Education has been the focus of media attention since the virus has intermittently closed classrooms and campuses over the past year. But despite the disruption, the widespread shift to online learning has given learners and education providers a glimpse of the future, as well as reminding them of what makes teaching and learning most successful.
For our latest Better Managers Briefing, I spoke with Paul Geddes, CEO of technology training provider QA and a former CEO of insurance company Direct Line; and Tim Stewart, who is the vice chancellor of BPP University and a professor of business education. We asked Tim and Paul how they think the experiences of the last 12 will change and shape the way education is developed and delivered.
Blended learning is here to stay
Taking education online was the first and most obvious short-term delivery impact of the pandemic – and doing that quickly was a challenging feat in itself for many providers. For example, Tim says that for him and BPP as an awarding body, the biggest accomplishment was being able to move assessments online, enabling thousands of students to sit hundreds of exams under supervision and be able to continue gaining credits and to graduate. “Inevitably, after the pandemic, some of this will move back offline,” he predicts, “but I think we will see a much more significant role for online teaching, online assessment, online socialising and online libraries. I think online is going to remain a very significant part, particularly for the employed learner.”
Mixing “on-demand” digital delivery with live online learning has been essential at QA, says Paul. “For learners, live lessons mean that you’re more likely to turn up, you're focused, you're going to pay attention and not be distracted… because your trainer could ask you a question at any time,” he says. “It's interactive, you can ask questions, you're part of a cohort that can learn from each other and the subject matter can be tailored to your understanding.” Therefore, post-pandemic, Paul believes digital delivery will be blended with live learning. “If you're in a cohort of learners, it’s still important that you can have a cup of coffee with them and chat through what you’ve just learned in class. But I don’t think things will return fully to where they were in terms of physical attendance.”
More tech and soft skills needed
In many respects, the enforced migration to working from home has made every business a tech business; where most workers now have access to communication and collaboration platforms, whether their employer is big or small. But what will differentiate organisations, predicts Paul, is how they use tech and technical skills. "As we know, there aren't enough tech skills in many parts of the country and the tech workforce isn’t diverse enough,” he says. “But the good news is that if people have got the right attitude and aptitude, we reckon that in just 14 weeks you can equip them with enough skills to find a good job and embark on a good tech career.” Paul estimates that as many as one in five workers are capable of working in tech, but says it’s also important they learn soft skills too. “When we teach people in our tech bootcamps, we also teach them soft skills because they’ll find themselves working in agile scrum teams that need to interact, and they’ll need empathy, problem-solving and leadership skills too, if they want to progress.”
While BPP has a technology school, it also operates in sectors including law, nursing, banking and accounting. “Our surveys of employers are suggesting they want to see more resilience, self-management and agility in the people they employ,” says Tim, “so we mustn’t miss the development of human skills for working with technology in this new environment.”
New models of delivery, please
It’s reckoned that six per cent of global GDP is now spent on education, but Tim says that much of this is being spent on an old teaching and learning model, with investments in physical infrastructure. “At BPP, we’ve adopted a slightly different approach through a more distributed campus model so that we can meet the needs of national employers who employ people everywhere,” he explains. “But we also put a lot of our effort into building our digital infrastructure. At present, just a tiny fraction – less than 4% – of global educational resources are directed towards technology. That’s much too low, when there is a massive digital infrastructure that needs to be built.”
For Paul, the old model of front-loading your education between the ages of 18 and 21 is too costly, time-intensive and inflexible. “You're probably going to need to come back to education in some format through your career because your job or role may change,” he says, “so for me, credit-bearing micro credentials will be increasingly important, if funding can be tailored to keep pace with them.”
Nudge employees to reskill
Tim was part of CMI-led trailblazer group on management apprenticeships, and praises their entry-led model, noting that they have become increasingly popular. Paul agrees, and goes on to argue that employers should encourage staff to reskill using programmes like these rather than make them redundant and hire new staff into tech roles. He advocates making the Apprenticeship Levy more flexible, so that it could fund short, intensive bootcamps, as well as longer 12-18 month training programmes. Shorter courses often attract a wider, more diverse group of learners, he says.
“Nationwide Building Society, for instance, takes people who used to work in branches, and make them DevOps engineers just 14 weeks later,” Paul says. “It takes quite a lot of planning but if the government could nudge and reward companies to do that kind of reskilling, it's just so much better for everyone.”
Put employers back in the driving seat
Tim is also a fan of the Apprenticeship Levy, but says that the government needs to be reminded that employers are best placed to identify the skills gaps to direct the money to supporting training in those areas. “Because the initial numbers didn't take off as fast as people wanted, there has been more government interference, more attempts to tell people what they should be doing and which courses are OK to study,” he says. “Put the employers back in the driving seat and allow them to invest where they feel it is really needed.”
Paul agrees: “We'd love to offer employers more of a smorgasbord of what matters to them, but the standards don't currently allow that,” he says. “We’ve got to move more towards pulling employers into the creation of content and having standards which are more flexible and can ensure the training offered can fit alongside people's lives, their jobs, family and responsibilities.”
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