A. We recommend that the United Reformed Church makes a significant investment of resourcing in order to develop its capacity for online learning for discipleship through the identification and networking of digital champions, in collaboration with Synods and the Assembly Communications Commitee.
In terms of resourcing people, we recommend that the denomination explores the possibility of creating a network of Digital Champions from within its membership. These would be people who would be able to mentor and encourage those less confident or familiar with using the internet to engage with the learning resources that were available and ‘get online’. As a starting point we suggest that each Synod is approached to identify one or two people with these skills who could form the initial core of a network. We can also encourage people to take advantage of locally delivered courses and resources aimed at improving digital inclusion (e.g. Digital Unite or Digital Communities Wales).
When developing the URC’s online learning presence there is scope for collaboration with the Assembly Communications Committee, and therefore conversations between appropriate staff should be pursued.
The aim of working with the Communications Committee and the Synods would be to encourage a reasonable level of digital literacy across the denomination thus providing a solid base on which to build.
In addition, we are of the firm view that any online resources that are created or commissioned need to be robust, easily accessible, and professionally supported and delivered, thus giving resilience and stability. In order to do this well we need to be prepared to invest in building capacity in this area, developing skills in creating online resources and outsourcing work when necessary. The URC needs to sustain and maintain a contemporary online presence. Online learning opportunities need to form part of this offering.
We are also aware that not everyone wants to do things online, and that digital resources are only one part of the blend. The absence of online engagement might be for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily because of unwillingness or inability. We need to respect this and consider how some resources and materials can remain available in more traditional delivery modes.
We also propose that we attempt to take regular snapshots of the digital life of the URC. We have started this process with an online questionnaire which can be found here: http://tiny.cc/bltgquestions. This was first used at General Assembly in 2016 where paper versions were also available. It has since been circulated more widely and analysis of the date is ongoing. We suggest that this exercise is repeated from time to time as technology advances and more people become engaged and familiar with online services.
B. In order to achieve this, we recommend that the Education & Learning Committee, in consultation with other Assembly Commitees explores the possibility of creating a post of Online Learning Enabler
Working since 2014, the Blended Learning Task Group has gained an appreciation of the creative capabilities which exist within the United Reformed Church for taking forward online learning, There is a noticeable rise in the use of tablets, laptops and other digital devices during committee meetings and network gatherings, with participants often as likely to take a picture of a flipchart on their mobile phone as copy down what has been written there. Youtube clips are integrated into tutoring sessions and training programmes, and online questionnaires are beginning to appear alongside paper forms. Where URCLE has been used regularly it has sometimes been made possible by the use of designated supporters who accompany users as they become familiar with the system. There are a range of individuals within Synods who are confident online practitioners, whilst growing attention and specialist experience exist most concentratedly in the RCLs:
- Westminster College is investing in its website with planned, ongoing development as well as using Moodle through the Cambridge Federation
- The Windermere Centre is pioneering the use of iChurch and online dialogue
- Northern College uses Moodle alongside other Colleges as part of Luther King House
- The Scottish College and Synod of Scotland Field Workers use URCLE for augmenting face-to-face physical gatherings for learning.
This capability has been developed gradually and unevenly, pushed and led by committed individuals who are capable of much, but hampered by lack of time to develop their skills to the next stage and to mentor their colleagues to become confident users.
Within Church House the Communications Team and Education & Learning Team have been aware of this same constraint on their time. The people with the most skill are overloaded with work on behalf of others when it would be more productive to teach others how to do the work for themselves. The website is not exploited to its full capability for learning purposes. URCLE has hardly begun to be liberated beyond its basic functions, as was indicated in a review of its use for TLS, carried out in 2014.
Total 651 Users
183 (28%) logged in within the last 12 months, of which 145 (22%) were in the last 6 months, of which 35 (5%) were in the last month.
168 (25%) have never logged in.
Almost all URCLE registrations are for users who are part of a network or course for a fixed time period. Though those users may have been withdrawn from the active network since standing down, completing a course, or finishing a piece of work, users remain registered within URCLE in case they become active in other committees, courses or pieces of work. Just under 20 registrations are URC Church House staffs in order that they have access if needed.
URCLE has become technically robust, with immediate access to professional hosting and support since outsourcing its running to a contracted partner specialising in Moodle-based systems for an annual fee of just under £2,000. If the URC chose so to do it would be possible for this partnership to be extended to designing URCLE so that it is fit for the purpose of e.g supporting the online learning elements of the successor to TLS.
The twin-track solution to the current capacity constraints which are hampering the URC’s ability to offer 21st century learning opportunities is:
- To release creative people from some of their routine tasks in order that they can focus on sharing their skills more effectively;
- To invest new and dedicated staff time to harnessing more of the skills which currently exist dispersed throughout the denomination. This dispersal is a strength which will become a greater asset when people with skills and enthusiasm are more intentionally connected and nurtured. It is this argument which underlies the recommendation to appoint an Online Learning Enabler with a suggested first draft of a possible job description for such a post being included here as a starting point for conversations.