Welcome to the third episode of EdTech VoiceNotes, the podcast of the EdTech Summit.
In this week's episode of the EdTech VoiceNotes, we had the pleasure to catch up with Amy Hollier, Head of Blended Learning - Blended Learning Consortium at Heart of Worcestershire College.
In our discussion, we had the opportunity to discuss the Blended Learning Consortium, pedagogy, training, and accessibility.
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To hear more from Amy Hollier, alongside others leading in delivering effective digital and technology-focused solutions for education, secure your free pass here to the EdTech Summit, taking place online on the 18-19th November 2020.
Alessandro Bilotta 0:51
Welcome to the third episode of EdTech voice notes, the podcast of the EdTech Summit. Each week we interview leaders and experts on education, technology and digital strategies across the education sector. Consulting with our steering committee and drafting the agenda, we found out that there is one question that came up throughout our conversations, how can we bridge the gap between education and technology? Every week, we'll ask our guests to answer this question before we tackle it in a more structured fashion and our show in November. This week, I'm very pleased to have as a guest on the podcast Amy Hollier, Head of blended learning at Heart of Worcestershire College. Amy, would you like to tell us a bit more about yourself?
Amy Hollier 1:34
Thanks, Alessandro. Yes, of course. My name is Amy Hollier. And as you said, I'm the Head of blended learning at Heart of Worcestershire College. I also lead the blended learning Consortium, which is a consortium made up of over 140 different colleges. I've been with Heart of Worcestershire for about a year now. And prior to that I worked as a director of teaching and learning enhancement, an FE, HE institution. So I've been working in the education sector for approximately 14 years now.
Alessandro Bilotta 2:05
Now, how would you present the blended learning consortium to those that are not aware of its work?
Amy Hollier 2:12
So as I said, previously, the blended learning consortium is made up of over 140 FE colleges across the UK. So that's right from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, right down to Cornwall. And it was started back in 2015, by Heart of Worcestershire College. And that was in response to the Feltag Report really, which recommended that a percentage of learning should be delivered online. And as we know, the development of online content is really quite expensive. So the college came up with this consortium model, whereby other institutions were encouraged to pay a membership fee in each year, and then that money is pulled together to create a bank of learning resources. So we have a democratic approach. So each member institution votes on what content they would like to be created that year. The content is then written by subject specialists from across the consortium. And it's develops into interactive online learning objects, which are then disseminated back out to the members for them to use and edit and utilizing it, whichever way they deem most important. So in addition to that, as the consortium, we also hold termly, regional meetings to share best practice. And we hosted a large annual summer conference as well, really to encourage that sharing and collaboration of best practice. And that's open to not just consortium members, but also to the wider sector to really encourage that collaboration.
Alessandro Bilotta 3:48
I think that one of the probably most common questions you might receive is, does it work? Is the content you produce actually useful to the educators and learners? So could you tell us a bit more about the focus on the pedagogy of the resources that are produced within the consortium?
Amy Hollier 4:11
Yeah, sure. I think, you know, from what we've seen, it certainly does work. We've been growing now since 2015, as people have really understood the benefits of blended learning and and how this use of different kind of approaches to learning can have so many different benefits. I would say that since the inception of the BRC, we've always maintained that pedagogic should come first and the tech should come second. We rely heavily on learner voice and feedback from the consortium. So we regularly take temperature checks on if learners find the content useful. We always like to see that learning is taking place so we ask educators how they feel learning is taking place using the objects. We always emphasize the importance of the online learning resources should be supported with teacher input, hence the blended approach. So you can't just take these objects that we produce, and put them into an online learning environment, and just think that that's enough, it really isn't enough. Otherwise, it would be classed as purely online learning. You know, we all need that human approach in order to interact and engage and feel like part of the community, and that's why it's so imperative that learners have that regular input from teachers, and also so that they can sequence the curriculum, and make sure that the online learning flows nicely through to the face to face learning. So we also ensure that every learning object is consistent in its structure. So they all have an introduction, they all have an outline of the learning objectives for this session so that learners know exactly what's expected of them in order to to achieve, you know, learning throughout the session. And importantly, we have regular knowledge checks, or micro assessment with it within every session. And that so that the learner can, you know, really check their own progress as they go through it. We also try to make sure that all of their learning objects as interactive as possible, to really maintain a high level of engagement and to ensure that it's not just a passive activity.
