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Five point plan for a hi-tech future in colleges

Five key elements make up the sector-wide initiative proposed by the Higginson Committee to boost the use of learning technologies in further education:

Staff development

Many college staff are taking on board the potential of technology to support their teaching work, says the report, but others are still sceptical of its benefits or are uncertain of how best to use it. To win over the doubters, the committee proposes a national staff development programme reaching teachers, senior managers, administrators and technicians in every college in the sector.

The programme, expected to cost Pounds 3.8 million over five years, would raise staff awareness of the possibilities of modern technology, teaching them how to use it and helping them incorporate it into student learning programmes.

Two or more staff from each college would train up colleagues, while higher-level specialist programmes in areas such as project management and copyright would also be available.

Research and evaluation

The committee recommends a continuing research programme which will study the effectiveness of new approaches to teaching and learning, and examine how new technologies could play a part.

The programme would also include evaluation of each of the other four elements of the initiative, including the demonstration projects and the work of the LTCs.

The research and evaluation, set to cost Pounds 200,000 a year, would be carried out by staff seconded from national agencies and colleges.

Information and advice

The committee calls for a service to be set up offering independent advice and information on learning resources in the FE sector, in line with pleas for objective guidance expressed by many staff during consultation.

The proposed service would operate through new Learning and Technology Centres (LTCs), which would pass on the findings of a network of reviewers, based in colleges and elsewhere. The centres, linked electronically to colleges, would also maintain up-to-date databases of course materials, organise demonstrations and workshops, and develop standards for monitoring hi-tech resources' quality and effectiveness, commissioning new or improved products where necessary. They would support both specific curriculum areas and aspects of learning management such as tutorial support and core skills development.

Colleges would be invited to tender on an individual or consortium basis to provide either a specific curriculum, LTC or a learning management LTC.

The work of the centres, expected to number nine in all at a total cost of around Pounds 2.4 million per year, would be overseen nationally.

Demonstration projects

Colleges would be invited to bid either individually or in consortia for cash for projects demonstrating uses of technology in the sector. Projects would focus particularly on student support and tracking systems, on networks to improve access to education and training and on developing new course materials, the committee suggests.

Typical examples might be a networked course information service provided by a college, an external institution and a local library, or an access programme offered by a consortium of colleges for part-time learning at home via hi-tech networks. Pounds 1 million a year for five years would be needed to support the projects.

Sector superhighway

In the most significant of the five recommendations, colleges throughout the further education sector would be linked through a national electronic network, along the lines of the JANET (Joint Academic Network) system connecting higher education institutions.

The committee proposes a flexible system offering colleges the chance to choose between a range of three service levels, on a sliding fees scale.

The network would be commercially owned and managed according to colleges' specifications - public networks such as the Internet are considered too insecure by the committee, while a network entirely owned and run by colleges would be too costly.

A management team, drawn from college staff but supported nationally, would identify the sector's needs, invite tenders for the service, plan a strategy for connecting all colleges and existing networks and provide advice on accessing the new FE superhighway.

The committee estimates the cost of the network as around Pounds 12.5 million a year over five years, to be shared between the funding council and the colleges.

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