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How to improve remote learning in further education

28 July 2020

Written by Kev Gillard, Managing Director, Education Training Consultancy

How is the pandemic affecting our education system?

Three months ago, with no work in sight, I sat wondering what the hardest part of the lockdown would be? Home schooling, squabbling children or skirmishing with the wife!

My kid’s lessons showed me how schools were responding to deliver remote teaching and learning and it set me wondering. How was the sector that has been my life for the last 30 years dealing with the pandemic? As a senior leader in the sector and now an independent consultant I knew I had a range of contacts, the time, curiosity and motivation to explore the question and to give something back.

My idea was quite simple. What have you done and over what timescale, what tools have you used and how can you demonstrate the difference it’s made for students? The findings are quite extraordinary because of the speed at which change was created, innovation applied and flexibility shown.

How have the government and educational sector responded to the lockdown?

Most organisations sent students and staff home on or around the 18th of March in response to government guidelines. Key workers students and the most vulnerable were still catered for. Colleges then very quickly pivoted into planning and communicating expectations in relation to online delivery, achieving this through daily and weekly briefings for staff, in the creation of virtual campuses and offering the tools to deliver remote learning.

For some it was closure on Friday and opening remotely on the following Monday delivering all aspects of college life from admissions and enrolment to virtual tours and one to one interviews. It was so much more than just teaching and learning but that is the stuff of another blog.

Focusing on disadvantaged students during lockdown

The focus was immediately on the disadvantaged students, not just those in ‘digital poverty’. Even before the government bursary scheme for equipment was available colleges had bought laptops and dongles and circulated them to their students. In some cases they did this for their staff as well.

IT departments went into overdrive supporting staff and students, providing training and overcoming technological issues. Best Ideas to Share (B.I.T.S thanks Kirk for that one, I love a good acronym!) were shared. In those colleges with Digital Technology managers and E-Learning leads they immediately started training for staff to use Teams and Zoom along with other delivery tools. Those colleges with a history of scheduled digital delivery had an advantage in terms of both staff and students.

How has the curriculum changed?

Managers redesigned curriculum, recognising that theory delivery is simpler than practical teaching to deliver remotely. Learner types and levels affected engagement particularly for adults, ESOL and trades based learning whose engagement was lower. But as well as the issues there was also some remarkable innovation in practical teaching. Hair and Beauty students practised facials and cutting the hair of their families, Catering students cooked set recipes for family and Performing Arts students recorded their work to send to tutors for assessment.

All this was achieved using a range of collaborative tools such as Zoom, Moodle, Microsoft Teams and Virtual Learning Environments. Digital teaching tools such as Century, How2 Teach and Click View (a Netflix for teaching, thanks Kelvin for that one!), Planet C-Stream and the Heart of Worcestershire’s Blended Learning Consortium materials facilitated the preparation of lessons. Digital ILPs and mark books were used to record progress and attainment.

Thousands of hours of delivery were converted in a remarkably short period of time to remote learning. This work will now have to be shaped by continuing to address the variability and engagement of some student groups.

How is digital learning affecting college and its teachers?

Teaching for students who are present in college and attending remotely at the same time is a model adopted by many so that teachers do not need to be in two places at once and multiplying preparation. In the new ‘bubble’ style of group teachers are travelling to students who stay in their classes rather than the other way round.

Remote learning must put attainment and progress are at the heart of judgements about quality. Colleges will have to redefine the shape of quality improvement reviews, assurance arrangements and interventions in the digital context. New standards and expectations will have to be set. Professional development will need to improve and develop our capacity to deliver high-quality digital learning.

How can we keep digital learning safe?

A priority remains to ensure that digital teaching and learning is safe. Clear guidance about the use of cameras and the protocols for staff are imperative. Several organisations are working closely with NAMSS and the AoC to shape their safeguarding protocols and guidance.

We must also be clear about expectations in relation to the recording of assessment and progress, the use of Mark Books and I.L.Ps digital or paper based so that students have a good understanding of the knowledge, skills and behaviours they have acquired.

Tracking progress in a remote learning environment

Getting students to own, use and manage their learning records is essential so that they know about their progress and learning. We must be able to do more than confirm engagement in learning activities by ‘logging on’. Building the capacity of students to set their own targets and use the mark book and learning planning technology to chart their own progress for blended or remote learning is essential.

The absence of published qualification achievement data in the future will increase the importance and priority of target setting both by teachers and learners and student ability to be able to talk about what they need to do to improve and what they have learned and improved during their time at colleges.

Expanding resources for digital learning

We must be able to justify strategically why we are doing online, digital or blended learning, and focus on the purpose and intent for learning activities. To do this it is very likely we will have to expand and accelerate the available resources for teachers and develop their digital expertise along with other staff supporting students.

Costs will be higher because of the need to socially distance, travel to college and deep cleaning. The improvement of digital infrastructures to enable remote learning and additional costs associated with the need for personal protective equipment are all challenges that the government is not prepared to help us with.

Learn more about how the AoC can assist with educational change management.

What remote learning means for the future of our students

We should also remember for many students who have completed their programmes they are marooned between the prospects of a very different higher education, no chance of a gap year and more limited employment opportunities. Making provision for them through transition years bridging into employment or higher education are good options.

The sector has done an excellent job of moving incredibly rapidly to remote forms of learning but also all other aspects of the learner journey, from application through to achievement. Infrastructure has been changed and the difficulties of accommodating engagement levels of different groups of students and practical learning addressed. A great start for the new normal but challenges remain. Conquering the variable levels of learner engagement, meeting costs and supporting those whose future options are limited are some of the challenges as is the transition to college for those who have spent many months out of formal education.

Watch our Home Learning webinar recorded earlier in the year for more support.