Strawberries and digital skills; the pandemic experiences of the IT Learning Centre

Last weekend I was picking the strawberries in what we rather grandly call the strawberry patch, and two thoughts struck me. Firstly, I am losing the battle against the squirrels who sneak in and eat my berries; secondly, this is my third summer growing them. 

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It was when the lockdown was announced and we were all wondering what life would be like, that I prodded some little strawberry seedlings into a corner of the garden. So, this marks the third year of a very different way of working for us in the IT Learning Centre. 

Our digital skills courses were usually run in-person in our teaching rooms where we have all the equipment and tools set up ready for hands-on workshops and plenty of interaction. The big question was 'How to do the IT Learning Centre' when nearly everyone is remote? We were determined not to let the pandemic close us down. 

Rapid response to move online

It took some rapid re-thinking and re-planning to work out how we could offer teacher-led courses in Teams video calls. Our operations team scrambled to re-schedule and set up all the meetings we needed, with a whole new set of communications and information for our participants. There were all sorts of practicalities to solve, such as how to reliably get the course books out to people to use during their courses. And the teachers put their heads together (remotely) to agree guidelines for 'what works well' when trying to teach and demonstrate interactively, and enable your group to take part in hands-on learning activities, even when some are far away and working with a less than ideal setup. 

There was change on so many fronts. We had a blitz on our website, setting up some really useful self-service resources so that people could learn by reading, listening, watching a video at a time that suited them (those are still available). The demand for digital skills learning increased considerably, as so many staff and students realised they needed to know how to collaborate online and make good use of cloud storage. “Ah, so that’s what the webcam is for”, they were discovering. Our audience changed too. We learnt to make allowances for people’s background activity during a course, whether they were tucked into a corner of a busy household, juggling small children’s needs and toys, or sitting in a quarantine hotel. Running our workshops online opened them up for people all over the world – Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Scotland and more – with inevitable time zone complexities. 

Change for the long term

So, what did we learn? Well, our knowledge of Teams improved really quickly – because it had to. We turned the entire teaching programme upside down in a matter of days/weeks, so if needed we could, as one of our teachers said, “run fast and break things”. We kept re-thinking all through the pandemic, adapting further as needed. We now reach more people with our courses, being available wherever you are, and whatever your context. Some courses, it turns out, work well online, some are much better in person. 

This term we have been excited to open up our Thames Suite teaching rooms for in-person teaching again. Some of our teachers and participants have really enjoyed interacting in person, experimenting with new digital skills and sharing experiences. Others are understandably more cautious, so we are now offering a mixed programme, with some courses running online, some in person, and some in both formats (on different dates). My sense is that from now on, we’ll always offer a mixed programme, as both formats have their value and suit different people. 

It has been ferociously hard work, and the team have worked heroically and creatively. But we’ve found that you can make time for unwinding, such as with our tomato-growing competition. My strawberries, however, are looking a bit thin – does anyone have a good answer to the squirrel problem?