Online learning: colleges’ tips for success

Despite the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine, many FE colleges are still following blended learning approaches, and this may continue well into next term. But what does good remote learning look like? Staff at four colleges tell Julia Belgutay about how they have made it work
18th December 2020, 12:00am
The Secrets Of Colleges’ Success With Online Learning
Julia Belgutay


Online learning: colleges’ tips for success

As the students at Inverness College UHI log on for their remote classes, even those who are normally most reluctant to switch on their cameras have no concerns about doing it on this occasion.

Today is pyjama day. That doesn't mean it is a case of students secretly keeping pyjama bottoms on while making sure that their top half looks presentable; this is a day when everyone is encouraged to wear both halves of their pyjamas to learn - and that includes their lecturer.

"Once they were all in their jammies, they just relaxed into it," says Sarah Sutherland, an accountancy lecturer at the college. She has recently been running themed classes, whereby students decide the theme for how they dress for their online session. The pyjama theme was a particular success.

This is just one tactic that the college has been using to make remote learning work in recent months. But Inverness College is not the only FE college that has had to come up with creative approaches to teaching this term.

In England, although students on most courses have now returned to campus for at least some of their learning, blended approaches - where students learn from home part time and spend the rest of their time in college - are still common, and provision also needs to be in place to make sure that students who have to self-isolate can continue to learn.

In Scotland, meanwhile, in line with advice from the Scottish government, a large proportion of all teaching has continued to be delivered online, with most students only occasionally attending campus for face-to-face tuition.

And in Wales, all colleges and secondary schools moved to online learning this week in an effort to reduce Covid transmission.

After months of teaching what are often highly practical, hands-on subjects remotely, many college teachers have learned lessons that they feel can benefit others looking to improve their online offering. And while the plans to roll out a Covid-19 vaccine means that there could soon be some return to normality, it remains to be seen what the rest of this academic year will look like. That means that understanding what works best for remote learning in FE is still crucial.

As colleges continue to pick their way through this most uncertain of years, we asked staff from four colleges to share the keys to their success when it comes to remote learning - whether that means giving lecturers more freedom, creating bespoke apps or simply recognising that staying in your pyjamas is not always a bad thing.

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

'It's like they are there - they can really see what I am doing'

Sarah Sutherland and Frank To, lecturers at Inverness College UHI

For Sutherland and To, the key to successfully delivering education to their students during the pandemic has been identifying innovative ways of connecting with them through technology. To, a contemporary art practice lecturer at the college, has created his own makeshift art studio to deliver art lessons online.

Using a number of devices, such as cameras and his phone, he delivers the practical elements of his art classes in a way that means students can change perspective and watch him work from different angles.

"Using Webex [video-conferencing software], I can work on multiple devices that are connected, so the students can see me doing practical demonstrations from different angles," he says. "It is like they are there. They can really see what I am doing.

"In an oil-painting session, for example, I would have the camera on the canvas and another one on the palette, so they can see the canvas actually transform but they would also be able to see the mixing. Art is about the process, but it is also about the theory."

The most important thing, he says, is to maintain a connection with his students: "Students can speak to me one-to-one to make sure there is a human connection."

His colleague Sutherland, an accountancy lecturer, has found that focusing on how she engages with her students - in what is a more theoretical subject - has been crucial.

She records lessons so that students can watch them in advance of her more interactive classes, which are mostly made up of exercises and discussions. She has also used other tools such as a Kahoot! quiz league, chat boxes, "GIF wars" (two people go back and forth on social media in an attempt to outdo each other's GIFs) and the themed classes mentioned above, in an attempt to make lessons more fun and engaging.

'Online teaching led by empathy and patience'

Scott Hayden, a digital innovation specialist and lecturer of creative media production at Basingstoke College of Technology

Finding creative ways to engage students remotely has been particularly challenging for lecturers in vocational subjects that rely on practical demonstration, says Hayden.

In some subjects, finding the right tool has been the key to success. Hayden points to the college's automotive courses, which used virtual-reality technology to help students to continue their studies.

"We were using software called Electude. [Students] could go into a virtual simulation of an engine, deduce what the problem was and solve it collaboratively," he says.

However, finding a tool that works will only get you so far. As To and Sutherland suggest, there is a crucial human element that should not be overlooked - this can be as simple as checking in with students about their wellbeing, Hayden suggests.

