Back in a July edition of FE News my colleague Christine Comrie, information officer for RSC Yorkshire and Humber, came to the conclusion that it’s not extinction that’s facing teachers, it’s simply evolution. Evolution triggered by the rapid development of digital technologies, the ready availability of free online courses and learning resources, and by a broadening out of the definition of learning. Now, she argued, it can often be a social, experiential process that goes beyond the traditional transfer of information from teacher to student. But if teachers are still needed, just differently – how are they adapting? And how can learning providers help them keep up with the pace of change?
These were among the questions explored at the Futures Seminar in London in June, organised jointly by the Association of Colleges (AoC) London and Jisc’s Regional Support Centre London. It brought together leaders from across the region’s FE and Skills sectors.
During the seminar we found broad consensus that teachers in these settings see the value of blended learning approaches that incorporate technology. We know that some have adopted them enthusiastically to enhance their learners’ experience. However the people around the table also recognised that teachers can only be expected to engage fully with change if they have good quality support available at the times when they need it most.
For some providers that means calling in external specialist support, but most said it’s important to be able to provide support responsively, which means it needs to be available as an internal resource. To make that possible, Newham College has taken on seven e-learning advisors – working with teachers, they help to identify what elements of the course can be delivered most effectively via e-learning. They then help to develop suitable materials and to enable access to them.
Philip Badman, deputy principal, planning and group operations at Newham College, says: “I just stand in awe of their capability…what they produce is outstanding. The teachers are motivated by what comes out of that and, in turn, the learners are motivated, too.”
Quality is key. Early attempts by learning providers to introduce e-learning as a quick fix to boost student retention, satisfaction and attainment had little success – Philip said that poor quality e-learning is “disastrous”. He was one of several who pointed out that the need to get the blended approach right had put lots of extra pressure on teachers. A great deal of preparation is needed in the design and creation of appropriate blends of traditional and e-learning.
While teachers fresh from university or college may have more up to date digital skills in some contexts, our providers say it is wrong to assume they can just apply these directly to the business of teaching and learning. They need help with that, and their skills also need to be updated regularly, along with those of teachers right across the organisation. Solutions are needed at organisational level to make sure teachers are able to carve out time to develop their skills in the best way to support their teaching practice.
And teachers need help with more than just developing their skills. They also need support to help them evaluate different technologies, and to decide which can help them in their particular subject area, and with their learners. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach with digital technologies, so solutions that give teachers the opportunity to collaborate and share their experience are proving vital.
A new online forum for ESOL teachers hosted by Jisc RSC London is doing just that via monthly webinars. ESOL practitioners come together to share ideas, resources and tools, and focus on a topic such as Supporting Learning Outside the Classroom or the upcoming Creative Learners and the Problem of Time. A quick look at the blog post from the earlier event will highlight some useful details of what was discussed and links to a range of useful tools teachers can use to support active learning, such as Xerte.
Another online example of a practical staff development initiative comes from collaboration between Ealing, Hammersmith and West London and Waltham Forest Colleges. Together they have co-written an ‘e-Teaching’ course that has already helped over a hundred teachers.
Other powerful models for staff support and development can be found in face-to-face settings within learning provider organisations – such as West Thames College’s Do Something Differently project and Supported Experiments at City of Westminster College. Both are providing teachers with strong encouragement to do things in different ways, and are proving to be powerful drivers of change in teaching practice.
For teachers, the prospect of improving how they do what they do is sufficient incentive to adopt new technologies and improve their digital literacy. But there should be something more, to keep them going even when it’s tough and their schedules are overflowing. We’re working on that and we aren’t the only ones – Open Badges could be a solution to watch. It’s an idea that would enable teachers to accumulate credits to demonstrate their professional development including their application of technology. And they could help their career progression by showcasing the evidence that their skills are indeed evolving. After all, extinction is not a pleasant prospect.
Read RSC London’s Futures report in full here.
Rosemary Leadley is adviser and information officer at Jisc RSC London