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Navigating the digital transition and its implications for the future of FE

We recently hosted a virtual briefing with partners the Collab Group to discuss the lessons Further Education colleges learnt during lockdown and how they are adapting to ensure their students continue to get the best possible learning experience.

The two leading discussion points were how colleges have changed their approach to technology and managed the digital transition, and how educators and managers are helping students to cope with the dramatic changes and heightened threats of an increasingly online study environment.

Tom Lowe, Director of Membership and External Relations at Collab Group, got the ball rolling, welcoming the panel comprising FE leaders and safeguarding experts and acknowledging the massive challenges the sector faces, with so many college functions now having been digitised.

On issues such as digital poverty, wellbeing, increased mental health problems, and safeguarding during lockdown, Tom said, “Ultimately, colleges have had to think innovatively about how they continue to support students through this challenging time.”

Firm foundation

James Morton-Thomas, head of Talent and Development at the Chichester College Group, the largest provider of Further Education in Sussex, said it was important that they had a firm foundation on which to lean when the virus and lockdown struck.

“We have a robust professional development system that supports all staff, from induction, through their ongoing professional development. And this is supported by 24 professional learning coaches on hand, with three hours’ remission on their teaching hours to provide support in every curriculum area.”

Culture of learning

James said every Friday they run quality forums. “That's an hour session every Friday, where we share innovations, share current practice, and those sessions are always attended by a CEO, college principles, deputy principals and professional learning coaches.

“So, we had a real culture in place of wanting to learn, and wanting to innovate.”

Staff feel confident taking risks when trying out new technologies and methods, vital during the pandemic when you consider teachers and students faced immediate changes to the way they had to teach and learn.

James Morton-Thomas

Support for staff

Chichester has settled on Microsoft Teams as its learning platform. “We have the autonomy to deliver synchronous lessons (real-time lessons) in line with the timetables, and asynchronous delivery (pre-recorded lectures and course material).”

For James, support for staff is vital for the continued growth of the group, which has 1,500 employees and works with about 20,000 students.

He also emphasises the importance of capitalising on the opportunities presented by the past year, for example, in reviewing curriculum induction processes so that new members of staff are digitally ready and supported from the outset.

In conclusion, he said the group is now confident it has the model in place, and the staff and expertise, to transition seamlessly between different models of teaching.

Digital strategy

Jon Cole, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Morley College, says this position was created after a merger with Kensington and Chelsea College. He was appointed to develop a digital strategy for the newly merged college, which influenced its response to the pandemic.

“We all remember the rapid changes we had to make as the first lockdown was announced, with colleges moving their operations online almost overnight,” he said.

While Morley was well placed to handle applications and enrolments, more challenging was the delivery of online learning. “At this point, we did not deliver any significant synchronous online learning, although we made use of Moodle (e-learning platform) for asynchronous learning in support of in-centre learning.”

Increased engagement

They also had limited supplies of mobile devices, so there was a real concern about digital exclusion. They too settled on Microsoft Teams, and also supported use of Google Classroom.

Where Morley couldn’t convert practical courses online, they saw a significant reduction in enrolment in the past year, particularly on unaccredited short courses. However, where learning was delivered online, there was an increase in engagement, with attendance levels at new highs. Retention has, however continued to be lower, particularly on short courses. Jon believes this is directly related to people now working from home, which means they are not opting to enrol on evening courses in-centre.

Jon emphasised the importance of clear communication, as decisions with major consequences had to be made rapidly during the pandemic. “We made use of our new staff engagement platform and the usual channels for our students.” Big investments were made in providing digital endpoints for staff and students.

Looking to the future, they plan to release an accelerated digital strategy in September and focus on tackling digital poverty and exclusion. The flexibility that online learning provides is a key part of their strategy and future offerings.

Jon Cole

Traditional experience

Jon was asked what Morley College planned to do regarding courses which are only really suited to a face-to-face model of learning?

“This process is not about replacing the traditional Morley experience. The college is about learners coming into our centres, about the whole social element, experiencing what it's like to be around other students.”

Jon said while students were desperate to get back into the centres, Morley now had increased flexibility, and was also able to offer online learning options and capacity.

