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Students learning virtually
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Students learning virtually
©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

Digital learning in FE: ‘big-ticket barriers remain’

Champions of technology in further education, Jisc among them, have broadly welcomed the enforced shift to online working and learning as a long-overdue catalyst for change in the sector.  

There are certainly plenty of headlines that would have us believe online education in some form is here to stay and, while that maybe so, there are both skeptics and barriers, including the inequality created by digital and data poverty and a largely practical curriculum that’s impossible to replicate online.  

Learning from lockdown 

Lockdown learning has also had a well-documented negative impact on the mental health of staff and students, so any move towards greater online learning will need to be handled carefully.  

While sharing these concerns, Jisc holds to the notion that, if used appropriately and skilfully, technology can be a force for good in teaching, especially in preparing learners for the workplace. 

Jisc’s head of FE and skills, Paul McKean, is a former FE teacher with a masters’ degree in e-learning and multimedia. Through the 2020 Jisc/AoC research project, shaping the digital future of FE and skills, he encountered a cross-section of digital practice, which he’s keen the sector learns from.  

McKean says:

“I totally understand why some people are skeptical about adopting technology for teaching and learning in the longer term. Lockdown has been incredibly hard for staff and students alike and most colleges weren’t ready for the shift online.  

"When campuses closed last spring, the emergency response meant that people did what they could to provide learning, and that led to some poor digital practice being adopted, which has tainted people’s experience of technology.   

"I view this past year as an experiment the sector can learn from. Providers now need help to invest in the right digital infrastructure, embed vocationally relevant technology within the curriculum, and adopt suitable supportive digital pedagogies as part of an overarching digital strategy. If they don’t, how are learners going to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow? How are colleges going to fulfil the government’s drive for technical skills? 

“The key is in making sure technology is used appropriately and effectively. What we champion at Jisc is technology-enhanced learning. We’re not saying that technology is a solution for everything; we know for a fact it isn't.” 

More research and fewer barriers 

Stuart Rimmer

Among the technology naysayers is Stuart Rimmer, principal at East Coast College, who urges caution.

“The pandemic has forced us to participate in the biggest learning experiment the country has seen since the Victorian age. There might be a lot of positives that come out of this new digital way of working, but we need to test it further.” 

In the absence of hard evidence that online learning is beneficial, and his own experiences to the contrary, Rimmer feels that the current rush to digital teaching and learning approaches are “mostly nonsense”. 

He explains there are barriers, too:

“There has been a very rapid obsession with digital as a panacea and proxy for good teaching and learning, and I don't think there's evidence to suggest that's true. We are working in this way because of necessity, not desirability.   

“We've talked in my college about which aspects of online learning we keep when we go back to ‘normal’ and the answer is almost none, other than to augment, not replace face-to-face.  

“People say there are big rewards and that tech can make lessons more interesting and accessible, but there are too many big-ticket items in the way, chiefly digital poverty.”   

The digital divide 

Rimmer continues:

“We have spent the last 20 years working out what a good education is and spent time and effort to tackle inequality and equity of access. We've had to abandon some of that because of the pandemic. 

“Now, you can only participate in the digital world if you're rich enough. No matter how good the teacher, how accomplished their digital delivery, or how good the digital platform, if someone is trying to learn on a mobile phone, it’s hard, and many can’t afford decent broadband or data packages. 

“At East Coast College, more than 20 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds receive free school meals, and they don’t typically have a device in their home, or if there is one, it’s shared by three siblings and their parents on a poor broadband connection. To help, we've delivered 700 laptops to students and stretched college finances in doing so.   

“Digital poverty needs tackling before any push for digital curriculum transformation across the sector, even after we return to ‘normal’.” 

McKean agrees with the latter point:

“We’ve been working with the sector, government and telecom companies to try to alleviate digital poverty, and we’re pleased that college learners were eventually included in the government's ‘Get help with technology’ scheme. But there needs to be a solution that provides equality of access. 

“Long-term, we propose that public and private sector organisations use eduroam – the education wi-fi standard – to provide a widespread availability of free wi-fi so that students can study in public places such as coffee shops, libraries, council buildings and so on.”  

Learner wellbeing 

In 2020, East Coast College conducted research around the effectiveness and impact of online learning, which threw up negative correlations. The lack of one-to-one, face-to-face communication with teachers and support staff was a factor in falling motivation and engagement, for example. 

“The study showed it was detrimental to students’ mental health to work exclusively online,”

says Rimmer, who also chairs the AoC’s mental health group.  

“The reported incidence of students with low mood or mild depression has certainly gone through the roof since the pandemic struck, and many students with a mental health issue are finding it more difficult to get support while off campus. 

“Students are also missing campus as a means of social development. All the theory says that learning is essentially a social activity and that we learn best together. The survey showed that some of our adult learners in particular miss the social connection. For many, that's one of the main reasons for signing on to a course. 

“On the plus side, we found that online learning could be beneficial for some students with social anxiety.”   

Paul McKean agrees there’s no substitute for social interaction in a learning environment. Speaking from personal experience, he says:

“I was isolated and suffered with mental health issues before starting on a college course. That social interaction was important; it helped build my confidence and self-worth.  

“Technology can be an enabler here too, supporting ‘virtual interaction’. It can help link isolated people together and support collaboration, but again, only when available and where people have the prerequisite digital skills, so we’re back to the digital divide.” 

Staff wellbeing 

Rimmer says it’s not just learners who are suffering:

“The impact of lockdown on staff is acute. Some are working with a laptop on their knees for eight hours a day, and that’s not right from a health perspective. 

“Then there’s the increased pressure to perform in an online environment. Many staff are adopting new practices for the first time. For some who, despite their best efforts, are not successful, it’s incredibly stressful and that's got a cost in terms of education outcomes, or mental health outcomes.” 

It was clear from the shaping the digital future of FE and skills research last summer that staff were under considerable stress. As a result, one of the recommendations that emerged in the subsequent report (pdf) was the development of an ongoing CPD programme.  

The ETF’s Enhance Digital Teaching platform is a good start, says McKean. It hosts training to support teachers and trainers in using educational technology and to develop their digital skills. 

Curriculum reform 

Rimmer hopes the Skills for Jobs white paper will start to map a route to renew the curriculum, but in the meantime, because most courses in FE are practical, they aren’t suitable to deliver online.  

He says:

“Exclusive digital learning cannot produce good bricklayers, plumbers,  hairdressers or chefs. These disciplines are grounded in high technical skills and craft. Our staff have been amazingly innovative and creative, but can’t wait to get back to face-to-face teaching.”   

McKean feels that revising the curriculum is right:

“This pandemic hasn't just changed education, it's changed the world and many of the jobs we do, from hospitality to logistics. The sector and government need to consider how digital tech will be used in future workplaces and map those skills to a revised curriculum. At the moment, the curriculum isn’t fit for purpose and can’t support government aims to fill the technical skills gap. 

“As technology and the world around us changes, there will be more opportunities to simulate what happens in the workplace via technologies such as augmented and virtual reality. That doesn't mean FE providers shouldn't provide a physical experience; the tech is complementary.” 

Rimmer remains to be convinced. For him, the big question is not around digital learning, but simply, ‘what’s the best way for us to teach and to learn?’.