Notes and ideas from our Degree Apprenticeships and eportfolios symposium.

by Shane Sutherland


Notes and ideas from our Degree Apprenticeships and eportfolios symposium.

~ Degree Apprenticeships ~

DECEMBER 19th 2017· by Shane Sutherland


Degree Apprenticeships and eportfolios

Every year we try to run an event aimed squarely at exploring topics our community would like to learn more about. Last year we explored the use of eportfolios to support professional development, and the year before that we looked at the idea of future readiness. This year we turned our attention to Degree Apprenticeships, a topic exercising and exciting universities in equal measure. Although Degree Apprenticeships are currently only available in England and Wales, I hope there will be plenty of interest in this blog post for readers elsewhere too. 

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An apprenticeship is a job, in a skilled occupation, that requires substantial and sustained training, leading to the achievement of an apprenticeship standard and the development of transferable skills to progress careers.


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The event kicked off with Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive of UVAC, providing the policy context for Degree Apprenticeships. There are Higher Apprenticeships which encompass apprenticeships at level 4 to level 7, but we were particularly interested in Degree Apprenticeships which encompass level 6 and 7 and involve an individual gaining a full bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. DAs were brought in by the government to address concerns around low UK productivity, thought to result from underinvestment in training and development by employers. Additionally, since Theresa May became Prime Minister there has been increased interest in how DAs might aid social mobility – though Adrian noted that there is no clear consensus on whether this focus would mean increased investment in lower level apprenticeships at the cost of fewer degree apprenticeships. The money for apprenticeships comes from a levy on employers with a £3m+ salary bill with the government/employer compact promising that employers would lead on how the levy was spent. The creation of the Institute for Apprenticeships is argued to have further weakened employers’ powers over how and which apprenticeships are developed - for more insight, read Adrian's recent Wonkhe Post.

The focus of the apprenticeship is developing the knowledge, skills and behaviours as specified in the employer developed national apprenticeship standards and assessed in accordance with the assessment plan. The employer is the customer of the university engaged by them to deliver an apprenticeship to the employee. Approximately 40% of apprenticeship standards currently developed are at HE level with the ‘big’ levy paying public sector developing and requiring degree apprenticeships for registered nurses (NHS), social workers (Local Authorities), police constables (Police Forces), and teachers. There is also significant demand in STEM areas e.g. manufacturing engineer, digital technology solutions and construction professions and in business.

DAs promise employers a positive impact on productivity and employability, particularly through involving them on the design and delivery of HE programmes. But there’s something particularly attractive to learners who will have the opportunity for a ‘debt free’ higher education offer – earn while you learn and your employer pays your fees.

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Image shows cutting-edge industrial/technology location
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An institutional case study from the University of Birmingham

Following on from Adrian was Professor Jonathon Green who shared with us an institutional case study from the University of Birmingham where they are creating a new fully-funded technology Degree Apprenticeship in partnership with industry. They are working closely with the industry partner to design programmes to prepare young people for the changing world of work and to equip them with industry required skills. The Degree Apprenticeship is also beginning to get more women and disadvantaged students interested in technology careers.

Jon outlined the benefits of Degree Apprenticeships:

For Employers - Upskill and develop existing employees, recruit high calibre future staff and leaders
For Apprentices - Employed and paid a wage, gain a degree and fees paid
For UoB - Supports business and wider economy, diversifies income streams and provides access to levy fund

The flexibility of course structures and modes of delivery came up in several of the presentations. In this case study, we saw everything from 7-week 'boot camps’ to online learning augmented by weekend residentials. This particular case study concerned the development with PwC of a Digital Technology DA designed to help address the UK’s technology skills gap and improve the industry’s diversity. Research by PwC reveals that over two thirds (67%) of UK CEOs find it difficult to recruit people with digital skills, higher than their global peers. Recruiting women with these skills is said to be particularly challenging.

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PwC research found that only 27% of female A-level and university students would consider a career in technology, compared to 62% of males.

PwC Research

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PwC and UoB will target this technology Degree Apprenticeship towards getting more women interested in technology careers, as well using the ‘Back to School’ programme/A2B schemes to raise awareness of the programme with students in more disadvantaged areas.

Jon expressed an institutional concern for encouraging more women into STEM subjects through:

  • developing an inclusive curriculum
  • recruiting STEM ambassadors
  • being alert to inclusive words used for job descriptions
  • working with WISE – Women in Science & Engineering – who have developed an Apprenticeship Toolkit on how to attract, engage, support & retain women in STEM.
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Image represents a woman working in the technology industry
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The Sutherland Sandwich

I had the pleasure of providing the plump filling in the excellent Green/Gray sandwich, improvising a presentation delivered much more ably elsewhere by Phil Gravestock (formerly of the University of Gloucestershire, and now at Wolverhampton). Back in 2010/11, we worked together on a fabulous Jisc-funded project to develop a vocabulary toolkit designed to facilitate conversations between employers and academics when trying to define vocational skills as educational outcomes. The CogenT toolkit lists 150 words found (at the time) in 6 curriculum quality frameworks (FHEQ, SEEC, NICATS, CQF, EQF, SCQF) along with all of the known level descriptors for each word – making it possible to find a word, at a reference level, and use its descriptor to guide the writing of an outcome which ought to be at that same level. The intention was to provide a means of rapidly creating course or programme outcomes, with some confidence that the correct level of outcome was already established.

