Pioneering digital approaches to raising English and maths’ standards

Author: kate.edser@jisc.ac.uk
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While the global pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on FE institutions, Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) has found itself well-equipped for such a situation, as a result of a strong ethos of putting digital technology at the heart of teaching and learning.

It is this long-term ethos that has seen the college rewarded with a higher standard of Level 2 English and Maths results in recent years, utilising new technology and working with external stakeholders to ensure that students who have previously struggled with these subjects do not get left behind.

Eleven years in the making

Despite the sudden impact that COVID-19 has had worldwide, remote learning did not come as a major change of direction for staff and students at BCoT. The transition has been swiftly and easily implemented as a result of utilising a wide range of digital teaching and learning tools.

This ardent belief in using technology to create a different, more engaging approach to teaching and learning is not a short-term focus for the college. It has been one of the guiding principles and values of Anthony Bravo, Principal of BCoT, since he joined the college in 2009. Anthony says:

“I am passionate about the transformative power of technology in education and am really proud of what we do at BCoT, putting digital innovation at the heart of learning and reaching students who may have been disengaged in a traditional education setting.

“We also have a fantastic creative digital team that have a wiliness to try new things such as the AI project that we piloted to help improve attainment with GCSE retakes – a long standing issue for FE colleges.”

For BCoT, this introduction of AI would prove to play a key role in raising the standards for students having to retake their GCSE English and maths exams.

The challenge

Since 2014, students who do not achieve a grade 4 or higher in their GCSE maths or English at age 16 must continue studying the subjects as part of their further education or training. Across the country, colleges and sixth forms are facing ongoing challenges around funding, reduced teaching time and student motivation in getting students to achieve the grades they need.

In recent years, it has become apparent that BCoT’s strategy and approach to students re-sitting these exams required a rethink.

According to figures from the education equality charity Impetus-PEF, in the summer of 2017, more than 86,000 entrants to English or maths sat the exam for at least the second time. In English, over a quarter of resits were by those sitting the exam for at least the third time; in maths, the proportion stood at 37 per cent. 

The cycle of resitting exams and failing again can lead students to a downward spiral of failure, lack of motivation and resentment towards learning.

This ongoing challenge in education soon presented itself as an opportunity to BCoT’s digital innovation specialist and media lecturer, Scott Hayden. In 2018, supported by his digital team, Scott wanted to find a new solution: an innovative way to ensure students who have failed GCSE English or maths can pass their exams and not be left behind in a cycle of resits.

The primary objective was to rethink the way educators support and motivate learners who struggle to learn English and maths in a traditional learning environment.

The first step was to place English and maths within the wider context of their chosen vocational subject, to make English and maths relevant to the students’ future career, and to make them realise why they need to work towards their pass grade.

Putting the solution into practice

To enhance the higher standard of Level 2 English and maths results, the project first started with a smaller sample size of Level 2 automotive and construction students.

The digital team worked with internal stakeholders, as well as external organisations and technology, including CENTURY Tech and EquatIO mathspace, to bring studying English and maths to life for the students. The college then introduced a number of new technologies, tailored to each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. These included: 

  • New delivery model that includes a weekly blended learning session
  • Integration of English tool Read&Write and maths app EquatIO mathspace
  • Adoption of innovative artificial intelligence-based platforms with CENTURY Tech
  • Creation of two dedicated revision sites – BCcoT Maths and BCoT English
  • Increase of digital learning allowed for more time for physical one-to-ones with students

Encouraged by the enthusiasm of principal Anthony Bravo, the digital team started working closely with CENTURY Tech in September 2018. CENTURY provided students with a number of benefits for the college and was a key part of BCoT’s success in raising standards.

It gave students an individual learning path that was constantly personalising their learning every step of the way. By identifying and adapting to their strengths, weaknesses, habits and behaviours, CENTURY ensured that the time spent studying English or maths was being used in the most effective way possible.

CENTURY was also helping staff to manage their workload and spend more time giving one-to-one physical sessions with students. Automated marking and planning meant teachers could stay in the moment with their students and spend more time focusing and inspiring students instead of marking large amounts of student work.

Alongside the use of CENTURY, BCoT also introduced online toolkits such as Texthelp’s Read&Write and EquatIO mathspace to support teaching staff and students. The digital team also created two bespoke revision sites to upload resources, self-marking quizzes and gamified revision tools.

Blended learning is a weekly timetabled session which gives the student the opportunity to come into an interactive workshop and complete research and tasks that will develop their independent, collaborative and professional skills.

Supported by a member of the college’s dedicated BCoT digital team, the sessions give students one-to-one support on using a wide range of digital tools that will equip them with the skills that employers in their industry will be looking for in the future.

This weekly session, working with a range of digital tools, has also helped the students and staff become more prepared for the transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The results

The results of the 2018/19 GCSE exams showed that the changes are having a positive impact on student attainment. 

  • In 2018/19 there was an increase in student retention in maths and English
  • 2.9% growth in GCSE maths students achieving a grade 4 or above, compared to 2017/18
  • 8.6% growth of students increasing their grade by at least one grade, compared to 2017/18
  • 9% growth of students increasing their grade by at least one grade, compared to 2017/18
  • Students uwho used AI to help revise for their maths GCSE resits for as little as ten minutes a week improved their results twice as much as the national average
  • Students who used AI to revise for more than one hour a week saw improvements of over ten times the national average
  • Three students received trophies for their use of CENTURY Tech
  • 321,500 questions were answered through CENTURY Tech
  • 781 combined hits to bcotmaths.com and bcotenglish.com in the week leading up to GCSE exams in May 2019

Plans for the future

The innovative changes that the staff have made to increase standards across English and maths is evidence of how integral digital technology has become at BCoT.

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Pioneering digital approaches to raising English and maths’ standards
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