One positive that can be taken from last week’s news about college closures is that the FE sector is not unprepared for a period of sustained remote working. For lots of colleges up and down the country, using technology to power distance learning is already routine. At Activate Learning, we use our virtual learning environment, Canvas, to offer online modules for many students and blended learning experiences for more.
Our biggest challenge hasn’t been getting the technology up and running or persuading students that their learning is protected during campus closures (some of ours were pretty excited about moving online), but instead in training all staff on how to get the most out of virtual learning systems especially for distant delivery.
For us, this process started a couple of weeks ago before the announcement was made and when we were knee-deep in speculation about the long closures ahead.
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I manage the digital education team at Activate, and we have been working flat out in making sure that every staff member is prepared for the shifting learning landscape. important, too, has been accessibility. Our digital accessibility expert Kim Blanchard deserves huge acknowledgement here, in fact, as she has worked through every module and course against an accessibility checklist to make sure that all of our students can make the most of their learning experience, whatever their needs.
Kim has been leading a tight ship through her development team in ensuring our online provision is enriched with in-house developed resources, especially for vocational areas such as 360 and virtual-reality video experiences.
Coronavirus: The benefits of online learning
For all colleges, this is clearly a challenging time, but a second light on the horizon for me is that it presents an opportunity for us all to experience the potential benefits of online learning. For us, online doesn’t just mean a video to watch or a portal on which to submit work – virtual learning can be as diverse and as engaging as face-to-face tutelage. For example, we use conferences for live lessons, with breakout "rooms" where students can work together in groups (BigBlueButton is a great resource here).
Interactive whiteboards, polls and discussions help to keep students engaged, and access to our entire library of resources online through ebooks helps students to extend their learning independently. Data capture is invaluable, too, in helping teachers and students to track progress.
Of course, it goes without saying that our first priority in the coming weeks and months is to help look after the health of our community and there’s a lot of work for us to do in education to protect learning. But I believe it’s forcing our hand somewhat, setting us up for a more positive learning experience in the long run. We know students want to learn on demand (just look at their viewing habits for evidence here, with Netflix and Amazon Prime now much more popular than live TV among a younger audience) and we know that learners respond if they’re empowered to set their own agenda and take charge of their learning.
It will be really interesting to look at progress and attainment during this time. I suspect that students may not suffer in the way the public fears, but are able to continue to thrive.
Sharmen Ibrahim is the digital education services manager at Activate Learning