What’s the secret to great technology-enhanced learning in FE? We asked AoC Beacon Awards winners to spill the beans.
“Safety! Emergencies! Safety! Educational!”
reply the children of Springfield to Edna Krabappel’s1 exasperated question: “you’re children, why do you all need cell phones?!” Failing to capture the kids’ attention, their eyes locked to screens and thumbs jerking frantically against a backdrop of bleeps and buzzes, Edna gives up and confiscates the lot.
The Simpsons' scriptwriters have clearly not read the FELTAG recommendation that, by 2016, further education (FE) providers should be delivering 10% of their courses online. It was just the latest in a long line of similar suggestions but investment in technological infrastructure, digital training and blended learning has been prioritised.
We asked award winners what really works on a practical level.
James Kieft is learning and development manager at Reading College, which recently won a national excellence award for introducing cloud-based technology on campus. Edna Krabbapel would doubtless be horrified by Kieft's view that “if you ban technology from the classroom, students are going to use it anyway; you need to embrace it and make sure they are using it appropriately.”
“At first,” he recalls, “it was about getting staff to realise what free stuff was available in the browser, always with a focus on what they want to achieve within teaching" and his role to signpost them to simple tools that work. That could be anything from apps adding voiceovers to presentations, to tools for creating animated videos – and he focused on software that can be found for free online so they would be compatible across a range of devices.
“It removes barriers, and staff are more willing to experiment. Because you’re not having to install it, you’re not relying on one tool – it’s constant innovation.”
Constant change can be source of anxiety, and Kieft quickly identified that the area staff struggled with most was confidence, compounded by a lack of time to self-educate. He insists that one member of staff must be at the forefront, doing the hard graft of researching new tools and suggesting how they could be used in classrooms.
Kieft set up a blog in 2013, called “James thinks it’s worth a look!” - which he uses to share new finds with colleagues at Reading and partner colleges in Banbury and Oxford. The blog is complemented by a YouTube channel for video tutorials, and his team also provide handouts, workshops, demonstrations and a mentoring scheme, where they watch a couple of lessons and suggest where staff could use technology more effectively.
The most successful technological innovation, however, was also the most unexpected. With his team's focus on in-classroom productivity tools, Kieft says he “didn’t realise the Google+ community aspect would prove so popular with students and staff”.
The college had previously used Facebook to connect with learners, but the “issue with that is you’re invading their space and trying to be hip – while Twitter is all in the public domain. Google+ had the advantage of not being widely used, so we’re not treading on their toes but are still connecting them with their tutor and peers in a space private to that community.”
More than that, though, Kieft says there’s evidence these communities promote more collaborative and independent ways of working: “it takes pressure off the tutor in that questions can go via the community and the tutor can just act as a moderator. We’ve even found students contributing to the design of a course, because they’re introducing others in the community to articles and resources they think are relevant.”
Kieft is clear that “you have to set expectations about when and how often you will respond via the community; students could expect a 24/7 service.” But he also insists that technology saves time overall. He mentions the "talk to type" function in Google Docs, which is “a real timesaver” when marking.
“The challenge we all face,” he concludes, "is resource creation. Relying on dedicated digital learning teams to produce tens of thousands of resources is impossible; we need to empower staff and students to help.”
The gauntlet has been taken up at Heart of Worcestershire College, which itself won an award in 2014 for introducing a complete blended learning model that delivered online teaching across the whole of its curriculum. The college is now spearheading a consortium of more than 80 FE colleges, with the aim of transforming the production of learning resources.
Hear Peter Kilcoyne discuss their effective use of technology in FE, which won the college an AoC Beacon Award.
When the consortium was set up in 2015, explains Peter Kilcoyne, information technologies manager, the idea was that
“rather than all working in siloes, colleges should share developments that would benefit everybody”.
Each college pays £5,000 a year to join, which is recouped not only in resource provision but also in-house training and software discounts. “Rather than lecturers having to find free resources or spend ages making them individually,” says Kilcoyne, “they get very high quality resources specifically written by people teaching those courses.”
“This is not just about pdfs,” he continues.
“We develop interactive learning objects with assessments built in, so that the scores go into virtual learning environments where lecturers in college can monitor students’ understanding of what they’ve done.”
The consortium is all about joined-up thinking: linking teaching and assessment within college; connecting up with other colleges.
To date, Kilcoyne estimates the consortium has developed over 1,000 hours of learning resources – “more than any college could have developed on their own” – and during this first full year of usage, the impact is immediate.
Feedback from students is outstanding, and there is interest in setting up sister consortiums with colleges in the US and South Africa.
“Post-Brexit, reaching out to other countries is part of what we do,” Kilcoyne says, and he is keen to emphasise the potential of international co-operation to broaden students’ outlooks and improve their employability.
Moodle and Mahara
Employability is the big added bonus of making students tech savvy, as they have discovered at Forth Valley College, where development support officer Rob McDermott celebrates open-source eportfolio platform Mahara.
It was first introduced to support creative learning and assessment: “video and vodcasting is a big thing for us,” says McDermott.
“Students capture evidence related to course learning themselves, upload it to our multimedia server and submit it using Mahara.” The portfolio offers a simple way to track what they’ve done, record the techniques they’ve used and get feedback via Moodle.
That’s because Moodle talks to Mahara, and is the baseline for everything Forth Valley does. McDermott is a strong advocate of bring your own device and remote software, but he has also found that Moodle remains “very effective”.
It took two years, he estimates, for staff to feel comfortable using it and for the platform to stabilise after installations and updates, but they’ve reached the point now where
“staff are starting to play and think about using it creatively. It started as a repository, but now we’re starting to think how can we use it more proactively for teaching.”
What they’re striving for, McDermott explains, is “seamless integration: everything going through one or two portals, capturing lots of data that works not only with teaching but also support departments.”
Technology, he contends, is a “whole college” approach:
“teaching, learning, technology – we don’t separate them out, they are together and what we do.”
Join the discussion at Digifest 2017
Our talk, FE technology-enhanced learning: creating a digital environment that enables effective teaching and learning, takes place on day one of Digifest at 11:00. If you're not attending in person, we'll be livestreaming this session as part of our online programme.
You can also catch Forth Valley College's Rob McDermott in our workshop: learner engagement - how can you overcome the challenges and develop opportunities to create a creative curriculum, which takes place in the afternoon of day one.
Full details of the debate, and all this year's sessions, can be found in the Digifest 2017 programme. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #digifest17.
- 1 Read about Simpsons character, Edna Krabappel, on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edna_Krabappel