College leaders’ lack of digital skill curbs use of educational technology

UK providers are trailing behind counterparts in the US and Canada

Stephen Exley

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FE providers in the UK are at least three years behind their counterparts in North America in their use of learning technology, because of a significant shortage of digital skills among leadership teams, experts have claimed.

As a result, many colleges and training providers have failed to build blended and online learning into their teaching practice, meaning a major strategic shift is needed to help the UK’s providers keep pace with their overseas competitors.

New research by curriculum and e-learning agency Coralesce, which looks at the use of technology in more than 40 providers, suggests that many teachers have low levels of confidence in their digital literacy, with managers failing to spread pockets of good practice across whole institutions.

Christina Conroy, development director at Coralesce, which conducted the research for the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), said: “After several visits, we recognised that American and Canadian community colleges were at least three to four years ahead of providers in our learning and skills sector.”

Coralesce found that “leaders and managers lacked the digital skills to create and lead an integrated digital learning strategy for their departments, faculties and whole institutions”. This has resulted in “low use of learning technologies and a modest use of blended and online learning”, the report adds.

The research shows that fewer than one in five providers surveyed have hit the aspirational target of 10 per cent of course provision being delivered online, as recommended by the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag), set up by the government.

Of the 258 individuals surveyed, none say they are in full agreement that the use of blended and online learning is “well established” in their institution. Almost a fifth of respondents say the approaches have not been introduced or are used only on a “sporadic” basis. And just 3 per cent agree that the digital literacy of their staff is high (see panel, below left).

Feltag member Bob Harrison, chair of governors for Northern College in Barnsley and education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems, welcomed the report’s findings.

“Some FE providers are trying to embed the spirit of Feltag into their future visions and are planning for learning in a digital world; others have yet to address this issue seriously and were distracted by a narrow focus on the ‘10 per cent online’ red herring,” he said.

“There are pockets of real innovation in the use of technology for learning, but it is not widespread.”

New government guidance on the area reviews of FE provision, published on Tuesday, calls on colleges to display a “willingness to embrace the possibilities provided by technology” to increase the “quality and scope of provision”.

‘We need to move with the times’

Paul McKean, head of FE and skills at technology charity Jisc, said it was vital for all teaching and support staff to be educated in the importance of digital technology. “The area reviews will be an opportunity for the sector, for the first time in a generation, to look holistically at the way further education and skills operates and can be transformed,” he said.

“Even though we are in austere times, we need to move with the times and fully embrace this technology…We have the staff, we just need to give them the skills they now need to operate in this environment.”

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager for 14-19 and curriculum at the Association of Colleges, said that the organisation’s members were “increasingly developing online and blended learning approaches”.

“It’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all, but I think all colleges would consider that blended learning has its place, particularly when you are increasingly dealing with young people who are digital natives,” she added.

“Funding and resources play a part. Colleges are having to juggle many different balls, and increasingly funding dictates their priorities.”

From next month, Coralesce will be offering a level 5 digital leadership programme for middle and senior leaders in FE providers, which has been commissioned by the ETF.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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