At Abingdon and Witney College, we offer a huge range of land-based courses to students of all ages. We have our own farm, Common Leys Farm, and students can take further education and higher education qualifications in equine studies, agriculture, dog grooming and floristry, to name just a few.
A few months ago, if someone had said that all of these very practical courses were to be moved online, I’d have had some serious questions. And yet – here we are.
We were told on a Wednesday that the college would close on the Friday, and we kept all staff and students in until the latest possible point to make sure we could offer some online training for both. We had some courses that were already using Microsoft Teams regularly but others hadn’t used it at all, so it was a big learning curve for all of us.
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We all moved online on the Monday, and it’s been trial and error since then. Staff have been dipping into other people’s lessons to see what each other are doing and how it works, and that’s made them more confident in having a go.
It’s been quite exhausting for the lecturers. It is quite intense talking to a computer screen for that amount of time and constantly being creative. But on the whole, I think it’s been pretty good, and we’ve managed to keep all of our full-time further education and higher education students engaged and learning. Our adult education part-time courses like floristry and dog grooming have been put on hold. Lecturers have been filming themselves arranging flowers and grooming their own dogs, but we aren’t asking students to submit work.
We’ve put the most effort into our full-time provision. We’ve learned quite quickly that the more flexible we are, the better.
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Our level 3 learners have been really engaging with Microsoft Teams lessons. They all log in at the normal time of the lesson, the lecturer will share screens, share a PowerPoint, have group discussions, do tasks, set them work to do, and then they send the work back. It’s working brilliantly for all of the theory work. When it comes to practical work, it’s harder.
As staff, we still need to go to the farm to feed and muck out the animals. We’ve been filming and taking videos whenever we can of us doing this and sending them to the students to critique. They can tell us where we are going wrong – it’s quite fun!
We already had CCTV in our lambing and foaling boxes, so we’ve been able to get the students to log into those live streams so they could see the lambs being born. A lot of the students on the equine courses have their own horses that they are still accessing. If they do any bathing, grooming or plaiting, they take photos and videos and submit to us for evidence.
I’ve been teaching a work experience module in which – in normal circumstances – students would have mock interviews with me in college. The interviews are still going ahead, but via Teams – which, actually, is pretty representative of how interviews are happening in the real world.
Supporting learners with specific needs
Some of our level 2 learners have struggled to engage with platforms like Microsoft teams. The countryside and agriculture course is highly practical, and has students with a huge variety of needs. With those students, it’s been a lot of picking up the phone and talking to them. The college has a system called Yammer, which is an in-house Facebook system, and the level 1 and level 2 students respond quite well to that, so we put work on there for them; constant pictures, videos and quizzes to keep them engaged.
For some of the students on our level 1 animal and equine courses, we’ve found the change has had quite an emotional strain on them as well. They normally have a learning support assistant with them in the classroom, and now they don’t have that any more. We can’t fire out loads of work for them to do if it’s going to take a huge toll on them. That's been the biggest challenge: how can we support learners with specific needs from afar? It is difficult but we have found workarounds.
The level 1 course leaders of the lower-level programmes rang every single parent up and contacted them directly, to talk to them about what they and the students would be needing to do and to give them contacts. It’s these practical courses that are struggling the most to adapt to the online situation – some students don’t have laptops at home and, wherever possible, we have tried to provide them with one. Our learning support assistants (LSAs) are still around and we have land-based specialist LSAs and they are still in contact with learners remotely. While they aren’t sitting next to them reading or writing for them, they can explain the work that the lecturers put on Yammer for them over the phone or video call.
It’s been an intense period for everyone: staff and students. But I’m really proud of how everyone has come together to do whatever it takes to make it work.
Clair Juler is the land-based industries curriculum manager at Abingdon and Witney College