Technology in FE: from Covid-19 to digital transformation

  By Collab Group   - Friday 11 September 2020

Uneventful years are all alike, but each eventful year is eventful in its own way. The world we are living in is quite different from what would have been expected at the start of 2020.

Adapting to the new normal

There is no doubt that 2020 will be remembered almost singularly as the year of Covid-19. The novel coronavirus has disrupted virtually all aspects of daily life, and education is certainly no exception. Colleges have been able to respond brilliantly to the disruption. Whether staging virtual open days, moving teaching online or continuing to provide student services and support functions, colleges have been able to adapt to the 'new normal' with incredible speed.

Realising the potential 

As the economy and society begin to slowly open, it's worth asking how some of the insights and learning from this period can be harnessed.

The pandemic has opened a range of possibilities about how colleges can use technology to enhance the experience of learners. The adoption of virtual lessons provided some unexpected benefits; learners who previously might have been unsure to speak up found new confidence in a virtual setting. Learning management systems which had once laid dormant sprang to life with a hive of comments, questions, and answers. Staff in colleges who had hitherto been unconvinced about the efficacy or feasibility of virtual learning were suddenly finding that there are tangible benefits to the interactive potential that technology provides.

But this then all to an uncertain question. To what extent is the relative explosion of technology in FE due to the contingencies of the pandemic, and will things revert to the status quo over the longer term? Ultimately this is difficult to say, but what is certain is that the adoption of new technologies must be adopted and incorporated with learners at heart.

Belfast Metropolitan College, for example, has found great success using technology-enhanced learning (TEL) through its Centre for Supported Learning to enable students with additional learning needs to gain new skills and progress in their education.

Barriers to adoption

But access to the benefits of technology still remains a critical issue. Approximately 16% of learners in FE colleges are entitled to free school meals, and a significant proportion of those learners may not have access to a device. It is a problem that has been recognised by Capital City College Group who have initiated their Laptops4Learners campaign to help disadvantaged students learn online during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Such solutions highlight the creativity of colleges in helping their students and efforts to break down the digital divide. 

But additional barriers to digital enablement remain. For a longer-term transition to take effect, significant resources and investment are undoubtedly needed in upskilling and support for college staff. Investment in digital infrastructure is also key. Historically capital expenditure for colleges has been limited to the physical rather than digital estate. Perhaps the pandemic has sparked a shift, not just about how colleges think about the centrality of digital tools to enhance their mission, but perhaps it may signal a shift in government thinking on the synergies between FE and digital innovation.

Embracing technology-powered learning

The coronavirus pandemic has been a supremely disruptive experience for so much of further education. But by embracing technology and ensuring the benefits can be evenly distributed, a transformation of the world of FE could be realised yet. To do so, technology must foreground the individual at the heart of these efforts.

I am delighted to be co-hosting a joint UNIT-e and Collab Group webinar on 6 October that will be exploring some of the challenges and opportunities for colleges delivering their post-lockdown digital strategy. You can find out more and watch a recording of the webinar here.

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.