Member storyStudent on a videoconference.

Cloud thinking

With learning and collaborating at a distance on everyone’s agenda, a new Institutes of Technology project is using cloud solutions to keep learners collaborating, wherever they are.

How do you keep the human element of learning, that crucial sense of being part of a community, when students and staff are collaborating over distance? It’s an issue that all universities and colleges are grappling with right now as a result of COVID-19.

But there’s a group of colleges in the south-west that have been figuring out the best way to do just that for the past three years. The West of England Institute of Technology includes three FE colleges and a university1 working together on ways of bringing learners together at distance. They are part of a new Institutes of Technology initiative and are helping learners collaborate remotely in ways that are more like the modern working practices they will experience when they move on from college and into jobs in industry.

Connectivity and collaboration

Jon Hofgartner, assistant director of education technology, learning resources and future skills at Weston College (one of the West of England Institute of Technology’s partners), explains:

Jon Hofgartner

“We wanted learning to be easily accessible from mobiles and to be reflective of problem-solving type approaches, focusing on industry-led projects.

“If we simply carry on with traditional ways of delivery we may as well just stick with a VLE and a classroom. We have to think about the mindset of the teachers who will be working in the Institutes of Technology, and then start to involve employers in the conversation.”

Essentially, it all comes down to connectivity and collaboration, whether digital or otherwise. There will be no central Institutes of Technology building. Instead, each college will have its own Institutes of Technology-branded area, and the aim is that the digital estate will enable a sense of community and partnership among students and staff, in which services such as eduroam will play a key role.

Cloud solutions

But while culture change is at the heart of the project, it has to be backed up by the tech to make it all actually work. For the West of England Institute of Technology, cloud solutions were the answer.

The first step was establishing the partners’ common infrastructure and, in a stroke of luck, all the organisations were already using Microsoft 365. But there were also key considerations such as identity and access management that needed to be figured out. How do you connect an Institute of Technology learner-based at Yeovil College with an Institute of Technology student based at Weston College so that they can work seamlessly together?

This, as well as the possibility of combining the colleges’ buying power for resources, meant that streamlining the login process for shared resources was also essential.

Streamlining the login process for shared resources was also essential.

And that’s where Jisc resources came into play. As an anchor partner in the West of England Institute of Technology project, Jisc was on hand to provide guidance and act as a critical friend and neutral ground, bringing everyone together in a series of stakeholder forums to help iron out details between the various partners. The forums then led to a series of recommendations for which solutions to choose and how to implement them.

Aspiration to realism

This process has helped the Institute of Technology partners be more realistic about their infrastructure plans. As Jon says,

“What we set out to do originally was aspirational, but incredibly technically challenging and difficult to unwrap. So, for example, thinking long-term, if the Institutes of Technology funding is pulled and the colleges need to decouple, that needs to be straightforward. We need to make sure we’re not intertwining ourselves in a way that means it’s too difficult to break away.”  

But, for now, with the first cohort of West of England Institute of Technology students lined up to begin studies in September 2020, it’s connecting not decoupling that’s on all the Institutes of Technology partners’ minds.

With the Microsoft 365 space in place as a solid foundation for connectivity and collaboration, the West of England Institute of Technology is in a strong position to progress curriculum design and staff development so that everyone can get the most out of the technologies on hand and make sure that the Institutes of Technology will be a truly cooperative learning experience.

What are Institutes of Technology?

In 2017, the UK government announced £170m of funding for a series of Institutes of Technology to be created from groups of existing FE providers. These Institutes of Technology are collaborations between further education providers, universities and employers.

They will specialise in delivering higher technical education (at Levels 4 and 5) with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, such as engineering, digital and construction.

The West of England Institute of Technology includes Weston College, Yeovil College, Gloucester College and Bath College, and the University of the West of England (UWE).