A Scottish college has become the ‘first in the UK’ to team up with Microsoft to give free digital skills training to students, businesses and local communities to help them thrive in the economy and bounce back from Covid-19.

New College Lanarkshire (NCL) in Motherwell has signed a ‘shared goals agreement’ with Microsoft which will equip students with cutting-edge IT skills such as artificial intelligence (AI), and give them direct access to Microsoft experts.

NCL and Microsoft will also work together to deliver free teaching in cloud computing to businesses across Scotland and upskill people who have become unemployed due to the Covid-19 pandemic – potentially saving them hundreds of pounds.

Earlier this year, NCL also became the first college in Scotland to offer the new Microsoft Learn for Educators institutional programme, which will see computing lecturers and students obtain industry-recognised Microsoft certifications for a range of technologies.

NCL is already working with Microsoft to upskill its lecturers, who will then be able to give their students the knowledge and skills they need in areas such as AI, cloud-based technology, and data analytics.

Around 100 computing students at NCL have already begun their training in Microsoft software packages Azure Fundamentals and Azure AI Fundamentals, with Azure Data Fundamentals and Power Platform Fundamentals due to be added to the curriculum in the coming months.

The shared goals agreement will give NCL access to even more resources which can be used more widely across the college, such as Microsoft AI Business School, a non-technical website which highlights the numerous uses and benefits of artificial intelligence. Students will also be provided with additional cloud space, free practice exams and exam vouchers, while NCL staff will benefit from direct access to and support from Microsoft’s education experts.

Additionally, the two organisations also aim to assist businesses to recover post-pandemic by training their staff in all the Azure fundamentals courses, which teach basic cloud computing concepts that will help future-proof their business.

Charlie Johnstone, NCL’s curriculum and quality leader for computing, film & TV, has also been invited to participate in the pilot for the Microsoft Learn for Educators Ambassador programme, which gives him access to Microsoft experts and resources from across the world. At this stage there are only five ambassadors globally.

Johnstone said:“The IT world is going through as fast an evolution as it ever has done. Instead of investing in hardware, organisations are now buying space in ‘the cloud’. There is massive demand for cloud computing skills, and I am proud to say that NCL is at the forefront of this in the UK when it comes to providing our students with these skills. This agreement with Microsoft will help us enhance our reputation even further.

He added: “Artificial intelligence and data analytics can bring huge benefits – for example, I’ve recently heard of someone with diabetes who used AI and data analytics to create his own diet and exercise based treatment. After just eight weeks, he was able to stop taking the medication he’d been on for 20 years. AI really opens up a world of exciting possibilities.”

NCL Principle Professor Christopher Moore said: “By 2025, it is expected that over 149 million new technology jobs will become available in areas such as software development, cloud, data, artificial intelligence and security. It is vital that we ensure our students have the talent and training to support these needs and fuel economic future growth.

“Through this agreement with Microsoft, we will make technology a core part of our curriculum, equipping our students with the advanced skills and industry-recognised certifications that will give them a competitive advantage as candidates for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Microsoft’s Vice President, Anthony Salcito, said: “Microsoft is proud to be collaborating with New College Lanarkshire to empower and educate students to thrive in the digital economy. Through our shared goals agreement, we are committed to working collaboratively to promote and share the advantages of digital skills within the community to help students learn and grow and develop their talents to support their future employment.”

A video case study, showing the benefits of the agreement for NCL students, has been produced by the two organisations, which can be viewed here.

NCL Student Karen Skinner, who is currently studying towards a BSc in computer networking said: “I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to complete the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals and Azure Artificial Intelligence courses whilst attending NCL. The move to cloud concepts is something that is really beginning to take off in the business world at this time and I feel having these on my resume when I finish my degree and begin to look for work will be extremely helpful as it is something employers are starting to look for. The courses themselves have been a pleasure to do as the modular design is easy to follow and there are practical activities to help you learn the skills as well as the theory.”

Steven Thomson, who is a student on the HND Computing: Technical Support course at NCL said: “My grandmother has pinhole sight, so she can only see a pinhole vision in front of her. I would love to develop something with AI that was always there to help, or even potentially save her from an accident.”