Digital Learning Fellowship Dissemination Review by Guest, Paul Warren
In these days of social media, conference-calling and virtual transactions, it’s my experience that it’s not always the case that the energy which radiates from online relationships translates in quite the same way to the real world. With this in mind, it was lovely to discover at a recent event that the positive energy which I’d been so impressed with as a result of my online relationship with PROCAT Prospects College of Advanced Technology translated exactly in the real world. The event was PROCAT’s Digital Learning Fellowship Dissemination, which was held to promote the excellent work being done at the College to promote the use of technology to enhance Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Steered at the helm by PROCAT’s Director of Learning, the contagiously positive and enthusiastic Katharine Jewitt, the event cleverly fused the experiences of dedicated in-house practitioners with pearls of wisdom from recognised experts in the field of Learning Technology.
The event got off to a very encouraging start by way of introduction from PROCAT’s Principal and Chief Executive, Neil Bates. Neil contrasted a vintage picture of a former colleague who was renowned for his excellent teaching skills with: Tim Peake’s imminent outer-space maintenance task; a BIS report and the need for raising the profile of the need for digital skills as examples of the current focus on the importance of technology. The point put forward for us to ponder is that the combination of seasoned experience, sound subject knowledge and new technology can result in a fruitful marriage of good practice. We were then introduced to Dan Payne, one of PROCAT’s Digital Learning Ambassadors. We learned from Dan about how the innovative Digital Learning Ambassador role was making positive inroads into College practice through contributing to the student voice, conducting learning walks in which they provide advice on using digital technology and engaging in weekly challenges related to learning technology. More information on their work can be found at their website or on Twitter @DigiAmbassadors.
Showcasing PROCAT’s use of digital technology to engage with employers, Helen Russell and Alex Smith from Business Development demonstrated WebShop – an online tool that supports dialogue with employers about their training needs and which also provides clarity and transparency for costs attributed to that training. The WebShop is available to all staff who are benefitted by having access to the College’s entire training offer. The WebShop also facilitates a holistic discussion with employers by suggesting related information which is linked to employer skills searches. Crucially, WebShop also provides employers with details of any cost associated with the training, performs benefit analysis as well as details of any Government funding which may be available. I thought this tool was a fascinating – and very forward-thinking – strategy for using technology to engage with the job market, which after all is the primary focus of the majority of learners who enter Further Education. Stewart Lindsay then related how PROCAT make creative use of the e-portfolio OneFile to digitally gather evidence of work – thereby negating the need to dispense with the need to have large amounts of paper to collate and display evidence of student work. Stewart cited a that a particularly useful feature of OneFile is its ability to function in ‘Offline’ mode, thereby enabling students to take pictures of their work on-site, even when there is weak or non-existent access to the Internet. A further benefit is that OneFile links with the College Central Information Systems, the VLE as well as, assessment systems such as BKSB, providing a paperless experience across a variety of key sections of evidence and reporting requirements.
A real highlight for me was Neil Warren’s fascinating discussion of the changes which PROCAT have made to create an effective infrastructure to support and widen equality of digital access by way of a flexible and robust Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. The implementation of the project was so successful that measurement statistics showed that in excess of 1 million web-pages had been accessed in just a single day via the wireless network. I’m particularly interested in Further Education’s response to the learner requirement to have an organisational wifi connection that lets them use their own device and was pleased to hear about this example of best practice. Neil related that the upgrade was not a low-cost option and did not come cheap. Neither was security compromised as the BYOD network operates separately from the College’s mainframe network so that the effect is the same as if users where “outside the building.” In order to provide learners with a “real-world” digital experience, filtering for online activity such as social media usage and digital tools is kept to a minimum. Only illegal sites are banned and Neil was happy to report that as a result of this online usage policy – which is linked to guidelines from the AoC – only one student has been banned since September. For my money, a flexible, (yet secure) BYOD policy is one of the key drivers to sustained digital engagement for learners – one which has a particular advantage for learners who may wish to bring their own devices due to inclusion, equality and diversity requirements such as a learning difficulty or disability.
