Rob Clark

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Lifting the lid on the impact of Covid-19 on further education

Colleges had to react quickly to ensure learning could continue remotely when the gates closed to most students during the multiple lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But what long-term impact will the emergency pivot to online learning have on the FE sector in the months and years ahead?

We recently co-hosted a virtual briefing with Collab Group on learning the lessons from lockdown. What was clear from listening to the panel was the crucial role digital innovation played in supporting both staff and students. This is echoed in our new white paper, which reveals how Covid-19 has accelerated the digital journey of the sector.

With contributions from senior leaders in six FE institutions and college groups, Delivering digital transformation and innovation in further education provides insight into the successful strategies put in place to support students and staff through this period and explores those which will endure long after the current crisis is over.

A new direction

The white paper emphasised a desire to give students more choice in how and where they learn in the coming years.

College leaders recognised that students’ expectations have changed, and they want to provide a more flexible approach to better meet their needs.

This is a shift in direction for many institutions and senior leaders talked about strategies that have been introduced in their colleges to deliver more flexibility for students. At the LTE Group, new blended and fully online learning options are actively being explored to reach more students and encourage wider participation.

“While not a blessing for anybody, Covid has been a springboard that was needed to catapult us forward as a sector,” said Jamie Marshall, the group’s IT director. “When we get back to whatever normal looks like, there will be a greater leaning to blended and more flexible learning.”

The essential student experience

The pandemic has magnified the importance of the student experience and the white paper suggests colleges are now more open to investing in new technologies to deliver more interactive learning and enhance college life. Libraries are being transformed into digital learning hubs, providing students with e-books and other online resources 24/7. There is greater automation of college processes too, freeing more time for staff to support students’ wellbeing and progress.

At Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMet), data analytics tools are helping to improve the efficiency of student services and Capital City College Group (CCG) is using similar technology to identify and support students who are at risk of disengaging from their courses.

“There will be a multitude of reasons why students are not logging into online lessons and we need to understand each student’s situation and reach out,” said Jeremy Wells, director of technology and infrastructure at Capital CCG.

A cultural shift

Few colleges had embraced technology such as video conferencing software for meetings prior to the pandemic – despite the familiar challenge of getting staff physically together in the same place at the same time. The white paper suggested this mind-set has changed in many institutions.

Some colleges report that these tools have become the go-to method for organising staff discussions, with senior leaders predicting their use will continue once college life returns to a more familiar routine.

At the NCG college group, video conferencing has reportedly had a democratising effect as everyone on screen has an equal voice.

Belfast Metropolitan College has seen the advantages of using the technology too, as Colin Daysh, head of IT/IS, explains. “With four campuses across Belfast, you can spend half your day travelling but now, things that would have taken weeks you can do straight away.”

Addressing the digital divide

There was broad agreement that more needs to be done to bridge the digital divide between disadvantaged students and their peers if blended learning is to be more widely adopted. And colleges are finding ways to tackle the challenge.

Belfast Metropolitan College is recycling end-of-warranty staff laptops and making them available to means-tested students, for example.

As technology plays a more prominent role in college life post-pandemic, the report demonstrates the importance of ensuring all students get the equipment and support they need from their college to engage and succeed in their learning.

The digital transformation journey

The wholesale shift to online learning during the pandemic has changed further education for good. As the sector moves to the next stage in its journey towards a technology-enabled future, read the white paper in its entirety here.

Rob Clark has worked in further and higher education software for over 20 years, starting his career in systems support at the University of Oxford before joining Education Software Solutions (ESS). As customer and account director for UNIT-e at ESS, he works with FE colleges and training providers across the UK.

This blog is by Rob Clark of Education Software Solutions (ESS). To learn more about ESS, click here.

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