ACER project

Bob 2Bob Read is Training and Development Adviser at ACER. He is interested in how elearning tools and approaches can be used in the classroom and as a way to develop blended learning models. In 2010, Bob trained as an LSIS E-Guide and has since specialised in running elearning workshops for English and maths tutors.

How has the project partnership worked?

Elaine photo

Elaine Szpytma

The wide range of providers in our project has given a valuable dimension to our activities because we’re working with some big colleges, two Adult Community Learning services, and a smaller work-based learning provider. Some have access to established virtual learning environments and others don’t, so we’ve been keen to demonstrate how providers big and small can get involved in using learning technologies for traineeships and apprenticeships. We’ve been really pleased with the way we’ve worked together with project partners, both through face-to-face workshops and webinars. I work closely with Elaine Szpytma, an ACER consultant with a background in ICT, who is the other project worker. We had been used to running face-to-face workshops and we were confident people would enjoy them, but we were much less confident about running webinars as a regular communication forum for the project. But we’ve been really pleased with the way the webinars have worked. People’s willingness to attend and actively contribute to the webinars has been a welcome surprise.

How have employers responded to online contact?

That was a bigger challenge and we’ve had to be quite creative, thinking about how we can involve them and what they’ll get out of a project like ours. The project includes both traineeships and apprenticeships, so we’ve had to approach employers differently. Some partners are exploring the use of eILPs with employers so that they can be more involved in monitoring and contributing to the support that a student on a traineeship or apprenticeship might need on placement.

We’ve also thought about what digital resources employers could use to support their apprentices with English and maths. One of our providers, for instance, works in Equine Studies and the tutor is designing a set of online maths resources around feeding horses. This could be of interest to employers as it would save them time running their own workplace training sessions. Another of our partners has been working with employers in the Health and Social Care sector who are keen to share examples of workplace documentation that could form the basis of online learning resources for use with care assistants to improve their English.

We’ve been excited by the way assessors have learned to use video conferencing packages like Skype to stay in touch with their apprentices and give support with English and maths between visits. We’ve learned, however, that introducing new ways of working half‑way through the apprenticeship can be challenging, so we’re looking at ways in which issues of access to IT can be agreed and discussed with employers at the start of the work placement.

What have been some of your early successes?

It’s in the nature of the job that assessors often face the challenge of travelling for an hour and a half each way only to spend 45 minutes with an apprentice in the workplace. That severely limits contact time. If, on the other hand, the assessor and apprentice could meet ‘virtually’ using a video conferencing package, then those sessions could be provided more frequently, with a cost saving in terms of travel. It works for everybody because employers also get a quick win in terms of the quality and continuity of support. A key point for us is that the technology required is very straightforward—all it takes is a PC, an internet connection and a headset.

We’ve also introduced screencasting to assessors as a way for them to give feedback to learners on their portfolios, and assessors are really getting used to that now. Most are using a free screencasting tool called Screencast o Matic. They’re using screencasts as a way to create video tutorials to introduce or revise key topics with their learners. These screencasts can either be offered as blended learning materials for use between sessions or tutors can use them in the classroom to promote independent learning. This means that the more confident learners can access the videos using headphones and work independently, thereby freeing up the tutor to give more support to other students.

How have people responded to introducing technology into their practice?

There is always the danger of overwhelming tutors with the complexity of elearning tools and technologies. Elaine and I realised very early on that we had to demonstrate some simple tools that could be used really quickly to design resources tutors will often need on the same or the following day. We know that there are sophisticated content creation tools that tutors can use to combine video, audio, text and animations in fantastic looking modules—but we also know that for many tutors the technical skills required can be off putting especially if they are novices in using technology.

So, it’s been interesting to watch people grow in confidence as they start with simple tools and then combine these together to create engaging multimedia resources. One of our tutors, Sam Butler, has been using Padlet, an online stickies board, in combination with a screencasting tool to create some video tutorials on key English topics, e.g. how to use commas and how to identify bias in texts. We’ve also encouraged assessors to keep their screencasts ‘informal’ by using a friendly voice that the students are used to. I usually show tutors some of my own less than polished screencasts and encourage them to sit down to record a video in the relaxed, conversational way they would use when working with a student. This informal approach is well supported by research into multimedia resource development (Mayer, 2001, Mayer 2014).

Digital technology can really enhance the learning experience but it’s just one tool among many. Assessors still have to go to the workplace and meet the employers, but if you can only afford one contact a month and the apprentice needs more support, you can use video conferencing to address that problem. Elaine and I are keen to emphasise that this is all very do-able now, using freely available software. It’s not about advanced technologies that might be available in five year’s time! When we started out on the project, we agreed that a lack of technical expertise was much less important than a real interest and curiosity in learning new skills. We offered tutors a baseline self-assessment survey and some said: “I don’t know any of this techie stuff, I don’t even know what a screencast is, I’ve never used Skype, am I on the right project?” We responded: “If you’re keen to learn, you’re on the right project!” In a recent webinar, one of our assessors said “I couldn’t go back to working how I used to”, and that encouraged us to think that we are bringing about really significant and long lasting changes in people’s practice.

How has the technology itself added to the learning experience?

As I noted earlier, video conferencing can mean much more regular contact between assessors and apprentices and that improves the quality of the support that assessors are able to offer. Also, when candidates use Skype from home they can feel much more relaxed in talking to their assessor as they are away from the busy work environment. An added advantage is that the competence and confidence of the trainee or apprentice around technology is acquired almost by default in a very authentic way. Skype, for example, is a technology that many modern businesses use and so our learners are developing some key communication skills for work.

Have you had to overcome technical or cultural barriers or resistance?

One technical barrier concerns the fact that Skype has to be downloaded, and some providers of Adult Community Learning do not have that as an option given County Council IT policies. Chris Barlow, from our partner organisation MacTrac, has been helpful in identifying some free web-based options for video conferencing, such as Appear In, that don’t have to be downloaded and which our ACL colleagues have welcomed. Chris has also been developing some excellent online modules for our assessors to complete to help them develop their skills in setting up and using Skype. Some ACL assessors work in remote rural locations where access to a reliable Internet connection is often patchy or non-existent, while some have very limited access to resources restricting what they are able to do.

In terms of resistance, we all know that many tutors and assessors in our sector are under strain with heavy workloads and changing organisational structures. We have, therefore, been extremely sensitive to their circumstances and made every effort to demonstrate that using technology does not mean extra work but offers tools that can help to address and streamline current workloads. The level of commitment has been excellent because we were very careful about what we showed them early on and what we asked them to do. We also found that with the right kind of feedback people were keen to share their learning and successes with colleagues. In our webinars and workshops, project partners have had a chance to inspire one another with examples of the different ways in which they are exploring digital technology and this has often provided the spark of interest that has encouraged others to have a go. At our last workshop, it was great to hear everyone talking about their progress and practices and they all had plenty to say. In many ways, it’s been a complete turnaround. Elaine and I started off the project by leading and sharing; now it’s the practitioners who are modelling and demonstrating their use of technology.

What would you say to people starting out on this path?

You need to help tutors quickly master some very simple tools that they can use and combine flexibly to build resources—tools that will make their day-to-day teaching and assessment roles easier. It may not immediately transform teacher and assessors into world-class elearning technologists, but it will be a significant change for them and it will give them confidence to explore more complex tools and packages. Sometimes the ‘blue sky’ visionary stuff can be scary for practitioners who lack confidence so starting small and working backwards from simple solutions to their immediate challenges is crucial.