Alessandro Bilotta 6:40
As you said, the the model of the consortium is a membership model. And I guess this is just a more efficient way of producing content, what are the benefits of outsourcing the production of these appropriate resources versus an in house production?
Amy Hollier 7:00
One of the best things about the consortium is the collaborative approach across the FE sector, we'd go out to consultation across the sector for opinion on what topics are most relevant and needs to be covered at that, that point in time. And then we asked subject specialists to write the material and develop the content in that way. And that means that we get an excellent breadth of opinion from current practicing teachers and lecturers. So we are really confident that we know that whatever we're producing is something that can really be utilized Well, we also encourage members to develop the content. So we send out that written material to a number of different institutions, and they all develop the content for us. And not only does that give them a real sense of ownership over the material, but also it means that we can get things done a lot quicker. So we can produce content a lot quicker by sharing it out. We have a really strict quality assurance of guidance to follow for all content development. And that just makes sure that we maintain a high quality and consistent approach. So all of the material looks the same and feels the same, but it's actually been developed by a number of different institutions. And that, as I say, not only speeds up the process, but we also pay from the money that we have in the Consortium for that content to be developed by them. So it means as well that they have a bit more money coming back into their budgets. And a lot of members have actually made their membership fee backer by developing content, and then obviously, they have their own content to use then as well, which is, is great. It's a kind of win-win for everyone really.
Alessandro Bilotta 8:56
As we mentioned in previous episodes, the lockdown has worked as a catalyst for education technology, accelerating the adoption of technology across the educational sector, although it falsely eliminated the blended aspect of blended learning, pushing for a full online learning. How do you think this has affected the learning experience? And what advice would you give to other organizations? I'm thinking of schools for example, that maybe found themselves embracing online learning for the first time during the lockdown.
Amy Hollier 9:28
I certainly think that this switch to, as you say, initially, fully online learning and then across to more of a blended approach, in some respects has really opened our eyes to the possibility for different variances on learning approaches. I think it's you know, it's bad steaks. It's been an absolutely awful time but it's almost been the best kind of form of CPD that many of us have had to go through because we had no choice, we had to all embrace the switch. And we had to really navigate our own way around it, and how we were going to start getting the technology to work for what we needed it to work for. But I suppose, you know, moving forward, we now move from that initial knee jerk reaction where we just put short term measures in place to get us through, you know, the end of that summer term. We're now moving into, I'd say probably the next phase whereby it needs to be a sustainable approach to blended learning. So my main pieces of advice for for those institutions, you know, schools, colleges, whatever really, any of those institutions embracing online for the first time, my main advice would be to keep it simple. It's so often that people get carried away with all sorts of different bits of technology, and they see the bells and whistles on certain bits, and they think that they should have it all straightaway. But more often than not, simplicity done really, really well, is far more effective than having a really complex approach. So I would say, first and foremost, be really clear on what your expectations are for staff and students. ie, what your preferred mode of communication is, are you going to use teams? Or are you going to use other platforms? You know, how often you should be communicating with groups of learners? Is it once a day? Is it once a week? You know, where do you expect to see that communication? Where do you want learning resources to be posted, and provide clear guidance on elements of safeguarding? Because this is an area that none of us were really expecting, but we find ourselves, you know, learners are being projected into our homes, so we have to protect ourselves, we have to protect protect learners. So there's an awful lot of, you know, that kind of aspect that should really, really be focused upon. But when we're talking about an online strategy, perhaps start off with three aspects of a strategy you'd like to achieve. So firstly, you know, do you want all learners to be able to access an online platform? Do you want all teachers to post learning resources in a certain area? And just set some kind of short term, achievable targets that you know that everybody could realistically achieve, because if you set too much, it will overwhelm people. So as I said, Don't try and do everything straightaway and have more of a phased approach to your implementation and introduction of online learning. And I would say where you can try and really mix up the the online content, so use videos, podcasts, quizzes, games, all of these things, to support learning, and to really try and make it engaging so that learners do see that this is actually a really nice and exciting mode of learning, rather than, you know, just a very didactic delivery of someone narrating over a PowerPoint that they can clearly read for themselves. You know, there are areas where that's appropriate. But really try and mix it up and think about, if you are a learner, how would you want that information to be presented to you. And, you know, we all enjoy a bit more interactivity, rather than, you know, just be sitting and absorbing information in one format. So consider the modalities that you present information through and really try and mix it up a little bit. And don't be frightened to try something new. This is the opportunity now where we can really explore the digital tools that we have available to us. So So try things out. And if it doesn't work, then that's absolutely fine. But you know that you've explored it. And that's how we'll learn to build for a more sustainable approach.
