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Four steps to better online delivery: the South West College story

Across the UK, colleges are responding to the challenges of COVID-19 by making changes to the way they operate.  But how do you successfully transition to online delivery?  

We’ve been talking to South West College in Northern Ireland, who’ve been sharing their experiences of how they’re operating online and supporting staff and students to adjust to life in lockdown.

For Ciara Duffy, Centre for Excellence digital learning manager, there are four key planks to a successful transition: enabling engagement, boosting digital skills, communicating and building community. Here’s how they did it.

1. Stay engaged

Equipping staff and students with the right technology and access to systems is essential for them to participate and engage online.

Fortunately for South West College, they’ve benefited from the experience of delivering learning online for the past ten years, since a period of severe weather in 2010 temporarily closed the college.

“We were tasked by our governing body to develop college services so they could operate fully online - the first thing we did was to install remote desktops for staff,”

explains Ciara. By 2011 all operations had moved online.

The college has been using a whole range of tools and technologies to keep learners engaged and motivated, from video, quizzes and interactive animations to live classrooms with recordings, discussion forums, blogs and web links for extended learning. All courses are delivered via Canvas and live classrooms and are available on all mobile devices.

Student engagement is fully tracked using the built-in analytics on the virtual learning environment (VLE) and other learning platforms. The college has also developed a bespoke remote learning dashboard to track student engagement and facilitate timely intervention where a student is not engaging.

Staff have also been flexible in making special provision for learners with variable access to technology, such as working on into the evening to accommodate learners who do not have access to a computer during the day.

Some have gone even further, as computing tutor Olga Kelly describes:

“Every session had me on video and speaking to the students to help make the students relaxed and also have some familiarity there. For those with no mics/video, questions were answered using the chat facility.

"Those students with no laptops, access to Word etc I asked them to write on paper, photograph and email to me. Someone said they had no paper, I told them to write on the back of an envelope and that I would accept the work any way they could send it!”

2. Boost digital skills

While the development of digital skills has long been a key priority for colleges, the chaos caused by the arrival of COVID-19 has meant that they’ve had to find ways to train and upskill their staff and students remotely.

In the lead up to lockdown, Ciara and colleagues were tasked with preparing the college to go fully online. Ciara explains:

“In those three days, we ran 450 staff development sessions. We were able to achieve so much because we had the backing from senior leaders to drive it forward.”

Before the crisis the college used the Jisc building digital capabilities framework to develop their own level three digital skills for educators' qualification. Ciara said:

“The qualification was initially offered to teaching and learning staff, with 78 staff signing up in the first two days. Since COVID-19, we’re now offering it to all management and support staff.”

3. Keep communicating

Good, effective communications play a vital role in ensuring that staff and students feel supported, informed and updated.

All line managers have been asked to speak to their teams first thing in the morning to see how things are going and to flag any issues and to deal with them at that stage.

According to travel and tourism tutor Sara Cox,

“Staff have modified their daily timetables in order to best engage with students and this has included teaching and providing feedback at midnight and beyond into the early hours, as this is a time they know students are online due to work commitments and other reasons during the day.

"One tutor has even delivered a live lecture at 9pm on a Saturday night to accommodate a number of students.”

4. Build community

From virtual coffee mornings to online quizzes, colleges are finding ways to maintain social interaction with staff and students remotely.

Ciara said:

“Most of the feedback we’re getting from staff and students is about missing the social aspect of coming into college.

"We’ve ran virtual book clubs, competitions etc and put a lot of energy into the wraparound services we provide for students. Every single service we offer is live online and working as they would be in the physical space.”