Colleges' recipe for success with remote learning

Lockdown dealt a crushing blow to catering colleges that rely heavily on practical lessons to develop the next generation of chefs. But staff were quick to adapt their teaching online, demonstrating cooking techniques in their own kitchens, uploading tutorials to YouTube and creating spaces for students to socialise, finds Carly Page
26th March 2021, 12:05am
Online Learning: How Catering Colleges Made A Success Of Remote Learning During The Covid Lockdown
Carly Page


Colleges' recipe for success with remote learning

When stay-at-home orders forced restaurants across the UK to close their doors, chefs, front-of-house staff and kitchen porters were not the only ones affected. The shutdown also had a huge impact on catering colleges, and the aspiring chefs and caterers they train.

Hospitality research group CGA reports that sales in the sector plummeted by more than £53 billion in 2020, leaving many restaurants and catering companies struggling. They had to find creative solutions to survive, with many restaurants providing click-and-collect, takeaway and meal-kit delivery services, while the catering industry focused on smaller events and, in some cases, virtual cooking classes.

But what about the next generation of chefs and caterers? Catering colleges, which typically rely on practical lessons to give students access to industry-standard equipment and valuable experience in a fast-paced environment, also had to adapt quickly.

The hands-on nature of these courses meant the shift to remote lessons wasn't an easy task for students or lecturers.

"At first it was a bit of a novelty," says Miranda Godfrey, chef lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College. "But it was difficult for staff and students to get our heads around teaching online. We're all very much hands-on, and for us to just be sitting behind a computer and then trying to navigate a new system was very challenging."

However, as staff adapted to this new way of teaching and became familiar with the technology, they began to experiment with live practical lessons, delivered remotely.

"When I first did it, I was really nervous and I had Post-it notes all over my wall," she says. "I cleaned my kitchen like I'd never cleaned it before!"

Students quickly got used to the live cooking demonstrations, she says, and attendance was high. "Engagement was very good and we got into a really good routine, I think because the students know that we're all trying really hard."

Remote teaching: 'Students cook along and love it'

City of Liverpool College also provided its catering students with practical lessons, encouraging them to join in where possible.

"I have been doing my cooking lessons from my kitchen," says Siobhan Sweet, a patisserie lecturer at the college.

"Sometimes students cook along and they love it. We send out a list of ingredients on Microsoft Teams the week before, and they cook along live in their kitchens so I can see what they're doing. That works really well."

But what about those who didn't have access to the facilities and equipment they needed to take part? Sweet says that lecturers who couldn't teach from home were able to deliver sessions from campus and, for students who couldn't join in, the college found ways to adapt its remote provision.

"They all had access to the Zooms, but you've got to be mindful of students' kitchen facilities," Sweet says. "Some have five brothers and sisters running around, so they can't cook along, and others haven't got the right equipment. I also have some mature students who had their children at home and were homeschooling, so all my stuff is posted to YouTube, so they can watch it at their leisure."

Lack of equipment and interrupting siblings might have posed problems here and there, but for some catering colleges, the move to remote teaching also brought unexpected benefits, such as opportunities for students be more creative.

For instance, Activate Learning, which offers catering courses developed in partnership with Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck Group, adapted its curriculum to focus on opportunities for all students to experiment in their home kitchens.

"Heston Blumenthal sets great store by combining different flavour combinations, and our chefs encouraged students to raid their home cupboards to experiment with pairing different herbs and spices, or experimenting with cooking times to test the tastes, textures and flavours of their creations," Nancy Buckley, director of career pathways for Activate's lifestyles faculty, explains.

"We also devised various challenges that students were able to deliver from within their own kitchens at home, including the 'dunking biscuit challenge' [creating the perfect biscuit to dunk in a cup of tea] and designing an Easter egg using home chocolate moulds, such as a balloon or other utensils, to shape their chocolate."

Sean Owens, WorldSkills UK's training manager for cooking, says that another benefit has been having the opportunity to introduce new methods of assessment. He gives the example of using the hedonic taste scale, which his students used for self-assessment when they were cooking at home.

The hedonic scale consists of a series of nine verbal categories, representing degrees of "liking" from "dislike extremely" to "like extremely". Students use the scale to categorise foods based on their taste preferences, which sounds easier than it is, Owens points out.

"It takes integrity as a student," he says. "But what I've noticed about my students is that there's a level of maturity [now] that wasn't there before."

Activate Learning also took a new approach to how it measures the performance of its catering students during lockdown.

"As part of our programme, we devised a curiosity journal, in conjunction with Heston, for students to record their outputs, so they can share their results with their tutors and fellow classmates on their online class calls.

"We also asked students to film themselves at home and share the videos, so that our tutors were able to see them at work and observe what they were doing," Buckley explains.

"The journals have been particularly useful as they prompt the students to practise and, if they fail, repeat dishes; offer a glossary of terms for describing their dishes; draw their final plated creations and write up recipes."

Can cook, will cook

But despite these innovations, there has still been a major gap in colleges' provision: hands-on industry experience. This continues to be particularly difficult to overcome, as restaurants remain closed across the country.

But colleges have been doing their best. "Obviously, the ability for students to gain experience through work placements has been very limited this year," Buckley says. "So our hospitality and catering team redeployed its work experience coordinators and business engagement specialist towards sourcing virtual placements, quality pre-recorded demonstrations and online employer engagement opportunities."

As well as offering virtual placements, it has also been important for colleges to recreate the social elements of workplace and on-campus learning, Godfrey says, by building into remote provision opportunities for learners to socialise.

"From the beginning of the last lockdown, we've been doing a social meet-up that's also a cook-along," she explains. "Any students can join us and we also have guest alumni as well. Students who are overseas, like in South Korea and Canada, have been able to join, too. We just meet up and cook - and it's not a class, it's just to chat and something for students to look forward to."

Sweet agrees that the social element of courses has been really important to recreate, even if that means just allowing students a bit of unstructured time for an informal chat.

"We have a bit of a social aspect to it, too. We'll all join the Zoom call and have a chat before the lesson starts," she says.

And while staff and students are glad to finally be able to socialise again on campus, there are some aspects of the new normal that catering lecturers hope will continue beyond the pandemic.

"I think the blended learning approach will stay with us," Godfrey says. "Our theory classes will become online classes. We recognise the fact that it's expensive to come into London, so if we're able to save students and teachers a day's travel, that's good for everyone.

"I'm going to keep my social cook-alongs, too, although I may change that to a weekend. I enjoy it and the students have enjoyed it, so I don't want them to think it's just going to stop. After all, we don't know what's going to happen next winter; we might have other lockdowns.

"And the messaging system through Teams - which students have on their phones - is a really direct way of being able to contact students, and I think that will stay."

Sweet, too, expects hybrid learning to remain and believes it could prove particularly beneficial to students who are not able to attend in-person lessons, and can instead look to a bank of recorded lessons and online recipes.

Owens agrees. "I think it's a fantastic opportunity to be able to capture, particularly cookery demonstrations and culinary school classes, and get them out into the industry, especially at a junior level.

"Colleges are blazing the trail," he continues. "Really high-quality industry chefs have been joining colleges to demonstrate their skills. That's something I would like to see afterwards, when we do have less use for Zoom and Teams."

Carly Page is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 26 March 2021 issue under the headline "Sample our recipe for successful remote learning"

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