Alessandro Bilotta 14:13
What direct effects did you see the lockdown have on BLC? Did you see perhaps a change in the expectations of your members towards the resources that they access on the platform?
Amy Hollier 14:26
So we didn't really see a change in expectation from members around what they wanted from the BLC. We had a real surge of material usage, which is only to be expected. But you know, in addition to that, we had a lot of new members join. I think people realized quite quickly that there is quite a lack of high quality online content available, particularly in vacational areas. So we had quite a few new members joining us from March onwards, and that was seen right across that summer term. But we also had a lot of requests from members for guidance on how to structure an effective blended learning provision. So in response to that, we hosted some webinars on preparing for lockdown, which we did about a week and a half, I think it was before we got locked down. And then we did another one called lessons learned from the first week of lockdown. For those webinars, we had speakers from institutions across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and some from Wales, as well all share that their practice and ideas with other members, which is absolutely fantastic, because it meant that we were all going through the situation together. You know, when we started doing the preparing for lockdown webinar, nobody really knew what to expect. So it was all very much a bit of a kind of round table experience, in that we were sharing ideas on how we thought certain approaches might work more effectively. But it was all very new to all of us. But through all of this, we've really seen an amazing sense of community develop with everyone just pulling together and trying to come up with a solution. And that in itself is something to be embraced, we've all seen, and I talk about it an awful lot, but collaboration is definitely the way forward, we can do so much more when we do it together, rather than just doing it on our own in an insular way. And this is a case in point of how all of our members and the wider FE sector came together and supported each other through I think is really a testament to what we're all about. I think a lot of people are starting to see the opportunities that blended learning now offers. And I think that we'll see from this a real shift in approaches to teaching and learning, a really positive shift at that, that will hopefully continue after the pandemic now that people have seen that, you know, there's an awful lot more that we can do with learners. And, also I think it's important to listen to the learner voice. You know, there's there's certain aspects during lockdown where they like really quite enjoyed doing some home learning. I know that many of them were ready to return to institutions in September, for that real community kind of aspect of learning. But I think it has shown that a blended approach can actually work really, really well. And it can also open up opportunities to engage learners from wider different backgrounds as well. There's been a lot of positives. And I think that our members, together with us, and you know, the wider sector, as I said, have really learned a lot from this. And we will definitely grow and build on this as a result of the lockdown measures that we went through.
Alessandro Bilotta 18:00
I agree with you. I think that these difficult times that just allow the community to come even closer together. The Christian community has always been united. But now we can see how they've shown even more how resourceful they are, and how able they were to just overcome the difficulties that were put in front of them from one day to the other. Speaking about difficulties. New legislation on accessibility came into force in the UK exactly two years ago. It was structured as a series of progressive deadlines to allow enough time for the public sector to adapt. New deadlines on websites and mobile applications were actually set for this month. I'm aware that Heart of Worcestershire College and blended learning consortium have made this a priority and that they are regarded as successful example, within the community. Could you tell us more about the accessibility of your content and how you got where you are?
Amy Hollier 19:04
Accessibility is a huge priority for us as it should be for absolutely everyone. We started a significant project well over a year ago, to review over 1800 hours of our learning content and materials to check for accessibility issues. And during that review, it was really useful review, but during the review, we found that a lot of the interactive elements in our learning objects weren't accessible for some users, such as screen reader users, things like the you know, if you've got an interactive element that might be a drag and drop activity that doesn't lend itself well to screen reader users. As a result of that huge review. We've invested a significant amount of money in developing supporting accessible resources and we've worked on In conjunction with one of our members, the Royal National College for The Blind, to develop and test the resources. So we're really confident now that our material can be accessed and used effectively by all users. And I think that, like I say, it was a really useful review to go through. And what is most important is having that tested, the user testing element as well. So rather than as just, I don't know, producing a piece of content, and then checking for accessibility issues using the digital tools, actually gleaning some feedback from those users with certain difficulties or, you know, accessibility issues. And asking them, what they found challenging about using the materials and what they would like to have integrated into the materials to help them really. So I would advise that, that is a really useful thing to go through if you have the opportunity to, to do some proper user testing with with your material if you develop online content. But also, you know, we've really pushed the message out to our staff as well, there's been huge amounts of training across the institution for accessibility awareness, we've got an accessibility steering group who are fantastic, because they're from across the academic areas, but also business support areas as well. So they've come together and looked at absolutely every element of what we do, to ensure that accessibility is at the fore of all that we do. It's a really joined up approach, and it has to be absolutely everybody in the institution needs to be made aware of just how important it is to get this right. It's a shame that the, the government directive came into force to push people into this. But I think that moving forward, it can only ever really get better, to be honest with you.
