Online Learning Approaches

Shipley College and Waltham Forest College

Shipley College, Bradford and Waltham Forest College (WFC), London collaborated to use digital technology to support the progress of GCSE English re-sit students working face to face and online during lockdown 2020–2021.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Our aim was to share ideas, resources and innovations in the teaching of post 16 GCSE English Language between the teaching teams from two colleges in the north and south of England. The challenge we wanted to explore was centred around the question: How can we engage GCSE English students using digital technology for learning?

Shipley College is a small Further Education College situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire, in the District of Bradford. Our local population is culturally and ethnically diverse and this is reflected in the student cohort. At Waltham Forest College, we are one of the most diverse colleges in London and are even more diverse than the local community. Our borough is one of the most culturally rich areas in the country, but also one of the most deprived. There are 97 different languages spoken and our students are drawn from across London and from a wide variety of backgrounds.


The project was born out of a collaborative relationship between two Advanced Practitioners who had already worked together on a pilot study to engage learners through using webinars. We wanted to cement this cross-organisation relationship and build on some of our findings as well as investigate how we could develop students’ confidence in transferable skills for further and higher study as well as in the workplace. We hoped to learn from the participants (both students and colleagues) about how our learners could be encouraged to help themselves to learn. We also wanted to develop a professional exchange of ideas and resources.

Our intention has been to engage students through using authentic, collaborative activities and facilitate cross-centre peer feedback to support their development both in terms of GCSE and also in developing transferable skills relevant to progression.

We were originally concerned about motivation and engagement, particularly how we engage students remotely using digital tools and this has proven to be a pertinent area of interest during lockdowns. We wanted to harness the power of technology (for example, Google and Microsoft Forms) to easily collect feedback from students about face to face and online methodologies in a qualitative way with short, regular responses from both staff and students to trace developments.  We wanted to gain feedback about engagement, confidence, progress and the effectiveness of learning strategies from our groups and from specific students.


Both colleges created content to be used with our own students and with each other’s. Shipley created a webinar and digital learning materials exploring Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Stoker, 1897) and this was co-taught at WFC. Shipley students wrote responses to the set tasks, which WFC students discussed and gave feedback on. Both cohorts learned from the experience in several ways, including reflecting on how they approached such tasks themselves, and how they engaged with texts in their own writing.

There is much research on Assessment for Learning and student engagement (see, for example, Black and Wiliam, 1998). Our research with students also revealed that participation in self- and peer-assessment activities enhanced both their engagement and their achievement. We found that students ‘didn’t hold back’ with their comments and that they enjoyed the process of giving feedback.

Comments on other learners’ work were constructive, for example:

“Never start a sentence with ‘I think’, expand your vocabulary”

“Use a better adjective than ‘scared’ such as ‘worried or anxious”.

We found that engaging in peer-assessment also gave students the confidence to voice their opinions:

“In my opinion, I feel as if JW evidence is a much stronger piece and more detailed because he goes straight to the point in detail of how the writer is subconsciously feeling. In addition, he uses more quotes to back up his point”.

WFC created a webinar and digital learning materials exploring Rudyard Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast (Kipling, 1890). Shipley students learned from the resources and responded with a range of literary analysis and imaginative writing based on the theme.

As the second lockdown occurred and the prospect of the planned exchange visits was thwarted, the action researchers changed course and WFC wrote letters to the students at Shipley, introducing themselves, sharing a little about their lives, and writing about their experience of studying GCSE English.

The learner voice has been captured throughout and both partners in the collaboration have learned from the shared experience. This can be seen in the students’ responses at the beginning and towards the end of teaching by two parallel surveys conducted across both colleges as well as at various points in between at WFC (Appendix 1).

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Image of a piece work with peer review

Piece of work with peer review

This year has brought challenge and change; our collaboration has enabled us to respond to the immediate need to engage learners remotely and to develop our practice. Both colleges had cohorts of students to teach and needed to respond to their needs, but the project enabled us to share our passion about teaching, discuss new ideas and promoted a culture of sharing ideas and academic exchange.

Digital learning has become the new norm! Staff have upskilled in a way we never thought would be possible and this will have a long-term future impact on teaching and learning. Students have also come to appreciate what we offer in college and the relationship and collaboration between students and staff has proved, this year particularly, to be a central and invaluable part of the educational experience.

The structure of using quick response methods to gather student feedback and reflection has allowed us to put the student voice at the centre of our planning and preparation. When surveys or polls were completed, the practitioners ‘drilled down’ on individual responses to gain more insight as well as to respond to particular needs, and often outside of the classroom contact space. A typical example of this is when a WFC student mentioned they would like extra sessions and/or practise exam papers to do in their own time; these requests were discussed with individuals and accommodated for wherever appropriate. In another example, students were able to share their feelings about how they had responded to learning in lockdowns before they returned to face-to-face sessions which tutors could follow up. Around half of our learners wanted to continue learning online.

One learner commented:

“I feel like online no matter the time or place, I find it easy concentrating at home without being disturbed.”

(Appendix 1).

