Throughout Asia and the Pacific there are growing concerns about the lack of progress in providing relevant education and training for life and work. The impacts of COVID-19 exacerbated learning poverty worldwide, and made it clear that we cannot rely on traditional education systems that underperform and perpetuate inequalities (Tawil & Camille, 2023). Based on the latest trends, the Asia-Pacific region will miss the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by several decades. Only 15% of the necessary progress has been made at the midpoint of the agenda (UN ESCAP, 2023). To achieve the 17 SDGs, including quality education (SDG4) and decent work opportunities for all (SDG8), we need a new collaborative approach and digital transformation for learning and employment.
Innovations such as verifiable credentials (VCs), rich skill descriptors and Learning and Employment Records (LERs) are reshaping how we recognise learning outcomes from academic and work-based learning. As this new open architecture evolves, how will learners in Asia and the Pacific be able to manage their learning data and shape their futures?
During a regional symposium for Asia and the Pacific held in Singapore (20 April 2023), industry leaders and practitioners from the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) met to discuss digital mobilisation efforts and a call to action to enable learner mobility, cross-sector collaboration and system interoperability across institutions and regions (Groningen Declaration Network, 2023). To organise this work worldwide, UNESCO’s new Digital Transformation Collaborative identified five keys to unlock potential across diverse settings (UNESCO, 2023b) (Figure 1). In Singapore, these ‘5Cs’ were used to explore an open and inclusive digital architecture for learning and employment across Asia and the Pacific.
1. Coordination and strategic leadership
A policy-based approach can provide strategic and coordinated leadership at multiple levels. Coordination mechanisms need all countries and diverse stakeholders on board to be effective, but engagement in Asia- Pacific remains limited. Regional policies such as the Tokyo Convention promote the fair and transparent recognition of learning and qualifications, but they are underutilised. No countries in Southeast Asia have ratified the Tokyo Convention on qualifications recognition, and only Australia and Japan have ratified the Global Convention on Higher Education as of March 2023. These gaps in policy adoption will leave the region underrepresented at the Asia-Pacific and global levels. Strategic national and regional leadership are key for representation and learner engagement.
2. Cost and sustainability of platforms
In 2022, with support from the European Commission, stakeholders in Southeast Asia launched a roadmap to create a common higher education space in ASEAN, including plans for mobility programmes, virtual exchange and digital credentialing (ASEAN, 2022). All governments need to invest in publicly accessible platforms that offer personalised and engaging learning experiences. Private providers of MOOCs have been instrumental in expanding access to online learning, yet those benefits disproportionately benefit elite learners who are already enrolled in higher education.
It is important to ensure that public resources are invested to renew open platforms, including reinventing open universities and networks such as the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU). Robust investments in innovation will ensure that the benefits of the digital transformation are accessible, strengthening education as a public endeavour and a common good throughout the wider region (UNESCO, 2021).
3. Connectivity and infrastructure
Access to high-speed internet, digital devices and other technologies remain critical to benefit from open educational resources and to participate in online learning effectively. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of online learning and remote work, resulting in increased investment in digital technologies and infrastructure development, including 5G networks. However, unequal access to the internet, limited availability of quality open educational resources, and low levels of digital literacy and skills remain significant challenges, particularly for vulnerable populations such as refugees and migrants throughout the region.
4. Capacities for innovation and cultural variations
The OECD recognised that private sector engagement in public education systems has been the driving force behind most technological and social innovation in education (UNESCO, 2023b). In the Asia-Pacific region, it is crucial to develop new capacities for innovation that take into account cultural variations and diverse settings.
One example of such innovation is the Indonesia Cyber Education (ICE) Institute, which offers quality-assured courses including micro-credentials for game developers. Through a local consortium and in partnership with industry, learners can acquire entry-level skills and demonstrate their competencies in a flexible and personalised way, creating their own unique learning pathways (ICE Institute, 2023). It is essential to understand local capacities for innovation across sectors, and recognise which offerings are valued by learners and employers.
5. Content and curriculum that is relevant for life and work
Finally, the content and curriculum of education and training programmes must be relevant for life and work. This requires engaging with industry, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders to identify emerging trends and skills gaps, and developing programmes that equip learners with the competencies they need at different points in life.
