Colleges have done an ‘incredible’ job maintaining learning through the pandemic and should be proud of what they achieved, said apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan, addressing Jisc’s Digifest event last week.
In front of a virtual audience of up to 2,600 delegates, Minister Keegan said:
“I’d like to say a massive ‘thank you’ to the sector. Colleges have done an unbelievable job switching everything online and embracing technology [...] and should be rightly proud of what they’ve done to keep everyone learning.
“Colleges and universities have the advantage of support from Jisc and the Janet Network to underpin their remote delivery, so they started out from a better place than many others in the education sector, and we are thankful to Jisc for the role it plays.
“I hope, now, that people have more confidence in using technology and delivering remote education and blended learning. While it’s been unbelievably difficult, I think the legacy [of the pandemic] will be positive in terms of technology.
“I’ve worked in many sectors over the past 30 years at the forefront of new technology and education is one of those areas which is behind other sectors in our economy, so it’s good now to see the future possibilities; there’s a massive amount of potential.”
Highlighting good practice
Further recognising the effort the sector has made to embrace technology in the context of the pandemic, the minister highlighted examples of good work at colleges, saying:
“I’ve been around many colleges virtually over the past year and been really impressed. I’ve enjoyed the virtual meetings and visits, including to the data and digital centre at Exeter College, I’ve opened a virtual classroom at Weston College and spent time in a virtual cage experiencing animal care online, which is really inventive.
“There have been some excellent examples of remote and blended education to support SEND students, and I’ve been to some of those classes, too. I’d like to mention London and SE College, Weston College and Walsall College in particular, which have gone to huge efforts to maintain inclusivity.”
Collaboration, said Minister Keegan, was a common thread over the past year and invaluable tool in developing the sector’s future and working to deliver the government’s planned reforms, as set out in the Skills for Jobs white paper, published in January.
“Colleges I have spoken to have told me that they support each other and share things. It’s been really important to share best practice and content and I think that’s one of the things we can take forward.
“I know that the sector has come together through the Blended Learning Consortium, peer group networks and the edtech demonstrator programme, all of which have highlighted exceptional best practice and I look forward to more of that.”
The minister also touched on assessment, which has been very difficult during the pandemic. She said:
"My view is that we have to work how to do it safely. One of the things we would have liked to have had in place [last year] is remote invigilation and to offer exams securely online.
“I know other countries have online assessment and remote invigilation up to university level, so we do have to embrace tech in this area. We do remote assessment already in apprenticeships and for practical courses as much as possible, and there’s a lot more we can do, but it has to be safe and fair.”
FE and skills reforms
Addressing the white paper proposals in particular, Minister Keegan said:
“We have a massive skills shortage in this country and the white paper will help address that. The jobs landscape has been changing for some time, but this has been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis and we need to evolve quickly as a sector so that adults and young people alike can benefit.
“The reforms will put employers at the heart of the system to make sure we are training people for the jobs the economy needs.”
Using technology in education, said the minister, is vital as “part of the journey into the workplace where there’s a lot of technology. It really is a massive part of many business models and we have to focus on what employers want”.
The FE and skills sector has developed to cater largely for full-time students, she added, but it needs to be more attractive to all kinds of learners, particularly adults, who want to upskill. Technology, said the minister, can help build into the curriculum the kind of flexibility that part-time students need.
Learning for all
Minister Keegan continued:
“For too long it looked like university was the only valuable route to take after school and that's not true. I left school at 16 in Liverpool in the 1980s to do a degree apprenticeship - a route which enabled me to get to the top in business. Having the flexibility of higher level apprenticeships and technical qualifications is important because they are highly valued in the workplace.
“Lifelong learning is no longer an option. I went back to the London School of Business aged 42 because the world of data and digital had changed around me and everything I knew about business operating models had changed. Many times during our careers we will need to update our understanding.
“The Prime Minister has announced the lifetime skills guarantee and we have introduced skills boot camps – free, flexible digital courses in areas such as cyber security, digital marketing, construction and data analytics, which will help us solve some of the larger skills gaps.
“The pinnacle of our technical education reforms is Institutes of Technology, which are a fantastic example of collaboration between universities, colleges and employers – providing a clear line of sight to highly skilled employment.”
The challenge ahead
The minister admitted that “because of the pandemic, the scale of the challenge has accelerated”, adding:
“I know the sector is up for that challenge.
"The technology revolution of the last year has been incredible and by collaborating we can build on the lessons we have all learned. I am hopeful about the future. I look forward to working with you all on that.”