Placing employability at the heart of further education

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun

How can technology support employability within further education?

Students study in a computer room.

With the UK in the midst of a skills shortage, which is impacting multiple sectors and slowing down economic growth, the need for educators to prioritise employability has never been greater. Today, I spoke at the annual Skills and Employability Summit to highlight how the use of technology can enable this.

The enforced switch to remote work and study caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has meant both teachers and students have had to rapidly improve their technological skills, not just in subjects with a digital focus, but across the board.

What we do know for certain is that, with digital skills now central to almost all professions, there is an opportunity within further education (FE) to bridge the gap between what students know, and what they need to know.

The fast pace of this change has left employers concerned that future generations of workers may not possess the skills their organisations need to succeed due to disruptions in the curriculum. What we do know for certain is that, with digital skills now central to almost all professions, there is an opportunity within further education (FE) to bridge the gap between what students know, and what they need to know. The introduction of digital T-Levels in September 2021 was a positive step towards placing digital skills and employability at the heart of learning.

Impact of AI and machine learning

When I speak to students, most agree that a combination of remote and on-campus (blended) teaching would suit their style of learning best. This fits well with what we are seeing in industry as many organisations look to hybrid working patterns following the pandemic.

However, it is important to ensure students’ online learning experience matches, or surpasses, what they would receive in a classroom. AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning is one way to do this, and the approach is recommended by industry.

Back in May, Jisc took a group of FE and higher education (HE) leaders to Amazon’s London headquarters, where delegates discussed a range of services that use AI and machine learning in education. Resources such as tools to improve accessibility of information to students with disabilities, and AI assisted marking software, are innovations that can improve digital learning for both students and educators.

Steep learning curve

Through becoming technology providers as well as educators, there is an expectation for teachers to be de facto IT experts. For many, this learning curve has been a steep one.

Jisc’s most recent digital experience insights report (pdf) into further education showed that 74% of staff polled believed that moving teaching online had fundamentally changed their role. Even though many staff reported the benefits of teaching online – including increased productivity and improved work/life balance – 52% said they had encountered multiple problems, such as access to suitable equipment and connectivity.

In order to recruit and retain the best staff, FE must find a way to improve the digital teaching experience for educators.

In order to recruit and retain the best staff, FE must find a way to improve the digital teaching experience for educators. The shift towards blended learning following two years of being purely online will help ease the pressure for many.

However, education leaders must still provide their staff with opportunities to develop and enhance their skills, and access to essential technology so they are confident in their capabilities, and able to support their students.

Digital poverty

One significant barrier to online learning is digital poverty, preventing students from accessing the equipment they need to succeed. Tackling this problem is not only a priority at Jisc, it is a key part of the government’s Levelling Up programme to spread opportunity more equally throughout the UK.

As well as providing adequate equipment, it is imperative for FE institutions to deliver high-quality digital connectivity and infrastructure to support students. As it stands current levels of these resources are insufficient to meet demand, and it is the most disadvantaged in our society that are losing out.

Jisc’s most recent student digital insights survey (pdf) found that 62% of students experience poor Wi-Fi connection and 22% were struggling with mobile data costs; this is not accessibility. Jisc is supporting local government authorities, mobile networks, and internet service providers to extend student access to Jisc’s eduroam Wi-Fi service via the Jisc-delivered Janet network. This service will give learners free access to online services beyond their place of study. However, more must be done.

Industry collaboration

With industry in dire need of a digitally enabled future workforce and many FE institutions not able to provide this on their own, the need for collaboration is evident. Working closely with organisations that have been transforming their own digital capabilities for years will allow education leaders to gain a greater understanding of their own operations, what changes need to be made, what costs can be reduced and how they can innovate.

Release the genie

The genie is out of the bottle with regards to working online, and it is unlikely it will go back in. For FE, the need to keep pace with industry 4.0 and place a strong focus on employability is clear: for the benefit of the economy, to allow the UK to remain competitive and to provide students with the tools for a successful career.

About the author

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun
Managing director, further education, skills, and FE/HE advice and training

I am the UK executive lead for Jisc’s FE and skills policy, stakeholder engagement, and services. I lead on Jisc’s strategy for supporting member FE and skills institutions with their digital transformation. This includes thought leadership, enhanced professional practice, data insights, business optimisation and elevating the student and staff digital experience.

In addition, I also provide executive leadership on our advisory and training services for further and higher education. I ensure Jisc has strategic engagement with Department for Education in England, Scottish Funding Council, Welsh Government and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and other relevant agencies and digital suppliers. This enables collaboration to find the right solutions in areas such as edtech policy, digital infrastructure planning and investment.