Digital Skills are Essential in a Global Pandemic (and Beyond)

Digital Skills are Essential in a Global Pandemic (and Beyond)

David Prinn

Research Group Lead and Quality Lead

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

The projects

In early 2021 we secured additional funding from the Education and Training Foundation for a small number of action research projects, based on Essential Digital Skills (EDS), which would run alongside the OTLA 7 projects. Having started much later than the main programme these projects were completed in a much shorter timeframe, running from January to April 2021 (and this included a break for Easter).

Seven projects were selected, all of them from Adult and Community Learning (ACL) providers which is where much of the work in EDS is currently taking place. The short timescales of the programme were more suited to the ACL providers who typically offer shorter courses lasting a few weeks. You can read the reports from the seven projects in the following pages.

Project Initiation meetings were quickly arranged at which we worked with teams to refine their research proposals to ensure they could be completed within the allocated timeframe. A truncated version of the Action Research CPD was included to get teams started quickly then they were able to join with OTLA 7 project participants at CPD events such as research round tables and writing workshops. One project lead commented after the first meeting “I am blown away by what’s available and the CPD opportunities on offer through this programme. Thank you!”

The project mentors, Lynne and Chloë, provided intensive support to the project teams, meeting with the teams more frequently than on the OTLA programme to maintain momentum. One project lead said:

“Thank you for the opportunity to take part in the project and for all your help and support mentoring us. We really feel like it’s been worthwhile and made a difference and we are keen to carry on with our research too”.

Pandemic-driven development of teaching approaches

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stimulus to develop the use of digital approaches. As teachers and learners were confined to their homes they needed to find ways to continue their education and the obvious solution to the problem was to make better use of digital technology. Teachers who may previously have been reluctant to engage in digital approaches now saw the benefit as it provided the best solution to their current problem.

It is, perhaps, ironic that it has taken a global pandemic to enable some parts of our education system to see the benefits of teaching online where previous initiatives such as FELTAG (BIS, 2014), which tried to impose arbitrary quotas for online learning, have been less successful. Busy teachers need a better motivation for learning how to change their approach than “you have to do it because we think it’s good”.

A quota or target-driven approach will inevitably encourage teachers to find ways to do the minimum to hit the target rather than researching the best ways to make use of digital approaches. Teachers may take the line of least resistance by trying to make use of apps that they are already familiar with, for example “I know how to use xxx app, how can I use it to squeeze some technology into my course?”.

This approach can be thought of as a “solution looking for a problem” and results in mainly Substitution of technology for existing approaches (or at best Augmentation – providing some minor functional improvement) which are the lowest levels on the SAMR model of incorporating technology (Puentedura, 2006).

In 2020 teachers were driven by having an immediate problem to solve rather than the extrinsic motivation of arbitrary targets to meet. They were motivated to find the best solution to the problem rather than being driven by their favourite apps. This has resulted in Modification and Redefinition of their teaching approaches (the highest levels on the SAMR model).

As Terada (2020) puts it “Good technology integration isn’t about using the fanciest tool, it’s about being aware of the range of options and picking the right strategy – or strategies – for the lesson at hand.”

Meeting the needs of learners

Most of the projects developed courses to meet the immediate needs of learners rather than just to gain a qualification.

Coventry AES were the only provider who worked with learners who were gathering evidence for EDS Qualifications (EDSQs). The focus group was Coventry City Council staff who needed to improve their digital skills for work and for daily life.

The remaining projects concentrated on finding out what digital skills learners needed to meet the challenges of the lockdown situation. This may have included how to communicate with family and friends or shop online
as well as being able to access courses remotely.

Westminster AES developed a resource to promote independence in learners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities. Learners needed tailored support to access programmes like MS Teams for the first time.

Teachers also took the time to find out what devices learners had available to them and tailored courses to what was available.

Islington ACL delivered their course via Zoom and the tutor used interactive PowerPoint presentations. Their learners used a range of different devices to access online courses and they did not want to restrict the project to just one device.

EDS is about more than just hardware and software

Not all of the projects focused on how to use digital devices or applications. One project focused on content.

Haringey ALS’s project was unique in exploring online misinformation, its impacts, how to detect it and how to warn others. It enabled some really powerful dialogues about information validity and the motives of some ‘posters’ of social media messages. The project focused on women (especially single mothers).

One powerful aspect of this project was teachers working with learners to jointly plan relevant activities and design appropriate resources. Learners created video diaries and community messages outlining the positive influence on their wellbeing.

Coventry AES’s project also featured iterative co-creation of curriculum and resources with learners as partners. Teachers trialling new tools (for example Jamboard) really benefited from ‘live’ learner feedback and immediate reflection and action by the teachers – the compressed timescales for the EDS Action Research programme encouraged this!

This type of working also allows rapid challenging and action-taking on teachers’ previous assumptions (such as Westminster AES who had assumed that students would know their student number from an ID card and their date of birth in a specific format – key data required to log on to their network).

Newcastle City Learning developed a short course for trainee caregivers about digital notetaking. They found by consulting learners that learner perceptions of their digital skills were different to the teachers’ assumptions. Learners’ anxieties were based around the content of the notes themselves rather than the digital skills required to undertake the task.

