Patrick McGrath, Education Technology Strategist

An FE Q&A: The College of the Future

Our Educational Technology Strategist, Patrick McGrath, sat down with two leaders within the FE Sector for a Q&A on what the future holds for colleges in the UK. They discussed everything from the current state of the FE sector, the impact of COVID-19 on colleges, the role of technology and of course what they think the college of the future looks like.

Hear from Stefanie Wilkinson, an education and quality improvement specialist working most recently as Director of Teaching and Learning in a large general FE college. And Lou Mycroft, a self proclaimed “FE nomad” with a background in public health and community work, who spent nearly two decades at the Northern College before making the decision to work nationally. 

Patrick McGrath:
Today we're going to be focusing on Further Education and in particular the recent UK-wide College of the Future report that set out a range of recommendations for both reform and renewal of the college systems. And we're going to be having a look at that report and discussing what our panelists views are on it. So Lou, Stef, you are very, very welcome and thanks for giving up your time today.

The current state of FE

So if we go back to where we started this year, we've had our periods of lockdown and remote learning. We're still going through the cycles of students having to isolate. There's lots going on there right now, but what do you think are the current challenges facing FE in this academic year?

Stef Wilkinson:
I think we've got a lot going on and we're still at a crossroads in that we have a decision to make about whether we actually move forward with a change to approach, workload, and wellbeing. I know we have restrictions. I know we have the constraints of funding and we're all trying to find a route from that. But we have to choose different options to help with workload and with the future.

Lou Mycroft:
I absolutely agree with everything Stef says there. And I think where we're at now is in a state of normalized panic and that is really unhealthy. People are absolutely on their knees and I know all teachers are on their knees by this time every year. But people are beyond exhausted and yet are still grafting to try and turn round, take the opportunity to turn a fear into something else. 

Let's maybe get a bit more specific on that. If you take the College of the Future report and what your experience has been, what do you see as the opportunities that we have for change within FE because of what we've been through in the last few months? 

Something that bubbled up to my mind was about the different approaches we can take with education. The most obvious one is use of technology to really enrich and connect students with the whole world. It's about thinking bigger and bolder. It's about thinking outside of the box, how can we do things differently? 

I keep going back to the same phrase, which is about holistic development of people. So when we talk about holistic development, we need people centered approaches, not get this job, earn this much money and then have a nice life because we know that doesn’t exist. So it's about again, bringing it back to people development, it’s about focusing on the people element and how we can influence the society of the future.

And Lou from your perspective, what do you think are some of the opportunities presented?

You mentioned the commission for the colleges of the future. There's actually been three commissions in really very recent years. But they say the same thing, they say what we need is a joint or lifelong education service, cradle to grave. 

The role of technology

And on that, going back to technology just for a little bit here, what I'm interested in is from your perspective, is technology an integral part going forward of what you hope to achieve in terms of change?

I would say it's got to be, imagine going through all of this, if we didn't have ways of connecting and communicating with one another. I'm interested in technology to build community. So technology, for relationship building and communication, is absolutely vital. 

And what we're finding certainly on the national projects is we try and bring people together. And we’re back to teaching people really basic skills because they've got so used to just doing one thing or another. What we need is much more of a tapestry of technology within organizations, which is led by pedagogy, led by relationship building. 

Do you think Stef, are students adopting technology more and understanding that it is an intrinsic part of learning more than it ever has been? Have you seen them embrace that in the last few months?

Yes, they’ve had to because what happened in lockdown was that colleges, departments and individuals had no choice but to integrate technology into teaching and learning. So there’s been a phenomenal amount of work put into both staff development and student development and I think now students see how learning can be enhanced by technology. Ultimately it always has to come down to purpose, pedagogy and people. And from that point we can then choose which tools we want to use.

Workloads and wellbeing

And conversely to that, is one of the ironies about more technology use is that it’s contributing to teacher workload? 

We've got lots of stories about people trying to figure out hybrid learning, with students in their classroom, some students not in their classroom, trying to do both at the same time. And I'd say people are settling but there’s still a challenge with workload.

I think you're right, that people are settling, I think some people are really settling into a pattern where sometimes they're at home and sometimes in college, people seem to really like that. The hybrid teaching, you’re right Stef, is an issue and splitting yourself in different directions. 

And also don't forget, people are self isolating, kids are being sent home from school, people are getting COVID. So it’s difficult to see what we will settle down to when there’s not a worry anymore. I like to think that we may be able to settle into more of a smooth rhythm of being at work some of the time and at home some of the time.

The college of the future

I want to start to wrap up in terms of, we started talking about the college of the future and we had some really good insights from both of you there, but can I ask you if there were things you could do to improve FE going forward, what changes would you make? 

For me, one is moving to a people centered leadership approach and embracing that in it’s wholeness. Not trying to do that in a superficial way, very quickly. 

I agree with what Steph said. And I think number one for me is pause - thinking time to build relationships, building that thinking time. That's the small stuff we can do. And then the big thing is colleges that are not colleges. Colleges, that are communities, not communities on a mission statement, but real communities, not great fancy glass and steel buildings, but in the community. That for me is the biggie. 

Absolutely. And that's for me, that's my big takeaway from our chat is that community focus. I think it's so important to have that holistic view. 

Joy FE

Well look, let's now move on and let's talk about Joy FE. Can you wrap up Joy FE and explain a little bit more about it? Tell us where it started and where it's moved to now.

When lockdown first started, Stef called me and she said what can we do? And we'd already talked a little bit about joy cause I did a Ted Talk last year about the ethics of joy. So it started with a broadcast every morning, seven o'clock on Twitter. So before the working day started, people were on their sort of mental commute listening to that. 

We did that every day on Twitter live and then people started to listen in regularly and then it became a WhatsApp group, which is a very  2020 thing, isn't it? And then it became a magazine, and suddenly we were publishing a magazine once a week and very quickly, it became the ideas room. 

And from either a Joyful Education perspective or to get involved in the ideas room, how do people reach you two, is it all through Twitter? 

We do a lot of our work on Twitter but we do now have a Joyful Education LinkedIn and Facebook page. We also have a Joy FE Facebook community group and a website, so all the Joy FE stuff goes on there as well.

Hopefully you can reach out and talk to Stef and Lou, because sadly we’re running towards the end of our time today, but Lou and Stef we really appreciate your time and valuable insight. 


Let us know where you think we need to be going in terms of our FE and our college sector going forward? Leave us a comment below. 


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