According to The EdTech Report 2019/2020, it was predicted that by 2021 the UK EdTech sector would reach £3.4 billion. Despite this, findings show that more needs to be done to ensure UK schools and colleges are getting enough access to educational technology. In Northern Ireland, 3 in 4 teachers admitted that the children they teach don't have enough access to educational technology, with teachers in North East, West Midlands, Greater London, North West, and Wales agreeing.
Pre-Covid, the government marked a £10 million EdTech strategy to cut teacher workload, support professional development and improve student outcomes, but what has changed since then?
On Wednesday 14th March 2021, Tribal empowered seven colleges and two guest contributors to speak openly about how the FE sector is looking to adopt new technology solutions and see this as a driver for their broader ambitions.
Navigating lockdown and access to technology
A starting point at the roundtable discussed the colleges' strategies when Covid hit with regards to navigating online teaching while ensuring students had access to remote learning. One principal of a large college in the North of England, based in one of the most deprived towns facing a huge challenge with equality in education celebrated the use of Google Classroom and found that at the beginning of lockdown, attitudes towards remote learning were extremely positive, with their first month showing a 27,000% increase in Google Classroom logins. The college has also featured in two case studies for the Department of Education due to their success of remote learning.
Their Principal commented
"We are adamant remote working will continue. I believe the success has been down to the students having such a good relationship with their teachers before the lockdown. When colleges reopened in September, we were very keen for students to come back into the college, particularly for the new students, to build their relationships. We structured the week by having half of the students attend Monday-Wednesday mornings and the other half attending Wednesday-Friday afternoons, ensuring all students attended college at some point each week and followed their remote timetable when they were not in college. Many students have admitted to enjoying their remote learning due to the platform allowing them to work in groups, something that wasn't initially offered in college due to all students sitting in rows, facing the teacher at the front. From this, we have now planned the student's workload around the syllabus and ensure when the students are in college, they can work in groups alongside their teacher".
Discussions soon led to understanding how colleges ensured their students had access to technology. Several colleges shared that they are working towards ensuring every student and teacher has a laptop. One college commented that statistics show that 75% of their students fall in the underprivileged category, and so the college gave 2300 16–18-year-old students laptops, computers, or iPads. It was apparent that many colleges struggled with students' access to data, which resulted in handing out Wi-Fi dongles, but this strategy became very difficult to manage.
One principal from a HE institution based in London commented:
"Results from the surveys we have conducted shows that our learners are very appreciative of the efforts made by staff. Noticeably, satisfaction pre and post-lockdown show that students prefer to be in college due to the delivery not being the same remotely, despite best efforts. The college decided from a safeguarding perspective that cameras were not to be turned on during remote learning to avoid any comments relating to students' clothing or their homes. Although the teaching and learning and breakouts were working well, students felt actual physical interaction was missing, as well as missing the neutrality of a college room and the focus it offers".
Statistics suggest that the student population may well be the UK's most distracted demographic group, with the strongest bond to their mobile phones of all age groups. A report by Deloitte states almost a fifth of 18–24-year-olds look at their phone immediately after waking – and not just to turn off an alarm, while nearly a third check it within five minutes of waking.
It was widely agreed that many colleges found their students preferred to work from their mobile phones, even after being given access to a laptop or iPad. A college based in the South East that also deals with students from a traditionally deprived area contributed:
“We’re located in a deprivation area; therefore, we ensured students could have access to a laptop via the college; however, we struggled to get students to want to pick laptops up. Many students said they didn't want to go on public transport to collect them. During our Ofsted inspection, inspectors saw learners working on their phones when they didn't need to, but they preferred to. I think it's generational; students are used to working on their phones".
To combat this, a couple of colleges went one step further to ensure their students had access to laptops or iPad, plus Wi-Fi dongles, by arranging a courier to deliver to individual home addresses or, even further, hand-delivering IT equipment and specific course equipment.
One Head of MIS, ICT, and Data Services, added:
"During the first lockdown, the college only handed out 350 devices as students felt there wasn't a need for them as initially, we all thought it would only be for a few weeks. As time went on, there was a significant call for access to technology, and so we utilised many different members of staff by delivering IT equipment and hair and beauty equipment to allow learners to practice, to home addresses".
Looking to the future and the quality of teaching
There was a call for coherence in the digital platforms teachers and learners are now expected to use, and the learning plans, mark books, and ILP's needing to be integrated. A college in the Midlands shared:
"The challenge we have right now is understanding how we get back to delivering good teaching and learning and how we measure this when teaching is done remotely. Beforehand, our teachers could walk around a classroom and monitor students easily. Regarding our online assessments, we initially used Moodle and put our trust in the students to complete them virtually. We now use Digiexam, a platform that helps create, distribute, grade, and publish high-stakes exams and academic tests; although it is very good, it is also costly. We are anticipating a significant amount of our work will stay online, but we are working to ensure the learning experience is as good as it possibly can be".
Discussions led to principals reviewing how their colleges are measuring the progress of their learners remotely. One college stated they measure learning through the chat function of their platform; however, they also offer a lot of 121 support outside of lessons. Some teachers have been very flexible around scheduled lessons, and rather than delivering an entire 1hr 30-minute session, they teach so much and then offer individual 121 calls around the session. Another college encouraged the use of Quizlet, a creative assessment tool that teachers build.
It was agreed that there needs to be a lot more research on how to learn online for different types of learners. There was a call for further support for apprentices, specifically around what has happened to them during lockdown. Some apprentices that have been furloughed have managed to complete their 20% off-the-job training remotely, however, apprentices in health and care have struggled to study at all due to their time being taken up by physically caring during the pandemic.
Student isolation and supporting wellbeing
There was a consensus that all colleges have seen a huge rise in mental health issues, and remote learning has led to students feeling isolated and unable to speak to others. It was encouraged that colleges need to offer a learning experience, a platform that provides collaborative learning and ensuring there is a social dynamic to learning.
One college acknowledged the rapid mental health rise and has set up numerous online platforms such as a chatty café and a music room. The college offers student development days whereby students are put into smaller groups to encourage interaction. The college also invited a footballer that has publicly experienced mental health issues to talk and had over 1000 students attend virtually. Although the college has invested in a lot to support their students, they recognise there is still a long way to go.
In summary, Tribal is committed to continuing to listen to institutions and understanding the key challenges and opportunities they're facing to inform our direction. Tribal will be running a series of discussions to continue the conversation amongst the college community.