Big disparities in colleges’ ability to deliver online education, Jisc and AoC research suggests

Serious investments in digital devices and solutions are needed to support the UK’s FE sector post-pandemic

New research published yesterday has highlighted huge disparities in colleges’ ability to deliver remote education following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conducted by Jisc in partnership with the Association of Colleges (AoC), the research has identified key problem areas for students and staff which require urgent investment, shining a light on the lack of a standardised approach to online education delivery, as well as a lack of digital resources and a pressing need to bolster staffs’ digital skills.

On top of this, the study revealed that disadvantaged learners with limited access to devices and a reliable internet connection are disproportionately struggling compared to their peers.

The report is based on findings from a range of webinars and roundtables with teachers, learners, edtech professionals, sector bodies and college leaders, carried out by Jisc and the AoC this summer.

The project, titled Shaping the digital future of FE and skillsseeks to establish best practice standards and a knowledge sharing network for remote teaching and learning, as well as to recognise the potential of technology to benefit the FE and skills sector long-term.

“A few colleges have years of online teaching experience using a wide range of technology, but this is not the norm,” said Jisc’s MD of FE and skills, Robin Ghurbhurun. “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 disadvantaged 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.”

The AoC’s director of education and skills policy, David Corke, commented: “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.”

The report lays out a series of recommendations, which also cover wellbeing for staff and learners, digital skills support for staff and an assessment overhaul.

The recommendations include:

  • Gov to fund a centralised FE and digital skills content search and discovery platform and fund the creation of content for the platform
  • Gov to provide access to funding for digital devices and connectivity so no learner is disadvantaged
  • Gov to adapt assessment methodology to suit 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 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 produce 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
  • Colleges to survey learners prior to enrolment about access to digital devices, connectivity, resources and suitable learning space

The project will deliver another report later in 2020, setting out a roadmap for digital transformation across the sector.

You might also like: Jisc’s new initiative to ‘determine a tangible route map for the future’ of HE


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