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The digital future has arrived for further education – let’s get on board

This time, we must not allow the opportunity to embrace technology to pass us by, writes Bob Harrison

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What do Kodak, Comet and Woolworths have in common? They all failed to respond quickly to the move towards a digital future. Such is the disruptive influence of tech that you need agile mindsets to respond to paradigm shifts.

In 2003, the Learning and Skills Council (the FE funding quango of the time) commissioned “strategic area reviews” of sector provision. Its guidance referred to something called “e-learning”, which, it argued, “presents considerable opportunities for enhancing the quality and efficiency of the learning process”.

It might have been ahead of its time, because the guidance didn’t make the slightest difference to college provision.

But with skills minister Nick Boles announcing “area-based reviews”, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is about to repeat this process.

There should be a different outcome this time, for several reasons: massive advances in mobile, wireless, wearable and cloud-based computing; increased investment in technological infrastructure; heightened learner expectations for digital/online/blended learning; and growing evidence of a shift in strategic vision, thanks to providers acting on the recommendations of the Further Education Learning Technologies Action Group. Government and colleges have also acknowledged that digital technology can improve teaching, learning and assessment, as well as streamlining back-office systems.

Hopefully this time the transformative potential of technology for learning will be recognised rather than ignored. The transition requires a realignment of the current assets of the FE sector, from
a delivery model based on land and buildings to one fit for a digital future. Money released from superfluous capital assets should be invested in digital infrastructure and, critically, refreshed workforce skills.

This does not mean the end of face-to-face learning, but hopefully a balanced blend of learning that’s more responsive to student and employer needs. This time, we are ready for a paradigm shift in how learning programmes are designed, delivered and assessed.

These area-based deliberations are set in a context of drastic cuts to the FE budget, so it’s important to remember that technology-enhanced blended learning is not a cheap option.

Any realignment of learning vision, leadership, culture, design, methodology, pedagogy and assessment may require upfront investment in infrastructure and human resources. But it has the potential to deliver long-term efficiencies by opening up opportunities to a greater number of learners – with a different paradigm for learning and a differently skilled workforce.

If we continue to mismatch inappropriate physical assets with inappropriate workforce skills, we are at risk of repeating earlier mistakes. If colleges are to avoid going the way of Comet and Woolworths, their leaders need to learn these lessons.

Bob Harrison is chair of governors of Northern College, a member of the Feltag ministerial advisory group and education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems

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