The last 12 months have been a period of supreme challenge. We have seen enormous disruption across society, and further education colleges have certainly not been immune from this disruption.
At the outset of the pandemic, colleges responded with speed and agility to move their provision online. Even when it has been practically challenging, colleges have thought innovatively and creatively about how they could best ensure continuity in learning for their students. In some cases, this transition revealed unexpected insights about how learning can be adapted to respond to diverse preferences and broader trends. But a fundamental question remains about the lasting impact of the previous 12 months: has the pandemic changed the sectors approach to digital learning and innovation forever?
Adapting the education landscape
Before the pandemic, the Augar Review outlined the case for change in the post-18 education system. One of the key themes of the review was about adapting the education landscape to increase the provision of flexible and modular learning options. Perhaps the last year has shown that an increasingly digitised offer from colleges could lead to new kinds of delivery models that engage adults in shorter, more flexible provision. We know, for example, that the overall number of adult learners, especially those who study part-time, has decreased in recent years. A more flexible delivery model could be vital in fostering a broader and deeper culture of professional development and lifelong learning.
Challenges and opportunities
Colleges also found that the move to digitalisation had other benefits. Colleges with multiple campuses found using online solutions has helped them cut down on time spent travelling for meetings and has freed people up to focus more on student services and support functions.
But of course, the events of the last year and the lockdown process more generally has entailed considerable challenges for colleges and the wider student community. In some cases, the transition to online learning led to a decline in student engagement; this decline can partly be attributed to the practical challenges that some students had in accessing internet-enabled devices and the broader issues around digital poverty. To help students engage more with their classes, colleges initiated a range of measures to boost engagement, including supplying students with laptops, data, and spaces to study safely.
Students studying vocational courses and apprenticeships also faced unique challenges as digital delivery imposed natural limitations for skills acquisition in a practical context. The lockdown also impacted learner's development of general employability skills as work-based learning opportunities reduced substantially.
The crucial role of FE
Ultimately, the impacts of the last year on the student community are likely to persist for some time yet. Young people will need considerable support to make up for lost time within their education and help them navigate an uncertain and challenging labour market. But it is clear that colleges will play a crucial role in helping individuals overcome the obstacles that have arisen over the last year and help society more generally build back better.
Tom Lowe is Director of Membership and External Relations at Collab Group, a membership organisation which represents leading UK colleges and college groups. Tom is part of a team that is passionate about working with colleges who are at the forefront of developing specialist training for these new skills required in the sector.