Paul McKean, head of FE and skills at Jisc and a former teacher at Bolton College, explains how further education helped him through a very dark time in his life.
My 20s are a period in my life that are difficult to recall because of the physical and mental debilitation I suffered. I lost my independence and dignity and became isolated, and depressed.
Several discs in my back had collapsed, requiring three operations over a period of about eight years, which left me in chronic pain and unable to walk easily or work. I had a pair of walking sticks for five or six years, so was very restricted in my mobility and pretty much housebound at my home in Rochdale for months at a time.
It was a dark time, but I found solace in computing and further education at Bolton College. An advert for a short computer course inspired me enough to make the effort to get out and go to college. I went on to complete other courses over the next couple of years at the same college and, as it turned out, I was pretty good at computing. The teacher asked me to start helping other learners and encouraged me to take a teaching qualification.
The right kind of support
The college launched a project supporting people in the community to start using computers and technology, and I got the job. It was about engaging with people who were disadvantaged and disengaged with education, like I was when I was suffering with my back.
I had to come up with the curriculum myself, and designed web pages and online tutorials, similar to an FE practitioner today, staying up late researching what I was going to teach the next day. So, I’m very aware of the kind of commitment that teachers have and of the benefits that technology can provide, and not just in a computing curriculum.
On the back of the success of that project, I got a job as the college’s first information learning technology (ILT) leader. By the time I joined Jisc in October 2013, I had been at the college for 14 years and left with a comprehensive understanding of the needs of both learners and the organisation.
I do miss teaching, but the position I have now with Jisc means I can positively influence all learners, and that’s far more powerful than helping one person in one class. In a way I’m still teaching on a daily basis because there’s always someone in the sector who has an issue they need our help with.
In an ideal world...
In an ideal world, post-16 education would be accessible to all in the UK. In the real world, there are still obstacles that make studying difficult for some learners, particularly those who are disadvantaged by their income, ability, mental or physical health, or location.
For all these people, the ability to connect to a college network when on or off campus could make all the difference. Enabling online or blended learning means that, even if a student is dealing with a critical problem in life, has caring duties, or needs to fit a course around work, they can still study at a time, place and pace to suit their individual needs.
I know from personal experience how invaluable that can be. At that very difficult time in my life, access to further education gave me a purpose, I regained confidence, shook off depression and earned qualifications that have formed the basis of a career in FE that I love. It’s not going too far to say that FE saved me.
I passionately believe in technology as an enabler – it provides opportunity – whereas a lack of technology and connectivity can be a blocker, as I have also experienced. While at Bolton College, I took a master’s degree course in e-learning, but I had a relapse with my back and couldn’t travel. Ironically for an e-learning course, it wasn’t all delivered online, which made studying too difficult, so I had to delay finishing that course for a year.
In terms of how the sector is responding to the need for technology-enabled learning, it’s a mixed bag. Even in the same college there may be some teachers who’ve completely embraced technology, using videos, games, and 3D animations to show how an engine works for example, and there will be others who prefer to teach using a real vehicle.
Those differences are not just about age – lots of people embrace change, not just the younger teachers – but if all teachers are to get comfortable with new tech it’s important the sell-in is positive: technology makes teaching more efficient; it’s not about replacing teachers, but about giving them more opportunity to concentrate on learners who need most help.
I’m an Association of Colleges’ Beacon Award assessor for the effective use of technology and the majority of FE organisations that do well in those awards have a culture of innovation – the senior management team encourages practitioners to take risks, to try new technology.
A supporting culture is important – college leaders need a digital strategy in place to understand what they are trying to achieve, when they’ve got there and how and when to evolve. To begin with, there’s an investment in infrastructure, resources and training and also in understanding the needs of learners, and that’s where Jisc’s student digital experience tracker can help.
Everyone needs digital skills to operate in today’s ever-more connected world and colleges have a responsibility to produce the digitally capable workforce of tomorrow. For me, it always comes back to the needs of the learner and colleges should be designing digital-first courses at the outset.
Colleges that follow this strategy are providing what students want, expect, deserve and need.