In further education (FE) eutopia, fully-embedded digital strategies would already be the norm in all colleges, supported by robust e-infrastructure, digital resources to support all courses, an assessment system that is fit for purpose and teachers with the right digital skills to support exciting and engaging blended learning models.
The sector is not yet there. But despite the stress of quickly shifting teaching online, the pandemic has kick-started the necessary digital transformation of FE, which, with government support and cross-sector coordination and knowledge-sharing, could come to fruition within a few years.
In today’s reality, however, years of under-funding means colleges are starting this digital journey from very different points.
There are trailblazers whose innovation, capacity and expertise compares well to the best in any developed country.
Meanwhile, some other colleges are struggling with outdated IT equipment, unreliable connectivity, a lack of digital resources, and a reliance on face-to-face teaching. Overall, consistently good digital practice is not yet the norm in FE and the playing field for learners is far from level, which is backed by Ofsted research published in July 2020.
An Association of Colleges (AoC) poll conducted during lockdown also highlighted a lack of available digital resources, with only 52% of learners reporting access as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’.
Worse, even though many colleges rapidly issued devices to learners in need, the pandemic has widened the gap for disadvantaged learners – those who don’t have access to a device, a quiet place to study or affordable data, for example.
The AoC poll found that a significant minority (12%) don’t have access to wi-fi for their studies. We need a system where no college, or learner, is left behind.
The solution is two-fold: firstly, we need urgent targeted investment; secondly, we need the sector to pull together - to pool and share the talent, skills and resources that can be shaped for a sustainable, digital-first future.
Jisc and the AoC are progressing these aims through their joint research project, shaping the digital future of FE and skills, which I chair.
This wide-ranging, three-year project started by collecting evidence that will, hopefully, persuade the government to invest in key areas. It is also establishing what ‘good’ looks like across online teaching and learning, business operations, wellbeing support, assessment and digital leadership and is taking all that forward to develop a roadmap for the future.
It’s ambitious, but the sector is champing at the bit for change and, given our collective experiences since March 2020, future strategy will be fully evidence-based.
Staff have already proved their ability to flex, and I’ve been impressed by their commitment and willingness to support each other and learn new skills during lockdown.
However, listening to the series of webinars and roundtables that gathered insight for SDFFS over the summer, this has been stressful for some and lockdown increased workload for many.
We discovered, for example, that many teachers who are experienced, respected experts in their field and shine in the classroom have felt under immense pressure to quickly adapt to remote working. They need support - and quickly - to become confident with technology-enabled teaching.
There’s a difference between transferring teaching online - using Zoom or Teams to deliver lessons, for example - and transforming the learning experience into a truly blended approach, which is what we should aim for. At Eastleigh we have a coaching model in place, which has paid dividends over recent months. However, I believe that a sector wide CPD model, which colleges can adapt to their individual needs, would be better.
Some learners too, have suffered. For example, 'shaping the digital future of FE and skills' research found examples where work had been set, but there was little or no feedback or assessment. As a result, some learners said they felt abandoned and unmotivated.
Others reported anxiety and feelings of isolation, so there’s work to do to better engage learners. But they appreciated their teachers’ efforts.
The AoC poll found 56% of learners felt their learning experience during lockdown was ‘good’, while 45% said they would prefer an equal mix of online and face-to-face learning.
Government already acknowledges that the FE sector is vital to the UK’s economic growth and productivity. It also recognises that the digital skills development and confidence that’s been developed during the pandemic in the education sector and beyond will be vital to charting the UK’s economic recovery from COVID-19.
The FE sector has the ambition and willingness to respond positively to this new impetus, and I hope that it can come together to further improve and develop digital confidence and delivery.
We need help to do that, which is where organisations such as the Education Training Foundation, Jisc and the AoC come in. But first, we are looking to the government to lead us with comprehensive investment. Only with all these elements in place will we ensure that no college, colleague or learner is left behind.