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Digital dynamite: learning and teaching during COVID-19

Debra GrayDeborah Millar

Delivering exceptional teaching and learning online to thousands of learners with 48 hours’ notice is no mean feat. Yet this is precisely what Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education (GIFHE) was able to do.


This was because of a digital strategy which had prepared staff and students for the fourth industrial revolution, and the impact of technology on all workplaces including its own during the COVID-19 lockdown. As a result, it was able to ensure that its learners were not left behind due to the considerable challenges they faced.

Grimsby Institute is one of England’s largest providers of further and higher education. It is the largest component of the TEC Partnership, an Ofsted 'outstanding', multi award-winning FE group.

GIFHE serves an area of the east coast which has a severe economic, social and educational disadvantage: 70% of its students come from widening participation postcode areas, prior educational achievement is low, and 60% of GIFHE’s provision is at Level 1 and 2; 60% of students join the college without maths, without English or both and around 30% of students have a learning difficulty or a disability.

Achievement rates are in the top 1% of the country. Innovation and ensuring students can achieve to a high level despite the challenges they face is GIFHE’s lifeblood.

When COVID-19 struck, it became just another challenge to meet and overcome. The size, scale and speed of the challenge was unprecedented, however, and we wanted to ensure that staff were fully supported, and no students got left behind.

Preparing and caring for staff

With 48 hours’ notice, we were able to issue computer kit and equipment to all academic and support staff who needed it and provide a testing facility to ensure microphones, cameras and remote access all worked.

Staff were encouraged to take their equipment home and test it and we offered extended wrap-around IT and technology support to ensure everything worked as intended.

GIFHE had a strong and well-embedded digital strategy which had been in place for three years. A significant number of teaching and support staff have achieved ‘Level Up’ training in technologies, which support remote working such as our Canvas LMS, OneDrive, OneNote, Teams and Skype in the Classroom.

As a Microsoft Showcase College, the majority of staff are certified Microsoft innovate educators or experts and are therefore well versed in the cloud-based Office 365 suite and, as part of a large and geographically dispersed group, video conferencing with colleagues elsewhere in the country was a familiar process.

However, we decided to close the college entirely to students on the final day before lockdown to conduct some mass refresher training in Canvas and Teams, primarily to ensure that teaching staff had a clear strategy on how to operate remotely. We could not guarantee our students would not be left behind if we did not extend the same courtesy to our staff.

In addition to equipment and training, we also provided staff with the following: 

  • A comprehensive online 'teaching and learning remotely' guide including instructional videos on how to create and organise lessons including communications with students, facilitating online discussions, class announcements, creation or sourcing of online resources, integrating third party apps, virtual teaching, online assessment and recording attendance.
  • Dedicated IT and online learning support from our IT services and our digital innovation team.
  • Requests for technical support are our priority; therefore, help desks are fully staffed and operate extended hours.
  • Yammer provides GIFHE with a centralised social and supportive communication channel. Yammer is a well-embedded aspect of the Office 365 suite at GIFHE and has more than 1,200 members who regularly contribute and comment. It provides vibrant information dissemination, praise and a good practice sharing environment for all staff. The ‘teaching and learning remote support’ channel is where staff share ideas, speak with experts, troubleshoot and celebrate success.
  • A daily series of quick instructional videos, no longer than four minutes, has been created to provide sharp insights on how to extend digital skills in particular tools. Some well-received content includes: branching in Microsoft Forms, extending the functionality of Teams, restoring previous versions of OneDrive and using Planner in Teams.
  • A series of supportive and motivational videos for each day of the week to keep staff motivated, improve their technical expertise and share ideas and thoughts such as Monday Motivation, Tuesday Teacher, Wednesday Wisdom, Thursday TeamsTastic and Friday Free for All.

All of the above and more enabled our teaching and support staff to remain part of a committed, innovative and problem-solving professional community, even while they were working remotely.

In recognition that not everything about work is task orientated, we also committed wholeheartedly to the mental wellbeing of our staff. The sense of ‘family’ and pride we take in our achievements and those of our community is a crucial part of our organisational culture. 

