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What do we know now that we didn’t know then? Reflections on education in a post-COVID world

Lee Nicholls is Deputy CEO of Activate Learning and is responsible for curriculum, curriculum planning; teaching and learning; and quality improvement and standards. He is also the founding CEO of the Activate Learning Education Trust (ALET) and co-chair of the ALET Trust Board.

10 August 2020

With a few weeks breathing room since the end of term I’ve found myself reflecting on all the work that has gone on across my organisation over the past several months.

If you told me a year ago all of the things that would have happened around the world and the impact it would have had on the education sector here in the UK, I would have rightly gone into the events of the past several months with enormous trepidation.

Yes, we had invested in a digital learning platform for the delivery of remote learning to students, and yes we have a highly capable digital education team that produce fantastic content to deliver online learning.

But the greatest barrier to true online delivery adoption has always been our own behaviours and the fact that until COVID, we – as a FE college group – haven’t ever been in a position where we’ve had to solely rely on online learning for the delivery of classes, with our bricks and mortar campuses in the heart of our communities. 

Then the unthinkable happened.

Life as we knew it got knocked sideways, and as an education provider we had to adapt quickly and went through a great deal of work in the weeks prior to lockdown to prime teaching staff and students for the shift to online learning.

And I was blown away by the way in which our students and teachers adapted!

Almost 1,400 live conferences were delivered and nearly 2,000 assignments set through our digital platform within the first two weeks alone.

Fast forward to the end of the academic year and I am incredibly proud of what we’ve managed to achieve at Activate Learning.

Our teachers have managed to set a staggering 17,000 online assignments, across 12,000 online sessions delivered to more than 7,000 students. Remarkable!

Lessons learned from COVID

So what do we take from this period? Because for all the negatives there are undeniably positives.

My first observation is perhaps an obvious one. Online teaching and learning is here to stay.

We’ve seen such terrific uptake from both staff and students it would be a retrograde step to simply go back to classroom-based delivery in the pre-COVID sense of that phrase.

However, it has to be done in the right way.

As we went into this crisis I was glad that we had invested in Activate Learning Online, our online delivery platform, and with hindsight I think we made a sound decision to drive everything we did through this platform.

By doing this it’s allowed us to plug in all our performance measuring tools and management information systems to give teachers a ‘ready-made’ class set up and data to track and improve our learners’ educational experiences.

Brick and click are equally important

The other thing that I think we’ve learnt is that online delivery alone isn’t enough.

While it’s fantastic at meeting the knowledge acquisition aspect of what we do as a FE college group, it doesn’t yet allow us to work with our students on the less tangible elements that we place great value on at Activate Learning.

Face-to-face learning and classroom environments are really important for teaching skills, behaviours and attributes. I’ve long said that the qualifications that we provide our learners with, will be what gets them an interview. But it’s the behaviours and attributes that we teach that will get them the job.

This is why we took the decision early to start the new academic year with a blended model, whereby students will alternate between onsite and online learning, or “brick and click” as I’ve heard it referred to.

This flip-flop model will allow us to combine the best of both, while also giving us agility around managing the safety and wellbeing should we need to go into further lockdown.

We also recognise that for our online delivery to be as good as possible, we need to provide both synchronous and asynchronous learning for students.

By that I mean live streamed teaching in online classrooms (synchronous learning) and developing a suite of materials for students to work through at a time that suits them best (asynchronous).

This will allow for more flexibility in the student’s learning experience and enable them to use their time differently, and because we are able to report out of the platform we use to deliver it we get great insights into learning behaviours over time.

When September comes

So as we sit here several weeks out from the start of the new term, I have a quiet optimism for the year ahead. Yes, there will inevitably be challenges and things to test our resolve, but we’ve laid the groundwork and clearly set out our stall with our learners.

We know we will need to take things much more gently at the start of the new term to settle people (back) into life at college, hence why we are dedicating the first three weeks to just that task.

Over the summer, our newly recruited students – again using our online platform – have been gaining familiarity with our colleges and with the teaching teams they will meet in the autumn, and we have used the platform to deliver their summer project. This should mean they come ready and more able to access learning online as a complementary component to the time they spend in college on practical work and applied learning.

COVID has taught the education sector many lessons, if you’ll forgive the pun, but the most important ones that we all need to realise is that online learning is here to stay and those who embrace it will be the ones who flourish.