Digital Mums Why our Learning Programmes are so successful

Why our Learning Programmes are so successful

We’ve been getting lots of love for our Digital Mums learning programmes recently.

Some of this has come from our students rocked by their power to get them job ready in social media marketing in just six months.

We’re also hearing great things from business owners who are comparing the services offered by our graduates with the competition. One business had been working with a social media agency who charged £1000 a month for just two tweets per day! Others have had interviews with freelancers from places like People Per Hour who are self taught and just don’t have the depth of knowledge around campaign strategy, influencer research, social listening, content strategy, analytics and reporting that our Digital Mums have.

There are also lots of faces poking over the fence from those in adult education, the e-learning space and the government in general who are intrigued by how we manage to get such great results at getting people into work with programmes that are delivered 100% online.

So I thought I’d fill you in on some of the secrets to our success.

The first thing I should probably confess is that we have 'stolen' all of our learning ideas from pretty much the coolest organisation on the planet Innovation Unit (it’s ok they know about it and there are no plans to arrest us). The Innovation Unit started out as a unit within the Department for Education - part of the government itself. But they spun out in 2006 and with this came more independence and the freedom to be truly radical risk takers.

While they lost their free office space they took with them some of the biggest names and brains in education innovation and over the next nine years they changed the lives of millions of children all over the world as they pushed schools, districts and countries to transform their outdated education systems to better cope with the demands of the 21st century.

I worked at Innovation Unit for four years as Head of Communications and then Head of Digital. Telling the story of their amazing projects and programmes meant I worked alongside some pretty inspirational people and programmes. One of them was the Global Education Leaders Programme funded by the Gates Foundation, whose mission was to transform the way countries teach and students learn. And in particular, I spent a lot of time alongside the team that worked on their REAL Projects programme.

REAL Projects is a new way of learning that more and more forward-thinking schools around the world are adopting. People are realising that traditional 'chalk-and-talk' classroom models are not working. This problem-solving, practical and collaborative way of learning is hitting the headlines because of the amazing results it's generating. In the PISA Table (which is basically like the Eurovision Song contest but instead of singers from different countries they compare students from different countries) countries that are implementing this type of learning are consistently placing near the top. Just like Eurovision, we get our asses kicked by the Scandinavians.

REAL Projects was inspired by the most innovative school in the world - High Tech High in San Diego California. The world would be a much better place if all schools looked like them. Their graduation rates are consistently 99%, which is almost 20% higher than the US average (with the same average demographics).

Walking through the school building at High Tech High is confusing as it doesn’t really feel like a school. The vibe is more Silicon Valley start-up (albeit one hosting a Justin Bieber concert with sheer volume of children in one place that’s the only giveaway). The energy feels very different from any school I’ve ever been in. Students are actually having energising conversations about their school work and not just debating X-Factor contestants. It also looks very different from most schools. There aren’t classrooms with rows of students and a teacher at the front. Instead students are dispersed throughout the school working in groups on their individual projects. And it’s this focus on project work that makes High Tech High so transformative.

High Tech High projects are very different from most people’s understanding of what a project is. Innovation Unit’s REAL Projects use this formula and so do we. There are three core components that we've taken from REAL Projects that make our learning programmes so different and successful.

1. It’s project-led not content-led

Having a project assigned to students is not unusual in a formal learning environment. If you find any course, online or off, that doesn’t have any project work at all then don’t choose it if you want to build new skills (the failure of theoretical learning to get people job ready is slowly but surely being recognised).

But most projects in formal learning environments happen at the end of a module or term. You learn a bunch of content and after you’ve finished your learning, you might do a piece of practical work at the end. When I did my Geography A Level I had to do an end of year project to apply my learning in practice. This didn’t work well as I’d basically forgotten most of the stuff by the time I went to do my course work, particularly as I hadn’t really paid attention in the first place (I was too busy messing about with my mates at the back of the classroom - don’t tell my mum).

REAL Projects turns this on its head and gives you a project at the beginning before you start learning. You're given first a clear goal and ways of measuring success. Students then structure their learning around the project, drawing on high-quality learning resources as and when they need them.

