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Never give up: Two women with one vision for highly flexible and personalised digital learning that is accessible to all – Natalie Sharpe, Co-founder of Infused Learning

Digital learning

Natalie Sharpe is co-founder of Infused Learning. She had her eldest child, now 18, while she was studying at university and experienced challenges trying to raise a family, study and work whilst attending a traditional educational institution. Natalie has always felt there had to be a better way and this passion drove her to the creation of Infused Learning alongside her co-founder, Tara Askham.

Natalie-Sharpe - Infused-Learning
Natalie Sharpe

“…My advice to students who have faced barriers to learn is to never ever give up. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and have the right level of support…”

Spending less time on paperwork and more time supporting students

I found out I was pregnant whilst studying for my degree, and, as you can imagine, juggling bringing up a child whilst studying was challenging! I eventually became a lecturer and then an academic leader at a large college in Nottingham, and I enjoyed this role for many years.

Sadly, more recently the role became more about paperwork with less time to actually work with students and to have the time to help them develop. It was at this point that Tara and I decided there must be a better way.

We really thrive on watching individuals and organisations grow but this is limited in the environment offered by traditional education institutions, and the constraints put on students by traditional academic institutions curtailed so many students’ opportunities, making studying for many impossible.

For example, insisting that students had to be physically within the college for certain numbers of hours a week or present at lectures that could so easily have been recorded, Skyped or conferenced meant that many students, whether they were disabled, without childcare or had other challenging personal circumstances, were excluded.

Using digital to banish barriers to learning

So many ordinary people who just wanted to improve their chances within the career marketplace or build themselves a more valuable and productive life were denied this opportunity. Tara and I felt that this, often perceived as acceptable, discrimination was not something that we could endorse and we truly wanted to provide another avenue for those that needed or wanted it.

On a day to day basis my role could be anything and everything. I create marketing materials, speak to students enquiring about the courses, manage the quality side of the access provision, grow links with local businesses and ensure we are compliant with all the academic and professional awarding bodies that we work with.

They told me I couldn’t … so #IDidItAnyway

As soon as you say you have a child and want to study as well as work to support your family, people seem to assume that you cannot do it – many people said I would never achieve what I did when I was getting myself a better education and the same attitudes were prevalent when we decided to set up Infused Learning.

Natalie-Sharpe-and-Tara-Askham - Infused Learning
Natalie and her Infused Learning co-founder, Tara Askham

Despite both Tara and I have a very strong track record in the sector, we were met by so many negative viewpoints. Consistently we faced the problem that we were just two women, we didn’t have the force of an education institution behind us. It took us around a year before we were truly investment ready and were in a position to really fight our corner.

We built up all of the requirements needed for a traditional institution, whether that was accreditations, business plans or procedures and then we went after getting approval from awarding body accreditations. This was possibly the most complex part.

The different bodies that award qualifications have high standards, and rightly so, but they also had perceptions of the type of organisations that should be able to offer their qualifications. However qualified, dedicated and enthusiastic we were, we were not that and, consequently, we had a lot of doors were shut in our faces, but we persevered.

A combination of successful funding applications, hard work, high professional standards and a determination to win over the doubters meant that we eventually had a whole range of qualification providers who wanted to work with us and continue to do so now.

So, we got there in the end, although it certainly wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. Of course, while we were spending 12 plus months ensuring all of these elements were in place, we still had to pay our bills and raise our families too!

Digital as a great enabler

The common interpretation of digital can mean that you are ‘on your own’ during the studying process, however, that was not our vision of digital learning. For us, just because students were learning digitally did not mean that they shouldn’t be offered individually-tailored and personalised support programmes.

In fact, the time that we spend offering one to one support to our students often far exceeds the traditional institutions. Our students are not part of a lecture hall of people vying for ten minutes with the tutor at the end of the session or hoping there is a free slot in their weekly diary when they have a problem.

