From education to employment

FE needs a different kind of e-Learning model

Rob May, Director, YMCA Awards

It seems like e-Learning has been around for ages and there’s a lot of great e-Learning modules available. However, many are complicated and expensive and a majority are purposed for the corporate training environment. Re-cutting them for the college market and cramming them into the curriculum won’t work. The FE sector needs a different kind of e-Learning model.

For me, the seductive power of learning technology lies in its ability to calibrate to different learning styles, paces and environments, offering a truly learner-centric approach, supported by tutors. We all agree that students learn in a different ways, so a key factor in motivating learners is to match course content to their own interests and customised personal learning journey. The problem is that the monolithic structure and architecture of our education system has traditionally forced us to standardise the way we teach and assess.

This conflict of the need for standardisation in delivery and assessment, versus customisation in learning gets to the heart of the managerial and organisational challenge that the sector must face, and may ultimately determine whether or not learning technology fully takes root across FE.

At YMCA Awards, we believe that learning technology has the potential to completely revolutionise education over the next decade, but only if its convenience and accessibility is properly harnessed. That’s why we’re currently consulting with 11 leading UK colleges to explore new delivery models, including the role of technology in ‘flipped’ and blended learning.

Some colleges are already doing amazing things with learning technology, like creating virtual, simulated workplaces for learners to practice new skills in. But many colleges that we have spoken to are still at the start of their journey.
In the race to meet the targets arising from FELTAG, it may be tempting to simply ‘plug-in’ existing e-Learning content, but I would urge those colleges to take a more holistic view. Consider an alternative ‘joined-up’ digital learning model in which tutors maximise their time in the classroom by providing specific coaching to learners who arrive to lessons already immersed in a virtual world of structured learning content.

Online quizzes and tasks capture data on learner progress, and virtual engagement platforms, such as WAMBIZ, connect learners with tutors across closed social media groups, allowing tutors to guide learners’ understanding. Secure assessment can also be carried out remotely as e-Proctoring now enables us to schedule secure exams around the clock.

Following the completion of each module, Open Badges enable learners to display their achievements conveniently across a wide range of social media – an increasingly important channel for recruiters, and highly motivational for learners.

We appreciate that many in FE are wary about making the transition from purely classroom-based, to flipped learning, which is why our consultation has also focused on identifying barriers to adoption and engagement. In addition, we appreciate the concerns that online learning could eventually eradicate the need for classroom-based learning entirely. My view is that tutors must play a vital role in supporting digital learning journeys by serving as professional learning coaches and content architects.

The shift might not be easy, but it will be rewarding. Tutors can spend more of their time ‘traveling’ online from student to student, helping individuals with individual problems. They can mentor and motivate learners by using real-time data which tells them how each student is progressing and approaching their tasks. It must be recognised that since customisation will be a major driver of this new model, tutors will also need new skills, for instance, recognising differences in learning styles in order to simultaneously support variations in how different learners work. They will also need to engage with learners across social media platforms and in ‘simulated classroom’ environments.

Another benefit of course is that because learner-centric technology allows tutors to give individual attention to more students, we can do something counter-intuitive in education and increase the number of students per live teacher. We can also test and qualify more learners remotely and securely with the confidence that the integrity of the process hasn’t been compromised – breaking the expensive capital traps and dominant structures of the current education system and getting more young people qualified and ready for work.

Finally, you may be wondering why YMCA is in this space?

The fact is, we were founded 170 years ago by an apprentice and have been at the forefront of changes in education and social attitudes ever since. So for me it feels only right that we should make a practical and creative contribution to the digital agenda during this uncertain, but defining time for further education.

Rob May is director of YMCA Awards, (formerly CYQ)

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