The Third Functional Skill: We should embed digital skills in all learning activities

Steve Grix Portrait

In the fifth of a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’, Novus Digital Learning Lead Steve Grix focuses on the importance of digital skills to learners in the Prison Education Framework.


Eighteen months ago, I started researching the importance of digital skills to learners in the Prison Education Framework (PEF), which covers the majority of education services for prisons up and down the UK. It covers a core curriculum of English, maths, ICT and ESOL. It replaced the (Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) system in 2019.

My motivation? To find something that would give the brilliant learner support practitioners, teachers and managers I work with the impetus to adopt digital transformation without question. I wanted to do this because I absolutely believed that this is what we needed to do, to create an environment where essential digital skills were something that all men, women and young people in the Framework had the opportunity to develop; however, I wanted something to support my belief in this. In the early stages of my research, I came across the Consumer Digital Skills Index from Lloyds Bank and it was clear from the first ten pages of the report that those who have what we consider to be the ‘Essential Digital Skills’ are more employable, more socially mobile and have a higher level of personal wellbeing. Why you ask? I would simply say read the report; it will jump out at you, but to bring it back to the prison sector these skills really were essential. Think about rehabilitation for a moment – the crucial period upon release where being able to get a job, accessing important support services and maintaining positive social connections are all much easier for a person who has digital skills than someone who has few or even none. For PEF, these are not a ‘nice to have’ they are a ‘must have’.

Overcoming the issues in Prison Education

If you were to talk about prison classroom technology with anyone working within the justice sector, many of them will paint a bleak picture about redundant systems, poor access and limited functionality due to security concerns. This is not completely true and is an always improving picture. Aside from the huge refresh of hardware and software that is ongoing alongside the implementation of a new and improved learning management system, there are the continued efforts of innovative educators on the frontline. One setback recently has been that we cannot proceed with accredited Essential Digital Skills (EDS) courses because of our inability to meet all the criteria due to security constraints. Our innovators’ response to this was simple – we might not be able to do this as an accredited course, but we could still embed digital in almost everything we offer, as we do with maths and English – it is the third functional skill. The question was – where do we start?

A Plan, Do and Review model for digital innovation

In March to April 2020, we were rolling out Education and Training Foundation (ETF) funded digital literacies training events online during the lockdown, and I was sitting on an idea about using the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) Model – a framework invented by Dr. Robin Puentedura – as a way of planning, implementing and measuring digital innovations in our classrooms and workshops.

If you want to know more about this, I made a video for attendees at these events. We introduced this concept, and it sparked a plethora of ideas from our colleagues attending the sessions, considering the constraints they had with technology. For me, the ideas in that room, tempered by the SAMR model, point the way forward.

Teaching digital skills without computers

Many key digital topics better lend themselves to being taught through discussion and collaboration to produce a non-digital output. In other words, building the knowledge within a group through shared exploration and experience, instead of as an individual; sat in front of a computer. This approach is illustrated with the Digital Skills Starters and ‘Enders’ resources which can be found on the ETF’s Excellence Gateway. Since sharing these with our innovative teachers they have developed more of their own, not only as starters and ‘enders’ but a whole range of learning moments:

  • Using Star Ratings to peer review work in construction and other vocational workshops to emulate the experience of online reviews and trade comparison websites.
  • Using ‘tweet slips’ to review a session and post ideas to a wall to emulate contributing to social/professional media groups and forums.
  • Using family engagement moments to find out how our family members are using technology and then discussing in class how we can help them do this more safely.
  • Planning an effective professional/social media profile or e-portfolio as a group using drag and drop flashcards.
  • Using key digital issues as speaking and listening topics for English exams.

The list really does go on.

Changing the way learners acquire subject knowledge

These examples are based on the work of several innovative educators across our network; however, I must say at this point, these are examples that utilised newly available technology. After acquiring tools such as Classflow, Triptico and GoConqr, we let our innovators play and checked in with them later to find out how they utilised the new software. Changing the dynamic of chalk and talk and moving towards learner-led group activity enhanced engagement in their classrooms. Most teachers would argue that if you get engagement right, most of the other stuff follows. But added to this were groups of learners who were learning about interfacing, navigating content and web applications, as well as the subject in focus. Moving away from more ‘analogue’ methods gave rise to questions and discussions about hardware, software and operating systems because they changed the medium. An organic embedding of digital skills or creating natural opportunities for their development occurs when we use technology as a learning medium in the first place.

