'Colleges that fail to place digital technology at their core must prepare to fail'

Technology is not simply a matter for college IT teams – it should be a priority for every leadership team, writes Robin Ghurbhurun

Robin Ghurbhurun

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The government has put the further education sector at the forefront of a drive to equip students with knowledge and experience they will need in the workplace and to deliver relevant courses that will help close the UK’s technical skills gap.

UK businesses will need an estimated 1.2 million new digitally skilled workers by 2022 and, while I have no doubt the FE sector can help hit this target, the challenge is how to keep pace with this changing policy landscape and meet the needs and demands of students and employers. And all on a very tight budget. It’s a big ask, so what are the priorities?

Firstly, we must always strive to provide an exceptional learning experience and there’s no denying the benefits of education technology (edtech) in this arena. It brings teaching to life – think mixed reality and gamification; it allows flexible and personalised learning and assessment, so students can study at a time and place to suit them; and it equips learners with digital skills for the future.

Decisions about what edtech to invest in should be part of each college’s core strategy. To me, adopting such a strategy is a key to keeping colleges solvent, vibrant and relevant. Tech is not simply a matter for the director of IT; it crosscuts every department, driven by the changing landscape of the workplace and it should be a priority for every leadership team.

Technology can also supply data that informs future decisions, offering a number of solutions around business efficiency and connectivity. At my college, we will rapidly build upon our investment in intelligent systems towards the use of the learning analytics, mixed reality simulations and the “Internet of Things” through the creation of a highly connected, smart campus.

There are many other examples of technological best practice in the sector that we could all learn from, so long as colleges don’t act in isolation, but instead disseminate their knowledge and experience. To that end, a new special interest technology group has been founded by myself, David Corke, the Association of College’s director of education and skills policy, and Paul McKean, Jisc’s head of FE and skills. To date, the group, which will also lobby government, comprises 20 members from across the UK.

Our aspiration is to foster communication between institutions in order to share best practice and innovation. We also want this group to act as a national platform for appraising emerging trends and their application, identifying barriers to adoption and implementation.

One fundamental strand of this work will be the digital skills component of the new T levels. We must assess how they will be impacted by digital and how we can lobby to make the digital skills component work across all employment sectors, for us, for students and for their future employers.

Change doesn’t come cheap and this group will also aim to discuss with government our concerns about the capital expenditure in technology that will be required to meet its specific expectations on T levels, apprenticeships and Institutes of Technology and the more over-arching need to produce an employable workforce.

We’d all have the latest tech if we could, but affording it is another matter altogether. Some colleges will also need careful guidance on best value investments, and this is where the sector’s not-for-profit technology expert, Jisc, can help.

Money and time must be set aside for the associated upskilling of the workforce in terms of pedagogy, creative use of edtech and digital confidence. We can’t produce young people equipped to contribute to the future UK economy if their teachers cannot pass on appropriate digital skills.

Finally, curriculum reform: given that all jobs require some use of digital technology, we need to be considering the use of technology linked to all courses, not just in relation to computing or digitally creative curriculums.

Some colleges which have already been through, or are on, a pathway to technological change, will be ahead of the curve here, and my call to them is to share that experience. Please inform, encourage and support your FE colleagues.

In a few years from now, I’d like to see a digital-first sector, where learning and assessment is accessed ubiquitously using a range of interactive activities, digital assistants, bots and AI. I envisage this approach embedded for all courses, vocational or academic, and delivered by a digitally confident staff.

Colleges that fail to place digital technology at their strategic core must prepare to fail.

Robin Ghurbhurun is principal of Richmond Upon Thames College

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