The Flipped University: Educating the Future Football Coaching and Development Workforce

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Written by:

Rob Griffiths

Rob is currently the Deputy Head of the School of Health, Sport and Professional Practice. Prior to this, he was the Head of Football Coaching with oversight of the undergraduate and postgraduate suite of courses.

Email: [email protected]

Jay Probert

Jay is an Academic Subject Manager for Sport and a former Senior Partnership Manager within the Football Association of Wales (FAW) Trust.

Email: [email protected]

Employability continues to be a priority for many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with a particular focus on holistically preparing undergraduate students for employment within a desired sector. 

Whilst this is not a new priority, the approaches taken by HEIs vary considerably, with many adopting the traditional method of delivering the academic course to students at a university campus and facilitating the application of theory in practice through offering either optional or embedded work-based learning opportunities. Although this is still seen by many as being a successful model, this approach often requires universities to source large numbers of local placements and can create an environment that separates the theoretical learning from the application. To combat such issues, in partnership with the English Football League Trust (EFLT), USW has designed a unique educational pathway to prepare graduates to work in football coaching and development termed the Flipped University.

Launched in 2014, our Foundation Degree in Community Football Coaching and Development (FDCFCD) is delivered via blended learning, combining traditional face-to-face teaching with online delivery. USW’s “flipped university” approach means that students only attend the university in person for short residential periods (6 days per-year), spending most of their time learning on the job within the Community Trust departments at their pro­­­fessional football club. This unique delivery framework combines the benefits of a full-time HE degree programme with those of a real-world working environment and also integrates the vocational qualifications necessary for employment into the curriculum, such as the FA Level 2 or FAW C Certificate.

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Our aim as a course team is to provide support for students to develop their knowledge base, educational aspirations and confidence, skills-sets, industry essential vocational qualifications, and practical experience required for employment in the coaching and development strand of the football industry. Allowing students to access HE through local networks also means that their local communities benefit from the delivery of multi-sport programmes. In 2018/19, for example, students provided in excess of 35,000 voluntary hours covering all regions of the EFLT network, from Carlisle to Southampton and Grimsby to Swansea.

The majority of the students’ learning time is undertaken within the club and they are supported pastorally and academically by an appointed club mentor. Students develop a thorough understanding of the context to which the degree content is aligned and have the experience of transferring knowledge from classroom to workplace on a daily basis. The academic team have fully embraced the use of technology, developing: theoretical and practical coaching recordings; wikis; discussion boards; live communication through Blackboard Collaborate and use of MCQ software. A purpose-built recording studio, full-sized indoor football pitch (with integrated camera system) and the formation of a dedicated full-time media production team are vital ingredients in the success of the programme.

Sports Park Football Pitch

There are of course inherent risks associated with the delivery of distance learning online programmes including weak student engagement, high dropout rates and poor academic achievement (see Lost in Transition: A Report on Enabling Success for Flexible Learners). Online delivery can be impersonal, with students feeling remote and experiencing little cohort identity - favouring only those that are self-regulated and independent. Our innovative approach, however, ensures that students remain engaged through the provision of club-based mentors and academic club liaison officers and through using engaging digital tools. Support is also provided to prepare new students for the rigours of Higher Education, including online study skills resources, instructional guides and a subject specific e-library. This initial intervention is essential, as over 90% of students are school/college leavers that are used to face-to-face teaching.

A full evaluation of the programme from a student’s perspective was undertaken in April 2017 (for the full publication see Flipped University). The development of the employability skills of students and the provision of suitable work-based learning experiences to support career progression remains a fundamental aim of the team and in summary:

  • 80% of the participating students either agreed or strongly agreed that the programme had a positive impact on their career development.
  • 82% indicated that the FDCFCD had improved their confidence to work in football.
  • 76% suggested that the course had a positive impact on their ability to effectively perform duties in the workplace,
  • 62% (54% of current and 80% of graduated students) of the participating students reported gaining employment as a direct result of enrolling on course

Additionally, a number of anecdotal accounts have been recorded to provide individual case studies reporting the impact and benefits of the degree programme (see Impact of Foundation Degree).

A key driver of our curriculum design is trying to develop the skills and knowledge necessary for delivering governmental policy. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) strategy, A Sporting Future, prioritises the advancement of a larger and more diverse cohort of entry level coaches to make coaching more accessible and to ensure that qualifications are more adaptable, with a greater focus on coaching behaviours and attitudes rather than merely on technical skills. Similarly, Sport England’s policy document, Coaching in an Active Nation (2017-2021), indicates that coaching should be seen as a process of, “Improving a person’s experience of sport and physical activity by providing specialised support and guidance aligned to their individual needs and aspirations”, and emphasises the need for coaches to develop a range of softer skills (e.g., developing positive relationships, problem solving). Consequently, the perceptions of those students who participated in our evaluative research of the importance of certain skills, as well the extent to which they felt that they had developed them as a direct result of their engagement with the programme were explored. Results were positive with students indicating that their coaching delivery, communication and leadership skills were well developed as a consequence of their experience with USW staff, club mentors and the wider community.

Sports Students

Evidence suggests that employability is a complex phenomenon involving the interaction between graduates, the employer and the job (see work of Mulkeen et al). HE Institutions have been proactive in embedding work-based learning and other employability opportunities within the curriculum. However, many students do not have the chance to create meaningful relationships with future employers with universities needing to do more to connect employing organisations with students. The flipped approach adopted by the FDCFCD appears to have bridged this issue and the model has now been extended to rugby league (Wigan Warriors) and rugby union (Cardiff Blues and Newport Gwent Dragons). Furthermore, the university has recently been awarded the contract to deliver the new Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship programme to five UK Forces. The team has also collaborated with the Football Association of Wales Trust to develop an eLearning delivery approach for its coach education programme. These additional ventures are testament to the success of the programme and the approach it adopts.    

A key related benefit from this programme has been the advancement in the technology for learning (TEL) skills that staff have developed. This has had significant positive impacts upon on-campus students with the adoption of additional TEL approaches, including:

•    Video capture of key lectures ensuring that students can revisit topics in preparation for assessments and exams.

•    Inclusion of important practical components (e.g., correct weightlifting techniques).

•    Use of WBL reflective journals, online posters, wikis, discussion boards.

•    Greater consistency with assessment preparation through the production of assessment videos that are then provided to all students.

The research team have now embarked on phase 2 of the project, which seeks to identify and explore the factors that are integral to maintaining students’ engagement in their programme of study on blended learning courses.

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