The state of digital skills among the workforce isn’t good enough and is letting learners down, writes Robin Ghurbhurun at ed tech organisation Jisc

There are too few colleges and providers in the UK whose staff have the technical expertise, support and vision to realise the potential of digital technology in teaching practice. This is potentially an urgent issue as Number 10 warns more local lockdowns might be headed our way.

Most colleges are not digitally transformed organisations, but rose to the pandemic challenge as best they could.

Staff made enormous efforts under challenging conditions to support learners during mass disruption, usually by switching lessons to video conferencing platforms.

But this is not an inclusive or sustainable model. It excludes disadvantaged learners, who don’t have easy access to devices or wi-fi, and can result in lack of engagement over time.

To give today’s learners the best chances in the workplace of tomorrow – and in any upcoming lockdowns – the sector must do better. To do that, teachers need support to upskill.

Over the summer, the Association of Colleges and Jisc conducted a joint research project comprising three webinars and two senior leader roundtables attended by more than 400 practitioners, learners, senior leaders and ed tech experts.

It offered us an insight into the impact of lockdown on teaching and learning online, with data on the digital divide, wellbeing, assessment and digital leadership all collated in the project’s first report, Shaping the Digital Future of FE and Skills.

The report highlights a range of responses about the shift.

For instance, 66 per cent of respondents at the webinars thought the digital shift had a positive impact on their team and 55 per cent pointed to an increase in their levels of productivity.

But others struggled with digital capabilities and confidence.

Nearly half of staff (49 per cent) said they were concerned they would not be able to deliver the quality of teaching they expected of themselves.

Senior FE leaders taking part in the research also identified the need for digital professional development and coaching for staff struggling to cope with the transition.

Worrying findings also emerged from our learner digital experience insights 2020 report published last month, which collated responses from more than 19,000 further education learners.

When asked what one thing organisations could do to improve the quality of digital teaching and learning, among the top answers learners gave was “help teaching staff to develop digital skills”.

One lecturer took 35 minutes of the lesson to access the materials they needed

One participant in the survey even said: “We timed one of the lecturers on how long it took for them to access the learning materials they needed and it took 35 minutes of a two-hour lesson.”

Sadly, this isn’t good enough.

But it’s not surprising. Our equivalent staff survey (due to be published in November) finds that a significant proportion of staff lack confidence using technology. Just more than four in 10 are comfortable using mainstream technology.

Fortunately, the sector can learn from those few colleges that are ahead on the journey to digital.

During lockdown, Grimsby Institute gave staff an online “teaching and learning remotely” guide, including videos on how to create and organise lessons including running discussions, preparing online resources, integrating apps, virtual teaching, online assessment and recording attendance.

And at Harlow College, a digital innovation team have boosted development and training, recruited digital ambassadors and leaders and launched a strong CPD programme.

Drawing on these examples, our report with the AoC recommends the development by the Education and Training Foundation, the College Development Network (Scotland) and Jisc of a digital pedagogy CPD programme for staff.

A further recommendation advises that providers and colleges should give staff sufficient time to learn, practise with, and implement technology.

Learners need excellent digital skills to thrive in today’s workplace, and providers and colleges are at the forefront of the government’s drive to close the UK skills gap.

But meeting those goals is only possible if FE teachers are digitally and pedagogically confident.

Now we need to pull together to ensure that no member of staff – or learner – is left behind.