Edtech: Why aren't we consulting FE's real experts?

In all walks of life, we listen to experts - why don't we do it in colleges? The future is crowdsourced, says Mark Ayton

Mark Ayton

Edtech in colleges: FE needs to make use of all its experts to get the most out of edtech, says Jisc

If I want the quietest seat in a restaurant, I’ll ask a waiter. When I’m poorly, I make an appointment to see my doctor. People who perform their role every day are experts in what they do – yet when addressing process and practice in FE, they are rarely consulted.

Traditionally, strategic planning has taken a top-down approach that is set by management and delivered by everyone else. To deliver sustained improvements, this has to change. Colleges are jam-packed with specialists. With commitment from leaders, these experts can be empowered to be masters of their own destiny, making changes and improvements that can benefit all.

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Edtech and the future of FE

I see this approach working first-hand. As a subject specialist in digital practice, I work with skills providers to help identify issues and set objectives that everyone can work towards. Between 2017 and 2019, I helped to develop Digital 2030, a national digital framework for post-16 education in Wales. This involved working collaboratively with the Welsh government, 65 Welsh learning providers and more than 300 individuals.

It worked because there was a groundswell of desire to improve things – and I believe that desire exists in the sector throughout the UK. Our new prime minister claims FE is a “priority”, the education secretary Gavin Williamson is taking direct responsibility for apprenticeships and skills, and the government’s edtech strategy puts digital technologies at the heart of learning. How can colleges capitalise on this climate, making long-lasting change that’s embraced by all? The future is crowdsourced. Here’s how to do it:

Gather information from colleges

Run surveys, scrutinise reports, and involve everyone from college leaders to practitioners and all other FE stakeholders. For Digital 2030, we ran a perception survey, asking staff to rate and comment on their organisations’ strengths and potential areas for improvement. It was a scattergun approach: we threw questions far and wide, and people responded. We also used Jisc surveys, which give insights into student and staff experiences with technology. Additionally, we interrogated Estyn standards and inspection reports.

Define areas of work

Use the information you’ve amassed to identify areas of focus within your organisation. For Digital 2030, we defined six: leadership and management, delivery and assessment, staff development, widening participation and learner support, community and employer engagement, and enterprise systems and infrastructure. Allocate each of your stakeholders to a group and give them only the relevant information from phase one. A college principal, for example, would join the leadership and management team.

Identify the issues – and think big

For the Digital 2030 framework, we held a structured one-day workshop for each group of experts, distilling down the information to identify key issues. Keep these broad. Instead of talking about specific tools and platforms, focus on the measurable benefits you’re hoping to deliver. Technologies come and go. They become obsolete, get traded in for newer models. Step back and focus on improving the learner experience and empowering staff. The details will follow.

Allocate managers and set objectives

Allocate a manager for each operational area. These managers will facilitate their groups of experts in setting objectives. They must have the authority and knowledge to lead the process and keep the conversations outcome-focused. This time-proofs the strategy and allows for flexibility in delivery.

Make it happen

To turn your group work into a coherent strategy, ensure all objectives are peer-reviewed by all managers to remove duplication and promote collaboration. Then gather the objectives from each group and apply a consistent tone and structure. Finally, set up a steering group with the managers from each operational area, chaired by a senior manager. This group’s role is to recognise achievement and support progress.

Overall, it isn’t rocket science. Like a waiter knows their restaurant and a doctor knows medicine, no one knows the challenges within a college better than the stakeholders of that college. Developing a crowdsourced digital strategy is about listening to the experts and learning from their collective experience. Strategy for all, built by all, can deliver happy and harmonious outcomes.

Mark Ayton is a subject specialist in digital practice at Jisc, the UK’s education and research technology solutions not-for-profit organisation. To discuss how a crowdsourced approach can be contextualised for your organisation, contact mark.ayton@jisc.ac.uk

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