Deborah Millar – Blackburn College

“If a revitalised and enthusiastic staff are passionate when delivering a lesson, we believe that students will reflect that by enjoying the lesson more and becoming excited about the next.”

Turning to technology

Deborah Millar has worked at Blackburn College for 24 years. Her first experience with e-learning was in response to several members of staff having to take time off from teaching a degree course that she was running. She saw it as both a short‑term fix and a long-term goal: “We wanted to find a way for staff and students to engage with one another in and out of the classroom, in order to ensure that they were able to access learning.”

Three years later, four of the sixteen students graduated with first class degrees and this convinced Deborah that technology in learning was not just promising for the future but a vital tool for today. As she puts it, “I now know that giving students the opportunity to co-author their own learning empowers them.”

Leading the way

Blackburn College went on to participate in several initiatives similar to Learning Futures. One was DigiPals, a programme that focused on encouraging staff and students to engage with one another online: “A couple of videos were made about it which caused quite a stir. People were talking and tweeting about it in the UK and across the pond in the US.”

Deborah started being invited to other organisations to talk about the College’s success: “At the end of the year, we looked back and asked ourselves about what we’d achieved and whether we were on the right track. We recognised that although we had made some progress and had great ideas this was just the beginning.” As a result, the College decided it wanted to stay at the forefront of digital learning and decided to pursue positive change by applying to take part in the Learning Futures Programme. An overview of their project can be found here.

What’s happening now?

The Learning Futures team has secured 12 members of academic staff, from various areas of the college and subject areas, who have volunteered to participate in this project. Each volunteer, focussing on one of the modules they teach, selects two students as representatives.

The current stage of the project involves an open discussion between staff and students about the scheme of work and methods of delivery that is facilitated by staff and student DigiPals. The discussion provides an opportunity to consider how the module works and how it could be enhanced through technology to make it engaging for both learner and teacher.

“It’s basically a great forum to discuss and engage with students,” Deborah explains. “Previously, staff stood at the front of the class as the font of all knowledge, often closed to challenges from their students. Now we’re asking students whether what we are doing works for them, whether it could be done better, and what they want and why.

“Our ultimate aim is for this open discussion and intervention to empower both staff and students to collaborate and co-author their learning experience. If a revitalised and enthusiastic staff are passionate when delivering a lesson, we believe that students will reflect that by enjoying the lesson more and becoming excited about the next. Professor Stephen Heppell recounts a story of students trying to access school after normal hours to continue their learning because it was so much fun. Isn’t that something we should all aim for?”

Looking to the future

Although the project is in its early stages, Deborah explains that Learning Futures has already had an impact on the College’s ambitions: “What we are finding is that the staff want to get involved. I think it helps that the project is external and has gravitas because of the link to FELTAG and the Education and Training Foundation. It has also secured a ‘big name’ industry mentor—Google’s Adam Stewart who is working with us—and staff members are seeing names and brands they recognise being associated with the college. In this way, Learning Futures is encouraging them to engage with the Blended Learning team, request staff development for themselves and their teams, and reflect upon their own practice.

“We hope that it will improve and enhance existing digital literacy skills so that both staff and students have a strong foundation on which to work and learn confidently in the digital era and be prepared for future technological advancements. We won our bid because we are doing something brave! By asking students to influence strategy at the top level and help to change what we’re doing in the classroom, we’re opening ourselves to criticism. This is an exciting and scary place to be, which is why I really appreciate the members of staff who’ve volunteered to participate. They’re doing this for all the right reasons.”

Deborah and Blackburn College are now planning a conference in June to disseminate their learning. They’ve enlisted the support of key players as guest speakers including Bob Harrison, FELTAG and ETAG report author; Sarah Knight, co-design manager of student experience at Jisc; and Sue Owen-Evans, Programme Director of Learning Futures.