The student work attached in the appendices demonstrates high engagement from our learners which has affected how we plan and the activities we choose. Our collaboration has stimulated us to reflect on our practice and motivated us to share what we have learned. To summarise our key learning, we can reflect that students can be motivated and engaged with different types of learning (whether online or face-to-face sessions) using a variety of digital tools, and in anonymous as well as identifiable ways. Aside from this, when students are made aware that peers will be reviewing their work (for example for reading comprehension/evaluation skills), and that they are writing for a ‘real’ audience – as opposed to a teacher/examiner – they are much more likely to make extra effort in the production of work. In practice, peer assessment turns out to be an important complement to self-assessment. Peer assessment is uniquely valuable because students may accept criticisms of their work from one another that they would not take seriously if the remarks were offered by a teacher.

We have recorded a podcast, ‘Let’s Get Digital’ (Sheppard and Salt, 2021) and written an article for Future FE Pedagogies, soon to be published. We have also discussed another article for publication in a German online journal publication: ’Ideen-und Innovations-management’ (Ideas and Innovation Management) (Gutkneckt and Heitmeyer, 2021).

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The growth in impact as illustrated by the data capture in Appendix 2 shows practitioners within the department working constructively in a new relationship with colleagues and students within and across institutions. As can be seen, there are several comparisons to make between students who were involved in the project (a) and students who were not (b). It is perhaps difficult to draw meaningful comparisons from this data due to the difference in response levels between OTLA and non-OTLA students. However, if we reflect on the information that has been given and assume that (for the non-OTLA students) it represents a significant minority (almost a third) of opinion then this is worth further investigation. Also, as practitioners we can still use the low response numbers as valid opinions that may well represent a larger but ‘silent’ majority.

All colleagues from the GCSE team at Shipley took part and the letter writing task proved popular. One tutor made a PowerPoint from the resources to use with her groups and another used the exercise as part of her annual observation and received great feedback.

At WFC, the English department is using the OTLA project outcomes and results of surveys to feed into discussions on how they can seek to use a range of canvassing tools and techniques to capture student voice throughout the academic year, and use feedback derived from the learner experience to dynamically respond to needs. Colleagues have been inspired to develop new and adapted TLA methods to motivate students towards higher levels of engagement and achievement and are working closely with the Quality Team to develop college-wide thinking on pedagogy and practice across areas. One particular practice we are reviewing is the use of surveying techniques (learner voice, targeting learning preferences, etc) at common points across the English cohort, and perhaps widening out to other areas.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The groups have made great progress, attendance and engagement have been moderate or high. One SEND student who has progressed from Entry Level to pre-GCSE and now GCSE has worked with increasing independence and achieved a grade 4.

The student commented:

‘When the teacher helps us, that’s good’, ‘I like it when we do fun things in class’, ‘I got to concentrate more this year’, ‘We do good work’.

The November re-sit results showed an 80% success rate at Grade 4 or above across both institutions, prompting a new direction, as a significant part of the original sample of students left the course upon receiving their result in January 2021.

Learner journeys captured in half-termly ILP reviews at Shipley on Google forms and at WFC using Microsoft Forms have demonstrated positive engagement and feedback from our students. We have evidence from documentation of conversations, anecdotal feedback from students and staff and short interviews which also reflect the positive response from students.

The exchange of ideas between our students led to a wonderful sharing of experiences and a very interesting documentation of the online learning experience during lockdown. Students spoke about their lives and described the places in which they lived; they demonstrated a genuine interest in the unknown student they were writing to.

One student commented:

“Reading the letters gave a great insight into what it’s like for other students. It allowed me to improve my English as it gave me ways to describe my city.”

Appendix 3 shows examples of peer feedback on the Dracula text, some sample letters exchanged between Shipley and WFC students, as well as some samples of Learner Voice as captured in the WFC end of year reflection survey (amongst students who participated throughout the year in the project, including writing letters). It demonstrates our students’ understanding of the success criteria required for GCSE English Language.

Four students involved with the OTLA project from start to finish and who completed all the surveys, peer review and letter writing work made the following comments in response to the survey question ‘What has helped you most to make progress in English this year?’ as follows:

I’ve definitely gained more confidence in my reading of different texts and understanding the concept and meaning of new words.

Identifying the language techniques and knowing where to put them in my creative writing.

The assessments we had helped me in English this year it helped me to have better writing skills and vocabulary.

Inspiration from my teacher and other students.

Learning from this project

The collaboration has enabled both tutors to gain considerable insight into student’s lives and learning styles which has impacted on how we plan, teach and assess our learners.

One tutor at Shipley said:

“I’ve found out so much more about my students that I would never have known.”

Students have responded positively in that they felt staff were making the effort to do something different, to give a real audience and purpose, and engage them in learning. One student stayed online to say, “Miss, I’m really excited about this.” The letter writing has proved to be successful on an unexpected level. The letters form a unique document of life and learning during lockdown. Some students chose to write anonymously but many were happy to sign with a personal name and keen to respond to the letters which had a name attached (Appendix 3).


Black, P. and William, D. (1998). Inside the black box. London: School of Education, King’s College London.

Gutknect, C. and Heitmeyer, K. (2021) Ideas and Innovation Management. Available at [Accessed 5/7/2021].