Stay home, protect NHS, save lives’ – six words that we have all heard too many times to count over the last few months in this strange and uncertain time. When we started hearing about a new strain of Coronavirus in China at the end of last year, none of us could have known what was going to happen. We watched the news as the virus killed hundreds of thousands of people as it travelled from one country to another and continent to continent, knowing we wouldn’t escape it but few of us realised at that time that a few months later the world would be living in isolation, lockdown, socially distanced from friends, family, work and school.

As if COVID19 wasn’t challenging enough, we are all learning new ways of working together, keeping in touch and supporting each other. Most of us in FE are familiar with various social media to a certain degree and over the years many of us have used different platforms to save and access information remotely, ‘attended’ live webinars or conducted meetings via video conferencing but many of us, for whatever reason have never embraced the ever changing technology available these days, preferring to stick with a traditional lever arch folder of resources, a phone call and the ever trusted email. For colleagues who fall into this second category to suddenly find themselves having to use technology that they have never heard of, never considered and never been particularly bothered about, an already challenging situation has been even more stressful.

Of course, it isn’t only staff who might have not been completely confident/ competent or interested in using Microsoft ‘Teams’ to keep in touch when they already have Facebook, SnapChat and WhatsApp on their mobile devices and there are always those who, for whatever reason, don’t have access to electronic resources. How to keep in touch with them and ensure that they are able to keep up with work and in touch with their friends and tutors?

This part of the problem has an obvious solution when an organisation has resources it can lend and a database or LMS to keep track of them. However, I think we’ll all agree, just because someone has access to something, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will use it – whether it is something like a dictionary to improve spelling or a laptop to engage with tutors, support staff or other learners. So, as well as supporting each other and keeping in touch throughout the lockdown, how do we motivate each other to carry on studying, learning and working? We are all full of good intentions at the beginning but speaking personally, after nearly 5 weeks of not going to work, I am beginning to struggle with staying in a routine and am fighting to not structure my day around ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ and the ‘Daily BBC Corona Update’. 

Some of the ways that Learning Centre staff have been supporting curriculum and academic staff to keep in touch with their learners and vice versa since the college closed in March have included, like most FE colleges, taking advantage of and sharing things such as the latest Jisc information and resource updates and arranging for paper journals to be available online then advertising this to staff and students via learning platforms, email and social media. Keeping in touch and answering questions around resources, electronic access and study skills session via groups and meetings on Microsoft Teams and via Zoom when we can, and by picking up the phone when someone is struggling with the technology. During a ‘normal’ working day, people come into the centre to ask for help rather than emailing and as we know, talking can often be quicker than writing an email and waiting for a response. It also allows whoever needs assistance the opportunity to work through the problem while you advise over the phone.

As a part of our Learning Centre service we offer a proof-reading to all learners and this has continued over lockdown because, although many exams are cancelled and several awarding bodies have announced that there will not be moderation this year, some of the courses that are run at the college, especially access to Higher Education courses are project based and need to be completed. Several learners have used this service and sent work to us via email to read and return. We send the work back to the learner by email and use Teams to meet online to talk the learner through our comments. This is the first time we have used an online platform to do this, we normally meet with the learner in the LC to feedback but the response to us working like this has been so positive that I am certain we will work this way in the future; perhaps not every case but when learners can’t get to college because of childcare issues or health reasons it will mean that they don’t have to miss out on the services available to them.

At the time of writing, the UK had just announced its lowest daily death toll since early March, and it is important to remember that we won’t be in this situation forever, but I think it is important to look at the changes we have all made while working from home and understand how we can do things better in the future. Online learning, e-learning, online resources, open office/ Office365 are all phrases that we have heard time and time again, but they have never been more important than they are now. This whole experience has taken place in unchartered territory for us, and as we try to understand how to come out of lockdown without creating another spike in virus numbers, I will be working with my staff to reflect on all that we have learned about supporting our learners, staff and colleagues remotely because although (thankfully) our service hasn’t been too badly disrupted we have certainly noticed ways that is can be improved.