When I joined the National Extension College (NEC) as an editor back in the 1970s, I could never have imagined how technology would utterly transform the way people learn.
Back then, computers were cumbersome machines only used by large businesses and the worldwide web was a distant dream.
All our work – called correspondence courses – was paper-based and posted to students. We did experiment with phone tutorials but long-distance calls proved expensive. When postal workers went on strike in 1971, NEC nearly went out of business.
How times have changed. Distance learning was made possible by a national postal service, but the arrival of affordable personal computers and the internet has sparked a paradigm shift, and made it possible to teach and learn online.
Digital technology has, effectively, taken the “distance” from distance learning. Courses are more interactive and structured around students’ needs, with flexible start and completion dates. This is vital for people who juggle busy lives as it enables them to learn from home, start a course when they want and take time out if they need, too.
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At the core of the NEC’s mission is providing opportunities for second-chance learners – for people just like me. After leaving school at 16 with O levels, I went straight to work for the family carpet business. It was while living in London in the late 1960s that I realised opportunities would be closed to me without a university education. But no one in my family had been to university, so I had no role models.
An evening course at the City Lit called “fresh horizons”, led by some amazing tutors, opened doors and supported my plan to go to university. In 1971, I was offered a place at the University of Cambridge as a mature student to read anthropology. The experience was transformational: it expanded all my horizons and changed my life for the better.
Straight out of university in 1976, I went to work for the NEC as an editor. Its ethos, to open access to education for adults who had missed out, fitted totally with my own values. In 1987, I became chief executive – and stepped down in 2003, confident that NEC was in good shape.
Unfortunately, the charity faced potential bankruptcy in 2011 following a merger with an education organisation that subsequently went into administration, but not before selling NEC’s assets and wiping out all its reserves.
I came back as chief executive and, with the help of former trustees and staff, we managed to get the business back onto a sustainable footing. Our strategy was to focus on our core business: delivering GCSEs and A levels.
Lessons from the past 34 years
So what have I learned over the past 34 years?
1. Be nimble and responsive
First is the need to be nimble, responsive and understand your audience. NEC is a charity and receives no public funding. While this makes it hard to fund any substantial new developments, its strength is that you can focus closely on what students want instead of trying to fit courses around government priorities.
2. The skills to deliver high-quality distance learning
Second is the appreciation of the specialist skills needed to create and deliver high-quality distance learning. Designing a course isn’t simply a question of providing materials and recording a talking head on Zoom. The pedagogy and delivery methods are very different to face-to-face teaching. You cannot assume that teachers will simply move seamlessly to teaching online.
3. Making distance learning mainstream
Third is the need for distance learning as a mainstream mode of study to be taken seriously by policymakers. Sadly, there are barriers that distance learning students have to overcome that are not helped by a system that assumes all students are aged under 21 and studying full-time in schools or colleges.
The recent issues around centre-assessment grades, where private students (those not being taught in a school or college) were unable to get their grades assessed, is just one stark example.
The paradigm shift owing to Covid-19
Covid-19 has sparked a paradigm shift in teaching and learning. At NEC, enrolments started to increase from the first lockdown in March 2020, particularly from young people under the age of 25.
This has been fuelled by the increased motivation for people to gain national qualifications in order to train for careers in teaching, healthcare or social care. The dearth of part-time A-level courses in colleges offering flexible modes of study has also been a factor.
Adults (and many young people as well) want to learn in their own time, at their own pace and at their desired place, whether that be at home, in a hospital or in prison.
Adult learners want flexible micro-qualifications that they can build up into a portfolio. But government education policy has moved in the opposite direction. The reform of modular to linear A levels, for instance, has resulted in a fall in adult participation in A levels and fewer mature students in higher education. Policymakers need to see the bigger picture and address the institutional barriers that adults experience.
The pandemic has shifted the tectonic plates of education. All learning providers now need to build in resilience through online distance learning, whether this is a replacement for face-to-face teaching or something that supplements it. Even when life returns to some degree of normality, the world of education must move on. I am stepping down now as chief executive but am confident, in the next stage, that the National Extension College will be leading the way.
Ros Morpeth was named the Tes FE Leader of the Year in 2014 and awarded the OBE for services to education in 2015