With some notable exceptions, FE providers have traditionally lagged behind schools and higher education institutions in using ICT effectively to engage learners. Even Becta's chief executive, Stephen Crowne, acknowledged this, writing in FE Focus a year ago that: "The prevailing mindset in some areas is still too focused on the passing world of lectures and blackboards."
But there are some positive signs that more providers are catching up. Becta monitors the use of ICT among FE providers and its latest survey describes 35 per cent of colleges as mature in their use of technology, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year.
By 2012, Becta wants 80 per cent of FE providers to have reached this level.
"We make no apologies for our ambitious target as there is plenty of evidence to show that effective use of ICT makes a real contribution to improving learning outcomes," says Jane Williams, its executive director for FE and skills.
Indeed, where technology is used effectively, learner satisfaction increases from 50 per cent to 99 per cent, according to Becta's Next Generation Learning report, published in June.
For many 16 to 18-year-old students, technology is second nature and they are confident accessing material online. This is where virtual learning environments (VLEs) - such as Lewisham College's eMe online portal - come in handy as they provide a constant online space for students to access their development plan, "eportfolio" of work and college information.
The London College of Beauty Therapy uses its VLE from Blackboard to host demonstration videos of beauty treatments; soon students will also be able to view demonstrations through Apple iPhone or iPod Touch devices, too.
Walsall College uses Microsoft's Sharepoint technology to let every student access their timetable, learning plan, attendance records, tutors' comments and more in one online place.
"It empowers the learner to take ownership of their learning," says Jayne Holt, Walsall's director of learning technologies and innovation.
Beyond VLEs, colleges are experimenting with other ways of engaging learners through ICT. City College Norwich has used Second Life, a virtual world, to motivate level 2 diploma students. In literacy, for example, students' avatars (their virtual characters) might gather around a fire for some storytelling in Second Life.
"We had a girl who was an elective mute and she found it fantastic, as she could communicate really well in this environment," reveals Harry Greiner, head of new media.
It's the fun aspect of using technology that makes it ideal for reaching disengaged learners. "Quite a lot of people that we deal with had a bad experience in education. But with ICT you can get formative assessment really quickly and people feel in control of their learning," believes Dick Moore, director of technology at learndirect.
He says that ICT has helped many learndirect students progress into higher education.
Last year, Walsall College received funding through Molenet (the Mobile Learning Network) to use Nintendo devices to teach English and maths to "Neet (not in education, employment or training) learners", students at risk of becoming Neets. The approach worked: retention was up 90 per cent and success rates by 12 per cent.
These examples show how ICT can motivate learners; but crucially, ICT also has a role to play in widening access to learning, particularly among socially disadvantaged groups, such as the unemployed or disabled.
Distance learning is an obvious way to reach learners who are housebound or have restrictions on their time. But there are other ways. Stoke on Trent College has been handing out wirelessly enabled PDAs loaded with learning materials to lorry drivers. While Lewisham College's Trade Union Studies Centre has delivered training to hard-to-reach learners, such as ferry workers (who received an introductory IT course on CD-Rom) and construction union officials (using laptops to study on the move).
Derby College is using ICT to widen access to learners by opening its online courses to outreach centres, such as the St James Centre in Normanton. "One of the problems is getting people to come into the college environment," says Drew Keavey, the college's IT director. "This way, they can come into the centre and do the course at their own pace."
An advantage of widening access to learning is extra revenue from more students signing up to courses, including overseas students.
This is not clear-cut, though, as online courses do not count as guided learning hours, so colleges do not receive funding in the same way they would for classroom-led courses, but Becta hints this could be about to change.
There is also an argument that colleges with sophisticated technology are more attractive to students. After updating its website, Lewisham College hit its targets for attracting 16 to 18-year-olds faster than previous years.
Work-based learning represents another revenue stream and here technology can assist again, particularly as more employers are looking to e-learning to cut costs. For instance, the Royal Forest of Dean College is developing online skills for life courses for the Army, so tutors don't have to fly to war zones and soldiers can learn while on postings abroad.
City College Norwich is improving relations with local businesses by letting them track the progress of employees' training online. "They can get an immediate overview of how their money is being spent and guide the course to fit with their work," explains Mr Greiner.
The nature of technology is that it is always evolving so even the most enthusiastic technophiles struggle to keep pace. The biggest problem for many FE providers is that ICT is not cheap - and it is commanding a growing chunk of most colleges' budgets.
College essentials today are not just an interactive whiteboard in every classroom, but a fast broadband connection, VLE, email and mobile devices.
This basic infrastructure needs to be backed up by enthusiastic staff and leadership. Jane O'Neill, vice-principal for curriculum and learner experience at the College of North East London (Conel) knows this all too well after e-learning was highlighted as an area requiring further development in its last Ofsted report.
"Teachers were very cynical about ICT but they have become more confident in the past 18 months as curriculum staff and technical teams are working more closely, and we have employed a full-time e-learning trainer to help teachers see ICT as a tool for learning," she says.
In August, Conel merged with Enfield College so the next - far bigger - challenge is bringing Enfield's use of ICT up to the same level.
The Royal Forest of Dean College is building staff confidence in ICT with training, partnerships with more technologically advanced colleges and an e-mentoring scheme whereby learners mentor teaching staff in ICT.
These are welcome - and necessary - steps if FE providers are to meet the needs of next generation learners. After all, the people they will be teaching next year will have grown up using mobile phones and never known the original meaning of the word blackboard.
- Blackboard (www.blackboard.com)
- Moodle (www.moodle.org)
- Microsoft Sharepoint (www.microsoft.comsharepoint)
- Second Life (www.secondlife.com)
- YouTube (www.youtube.com)
- Google Apps (www.google.comapps)
- Mediasite (www.sonicfoundry.commediasite)
- Open Office (www.openoffice.org)