I hope all my friends and ex-colleagues in the sector will, as I turn 70, permit my brief moment of reflection in these challenging times. I am devastated by the fact that after spending 20 years trying to persuade politicians, policymakers principals, governors and headteachers of the importance of investing in digital infrastructure and the digital capacity and capability of our education workforce to engage more learners and enhance teaching learning and assessment, a deadly virus has achieved more in a couple of weeks.
I wonder whether I could have done more to get my message across as this is such an enormous cost to pay.
Coronavirus closures: 'Another crisis awaits us in September'
Coronavirus: The remote learning genie is out of the bottle
Well, the remote working, online/blended/virtual learning and assessment genie is well and truly out of the bottle. I am not sure it will go back in.
For those of you who have been gracious enough to invite me to keynote at your staff conferences, run workshops, mentor your digital leaders or even let me loose on your governing bodies, you will be familiar with my thesis, which can be summarised as: “This is not about technology…it is about new ways of thinking.”
My first call for this came in a Tes article in 2012 entitled “Wanted: pioneers” in which I suggested that the way we designed, supported, delivered, funded, inspected and assessed learning and held our FE sector accountable was under strain and, indeed, no longer fit for purpose. It was this and several other critical pieces about the lack of progress in the sector, despite huge sums having been spent by Becta and even bigger sums by Jisc, LSC, LSIS and other agencies, not to mention the colleges themselves, that led the FE and skills minister to invite me and several other FE “techie types” to create the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag), which reported to the minister and received a positive response.
Sadly, Matt Hancock (who also sponsored a wider Education Technology Action Group (Etag) report) was reshuffled to the Cabinet Office and his successor Nick Boles had neither the vision nor understanding of the issue to see through the changes required. The Etag report never saw the light of day as education secretary Nicky Morgan binned it without a second glance.
Edtech and our digital future
Despite this, many FE colleges embraced the spirit of the Feltag report and they should be in a strong position to meet the current and future challenges that face us.
I had a second opportunity to try and nudge the collective FE mindset to prepare for a digital future when the government announced the area-based review process and I was invited to join the national advisory group. However, I failed once again, despite my optimism, evident in another piece for Tes, where I argued that this time the sector should not allow the opportunity to embrace technology to pass by.
The area-based reviews were a huge diversion of energy and resources at a crucial time for our sector and were misnamed, largely because school sixth forms were not included. More importantly, however, the then FE commissioner’s mind was fixed and insufficiently open to explore the opportunities that digital technology could have provided for FE.
It became a college rationalisation programme with a huge opportunity cost. So it still remains the case that our sector has enormous resources trapped in huge glass palaces, buildings and land that need to be realigned and reinvested in digital infrastructure and, most importantly, workforce capacity and capability.
In recent times, the Education and Training Foundation has made a great effort to create a standards framework for digital educators and created lots of online resources, Jisc continues to provide industry-strength connectivity, audit tools, benchmarks, research and reports and the Ufi Trust has invested over £5 million in projects supporting the innovative use of technology in further, adult and vocational education, with a specific fund recently created to help with the post-Covid-19 challenges.
Looking back will not take us forward but we must learn lessons from the past. So I make no apologies for repeating these key questions once more:
- Do you have a vision for learning that embraces the potential that technology offers us for teaching, learning and assessment and the capacity to plan to achieve that vision?
- Do you have digital leadership at every level of the organisation?
- Do you empower the learners to use their own devices and expertise?
- Do you have a sufficiently reliable and robust digital infrastructure?
- Do you have a sustainable plan to resource and replace hardware and software?
- Do you work closely with employers and their own use of technology in the workplace?
- Do the funding, assessment, inspection and accountability measures help or hinder the provision of online, blended and virtual learners? (This is a question for the DfE and policymakers).
Answering all of the above, however, will be meaningless unless you have a workforce that has the capacity, capability and confidence to use digital technology to support online, blended and virtual learning and assessment.
Hopefully, the Covid-19 pandemic will be over soon, but the challenges that arise from these questions will be with us for the foreseeable future and FE colleges and learning providers will need a significant investment in resources to meet them.
We cannot afford to go back to trying to force new digital technologies into old ways of working; we need a paradigm shift and new ways of thinking. I wish I could have been more persuasive.
Bob Harrison is a former principal and currently chair of the board of governors at Northern College and a governor at Oldham College. He served two terms as a trustee of the Ufi Charitable Trust, was a member of Feltag and Etag and retired as Toshiba’s Education Adviser two years ago. Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu