These are unprecedented times. As we continue to deal with the extraordinary side-effects of the global coronavirus outbreak, normal life has been effectively suspended and educators are firmly on the front line of a national effort to keep students learning.
One positive is that the FE sector is particularly well prepared to deliver remote learning. Most colleges already have a functioning virtual learning environment, with technology supporting not just blended course delivery but lengthy periods of independent study while students are undertaking work placements.
Remote learning is already a strength of the FE sector, but a new degree of flexibility is now needed. Students are likely to have new pressures affecting their studies: schools being closed, for example, means that students with children will have to juggle providing home learning with their own studies. Many more will have work pressures to contend with, as jobs shift and change around the crisis. And this means it will be crucial to ensure that students can learn whenever, and however they’re able.
In order to succeed, colleges will have to harness the power of technology and make better use of the diverse communications channels embedded into remote learning. They will also need to prioritise a student centred approach to course delivery, which recognises the fact that every student will be comfortable communicating and working in their own way. We know that many colleges routinely use video conferencing, instant chat, interactive whiteboards and ‘in assignment’ feedback - and staff should be taking advantage of all of these tools, selecting what works best for them and for their students.
Peer feedback will also be important, and students are more likely to succeed if they can still benefit from the ‘community’ aspect of learning. Lecturers who use online learning systems are able to power group working, or allow students to feedback and comment on assignments or projects - and it will be important to learn from those institutions currently doing this well.
A second challenge will be in continuing to deliver skills-based learning. The practical element of many FE courses will be difficult to deliver online - without specialist equipment or face-to-face tuition. But it’s not impossible to deliver skills-focused education remotely. Again, it will be up to institutions to harness the diversity of online learning mechanisms - making use of technology like virtual reality and augmented reality in some instances to ensure that learning continues.
Finally, it’s important that early intervention doesn’t suffer because students are not in the lecture theatre. Spotting when a student is disengaged with course material or is struggling to achieve a good standard is now more important than ever. Online assessment tools embedded into systems like Canvas enable staff to spot issues early and act on them.
This is clearly a challenging time for all institutions, but it also represents a huge opportunity. We can now truly begin to experience the benefits of online learning, not just in terms of fuelling academic achievement but in fostering the collaboration, communication and teamwork that keeps students engaged and motivated. Ultimately, while we are all keen to return to normal life, this period of uncertainty is likely to power a new era of more flexible and adaptable learning for the long term.
Sam Blyth, Senior Director at Instructure