'If FE doesn't embrace technology, fossilisation is just around the corner'

15th April 2016 at 16:12
Bob Harrison Feltag Skills Funding Agency
One member of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group argues that it's time the government paid attention to its message

The aim of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag) report, published over two years ago, was to support the "agile evolution of the FE and skills sector". As we all learned in our Year 9 science lessons, a failure to evolve usually results in the end of the species.

So it was with eager anticipation that the sector awaited the response from the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), which was to be delivered this week by policy implementation manager Steve Nichols (some will remember Steve as "Mr Mobi-Learn" after the £14 million initiative by the former Learning and Skills Council, which stimulated the use of mobile technology in FE).

The first webinar was cancelled owing to "technical difficulties" at the SFA, but it finally took place this week, kindly hosted by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and its chief executive Maren Deepwell (herself a pivotal member of Feltag).

Before we explore what two years of intensive work at the SFA has revealed, let us just refresh our memory about what Feltag said about funding and what the SFA was asked to do

Feltag recommendations

Funding 1: The funding system must fully support the adoption of new digital technology and learning methods. It must challenge and adapt its quality and success measures in accordance with the leading edge in the further education sector.

Funding 2: The funding methodology should encourage "learning presence" not "physical attendance".

Funding 3: Raise the Skills Funding Agency’s awareness of courses that maximise effective use of digital technology in learning and assessments.

In response, the government wrote: "We will also ensure that the funding regime more effectively supports the delivery of online programmes. Revisions to current Guided Learning Hours (GLH) definitions will encourage providers to take forward the development of high-quality online learning programmes and increase the proportion of online learning in all programme delivery. We welcome and strongly encourage providers to increase the amount of online learning in their programmes to create a ‘blend’ between face-to-face and online delivery."

Where are we now?

So after two years of work, the funding of research carried out by Niace (now known as the Learning and Work Institute) and the deliberation of the greatest minds of the SFA, what did we learn this week?

The webinar slides and recording are available here so you can decide for yourself. But in short, the response could be paraphrased as: "Online and blended learning is complex. There does not seem to be a consensus about an agreed definition of what it means. It is not really a priority for us. It is somebody else’s responsibility. We don’t have the capacity, so therefore nothing can be done."

If this is an example of the "agile evolution" of FE and skills, then fossilisation is just around the corner. Sorry SFA, but if you were an FE provider and Ofsted were looking at your performance on this issue, it would be a clear "unsatisfactory" – and FE commissioner Sir David Collins would be round in a flash.

The only beneficial thing I learned from the webinar was a reminder to renew my ALT subscription so I can keep learning and sharing with people who really do know something about learning and technology.

Bob Harrison is chair of governors at Northern College and education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems Northern Europe. He was a leading member of the Feltag ministerial action group. He tweets at @bobharrisonset

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