Ground-breaking new institute promises to close the digital skills gap

A new institute is offering a revolutionary approach to education, allowing students to build their digital skills incrementally, without having to commit upfront to years of study.

The Institute of Applied Technology – Digital (IAT-D) is now welcoming its first students, who will be trained in the areas of big data, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (with software development and cloud computing to follow shortly). Courses can take as little as a few hours, or up to six weeks and can be “stacked” to individual needs. The curriculum has been designed in a way that allows learners to “start where they are” — be that at the very beginning of their career journey, midway through a career change, or to acquire new digital skills for professional growth.

One of two pilot rapid training facilities, The IAT-D is funded by the NSW Government in response to the 2020 Gonski-Shergold review into the NSW vocational education and training sector. The second IAT at Kingswood focuses on skills for the construction industry which is experiencing a skills gap of similar proportions.

The IAT-D aims to provide a new model of education to help close the digital skills gap, which has long frustrated employers, and to help people retrain for the jobs of the future. Representing a ground-breaking partnership between two pillars of education (TAFE and universities), State Government (which has committed $222.5 million to the project) and industry, this is a world-first in bringing education and industry together not just to consult each other, but to co-create a solution.

Microsoft is the founding industry partner working side-by-side with the education partners to build a model that will benefit the entire tech sector and other employers requiring digital skills. Additional industry partners are joining to support the model and contribute their expertise in developing new skilled talent.

The three education partners are TAFE NSW, Macquarie University and the University of Technology Sydney collaborating with industry in the new purpose-built building within the grounds of the Education and Employment precinct in Meadowbank NSW.

The courses and masterclasses are co-designed and co-delivered by the partners to provide practical and academic skill sets that can be applied directly in the workforce. Industry certifications are included in the curriculum through a partnership with Prodigy Learning and resources drawn from programs such as Microsoft Learn for Educators are used in the development of the course content.

The IAT-D aims to attract around 26,000 learners over four years, providing hands-on, job-specific training to enter the IT industry (including industry certifications), or to upskill to take on new digital responsibilities. Industry experts are meeting with learners throughout the courses to provide their unique perspectives and immediate networking opportunities.

The aim is to offer the most up-to-date training within six months of the emergence of a new industry trend. Under the usual VET (vocational education training) model of education, it could take two to three years to create courses to meet these changing requirements. And because industry is involved in co-creation and co-delivery the loop between training and placement can be closed faster for those looking for a job.

Learners are a mix of people who enrol independently and others who are offered training by their employers. Westpac is the first employer to sign up teams of workers and the IAT-D will also deliver new ICT traineeships for NSW public-sector agencies.

This kind of rapid, affordable skills acquisition will benefit learners from segments of the population that have previously been under-represented in digital roles. These groups include stay-at-home parents returning to work, new migrants and older workers who are not necessarily “digital natives”.

Former Director of Government Relations at Macquarie University, Peter McCarthy, has been leading the project for Macquarie and says the partners are looking for every opportunity to put people into work.

“One of our ambitions is to see many more women in the IT sector. Participation rates are very low at the moment and there is no reason for that, other than it’s probably the perception that it’s a sector for men,” he says.

“Our brief is to increase access – not just for women but for many other groups as well, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Director of Commercial and University Partnerships for TAFE NSW, Matthew Bushby, says the IAT-D will also attract workers who want to increase their digital skills.

“They don’t want to retrain with a three-year degree or a six-month TAFE course. They just need to be able to get those foundation skills quickly to meet employment needs,” he says. They may choose to continue their education at TAFE or university at a later time.

Conversely, another prime market will be people who already have the required technical abilities but want to improve their enterprise skills – such as problem-solving, critical thinking or human interaction.

Bushby says the IAT-D is working towards an offering where students can design their own “career journeys”, picking up skills as they need them. “We want to create lifelong learners who can pick and choose what they want to study and when they want to study, at a time that suits them over the lifetime of their career”.

The Meadowbank campus comprises a multi-level training centre, with a floor dedicated to a Cyber Range Training Centre. This centre offers an immersive learning experience through a 64sqm 3D printed simulated city called AnyTown that can be subjected to cyber-attacks and also generate data for AI and data analytics.

“This is a multi-million-dollar investment in cybersecurity education and is likely to be the highest grade cybersecurity training centre in Australia,” says Bushby.

“Learners will be able to hack the simulated city and see the results of their hack. But the city will also generate its own data to create scenarios and use artificial intelligence to predict future growth patterns of the city.”

McCarthy says the four-year pilot IAT-D program is expected to be expanded to new campuses in regional areas and additional partners. IAT-Ds will eventually teach up to 10 discipline areas (from five now).

The demand for skills in data, cyber security and artificial intelligence is enormous. There is huge interest in what we’re doing for that reason.

“To take an immediate example, consider the implications of ChatGPT and its extraordinary capacity. Artificial intelligence is developing very, very rapidly now and we need people who understand where that is going and where it can lead.”

The courses are delivered in a hybrid model of online and in-person experiences and the fees have been structured to ensure they do not create a barrier to participation.

Fees for microcredentials are heavily subsidised for NSW residents and microskills are fee free. To enrol in a microskill or microcredential please visit Institute of Applied Technology – TAFE NSW.