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What a difference a week makes!

Lee Nicholls, Group Executive Director of Curriculum, Standards and Academies discusses the success of learning online at Activate Learning

02 April 2020

At Activate Learning, our seven further education colleges went into the Coronavirus spin, much like the rest of the UK.

We had to move quickly to respond the Government’s guidelines around college closures and ensure our learners were able to access resources and lessons online.

What have been our reflections so far on moving our core business online? Over the past year we’ve merged with Bracknell and Wokingham College and Guildford College Group, which meant that besides the Canvas learning environment that we have for students – which we call Activate Learning Online (ALO), we also have a Moodle legacy that we haven’t yet phased out.

Prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, I think it’s fair to say that the adoption of online learning across the group had been patchy. While we had the early adopters who loved it, the majority of people hadn’t engaged with it or embraced its full potential yet.

This may have been down to a number of factors from inconsistent use, to a staff using the more familiar, comfortable ways of delivering learning and communications via email and face-to-face. I’m sure this will be a familiar picture for a lot of people working in Further Education settings.

In short, the tools were there, but no one was really using them.

About a three weeks before the Government decided to close schools and colleges we started reading the signs and felt we had better get prepared for a scenario the like of which none of us had ever seen in our lifetimes.

Over this period we did the following:

  • Our Digital Education team shifted ‘heaven and earth’ to get a conferencing plug-in added to ALO (Canvas) and Moodle, and created training material and video tutorials for the uninitiated.
  • The Digital Education team also created an Office 365 Sharepoint repository for learning materials that could be shared directly with students through the Canvas site, avoiding any messy file structures and editing problems.
  • We commandeered the Wednesday afternoon CPD session in mid-March across all of our colleges and ran sessions on using ALO and the conferencing plug-in called Big Blue Button.
  • We then spent two solid days testing, testing and testing again with learners whilst they were still on our college sites to make sure that they understood the platforms and what would be expected of them.

All this meant that on the day schools and colleges were told to “close their doors” to traditional teaching, we were ready to move to the online teaching and learning environment and our remote learning model went live.

Because we operate two platforms we are still collecting data for those students accessing via Moodle, however the results from our ALO platform – which account for 75% of our campuses – have been remarkable.

After the first week (23 to 28 March), the analytics tell us:

  • 1,371 live conferences took place for students
  • 1,770 ‘assignments’ were set for students through ALO
  • 7,100 ‘unique learners’ participated in the ALO learning and conferencing platform
  • 40,905 individual enrolments to online conferencing sessions occurred

We have been blown away by the uptake!

Many teachers reported better attendance through the learning platform than they had seen in their traditional classes. Quickly, driven by the COVID-19 ‘burning platform’, teachers began to experiment – with a rapid uptake of the ‘break out rooms’ feature in the app.

And where we were now operating in an entirely online environment, teachers found they have had time to respond to individual queries generated by students during what has naturally been a stressful shift in their working patterns.

In other changes, we have relaunched our Applied Learning Foundation (ALF) support for professional development of teachers to become the remote Applied Learning Foundation (rALF) to support remote working for teachers.

We also repurposed our student RAG report system to become a COVID-19 RAG system to help identify and then support high risk students who can’t, or won’t, settle into remote learning.

Conscious that we want to do what is best for our learners, we are already seeking their feedback as we look to improve the virtual learning experience and what more we can do to help them, and have set up a feedback survey for them to complete.

I can only wonder what next week will bring?

Lee Nicholls

Group Executive Director - Curriculum, Standards and Academies