“Going out of my comfort zone to teach apprentices online is turning out much better than I expected,” says Shane Forth who teaches apprentices for Northern Skills Group, the commercial training arm of Middlesbrough College.

Shane, an ECITB approved assessor who has over 40 years project management and controls experience in industry, hosted his first video conference last month so he could continue to deliver the level 3 Project Controls Technician apprenticeship.

Shane Forth looks into space in large college room

Shane Forth

He has shared with the ECITB his experience of creating an online classroom to inspire others currently adapting to new approaches to teaching.

“I have over 25 years in senior leadership roles, for engineering and construction businesses of up to 40,000 employees”, said Shane.

In 2019, Shane started his consultancy business to help employers equip their workforce with the skills to manage and control projects.

“As somebody who has always had a passion for developing people, I knew I would enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with others,” he said.

Shane began training employees for Northern Skills Group in September 2019. By the beginning of March Shane had delivered over 20 full-day teaching sessions to a cohort of six apprentices. Then, the impact of the mounting Covid-19 outbreak changed everything at the ECITB-Approved Assessment Centre’s Middlehaven campus.

“The College announced a move to online teaching from Monday 23rd March. This forced a sudden and drastic change to working practices for which I was ill-prepared,” said Shane.

“During the last 10-years of my time in industry I had become used to attending video conferences. But I had always relied on someone else to set-up the technology to ensure everything worked. In all this time I had not even mastered the art of screen sharing, so I definitely had to move out of my comfort zone. My immediate concern was that this might compromise the apprentice’s learning experience.”

Self-confessed digital novice Shane was undeterred, throwing himself into exploring available online technology and tools.

“As long as I could stay connected with the apprentices from home and learn to share my screen, I was sure I could deliver my lectures,” he said.

“My goal was to create a rich and interactive virtual learning environment in which the apprentices could collaborate. To do this that I would have to get as close as I could to replicating the physical classroom environment.”

Shane identified Microsoft’s Teams application as his best bet to establish a richer virtual learning environment.

“It proved quite a steep learning curve, with lots of terminology and functionality that was new to me.  I am pleased to say that my time and effort was well worth it,” said Shane.

As Shane embraced this new way of teaching he found it offered more than simply a stop-gap alternative to a physical classroom.

“An immediate benefit was that I could upload the full set of teaching and learning material into the Class Materials folder. Now, for the first time, the apprentices can access all the course materials online in one place. They can also download copies, rather than having to rely on paper handouts from me each week,” said Shane.

Next, he separated his class into sub-teams of three and added channels to the teams he had created, to enable teaching and learning by unit as well as group exercises.

“It means that I have realised my aim to get as close as I can in the virtual environment to using flipcharts and whiteboards in the classroom.”

Other advantages Shane has already found to online teaching include personal online student notebooks and online assignments, where the whole process from start to finish takes place online. And as well as their project control learning, the apprentices have had to learn to get the most from Microsoft Teams, gaining crucial digital competencies.

“Beforehand, I wasn’t sure how well this would all work,” said Shane.

“Whilst it is still early days, things have turned out much better than I expected. Aside from the occasional loss of Wi-Fi or audio, problems have been few and far between.

“The way the apprentices have adapted to online learning in the last few weeks has been very positive. They have shown great strength of character in what has been a challenging period for them,” said Shane.

One of Shane’s students on the level 3 Project Controls Technician apprenticeship is Jane Downing an Assistant Quantity Surveyor for Brand Energy and Infrastructure Services International.

Jane said: “We have been able to carry on as close to normal as possible. We have continued to do group exercises and all have an input and have not missed out on our remaining classes.”

Karen Knights, Northern Skills Group Regional Manager, said: “Being able to respond to the rapid need for change enforced upon us with the global pandemic has meant that the traditional methods of teaching and learning have had to be adapted quickly.

“Shane’s flexibility and embracing of online learning has ensured our apprentices progress has continued throughout social distancing with positive feedback from the apprentices.  On-line learning may be the way forward over the coming months and we can learn from this successful teaching experience”.