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Making remote learning effective and engaging with the latest technology

We recently hosted a virtual briefing with our partners at Collab Group to discuss how technology can help to deliver effective and engaging learning.

Tom Lowe, Director of Membership & External Relations at Collab Group, kicked off the online discussion by celebrating the rapid changes made by colleges in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Ten years of digital transformation have been compressed into a period of about six months,” he said. Colleges had taken unprecedented action to move many of their processes online, including enrolment, teaching and learning, assessment and student services. He questioned whether these changes represent a new normal, or would we see a reversion back to the status quo?

Enterprise-wide focus

Ian Pretty, Collab Group Chief Executive, highlighted the need to take an enterprise-wide approach when discussing digitisation in further education. “There's a tendency when we talk about technology, particularly in the education sector, to confine that purely to curriculum and teaching, without thinking about the other aspects of a college as a whole business,” he said. Colleges needed to start thinking about other activities, like student services and enrolment, and areas such as management information.

Culture change

Another key factor was the culture of the college and attitude of staff towards blended learning, in which a mixture of live streaming and on-demand content is provided via the internet and in person. Previously, staff attitudes towards technology were neutral at best, and in some cases quite hostile. “The culture has been one where physical teaching has always been the case, and should always be the case,” said Ian.

But Covid-19 had changed all that, forcing a culture change. “A lot of teaching staff now see that it is possible to use technology,” he added. The conversation had changed from whether online teaching ought to be done to trying to figure out how best to do it. “The challenge is, how do you fundamentally change the whole way in which you teach, and how you redesign around blended learning in order to make that happen.”

Equal access

Ian highlighted that an issue for many students, particularly those from low-income families, was that they didn’t have access to the devices they needed for blended study. Households needed modern devices that were up to the job of online learning, and enough of them so that learners didn’t have to share. This was possibly the greatest barrier to equal access to blended learning, even more of an issue than broadband access.

In addition, he pointed out that colleges were anchors for vulnerable people when they could physically go into them. One of the significant issues that colleges faced in lockdown was how to support these people, who felt that their anchor was being pulled away. The challenge for colleges was to be “in contact with them, virtually, to keep them stable”.

Seizing the opportunity

Ian urged college leaders to seize the opportunity for digitisation and to think deeply about the changes they needed to make. “There is a moment in time that we've got. If we don’t harness change and start to really think about issues, what's going to happen is that we’ll go back to the status quo in probably about a year or so,” he said. For example, there was an opportunity to re-imagine the enrolment process – to create a digital process that was specially designed for FE colleges’ more dynamic patterns of student enrolment, rather than imposing systems designed for universities on them.

“It has the potential to be a positive disrupter to actually start to get that mindset and cultural change in colleges so that we start to think about technology, not as this bolt-on that we must do but as a core part of the way that you think about how the business is run,” he added.

Infrastructure, cyber security and governance

Rob Clark, Sales Leader at ESS, talked about several challenges facing colleges hoping to increase their use of technology: infrastructure, cyber security and governance. Infrastructure investment is low, and teams are stretched: “When one technical support officer is looking after, on average, 814 users what are you to do?” he asked.

Cyber-attacks in the UK, including in the education sector, had been “devastating”, he said. “I would start with the basics such as ensuring that your server and back-up solutions are tried and tested, that you comply with Cyber Essentials Plus and, as an organisation, that you move towards ISO27001.”

Colleges should focus their governance efforts on Ofsted’s “three Is”: intent, implementation, impact. Rob felt that governance was already in place and working very well in most organisations, but that it needed “adapting to the new way of working” and that colleges should appoint a chief technology officer.

Digital, sector and process transformation

Rob also identified three opportunities for transformation: digital, sector and process. Although many colleges had made significant advances in digital transformation, much of their progress had been focused on campus-based, in-person learning and services. The major opportunity now lay in digitally transforming remote learning, and this would require a different approach. “Different types of evaluation will be required for different delivery modes: digital transformation requires digital evaluation,” he said.

The move to delivering content online was happening rapidly, but questions remained about the potential impact on the FE learning environment. Would we see deserted college buildings and a change in the local economy, as has happened to UK high streets due to Covid-19? Would we see growth in smaller satellite learning locations or the consolidation of learning environments? Would we see greater choice for learners and teachers? Would there be a growth in specialist subjects as colleges previously unable to recruit could now ‘rent’ staff to deliver their specialist subject?

Rob said that “few colleges can afford to replace the legacy technology investments they have already made. Instead, many have looked to integrate and enhance existing infrastructure”. This process-led approach to transformation could be applied in several areas: applications and enrolment, exams and other assessment, and communications and engagement. “Even before lockdown we were starting to see the rise of new technologies like digital campus assistants have a significant impact on the learner experience, with chatbots deployed to enhance a range of services used by students, teachers and support teams across FE institutions,” he added.

Access to resources and emotional support

Abdul Ghafoor, Head of Product Management at ESS, pointed to the scale of the disruption to education caused by Covid-19: according to the United Nations, the pandemic has affected 94% of the world’s students. He presented relevant insights from research into the impact on families, households, learners and good practice, and the opportunities that have emerged.

Significant socio-economic cracks created by the pandemic have affected learning, for both young children and college students, many of whom no longer have access to a dedicated learning environment or study space at home. According to recent research by from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stretched parents have to provide more childcare and many have lost income, creating financial pressure that reduces children’s learning opportunities.

Abdul pointed out that it is not only younger children who need support: “We know that college students themselves require both the emotional support as well as the physical support that would be available to them by attending college, participating in learning and engaging with peers.”

He also emphasised the importance of “the ability to empower students and households to take control of their own learning. And we've seen how technology has accelerated and supported that in a number of cases”.

Understanding students

Colleges have a far greater variety of learners than schools do, and many more students from a wider geographical footprint. Abdul spoke of the “sheer volume of students that attend colleges, the range and breadth of learning types and modes, but also the mixture of full- and part-time and differently-aged students affecting 700,000 students aged between 16 and 18 in the UK alone”. This underscored the opportunity for colleges to use technology to personalise learning experiences and meet their students’ wide range of needs.

A recent Jisc survey contacted more than 19,000 learners from FE and sixth form colleges revealed their generally positive attitude towards digital learning. However, respondents also reported challenges related to digital and data poverty, and a lack of skills. Eighty two percent of students only had access to a single device, and 3% didn't have access to an internet-connected device at all. Although we expect all young people today to be digitally literate, students were clear that they still needed to gain basic computer skills, such as using MS Office applications and online learning platforms.

Best practice for creating effective and engaging online learning

Finally, Abdul presented the key elements of good practice. “When selecting technology, always be led by the pedagogy. It's important to listen to both staff members and students in selecting the right tools to be able to best develop and deliver a blended learning environment. Tokenistic crowbarring of great applications or artificial intelligence or virtual reality can sometimes distract from rather than augment learning in these environments,” he said, stressing the need to keep iterating to improve solutions, to focus on user experiences and remove barriers to learning.

We would like to thank Tom and Ian from Collab Group for joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities for digital innovation. Collab Group colleges are shaping the future of FE provision, and UNIT-e is proud to be part of this sector-wide discussion as an exclusive partner for further education technology. If you missed the virtual briefing, you can now watch the recording on-demand.