Together with UNICEF, new gateways to public digital learning are taking shape to establish and iteratively improve national digital learning platforms (UNESCO, 2023a). Major content platforms such as XuetangX, KMOOC, ThaiMOOC, the ICE Institute and others in the Asia-Pacific are analysing labour market demand, sharing content, and working to localise offerings for diverse learners in the Asia-Pacific region. Content providers and networks within and outside the region, combined with advances in AI, will create an ever more complex landscape for individualised learning pathways. More open and accessible content requires intentional monitoring to assess impact and value.
Given the rapid growth and huge interest in work-ready micro-credentials, quality controls for recognition will be daunting – open standards and trust building can drive innovation that is inclusive. Examples such as the Digital Credentials Consortium’s Learner Credential Wallet and the Learning Economy Foundation’s LearnCard are part of a growing movement to create an interoperable and open infrastructure for digital credentialing (Digital Credentials Consortium, 2023; Learning Economy Foundation, 2022). To help build consensus UNESCO will work with diverse stakeholders and networks, including the GDN, to prepare an international quality framework for micro-credentials; the aim here is to co-develop an internationally agreed definition, standards for quality assurance, and principles for stacking and interoperability (UNESCO, 2022). The quality framework should be based on an open digital learner data ecosystem that facilitates mobility by enabling learners to share their credentials and learner data between different education and training providers as well as job platforms (International Micro- Credentials Summit, 2023).
To measure progress, governments must renew their commitments to produce relevant, timely, granular and high-quality data, especially in relation to the SDGs (UN ESCAP, 2023). Currently the Asia-Pacific region has less than 60% of the indicator-level data for SDG4 and SDG8 available. Researchers can help to overcome gaps in the available data to inform strategic decisions and policy implementation. Open government data are fundamental commitments to transparency, and underpin an open architecture for learning and employment. Such data are critical for monitoring complex accountabilities (i.e. transparency, liability, legitimacy, responsibility and responsiveness). These five competing dimensions of accountability inform our understanding of what is locally relevant in a given policy context (Teter & Wang, 2021). New measures are needed to build a culture of accountability at multiple levels and across sectors.
- ASEAN. (2022). Roadmap on the ASEAN Higher Education Space 2025 and its implementation plan. https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/ ASEAN-Higher-Education-Space-2025_rev-1.pdf
- Digital Credentials Consortium. (2023). Learner Credential Wallet. A place to store your learner credentials. https://lcw.app/
- Groningen Declaration Network. (2023). The Asia Pacific Regional Symposium. https://www. groningendeclaration.org/asia-pacific-2023/
- ICE Institute. (2023). Microcredential Game Developer. https://gamedev.icei.ac.id/
- International Micro-Credentials Summit. (2023). 2023 International Micro Credentials Summit Declaration. https://microcredentials.eu/micro-credentials-summit/
- Learning Economy Foundation. (2022). LearnCard: What if we worked together to enable learner sovereignty, mobility and agency? https://www. learncard.com/
- Tawil, S., & Camille, C. (2023). Renewing education to transform the future: Critical perspectives on the Transforming Education Summit. UNESCO’s Future of Learning and Innovation Division. https://en.unesco. org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/renewing-education-transform-future
- Teter, W., & Wang, L. (2021). Monitoring implementation of the Tokyo Convention on recognition: A multi-stakeholder approach to the internationalization of higher education in the Asia-Pacific. International Journal of Comparative Education and Development (IJCED), Special Issue: ‘Internationalization of higher education in the Era of SDGs: Asia-Pacific Perspective, 23(3), 157–174.
- UN ESCAP. (2023). Asia-Pacific SDG Progress Report, 2023. https://www.unescap.org/events/2023/launch-asia-and-pacific-sdg-progress-report-2023
- UNESCO. (2021). Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. International Commission on the Futures of Education. https:// unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000379707
- UNESCO. (2022). Transforming technical and vocational education and training for successful and just transitions: UNESCO Strategy 2022–2029. https:// unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000383360
- UNESCO. (2023a). Gateways to public digital learning – A global initiative led by UNESCO and UNICEF. https:// www.unesco.org/en/education/digital/learning-platforms-gateway
- UNESCO. (2023b). UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition launches the Digital Transformation Collaborative at annual meeting. https://www.unesco. org/en/articles/unescos-global-education-coalition-launches-digital-transformation-collaborative-annual-meeting
DR WESLEY TETER
Dr Wesley Teter is Senior Consultant for Educational Innovation and Skills Development at UNESCO’s Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok.