What can we learn from the experience of Digital Champions working remotely? How have they continued to engage and support learners?

Emma Weston OBE
Emma Weston OBE

The national entitlement to Essential Digital Skills – a free course for those with no/low digital skills introduced in 2020 – was a significant step towards acknowledging the digital dependency of all our national educational aspirations, especially important within a global learning world.

As Covid-19 spread, and as we retreated from our usual social (and learning) environments, the basic digital skills agenda ratcheted ever higher. Essential digital skills are not just an educational entitlement; they underpin every form of personal, social and civic participation: 78% of those online say the Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the need for digital skills, and 80% say using technology has been a vital support to them (Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2020).

Emma Weston OBE of Digital Unite argues that not only do practitioners need to think about how developing their learners’ digital skills will develop their learning capacity overall, they must also address the more pressing pandemic-provoked question of how they do this remotely.

Looking ahead, she considers what other opportunities the pandemic-influenced digital skills response might provoke for practitioners and for learners and explains why – whatever the sector or the context – those engaged with the digital skills development and support of others have much to gain by working more closely together.

What does Digital Unite do?

At Digital Unite we build the digital capacity of predominantly third sector organisations by building the digital confidence and digital skills of staff or volunteers in all sorts of roles to be Digital Champions (DCs).Those staff/volunteers may be front line workers and in operational and management roles, for example, housing managers, tenant liaison officers, Union Learning Reps, council staff (from desk based staff in operational and management roles to outreach workers and customer support and liaison workers). Within the charity and communities’ sectors, DCs may be managers, project staff/volunteers, outreach and support staff, and volunteer coordinators. We have many DCs who are library staff. These DCs then underpin, drive and support digital customers or service users of the organisation.

Our clients are charities large and small, social housing providers, local authorities, Unions, NHS in various guises … folk working on the front line, where the impact of digital exclusion exacerbates all manner of other inequalities, tensions and challenges.

The DC role is similar to the Further Education and Skills (FE&S) practitioner. DCs are not trained teachers but they are trained to be learner orientated. The extensive training in the Digital Champions Network (DCN) (which is CPD accredited) covers all areas of their work, from learner engagement, learner needs assessment, planning and progression of learning, monitoring and evaluating. The DCN also provides training on the skills they need to help others with different learning needs.

Perhaps FE&S practitioners, especially those who are not digital skills teachers, are becoming (subtle, or overt) Digital Champions within their wider pedagogic role. Their digital learners are our ‘digital customers or service users’.

Digital Champions do not have to be experts – but they do need to be enthusiasts. They don’t need technical brilliance – but they do need to believe in the potential of digital to support, extend and add value. They need to have patience, compassion and curiosity – they need to be able to map a learner’s context to their digital possibility. And they need to invest in their own digital skills development, to stay informed and connected – to communities of practice and to each other.

At Digital Unite, we’ve been creating and curating learning, support and tools for DCs to help them to help others develop digital skills for many years. We have aggregated our knowledge into an Open Source learning platform, the DCN, which hosts over twenty DC courses and hundreds of resources for learners.

How have DCs worked successfully online?

Our thousands of DCs come from many different organisations across the UK – approximately 300 have engaged with the DC model. None of them can currently work in person with learners. This is – and has been – a massive challenge at a time when demand for digital skills is at an all-time high. Almost a ‘perfect paradox’.

Last year, our DCs created nine guides for Remote Digital Champions. They cover practical and pedagogic challenges and are informative, useful resources for any practitioner seeking to support any learner to develop digital skills in just about any context. The guides draw on the experience of DCs working in informal settings.

Many suggestions for effective practice are the same online as face to face, but some are even more important to remember when working remotely. For example:

  • Focus and listen. Less visual clues mean it’s easy to miss when someone’s got confused or panicked by your instructions.
  • Take. It. Slowly. Remember it can take longer to learn virtually compared with face to face.
  • Use ‘old tech’ when and if you need to – use the telephone, as telephones not just smartphones! Verbal reassurance, a chat to reinforce learning or as back up with an unstable internet connection, can all support the learning experience.
  • Remember you don’t need to be a technical expert or professional troubleshooter and that it’s OK to make your learner aware of your limitations with ‘remote’ too. In fact, it can be reassuring to learners to hear you say, “I don’t know the answer to that”. Why not look for the answer together?!
  • Don’t try to do too much in one go. The average adult attention span is 15–20 minutes.
  • Allow time to sit back and let your learner practise on their own. It will help them remember what you’ve said.

(From: 32 useful tricks and tips for helping people with digital skills during lockdown)

Fundamental to the DC approach is getting to know your learner and to be attentive to each learner’s context for wanting or needing digital skills. DCs:

  • Listen to learners’ fears and find ways to build confidence and trust
  • Motivate learners to explore their interests online
  • Use the learners’ language, not the technically correct term
  • Pay attention to individual needs and adjust settings for accessibility.