COVID-19 leads to Catch-22

Barriers between IT and ESOL departments have been broken down during the course of this programme. The pandemic, and the need to access courses remotely, meant that ESOL learners now needed digital skills to be able to participate but, in some cases, before COVID-19 the IT dept (who delivered EDSQs) would not allow learners to access courses if their English was below a certain level.

This led to a Catch-22 situation where the learners needed to improve their digital skills before they could access the course which would improve their English, but they needed to improve their English to enable them to access courses which would improve their digital skills.

The solution found by project teams was for ESOL and IT tutors to work together to enable learners to develop their English and digital skills together.

At Barnsley MBC an ESOL tutor and an ICT tutor worked together to develop visual resources that enabled Entry Level 2 ESOL learners to access their courses from home.

“This collaboration has been the trigger in
developing stronger working relationships amongst colleagues from
different curriculum areas who now regularly draw on each other’s
expertise when required”.

One key finding from this programme is that EDS (at this level) needs to be embedded in ESOL courses and delivered by ESOL teachers. As one project lead commented: “It’s easier to develop an ESOL teacher’s digital skills than teach an IT teacher how to teach ESOL” and Islington ACL’s project team said “(we) believe that the key to its success was the way in which it was delivered by ESOL teachers rather than IT teachers”.

The ideal situation would be to have an ESOL tutor and an ICT tutor team-teaching. Barnsley MBC tried this approach and they found that “Teaching using ICT can be stressful for ESOL tutors, but we found having an ICT tutor to support was very useful and the ICT tutor found that having an ESOL tutor present also helped communication”. Of course, there are cost implications associated with having two teachers in a classroom (either face-to-face or online) which means that this approach (even though it may be the best solution for the learners) may not be sustainable financially. Perhaps a worthwhile follow-up action research project might be to investigate to what extent, after a period of team teaching, ESOL teachers have become confident enough to deliver the EDS content by themselves.

Collaboration is key

Because this programme took place at a time when the country was in lockdown, face-to-face meetings and collaboration between providers was not possible in the same way that it had been in previous OTLA programmes, but the teams made good use of digital technology to meet online.

The project teams especially valued the opportunity to share their findings and hear about the other EDS projects at an online sharing event which also acted as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for their presentations to the wider OTLA programme participants.

“Just had a great morning sharing findings of #EDS_AR with really
supportive #FE and #ACL colleagues from across the UK. This time last
year, I would’ve been terrified but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
#practicemakesprogress #justdoit” (Tweet from project lead after event).

The EDS project teams joined with the OTLA 7 teams to present the findings from their projects at an online dissemination event which took place in July 2021. You can watch a video of their presentations by following the link at the end of this report.

Although collaboration between providers was limited by the conditions of the pandemic, an important outcome from this programme was the value of collaboration within their own organisation between teachers from different curriculum areas, professionals at different levels working together and even teachers within the same department who found they had more opportunities to collaborate with each other because they were working on an action research project.

At Westminster AES the LDD team worked collaboratively with EDS tutors in the design and implementation of an induction resource. After taking part in the project one learner commented “I now prefer doing courses online and learn more by doing it this way”.

Islington ACL’s project was a collaboration with tutors from two curriculum areas – ESOL and digital specialists. They developed a short discrete Digital Skills course for ESOL learners that enabled them to confidently access email and Zoom sessions.

Manchester AES used an existing app to develop EDS skills with learners who had low levels of English and with Entry Level ESOL learners. Teachers from different curriculum areas came together to discuss their experiences of using the app and to improve how they used it with their learners. They commented that “it was good to see collaboration happening amongst professionals of all levels and experiences” with members of the project team ranging from a student teacher to a curriculum manager. The app is now being used in a “Digital for ESOL” short course that has been cocreated by teachers from Digital Skills and Talk English teams.

Newcastle City Learning noted that “the project enabled a space for staff to connect and talk about teaching and learning. This is something that is not always prioritised but was really appreciated”.

Back to normal?

In recent years much of the emphasis in Further Education seems to have been on 16- to 19-year-olds resitting GCSE English and maths. These projects have reminded us that there is more to FE than that. The Adult and Community Learning providers have had an important role to play during the pandemic and have demonstrated that they were able to adapt to the unprecedented situation that they were presented with. They have helped adults to access learning in ways that would not have been thought possible previously.

As we write this in the summer of 2021, restrictions caused by the pandemic are being lifted and there is talk of going ‘back to normal’. Will we want to return to working in the same way that we did before the pandemic? Or will there be a ‘new normal’ that continues to use the best of the new teaching approaches that have been developed to enable learners to access their courses remotely.

The pandemic has enabled teachers to explore more efficient ways of working (without having to be threatened with quotas or targets) and it seems likely that many will want to continue using these approaches in a blended format for part of the time with face-to-face teaching only being used where it is necessary.

The ACL providers are now well placed to assist adults and other disadvantaged members of their communities to develop the digital skills that are essential in the post-pandemic world.

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