The rapid shift to online work and study has forced providers to extend already over-stretched budgets. ‘Emergency’ IT infrastructure and software have been brought in at pace, and we’ve seen fast-track digital upskilling for staff and students. Such upheaval posed a challenge for many, but most prevailed with their best endeavour.
Now, three months later, the dust has settled and it’s time to take stock – and to take advantage of the lessons learned about how technology can be used for teaching, learning and for the business of running learning and skills provision in the second half of 2020 and beyond.
What’s worked well and what hasn’t? What can the sector take forward and implement to elevate the experience for learners, staff and stakeholders?
There are plenty of questions, and Jisc is leading a research programme from June to October to find the answers. In partnership with the Association of Colleges (AoC), we are holding a series of webinars and roundtables with sector leaders, sector bodies, curriculum and support staff, edtech experts and students. We are calling it Shaping the digital future of FE and skills.
The digital landscape in further education pre-lockdown was patchy and varied. In some providers there are pockets of innovative practice, but years of under-funding has hampered progress and left digital infrastructure across the sector largely inadequate.
A recent AoC and Department for Education (DfE) IT survey found that only 38% of respondents felt their college wifi was completely fit for purpose, while 61% judged connectivity in the same way. Similarly, only 36% of respondents said desktop devices were up to scratch. We’d all like to see those figures rise considerably, but we know the financial impact of coronavirus on providers has been severe.
A partial opening of campuses in September means that many learners and staff must continue to work from home and, while lockdown has shown that this is possible, it’s the quality of that experience that’s important. That’s why it’s vital that our research project defines what ‘good’ looks like.
Data from an AoC survey during lockdown shows that 70% of providers are delivering online lessons for most subjects and 91% are providing materials for most courses through websites or via email.
So, most learners can log into live-streamed lectures, or later watch the recording; they can download e-books, videos or other resources; they can submit work online and get feedback from their teachers via video conferencing platforms. During lockdown, this kind of studying is typical, but the use of tech is often simplistic and may not always be as engaging, exciting or collaborative as it could be. It’s OK as a stopgap, but unsustainable as a model for the future.
And at present, in the absence of readily-available, affordable and accessible digital material, such as immersive virtual reality, there are courses, such as engineering, construction or health and social care, which are impossible to deliver entirely online. At its best, learning in the physical world is social, emotive, personal and tactile - all attributes that are currently difficult to transition through a digital experience.
We can do better. However, improving education will require a huge shift from merely transferring courses online to transforming teaching, learning and assessment. Which brings us back to investment.
I hope that evidence emerging from shaping the digital future of FE and skills, and the collective clout behind this initiative, will help us demonstrate to government the need for greater funding – and to persuade the Department for Education that at least some of that money should arrive now.
For example, the Government had committed to £1.8bn for capital investment in FE and the AoC has asked that £75m of this is released now so colleges can get their digital infrastructure in place ready for September. Without a decent digital foundation, improving college functions and stakeholder experience with technology is almost impossible.
Beyond that, there are several other ‘asks’ that we think are essential not only to secure a quality learning experience, but also to reduce staff workload and help streamline business operations.
These include funding for a national digital content repository for high-quality, accessible resources - especially for vocational and skills-based courses; to guarantee resilient and reliable connections to the Jisc-run Janet Network; and for new assessment methodologies designed for secure, remote delivery. The present archaic system, often still with pen and paper, is simply not fit for purpose. Increasingly, learning and assessment will follow the learner, accessible at the point of demand, but on-site and remotely.
We’re also hoping to be able to support talent in the sector to develop technology such as digital assistants (already in use at Bolton College) automated workflows, data analytics and flexible working systems. This plugs into Jisc’s Education 4.0 agenda, where we encourage the use of emerging technology such as machine learning and augmented and virtual reality for the benefit of students, staff and business operations.
Finally, Jisc is backing another AoC call for the government to make a ‘September Promise’ - guaranteeing training or study places for all those young people whose hopes of a job have been dashed by the pandemic.
Want to know more about shaping the digital future of FE and skills? Sign up for the first webinar on 15 June, which is free to attend.
Jisc is also leading a research project for the higher education sector called learning and teaching reimagined.