The pandemic highlighted just how poorly equipped most further education (FE) colleges are to operate digitally.
After years of underinvestment, achieving the sort of ‘digital first’ status that will prepare learners for technical workplaces – as the government has described in its FE and skills white paper - requires a long-term commitment.
This means implementing a whole-organisation digital strategy that encompasses physical and e-infrastructure, integrated digital systems that meet both business and teaching goals, and a rolling programme of staff training.
For any organisation, this kind of fundamental culture change is not simple and there are no quick fixes, which is why those who have experienced such a major technological shift say it cannot be achieved without forward-thinking leadership and board-level buy-in.
Deb Millar, Kelly Edwards and Amy Hollier are all experienced, senior edtech experts at their further education colleges, which are all 'demonstrators’ within the government’s EdTech Demonstrator programme, set up to provide peer-to-peer support on the effective use of technology in education.
Not a uniform starting point
Millar, group executive director for digital learning technology at the TEC Partnership, says the job is wide-ranging, but rewarding:
“We are helping schools and colleges with varying technical abilities and capacity, awareness and experience, so each of them starts on the demonstrator programme from a different point.
I say to those new to the programme, ‘if you’ve got the will, we’ve got the skill’. First, we scope out who they are, where they are in terms of tech and what they want. The second part is culture change; we have to win them over - to show the impact and benefits of digital technology, then I sign them over to our learning technologists, who give them six weeks of training.
The people and organisations on our books are really loving it. They tell me that using edtech has changed the way they work for the better and saved time, and they can use that evidence when pitching new ideas and strategies to their senior managers.
I think we’d all agree, though, that the single biggest challenge all these colleges and schools have in common is culture change.”
Influencing senior leaders
“We find that a lot of these organisations have a digital lead, perhaps someone in the library or someone else who has ‘digital’ in their job title, but often these members of staff are not getting the cross-college engagement that’s necessary. The principal and everyone in between should get involved too.
Only when all decision-making parties are on board, including reps from HR, quality and staff develop departments, can there be hope for strategic investment and planning to realise the vision and instigate the culture change that enables that vision. And if leaders are not modelling the practice, then why should anyone else in the college?”
Amy Hollier, director of blended and online learning at Heart of Worcestershire College, also notices the differing levels of digital capability and attitude in colleges asking for help.
“We have seen a huge variation in approaches taken by institutions and the importance they place on their digital development.
Those that have been more successful have had a clear digital vision and driven it from the top, spanning right across the institution to include every member of staff and every learner.”
The right mindset
Kelly Edwards, director of quality at Harlow College, agrees it’s about changing attitudes but also about giving confidence.
She finds that, when people come to her for advice through the programme, they may have a limited understanding of the use of technology to improve learning, teaching and assessment and are nervous about that.
She is able to reassure them that:
“A few years ago I didn’t know anything about technology either and I had to put the effort in to learn. I also tell them that, when working within my college I have to do my best to show and mirror best practice and the benefits of using edtech so that the rest of the staff want to get involved."
Edwards also feels that, among colleges wanting to develop a digital strategy, there’s a lack of understanding about the enormity of the task ahead. Developing such a strategy and effective practice takes time, but she has cause to be optimistic.
“I must say, the development I have seen from the colleges I am working with is huge and really impressive.
It helps that I deliver mindset sessions with external college staff, not so they can tell me what their thinking is, but so they can understand and unpack where they are in terms of digital practice and the development of a digital toolkit and to open their minds to what’s possible.
To me, that’s powerful, but it only works if the principal and other senior leaders are on board.”
When it comes to make changes, winning hearts and minds is at least as important as the tech itself, as Hollier acknowledges:
“There is a need to invest in a robust digital infrastructure but, more importantly, in order to make a digital strategy work, the people should come first rather than the technology.
Having a senior leadership team that understands the opportunities brought by technology and make it normative by weaving it into daily life at an institution is crucial. The term ‘leading by example’ has never been more relevant.”
The impact of COVID-19
Head of FE and skills at Jisc, Paul McKean, is often in conversation with staff at colleges across the UK, encouraging and advising on digital. He also points out the heavy burden placed on staff by COVID-19.
“Our research carried out over summer 2020 found that many teachers welcomed the opportunity afforded by the crisis to learn new skills, which had a positive impact on confidence.
However, while ‘bite-size’ sessions were widespread, staff felt the need for space and time to put their new learning into practice - and that’s what senior managers need to understand and support. Ongoing, structured CPD is vital.”
Natasha Barry, Jisc’s northern region account manager, feels that many colleges asking for help to implement technology during lockdowns are operating hand-to-mouth rather than thinking strategically. She explains:
“Colleges have had their hands forced by the pandemic, and they’ve had to react to that and deliver teaching online in some form, but they aren’t proactive – they don’t see this as the start of a long digital journey. Right now, they need to be working out how to make their online delivery better, not just make do.”
Hollier thinks the time is right to build on the experience of the past 10 months. She urges:
“We mustn’t lose all of the great work that has been done since the pandemic. Many colleges are now starting to focus CPD time on digital practice, but this needs to be regular and ongoing to build on the skills and foundations that have developed during the college closures.”