The pandemic has given further education providers a significant jolt and accelerated their move towards better use of technology for teaching and working. Against this seismic shift, the Skills for Jobs white paper lays the groundwork to capitalise on that momentum, but lacks real ambition for a digitally enhanced future.
Marking the first significant changes to the sector since the start of the FE reform programme in 2010, many people, including myself, were hoping for more compelling proposals. Nevertheless, I’m keen that, as a sector, we engage with the art of the possible; it’s time to take the initiative and reimagine the future.
Yes, we must continue to press for much-needed strategic and sustainable funding commitments – also lacking in the paper - but I’m certain there’s a will among FE and skills providers to not only meet the demands of an economic recovery but also those of the fourth industrial revolution or, as we call it, Education 4.0. So, I believe the sector is perfectly poised to meet the white paper’s aims to:
- Help regenerate communities and local economies
- Boost business, innovation and the development of technical skills
- Provide on-demand learning opportunities to everyone, no matter their age, background or circumstance
The college of the future
Imagining a successful college a few years into the future, here’s how it could ideally work:
The college business centre - a growing innovation and enterprise hub, with a mix of established companies and new start-ups - is preparing to welcome a new tenant. Already home to a precision engineering firm developing batteries and braking systems for the burgeoning electric car industry, an AI centre of excellence supporting immersive 5-D data modelling for the construction industry, an autonomous vehicle testing facility and a cyber security consultancy, it will soon be home to its first start-up.
Emerging from flagship proposals of the 2021 white paper to better link colleges with employers, the business centre was set up three years ago to align with a new Local Skills Improvement Plan, focused on upskilling and reskilling adults through national skills funding delivery.
Using money from the government’s strategic capital transformation fund, the centre is housed in a building owned outright by the college. It’s a refurbished former industrial unit next to the campus that was bought cheaply in the recession following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Selected by the college as partners because of their commitment to innovation and to staff development, the centre’s businesses are well-equipped culturally and geographically to attract local trainees and apprentices, whose developing skills the local economy needs. Co-locating regional businesses with national reach offers access to skills, commercial expertise and the latest commercial equipment for customers and learners.
Trainees and apprentices can study part-time for their qualification alongside T-level learners at the college. There are work placement and work experience opportunities at the business centre, too, which are also open to higher technical and school learners.
The start-ups are also incentivised to provide further opportunities for learners; space is offered at lower-than-commercial rents to start-ups that work in partnership with learner-led enterprises.
All companies at the business centre benefit from high quality premises, while the learners get real-world experience using top-spec equipment so they can develop technical know-how and soft skills that employers want, such as collaboration, presentation and communication.
Key to the success of the business centre is state-of-the-art, digitally enabled, intelligent building. It’s connected to the ultra-fast and secure national research and education network, Janet, has wifi through Jisc’s eduroam service, and collaborative / meeting rooms with high-spec video conferencing facilities.
The business centre was carefully planned so that it meets the college’s strategic aims, has the full support of the board and the availability of central funding.
Developed from the outset with experts in e-infrastructure, cyber security, data analytics and digital hardware and software, the concept is aligned with a curriculum that’s been reshaped so learners can take advantage of the opportunities presented by partner businesses and the local employment landscape.
The start-up moving to the business centre comprises an enthusiastic trio of former college learners who, in 2021, competed a T-level in digital production, design and development. While at college, they noticed some of their fellow learners were frustrated with the lack of digital content available to support their learning. This gave rise to an idea...
They realised that learners on courses which lack good quality digital content could be at a disadvantage with reduced choices. It curtails their ability to log in and study at a time, place and pace to suit them, and it diminishes their chances of developing digital skills that employers want. Colleges which lack online content as part of blended learning will consequently be less competitive.
While there’s no substitute for real-world experience, virtual reality is useful in allowing learners practice on equipment or in situations that might otherwise be hazardous, expensive and time-consuming, such as repairing an offshore wind turbine, using welding equipment, conducting dissections, or driving heavy machinery.
The trio’s fledgling company is now working with a regional consortium of colleges, industry experts and leading games design academics from the local university to create high quality, immersive curriculum-mapped digital content.
Once through the quality assurance process, the training packages are available via a centralised search-and-discover digital content platform. All UK providers have secure access to this platform, and benefit from free content, or preferential rates, while content is also available commercially to employers and alternative overseas providers.
Connecting with communities
Since the government’s emphasis has shifted to lifelong learners, the college is catering more than ever for learners of all ages and in all situations – from school leavers to older adults looking to move up the job ladder, upskill and reskill, change career or learn something new. To help facilitate this, the college offers on-demand modular provision across the key industrial pillars funded by the National Skills Fund.
To compete, it is plugging into a wide cross section of the community. Physical presence on and off campus is always important, but reliable, resilient and affordable connectivity also has a part to play in opening up learning to the widest possible audience and giving opportunities to all.