"What we found to be really effective with online teaching is to be led by empathy and patience…In the first part of the lesson, chat with them. Just check in with them. Make sure they're alright," he explains.

Putting student wellbeing first needs to continue even now that most learners are back on site, he adds. With this in mind, colleges need to get better at considering which parts of a course absolutely cannot be delivered at home and prioritising those elements for face-to-face time, while recognising that there is still plenty that students can do off site.

"We need to be better, as a sector, at planning what elements of our courses can be done remotely and what bits absolutely, have to be live, in person. Because if students come in and they're sat at a row of laptops typing away, they're going to turn to us and say, 'I've got my nan who I'm shielding at home, and I've just got a train and a bus to come here to sit and do something that I can do at home,'" Hayden explains.

"Students can now call us out on that. And it's actually making teachers reflect and, in a really agile way, adapt the way we plan.

"I appreciate that planning has been rough this year, but there are no excuses for next year. We need to be prepared to actually best use the precious face-to-face time with the most efficacy."

'We asked the students how they wanted things to be delivered'

Simon Hewitt, principal of Dundee and Angus College

Dundee and Angus College's response to the pandemic has been twofold, says Hewitt: one part being the delivery of learning, and the other, support.

"That is what colleges do - we provide support for some of the most deprived members of our society," he explains.

"We wanted to focus, really early on, on making sure that the subject-based stuff was really good, but we also wanted that other stuff to be good. We developed a new induction hub, which included a 360-degree walk-through of all of our campuses, including the one-way system and other measures we have introduced in response to Covid."

One notable innovation in how students engage with their college and find support came with the development of a new app, called My D&A Life, which more than 5,000 people have now downloaded.

Hewitt says the app is not simply for learning - it also provides a gateway to all support services at the college. It includes videos from key staff in student support, and offers ways to meet - in a virtual sense - those members of staff. "They can see the staff, learn a bit about the service and how you access it," he explains.

The app also provides the students with access to their timetable, attendance data and - among other things - information on their bursary payments.

Students co-created My D&A Life, and, says Hewitt, this is crucial to its success, ensuring that they get the hands-on, practical information they want.

"It wasn't about what management thought the students wanted - we actually put together a team of students, who told us what they wanted to see and how they wanted things to be delivered," he explains. "That has been a huge success. The number of assumptions that we made about what they wanted to learn and see that were completely out…"

The shift to online approaches during Covid, then, is not purely about ensuring that learning keeps pace in colleges - it is also about making sure that students are in a good place, in every way.

As Hewitt puts it: "Colleges are much more than learning and teaching."

'Focus on the people, not the product'

Mark Beetlestone, technology-enhanced learning and resource manager at Fareham College

Beetlestone agrees that the sector is now entering a new stage of planning around remote learning.

He recalls the initial rush to upskill staff and get resources in place when the country first went into lockdown in March. "When we knew we were going into lockdown, we probably had about a week to prep everything and everyone before heading into that, and we decided pretty quickly on what platform and products we would focus on in order to provide some really quick training for people and show them how to use the products," he says. 

Having a clear plan of action was helpful at the time, Beetlestone says, adding that his college's willingness to invest in new digital technology was also a great support. 

"We've invested in a new digital platform called Canvas this year, which will really propel us forwards in the new digital learning environment. So we're not afraid to invest in that stuff," he says.

However, this past term has called for a new approach. While most classes at the college are happening face to face, every course still has a portion of online teaching and learning. "About 20 per cent, roughly, is online learning," says Beetlestone.

To get this online component right, the college has needed to shift focus away from products and towards teaching and learning. Part of this process is trying to find ways to facilitate staff sharing best practice internally and encouraging a focus on the pedagogy of remote learning.

"What we're finding now is that, although we provided really good training on the products that people were using, we weren't focusing so much on the actual teaching and learning aspect of online teaching," Beetlestone explains. 

This is something that he says has been the "biggest learning curve" for him since the pandemic began.

"A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work," he says. "There are so many variables when it comes to online teaching…There's no training course you can go on, there's not a thing you can buy that can tick all these boxes. Focus on the people, not the product. The pedagogy has to come first."

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "The secrets of colleges' online learning success"

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