To support the employer/academic conversation each word also had corresponding synonyms which allowed a range of terms and descriptors to be explored before deciding on which was most closely related to the skills the employer was seeking accreditation or training in.

Sadly, the project came to an end and little additional work was carried out on the tool, but it is still hosted by PebblePad and can be found at

Pilots of the original tool with 6 other universities showed how useful the tool was for a range of activities including programme review, helping academics write better learning outcomes, and helping learners decipher the outcomes they were meant to address. As a result, a simplified version of the CogenT tool was created as a demonstration of possible future directions for the further development of a series of services based upon the original vocabulary. That tool is called Describability.

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Supporting institutions

Leading up to lunch was Lisa Gray who brought us all up to speed with what Jisc is doing to support institutions in this space. Lisa explained that Jisc had started work in October with some practitioner interviews and a survey (open until mid-January), as well as a Think Tank event in November involving representatives involved in the delivery of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships – and a number of small focus group sessions at other events. The activity is geared towards producing a short guide early in the New Year and informing Jisc on how it can best support the sector in the longer term.

The work so far has surfaced a number of concerns around:

  • Infrastructure to meet all the quality and data requirements and ensure quality engagement with students
  • Working with separate end-point assessors who don’t understand HE processes
  • Managing the interactions between the many roles involved, academic and work-based
  • Demonstrating and evidencing the 20% off the job element
  • Managing the different expectations from different employers – including communications, & national differences in provision

In a short Mentimeter activity Lisa asked us what concerns this group had – reporting and support were the big ticket issues. Some of the results from the wider survey were a little surprising (at least to me) with only 20% of institutions concerned about the suitability of their VLE/LMS to support DA delivery. I found this particularly odd as one of the reasons we sometimes find PebblePad being used in lieu of the VLE is because of how difficult it can be in the VLE to involve employers and other external stakeholders in the learning experience and assessment of learners.

Lisa argued that designing learning to fit DAs requires a root and branch review in most cases rather than simply trying to tweak existing courses – a sentiment strongly endorsed by all of the speakers. It seems that many universities are starting with a 'what can we adapt?' approach rather than starting from scratch with many academic staff lacking the time (and in some cases the particular skills) to design afresh. Jisc will be launching a new guide entitled 'Designing learning and assessment in a digital age' in January – it contains a section on apprenticeships.

Lisa suggested that in today’s educational context (and of particular importance in this context) there is much less emphasis on designing learning content to be served up to students during a delivery phase. Now the approach is much more about designing learning activities and experiences. It is a learner-centred approach that says not 'what am I going to teach?' but rather 'how are these people going to learn?’

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Content is no longer king and the curriculum is much less of a fixed list of things to ‘know’ and more a fluid set of activities that can produce different outcomes with different groups. 

Lisa Gray

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These kinds of approaches can help us deliver a curriculum that is sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of a range of different employers.

Lisa also reminded us of the move towards more of an assessment for learning approach that focuses on feedback and formative assessment, with its implications for learning design which builds in feedback loops encouraging a dialogue with the learner and all of those involved in their assessment. Technology is helping to promote these dialogic approaches as well as supporting self and peer assessment, providing rapid and accessible feedback and through the increasing use of dashboards providing all stakeholders with greater visibility of achievement and progress.

In the case of the new apprenticeship standards, institutions may be trying to apply these good practice principles at the same time as preparing students for their summative end-point assessment and there will be a need to ensure that the students have the opportunity to practice the kind of things they may have to do for EPA. The opportunity to ‘rehearse’ how they speak to their portfolio of evidence for their EPA was a key message of Joy Robbins’ later presentation.

Lisa left us with some useful links to help us keep up with Jisc’s work in this space including the Jisc Blog, the draft Apprenticeship Toolkit, and a link to their digital capabilities work.

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The morning’s work done, we moved on after lunch to a great line-up of speakers sharing their experiences of implementing DAs. Julie Irwin, Director of Student Experience at Buckinghamshire New University, shared their experiences of developing a work-based learning (WBL) framework – for the development of apprenticeships in higher education. Julie was followed by Patrick Viney who spoke about the Chartered Manager Degree Apprentice solution developed at Northumbria University. Finally, Joy Robbins shared her thoughts and experiences on ongoing and end-point assessments. So, what did we learn? Lots actually!

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The Northumbria University solution utilises PebblePad to provide a framework for capturing workplace evidence and through a process of structured reflection and academic reflective writing creates an on-going synergy between workplace experiences and academic learning.

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The shift from traditional delivery models 

I met Julie at the excellent UVAC Conference and was inspired to invite Julie to our event. She really didn’t disappoint. Julie argued that the shift from traditional delivery models presents real challenges for curriculum development in HE and used a striking square peg/round hole image to hammer home the point made earlier by Lisa, that retrofitting existing programmes to suit DAs does not work.

