Don’t look back in Anger - Covid 19 and an opportunity to reframe

I hope all my friends and ex colleagues in the sector will, as I turn 70, permit my brief moment of reflection in these challenging times.

By Bob Harrison.This article first appeared in the TES on 16 April 2020

I am devastated by the fact that after spending twenty years trying to persuade politicians, policymakers, principals, governors and head teachers of the importance of investing in digital infrastructure, and the digital capacity and capability of our education workforce, to engage more learners and enhance teaching learning and assessment, a deadly virus achieves more in a couple of weeks.

I wonder whether I could have done more to get my message across as this is such an enormous cost to pay.

So what now?

Well the remote working, online/blended/virtual learning and assessment genie is well and truly out of the bottle and I am not sure it will, nor is it desirable, it goes back in?

For those of you have been gracious enough to invite me to keynote at your staff conferences, run workshops, mentor your digital leaders or even let me loose on your Governing Bodies you will be familiar with my thesis which can be summarised as:

“This is not about technology…it is about new ways of thinking.”

gilrs online

My first call for this came in a TES article in 2012 entitled “Wanted Pioneers” in which I suggested that the way we designed, supported, delivered, funded, inspected, assessed learning and held our FE sector accountable was under strain and indeed no longer fit for purpose. It was this and several other critical pieces about the lack of progress in the sector despite huge sum having been spent by Becta and even bigger sums by JISC, LSC, LSIS and other agencies, not to mention the Colleges themselves, that led to the them FE and Skills Minister to invite me and several other FE “techie types” to create the Further Education Technology Action group which reported to the Minister and received a positive response

Sadly Matt Hancock (who also sponsored a wider Education Technology Action Group was reshuffled to the Cabinet Office and his successor Nick Boles had neither the vision nor understanding of the issue to see through the changes required. The never saw the light of day as Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State binned it without a second glance.

Despite this, many FE Colleges embraced the spirit of the Feltag report and they should be in a strong position to meet the current and future challenges that face us.

I had a second opportunity to try and nudge the collective FE mind-set to prepare for a digital future when the DfE/BIS announce the Area Based Review process and I was invited to join the National Advisory group. However I failed once again despite my optimism evident in another piece for TES

The Area Based Reviews were a huge diversion of energy and resources at a crucial time for our sector and were misnamed, largely because school sixth forms were not included. More importantly however the then FE commissioner’s mind was fixed and insufficiently open to explore the opportunities digital technology could have provided for FE.

 It became a College rationalisation programme with huge opportunity cost. So it still remains the case that our sector has enormous resources trapped in huge glass palaces, buildings and land which need to be realigned and reinvested in digital infrastructure and most importantly workforce capacity and capability.

In recent times the Education and Training Foundation has made a great effort to create a standards framework for digital educators and created lots of online resources, JISC continues to provide industry strength connectivity, audit tools, benchmarks, research and reports and the UfI Trust has invested over £5m in projects supporting the innovative use of technology in further, adult and vocational education, with a specific fund recently created to help with the post Covid19 challenges.

However, looking back will not take us forward. We must learn lessons from the past so I make no apologies for repeating these key questions once more:

Do you have a vision for learning that embraces the potential technology offers us for teaching, learning and assessment and the capacity to plan to achieve that vision?
  • Do you have digital leadership at every level of the organisation?
  • Do you empower the learners to use their own devices and expertise?
  • Do you have a sufficiently reliable and robust digital infrastructure?
  • Do you have a sustainable plan to resource and replace hardware and software?
  • Do you work closely with employers and their own use of technology in the workplace?
  • Do the funding, assessment, inspection and accountability measures help or hinder the provision of online, blended and virtual learners? (This is a question for DfE and policy makers)
  • Answering all of the above however will be meaningless unless:
  • Do you have a workforce that has the capacity, capability and confidence to use digital technology to support online, blended and virtual learning and assessment?
Hopefully Covid19 will be over soon but the challenges which arise from these questions will be with us for the foreseeable future and Colleges and Learning providers will need a significant investment in resources to meet them.

We cannot afford to go back to trying to force new digital technologies into old ways of working; we need a paradigm shift and new ways of thinking. I wish I could have been more persuasive.

Bob Harrison is a former Principal and currently Chair of Governors at Northern College and a governor at Oldham College. He served two terms as a trustee of the UFI trust, was a member of FELTAG and ETAG and retired as Toshiba’s Education Adviser two years ago.

Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu