Cursor Curated
8th July 2024

The future of education : Part III

Interview with Stephen Smith, Lincoln College

Cover 30 Stephen Smith
Cursor Curated Issue 30
Daniel Westlake

Introducing Stephen Smith and Lincoln College

I'm a curriculum lead at Lincoln College. We have about 3,200 full-time students, and about 6,500 part-time students across about 2,000 courses all in all. We've got centres in Newark and Lincoln, and we also provide services to three colleges in Saudi Arabia which have around 2,000 students each. So it's quite a big offering.

I have responsibility for computing, electrical and electronic engineering, and I lead a team of 11 people. Operational running falls under my remit, as does working with partners in industry to make sure that we can get as good a student experience as possible. I still teach, and I also have to make sure that we're keeping track of all the finances. So it's a fairly broad brush.

Lincoln college white

Could you tell us more about your new Newark Air and Space Institute campus?

We've worked with Newark District Council to make use of government funds as part of the levelling up process. The end product of that is that we were able to create a custom designed building that supports the aerospace industries. The idea is that we're trying to service the local area: East Midlands Airport and the RAF bases around there that want new people to do jobs in the industry.

We have a certain level of curriculum that's government specified, but we've been able to work with industry to make decisions on what goes into that building and that curriculum, so we're moving towards career offerings for things like pilot, ground crew, being an aircraft engineer, working in the space industry. Alongside that, there's cabin crew and things like software engineering.

We're everywhere, aren't we, for better or worse! So is that due to start this year or it is open already?

We're already recruiting now. Numbers are looking particularly healthy, which is nice to see. When something's new, it's always a challenge to ‘get it off the ground’, if you’ll excuse the pun! But I think the attraction of having a full Boeing jet in the building and the simulators and things like that are definitely a draw to people.

30 air space institute

How can education better support students getting started in industry?

A really interesting aspect of this is the alignment between education and industry and designing the curriculum with those jobs in mind. Can you give me any insight into how that process works?

So initially, no matter what type of education you're going to do we have constraints in terms of what we're provided with nationally in terms of qualifications. Those are generally advised by large employers working with the awarding bodies and the government, but those subjects need to be contextualised and selected appropriately. So, we tend to talk to people in industry, and part of that process is having a conversation about what their needs or expectations are for the future; what do they think things are going to be like?

The way that we then tailor that course is we bolt things on, so, flying lessons or two days working in a company to do something that's specific to the industry that you want to get into. We try to build a programme that enhances not just the subject knowledge, but also the industry knowledge as well, that's the core concept.

I think that's really compelling. Going back to my university days, it's a long time ago, but what served quite well was doing placements, or spending Wednesday afternoons working on projects with industry. It's those bits that you need on your CV to get that all important first career role. Those are the bits that you can talk about and demonstrate your knowledge and also make you stand out from others.

...the lifelong learning entitlement says that anybody will be able to get the same level of funding as they would for a degree, but just spend it in little chunks whenever they like.

Moving from one type of pilot to another pilot - sorry, I can’t resist a pun either - you're involved in a government pilot scheme, could you talk about that?

The government’s modular acceleration programme has come off the back of the fact that traditionally, if you were over 18 or over, you were only ever going to be funded for a full course, and now there's a recognition that education's had to make a bit of a shift. People are not necessarily available to do full courses and sometimes a lot of that course isn't actually relevant to them in terms of their careers.

We're having to look at how we can fund that differently. The modular acceleration programme is a grant-based system that allows anybody who's over 18 to study part of a course. In the current setup, it's only Level 4 that they can study at, and it has to be part of a Higher Technical Qualification. But this is only in the initial stages - it will expand out over probably about a period of three years where it will become available to any subject area and any HE-level course.

30 select modules

The idea is that there's a skill shortage in the UK of people that are capable of doing work at Level 4. And the lifelong learning entitlement says that anybody will be able to get the same level of funding as they would for a degree, but just spend it in little chunks whenever they like. The modular acceleration programme is front-loading that approach with a grant system. At that point, when you use the grant system, you're not effectively taking a loan, it's giving you it for zero cost.

Particularly with technical skills, you can find that people are very much focused on one thing, but then as you settle into your career, it becomes about different skills, like the ability to learn and communicate, or commercial awareness and project management. It's all that ‘soft skills’ stuff that you can miss out on if you're very focused on the purely technical.

What are some of the challenges when innovating in education?

Further Education has a cycle. Nobody will ever talk about it. Nobody will ever say that there is one. But every 6 years or so, there is some innovation. You can kind of tie it to changes of government and how long people get to stay in the Department of Education. It’s challenging, but you get opportunities there as well.

But on an annual basis all we need to do is look at what we planned from the previous year, take some time to investigate what's going on, and make sure we're getting a feel for what's right. There’s a process called ‘minor mods’, where you're entitled to make a change to the course every year and adapt and improve a module or change its content. As long as you don't change the overarching programme outcomes, you can do it at quite a granular level.

What's a concern for me, with having quite a bit of experience in this, is that the government is now pushing the Higher Technical Qualification route - which is proving very popular for people - but that's heavily reliant on the awarding bodies staying current in terms of what they put into those things. 

It's really good to hear that you are focused on making sure that the curriculum is able to adapt in this fast-paced industry because that's what encourages employers to take a bet on a younger student, who may need a bit more support and a bit more of a framework. 

How do you tackle the challenge of teacher upskilling - for example digital skills - in the context of actually keeping your teaching staff up to date?

If we look at an average FE teacher today, regardless of which college it is, out of 37 hours a week, they're probably spending around 24 hours of it in the classroom, so available time is a problem to getting people down the right path for actually updating their skills.

We've gone through a wide variety of different approaches with upskilling, but I tend to direct it. I know where the industry is going simply because I have the time and capacity to go and find out those things. Then we look at, right, what's the focus for the next year?

Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. So an example of getting it wrong was VR. We spent a lot of time working towards that because we felt there was going to be a bit more of a push towards it. But we can see now that it's a slow burn rather than a quick burn.

30 immersive virtual learning

How is AI impacting education, from both an organisational and learner perspective?

Without steering quite as far as AI, predictive data analytics is quite helpful to us as an organisation. For example, we worked with The Knowledge Ladder, which is part of Lincoln College Group, to collect some data around apprentices and their likelihood to leave their apprenticeship early. We're not looking at what they're doing while performing the course, we're looking at historical data, geography, distances, educational grades, whether or not they got free school meals, the lot; and this gave us a fairly good indicator of high-risk apprentices before they started the course.

The end result is that we are able to identify which apprentices are at the highest risk of being unsuccessful in their apprenticeship, which means we can put the support mechanisms in early. I can't give you the exact statistics, but I do know that we have moved ahead of the curve nationally in terms of our apprenticeship success rates.

Regarding AI, there's a certain loneliness to being a learner in that there's one of me - the teacher - and there's 30 of them - the students. Fortunately, ‘Teams’ has changed that quite significantly in terms of accessibility to staff, which can lead to staff burnout if you're not careful, but for students, it gives a better experience.

So the immediacy of AI being able to answer things and the extra time that you would get is interesting. I see it as a way of giving something to the learner that gives them a prompt, something that helps them move forward when they're a little bit stuck. But the other side of it is that you could look at it and go, does this remove the need to think?

...I see AI as something that wraps around rather than replaces. We don't know the future, and it's highly unlikely that we can predict exactly where it's going to go.

I haven't touched Python in a decade, and I just thought - I'm going to do something in Python just to catch up on skills. I was a bit rusty, but having, in this case, ChatGPT and GitHub CoPilot meant that I could just switch to a different programming language really easily. So that’s an interesting thing from a learner point of view. You learn the principles and then the AI can help you with the syntax.

But the danger is where people lose the understanding of the nuance, because then you lose the ability to potentially innovate.

That's why I see AI as something that wraps around rather than replaces. We don't know the future, and it's highly unlikely that we can predict exactly where it's going to go. With the pace of change, trying to regulate something like that is not going to work. The only thing you can do is try and provide guidance as to what's an ethical and appropriate way of using it to achieve a goal. 

It comes back to exactly what you're talking about, which is that there are a lot of people out there that have problems they need to solve, and they're highly reliant on other people to solve them for them, so enabling them is absolutely a core goal, I would have thought, for AI.

30 ai goals
More from this series:

The future of education : Part I
With Desmond Clarke, Open College of the Arts

The future of education : Part II
With Andrew Chisholm, Priory Federation of Academies Trust

Sea graphic
Cursor Curated wordmark
Cursor Curated wordmark

Articles, tips and knowledge delivered straight to your inbox