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Colleges must get up to speed with IT or face losing students

Information technology has revolutionised the way many people work and interact, but the evidence is that many FE and skills training providers need to pick up the pace of adopting new developments. Alan Thomson reports

"The prevailing mindset in some areas is still too focused on the passing world of lectures and blackboards," wrote Stephen Crowne, the chief executive of Becta, the Government's education technology agency, in FE Focus in January.

Mr Crowne's words conjure an image of a further education sector that is, in parts at least, either ignorant of or resistant to the use of new technologies in delivering and enhancing teaching and learning.

Becta's 2008 review of its harnessing technology strategy for further education noted that while there was strong growth in the number of providers using technology to support learning, there remained a "stubborn core" of FE colleges that were late in embracing technological change.

A 2006 Becta survey of the development of information technology and e- learning in further education found that only 19 per cent of colleges had college-wide plans to use e-learning materials and just 27 per cent had departmental course-level plans. However, 62 per cent of college staff were reported to be competent or advanced in using information technology with learners.

An Ofsted report published in January this year noted that colleges are ahead of schools when it comes to operating virtual learning environments (VLEs) to support face-to-face teaching. Even so, the report - based on inspections of 18 colleges, six primary and two secondary schools, three work-based learning providers, three adult and community learning providers and one local authority - concluded: "In most of the provision surveyed, the use of VLEs to enhance learning was not widespread.

"We found that the exploitation of VLEs at curriculum level resembled more of a cottage industry than a national technological revolution."

The technological challenges facing the FE sector were the focus of a conference of learning providers and technology experts organised by Becta in London this week. Sion Simon, the further education minister, who was due to deliver the keynote speech, said: "I know that the FE sector, like schools and universities, invests in technology. I know that there are excellent examples right across the sector. But I want to see more and better. I want to see the FE sector recognised nationally and internationally for its commitment to technology, for the innovative and creative ways it uses technology. I am talking with Becta and others about how to support this."

Speaking before Thursday's conference, entitled Time for a Step Change: Technology Enhanced Learning in Further Education and Skills, Jane Williams, an executive director of Becta, said the agency's latest survey found that a quarter of further education learning providers were e- mature, meaning they were up to speed with and exploiting the latest technologies to support teaching and learning.

"That is excellent and we should not lose sight of that," she said, "but it is now about the journey for that other 75 per cent. We hope by 2014 that situation is reversed, so that 75 or 80 per cent of providers are fully delivering the technology."

But Ms Williams had a stark message for those who would still be lagging then. "Increasingly learners and employers will have raised expectations of learning, and if this is not on offer, then they will shop elsewhere," she said.

Leadership is key to increasing the use of learning technologies and probably explains the difference between colleges that have embraced it and those that are still struggling, said Ms Williams.

"You need the commitment from the top. That makes a real difference. In a college, that means the governors, the principal and the senior management team. You need a principal who is not only an enthusiast for technology but also really understands how effective deployment of technology can enrich and improve learning."

The conference will mark the launch of Generator, an online FE leadership improvement tool that allows learning providers to measure their progress in adopting new technologies.

But even with a committed leadership, there is still a huge amount of work to do to embed modern technology in education so that it genuinely contributes to the teaching and learning experience. "It isn't something you do over a summer holiday," said Ms Williams, "It is a very big part of your planning over a three- to five-year period."

For Sandra Partington, e-learning manager at City and Islington College in London, which began a technological transformation five years ago, the key to progress is early consultation with staff and lots of it.

"We found it useful to begin with a whole-college exercise. We asked people where they thought we were at with e-learning and where they would like to get to," she said. "That's why our technologies are so embedded across all aspects of college life. It was a whole-college approach."

All classrooms, workshops, laboratories and studios at the college's centres have access to computers and projectors and are linked to the college's teaching and learning platforms. This allows students to access learning resources online or present their work in class using technology.

In addition, the system allows teachers to access useful online tools to check students' attendance, course performance, students' and colleagues' timetables, and even recruitment to their course. They can also gain access to booklists, journals and online specialist educator communities.

There is talk of extending this access to students so that they can view their own performance and attendance records.

"The technology cannot replace the job of a good teacher or the need to do hands-on stuff in class," Ms Partington said, "but it has totally enriched the learning experience."

Cerian Ayres, who manages continuing professional development at North Devon College, as well as being programme leader for maths, science and computing, agrees. "Technology does not take away traditional teaching skills; the drive, enthusiasm and knowledge of the teacher," she said. "The technology does not replace this. It just brings an extra resource to the classroom."

Staff must be at the heart of any drive to improve colleges' use of technology in delivering and enhancing the learning experience, Ms Ayres said, and key to this is staff training in new technologies and their uses. As a result, professional development at North Devon College has great emphasis on teaching staff about technology.

In January, the college launched its outstanding teacher framework, which identifies nine key areas to help staff improve their effectiveness as teachers. One emphasises the importance of engaging with new technologies. "Getting staff on board is crucial," Ms Ayres said. "Staff need to feel they have the time and the space to practise with new technologies and to admit to any lack of knowledge in a way that they do not feel threatened or judged."

The importance of technology in delivering education is also recognised in professional development strategies at national level. Staff are required to keep up to speed with technological developments as part of the required 30 hours a year of professional development. The new eCPD programme launched by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service last month complements this.

Further education is preparing for rapid technological change that will present challenges to staff. But the sector is not without experience in this area, allowing providers to learn from best practice. What is, perhaps, reassuring is that most technology soon becomes indispensable.

As Ms Partington said: "I think staff at City and Islington feel it's inconceivable that they did not have this sort of support a few years ago."

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