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South Eastern Regional College: online and open for business

The rapid move to online delivery in recent months has been challenging. At South Eastern Regional College in Northern Ireland, it has also presented an opportunity to prioritise certain areas of work.

Paula Philpott, head of learning academy and Dr Michael Malone, director of curriculum and information services reflect on what they’ve learnt and reveal how they’ve been keeping staff and students engaged and supported during the pandemic.   

Getting the basics in place

At the start of lockdown, the college identified that not all staff and students had access to the necessary equipment or systems to enable them to participate and engage online.  

Michael Malone

“We’ve provided PCs, laptops and wifi access as well as training on how to use video technology to all staff and students which has enabled teams to interact in a synchronous way,”

says Michael. 

The college loaned out 330 PCs and laptops to students who did not have access to the technology to enable them to study online. The online service desk has also given staff access to IT support or mentored support while at home.  

But it hasn’t been straightforward for all. Michael says,

“for some students, access has been a challenge and although we provided many with the hardware and software they needed, some still had slow internet access.” 

Paula Philpott

Looking ahead, Paula says,

“we hope the government can provide the necessary funds to address the technological deficits that exist so all students can avail of the benefits that online and on campus deliver”. 

Developing digital skills

While the development of digital skills has long been a key priority for colleges, the pandemic has meant that they’ve had to find ways to train and upskill their staff and students online.  

The college has a learning academy which has been running external webinars twice a week to help parents, teachers and students as they work, teach and learn online, as well as internal webinars. Throughout March and April, mentors facilitated over 50 workshops, drop-in clinics and training events for all staff, with attendance up to 150 for some sessions.  

The response has been very positive, 

“The support provided by the college to staff with development sessions has really helped with the quick transition.

The current crisis has increased the digital skills of both staff and students and will hopefully provide a better work life balance for all where staff and students can work on campus and online to meet their particular needs”

says Michael.    

This summer the college is planning to run a bigger online staff development event. Paula says,

“the event will be delivered in collaboration with Forth Valley College in Scotland and will focus on learner engagement online.” 

Keeping staff and students in the loop

Ensuring that staff and students feel supported, informed and updated, the senior management team has participated in live 'ask me anything Q&A' sessions to encourage staff to raise any queries, suggestions or concerns they have.  The response from staff has been really positive. 

“I have been very impressed by SERC's response to this current situation and the many ways in which staff have been offered support in their work and mental/physical wellbeing.

Even though I may not avail of all or any of the support I think that it is offered shows that the organisation cares about my wellbeing and finding a workable solution to the difficult times we are experiencing.” 

But the college hasn’t just been focusing on their internal communications. Keen to reinforce the message that they’re open for business, they’ve been using the hashtag ‘#OnlineAndOpenforBusiness’, on their external channels. 

Michael says,

“we’ve tried to put everyone in the mindset that we’re not closed, we’re open for business albeit operating in a different way.” 

A supportive online community

They’ve also been finding ways to maintain social interaction with staff and students online. They’ve seen an increase in activity on their existing online community site with 642 active users and 950 staff who’ve engaged with the platform so far.  

One staff member says,

“I've been communicating with texts, calls, emails, Teams, virtual meetings and am finding this all incredibly helpful.

Talking to all staff that are associated with my role and also communicating with people I have a 'passing in the corridor' working relationship with has helped me greatly through all this.” 

With the help of the college interns, they’ve organised a series of work and non-work-related activities such as virtual coffee chats, a family talent competition, online quizzes, a step counting competition between different campuses, cycling challenge, cooking classes, meditation and online yoga – something for everyone!  

What will the future look like?

Life after lockdown is expected to look very different but what have been the key lessons learnt and takeaways for the future? 

“With almost all student portfolios online the pandemic has reinforced the need to make this transition 100% The ability for students and staff to access their information online is vital”,

says Paula. 

“We’ve been developing an app for students to use to monitor and track their progress. The lockdown has accelerated the development of further features”,

says Michael.  

Some students have responded better to the delivery of courses online rather than face-to-face. One student said,

“I found it easy to go from being in class to being online as I had access to my tutors when I needed.” 

After the restrictions are lifted, the college are planning to continue to deliver some online learning to those who would otherwise need to be on campus.   

Project-based learning (PBL), a concept pioneered by the college in the FE sector, will play an even more important role going forwards.  Michael says,

“it will enable students to work online in groups on collaborative industry-based projects.

This innovative learning paradigm provides a clear focus for their skills development whilst online and means that instead of working remotely they are collaborating online with their peers in PBL groups with lecturer facilitation.”