The sector is rapidly learning from adapting to the pandemic, both organisationally and individually. While acknowledging the significant negative impact of this turbulent time, it has provided the sector with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to innovate and experiment - a catalyst for technological evolution. Let’s capitalise on that.
Jisc’s latest digital experience insights survey of FE learners will help, since it provides evidence on which decisions about hybrid and blended learning can be shaped.
That’s not to say this survey has all the answers – it doesn’t. FE providers are diverse organisations and will need to address their individual challenges around geographical location, social demographic and technological maturity.
As, I think, the survey demonstrates, all these factors influence learners’ ability to study. What stands out for me is that there are still too many barriers, particularly for the disadvantaged. It’s alarming, although perhaps not unsurprising, for example, that almost half of learners cite poor wifi connection as a problem. Significant minorities don’t have a safe, quiet place to study, don’t have a suitable device or can’t afford data costs.
On the positive side, it’s great that colleges are, for the most part, appreciated for their efforts to support online learning. From my conversations with sector leaders over the last 18 months, this effort has been huge, and is, to some degree, ongoing.
Leaders will have been pondering which aspects of remote and online learning to retain and which to ditch. What is effective digital practice? What elements – human or digital - make a difference to the quality of the learning experience? Which staff need support to hone digital skills? How can technology and humans work together to give all learners the best chance of success? How to upgrade the IT infrastructure in a secure and sustainable way?
What we know, and the survey backs up, is that online learning can be - and needs to be – more engaging, collaborative, interactive and designed specifically for digital delivery, with nuanced structure, breaks, and timely feedback. Ultimately, it must add value and enhance learner experience and success.
We are, thankfully, beyond the point where simply delivering a lesson via online conferencing platforms is deemed acceptable. Since a great many of us have recently spent a large amount of our working lives in online meetings, we can all attest to that!
Now we’re out of the ‘emergency response’ phase of the pandemic, those FE providers which haven’t already considered the differences in remote versus in-person teaching will perhaps find themselves less attractive to the demands of new cohorts seeking flexible access and engaging experiences.
Those that are most successful will already be working out how to equip their learners with the digital skills to meet the expectations of businesses at the cutting edge – those rapidly adopting fourth industrial revolution techniques and technologies.
Whatever decisions providers choose during their inevitable digital journey, I hope they make them in partnership with learners. Their opinions matter and by asking for them, they will likely feel all the more invested in their learning environment and better respected. Those questions asked today will forge better experiences for learners enrolling tomorrow.
Jisc’s 2021/22 digital experience insights survey will open in October 2021. This an inclusive service for FE and skills members.