme, Ākonga at the Centre, has started to engage with learners, trainees, apprentices and those people who support them.

The team, supported by a national network forum made up of representatives from the 16 subsidiaries and many of the transitional ITOs, has started their national engagement programme. The kanohi ki te kanohi component of the programme will see the team facilitating small focus groups and hosting larger workshop type activities both in person and virtually, and there will be a targeted online survey to reach out even further to learners and those who support them to complement this work.

The Ākonga at the Centre team and network forum have worked closely with Te Pūkenga Partnerships and Equity team to design their engagement approach. “We have worked hard to ensure a process that gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We have woven a critical bicultural framework with human-centred design, drawing on Kaupapa Māori principles. This has been an important part of the process for us as we work towards equity for Māori,” says Debbie Preston, Ākonga the Centre Workstream Capability Lead for Te Pūkenga.

“We’ve been surprised and delighted at the interest and engagement with our programme,” says Debbie. “We understand that people are really busy, but we’ve found as soon as we’ve got things underway and shared what we’re doing, and more importantly why we’re doing it, people just open up and share their thoughts.”

Flipping the traditional approach on its head can be quite a tough concept to grasp – because our current methods of teaching and learning are so engrained. “The traditional approach has been to develop a programme or service based on what we, and the provider, think will work best, and expect that it will meet our learners’ and employers’ needs,” explains Debbie.

“We know that does not always work, so as Te Pūkenga is designing and developing our new operating model, we’ll seek to understand what learners and those who support them tell us they need and want, and what they don’t want, then we can weave our insights through the design process into the final design. That will ensure we’re not only taken learners’ feedback into consideration, it should mean we’re co-designing a system that will fit around them,” says Debbie.

“To get the best information, we need to reach out far and wide. We’ll engage with Māori, those learners in remote locations and those at different life stages, different ethnicities, residency statuses, ages, socio-economic

Insight gained from the Ākonga at the Centre research will be a critical contributing component for the operating model that will help transform the vocational education and training system, ensuring that learners are put at the very heart.

Te Pūkenga is currently finalising who the co-design partner for the operating model project will be, and initial consultation with a wide range of stakeholders and partners on a new model is due to take place in the first quarter of 2021.  

Ākonga at the Centre’s nine-week national engagement programme, that will visit each region, each subsidiary and connect with a wide range of trainees, apprentices and staff from across Transitional ITOs, would not have been possible to set-up without the help of the network forum.  The network forum, 38 people nominated by subsidiaries and Transitional ITOs, have worked with Te Pūkenga team to co-design each engagement, drawing on the wide range of experience, knowledge and expertise in the system.

“It’s been wonderful working with the network forum. Collectively, they are all passionate about learner success, and individually, they know their region and their learners and trainees. They have been instrumental in helping us co-design a programme of engagement that will ensure we can get the best information possible to effect real change,” says Debbie. “Alongside our focus groups and larger engagement forums, we’re also hosting online conversations and we’ll be sending out an online survey soon too.”

“We’ve really enjoyed being part of the whole process so far,” says Debbie Ruwhiu, one of SIT’s network forum members. SIT have just hosted a day long engagement event where both staff and learners got to participate.

“I really feel like the network forum, with people right across the country from subsidiaries and transitional ITOs, has come together as one to support and embrace this important mahi. We are all committed to using this opportunity to allow people’s voices to be heard. Their feedback will make a difference,” says Debbie Ruwhiu.

“Staff participants who took part in the focus groups have let Debbie and I know how much they enjoyed being involved. They are all passionate about learner success and understand how this research is going to pull together so many valuable insights.  They understand their participation will contribute directly to a reimagined system and I think they have appreciated being able to have their voices heard,” says Debbie Ruwhiu.

Pizza was popular at the learner engagement sessions on the SIT campus in Waihōpi. With two sessions running concurrently at two different locations, approximately 100 learners got the chance to provide feedback on their tertiary education journey. Initially they were a bit hesitant, but fuelled with pizza, post-it notes and marker pens, their feedback quickly flowed.

“In these larger learner sessions, we’re asking for feedback on the barriers and enablers participants found at various stages in their journey right through to graduation and getting into the workforce. For example, before they even came to SIT, what did they think about entering tertiary education – what helped or hindered their decision-making process? While we can’t really make any comments on key national themes, we certainly found for these learners knowing people, feeling welcome and having friends was important, and finances were also a key consideration,” says Debbie Preston.

Savanna Ornsby, a recent graduate and staff member from Ara, now working with Te Pūkenga as a key member of the  Ākonga at the Centre team wasn’t surprised about the range of barriers that are popping up related to the study/life/work juggle. “While studying is an important part of learners’ lives, it is important to remember that they also have lives outside of study; often-times including part-time work and family commitments. The current system in many ways doesn’t fit around or acknowledge the learner as a whole and this can take a toll on the learner’s wellbeing. The pressure to juggle can really be a stressful time for people,” says Savanna. “This mahi is really important as we are giving learners the meaningful chance to tell us what it is like to be a student, in a holistic sense.”

“Nothing for me, without me is a theme that has really resonated with me since my health promotion degree and time on the Student Council at Ara, and this work is really taking that on board. I’m really enjoying being part of this mahi because I can understand the learner perspective, and I hope I can help encourage other learners to share their voice too.”

The team will be working their way around the country over the next eight weeks, talking to more staff, learners and trainees in the ITO system. 

“This is a massive and incredibly important research project. We have obtained ethics approval to do this work, so everything we do has to be done appropriately and in accordance with our ethical guidelines and principles. We will be collating all the feedback shared with us, typing up thousands of post-it notes and consolidating the data we’ll collect from our online survey too. That will then be used to develop unique learner journeys, key themes and a clearer understanding of what holds learners back, and what enables their success. That insight will contribute to the design process phase, part of developing the future operating model for Te Pūkenga.

Debbie and the team will be able to share some of their high-level findings before the end of the year. “We’ve given an undertaking to those people who have volunteered to participate in our research to share some feedback with them as soon as we are able to.” The high-level themes will also be made available on Te Pūkenga website. 

In time, significant data, information and insight gathered through this research will be shared more broadly across the system, including with the Tertiary Education Commission, the Reform of Vocational Education programme, the Ministry of Education, New Zealand Qualifications Authority and other sector partners who we hope will value it.

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