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Ensuring young learners in Falkirk have the digital skills they need to secure jobs in the future led to the launch of the Council of the Future Connected Falkirk project, one of six transformational projects that sit within the Succeed Today, Excel Tomorrow programme of work.

We catch up with Project Manager Stuart Lennie to find out more about the project and the lessons learned rolling out a massive transformation project during a pandemic.

Give us a quick recap of what Connected Falkirk is?

Connected Falkirk is a transformational learning and teaching programme supported by digital technology, not the other way around. We haven’t just handed out devices and said, “Off you go!”. We’ve put in place a professional learning programme for teachers to ensure they have the skills and confidence to support learners and installed new Wi-Fi - connected to dedicated high speed Internet lines - in every classroom and learning space. 

What’s been achieved in the past 12 months?

We’ve distributed 16,000 iPads to pupils and teachers. We’ve also worked with every pupil in P6-S6 to set their device up and configure it for their learning. Deployed 1,000 Apple TVs to allow content from devices to be shared through projectors in the classroom wirelessly. Fitted 1,800 Wi-Fi 6 enabled Cisco Meraki Access Points. Installed 58 new high speed Internet lines - 1 to every school establishment. Created and delivered vision and culture and professional learning sessions to all schools, with the content available on our social media channels, including Twitter and YouTube for offline catch up.

That’s quite a lot! But why are we doing this?

Research shows that 75% of employers in Scotland have experienced difficulties in recruiting qualified digital staff. That gap in digital skills is only going to continue. That is why we had to act, to ensure our young people have the skills to do the jobs of the future. There was also digital inequity across schools, as different schools had invested in different amounts and types of tech. Access to that tech was also very traditional - you went somewhere to do IT and we know digital learning is at its most impactful when delivered and used in context.

Using their new Connected Falkirk iPads

Pictured: Pupils at Larbert Village Primary School get to grips with their new device.

Rolling out a project of this size couldn’t have been easy; how did you make it happen?

Thanks to the Council’s Change Fund, I was seconded in 2020 alongside 4 teachers. I cannot stress enough how lucky I am to have these 4 fantastic educators in the team - Andy, Gavin, Kerry, and Mari-Jane have each brought their own experience and talents and they are the reason we’ve achieved so much in so little time.

We had lots of support from Rebecca McDonald and the PMO Team who brought energy and capacity and fat to the programme, and I speak a lot about fat because you need fat to get something of this magnitude up and running. We also worked in partnership with 2 procured suppliers - XMA and VirginMedia – and had support from across services, most notably from the Network team in IT, the Legal team, and Procurement colleagues.

What impact did lockdowns have?

We had to rip up our planned deployment model and remotely deploy teacher devices with video self-build guides and online support. Knowing that we couldn’t deploy every device to every child during the lockdown period, we had to then prioritise device deployment to those pupils most in need during lockdown (over 1,000). And the supply chain was impacted too - shipping of devices from manufacturers, Brexit impacting customs deliveries, and worldwide chipset shortages.

And then there were bubbles … pupils weren’t allowed to mix between classes, which immediately meant that our plan to have large scale build sessions with pupils was impossible, so we had to increase the number of build sessions we had originally planned to do. Additionally, bubbles meant that we couldn’t put Wi-Fi installers in classrooms when pupils were in the building, so early morning and late night/weekend working patterns had to be introduced, with the installers also having to remain in bubbles too.

Pupils learning on their device

Pictured: Larbert Village Primary School pupils unbox their Connected Falkirk iPads.

Even faced with uncontrollable external factors, you managed to keep the project near enough on track. How?

We followed the art of failing quickly. We tried something, tested it, and if it didn’t work, we changed it and moved on. I know that sounds obvious, but I’m sure everyone has witnessed a programme of work that has failed slowly. Creative thinking helps!

What impact has the project had so far?

Every learner is now the same in the class and everyone now has access to technology at home. Savings are also being made. We’re already seeing an increase in online Higher and Advanced Higher subjects being delivered and that will continue to grow, which saves us transporting pupils to other secondary schools to take subjects. Printing is also reduced as teachers are now using Airdrop to wirelessly send and receive work from pupils and give feedback-Feedback can be given to pupils far more quickly, and it can be given via audio too.

Learning how to use their devices

Pictured: The Connected Falkirk team show pupils at St Margaret's Primary School how to set up and use their device.

Have there been any unexpected benefits?

For all the awfulness of the pandemic, it has helped in one respect- it has pushed forward the use of technology to support learning. We’re also seeing some of the new technologies we’ve designed and implemented for Connected Falkirk be used in other areas of the Council. For instance, the new Wi-Fi for The Foundry is a replication of the Wi-Fi for Connected Falkirk. Providing iPads rather than laptops or PCs has allowed pupils to take digital on trips and in outdoor learning. And maybe this last one isn’t unexpected, but it has shown that staff and pupils will buy into a programme when there’s continuous, planned investment with access to technology, training, and support.

What next?

The deployment phase is complete, so now we work on the embedding and exemplification. We’ve already undertaken benchmarking work with pupils and staff, and we’ll continue to repeat this work going forward to case study good practise and share with others. In terms of ongoing funding, Scottish Government has announced plans for 1:1 device programme for all learners P1-S6 upwards during the term of the current parliament. We’ve got a bit of work to do through the Digital Communities project too - with a Connected Falkirk device going home, we have work to do to ensure access to connectivity anywhere and everywhere, as well as improving the digital skillset at home. So, we may be 12 months in, but we are just at the beginning!