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There is a requirement for a credit-based academic framework designed specifically for Apprenticeships as a work-based programme

Julie Irwin

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At BNU the embedded use of academic credit and the achievement of intended learning outcomes enables the award of credits to be defined in relation to the learning in addition to course content. The principle of outcome-based credit means that learning that takes place outside universities and in the workplace, can be recognised. The concept and definition of level is also central in representing opportunities to recognise a broader spectrum of higher level learning outside the university. Julie claims that the WBL framework to support curriculum design/development has proved successful in Apprenticeship programme development at Bucks and has proven to provide real support to the curriculum development and to teams who have not delivered work-based programmes before. It has also formed the basis for employer engagement conversations regarding Apprenticeship delivery. The advantage of a framework is that it sets out the underlying principles of WBL; that of experiential learning, gained day to day on the job, as opposed to traditionally taught modules.

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PebblePad and Degree Apprenticeships

When Patrick took to the floor he started by outlining the findings of the needs analysis conducted at Northumbria University:

  • Easy means for gathering, storing and cataloguing evidence from the workplace
  • Provision of templates to prompt deeper reflection in relation to workplace experiences and learning
  • Need to record off-the-job training – counting hours
  • Records of workplace mentor meetings and workplace visits
  • Means to share information securely between the apprentice, university tutors, workplace coaches and the employer
  • End-point assessment - Portfolio
  • Minimal administration

Patrick also shared a model showing three kinds of evidence to be collected during the apprenticeship:

The Informal – gathered right from the very start, and consisting of ad hoc documents, photos, videos and meeting records
The more formal – gathered purposefully using structured forms and comprising reflection templates, journal entries, and records of specific experiences
The formal – academic reflective writing linked to assignments, supporting portfolios and all linked to appropriate evidence.

Patrick asserted that the existing institutional platform (PebblePad) was perfect for the task, especially the offline/mobile app called PebblePocket and the assessment space called ATLAS (he actually called it the ‘jewel in the crown of PebblePad’). He went on to provide a thorough and beautifully executed demonstration which drew upon templates, reflections, meeting records and auto-aggregating activity logs embedded in workbooks. The demo put most of us professional PebblePaddlers to shame!

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Ongoing and end-point assessment

And, finally, the incomparable Joy Robbins with her very considered thoughts on ongoing and end-point assessment. Joy presented a brief analysis of the main assessment types for the 33 current degree apprenticeships laid out in the government’s Apprenticeship Standards, before looking at possible educational designs to realise those assessment paths.

In her analysis, Joy discovered that over a third of assessment plans included references to eportfolios for ongoing assessment, and eportfolios were implied (or at least difficult to ignore) in many more forms of end-point assessment. For example, 11% had a work project as an EPA and many of these will be recorded and presented as portfolios. 11% of assessment plans specifically named eportfolios as their EPA, whilst a further 22% listed an interview drawing upon a portfolio.

For those PebblePad users in the room, Joy led a fascinating discussion on the ‘eportfolio cline’, questioning where the use of highly structured portfolios (or workbooks) might give way to more expressive, creative or individual portfolios. The general consensus was that both forms were important and equally valid for different reasons and at different times in an apprenticeship programme. Being able to offer both types was really valuable. The more structured portfolios gave early stage apprentices useful scaffolding and helped them, their employers and their university observe, measure and report on progress, whilst the much more creative ‘open’ portfolios provided an essential space to rehearse their story of learning, experience and achievement prior to and as part of their end-point assessment.

Other lessons we learnt from the University of Bradford …

  • Workplace mentors, managers, and ‘externals’ need it to be simple and clear
  • Design it down, online from the start, use existing structures and practices
  • ‘Portfolio practice’ needs to be taught
  • Good reflection doesn’t just happen
  • Assessment literacy needs to be developed
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In summary

Starting with Adrian’s excellent presentation on the policy context, through Jon’s institutional case study and Lisa’s overview of Jisc’s work in this area, to our 3 experienced practitioners we were blessed with 6 amazing speakers, sharing innumerable insights, with a very receptive audience. A really good day I’d say. And so what? – as one of PebblePad's inbuilt reflective templates asks. Well, the so what for me has led directly to a meeting with our local university’s DA manager and a plan to send some of my own junior managers onto a CMDA, as well as one onto the Senior Leader’s DA at level 7. We also think we will be able to recruit some bright young things onto degree apprenticeships in our new code academy. And, so, on a closing note, I want to extend a huge thank you to all delegates and presenters for your inspirational contributions to another terrific PebblePad event.

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If you'd like to download the slides from the event, just click on the button below. 

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CEO and founder of PebblePad, Shane has been a big presence in the world of portfolios and personal learning ever since the company's inception in 2004. It's not just his boundless enthusiasm and towering capacity for innovation that keeps PebblePad at the top of its game ... when you're 6' 10" having a list of great ideas 'as long as your arm' is somewhat of a competitive advantage!