Upskilling staff – a cultural shift

Photo of Mel ColemanWhen thinking about teaching digital skills, whether directly as an Essential Digital Skills (EDS) course or embedded into other courses and subjects, it is also important to think about the skills and experiences of the teaching staff who will deliver these qualifications and develop these skills in our learners. In the third of a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’, Mel Coleman of South Thames Colleges Group explains what she has discovered.

What has been so illuminating about the pandemic and the need to switch to remote delivery has been the opportunity to find out what digital skills our teachers have, and how challenging a good deal of them have found the change to online delivery. Many extremely strong teachers with an excellent grasp of pedagogy in the classroom have struggled to take their engaging classroom practices online, and lack confidence in their own digital skills, which then makes delivering and embedding digital skills that much harder.

South Thames Colleges Group is a large group of colleges in South West London, incorporating Kingston College, Carshalton College, Merton College and South Thames College. The Group delivers further and higher education and adult community learning and was graded ‘Good’ by OFSTED in February 2020.

In order to assess the digital skills of our staff, both teaching and non-teaching, we asked all colleagues to complete an online quiz to assess their digital confidence. This included aspects of the Essential Digital Skills Framework, as well as digital teaching learning and assessments. Topics included: selecting digital tools, digital collaboration and communication, digital information and media literacy, digital safety and wellbeing, creating learning content and facilitating blended learning.

We found was that a large number of staff lacked confidence in many areas. Not just in the digital pedagogy (delivering teaching, learning and assessment digitally and using educational technology), but also their own personal digital skills. Often many online teaching tools are intuitive and simple to use for those of us that are confident online, but for those lacking confidence they can appear quite intimidating and difficult to follow.

When considering the Essential Digital Skills Framework, even teachers who are confident in the skills covered by the framework (and indeed might even be delivering EDS qualifications) found that they still needed further professional development to incorporate digital into their teaching. They needed to develop their confidence and skills on how to deliver effective, engaging online learning.

This was made yet more challenging when looking at the lack of guidance and research there has been into online or distance learning in the Further Education sector. Most peer reviewed research focuses on higher education or schools, which has some transferability but is not always relevant for the levels and types of learners engaging in Further Education. Added to this, there was a lack of guidance from Ofsted and the Department for Education about their expectations for online learning until very recently. As a sector we had to find our own way.

So, we were faced with two issues:

1. How do we upskill our staff in basic digital skills and digital pedagogy, and help staff to recognise what is effective?
2. How do we support our staff to deliver effective remote and online learning to our learners in Further Education?

It’s important to note that, although the assumption is that younger learners are very digitally switched on, that is not always the case when it comes to online learning. We should also remember that Further Education serves large numbers of adults, who may be struggling with the digital aspects just as much as, or more than, our staff.

We are still very much in the early days of our digital journey, but what we have found helps massively for both staff and students is creating video content that they can watch, pause and re-watch at their own pace. Trying to deliver large, online staff development sessions did not support staff in the way that we would have hoped, and delivering smaller sessions definitely got more traction, but videos had the most positive feedback. Staff liked that they could watch the videos, go away and try something, and then return with questions and queries; almost mirroring a flipped learning approach to delivering our staff development.

We created our videos ourselves using screen-casting tools, as we found that despite the huge range of materials and videos available online, our staff seemed to prefer that personal touch. For some I suspect this might be that they lack the confidence to search online and then select a video that answers their query. However, for many it seemed that a familiar voice from a colleague and a video that is directed specifically at them, on the college specific systems and focused on a teacher’s point of view, was preferable.

It’s also important that for staff and learners alike that they are able to identify their own transferrable skills when it comes to digital technology. Many people use apps on their phone and tablets to chat with friends, for video calls with family and to shop online, yet find using online platforms like Teams daunting. Helping them take what they do in their day-to-day life and transfer it to learning is very important. For example, learners might not be confident on a PC but very confident on a gaming console like a Playstation or X-Box. So, we can get them accessing Microsoft Teams via their console in a way that is familiar to them before asking them to transition to a PC or tablet. Also, likening aspects of using Teams to Facebook is often useful to help learners and staff gain confidence in its use. For example, seeing the chat function like messenger, viewing the Teams like groups you are a member of, using @ to tag someone to get their attention the same way you do on Facebook.

