What Good Looks Like in Digital Learning Technologies

By Rebecca Garrod-Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust

Two weeks in and it’s clear that 2021 has started in that way synonymous with the Covid pandemic: change at a pace.

The new national lockdown has cancelled A-Levels and GCSE examinations in England, and shifted learning predominantly online across the UK. Where possible working from home, often alongside home-schooling, is being enforced.

Unlike the first lockdown, we are now more well aware of the implications of these changes, from the digital divide hitting the vulnerable hardest, to the doubling-up of teacher workload where a hybrid approach serves key workers’ children in school and everyone else online, to the impacts on all of our mental health and wellbeing as we juggle the impossible.

Whilst we work through these intense Zoom-enabled days, it is worth us reflecting as a sector on “what good looks like” in online learning and learning technology. Remote platforms hastily deployed to deal with a crisis are not the best of tech – it’s important that this doesn’t get embedded in the national thinking as what online learning really is. We know that digital technologies can be way more ambitious and impactful than the worksheet and wave approach we have now all tired of.

Indeed, a recent Fosway Group research study with over 136 enterprise organisations across Europe, conducted across August and October 2020, showed that whilst 95% of learning leaders believe learning and development had changed forever due to the pandemic, there is room for improvement in going beyond initial crisis adoption to more considered use of collaborative tools for skills development. (For example, the research shows that 70% of organisations are using Microsoft Teams for their virtual classrooms, but only 10% rated it as effective.)

Interactivity and collaboration identified as success factors in the use of virtual classroom technology

At Ufi our funding has helped our understanding of what good looks like. Our recent evaluation report (looking at our first 59 closed projects, representing more than 250,000 beneficiaries in total), identified some of the critical success factors in technology deployment for skills development; across structure and nature of project teams, engaging with stakeholders and user groups, and investment, resources and user-experience.

These areas were also identified in the recent Fosway research, where interactivity and collaboration (including live collaboration and group exercises, and active and personalised learning), differentiation from other virtual meetings, professional production, and ease of use, were all identified as success factors in the use of virtual classroom technology.

The vocational sector will be comfortable with interactivity and collaboration. Indeed, a quiet Government announcement deferred the decision on vocational exams going ahead to be passed back to Further Education colleges, many of which are able to continue their face-to-face teaching due to the practical nature of teaching. Others are using technology to ensure vocational learning can continue. For example, The Isle of Wight College which last year used our rapid response funding to deploy the more sophisticated elements of Teams to connect employers and learners, and pastoral support so that apprenticeships were not disrupted. (As an aside, The Isle of Wight now has one of the highest rates of Covid in the country so this flexible approach to continuing skills development has proven even more indispensable. And the Ufi-funded Blended Learning Essentials course continues to prove popular for this reason).

Other projects which show the more ambitious and impactful side of technology for skills development, particularly relevant for the moment, include those geared around preparing front line workers for their new environments during the pandemic. For example, here are two friends-of-Ufi supporting healthcare workers. Firstly, South West College in Belfast last year launched a virtual learning environment with expert information on end-of-life care to help health and social care trainees feel more confident about their new experiences. And Virti, a TIME innovation of the year company, developed immersive technology to allow health workers to simulate healthcare situations from how to kit up in PPE, to how to communicate to families, to how to react to adverse situations in surgery.

Both of these examples rely heavily on the collection of data to best understand learner needs, and to adapt and fine-tune learning environments and content accordingly, to the benefit of the learner and employer. Both also understand the interplay between human motivations and needs, and the use of technology, something Ufi is also particularly passionate about.

In our Theory of Change, we talk about reflecting good practice in project design – designing the right thing to meet real user needs as well as designing to a high standard.

This means no more simple shifting of offline timetables to online, to workshop and wave, and to Zoom fatigue. We know digital technologies can offer so much more than that for skills development, and we are excited to see more impactful innovations come online in 2021. 

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Listen to the VocTech Podcast featuring Virti and learn more about VocTech Seed grant funding.