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The Dawn of FE’s Digital Age?

Sam Blyth
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In just a few months, the FE landscape has changed beyond recognition. Previously full colleges and classrooms have disappeared and in their place we’ve seen a complete shift to distance learning and online teaching. As the government begins to consider a return to in-person education, what role is edtech going to play in the post-Covid FE landscape?

The Slow Return to Normality

Each day it is becoming increasingly clear that a return to life pre-Covid will not be immediate. Practically speaking, classrooms are an ideal breeding ground for the virus and limits on college occupancy and class sizes seem likely, with some reports suggesting that classrooms will be restricted to as few as 15 students. For FE – as with every other educational sector – this poses a real logistical challenge. Institutions will have to reintroduce students slowly in order to facilitate effective social distancing. So, even as a trickle of students begin to return, a good number will still have to learn remotely.

This means that for FE educators and administrators edtech will continue to be a vital component of providing teaching and learning. Although this isn’t the ideal situation, we know from our own Canvas customers just how effective this can be, and just how innovatively tech can be used for pedagogy. 

Where edtech might have been used rudimentarily before by some, this period of enforced digital learning has helped pave the way for a more flexible and blended style of education to be seen as a widespread valid option. Through tech like VLEs and other online learning tools, educators can harness the power of novel and engaging ways to deliver curricula: online discussions, live streaming, peer feedback, interactive videos and incentivised games can all help democratise learning. Just from conversations with our own customers, we’ve seen numerous examples of digital collaboration benefiting students who suffer from classroom shyness and who can be crowded out by more assertive learners, or who are otherwise unable to attend mainstream school. 

Whilst a new found embracing of tech will by no means ‘replace’ the teacher, it will help usher in development of forward-thinking, blended pedagogy. 

Online exams are here to stay

However, even once we are back in the classroom, one remote learning habit might stick around – online exams. With what would normally be ‘exam season’ upon us, Covid-19 has allowed colleges to undertake a massive test-and-learn of remote assessment, and get a sense of whether it could work as a long-term option. 

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For this to happen, students, teachers and administrators had to pull together and be open to doing things a bit differently, which we’ve seen happen up and down the country. And whilst this initial roll-out of digital assessment has not been without its fair share of teething problems, it has had the effect of normalising the idea of online examination for future cohorts. So, once colleges have had the time to implement the right assessment technology that ensures that the digital platform is intuitive enough for examinees, and keeps data-outcomes meaningful enough to direct further learning, we may well see online exams becoming a common feature of future exam seasons.

A boon for adult learning?

It goes without saying that this crisis has affected jobs up and down the country. Across a vast spectrum of sectors, many employees, from directors to apprentices, have been furloughed or made redundant. A recent report from The Open University even found that the skills required for 5 million job roles will change as a result of the current crisis. FE institutions have long been places where adults have been able to gain new skills and progress into new roles, which may mean we see an increase in enrollment going forward.

And it’s not just in-person learning that can support this – those looking to upskill and improve their professional chances in a post-Covid employment market can also do so via flexible, distance learning courses. The boost to technology infrastructure that we’ve seen over the past few months mean that traditional barriers, such as travelling to college and committing inflexible time to classes, have been removed and replaced by courses that can be undertaken around the learner’s pre-existing commitments, whether they be professional or personal. 

Covid’s impact on the fast tracking of distance learning, and the increased need for upskilling, might ultimately have a positive effect on reversing the decline in adult learners that we’ve seen in recent years. 

Covid-19 has re-emphasised the importance of edtech, and made it clear that it must continue to be a priority as we transition back to ‘normal’. In this disruptive period, it’s more essential than ever that students have a continuity within their education, and are able to access learning whatever their circumstances. Keeping remote and online learning options open throughout this transition and into the future is the best way to ensure this.

This crisis has been extremely challenging for the whole education community, but as we navigate our way into a post-covid society we are presented with an opportunity to radically change the further education landscape for the good of students and educators alike. 

Sam Blyth, Remote Learning Expert and Senior Director, Instructure

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