A pedagogy-first approach to digital learning

Lockdown catapulted most colleges from exclusively face-to-face teaching to delivering all courses online.

No blend, just full-strength online delivery!

Lecturers, work-based assessors and trainers at West Lothian College threw themselves into remote delivery and worked hard to help students complete their qualifications online.

In a matter of days lecturers moved all learning resources onto Moodle and figured out which apps and digital tools they could master quickly to keep students engaged online and at a distance.

Work-based assessors switched from face-to-face delivery with employees in their workplaces to full virtual assessment customised for different industry sectors.

Trainers delivering learning to children’s hearing volunteers across Scotland created fully online courses as well as blended courses that used Zoom to simulate live children’s panels.

What did we learn?

What we learned from this experience has shaped what we are doing to support students this year. For example, our hair and beauty lecturers used Padcaster Studio to record demonstrations during lockdown that kept students engaged, and these are now being used in other curriculum areas for live streaming as well as recording and helping lecturers to reimagine how, for example, their students can compete in live skills competitions against other colleges across the UK.

Our lecturers live-streamed practical skills tasks performed by professional cookery students to enable them to compete in the British Student Culinary Competition 2020 via Zoom. The forty one awards achieved by our students were a testimony not only to their skills but to the creativity of their lecturers in designing such an excellent blended learning experience.

As colleges planned for return from lockdown, we were advised by government to adopt blended learning as the default, with the suggested blend being more online than on-site. JISC defines blended learning as providing “a combination face-to-face learning and dynamic digital activities and content that facilitate any time/any place learning.”

Done well, the blended approach combines the strengths of traditional face-to-face and digital teaching methods to give students a rich and engaging learning experience.

Like coffee, the strength of the blend often depends on personal taste and other ingredients in the mix. The stronger the online aspect of the blend, the more students need to have independent study and research skills, digital literacy, motivation and resilience.

One size definitely doesn’t fit all in a blended approach, and some courses have a stronger blend of face-to-face time on campus. This has focused on the delivery of practical activities that can’t be delivered online, for motivating and building relationships with students at risk of disengaging, and for supporting vulnerable students.

What helped?

Things we introduced prior to lockdown helped.

Our staff development week in August 2019 focused on digital skills for learning, with guest speakers and workshops on a wide range of tools and techniques.

A new learning and teaching innovation fund we launched last year paid for the introduction of a range of digital technologies for learning, like the Padcaster Studio mentioned earlier.

During lockdown, we ordered new laptops for all lecturers, upgraded our virtual learning environment and essential student systems, and provided access to training on digital skills for lecturers and other staff. We standardised on Microsoft Teams and Office 365 as our online platforms, mirroring what is used by all West Lothian schools.

As the top destination for school leavers in West Lothian, it is important that young people joining us use digital learning platforms familiar to them. Our excellent links with West Lothian Council and its digital learning team resulted in a dedicated member of staff is working with the college to connect our lecturers with resources available to teachers through Glow, Scotland’s digital learning network for schools.

How are we supporting staff?

Leadership in digital pedagogy is being provided by a cross-college group supported by a new post that has been filled by an experienced lecturer with expertise in digital pedagogy. The group has met every course team to understand their vision for blended learning, advise how to adapt their pedagogy to achieve that, and offer bespoke support to help them. They are surveying all staff to better understand their training and development needs in relation to digital skills, literacies and pedagogy.

Twice-weekly virtual drop-in sessions facilitated by our digital lead, and a staff learning academy on Moodle that hosts training materials on our digital platforms, are improving the confidence of lecturers. Demonstrating leadership of this pedagogy-first, digitally-confident approach all faculty directors and managers are completing the same training so that they are equipped to support lecturers.

An online community of practice to share tips and techniques is gaining momentum with those involved in the delivery of learning, teaching and assessment. Many are excited by the possibilities for adapting their practice to get the most out of the blended approach. Others are more reticent and we hope that the support put in place will build their confidence.

A very exciting next step is that the group will be reaching out to student representatives to find out what students need for digital upskilling. The staff academy on Moodle will be replicated for students, giving them access to many of the same training materials available to lecturers.

Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Pedagogy!

The vital ingredient for successful blended learning is pedagogy, a clear understanding of the place and purpose of digital tools in teaching.

Digital skills, digital literacies and digital confidence are essential for applying these tools effectively in learning and teaching.

As lecturers move towards registration with the General Teaching Council Scotland, the Professional Standards for Lecturers in Scotland’s Colleges set out the values, knowledge and understanding, and practice expected of those in the profession. Digital learning, technologies and literacies are woven into these standards.

The pandemic accelerated the use of digital learning, teaching and assessment in all education sectors, from a ‘fight or flight’ response when we were forced into lockdown to a more planned approach this academic year where the blend is through necessity more online than face-to-face.

Beyond these emergency years, we need to refine the blend for our students so that it is right for them.

Adopting a pedagogy-first approach will ensure that learning and teaching are in the driving seat and not the technology.

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