From IT infrastructure to digital capabilities, digital transformation to seamless content access, FE leaders are facing many common challenges and priorities.
During the last 18 months, COVID-19 has changed how the sector operates and brought a varied range of priorities to the fore, as FE leaders shared in Jisc’s 2021 leadership survey. Find out below what they said about their three greatest digital priorities for 2021-22.
To help Jisc better understand these evolving needs, we’ll be at the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference next week. We want to know more about the challenges colleges are facing and encourage senior leaders to share, via a Mentimeter poll, what they are prioritising in the ‘new normal’.
Becoming stronger and safer
IT infrastructure was the top priority, especially given the pressure it’s been put under recently. Leaders were concerned to optimise cloud solutions, improve resilience, process and efficiency, and also to upgrade the digital estate.
Cyber security was also a priority – and for good reason. A cyber attack can be devastating, as Simon Hewitt, principal at Dundee and Angus College, knows only too well. He told us:
“The attack happened on Friday 31 January, and we had to send everyone home. I remember that at 02:20 on Saturday morning it dawned on me that, in a digital sense, there was no college; everything had been wiped. That was a pretty low moment.”
Read what happened next in ‘How one college pulled together to rebuild and recover’.
FE colleges have experienced an unprecedented spike in ransomware attacks since August 2020 and, in our just-released fifth annual cyber security posture survey, 92% of FE respondents said that cyber security is a strategic priority for senior managers. However, colleges are also taking steps to try to combat it, with a sharp rise in the use of multi-factor authentication, which can reduce the likelihood of a successful attack.
At our hot topic session at the AoC conference, we’ll be joined by representatives from the National Cyber Security Centre, and two principals whose colleges have faced ransomware attacks. They will discuss cyber threats and risks, best practice, threat mitigation strategies and the support available to providers to reduce risk and recover in the event of an attack.
Building digital capability and skills
Developing the digital capabilities of staff and students was the second highest priority of FE leaders, according to the survey. There is a general need to build digital capability and skills across a range of stakeholders, especially in the context of learning and teaching.
During the first year of the pandemic, great strides were made in digital upskilling. For example, before the pandemic, South West College in Northern Ireland used Jisc’s building digital capabilities framework to develop a level three ‘digital skills for educators' qualification.
According to Ciara Duffy, centre for excellence digital learning manager, this has been widely extended. She said:
“The qualification was initially offered to teaching and learning staff, with 78 staff signing up in the first two days. Since COVID-19, we’re now offering it to all management and support staff.”
However, our 2020 digital experience insights survey of FE staff shows that FE leaders are right to recognise that more needs to be done to build skills and confidence using technology in teaching – essential if education is to prepare learners for the digital workplace and lifelong learning.
Equally, while our learner digital experience insights survey 2020/21 showed that 61% of learners had been offered support to develop their digital capabilities around online learning, less than half of learners said they received an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.
Leading digital transformation
Developing a digital strategy and roadmap, redefining business models, and staff engagement and development have all taken on a fresh impetus since the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that leadership in digital transformation is also high on the list of immediate priorities in the leadership survey.
With FE pushed into a new era of technology-enhanced learning, understanding where and how to focus digital development will be critical to future success.
We’ve been working on a digital elevation tool, which will enable colleges to benchmark themselves and plan a digital journey relevant to their unique circumstances. At the AoC conference we’re running a breakout session, when colleges involved in the pilot for the new tool will showcase how they are using it to assess e-maturity and prioritise investment across leadership, the curriculum, learner and staff experience, and underpinning technologies.
Addressing the green imperative
A rising priority for FE leaders is the climate crisis, with increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of digital consumption, cloud services and the need to embed sustainability in the curriculum.
There are some great examples of how technology is being used to reduce waste. For example, South East Regional College in Northern Ireland is one of a number that uses augmented reality technology to train welders, reducing both the amount of energy required to teach this skill and the amount of material wasted when new welders are learning.
Grimsby Institute is making the most of its unique location on the ‘energy estuary’ of the Humber river in the north-east of England, with its extensive links to the offshore wind industry. The college has invested in its own small wind turbine and this year accredited the first offshore wind turbine apprentice. It has also committed £2.5m to an electric vehicle workshop to train the EV technicians of the future.
We’re also seeing cross-sector initiatives making a difference. The AoC has worked with EAUC, the environmental and sustainability champion within further and higher education in the UK and Ireland, to publish a Climate Action Roadmap for the FE sector.
There is a wide variety of digital challenges and opportunities, and we’re keen to hear more from members at the AoC conference:
- Before and during the conference, we’ll be asking leaders: What’s your top digital priority right now? Share your answer with peers from across the sector and see how they compare
- Visit us on stand 24 where we will listen and offer advice and guidance on your digital challenges. Visitors can also experience immersive tech with a virtual classroom demo – explore how video technology is evolving to enable students and staff to fully engage with one another in real time, from different locations
- Find out more and sign up to our breakout sessions on the digital elevation tool and ransomware