Invest now in digital technology to support FE colleges and learners

09 Sep 2020

New research into the impact on the further education (FE) sector of the recently enforced shift to remote learning has highlighted key problem areas for staff and learners that need urgent attention and investment. 

Firstly, there are big differences in colleges’ capability and approach to delivering education online, with no standardised approach, a lack of digital resources and a pressing need to improve staff digital skills. Secondly, disadvantaged learners who have limited access to devices and adequate broadband connections are struggling disproportionately and need more support.

The first report of a research project led by Jisc, in partnership with the Association of Colleges (AoC), is published today. It brings together findings from a series of webinars and roundtables held this summer with teachers, learners, edtech experts, sector bodies and college leaders.

The project, called shaping the digital future of FE and skills, aims firstly to establish a consensus on what “good” looks like for learners and staff working remotely and to share that knowledge ahead of the autumn term, and secondly to realise the potential of technology to benefit the FE and skills sector now and into the future.

Jisc’s managing director of FE and skills, Robin Ghurbhurun, says:

“A few colleges have years of online teaching experience using a wide range of technology, but this is not the norm. Most are not digitally-advanced organisations, but rose to the pandemic challenge as best they could by switching lessons to platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but this is not a sustainable model.

Lockdown has also exacerbated the digital divide and disadvantage learners are suffering. Some colleges have been posting laptops to learners who don’t have one, but even if there is a device at home, it might be shared among the whole family. We are also hearing that families on lower incomes struggle to afford decent broadband packages.

There are other challenges, too. For example, there is a lack of affordable and accessible digital resources and assessment tools, which means that courses such as engineering, construction, or hospitality and catering are impossible to deliver entirely online.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Staff have made enormous efforts under challenging conditions to support learners over the past few months and I’ve been impressed with their flexibility and commitment.The sector has the ambition and willingness to respond positively to this new digital-first impetus, and I hope that it can come together to further improve and develop digital confidence and delivery.”

AoC’s director of education and skills policy, David Corke, says:

“Through shaping the digital future of FE and skills, we want to create a digital-first sector where learners from all backgrounds can thrive, where staff feel supported, and where colleges are pulling together and providing the best possible digitally enhanced education experience.

Despite the incredible and widely acknowledged effort of all the sector, the risk now is that, as blended learning becomes embedded into curricula, those without access will fall further behind, the disadvantage gap will widen further, and rapidly, if the government does not support and fund a ‘digital first’ FE sector.

Colleges' response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the vocational learning and training sector will shape the future of education. Now is the time to think long-term about re-structuring, innovation and new technology for post-16 education.”

You can download the full report (pdf) here.

Recommendations from the report

The wide-ranging report makes a series of recommendations, which also cover wellbeing for staff and learners, digital skills support for staff and an overhaul for the outdated assessment process.

Among the recommendations are:

  • Government to fund a centralised FE and skills digital content search and discovery platform and fund the creation of content for the platform
  • Government to provide access to funding for digital devices and connectivity so no learner is disadvantaged
  • Government to adapt assessment methodology to fit digital pedagogy
  • Jisc to bring together key stakeholders, including employers and awarding organisations, and benchmark assessment changes against the Future of Assessment report’s five principles
  • Jisc to work with NUS to provide more guidance on how to minimise learners’ specific anxieties around online learning
  • Colleges to embed online wellbeing alongside safeguarding as part of their learner induction
  • Colleges to develop a comprehensive digital pedagogy CPD programme for staff
  • Colleges to put supportive measures in place to monitor staff workload
  • Colleges to develop a framework for learning delivery across the UK (drawing on Welsh government’s strategic framework for learning delivery, COVID-19 resilience plan for the post-16 sector)
  • Colleges to survey learners prior to enrolment about access to digital devices, connectivity, resources and suitable learning space

The project will deliver a further report later in 2020 outlining a roadmap for digital transformation across the sector and will continue its work towards that aim for the next three years.