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College reboot for ICT courses

Surging numbers in information and communication technology are forcing the pace of change, reports Neil Munro

COLLEGES have been ordered to take a long hard look at the way they teach and use technology following an HMI report on computing and information technology. Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, praised efforts to date but added the customary warning: "There is no room for complacency."

In light of HMI's findings, Mr McLeish now wants colleges to:

Make better use of students' experience with information and communication technology (ICT) before they come to college so they do not repeat what they have already learnt.

Make learning more accessible with the help of ICT.

Widen the range of teaching approaches.

Improve student achievement.

Mr McLeish said: "I expect all colleges to review their computing and ICT provision and satisfy themselves that they are contributing all they can to this vital part of our economy."

The popularity of ICT courses has been going through the roof. The most recent figures, for 1997-98, showed a 38 per cent increase to 5,600 in the number of part-time students on higher national courses compared with the year before. Full-time numbers were up 20 per cent to 3,600. National Certificate courses recorded a 15 per cent rise to 38,400 part-time students; the number of full-time NC students went up by 17 per cent to 1,900.

Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said he was astonished at the absence of any reference by HMI to the increased number of students. "The impact of IT on the colleges has not just been the dynamic nature of the technology but the growth in student numbers as well," Mr Kelly said.

"This was at a time when the unit of funding per student was being cut, and that is a very important context for evaluating the effectiveness of the service colleges were providing."

The HMI report is based on visits to 31 colleges between 1994 and 1998 - when every college was facing a constant struggle to wash its face financially, not least for investment in buildings and equipment which had a significant impact on IT facilities. The inspection therefore predates the additional pound;214 million allocated to FE in the three years to 2002.

The share for ICT expenditure is pound;29 million, from which the first annual payout of pound;5 million for 1999-2000 only took effect in April. This is intended to connect colleges to the National Grid for Learning as well as allowing them to link electronically with industry, especially small and medium-sized businesses.

The inspectors said that, while most computing departments were able to offer students access to industry standard hardware and software, hard-pressed colleges did have "serious problems" in coping with the rapidity of advances in IT. Computing and IT staff are none the less commended for responding well to the dynamic nature of their subject.

Improved distance learning to widen student access is another issue for ICT spending. The inspectors found little self-study or open learning material for work at advanced level, in contrast to National Certificate courses.

The report concludes: "While good teaching and learning is the norm for computing and information technology subjects, there is room for improvement in the range of teaching approaches."

Weaknesses included too little time spent on formal group work and too much reliance on individualised learning. "In poor lessons, the lecturer did not pull groups of students together which resulted in the same point being explained individually to many students," the report states.

"In good lessons, opportunity was taken to draw groups together for brief discussion or exposition; and at times whole-class activity was used to emphasise particular concepts or introduce new topics in the programme. This led to more effective teaching."

HMI found some very good standards of student work but says levels of achievement are too low. Around two-thirds of students are successful in their programmes. But, according to the inspectors, too many National Certificate students drop out and staff need to review whether they are giving students a "stimulating educational experience" in the early weeks.

Lecturers teaching higher national certificates and diplomas as well as those taking NC courses also have to do more to make clear to students the relevance of communication and numeracy units or modules.

Generally, the inspectors state, staff set high standards both in teaching and assessment. Their relations with students at all levels are described as "exemplary".

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