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Spotlight: Here's how Newcastle College is responding to the ever-changing digital landscape

We catch up with Deni Chambers, Director of Creative and Digital Industries, to gain insight into how Newcastle College is revolutionising its courses to keep pace with Newcastle's ever-expanding digital technology sector.

How much emphasis do you put on digital tech and why?
Digital tech is a growing area for the North East and we have positioned ourselves at the forefront of the industry for digital tech training. We realise the important part digital tech plays across all sectors and how the transferable skills gained can be put to vital use. Digital tech is limitless and isn’t just about computer programming or networking. The breadth of our offer ensures that we are well-equipped to deal with the demands of the industry and the challenges it throws up.

How do you work with industry on digital tech?
Employers are at the heart of everything we do to ensure that individuals leave the College with the practical skills and knowledge to make an impact from day one. From supporting our students to validating our degrees, our digital tech provision is supported by key employers.

We’re very grateful for this sharing of knowledge, support and expertise as it helps shape our curriculum offer and inform young people about the careers available within the sector. We want to ensure that what we teach is relevant and up to date and that’s why we have good relationships with employers and business networks such as Accenture, Tombola, Dynamo, Space Group, Verimus and JUMP to name a few.

These employers not only provide valuable insights but also present unique experiences for our students to help them understand the demands of the digital tech sector. Employers provide live project briefs, where students collaborate in teams to solve problems common with those found in industry. In addition, students also benefit from work placements, employment fairs and guest lectures which helps to put theory into practice, broadening their understanding of the fast-paced sector.

What is the next big thing in digital tech and how will you deal with it?
As we all know, the sector moves so fast that by the time this story is published, we’ll already be talking about the next big thing! Our focus at the moment is around Augmented Reality, Building Information Modelling and Cybersecurity. Our flexible curriculum model and our Taught Degree Awarding Powers ensure that we can adapt, futureproof and respond accordingly throughout the year.

As a region, I believe we need to all pool our resources for the benefit of the young people. There’s already so many fantastic resources and opportunities but we can expand further on this through effective strategic partnerships between colleges, universities, schools and industry. By all working together we can make sure that the North East digital tech sector continues to grow and offer unrivalled opportunities for those looking careers in this area. Sharing of resources and expertise ensures that as a region we’re doing our utmost to give young people every opportunity to achieve and progress into fulfilling futures.

What is Newcastle College's digital tech provision - students, staff and courses?
The College is leading the way with its digital tech provision through the creation of courses which are fit for industry. We train over 600 students in this field from entry level courses to Honours Degrees and apprenticeships. Our provision is not only suitable for young people but for those already working in industry who are aiming to gain accreditation and upskill. The College’s digital tech department is made up of over 45 members of staff, from those in direct teaching roles to mentors and progression coaches who have a support-based remit.

The teaching team is made up of industry experienced practitioners and published scholars. All team members strive to upskill so that their own knowledge can be transferred to our students. To ensure they stay current in their field and remain active in industry, they are encouraged to join membership organisations which allow them to bring industry insights back to the classroom.

What physical assets and resources do you have devoted to digital tech?
We understand the importance of digital technology and the part it plays in making the region a hub for innovation and technology. In light of this we have recently invested a significant amount of money to create a dedicated home for digital tech at our city-centre campus.

Spanning over two floors, our digital tech hub opened in September 2017 and is home to a number of brand-new digital labs and lecture theatres containing interactive screen technology. Students are able to hone their skills on over 450 PC’s and Mac’s with the latest specifications and operating systems, as well as having access to diverse range of tablet and handheld devices. Our technology is comparable to what’s found in industry so that our students have a seamless transition when they enter employment.

How do you ensure your curriculum keeps pace with such a fast moving sector?
We regularly embrace employer forums with our partners which allow us to gain valuable insight into not only what skills gaps exist within the sector but what we need to be preparing for to stay ahead of the curve.

Internally, we undertake regular curriculum reviews where we utilise this industry feedback and match it against our current qualifications. If we don’t think that a qualification fits what we’re trying to achieve we’ll identify other qualification frameworks to ensure we’re teaching the most suitable content to our students. For our degree provision, our Taught Degree Awarding Powers mean that we can develop our own degree programmes just like a university and this allows us to respond quickly to developments – a useful asset within the digital tech world! Remodelling our curriculum is so important in all sectors. We go full circle with our qualifications and take our new frameworks back to industry for their insight before we roll these out to our students.

This close collaboration with industry allows us to develop qualifications around the needs of an employer. Our recent work with Space Group has seen us jointly develop an eight-week qualification in Building Information Modelling. The programme aims to equip you people who are not in education or employment with the foundation skills to be able to progress onto an internship, apprenticeship or full-time course at the College on completion.

Within the digital tech team, we place a big emphasis on industry liaison. Staff members sit on a breadth of networking and steering groups and I personally find my seat on the Dynamo Board to be one of the most valuable assets in helping the College stay a breadth of the developments within digital tech.

How does your digital tech offer fit in with the LEP's strategy and priorities?

As the North East digital sector is one of the most productive in the UK we need to ensure that our students are being taught the vital skills to make a significant contribution to the growth of the digital tech industry.

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) identifies the digital sector as an area of opportunity. In response to this, the College has developed curriculum in collaboration with industry in key areas of cybersecurity, virtual reality, networking and security and software engineering. Our aim is to provide a pipeline of talent for the North East which will further cement its place as the fastest growing tech economy in the UK.

The North East LEP also aim to support an uplift of 100,000 jobs by 2024 and their vision is to enable every young person to identify routes to work supported through experience and exposure to the world of work. Aligning our digital tech provision to these priorities has been key. Our goal is to provide students with opportunities regardless of background. Whether a student joins us on an entry level digital tech course, apprenticeship or degree programme, we will provide individual support, coupled with exposure to industry to help them become ‘work-ready’.

What are your plans for the future development of that offer?
High level study is desirable within industry and we’re focusing on the development of a number of degree-level apprenticeships which aim to accredit those already in work with an industry-standard qualification. We’re aiming for these degree apprenticeships to be transferable across a number of sectors and job roles so that an employer can really take advantage of their workforce development.

Our long-term strategy is to support primary and secondary schools to get young people excited about the world of digital tech. This isn’t about selling college courses, it’s about sharing our expertise and enthusiasm to inspire the next generation, so that the region has a steady flow of individuals with the desire and attributes to establish successful careers.

What do your students go on to do
Our students have gone on to forge successful careers in a diverse range of digital tech roles from security and programming to digital media and animation. Our outstanding industry links has seen students progress to roles at THINK, Orange Bus, Sage, SRM Forensics, NHS, Hedgehog Lab, Everything Different and Ubisoft amongst others. We’re lucky that our industry partners provide valuable work experience for our students as this gives a student an opportunity to impress and really showcase their talents.
This coupled with our unique collaborations and initiatives such as our partnership with Space Group, ensures that we provide real opportunities for individuals to get on the right career path.