Wellbeing of students

Victoria Copp-Crawley, the principal of Ashford College, part of leading EKC Group of colleges in East Kent, described the pandemic and lockdown as presenting a huge learning curve. She pointed out that communities they serve have a high number of vulnerable students, with a high level of need. As such, there had been a major focus on wellbeing of their 12,000 students and 1,600 employees throughout the pandemic.

Planning had been crucial, she said, with digital delivery central to learning and so much uncertainty about future lockdowns and the course the virus would take.

“We had an approach where we wanted to pivot our delivery. So our on-site delivery mirrored our off-site delivery, and we could pivot at any time.” 

They also settled on Microsoft Teams as their education delivery system, and focused on skills development. “We had a big upskilling for our staff and students with Microsoft Teams.” Victoria said technology infrastructure was absolutely key in this situation, making sure all students and staff had a device so they could learn from home.

Live teaching and learning

“We wanted an approach where all our delivery was live at all times. We didn’t want to video record lessons.”

She emphasised some musts for future digital delivery: digital tool kits for all students to be able to enter digital work and life; and industry-specific digital skills, for additional industry networking and effective e-resources to complement learning.

Victoria acknowledged that many students had struggled with mental health, particularly in the period January to March 2021. Through mentors and tracking attendance, the college could reach out to struggling students and offer support. Their newly-launched EKC DigitalLearn business unit will support students with online learning, particularly those who do not want to come into college and lack in confidence. 

Victoria Copp-Crawley

Monitoring struggling students

Rob Clark, Customer Account and Sales Director at Education Software Solutions, asked Victoria how successful Ashford College had been in connecting with students who had disengaged from online learning?

“We have a very strong, robust support system. Our progression mentors were pivotal, they have a fantastic relationship with students,” said Victoria. “And we have a very good reporting system.”

Safeguarding online, tracking and monitoring of students, and the cross-tracking of attendance, were crucial.

Secure Safeguarding

Natasha Lawrence is the Safeguarding Manager at One Team Logic, which provides safeguarding solutions, products, services and support, including the Queen’s Award-winning MyConcern software. 

Natasha explained most referrals they receive about children and young people come through their teachers and staff at their school or college. So, this is essentially their safe place to display and raise concerns. But reporting had dipped significantly during the lockdowns, as the connections with trusted friends, staff members and councillors were unavailable.

Safeguarding practitioners, too, struggled without face-to-face contact.

Natasha encouraged practitioners to return to basics, to go back and assess earlier cases. Safeguarding training was reiterated, to identify and report the signs and symptoms as before. When colleges returned it was vital to work at re-establishing the trust and connections that allowed reporting to take place.

Chief concerns

Some of the chief concerns were the isolation of students, increased exposure to domestic violence and proximity to perpetrators. According to data taken from one of the colleges One Team Logic works with, looking at the last year, the top six categories of concern were:

1. Emotional health 34%

2. Mental health 32%

3. Anxiety 19%

4. Depression 7%

5. Bereavement 6%

6. Online abuse 2%

Natasha said, among other interventions, colleges had responded by placing more emphasis on mental health training, taking a college-wide approach to mental health and setting up online support groups.

Natasha Lawrence

Promoting welfare

Natasha was asked, in light of reports of sexual abuse in the news, what more could be done to promote welfare in colleges.

“The important thing in going back and reviewing the safeguarding framework is to look at the responses to the allegations. How staff members responded to long-term allegations.

“It’s also really important to look at the voice of the students. What are they saying? Young people are calling for adults and institutions to accept that people's lives are more heavily influenced by sex than ever before. They acknowledge media exposure as an influencing factor. Where they've been victim of sexually aggressive behaviour or they've witnessed it, they would like more support for their mental well-being in the form of counsellors in schools and colleges.”

Digital journey

In wrapping up, Rob Clark thanked the participants and said, “It’s wonderful to hear so many positives against the background of this challenging year. I would challenge anybody on this webinar, in the sector, to argue against the fact that the sector will emerge much stronger.” 

We would like to thank James, Victoria, Natasha and Jon for joining us to discuss their experiences over the past 12 months, and our co-hosts, Collab Group, for their help in organising the virtual briefing. Collab Group colleges are shaping the future of FE provision, and UNIT-e is proud to be part of this discussion as an exclusive partner for further education technology.

If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording on-demand.