FE Heroes: 'The future is virtual 3D classrooms'

Virtual classrooms will allow for practical activities almost like the real thing, says this computer science lead

Tes Reporter

FE Heroes: Virtual 3D classrooms will be the future for colleges, says Steve Rich of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills

What is your name, job title and place of work?

Steve Rich, lead practitioner of computer science at Ada, the National College for Digital Skills. 

How long have you held your current role, and what other jobs did you have before?

I joined Ada in August 2017 as a teacher of computer science and I became the lead practitioner in November 2020. Previously, I worked as a lecturer in games development for 11 years at a college in the West Midlands. Before that I worked at a land-based college in the North West for three years lecturing in IT.

How – and why – did you first start working in further education?

After university I worked for a North West Development Agency (NWDA) government project, looking after their IT systems. Their offices were on the site of the land-based college and I was also doing some IT training for the college staff. When the NWDA project came to its planned end, the principal of the college offered me a teaching position. I was very fortunate. For the first two years I completed a PGCE (PCET) part-time on a Thursday afternoon while continuing to teach alongside.

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Briefly describe what a day at work looks like for you...

First and foremost I am a full-time teacher, so I am planning and delivering lessons, and assessing our learners.

As part of my lead practitioner role, I act as mentor to PGCE students and NQTs (soon to be ECTs – early career teachers), and facilitate training sessions for teachers and learners for the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) and Isaac Computer Science. I am a leader of the Haringey Computing at School (CAS) community and set up the Btec computing community meetings, where teachers come together online to discuss best practices. I am also involved with the development of the teaching practice of the other computer science teachers here at Ada. I’ve not been able to do as much of this last point as I would like since I started the role, because of the pandemic and remote lessons. I’m looking forward to peer observations and sharing best practice as one of my priorities from September.

What motivates you in your workplace?

Ada is a little different from your normal FE college because my subject has the biggest department. This is because every student that comes to Ada studies computer science. Where I’ve previously worked, the college had thousands of students studying a wide range of courses. Normally, the CS team is a couple of teachers at most, but at Ada we have seven CS teachers. It’s great to be the subject that everything else revolves around.

Share an anecdote about a student or learner who has inspired you...

I’ve always been impressed by the resilience that many learners in FE must demonstrate. I remember one guy in his mid-20s joined our two-year programme where the average group age was 16. He recently moved to the UK with his wife and two young children and was so motivated and determined to make a success for him and his family. He was also working evenings and weekends to make ends meet. He completed the course with distinction and deservedly got a really good job. I was so pleased for him.

Do you enjoy working in FE? And if so, why?

Yes, and my answer links to the previous question. You get to work with so many varied learners that bring to the classroom so many different experiences, and yet everyone has the common reason of being here because they want to learn. I initially got into teaching because I like to have an impact on others to help them improve their lives and chances, and FE gives me the opportunity to do just that. 

What do you see as the big challenges for the FE sector in the next few years?

Like a lot of other people, T levels. The Btec computing course that all our learners study has a great deal of flexibility. Some can study A levels alongside, some study another Btec or some focus solely on the three A-level equivalent qualification. This sets our learners up to be ideally positioned to apply for an apprenticeship or apply to university. I’m still to be convinced that T levels gives the same degree of flexibility.

What do you think our FE sector will look like in 30 years’ time?

We’ll have this remote meeting thing down to a tee – it’ll be the norm. Groups of learners will be based over a wide geographical area. High-quality, no-lag video and sound, virtual and augmented reality will allow a group to be able to virtually exist in a virtual 3D classroom. This future reality will allow learners to experience virtual practical activities that are nearly as realistic as the real thing. There still won’t be robot teachers.  

If you were made apprenticeships and skills minister, what is the first thing you’d introduce or change?

I'd action another review looking at the impending digital skills shortage that we face in the UK.

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