Beacon Awards shine a light on digital innovation

The Association of Colleges (AOC) Beacon Awards has celebrated excellence for colleges, learning providers, staff and students since 1995.

Students using VR glasses.

Heart of Worcestershire College, USP College and Activate Learning are finalists in this year’s Jisc-sponsored ‘effective use of digital technology’ award for their use of digital solutions to help solve real-world problems.

Heart of Worcestershire College 

The college created a blended learning programme that gives learners the opportunity to hone important soft skills relevant for the workplace.

Amy Hollier, director of blended and online learning, said:

“We’ve been using blended learning for about ten years now, so it’s not new, but about two or three years ago we started a major project spanning the whole institution.

“We consulted with students first and asked them what they wanted to see from a blended learning programme. We also spoke to staff and local employers.

“We realised that we needed to help learners gain 21st century skills - skills that industry said they wanted us to develop, like communication, problem solving, creativity and critical thinking.

“Learners are assigned tasks on a weekly basis that are embedded into timetables. They are encouraged to work independently using industry relevant digital tools to really draw out those skills through our virtual learning environment (VLE).

“We also set students projects using different types of digital tools with set timeframes, like they would experience in real life working scenarios. These skills are transferrable across most jobs available today.“We’re proud of our staff for embracing and being instrumental in integrating this new way of working. It can be hard changing the way things have always been done, but thankfully the results speak for themselves.

“We’ve received great feedback from learners. We thought it would take longer for them to engage and for the new ways of working to embed, but more than 85% of them agree it has been a success.”

USP College, Essex

Immersive teaching spaces have been introduced to enable cross-campus, blended and hybrid teaching to address teacher shortages and additional challenges.

Principal and CEO, Dan Pearson, said:

“Six or seven years ago, USP was formed from a merger of two colleges with different approaches to finance and quality, and different numbers and abilities of teachers.

“Students were having different experiences when studying the same subject across the two campuses and we wanted to standardise this approach, ensuring all students had access to the best teachers.

“Recruitment and retention of staff is always difficult, and we were being priced out of the market by businesses, so we decided to take a different approach.
“In 2019 we installed immersive rooms at both of our campuses, with room-to-room video conferencing.

“The immersive rooms were widely used throughout the pandemic and helped connect students and teachers, regardless of their location.

“Principals from across the country have been able to see for themselves how well these rooms work. They provide a great return on investment and in our first year of using them at USP we saved more than £100,000.”

Activate Learning

The college group developed an online learning programme that provides continual feedback to adult learners to aid development, while simultaneously building strong relationships with learners.

Group digital director, Sharmen Ibrahim, said:

“Thirty percent of our adult cohort don't come to site except for exams. We know they have busy lives and can be studying alongside jobs and other commitments, so we use online learning to maintain close relationships.

“Through the use of our learning philosophy and the CenturyTech platform, we developed a sequence of learning that can be applied to every subject to help achieve success.

“Starting with a ‘learning nugget,’ a standalone mini activity focused on a specific topic, learners work through a mix of live and recorded sessions. They can revisit any aspect in their own time and really get to grips in the style that best suits them.

“Because of the nature of the cohort, the iterative way of working meets learner needs. Having a flexible way of learning really works.

“Our teachers are more like coaches and provide one-to-one as well as group learning sessions. They also use a visualiser tool which allows them to see how learners work in real time. This means they can provide immediate feedback and instant intervention should any problems arise.

“The GCSE pass rates using this new model of learning were above and beyond what we expected. We're also really proud of the feedback learners have provided to us and to their peers.

“Because our staff have been integrated into the design and implementation of this approach from senior leader to teacher level, our learning philosophy is truly embedded into our culture, and we’re looking forward to growing our online provision based on our existing success.”

The winners of this year’s Beacon Awards will be announced on Monday 27 February 2023. 

Activate Learning and USP college will be sharing more information on their digital transformation journeys and the future of digital in further education at Digifest. Register for Digifest to find out more.