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!

MIAP: Vision or Reality?

A personal view……..

 My colleague at CETIS, Mark Power recently published an update concerning the MIAP vision: a system driven by the Unique Learner Number that will collect data from a range of partners to support progression and advice and guidance for lifelong learning students. A number of partner provided data bases including the Learner Achievement Record, the UK Register of Learning Providers and the Qualification an Curriculum’s Framework details of fundable units of study will, according to the vision, underpin a range of exciting educational services. 

I recently attended a workshop for college management information systems staff covering progress to this ‘new information environment’. We were told that the ‘Unique Learner Number’ is being successfully allocated to individual students and will be included in college Individualised Student Record (ISR) returns (the key to individual college funding) from next year. The prospect that the ISR process would be superseded by ‘real time dips’ into Learner Achievement Records (cross-referenced to Learning Providers) was not on the table. Data collection would still firmly be in the hand of colleges. We were also told that progress to the vision of individuals being able to access, for CV builders and personal skills development and employment applications, their Learner Achievement Records containing details  from awarding bodies of the qualifications they had achieved was well on track. 

I felt that this latter statement was a bit optimistic  A pilot for much of the technology underpinning the vision is the Minerva system that will support assessment of the new (14-19) Diplomas by the aggregation of the achievements of the components that make up the qualification. The Unique Learner Number delivery system (as mentioned above) for this application is in place but I understand that the required UK Register of Learning Providers is not yet ready and awarding bodies are still at the investigation stage for the standards necessary for the data transfer. So how far are we away from the reality of a system that collects data from many sources to support student support and progression? 

I believe that there are two other challenges that still have to be faced. 

The first concerns comprehensive engagement with those non- government stakeholders involved in the process. The awarding bodies will need to be persuaded to give up ownership of student qualification achievement data. They argue that if others can make commercial use of this data then “why should they be excluded from such businees opportunities”. More importantly the users (the learners) have to be convinced that their achievement (and failure ?) data can be made safely available to other (all be it well meaning) agencies. A single ‘tick box’ on a course application form will not give the user the sensitivity to indicate which data can be released through MIAP to others. The whole climate surrounding personal data has also changed. Individuals are becoming increasingly aware that once data is released from a database it cannot be retrieved, however worthy the initial application. The government has not helped user confidence with its recent catalogue of data losses. The services of the new government ‘data agency’ that will collect ‘appropriate data’ will need to be monitored. As recent reports within The Times has demonstrated, a fear is bubbling up that these MIAP initiatives are part of a government inspired ‘big brother’ programme focussed on Identity Cards. 

The second challenge concerns transparency over the real cost of these developments. The cost per candidate for the Minerva system for the Diploma component aggregation process is already escalating. The cost benefit of the MIAP inspired services to the lifelong learner must be objectively assessed. If it all works, there are real benefits to the individuals but if the costs are too high then the private sector could cherry pick those services from the MIAP inspired catalogue of applications that can support their other educational products.  Opportunities for comprehensive interoperabilty and sharing  of data will be lost.

I wish MIAP and its vision of faciliating comprehensive data transfer well. The systems involved could underpin positive skills development for lifelong learners (and this includes HE students too!). I welcome the Learning and Skills Council’s initiative to pro-actively develop ‘focus groups’ to engage ‘stakeholders’ with their MIAP facilitated developments and would actively encourage involvement from as many as possible and, especially, representatives of our JISC community.  The most important stakeholders, the lifelong learners, will need the authority on privacy, security and cost effectiveness that we, at JISC, could provide.

With trust through engagement with stakeholders and with the confidence that concerns of users and other have been completely addressed then, hopefully…………….the vision can really become a reality

Clive 1st June 2007

It has been some times since I ‘blogged’

Since I last ‘put fingers to keyboard’ I have been boring folk with my view that over the last year the ‘centre of gravity’ of learning technology standards developments have moved to the schools and FE sectors from HE. Driven by the e-Strategy and other governemnt schools based agendas such as ‘Every Child Matters’, Becta, MIAP and others have been obliged to deliver solutions. to strictly imposed deadlines. The focus so far has been in two areas: joining social service systems up with school administration systems and learning platforms for schools. Both have required standards based developments: the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) underpinned by the adoption of a Unique learner Number (ULN) has been adopted for the former and Becta has produced specifications (all around standards and extendability) that suppliers of learning platforms have to satisfy. Additionally, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, in order to meet the requirements of the new vocational Specilaised Diploma will have to produce data standards by the Autumn for course details and qualification achievements.

Obviously such developments will have an impact for the JISC communities. Firstly, there will be a concentration  of minds around where standards are really needed (rather than ‘could be useful’) and there will be a requirement for JISC to focus on those areas of detail which could impede national projects if not attended to. Solutions to the problems of Identity Management and the scalability of SOA implementations are just two that need urgent attention.

So to survive , JISC has to be sufficiently engaged in influencing and engaging with learning technology based solutions in the schools and tertiary sector in order to anticpate those areas that need the efforts and expertise of our community?

So what have I been doing for my one day per week in addition to boring my colleagues at mangement meetings with the above?

Well I have been supportng Peter with ePortfolio develovepment (around assessment) and with the help of Nottingham University finding out about Lifelong Learning Networks,