Alessandro Bilotta 22:03
What you told us about the genesis of BOC the present, what about the future? What are the future plans for the blended learning consortium?
Amy Hollier 22:13
As we continue to grow, we're keen to always try and stay ahead of the curve in the material that we develop, we've started looking into the feasibility of developing virtual reality material. But I think it's important to always ensure that the content that we produce will be useful across all members of the consortium. And not just for those who have access to certain pieces of tech, you know, we also need to be mindful of not doing things just as a gimmick, but we want to make sure that everything that we do is really beneficial for most people and not just those few. We have to also think about there is a real disparity between the equipment and materials that institutions have available to them. And we do need to maintain a really kind of generic approach. But saying that, you know, we always want to innovate and move forward and really offer learners something completely different that is useful to their learning experience. So we'll continue to produce really high quality vacational content. And we'll continue to ask the learner voice for feedback on how they prefer to learn, so that we can continue to adapt and evolve our content. You know, we've seen now with Instagram stories and reels and TikTok that learners love video. So that will be something that we continue to integrate into our material and use really well. We know that now as we we've had this massive shift recently, that teachers and lecturers are going to need a lot more support for the pedagogical approaches. So we're going to continue to do more research on what effective online pedagogy looks like. And we're going to then really analyze and share and disseminate that information back out to our members. So to support them really in in every aspect that we do. So I'm really, I'm quite excited about the future for the blended learning Consortium. I'm excited about what the opportunities that we've had presented to us recently, can then evolve and develop into, but I do know there's an awful lot of work to be done. And we need to make sure that we continue with this collaboration and not lose this sense of community that we've really developed over you know, over the summer. So it's exciting times, there's a lot of work to be done, but it's it's really exciting for BLC.
Alessandro Bilotta 25:01
Now, the time has come for our recurring question. In respect to digital strategies for educational institutions, what is the key to bridging the gap between education and technology?
Amy Hollier 25:14
As much as I'd like to say the gap is reducing between education and technology. I know there's still lots of work to be done. As I said, I firmly believe that any successful strategy is based around people, people should come first, and the technology should definitely come second. And if we're clear on our vision, what we want to achieve, and most importantly, why we want to achieve it, then you can all progress together from there. I always say, as I've already done today, keep it simple, don't overwhelm people and have a phased approach. Remember, that change can be quite daunting for some, so you know, try not to overwhelm where possible, and then people will buy into stratedgy more, if they know that it's all manageable. I certainly find that a just in time strategy for training is most effective, especially with digital training, whereby you provide training on certain aspects, when people are most likely to need it, so that they can then apply the training straightaway. And it will stick in their minds, and then you can build on it from there. So the just in time strategy is definitely one that I would seriously recommend. The other thing I would say is, don't be swayed by the most shiny new piece of tech, really make sure that you have a purpose for introducing it. And that it can be used by, you know, most people in your institution, because we can all again, get swayed by that kind of the bells and whistles of a piece of tech and it just sits dormant with people not using it which is such a waste of money. But then when, if you do introduce something new, then find the early adopters in the institution and really utilize their enthusiasm to help you really embedded further across the institution.
Alessandro Bilotta 27:10
Well, thank you very much, Amy. It's been a very insightful conversation and I'm sure that our listeners have enjoyed it.
Amy Hollier 27:16
Thanks Alessandro, it's been a pleasure to join you. Thank you for inviting us to contribute.
Alessandro Bilotta 27:22
Amy will be one of our speakers at the EdTech summit now taking place online on 18th and 19th of November 2020. please do visit our website www dot EdTechsummit.co.uk to register for a free ticket. We will soon release all information on how to use the platform. See all our talks, engage in workshops and network with visitors and partners. This is it for this episode. I'm Alessandra Wheelock content lead of the EdTech summit. Until next time,