Online learning model could help tackle skills gap


THE ‘rapid adoption’ of online learning during the Covid-19 crisis could help accelerate potential solutions to the skills gap, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the association believes it has resulted in a learning model with several benefits.

BESA president Neil Brackenridge said many displaced workers could be redeployed and upskilled once the furlough scheme comes to an end.

Helen Yeulet, BESA’s director of training and skills said, “Investment in skills is one of the first things to get cut during an economic downturn. However, the Covid crisis has also created an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at what we actually want our people to be doing and, therefore, what skills they will need.”

Ms Yeulet added that with the crisis accelerating demand for new skills and upskilling of existing workers to embrace modern ways of working, a new generation of teachers will also have to be upskilled.

“Building services is a very scattered sector that needs a wider and more varied range of skills than many others,” she told a BESA webinar. “This makes it relatively expensive and complicated for FE colleges to deliver our apprenticeships. However, a lot of learning moved online during the lockdown. We were already going that way, but the crisis speeded things up and created a new learning model. If we can deliver more of the theoretical elements remotely that will free up the colleges to focus on the practical training. It will also reduce volume of students attending in person at any one time to help colleges maintain social distancing.”

This ‘blended approach’ to training is the foundation of the new BESA Academy, which is launching in August.

“It should also help employers to engage more easily with the education sector especially as the new standard apprenticeships are being rolled out this summer,” Ms Yeulet explained. “Many of these were developed by employers through BESA to produce a workforce directly suited to the industry’s needs.”

Jill Nicholls from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education told the BESA webinar that the crisis had also led to better collaboration between different government departments. It had produced ‘new money, new policies and new processes’ for technical education as it was seen as ‘a key vehicle in helping the economic recovery’.

“It is also important that we support redundant apprentices and we are looking at ways to help them transfer their skills without having to start again from scratch,” she added.

Chris Nicholls from the Association of Colleges said blended learning approach adopted by the BESA Academy would help support the phased entrance of students back into their FE colleges in September. With more materials delivered online, they would be able to reduce the amount of time spent in classrooms.

However, he told the BESA webinar that colleges had adopted online learning with ‘varying degrees of success’ and cautioned that ‘IT poverty’ could be a stumbling block.

“The move to online learning during the crisis had to be put in place in just a few days when normally it would have taken a couple of years to plan and implement,” he said. “A lot of learners are going to need more support with the kit they need to access the teaching.”