College that hurdles distance

Technology is bringing students in even the most remote rural areas into the college fold. Neil Munro reports

Further and higher education in Dumfries and Galloway may not have had the same high profile as the pioneering work of the University of the Highlands and Islands project, but the building blocks are, arguably, even more firmly in place in the south-west.

With only two towns in the region exceeding a population of 10,000 and more than 38 per cent of people living in settlements of less than 1,500, taking learning to the community cannot just be a slogan. It is essential.

Dumfries and Galloway College operates out of five campuses: the main centre at Heathhall on the outskirts of Dumfries, which caters for 5,000 of the college's 7,000 students; the John Niven Centre in Stranraer, which opened in 1990; the year-old Newton Stewart Centre; the school of art in the middle of Dumfries; and the Maxwell House higher education campus, which has been running for two years at the nascent "university of the south-west" on the Crichton campus in Dumfries (see below).

Multiple sites can bring multiple problems so, to make the college run as smoothly as possible, it turned to European coffers three years ago and now boasts state-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities for the benefit of both staff and students.

Tony Jakimciw, who took up the post of college principal last year, believes the college has adopted an innovative approach to opening up access to other areas of the region and is now "an outstanding example of how technology, collaboration and innovation can solve the very real problems of rural access".

Apart from linking up with itself, the college has struck up a relationship with the local authority's adult education department to develop the Rural Access to Training (RATT) programme. This involves the council recruiting and supporting FE students, giving them access to the video-conferencing facilities in each of the adult education centres throughout theregion so the students do not have to move away from their homes, while the college staff provide the tutorial input.

Mr Jakimciw says this has been so successful that the RATT approach is being extended as part of a plan to link the college with secondary schools in an attempt to support the delivery of Higher Still courses.

"The RATT programme has meant that local learners can now benefit from national resources," the principal says. One example is the musicians in Stranraer, who were able to take part remotely in a masterclass run by a leading flautist. Another is the live link for students with the Scottish Parliament.

The college has been alert to the possibilities of new technologies for several years: it has been running a mobile bus since 1996 which has taken information and communications technology to the people. "The next important step is developing an ICT infrastructure," Mr Jakimciw says. The college has ambitious plans to link up with a range of ICT learning centres, such as those established by local voluntary groups in Gretna and Castle Douglas. A "learning shop" has been established in Dumfries high street, in collaboration with the local enterprise company, to provide drop-in, online access to the Scottish Learning Network and the Up for Learning programme established with 10 other further education colleges and Napier University, Edinburgh. And other outlets are promised, from schools and shops to fire stations and community centres.

Dumfries and Galloway College is clearly intent on seizing learning opportunities wherever it can. In its Homelearn programme, the college provides laptop computers with Internet connection so that students do not have to leave their homes.

"The barriers to participation in a rural environment may be severe," Mr Jakimciw says. "But, with partners from the private, public and voluntary sector, the college has shown how innovation, collaboration and determination can overcome the most difficult of challenges."

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