To help our teachers identify what is effective and not effective in online learning, we emphasise that considering the learners’ point of view is key, for example, by asking them what they enjoy about their online learning and what they don’t, whilst of course using regular assessment to check that learning is taking place. We encourage our teachers to be brave and try out new things, and not be scared if it goes wrong. We have created ‘Effective Remote Learning – a Guide for Teachers’ which includes examples of synchronous and asynchronous learning; key principles for remote learning; example online lesson structures; top tips and myth busting to support our teachers. One of the key principles we have set is a ‘15 minutes maximum’ for didactic, teacher-led delivery to keep the lessons engaging for learners. As a colleague quite recently said to me, “I get bored if it’s just a presentation and talking, and I start to reach for the mouse to check my emails. So, if I find that boring, students will too”.

One of the requests we received a lot from both teachers and managers was for examples of best practice in online learning of teachers using tools or approaches in their lessons. In response to this we created a ‘Best Practice Teaching Network’ area on Teams and invited any teachers that we had heard were delivering best practice or doing something interesting with their learners. We are now planning to interview each teacher about what they have been doing and share this as a podcast for our colleagues, along with a short video demonstration where this is suitable. We have just conducted our first interview with a teacher from the Supported Learning Department at Carshalton College, and he shared how his learners have been creating their own podcasts to demonstrate their speaking and listening skills, as well as personal development skills such as planning, communication and collaboration.

In addition, one of the biggest challenges has been getting staff to understand that remote online learning does not mean that they have to be on a video call talking to the learners the whole time, and that for some learners, asynchronous forms of learning might be more accessible. This could be learners that share a device with a family member; that have limited WiFi or data access; or have caring responsibilities. For these learners, accessing learning in their own time, in a way that can still be tracked and measured by the teachers, could be the way forward. Many of the ways of achieving this are very simple, for example putting materials in the files of a Teams site, rather than sending via an email, allowing the teacher to see when learners accessed it and their work in real time. It’s a real cultural shift for a lot of teachers from delivering knowledge to curating resources and creating materials to facilitate learners’ development of skills and knowledge, whilst still being a presence for support, reassurance and reinforcement.

So what change is needed to support the development of teachers’ digital skills? We all know that Further Education is an underfunded sector, but with all the money in the world to provide top of the line devices to our teachers and learners, it’s not going to help if they are not confident in using them. Time is the biggest resource needed, time for teachers to upskill and develop their own confidence in their own digital skills and develop resources for good online learning. The expectation that staff can just switch online and deliver good teaching and learning is just not the case; for many this was not covered in their teacher training and it’s a different skill set to delivering in the classroom.

Further Education would also benefit from support via sectors other than education. We in Further Education are creating the workforce of the future, so it’s vitally important that in order to prepare learners for the world of work and make them employable, the teachers are able to embed the digital skills that employers want from their workforce. If employers were to engage with Further Education providers to deliver master classes to the teachers on the digital skills needed for their industries, that would support the teachers and create more employable learners.

And finally, we need more research. Even before the pandemic and the focus on online learning, the Further Education sector was woefully under-represented in the research available. It would be great to see more academic articles exploring how our unique cohorts of learners best learn and what we can do to help them progress, achieve and succeed, be that online or in the classroom. Our learners face unique challenges, and we need to do as much as we can to help them.

About the author: Mel Coleman is the Head of Quality (TLA & CPD) at South Thames Colleges Group. Mel previously worked in land-based colleges but moved to her quality role 5 years ago. Since the pandemic she has been focused on supporting the staff at STCG to upskill in the digital field to deliver effective learning remotely or through hybrid learning models.

About this blog: This is the third 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.