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Estyn criticises online shortfall

Online learning is being developed too slowly in Wales, leaving many young people with fewer options when they leave school.

Remote-access learning for over-16s is a key priority for the Assembly, but colleges and training providers in many areas are not setting specific targets, and progress is slow, according to a report by the inspection body Estyn into the effectiveness of courses via the web.

Online learning is still very new to many providers in Wales, Estyn said, and e-learning using Welsh is still "not well-developed". Although there are plenty of English courses in computing and business studies, there are too few other occupational courses to choose from. According to Estyn, this means that the "needs of learners and the wider community in Wales are currently not being met".

Many e-learning centres have concerns about cheating in online assessments, because they have neither the technology nor the resources to confirm that the person taking the test is the one doing the course.

Estyn also found that many providers have trouble recording attainment, and there is no information about the outcomes of programmes at a national level in Wales.

Rhys Williams, of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, criticised the lack of co-ordination.

"It shouldn't be beyond the capability of local authorities and learning providers to organise themselves and pool resources so that more people can access courses online," he said.

Despite criticism, the Assembly has high aspirations for Cymru Ar Lein, its e-learning strategy, which was praised by Estyn for being "clear and detailed".

Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, said that a lot of work was being done. "There is much we are doing in Wales to demonstrate our commitment to getting the most out of e-learning," she said. "There can be no single action to achieving full utilisation of e-learning technology. The agenda affects everyone involved with learning and should be owned by all."

It is not just over-16s who may be missing out. Estyn claims that broadband was meant to be installed in all schools in Wales by the end of last year as part of a high-speed national network. Since 2002, pound;4million has been spent annually to develop it, but many schools in Wales are still not connected. Thirty per cent of schools on Anglesey, for instance, are still waiting for the new technology.

Chris Howard, president of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said he was disappointed that some schools were still not connected.

"The Assembly has poured huge amounts of resources into online learning and other, more school-based services, have been starved as a result. So if some schools still don't have access to it despite the money that's been spent, then it is frustrating," he said.

The Assembly says it is not aware of any such target and that 99 per cent of secondary schools and 88 per cent of primary schools are already connected to the Lifelong Learning Network.

A spokesperson for the Assembly said: "The Assembly Government has provided funding over the past three years to assist authorities. Funding has also been provided for technical support and advisory posts in each authority to help to develop the effective use of the network."

The Estyn report also spoke encouragingly about a number of ongoing initiatives, such as the pilot project to deliver Welsh-medium education through video conferencing in sixth-forms, and an e-learning consortium in West Wales to promote better access to courses.

Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire, which is a member of the consortium, was hailed in the report as a model of good practice in developing e-learning.

Dave Howells, information and learning development manager, said: "An average of 500 students a year are coming through, gaining skills and qualifications in a way that's accessible to them. Tutor support is there if they need it. There is also technical support on hand and we have a three-day turnaround for marking assessments."

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