We offer support in a range of ways to support the modern student and their specific needs. For example, we use Skype to build a relationship with our students and will respond to queries via email, instant message, text, phone call and social media.

We are not bound by the nine to five mentality of many education officials and we speak to our students in the evenings, at weekends and within ‘normal’ working hours. Our students can study the qualifications over whatever period they like, and are able to change this time period if their circumstances change.

Building bespoke programmes

We encourage our students to ask for extra time if they feel they need it and to access this time however they feel most comfortable, using what works for their lifestyle and learning style. The feedback from our students is that they feel fully supported throughout the term of their qualification and the achievements of our students reflect our dedication, and theirs, to building a programme specific to them.

All of this means that the choice lies with the students and means that everyone has the same opportunity to access education, on their own terms, in their own time and in the way that they find most useful to them. Our students are exceptionally diverse and we are immensely proud of this.

Choosing a social enterprise model

If we just wanted to make money for ourselves, we wouldn’t have chosen a social enterprise model. What we wanted to do was level the playing field and operate a system where everyone had equal access to education. We wanted a model where we could apply for funds to help those students that could not afford to access an education, as well as offer ways to access education that were specific to the individual students.

However, we still wanted to be in control of our business so we could utilise our expertise to move the business forward and plough any profits we did make right back into the company.

A social enterprise model fitted these requirements and it has turned out to be a great choice, opening up channels to finance for our students, for example, that would not necessarily have been available if we had chosen another type of organisational structure.

Setting up a scholarship scheme

Aiming to support 20 individuals in its first year, the programme is being funded by the company and donations from businesses and the public, and is open to any UK resident. Our ethos is to enable access to education for all and this is why we have set up our Scholarship Programme.

Infused LearningThere are many people out there who struggle to afford education and we want to support as many of those individuals as we can by providing our courses free of charge to successful applicants.

The process to apply for our Scholarship Programme is simple too. The applicant only needs to provide 500 words, in writing, about why they deserve a place on their chosen course. This is then judged by an independent panel and a decision is made. The panel meets each month to consider submissions.

Successful applicants will be able to save themselves up to £3,000, depending on the qualification or course chosen. For example, an Access Diploma costs £3,000, so for each student who applies where they cannot access Government funding we will assess their individual case and, where possible, reduce these fees as much as possible.

We are working hard to gain corporate sponsorship to enable us to offer more funded places. Where we discount fees, there are some charities that will contribute – for example, a student’s local housing association.

Never. Give. Up.

My advice to students who have faced barriers to learn is to never ever give up. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and have the right level of support. We have so many inspiring students that we have just filmed a range of case studies to illustrate their successes and they will be on our website soon.

So, if there is anyone who isn’t sure if they are brave enough to get in touch, then I’d take a look at these and you’ll be able to see how successful some of our students have been, in some cases, even when they have had some of life’s greatest challenges to contend with.

We really do have the most amazing group of students and we are in awe of them so often. It’s their hard work that makes their successes possible – we are just there to support them in every way we can. We often end up being far more than education tutors to our students and we feel so privileged that they trust us in this position.

Coming up next

Tara Askham and Natalie-Sharpe of Infused Learning at The Rural Business Awards in October 2017
Tara and Natalie at The Rural Business Awards in October 2017

We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of innovation whether that means writing new qualifications or how we deliver qualifications. We have just received a lottery grant for an exciting project in Nottingham. We have won, or are finalists for, a multitude of national awards and are about to start delivering our learning model internationally.

We are looking at growing the subjects we offer, as well as looking at more funding opportunities to make education more accessible. I am working hard to gain corporate sponsors so that we can continue to grow our scholarship programme, the number of tutors we have and the business overall.

It’s only been three years so far and I think there is so much more that we could do, so many more people we can help. I wake up excited at where we are today and thankful that I’m part of a business I love. I am finally making the difference that I always knew I could and there’s no better feeling!