It’s not getting any easier in FE

I visited a large further education college earlier in the week that had just been told that its income allocation from its main provider, the Learning and Skills Council, was to be reduced by £4m for 2008-9: a 20% reduction on their 2007-2008 allocation. We know that from 2010 colleges will be competing with schools for their share of 14-19 budget allocations controlled by the Learning and Skills Council’s successor, the local authorities. For 2008-9 schools will still receive more than colleges for teaching the same courses and many are focussing on developing vocational centres in direct competition with their local college.

For example, in Newark, a new £1.6m ‘Construction Centre’ has just been opened by Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children,schools and families.

Having spent most of my working life in FE and having had to manage challenges in trying to maintain income within ever changing contexts, I have much sympathy for the management within this sector. As ever as a leader within a college, one will look at the use of technology to bring efficiencies and to enable new income streams (such as Train to Gain contracts) to be realised.

In the past over complex tools, lack of data interoperability and most importantly lack of user confidence (and time for familiarisation) meant that investment in IT rarely brought the expected benefits. Recent research from Becta has shown that the use of IT within colleges to enhance teaching and learning was generally dependent on a few enthusiastic champions. Once a beacon college lost its champions the innovative and extensive use of computer based systems usually regressed.

So what is changing?

First of all, there is a rapid increase in the confidence  of academic staff and administrators to use IT. We in our JISC bubble wrongly assumed in the past that our academic colleagues would be happy to use the exciting tools and resources we found and developed for them. I remember at Newark and Sherwood College spending fifteen minutes providing ‘just an overview’ of TOIA, frustrating those colleagues who just wanted a quick and dirty way to produce an online multi-choice test. (They never asked for further details of the various facilities that that tool offered).  

Staff, through their use of a multitude of administration systems, electronic whiteboards and ad-hoc online materials, are now generally confident enough not only to employ technology, but also to dismiss the spurious claims of many a software vendor.

Secondly, interoperability is no longer something that just we in CETIS get excited about, but is a requirement that is increasingly demanded by the users.

“Why cannot I move data from my electronic whiteboard to the VLE?”

“Why do we have to type our students results into a spreadsheet to send to an awarding body?”

“Why do I have to log on to so many systems to process the assessment of a piece of student project work?”

Becta has picked up on this mood and is working with both the existing skills and expectations of the practitioners in the schools and college sectors to provide through such the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) a mechanism to satisfy these and similar demands. Purists may whittle on about the inadequacies of SIF but the pragmatists believe that it is good enough, is open to refinement and can immediately bring some savings in the costs of moving data around educational systems.

Thirdly, the need to save money is forcing colleges to merge to form ‘regional centre’s. Regionalisation means that ICT is vital to support monitor and track the performance of distributed student cohorts. Online materials, assessment evidence recording systems and electronic registration are becoming common place for work based learning. Larger colleges have more scope to build on good practice in the use of learning technologies

Fourthly, the provision of online assessment for many a qualification has enabled on demand formative and summative assessment. College income, so dependent on student achievement can be realised earlier and, due to repetitive student practice, with greater confidence.

…and finally, the pending links with local authorities for funding will mean that college administration, information and student guidance systems will become subsumed into developments instigated by such government initiatives as Building Schools for the Future and Every Child Matter and the expectations that SIF can realise.

We are therefore looking at a sector that has been forced to accept technology to support flexible delivery , to compete effectively with private providers for such as Train to Gain and to interoperate effectively with local authority and government information systems.

Staff within FE are hungry for easy to use cost effective tools and interoperability where it can help the bottom line.

Please carry on listening to them.

The challenges that FE now faces may be HEs in the future!

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