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A screen capture of Weston College's Virtual classroom
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A screen capture of Weston College's Virtual classroom
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West of England Institute of Technology: Building connections to beat the skills gap

Jon HofgartnerClaire Arbery

The launch of the West of England Institute for Technology (WEIoT) marked a giant leap forward in the efforts regionally and nationally to close the skills gaps in key STEM areas. 

The collaboration and innovation offered by the new consortium of education providers and employers can provide a whole raft of learners the opportunity to develop the technical skills urgently needed in the region.

The official launch celebrations in October 2020 coincided with news from the Department for Education that additional funding was now available for eight more IoTs across the country.

As those new consortia enter the final stages of the awarding process, those behind WEIoT reflect on the new ground they have already broken and offer advice for those in second wave of Institutes of Technology soon to be announced.

Getting the infrastructure right

Jon Hofgartner, director of education technology at Weston College, the lead education provider in the WEIoT, comments:

“One of the big questions we had early on was around connectivity; how were we going to connect these education providers digitally? Would we need a single VLE? How would we create an effective network that would allow us to do things like shared delivery or group collaboration across the physical sites?

"We have always valued our relationship with Jisc as a trusted partner at Weston so it was an obvious choice to involve them from the outset for conversations exactly like these.

“As a neutral party, Jisc’s cloud consultancy team was able to do a light-touch infrastructure review with each of the providers and make recommendations on how they might allocate funding for core infrastructure. So for example, understanding where the wifi needed attention, or which sites would benefit from a secondary connection for better stability.

“All this ensured we got the nuts and bolts right before adding in a load of devices and digital kit. I would definitely recommend going through that review process with a critical friend like Jisc.”

For an example of the digital kit benefiting from WEIoT’s robust infrastructure, watch how the team at Weston College developed the UK’s first virtual classroom for further education.

Early achievements

Just over a year since going live and in spite of the global pandemic ruling out most campus-based learning for that time, WEIoT has already notched up a number of successes.

One of its early initiatives was to procure the digital capability discovery tool for all its FE providers. All staff were given the opportunity to self-assess their digital capabilities to understand where they needed to develop and provide a baseline of capabilities across WEIoT.

With students and staff expected to travel between campuses and employers’ sites, ensuring secure, seamless connectivity was another high priority. This meant getting eduroam, already used by the education providers, into employer sites such as the new multi-million-pound GKN Aerospace Global Technology Centre in Bristol which has a WEIoT learning space.

Claire Arbery, director of the WEIoT says:

“Students from all over the region will be coming to this cutting-edge industry facility and now thanks to eduroam, they can bring their own devices and they’ll be instantly connected.

“Securing eduroam in this type of employer site had been a part of our conversations since the beginning. We knew that as students moved between campuses, their connectivity had to be seamless.”

What’s next

Looking ahead to the pipeline of activity over the coming year, Claire adds:

“Now we’ve got the foundations in place, we’ve laid the groundwork and we’re now into the growth phase. We are looking at how we promote what we’re doing and engage a greater number of current and prospective staff and students.

“Coming up, we have our very first West of England educator networking conference which will bring together teachers from across the five education providers. Cross-sharing information, ideas, and experiences is central to WEIoT so we expect the conference to be full of innovative ways we can work together to better the experiences and outcomes of students.

“When the new cohort start in September, we are also planning a welcome event for students from all five WEIoT education providers. So no matter where you’re based, you get to be part of that wider community. You may only be a class of 12 studying engineering, but actually there are another 50 students in the other education providers that you can start to network and collaborate with.”

Asked about the contribution of Jisc to WEIoT Claire concludes:

“As an anchor partner, they are not just a consultancy, they are fully on board supporting everything that we do. The team brings that vital industry relevance to the table when we’re talking about what we need to do to resolve issues.”

Further information on the support available from Jisc for Institutes of Technology.