| 10 minute read

Building tomorrow’s workforce – A digital education revolution by IAT-D

Elena Galán-Muros
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Join us as we delve into this dynamic collaboration between TAFE, Macquarie University, UTS, Microsoft, and more. Hear from Yasminka Nemet, Future Skills Lead at Microsoft; and Matt Crocker, Strategic Advisor at University of Technology Sydney, as they share insights into creating this cutting-edge institute aimed at nurturing digital talent. From stackable micro-credentials to industry-led curriculum development, learn how they’re reshaping education and bridging the digital skills gap.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Balzhan Orazbayeva:
Yasminka, I would like to start with you in your role as a Future Skills Lead at Microsoft. Could you tell us more about the journey of establishing of the Institute of Applied Technology – Digital and the key motivations behind it?

Yasminka Nemet:
I dive in future skills for Microsoft Australia and New Zealand. In this role, I work on strategic partnerships and initiatives across K-12, vocational education and higher education that are designed to help close the digital skills gap. Microsoft is really committed to ensuring everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in the digital economy.

With regards to your question, I have been reflecting on what an amazing journey it has been, how much we have accomplished together in such a short time with so much complexity. It started three years ago when the New South Wales Government of Australia decided to fund a four-year pilot to create a new education. The goal was to combine the best of vocational education, training, higher education, and industry to solve critical skills gaps. At that time, the two areas that were earmarked were digital technology and construction, so we actually have two IATs, each focusing on one of those two areas.

With that, the IAT-D was officially resourced and then we had to do all the actual work of pulling it together. In our first meeting, we discovered that there was no guidebook for how we were going to do this together.

After some back and forth, we started defining our mutual “why”, which set the foundation for the partnership. We kept coming back to our mutual purpose over time, which is to create more opportunities for people to participate fully in the digital economy, particularly women, who we know are underrepresented.

In New South Wales alone we need 85,000 more workers in Information and Communication Technology roles by 2030 and our existing education models aren’t really keeping up with the demand for that talent, so we need a lot of creativity and new thinking to close this gap.

And once we had agreed on our “why”, we spent the next 12 months co-creating the education model, collaboration principles, governance ways of working together, first courses, product standard, delivery model, brand identity and everything you can imagine in setting up a new institution.

The result now feels very much like a jointly owned and operated start-up. We consider each other to be colleagues and we are all very heavily invested in the success of the IAT-D because we have co-created it and we want it to succeed. From my perspective, and I think I speak equally of all the partners, we are more than partners, we are a team. We have joint aspirations, and we have joint KPIs to match those aspirations as well.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
On the partnership bit, Matt, can you tell us more about how this collaboration between TAFE, Macquarie University, UTS, Microsoft, and the other industry partners actually came about, and what were the key principles of collaboration that were followed?

Matt Crocker:
I am focused on our relationships with TAFE, the VET sector, and strategic initiatives that we can do in that space. IAT-D was aligned with our strategy and something that we wanted to be involved in from the very early stages of the original government review and investment. The first and most important point to make in terms of how we set up the partnership to begin with is that it was a competitive process.

The New South Wales Government had invested in the building that conducted the review that set out the framework, but we had to bid to be part of it. They asked for proposals, so we put our best foot forward and made the case for the vision that we had in bringing together industry, VET, and university education.

What made us stand up was that there was already a good working relationship between UTS, Microsoft, and all the other partners with each other, even thought we had never collaborated at this scale before.

The second point was that it was not a “winner takes all” situation, as we had two university partners. We work closely with Macquarie as equal partners in the education model, along with TAFE and with Microsoft, and that was useful for the collaboration.

It has been an inclusive collaborative model from the start, even on the industry partnership side of things. We always had this vision that it wasn’t just a Microsoft partnership but that other industry partners had a saying as well. We wanted and needed everybody on board to make a difference.

From the very first day we made sure we were working together as a team, jointly solving problems together, listening and working with each other and bringing our aspiration on each side to do something different and new.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
Establishing this “why” right from the beginning and understanding what brings all those partners together is key when it comes to collaborating, especially in such a complex environment with so many stakeholders involved.