Changing the way learners produce

I want to draw attention to three examples of ‘what works’ here.

Firstly, a very simple but impactful change which goes all the way up the ‘SAMR ladder’. One colleague photographs work created by bricklaying students as evidence. Rather than doing it all himself, his idea was to allow the learners to do this themselves, paving the way for the beginnings of learning about digital imagery. He used this as a springboard to build their knowledge about digital photos and how they can be used to build a portfolio of work online and what this can do for a sole trader in terms of marketing. A small idea with a big impact.

Another simple example was a colleague who stopped printing workbooks for learners to complete in their theory sessions and started having them complete digital versions in the computer lab. In doing this they started to learn about word processing and this also led to further opportunities to use other software types to create evidence pieces for their portfolio of work.

Finally, I had a very rewarding discussion with a horticulture teacher who was interested in using technology to help learners draw up design plans. His argument was that this made a huge difference in his learners’ ability to secure work on the outside, but they were currently using old fashioned methods for drawing up plans. Moving from pencil and paper to creative software allows his learners to develop key digital skills alongside the more practical skills of the trade, and not only are they able to draw up plans now but also creative visualisations for customers.

These examples all point to another important step we can take which will always work and offer up further possibilities. If we change the way learners produce their work with digital technology, then we give them the chance to develop digital skills naturally.

What change is needed?

In the short term we are about to have access to a Moodle based plugin for our learning management system which makes blended learning a reality. We need to stay on course and forge ahead with the innovation that is already happening and take some inspiration from the work that has already been completed by others. Using our computer labs as a bookable resource can ensure that all have access to blended learning opportunities no matter what they are studying.

In the long term we need to nurture innovations and ideas around in-cell learning. If Covid-19 has done one positive thing for the sector, it is a focus on what could be in this area. If we create opportunities for wider learning outside the classroom, we enhance the blended learning opportunities that already exist and create new possibilities for flipped learning and the benefits that can bring. I would encourage any colleague working within the sector to explore flipped learning and think about how it can remove the boundaries and obstacles we face, day-to-day, in our classrooms or workshops.

What next?

I will attempt to answer this question but also address the reader directly. In order to effectively embed digital skills in the day-to-day learning activities you support or manage, you need to understand them and build your own. The EDS Framework is easily accessible and gives a comprehensive breakdown of the important skills areas. Study these and ask yourselves these questions:

  • What skills naturally occur within the context of my teaching, learning and assessment?
  • The jobs I am preparing my learners for have important digital skills requirements – what are these and how can I prepare my learners for them?
  • What opportunities exist for me to embed digital skills but also utilise technology to enhance delivery and improve the learning experience?

Head to the Enhance Digital Teaching Platform and begin building your digital knowledge as a practitioner so that you are more prepared to help your learners develop these valuable skills.

You have already been through the Enhance resources? Great, now head to the Duke of York’s iDEA platform and build on that new knowledge.

Need to learn how to use a specific piece of software? Great, head to YouTube where you are likely to find more how-to-guides than you will need, or learn in a more focused way by investing a small amount in an Udemy course.

Please do not sit on your hands and wait for someone to train you – a digital practitioner is someone willing and able to train themselves on how to use new software or build on their existing knowledge. You have more power than anyone to evoke positive change for your learners.

Finally, keep a close eye out for any training or CPD opportunities provided by the ETF. Engaging with these programmes has been one of the most impactful things on our digital transformation journey and continues to be an important part of it.

About the author: Steve Grix is Digital Learning Lead for Novus. Steve started his career in a student support role and has worked in both a mainstream Further Education college and prisons. He has worked in the Justice Sector for 11 years, joining Novus six years ago. During his career with Novus, Steve has trained as a teacher and held a number of teaching and support roles in the organisation. His current role is Digital Learning Lead in the Business Development team. He has a strong focus on CPD within the digital transformation of curriculum and the application of technological innovations to improve the learning experience. Steve sits on the HMPPS English, Maths and Digital Literacies national steering group, the ETF Essential Digital Skills Advisory Group and the HMPPS Virtual Campus Board as a Novus representative.

About this blog: This is the fifth in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.

These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.

Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.

Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.

The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.