‘It was the best of times…’

I didn’t warm to Charles Dickens. No offence, Mr Dickens. Finer literary minds tell me you’re one of our greatest authors, but I was forced to study A Tale of Two Cities at age 15 when I wanted to be devouring works by Mary Shelley and the Brontës instead.

That doesn’t mean that parts of the novel didn’t stick with me, and I’ve certainly been reflecting upon the classic opening lines in recent weeks:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.’

It’s been quite a month or two for those who love FE. Some of us working in teachers’ professional learning roles have been privileged to work alongside amazing practitioners on programmes such as #OTLA and #APConnect. These initiatives have been instrumental in helping form vibrant FE inquiry and research communities where teachers support and empower each other, steering their own professional learning. It’s also been wonderful to witness peers achieving and celebrating higher research qualifications through programmes such as SUNCETT’s Practitioner Research Programme.

I think we tend to assume that the vibrancy and popularity of a teachers’ development programme with educators themselves might tend to secure longevity, but this is not always so. Funding cuts from DfE for many English, maths and digital skills programmes offered by ETF have seen all of the initiatives I’ve mentioned above brought to a sudden, and from what I’m hearing across the sector, unexpected end.

These programmes brought post-16 education professionals from all across the country, at all stages of their career journey, together to collaborate, so their absence leaves a huge gap in professional learning provision. While their formal, funded replacements are yet to be confirmed, interesting things are happening already in their absence.

I’m likening new developments to the growth of some of my favourite plants such as silver birch, buddleia, marigold and cowslip. Gardeners more expert than I describe these plants as anthropogenic; they set up home and thrive in human-made, disturbed habitats, ‘filling in the gaps’ left by our impacts. They are the beautiful things growing alongside train tracks or on industrial margins, establishing themselves in what seem to be the most hostile of environments.

If nature abhors a vacuum, FE certainly does, too. The FE landscape is already adapting and changing to the end of established programmes as well as the post-lockdown climate. We’ve seen the advent and growth of some fabulous new communities, many of them informal, putting down roots on social media. These include @FEConstellations and @VoC_CoP_FE, as well as the re-flourishing of established perennials such as ukfechat with new hosts and topics and JoyFE Collective’s thinking and writing spaces. Specialist informal communities including @FETecherEducators and #SustainFE, a new Sustainability (ESD) Community of Practice, have also sprung up in the last few months alongside established learning technology-focussed development programmes such as Ufi’s Voctech Challenge which has 14 new digital learning projects in this, its second year.

One of the things I’m most excited to work on at the moment stems from the expansion of #AmplifyFE, the strategic partnership between Ufi and ALT. As part of this project I am undertaking research into how we develop and deploy learning technology and digital tools (in their widest sense!) to best support adults most impacted by the digital divide. Key outcomes from this research will be shared to support best practice in the future deployment of learning technology in the sector.

The second strand of the new Ufi/ALT work is the #AmplifyFE Community Space which launched last week building on successful network launched in 2020 and the accompanying Community Audit. Rather than being simply a community in of itself, the Space brings together and amplifies new and existing FE communities. Its aim is to provide spaces for vocational educators to share and learn from each other, increasing their access to learning technology expertise, digital pedagogy and professional development opportunities. It was so encouraging to see that the launch event, presented by community space leader Chloë Hynes, gathered interest in-person and via FE educators’ social media from dozens of FE professionals, so the community is off to a flying start.

#AmplifyFE invites educators using – and interested in using more – digital tools and learning strategies to participate in regular meetings and Twitterchats, as well as providing a podcast series for practitioners to share their expertise and projects in progress. A key attribute is that it encourages and celebrates anti-competitive practice and increased communication and collaboration between projects, organisations and individuals, helping a new ecosystem of FE communities to grow and thrive.

We all await ‘what happens next’ in this landscape with great interest! In the meantime, amplify your FE project by joining the #AmplifyFE Community Space mailing list to get news of future meetings and find out other ways to get involved.

This Photo of a panting of The French Revolution by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

Published by ltaylerson

I am a former FE Computing and Teacher Education Curriculum Leader and ex-BBC engineer and trainer. Worcestershire-based, I specialise in teacher education and CPD, educator mentoring, digital skills and pedagogy, I am director of Real Time Education, an independent provider and a keen commentator on further education and digital skills on social media @realtimeedu. I completed a PhD in Education investigating teachers' use of informal social media dialogues for professional learning in April 2020.

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