What kind of unique features and opportunities does the institute offer to learners and students, particularly in terms of industry involvement?

Yasminka Nemet:
We spent months asking the same questions ourselves when we were putting the model together because our intention was not to replicate what was already in the market, but to create something that was complementary to vocational education and higher education.

I’m going to focus on three things that we did to create distinct value for learners and ultimately for employers as well.

  1. We created Australia’s first stackable micro-credentials model which allows learners to “start where they are”, tTo be able to up-skill, re-skill, exit to an entry level role or continue to study with our education partners. Creating a very fast, flexible and agile experience that can fit in and around the lives of learners, which is difficult for existing models to do.
  2. The actual co-creation process in and of itself is an innovation in the IAT-D. Our Microsoft subject matter experts, and now across the other industry partners, meet weekly with academics to discuss, debate, review and contribute to content. I’m not aware of a co-creation process that is that deep in education in any other of the partnerships that we have or that I’ve heard about. Aside from learners getting the benefit of that joint thinking, we are actually able to move very quickly together. For example, we launched two very popular courses within months to help people understand what generative AI is and what that opportunity is.
  3. We feature industry experts and experiences throughout the learning journey. This was a very intentional design element, but we want learners to feel that persistent presence of industry all around them to be able to bring knowledge and theory to life. One of the highlights of that is we have a physical cyber range that we have created that is paired with a physical model city which we have named Any Town. It actually simulates attacks on critical infrastructure and learners can see both the impact of an attack and also the impact of their own interventions.

All of this, along with the ability for learners to complete Microsoft and other industry certifications does bring that industry element to life for the learners. We are only a year into this delivery and still thinking deeply about how we can bring more of those industry perspectives in, including some more work-integrated learning experiences and mentorship programs.

Matt Crocker:
To reinforce that point about the certification and the credentials, we were really student-led, we thought what the students want from an upskilling and reskilling perspective, and having something that allowed you to get a Microsoft certification and a credential from UTS was an attractive package for learners and employers alike.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
It sounds like you really listen to what the user needs and wants, especially in this context of how to make lifelong learning actually work. It is such a complex topic, and it also has a lot to do with some of the inclusivity aspects.

How have you been addressing the challenge of diversity and inclusivity in the digital talent pool? Do you have any strategies or interventions that you use to attract and support underrepresented groups?

Matt Crocker:
We should start off by saying that it’s critical. We are facing a massive skill shortage in the digital workforce, and it’s not going to be addressed by just attracting the same workers that we always have.

It’s also a business and a public policy imperative to make sure that we are attracting a diverse and inclusive student population into the IAT-D. We are proud of the outcomes, it’s not quite 50-50 on gender, but the last cohort was about 45%, and we are a touch over 40% overall female students, which is much improved on comparable offerings.

The key to these numbers is making sure that we have an attractive but accessible product. We are rigorous on the content and focused on real employment outcomes, particularly in that upscaling and rescaling space where you can do one of our courses to fill a gap and better do your job, get to the next role in your organisation, or get the next job in a different organisation.

We also have a flexible approach to course timing and locations. We do it out of traditional hours, or online, and that works for people with busy lives.

More broadly, we are tracking our performance to make sure that we do get that diversity and inclusion in the people that we are attracting, and we will iterate and change what we do to make sure we are getting the right groups through, whether that is indigenous people, people with a disability, people with English as a second language, etc. We think about the barriers faced and see what practical steps we can take to make a difference on it.

Ready for more?

If you are interested in other student-focused university-industry partnerships, head now to our case study collection Fostering talent through education partnerships, where you can learn from initiatives that are bridging theory and practice to future-proof the careers of students.

Also coming from UTS, Animal Logic Academy is their world-leading animation and visualisation school with a ground-breaking model for their master’s program that provides graduates with an opportunity to directly develop critical, industry-focused and professional skills. Hear all about it on our episode Lessons from Hollywood: How industry can benefit higher education institutions.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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