This is how our Digital Mum social media programmes work. All of our students start off with a social media campaign with a clear goal and accountability metrics. As they progress through the delivery of this campaign they learn everything they need, when they need it. Everything they learn, they practically apply in real time, which means the learning sticks. When they graduate they remember everything they need to start working with paying clients immediately.

Almost all online courses miss a trick by assigning practical projects at the end rather than building them into the structure of the learning itself.

2. Nothing is pretend - everything is real

I’m going to go back to my uninspiring Geography A Level project to explain this. Clearly a bugbear of mine as it lowered by 95% exam average to 75% - thanks Mr Evans.

My project involved putting together a set of data on river flow over a week to estimate rainfall and its effect on my river valley. It was pretend in that no one apart from my teacher ever saw the results. It was also pretend in that I fabricated most of the data. I didn’t really see the point of the exercise as the Environment Agency already do a great job of measuring this rainfall. My data wasn’t going to mean anything. I was also a bit lazy. However, if I had been forced to present my findings to the Environment Agency I would have had a very different attitude. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to look like a total idiot in front of Environment Agency experts so I would have put more effort in.

This is the distinction between project work that is pretend - where only you and your teacher or tutor will see it ( or perhaps your peers) - versus project work that is real. Real projects are seen and judged by people in the real world i.e. outside of your formal learning environment. Innovation Unit see this as a very powerful tool to take learning to the next level.

At High Tech High what this means is all project outputs are publicly shared. Students running a project collecting data on wildlife in the bay went out into the community and worked with organisations like our Environment Agency, turned their findings into a book and sold this book online. You can buy it on Amazon here. Impressed? You should be.

What this means for Digital Mums social media programmes is that everything students do is seen by the outside world - live tweeting, posting and chatting with real audiences. This activity is informally judged by these audiences - whether they interact depends on how convincing the student is at what she is doing. There is nothing quite so motivating to students as the possibility of falling flat on your face in front of the world if you haven’t put the effort in.

But perhaps more importantly on our Digital Mums programmes, this level of real learning builds serious confidence in a way that pretend learning does not. We are constantly amazed by the low confidence of the brilliant women we see coming through our doors and it’s very satisfying to give all of those women back their mojo. The reason they build their confidence is because they're seeing they're efforts produce results in the real world.

3. Students don’t just learn from teachers

While the role of ‘teacher’ (in whatever format it takes whether tutor, facilitator etc.) is crucial in a formal learning environment, the teacher is not the only person the student can learn from. Unfortunately, most formal learning environments completely ignore the power of peer-to-peer learning, despite there being a lot of evidence to back up its effectiveness.

High Tech High value peer-to-peer learning as much as teacher-student learning and they structure ways for this to happen - including having peer-to-peer sessions, and peer critique where students critique each other’s work. Giving peer critique is a brilliant way for a student to deepen their own learning on a subject - looking over something with a critical eye forces you to think about it in a different way, objectively. Receiving peer critique is a brilliant way to get feedback and to improve your own work.

Digital Mums social media programmes have students working in small peer groups of 5 or 6 where they come together weekly on Google Hangouts to learn from and support one another. We also use structured peer critique sessions at key points so students can continually improve their results.

Think about most work environments - peer-to-peer learning happens all the time. How often have you given a piece of work to a colleague asking them look it over before showing it to your boss? It just makes sense.

At High Tech High they also bring in experts in a variety of fields into the school. At Digital Mums we also have a range of experts, whether it be our staff or high flyers in the marketing world to support our learning programmes either by providing lessons, video tutorials, masterclasses or directly giving feedback and steers to make sure the students are on the right track.

For me, as the lead designer of our learning programmes, it’s these three components that most differentiate us from others and we have the folks at Innovation Unit and High Tech High to thank.

But I have to confess actually that none of these are really the single biggest secret of our success. The biggest secret has nothing to do with our learning programmes and everything to do with the calibre of students that we work with. Our students are talented, motivated and consistently blow us away with what they achieve in such a short space of time. These professional women with children are an untapped talent in the market and perfectly-placed to excel in our training and after they finish. We’re massively lucky to have them in our community.

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