Learning digital skills is hard work in the early stages; DCs are encouraged to break tasks into small steps and allow time for learners to write notes. Screen shots can help.

In January 2021, nine months into the pandemic, we analysed the main challenges our DCs were still facing.

Interestingly, although DCs work for a range of organisations across the country, we could group the challenges into key areas that resonated with all of them. I suspect that FE&S practitioners might draw up a similar list in relation to their learners.

Main challenges are:

  • Learners’ (lack of) access to appropriate kit and connectivity
  • Ability to actually find/get to learners who need to be helped
  • Helping learners with new devices
  • Safeguarding of learners and others involved in learning delivery
  • Specific learning barriers – age, disability, ESL
  • Inadequate data allowance for learning requirements
  • Learners understanding and using the right screen sharing tools.

For organisations with teams of DCs unable to work face to face with learners, we now provide practitioner support and development through webinars.

The themes and topics of these online sessions have been learner led, where the learners are the DC practitioners themselves. The first one of 2021 aims to support DCs to use Zoom effectively as an online learning environment for learners: how to engage people learning digital skills with a digital platform, so they can learn the skills they need to access their learning. There’s something in that statement that feels like it ought to be another ‘perfect paradox’ and yet, as we have discovered these past months, Covid-19 adaption is actually revealing opportunities for new, creative, enriching practice. After all, how can you really teach someone how to swim unless they are in water?

We are seeing organisations embrace and encourage a certain amount of experimentation in evolving DC practitioner support, such as our weekly online Coffee Mornings for one of our larger social housing clients. Begun as a way simply to keep human connections intact, these Coffee Mornings have become the backbone of DC practitioner support and development. Thematically focused, they deal with specific remote teaching challenges, offering tips, ideas and an environment in which DCs can support each other. They also include ‘remote practice’ sessions to enable DCs to learn and practise remote teaching techniques using specific programmes, apps or tools, with each other in a safe environment.

In terms of delivering basic digital skills in 2021, ‘what works’ for enduring and enriching practitioner support will be methods and practice that can take continual account of new challenges, consolidating good practice as methods are tried and tested. Equally important, facilitating – and nourishing – the sharing and aggregation of all the accruing knowledge.

What change is needed?

There is no doubt for me that Covid-19 has provoked change – through challenge – to digital skills learning and teaching which will remain with us and will continue to make our responses as practitioners ever more dynamic.

Remote methodologies, remote learners, remote practitioners can draw on the experience and evolution of Digital Champions, whatever the topic or subject, because digital is necessarily infused in all learning and teaching.

In my view, the change we need now is in how we design and deliver the ongoing resourcing, nourishment and support of as many groups and types of practitioners as possible. They all need to be or become Digital Champions on some level, be they our ‘regular’ DCs found in charities, social housing, health sector, FE&S practitioners now also required to embed a DC role into regular practice, or informal DCs – friends and family of those around us, known to us, who offer digital skills support.

I am also particularly interested in the role of the practitioner – especially, often, the informal or less formal practitioner – as the author/creator/inspiration when it comes to resource design and production. I see so many examples of brilliant, creative practice in so many different settings which need collecting and curating.

This is the time of the practitioner ‘muse’ as opposed to the ‘expert’. Our experience is that the best ideas and resources for DCs are being provoked or generated by those with first-hand experience, and who are thoughtful, curious, who want to be part of the engine of change and adaption and who have something to share.

‘Remote’ as a concept will become a given, has become a given. We will design practice and the resourcing of practitioners as ‘remote first’, with ‘blended’ a serendipitous second.

I also think the ‘value’ of the DC, whether as a community volunteer, as a charity leader, an FE&S practitioner, a friend, a daughter, a neighbour, needs to be recognised. I hope that with the acknowledgement of digital skills as a basic educational entitlement, the value of the DC type role of any practitioner will also grow.

FE& S practitioners are welcome to participate in the DCN, to use our free resources and hear about the positive experiences of our learners through our case studies on digitalunite.com.

Perhaps if digital skills have made it to the hallowed status of national entitlement, and with a little push from the pandemic, Digital Champions’ moment to share and to shine has arrived too.

About the author: Emma Weston OBE started Digital Unite in 1996. Formerly known as ‘Hairnet’, Digital Unite was initially focused on supporting older people to use digital technology and Emma built up a network of peripatetic trainers (the first ‘Digital Champions’) who were older digital enthusiasts themselves. Digital Unite has been specifically focused on the development and support of Digital Champions for the last ten years and built the first iteration of its online learning and support network, ‘Digital Champions Network’, in 2013. Emma has served on many digital inclusion and digital skills committees over the years, working with a range of government departments in the process. In 2012 she was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion.

About this blog: This is the fourth 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.