Why it's time to rebuild FE for a digital future

The FE sector needs effective digital leadership and investment in infrastructure, says Robin Ghurbhurun
19th October 2020, 12:01am
Robin Ghurbhurun


Why it's time to rebuild FE for a digital future

Edtech: Why It's Time To Rebuild Fe For A Digital Future

While the pandemic has been hugely disruptive and challenging for many, it has given further education and skills providers a long-overdue shot in the arm - the catalyst required to push the sector into a new era of technology-enhanced education.

Now, with a skills White Paper on the horizon and time to reflect on remote and blended learning practice, our sector is ready to evolve and cannot afford to miss the chance to capitalise on that momentum.

Since the day providers were forced to close campuses, those which had been slow to the digifest began to realise not just the potential of technology, but the necessity. These organisations were challenged the most at the beginning of lockdown but have hopefully emerged all the stronger for it.  

News: Jisc launches three-year digital plan for FE and skills

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My hope is that their staff are now equipped with new-found digital skills and confidence in online teaching and learning, and their leaders are elevating investment in digital infrastructure and edtech further up their admittedly long wish lists. Simply put, those who fail to invest in the benefits of long-term digital transformation risk failure.

Digital leadership

Many voices will no doubt point to ongoing financial strain as the reason for the digital lag in FE, and undoubtedly government and industry can do more. After all, they and the economy are the key beneficiaries.

However, despite significant investment in digital infrastructure in decades past, there has been limited impact on outcomes and experience. While there is a funding imperative to build upon the zeitgeist, it's not all about money - it's about leadership, culture and vision. It's about shaping the future and planning for it. Ultimately, it's about preparing all learners and staff, of all ages and from all backgrounds, to thrive in the digital workplace, where technical skills are already in high demand.

Published more than two years ago, the government's industrial strategy placed further education at the vanguard of its push to upskill the nation and boost the UK's economic position. Now, Covid-19 has added weight and urgency to those goals. The pandemic has shown us that, as a nation, our operational effectiveness is limited by our ability to work and study online.

Flexible education for all

Access to any place, any time learning should be a right for all, not just those who were lucky enough before lockdown to have enrolled at one of the few high-quality UK providers that began technology-enhanced learning years ago.

But even at most of these innovator locations, whose learners and staff alike reap the benefits of forward-thinking leaders and the addition to the payroll of edtech experts, good digital practice is still not campus-wide and exists only in pockets. It's time to level the playing field.

What we need is a flexible model, which allows learners to study at a time, place and pace to suit them. This means every learner needs a device, a broadband connection and affordable data to help them learn off campus; access to a virtual learning environment (VLE) where they can find all the digital resources they need; regular online contact and feedback from their tutors, including the ability to take and mark assessments digitally; communication and collaboration with peers over the internet; and reliable wi-fi when on campus.

Jisc's annual learner digital experience insights survey for 2020 shows that 68 per cent of respondents had access to reliable on-campus wi-fi, 63 per cent agreed that their organisation let them access online systems and services from anywhere and only 32 per cent had on-demand access to e-books. 

Only with effective digital leadership and investment with the right digital infrastructure, digital resources and digital skills training in place will the UK's FE system be able to properly support all learners. This includes learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who need to balance work or caring responsibilities with study, those in rural areas with broadband blind spots and a lack of public transport or people for whom physical disabilities or mental health issues make attending campus in person too difficult.

Rebuilding together

There are challenging times ahead, but, with the right government backing, leadership and support from Jisc and other sector bodies, emphasis on collaboration and sharing of best practice across the UK, together we can rebuild our sector and make it fit for this decade and beyond.

Jisc has a key part to play in this process. Indeed, it's our vision for the UK to be world leaders in technology for education and research. So, we will continue to work with and support FE providers as a trusted partner and critical friend while they negotiate the way ahead.

Our pledges to support that journey over the next three years are set out in this strategy document. It outlines the new FE-specific services we will be launching, including managed services and updating our digital content portfolio to include augmented and virtual reality elements.

We are also developing the "digital elevation model". This online, free-to-use, self-help tool will help FE staff navigate the changes required to bring about the digital elevation necessary if they are to thrive as businesses and provide the kind of education all our learners deserve. Let's not leave any provider, or any learner, behind.

Robin Ghurbhurun is Jisc's managing director of FE and skills. 

Jisc has launched a new three-year plan to support the further education sector in its digital development.

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