Because the college and the business centre have such good connectivity, the staff and learners don’t need to travel in daily.
Helping to enable this flexible working ethos, eduroam has been extended across the town, which allows local learners and staff to work and study remotely from home. It also serves to level up the playing field for anyone experiencing disadvantage because it removes the financial burden of broadband and data costs. And college users can log on seamlessly with single-sign-on, which automatically authenticates their user account.
In the high street is a college satellite centre offering English, maths and free essential digital skills training for the community, in the community.
Playing a part in regenerating the town’s high street, which was severely impacted by the pandemic, the satellite operates from a large former retail outlet with cafe, where the kitchen and counter facilities are retained and run by catering students. This offers them real experience, and income for the college to off-set rents.
The centre is so bright and comfortable that it's busy with coffee-and-cake drop-ins, not just learners, which boosts the college’s image as a welcoming place for all.
Priority access to an area equipped with a range of devices and headsets is offered to job-seekers, those with special educational needs and those experiencing disadvantage, regardless of age. There’s support from a technician in person during peak periods, and online via a chatbot at other times.
Digital skills training sessions covering topics such as web and software design, machine learning and cyber security are offered as dip-in-and-out modules that can be completed at the learners’ pace, and evaluated through online assessment.
A range of timeslots for English and maths classes is available because the classes link remotely with those on campuses across the UK. Alternatively, the availability of eduroam means that learners living locally and with access to their own devices can log in from home, if it suits them better to study during evening or weekends.
Personal learning record
Most courses at the college are modular. Credits are accrued for each module, assessed remotely and/or in-person, accumulated over time and recorded in a cloud-based, personalised ‘lifelong learning passport’.
Developed by government in collaboration with sector and employer bodies, this passport shows basic details to identify the learner, describe where, when and what they studied, and verifies qualifications and grades via secure links to awarding boards’ databases. It also details learning modules accrued that don’t necessarily add up to a formal qualification, and employer-ratified work experienced placements.
The passport holder can also use it as a CV and, within certain limitations, personalise the design and look. They can upload documents, such as references, plus images, video and audio clips to demonstrate their skills and give examples of their work.
Blended and online learning
Mirroring the satellite centre, the college has several immersive classrooms, which have become very popular. These optimise teaching and extend teaching expertise to multiple cohorts simultaneously in geographically separate locations. They also allow learners the choice of participating in person, remotely or at suitable time through recorded sessions.
With their wrap-around big screens, high-spec web cams and interactive surfaces, these rooms have the wow factor, too.
Some of the more academic subjects are purely online, delivered with a mixture of resources available through the virtual learning environment (VLE) and the option of live or recorded lessons.
Performing arts and practical vocational courses at the college are taught using a blended approach, with high-speed, low-latency network connections allowing learners from other colleges to collaborate in practice and performance, and on project work.
This flexibility helps the college to expand its reach (and therefore its income) to those who have caring or work commitments, and those living too far away to commute, including international students. Online learning is also more attractive for learners whose social anxieties make travelling to, and attending campus, prohibitively stressful.
Digital skills – staff and learners
College teachers must demonstrate a minimum knowledge and digital skillset when new in post and attend regular CPD sessions throughout their career. Born out of the edtech demonstrator programme, digital training is coordinated and centrally funded via a network of provider-based edtech experts.
In addition, the college has set up an edtech mentoring programme, with digital ambassadors, who provide advice and guidance. Learners are routinely asked for feedback, too, thus ensuring a focus on continuous improvement and responding to preferred learning styles.
Vocational teachers are allocated time to attend industry placements to keep them – and, therefore, their learners - abreast of the latest techniques and equipment.
It follows that teachers equipped with the latest technical knowledge and digital skills can lead by example to encourage and inspire their learners on to success in their chosen careers.
To make the most of the impetuous in the 2021 Skills for Jobs white paper, the sector needs to be more open towards wholesale technological change. That’s not to say technology is a panacea for everything, but intelligent and appropriate use can help solve some of the sector’s challenges and optimise opportunities.
Face-to-face teaching is preferential in many situations, particularly for the 80%+ of further education courses which are vocational. However, when hand-in-glove with skilled and inspiring humans, technology can help make learning accessible and engaging and it can enable collaboration across geographic divides and communities.
With the increasing use of data analytics, technology can also help providers make informed decisions to meet business goals, to reduce their environmental impact, and to understand their learners as individuals and collectively in terms of progress, performance and outcomes.
I see real appetite for change, and Jisc, as a powerhouse of sector-specific expertise and focused on lifelong learning, is already supporting providers through technological evolution and in turn helping teachers and learners.
After all, teachers and learners who are empowered and have the time and resources to become familiar and comfortable with technology will be crucial to providing those all-important skills for jobs which will grow our country's economy.