My job in higher ed

My Job in Higher Ed with Nicole Ponsford, Digital Education Project Lead & Online Educational Specialist

Nicole Ponsford has worked in various roles within education over the last 15 years, from early years to post-16 settings. Since 2010 she has been an educational coach, writer and digital content producer. She is currently studying for a Doctorate whilst working for Achievement for All, and in 2018 co-founded The Gender Equality Charter (the GEC), a platform that aims to make gender equality accessible to all. The schools, homes and businesses who sign the charter become part of the GEC Community of Change and receive access to learning opportunities, resources, events and more.

We caught up with Nicole to find out more about the GEC, what's new in digital innovation for learning and how she manages to juggle everything! 

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1. Hi Nicole! What does a typical work day look like for you? 

Like a jigsaw puzzle! I mainly work from home and remotely as I have young children (primary aged son and girl/boy twin toddlers). After over a decade of being a teacher, I’ve now worked for nearly seven years at educational charity, Achievement for All; initially as an Achievement Coach, but now as the Digital Education Lead.

Ultimately my WiFi is my best friend. Achievement for All is a leading not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with early years settings, schools and colleges improving outcomes in reading, writing, maths, attendance and behaviour for all children and young people vulnerable to underachievement regardless of background, challenge or need. I am both proud and privileged to be part of this team who are making a real difference in the UK.

My day starts after the children have all been dispersed to their settings; I normally fire up my laptop with a cup of tea and work intensely on the day job. Being a parent means that I have to make the time count, so I am very disciplined and work intensely before I need to start herding the kids up again. I also work across the week - when I can grab hours here and there.

At present my focus is on project leading a school RCT in the West of England. I support our nine coaches with their work across 20 primary schools. Other than that I create digital content for our online CPD hub, The Bubble or work with a series of partners on work to close gaps in education. A typical day can be made up of multi-participant video-calls, editing, copywriting, eCoaching, telephone calls, creating interactive eLearning modules, researching educational topics and evidence online, or  coach/teacher CPD - with several cups of half-drunk cups of caffeine littered around my screens!

Since my first maternity leave in 2010, I’ve worked freelance as an educational coach, writer, editor and digital content producer. In 2014 my first book, TechnoTeaching, was published - this was written during naptimes and all remotely. (I have yet to meet my co-author American Dr Julie M Wood!). It was a huge personal achievement and it gave me the confidence to just ‘go for things’ - especially working online to achieve my goals.

In my ‘free time’ now, I am working on a Doctorate, again online and part-time. I am studying for a Doctorate in Education and Creative Media at Bournemouth University - and my focus is on how to close digital gender gaps in the UK.

 "I was asked to speak at BETT - in the midst of Gove’s year of computing (Jan 2017), and wondered where on earth all the women were. I wrote about it and loads of people from the edtech world got in touch." 

I also co-founded a digital startup, as a means to close gender gaps, The Gender Equality Charter (the GEC), in February 2018. Coming back to work, after having the twins, I was struck by the lack of gender equality in the UK. As a parent of girl / boy twins it was incredible to see how they were treated differently by some people. I was then asked to speak at BETT - in the midst of Gove’s year of computing (Jan 2017), and wondered where on earth all the women were. I wrote about it and loads of people from the edtech world got in touch. I realised I was not alone and was determined to do something practical to change this. There seemed a lot of voices talking about it - but no-one was joining the dots.

Cat and I met (on Twitter) and put our heads together - we decided it was time to get practical - as professionals and parents. The GEC is our solution. As two female founders with tech backgrounds and based on our roles (Cat in business and me in education) and as parents, we have one BIG idea. We worried it was too big. We launched a Twitter handle to gauge interest and soon had two thousand followers of academics, educators, businesses and parents all wanting to help - so, we ran two pilots to see if what we wanted to do would work (spoiler: it did).

Initial interest came from individuals to major organisations like the Institute of Coding, the RSA and even the DfE. However, we now need to take the next steps in getting out there.

Whilst we wait to get investment for our digital platform, we have now launched our first practical project, GECFutures as a means of celebrating and inspiring women and girls with digital futures. We have just launched a Twitter handle, have an extraordinary group of female leaders and are planning an event with Bournemouth University for the start of 2020.  

 

2. Wow! With so many different roles and responsibilities, how on earth do you manage your time effectively? 

In bitesize pieces! Luckily my ‘party tricks’ are writing and reading - so I am able to juggle most things most weeks without it all falling down around my ears. 99% of the work I do is online - and I was able multitask like a mutha before I had the kids, so this all helps. Also, when I am not working, I can be found on school runs, at toddler groups or parties or exploring the sunny south coast where I live. Then being able to read about education learning theory or work out how to support vulnerable children means that I can use my brain for really interesting activities. I try to balance things as much as I can to ensure that work is focused - and that leaves me time to enjoy my awesome family.

I also have a lot of things that work in my favour - but ultimately it is the team around me (who I call the ‘Rebel Alliance’!). Achievement for All is a fantastic organisation to work for and they are very family friendly. Working to improve outcomes for young people and children is hugely rewarding so it doesn’t feel like a ‘job’.

