Is your college ready for digital transformation?

When it comes to technological transformation, there is a blueprint for success, writes Allen Crawford Thomas

Allen Crawford Thomas

Technological change is happening at a fast pace - but is your FE college ready to make the most of it

Back in the bad old days, teachers had a few go-to phrases – among the worst of which was "if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again".

This was like wading through treacle, doggedly applying an unsuccessful, unrewarding and uninspiring approach to an unresolved problem. But I’m starting to wonder. Maybe there was a lesson in there about adaptability. Trying again can mean trying differently.

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Digital offer

Today, I work with colleges, helping them assess and improve their digital offering. Let there be no doubt, this is a crucial issue. In April, the government’s edtech strategy highlighted the increasingly pivotal role of technology in FE and, earlier this month, the DfE published its review into AI and online learning, which acknowledged the sector’s all-too-limited understanding.

If the extra funding recommended in the Augar review ever materialises, some money may be available too. The question is, how can colleges ensure they make impactful, appropriate and long-lasting digital change?

The good news is, there is a blueprint for success. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and there may be bumps in the road – but having conducted more than 100 college infrastructure reviews and digital strategy reviews, I’ve developed a flexible four-point plan:

1. Ask questions

What are you trying to achieve with technology? What does success look like for your college? Digital tools can offer exciting ways to engage with students, support teachers, and make efficiency gains - but there are lots of products out there. It can be hard to identify the right ones for you. Don’t take the magpie approach. That shiny robot might look the part, but will it deliver? Sometimes, the answer is a resounding yes.

At Bolton College, an award-winning chatbot brings personalised learning and assessments to 14,000 students, and answers more than 1,000 queries every day. This frees up time for humans to focus on teaching and has measurably improved student retention. But, for many colleges, the most transformative tech is far simpler. It might be a virtual learning environment (VLE) that provides extra support for students, or video content that enables them to catch up when they can’t make it on to campus. Scrutinising your college’s unique offer, needs and community will help you identify where tech can make the biggest impact.

2. Talk to people

Two heads are better than one – and a roomful (online or off) can be very productive. Don’t leave your tech transformation in the hands of a few enthusiasts. Everyone has their favourite devices or preferred software, and different groups have different digital needs. Understanding the full spectrum before you invest can save time and money, so get staff, students and stakeholders involved in a diverse steering group.

At Barking and Dagenham College, such a group is currently working collaboratively to consider how technology is changing the industries their students go into and see where digital tools can help them deliver the required skills while supporting teachers and saving time and money. This isn’t a casual chat. It’s about bringing in new ideas, tools and approaches that work for today and tomorrow. Such a steering group needs a budget, some authority, and fire power.

3. Develop a digital culture

The world is increasingly agile, and colleges are no different, but harnessing a positive attitude to digital innovation is often a challenge. While we know that young people are tech-savvy, there’s no such thing as a digital native – which means there’s no excuse to hang back, even for self-identified digital sceptics. College leaders must embrace and promote a progressive, college-wide culture and bring in the tools to support it. At Jisc, we call this digital-first approach Education 4.0.

4. Make a plan

And put your people at the heart of it so the whole college moves together towards a worthwhile goal. Pay attention to staff concerns and develop their skills. This will be crucial as your college adopts, embeds and normalises digital practice. Make your plan achievable too, considering resources and limitations as well as opportunities.

Follow these steps and your college will capitalise on current strengths, share good practice, bring in exciting new technologies, and leave the bad old days behind. It’s time to stop trying and trying again. Thinking differently will empower colleges to build a bright, digitally-enhanced future.

Allen Crawford Thomas is a subject specialist at the UK’s edtech not-for-profit, Jisc. He is hosting a webinar discussing digital transformation in FE at 11 am on 11 July.

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Allen Crawford Thomas

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