Reflections on a "far from normal" year

Guest blog by Ray McCowan of WEA Scotland

What Scotland Learned
Education Scotland will soon be publishing What Scotland Learned, a collection of inspiring stories about how practitioners across Scotland responded to the COVID-19 crisis. This includes a story about how WEA transformed its service provision to become a virtual learning organisation. Ray McCowan, Director for WEA in Scotland has summarised the key points of their learning, and the ‘What Scotland Learned’ publication will be on the Education Scotland website in early 2021.

What WEA has learned
As everyone will be all too aware this has been a far from normal year. This blog reflects on how WEA Scotland has responded to the unique challenges of 2020.

Reflections on the Pandemic

Delivery of Learning Services
Prior to the onset of COVID-19 the perception across WEA Scotland was that face-to-face learning was the optimal mode of delivery, and that many WEA learners would neither welcome nor be able to cope with virtual learning.

Now, almost all WEA Scotland education provision is available via virtual delivery. Three quarters of our tutors have completed their CANVAS and ZOOM training, and are coping well with delivering virtual learning. Many learners welcome and embrace virtual learning and some have said they prefer it. Learners who stopped attending face-to-face classes [for a variety of different reasons] have re-engaged through virtual learning. There was particular concern about the impact of COVID-19 on our ESOL learners, but they too have coped incredibly well with the changes.

However, digital poverty means that some learners do not have the devices or the financial means to engage with the virtual learning opportunities on offer. Others lack the capability or confidence to engage with digital learning and others have said that they do not want to learn through digital technology.

Staff Accommodation in Local Communities
Also challenged was the value of having local offices where learning was taking place. It is now clear that this is not a pre-requisite for successful partnership working nor does it add significant value to our service delivery.

It has been a massive logistical challenge to establish the WEA as a virtual organisation. However now it is complete and these new ways of working embedded, many staff welcome the flexibility of home working. Other staff miss the daily social interaction of face-to-face teamwork, so we need to strike the right balance.  

How will WEA Respond to this Learning?

COVID-19 has and will make a transformational difference to WEA Scotland. Even when we can return to face-to-face learning, virtual learning is here to stay. We will deliver a more flexible, accessible “blend” of learning, combining face-to-face and digital learning to offer an enhanced learning experience.

A review of the WEA’s property portfolio is inevitable. It is clear we need to strike a better balance between working in the offices we own or lease and enabling staff to work at home where they can. This is likely to mean fewer offices than we have currently. There are clear financial benefits, and staff will benefit from the opportunity to work more flexibly and arguably have a better work life balance.

A final lesson learned through COVID-19 is one of culture leadership and change management. The volume and pace of change has been remarkable and far in excess of anything we might previously have thought was possible. This experience demonstrates that people and organisations have far greater capacity and capability than they think they have. The challenge is to tap into this unrealised potential when things return to normal.

What we did:

WEA Scotland delivers adult learning to some of the most disadvantaged individuals and communities in Scotland. Prior to lockdown the vast majority of this learning was delivered face to face in community settings. Although the WEA did have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), learning delivered via this mode was limited.

Within three months of lockdown, WEA Scotland transformed its service provision to become a virtual learning organisation with almost all of its provision accessible via ZOOM [a virtual classroom] or its virtual learning environment: CANVAS. Learning is also delivered via Facebook and other social media outlets and some programme areas established their own YouTube Channel. WEA Scotland has also been an advocate for digital access and successfully secured devices for a number of its learners who were suffering from digital poverty

The degree and pace of change and the level of organisation adaptation has been incredible and ensured continuity of service and support for learners. New online learning material and assessments have been created, films and videos produced, online networking events organised with large amounts of this content being translated into different languages to enable access by New Scots.

Who we involved:

WEA Scotland works with numerous community partners and employers across Scotland, many of whom commission the WEA to deliver adult learning services to their clients. All partners have been consulted and involved in the changes to the delivery of learning to ensure the adapted provision would meet their learners needs.

The difference it made:

Vulnerable learners with multiple barriers to employment in local job centres across Scotland have been supplied with devices and data to continue to develop their employability skills.

Online language assessments have been developed in several languages that enable every new ESOL learner to be placed in the correct level of class.

Learners with significant physical and mental health issues have continued to maintain contact with their class groups through online art classes, walking groups, gardening and gaming.

Older adults and those in rural communities at risk of loneliness and isolation continue to be active and engaged with their learning peers through a programme of creative writing, art and history.

Personal assistants who provide care in peoples’ homes have been enabled to access Continued Professional Development (CPD) and support through an online events network.

Trade unions have been enabled to continue their staff training through online learning more cost effectively and flexibly than pre lockdown.

Without the constraints of delivering in a set location, individuals and communities have access to a wider range of learning opportunities that can be delivered more flexibly.

What we will do differently in the future:

Prior to lockdown, there was a generally accepted view that virtual learning was not appropriate for many of the WEA’s service users and that face to face learning was the optimal mode of delivery. This is clearly not the case. While face to face learning will rightly remain a significant part of the WEA’s delivery portfolio, it is likely it will be part of a blended learning solution.

For partners and those who commission the WEA’s services, virtual learning provides a more flexible and cost effective means of achieving their objectives. This may enable them to extend their reach support more people and achieve better value for money.

From the WEA’s perspective, we have achieved our five year virtual learning target in six months. This is a lesson for us in change management organisation ambition This will lead to a sustained transformational change in our education practice.