Lincolnshire and North-East-based college group, TEC Partnership, is an award-winning pioneer for the sector in its use of technology, which it sees as essential to prepare learners for the workplace.
Now, it has considerable expertise and experience that others are learning from, but it wasn’t always a technological powerhouse.
TEC Partnership, which consists of Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, Scarborough TEC, Skegness TEC and East Riding College, has been through a seven-year period of considerable digital cultural change and innovation, started and driven by Grimsby Institute principal, Debra Gray, MBE, and the wider senior team.
Success is largely down to a clear digital strategy, recruiting skilled edtech experts, creating a culture where technology is ubiquitous on and off campus for staff and learners, and doing it all with minimal spend.
Gray’s philosophy is very much ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. And that’s nothing to do with money; those who assume TEC Partnership has cash to splash on tech are mistaken.
Passion and ambition
Having grown up with computer games and become a huge sci-fi fan, Gray, is unashamedly enthusiastic about technology. She said:
“I am technological in my bones.
“I know that students we are educating will be engaging with technology in their careers, that industry 4.0 advancements are transforming the world of work and that colleges must change and adapt to serve that new world.”
Gray is driven by ambition for her students - by a need to give them the best possible advantage, despite the economic deprivation in the parts of England the Partnership serves.
“We try to make sure that we're not just levelling the playing field, but tilting it in their direction so that, by the time they leave us they’re at the front of the pack - so that any student of ours who goes for a job is head and shoulders above any other candidate from anywhere else, including private schools.
“I really feel strongly about this, partly because I come from that background myself – from a single-parent family on a council estate – and partly because teachers made the difference to my life, and I wouldn't be sitting here now without them.”
When Gray joined the college group, it was a solid performer, but she wanted it to be “spectacular”.
“That means providing excellent teaching, plus wraparound social capital, and employability and work skills second to none. It is a wholesale mission for students and technology is a chunky piece of that big picture.”
First on the wish list as part of Gray’s first digital strategy was investing in an innovation team, led by well-known sector figure, Deb Millar, who is group director for digital learning technology.
Some money was spent on technology for Millar’s team to experiment with and, once direction was certain, the next step was making digital technology a priority for everyone.
“All staff, not just teachers, knew that bringing technology into their work was on the radar, and that there would be no exceptions. We are one team, with one mission,”
Key to the success of this cultural shift was a united senior leadership team, which led by example.
“We made using technology a collective responsibility and that's the strength in our culture. Colleges don't need a hero tech leader; they need a whole stable of leaders, who lead from the front. So, at the start I challenged all our senior team to become Microsoft Certified Educators, myself included.
“It really helps that the innovation team reports directly into the senior team, which means we can help drive and support that agenda.”
With any change, there are always challenges and these tend to be human, says Gray.
“We found that, once we explained how and why teaching needed to adapt and evolve - because teaching is the vehicle to business and industry and those sectors are changing and evolving - the vast majority understood because they had careers in those sectors before they became FE teachers. What’s great is that our staff now have passion for using technology. It's not just my passion anymore.
“The culture change piece is huge though, and through our role as an edtech demonstrator, we can share that experience and passion.”
Making good tech decisions
For so many decisions, Gray looks to industry for answers, including when choosing which tech to use on campus.
“We thought carefully about the technology that students and staff will be using when they move on from us and go to a different employer or when they start work for the first time.
“So, we've centralised around Microsoft, because it's ubiquitous technology in industry and business. Everyone here is now working on the same technology and there’s only one set of training required. The exception is the arts, where Apple is more common, so we deploy Apple in some of our arts provision.
“Slowly, we removed all the other technology systems and also invested in a Canvas learning management system. The one we had before was free, and to be frank it wasn’t up to the job.
"We wanted a top-notch product because the learning management system is every bit as important as the teachers. It became crucial during the pandemic, and helped us move relatively seamlessly from face-to-face to online learning.
“Because we thought so carefully about what we wanted from the technology and how we would implement it, we didn’t make any huge mistakes. That’s a learning point for others: do it right, rather than do it fast.”
Technology for free
No UK college has money to spare, but TEC Partnership is proof that it’s possible to implement technology on a large scale with a small pot.
Most of the initial spend went on a new innovation team, but now that team is bringing in as much income as it costs and the majority of technology in use at TEC Partnership is free or comes as part of a subscription to Microsoft.
There are a few exceptions, as Gray indicates:
“When we do buy something it’s usually experimental. For example, we think that haptics connected to virtual reality is worth evaluating, so we might spend a small amount exploring that in the innovation team before handing it over to a teaching department for the students to play with and give feedback.
“Keeping down costs is a question of thinking outside the box – and an experienced principal can usually find a way, perhaps through bid funding, sharing resources with a neighboring college or maximizing the use of free resources.”
Keeping up with industry 4.0
Practicing what she preaches, in September Gray begins a PhD on industry 4.0 and how that impacts education. She wants to stay ahead of the curve:
“No matter how good we are in the here and now, technology changes, and industry changes, so we can never stand still. We have a rolling digital strategy that’s refreshed regularly, and we are constantly innovating.
“We look at how we are preparing our students and our staff for industry 4.0 as it looks now and as it is predicted to look in 20 years’ time.”
To inform that thinking, teaching staff have three days each year to go out into industry to look at the latest working practices and R&D projects. What they learn helps shape the curriculum and the technology that supports it.
Using tech to inspire learners
In addition, TEC Partnership has a ‘curriculum 2030’ plan, which helped earn it the 2021 Jisc-sponsored Beacon Award for effective use of technology in FE.
Every student has a curriculum 2030 component in their course, which reflects what their chosen sector could look like in the future and what part technology plays in those roles.
For example, social care courses include tuition on digital reminiscence therapy in care homes, while tomorrow's chefs learn about the use of insect protein in the hospitality and catering industry.
Via video conferencing, experts at the cutting edge of industry regularly share their knowledge with learners, and that’s cost-free too, as part of Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom program.
Through this program, learners have enjoyed virtual field trips to San Diego Zoo and Aquarium, listened to the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s polar region and the manager of the band Nirvana, watched celebrity chefs Brian Turner and Cherish Finden, and asked a question during a live stream to the international space station. Gray says:
“These sector experts help us develop our curriculum by showing us what the future could look like in their industry, and they also talk about the softer skills we all need, which are equally important.
“What’s brilliant is that they talk about their career journey and what made the difference for them, the challenges they found and how these were overcome – that's real as well as inspirational.
“I want all our young people to think ‘that could be me’. I want them to believe it because it’s true. I want them to think it doesn't matter where they come because the start of their journey doesn’t have to look like the end and it’s up to us to make the difference.”