Fleur Sexton, managing director of PET-Xi and Deputy Lieutenant of West Midlands describes how her company adapted their highly successful intensive courses to a digital world.
Schools and colleges rely on us to work miracles, sometimes in just a week. When lockdown came, we had to do some soul searching and decide if and how we could replicate the PET-Xi experience online.
Our mission has always been to inspire the people we work with in the short time we are all together. We send in teams of professional trainers to enthuse, cajole, drive, entertain and motivate learners and to break the cycle of negativity.
Learners need to believe they can succeed. It ‘s a tall order and it works because of the chemistry in the room. We have been described as all singing and all dancing and certainly our courses are full on, bringing together the best techniques from training, teaching and coaching.
We have taught 150,000 people over 24 years, from primary to GCSE and adults, from basic to advanced skills. The very nature of our work means we have always gone for small groups, a high ratio of staff to students and face-to-face training.
It was a recipe that worked well. Then came lockdown and we had to review what we offer and see if we could adapt.
The PET-Xi methodology
Unlike conventional teaching, our approach separates out the different functions normally undertaken by a single teacher.
There is the Expert who is responsible for content and knowledge. They come from teaching and training backgrounds and may also work as examiners for awarding bodies and as external quality assurers.
There is the Motivational Lead who is not necessarily a qualified teacher but who is charismatic, a good role model who will appeal to young people and is an expert in behavioural management. They are chosen for their ability to motivate and engage a broad spectrum of learners. Their training in Assessment for Learning and use of assertive questioning maximises success rates for learners. Supports can be either Motivational Leads and/or Experts training in the PET-Xi methodology, teaching assistants or those who have worked in the subject area or industry for many years. They ensure that all the learners are on target and understand the concepts. Their role is to maintain energy levels and concentration and pick up quickly on any misconceptions which they can feed back to the Expert.
Our sessions are generally very fast paced. Students are constantly involved in kinaesthetic activities, filling in a workbook or using the app that goes with our
course. There is a random name generator that decides who should answer the question so no one feels picked on by staff. Often the group moves from being silent, scared to contribute, to being vocal, outgoing and willing to take a risk after just an hour or so.
Students who ask a question, find the right answer or write on the board get a raffle ticket. The more tickets they get, the higher the chances of having the winning ticket in the prize draw at the end of the day.
Our over-riding concern was how could we achieve all this when the learners were not in the same room as us or each other?
As we talked, it was soon obvious that certain things would not change. We could still provide accurate diagnostic tests for every learner and an individual learning plan. We could still offer unconditional support and make sure no learner was left behind.
However. we also knew it would be easier for learners to opt out if they were working from home and felt they were not part of a group.
There was a danger than being in class at home could end up being all about ‘fun and fag breaks’ if class members were not grabbed at the outset.
We wanted PET-Xi Live to be fully interactive – not just watching and listening but doing. It would be based on live questions and feedback. Most importantly, it had to be easy to access because students would be using their phones, tablets, computers and laptops to join in with the interactive sessions from their own homes.
We directed the move to PET-Xi Live the same way we approach any new delivery, looking at how it could enhance the learning experience and the opportunities for engagement and interaction. This involved reviewing and refining our resources and classroom methods and techniques, adapting them as required to create the corresponding impact in the new digital learning environment.
We chose Zoom as our technology platform to host the meeting room where PET-Xi Live takes place. Further down the line we will integrate the PET-Xi Live experience into other technology platforms which our customers may already be invested in such as Microsoft Teams because this can help a great deal with the scheduling and registration process.
We stress tested the platform from a technical perspective to ensure smooth running, as well as from a safeguarding perspective. Not all the platforms we tried were able to meet our rigorous standards.
For our signature PET-Xi Live experience we have a large interactive touch-screen display with cameras and microphone headsets to host and run the main delivery stage for audio-visual interactivity, together with secondary hosting laptop and screen for support staff to host and monitor chats, votes, questions and feedback. We will soon be adding electronic writing pads to further enhance interactivity and the learner experience
For smaller groups, 1-to-1 sessions, tutorial-style sessions we use more portable and more readily accessible hardware because of the different requirements of these sessions.
Retraining has itself been done remotely through PET-Xi Live and proven extremely rewarding. Now staff have been on the receiving end of remote training, they can better understand the remote learner experience and are more aware of potential pitfalls.
If you get the elements right- the people, staff training, technology and resources- they combine to deliver the right learner experience, and if the learner experience is right then the results occur almost incidentally. It’s a kind of alchemy.
One of our first test cases was Tamworth Enterprise College in Cannock. We were due to work with a Health and Social care group and by the time the course started, three learners were in self-isolation so we started to extend the course into the home using technology. They were studying level 2 qualifications and in the first three weeks we had 60 learners completing the courses entirely on Zoom
We were anxious at first but soon discovered there are advantages to online learning. We have noticed people are less stressed now they don’t have to catch a bus to get to a particular place. The pace of learning is faster and sessions have a lot of energy as staff are getting good at identifying the barriers and helping people to progress.
Even learners who find school difficult, are at risk of exclusion or who might normally succumb to peer pressure to mess around have embraced this new model of learning. For example, with mute you can deal with nip potential crowd control issues in the bud and stop the school joker from distracting others.
In addition, those who find it difficult to ask for help in a classroom enjoy remote working. Online question and answer means everyone contributes and the answers are confidential so people are more willing to take risks and have a go.
We’re achieving success in engagement with our interactive video lessons. Retention rates are as high with online learning as they have been face to face, and learners are getting their qualifications. Done in the right way, with the right staff and methodology, remote courses can reach many ‘unreachable’ learners and deliver amazing results.
PET-Xi Live is taking us in an entirely new direction. While ministers and some schools are talking about a return to the way things were, we plan to expand our online offering. We’d like to do 40 to 60% remote working in the future because it improves work/ life balance and has environmental advantages.
It also has enormous potential for young people who are excluded. In the past they were left to work on their own from home or possibly be in the school in a separate setting with a TA.
We now realise that we can support children who are carers at home, looking after somebody in their family. We can extend the service to that increasing number of children who will not be able to attend school in the foreseeable future. Think of a child with cystic fibrosis or autoimmune conditions. With this technology, they will be able to work from home but be part of a group.
This time of lockdown has been challenging but it has opened our eyes to many possibilities. Remote learning will be an increasingly large part of the services that PET-Xi can offer to young people.