Bob Harrison

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Don’t look back in Anger – Peter Roberts, Covid 19 and an opportunity to reframe?

I hope all my friends and ex colleagues in the sector will, as I turn 70, permit my brief moment of reflection in these challenging times. I am devastated by the fact that after spending twenty years trying to persuade politicians, policymakers principals, governors and head teachers of the importance of investing in digital infrastructure and the digital capacity and capability of our education workforce to engage more learners and enhance teaching learning and assessment a deadly virus achieves more in a couple of weeks.

It only seems like yesterday and not the 1980’s that I persuaded my great friend the late Peter Roberts CBE to leave his school teacher role and join me at Stannington College (now Sheffield College) in an expanding team developing qualifications and courses for the then expanding Leisure and Recreation Industries. Our careers diverged although our friendship never did. Many years later after I had moved out of FE to work for Toshiba and the National College for School Leadership on Building Schools for the future, Peter was Principal at Stockport College and being quite visionary he invited me to work with him on a digital strategy for the College. Soon after he was tempted to move to a new vision for Leeds as they wanted to create one college from the then six separate Colleges in a new single campus. Again Peter asked me if I would help with advice on Digital Infrastructure and workforce development. Sadly the Building a College of the future initiative with capital funding from the LSC was withdrawn and a new campus was postponed. However the work on a digital future for Leeds City College began. The College is a very different place now and Peter’s successors have thankfully built on his legacy.

So I wondered what advice I would have given to Peter if he was still with us (what would I give for that) in facing the challenges of Covid19 and the rush to online/blended and virtual learning and assessment.

The remote working, online/blended/virtual learning and assessment genie is well and truly out of the bottle and I am not sure it will, nor is it desirable, it goes back in?

However, looking back will not take us forward but we must learn lessons from the past so I would have posed these questions for Peter and his Governing Body:

  • Do you have a vision for learning which embraces the potential technology offers us for teaching, learning and assessment and the capacity to plan to achieve that vision?

  • Do you have digital leadership at every level of the organisation?

  • Do you empower the learners to use their own devices and expertise?

  • Do you have a sufficiently reliable and robust digital infrastructure?

  • Do you have a sustainable plan to resource and replace hardware and software?

  • Do you work closely with employers and their own use of technology in the workplace?

  • Do the funding, assessment, inspection and accountability measures help or hinder the provision of online, blended and virtual learners? (This is a question for DfE and policy makers)If they are not helping what can be done to change them?

Answering all of the above however will be meaningless unless you can answer Yes to the final question:

  • Do you have a workforce that has the capacity, capability and confidence to use digital technology to support online, blended and virtual learning and assessment?

Hopefully Covid19 will be over soon but the challenges which arise from these questions will be with us for the foreseeable future and FE Colleges and Learning providers will need a significant investment in resources to meet them. We cannot afford to go back to trying to force new digital technologies into old ways of working; we need a paradigm shift and new ways of thinking. I wish I could have been more persuasive.

Bob Harrison is a former Principal and currently Chair of Governors at Northern College and a governor at Oldham College. He served two terms as a trustee of the UFI trust, was a member of FELTAG and ETAG and retired as Toshiba’s Education Adviser two years ago. Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu

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