So, we also provided:

  • A virtual memorial service for a dearly missed member of staff who sadly passed away during the lockdown.
  • Virtual leaving parties for staff moving on.
  • A dedicated staff wellbeing channel in Teams with hints and tips on how to manage stress, relax and socialise.
  • Virtual quiz nights and Friday drinks nights.
  • ‘Isolation TV’, a dedicated TV channel on Planet eStream administered by our learning centre staff containing a range of children’s films to educate and entertain the children of our staff; this was updated daily with new content.
  • Copying and uploading viral videos to entertain our students and staff.
  • A fully online staff development day on 4 May called the ‘Jedi Training Academy’, involving hundreds of staff interacting and learning online while competing for the best Star Wars Costume.
  • Friday night ‘Cookalong Live’ with one of our chefs via Teams.

As a result, staff morale remains very high and the entire team are skilled in online delivery.

When staff feel secure, confident, supported and valued, student learning and support will always be engaging and effective.

Staff have the very best wraparound pedagogical, technical and interpersonal support we can provide to nurture their online resilience and delivery. Communication is regular and supportive.

Preparing and caring for students

As with most of our sector, for some of our students, we are the anchor point around which they revolve; a significant aspect of stability; a vibrant, productive environment in which to work and a source of support not just for their vocational, technical or academic studies but also for pastoral support, wellbeing and mental health.

As a result of our well-embedded digital strategy and providing our staff with the freedom to innovate digitally, the vast majority of students were familiar with our primary learning management platform, Canvas LMS, and the capabilities of the Office 365 suite.

Digital competence and confidence were also enhanced by the ‘Student Level Up’ digital online course at the beginning of the academic year. In addition, for the last four years, every student at GIFHE has scheduled online learning and assessment (SOLA) as a crucial part of their standard study programme timetable. This also helped with the preparedness of students for a different way of learning.

Staff were able to brief students in person or remotely on how their learning would take shape before lockdown. All students had a weekly updated online timetable on the front page of their Canvas, so they knew what and when ‘to attend’ and engage in learning.

The critical concern for us strategically has been 25% of students with no or limited access to the technology they needed in order to participate in online learning. Broadband is weak in many rural parts of the area, and students unable to afford to pay for data or at best had to share limited access with other family members; at worst, some didn’t have a device.

We issued hundreds of laptops to our students, including driving to rural areas to deliver them direct to doors in a social distancing manner, supported by the purchase of dongles to provide internet access for those without wifi.

We mirrored our activity with staff and produced a ‘students’ guide to remote learning’, which used instructional videos to cover: logging in, links to support and helplines, what to expect from an online lesson, submitting work, dress to learn guidance, communication with staff and attendance. An uplifting and motivational video to reassure learners accompanied this guide.

We also covered the critical aspects of safeguarding, reinforced cyber security awareness and focused heavily on student wellbeing and mental health support. Each student is contacted at least weekly, either by their teacher or by the student support team. We are conducting socially distanced home visits for students who have not engaged, and who we perceived as ‘at-risk learners’.

We have revised the majority of the curriculum to online learning with the exception of highly practical trades sessions, although even here delivery did not stop.

In addition to our standard online teaching, which broadly matches the students’ timetable, we have provided:

  • Extensive guest speakers on Canvas conferencing, Teams and Zoom, such as special effects artists, national charity leaders, environmental activists and politicians. 
  • Viral videos as morale boosters created by staff to entertain and motivate students. 
  • Online student of the month in all curriculum areas. 
  • Creation of virtual reality gallery display spaces for arts and photography students to showcase their work. 
  • Masterclasses with nationally based choreographers, dancers and hairdressers. 
  • Animal care masterclasses from zoos worldwide and pet shops locally exploring care, handling and health concerns of domestic and exotic species.
  • Lambing live from a local farm.
  • A community choir to support adult learners.
  • Remote fitness sessions for all students.
  • Nail art and self-care tutorials.
  • Full technical and wellbeing support.

Student engagement is high, student morale is positive, and the level of work submitted is exceptional in the circumstances. Students have generally adapted extremely well to online teaching and learning, and a dedicated and talented staff base ensures that no-one is left behind.

Learning online throughout COVID-19 has enabled our students not only to continue their studies but it has also given opportunities to develop their use of digital tools and methods that heighten employability skills for a digital landscape. That’s digital dynamite at GIFHE.

This article is part of an e-book produced by the Association of Colleges and funded by Ufi - Creating a post-COVID-19 edtech strategy - bringing together all the wisdom and lessons learned from lockdown.