‘Me time’ is normally spent reading and writing. I used to write articles and blogs, but since starting the Doctorate the reading and writing that goes with it, is how I find time to be me. I have always been a ‘book’ geek so this is my happy place.

The unexpected change was the impact the GEC would have on my life. The support for the introduction of the GEC was incredible - but also overwhelming this time last year. Thankfully our team is very supportive and hands on. I have learnt that it is important to do one thing at a time, and that (despite my default setting of getting things done straight away) things can wait. It is important to focus on one thing at a time - although I do find this hard to do.

 

3. Achievement for All helps schools to be more inclusive by improving the aspirations, access and achievement of all learners, particularly the most vulnerable, low attaining and those with SEND. What are some of the newest and most interesting approaches you’re currently looking at?

 I would say adapting Achievement for All’s award-winning toolkit for use by employee parents and carers to support effective communication with schools and with children and young people of all ages. Our brand new ‘Employer’s Support for Parents and Carers’ is a way to not only ensure high impact on employee wellbeing but also something that will hopefully improve their family life too.

It is based on our toolkit for Structured Conversations. Achievement for All is an educational charity that has now spent ten years developing Structured Conversations (an effective coaching approach to create impactful discussions for professionals, parents and young people) for education settings - serving all ages, from pre-school to college years.

Thousands of teachers in the UK have benefited from the training, and they tell us how it has helped them get the most of interactions with parents and carers, building positive supportive relationships even in tough times. We have taken this learning and adapted it for workforces.

As many of your readers will know all too well, parenting is a bittersweet mix-up of wonderful highs, and incredible challenges. When it is all going well - life is good. When it isn’t, well… tough times and dark days a-plenty - or at least there is in my house. We recognise that it is at these times of challenge that we sometimes need a mental prop, an internal guide by your side to keep you calm and focused: a route map towards a successful resolution by subtly taking control of a situation, ensuring that you really hear the other point of view, but, most crucially, they understand and listen to you.

Achievement for All’s Structured Conversations communication toolkit is not a complete guide to effective parenting (is anything?), but it will give employee parents and carers a toolkit of phrases and approaches that can be used when they need them most, either with their children, or with professionals who work with their children.

 

4. The Gender Equality Charter aims to challenge and correct the gender imbalance in our schools, homes and businesses. What steps do we need to take to achieve gender parity quicker?

 We think join up and support the GEC! We are currently working on the digital platform but need as much help as we can get - and investment to get us out there. We collaborate with a large number of organisations already, as we feel joining all of the small voices together will help change things.

"...the impact of the fourth industrial revolution means that HE needs to provide flexible opportunities to its learners that will ultimately have several careers in their lifetimes."

 The way the platform works is that through self-assessment everyone can reflect on what else they can do to close gender gaps in their homes, schools and businesses. It is a HUGE idea, but achievable and scalable in our eyes. We only want to change the world, that’s all!

 

5. What do you think will be the main challenges in the near future for higher education in particular?

From my perspective, I think the moves to increased online learning opportunities, and the impact of the fourth industrial revolution mean that HE needs to provide flexible opportunities to its learners that will ultimately have several careers in their lifetimes.

I also hope HE will link in more with both secondary education and employers (and vice versa) when it comes to being inclusive. This might be in terms of supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged or just in terms of gender equality. For example, I was surprised when starting my doctorate that there were gender equality issues in terms of the numbers of professors and the curriculum content.

I am thrilled that I have several female educational friends that are all studying post-graduate courses, alongside juggling families and ‘real work’ that are also going for it like me.

 

6. Many people, including higher ed professionals, find it difficult to keep up with the pace of digital change. How can people educate themselves without feeling overwhelmed? 

When it comes to integrating digital technologies into your day, have a play. Technology is here to stay, so we need to start by working out what it does - before we consider what it can do for us. It can also help to have a distance POV when it comes to new technologies. There will always be something ‘new’ and shiny out there, but it is important that tech use is outcome driven in education. Sometimes it is the requirement that drives digital tech, others it is the tech services/products that drive the outcome. The trick is understanding what it can do - and then working out what you want to do.

 

7. What are some of the most innovative digital tools being used in classrooms at the moment?

I am really impressed with the accessible technology that the likes of Apple and Microsoft are currently offering - much of it integrated into the software we already have. I really like the Immersive Reader tool that can be found in the Office Suite - fantastic for supporting students of all ages with their reading comprehension skills. I even use it to read aloud the complicated articles in my doctorate reading lists!

"There will always be something ‘new’ and shiny out there, but it is important that tech use is outcome driven in education."

AI is an area that I am teaching myself about - particularly inclusive AI that can support people explore the world and live their lives without barriers. Apps that can ‘tell’ a visually impaired person what is around them on a walk, screen time that allows sign language or an alternative language to be communicated with another both illustrate how technology can really change our society and give us the promise of better futures.

 

8. ...You’re also an Agony Aunt! What kind of problems do individuals come to you with?

Yes! I have been an agony aunt for several publications over the years, including TeachWire and InnovateMySchool. I think it is because I have always enjoyed working across all age ranges and have experienced pretty much every job role and every setting! It is normally in terms of inclusion, digital technologies, and coaching and mentoring.

 


My Job in Higher Ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.

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Kate Tattersfield

Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specialising in writing for the education sector.

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