David Russell from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) helped us to refocus our brains by getting us out of our seats and relate an interesting point of learning from the morning’s programme. Framing long periods of seated engagement coupled with physical inactivity, David related that the “brain can only absorb what the bum can endure!” Getting out of my seat gave us the opportunity to share key thoughts and meet new people, who in my case was the highly personable Mr Howard Scott who I’d previously only followed on Twitter, but who’s most engaging personality kept me both entertained and informed during the session breaks for the majority of the day! Once reconvened, David related the role of the ETF for supporting professional development – particularly for digital ‘future learning’ – which he recognised that many of our colleagues in our FE sector cite as high on their agendas for improving their skill set.
Catherine Bone highlighted the research done by her colleagues at Jisc to investigate learner expectation of digital learning environments. This was a highly intriguing insight into how learners are getting involved in steering their own digital learning by expressing their ‘digital voice’ to drive the future of teaching and learning in the Further Education sector. More information can be found on Jisc’s website. Bradley Lightbody from Collegenet.co.uk provided us with an excellent overview of the digital learning by highlighting the key principles of a flipped learning approach. Bradley described the benefits of engaging students remotely through media such as YouTube videos prior to the classroom session in order to allow the teacher more time to expand key themes and deal with individual learner needs or requirements. I particularly enjoyed Bradley’s take on a modern day digital Scheme of Work for curriculum and lesson planning, organisation and dissemination. Catherine and Bradley then joined Katharine for a panel Q&A to conclude the morning session.
After a wonderfully catered lunch and some highly productive networking time, the afternoon session began with a bang in the form of the inimitable Bob Harrison. Bob needs no introduction in the FE and Skills Digital Learning Community by virtue of his tireless work in promoting the FELTAG Recommendations and the seemingly endless generosity of spirit he displays to anyone wishing to avail themselves of his help. Bob provided us with a brief history of events that led to the the creation of the current Further Education system, an overview of where we are and a view to future developments – wonderfully illustrated by using the experiences of his own grandchildren. A stark warning was also provided: learn from the fate of organisations that have failed to incorporate technology because practitioners who embrace the spirit of digital learning will not only survive, they will also thrive!
I was then greatly motivated by examples of how PROCAT staff incorporated digital learning into their everyday practice to support Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Alan Claughan described how his Padlet in their OneWorld initiative – PROCAT’s Equality and Diversity programme. Alan described how the use of a range of multi-media materials were used to engage learners in a variety of ways by providing bulletins, discussion topics and communications to both staff and students. Jill Terry then extended the discussion to describe how Padlet had been expertly fused with film to further engage learners in their studies. Jill related the example of how filmed stages of a property sale were used to collaboratively engage learners in a room by room ‘renovation’. My final session of the day before I had to unfortunately leave early was also a highlight: Construction department staff Peter Frarey and Bill Guiver showcasing how they’d used animation to engage students with learning why hatching sand abbreviations are used on construction plans. You can watch the video here.
All in all, a highly informative programme which I found thoroughly enjoyable and frequently entertaining. I have been left with lots of reflective challenges and implementation ideas from this excellent event. I left thinking how great it is to see FE events run by FE staff for other FE practitioners in a real-world FE environment. Events like this carry a truly authentic and unique air – the College was running normally so it was a joy to see the learners going about their business everywhere we went. Thanks to PROCAT, Neil and Katharine for a great day and I look forward to seeing you all at your Building Digital Capabilities event on 22 February 2016.
By Paul Warren
About Paul Warren:
Paul has worked in Further Education as a learning support assistant since 2004. He has a passion for teaching and learning, with a particular interest in using a digital learning approach to promote inclusive learning. Paul has Cerebral Palsy and Aspergers and has a particular interest in the effective use of digital technology for learning.
Follow Paul on Twitter here and on You Tube here.