By the end of March, Britain's 400-plus further education colleges will be connected to SuperJanet, the high-speed computer network which links universities and other higher education institutions. This is a significant step on the way to bringing the further education (FE) sector into the information age.
Ensuring every college has high-speed access to the Internet and online resources is only part of the complicated puzzle that the pound;74 million National Learning Network initiative is aiming to solve. Twelve million pounds was distributed last financial year, with pound;20 million in the 12 months to April and a further pound;42 million coming in 20012.
The figures are considerably less than the hundreds of millions being pumped into technology for schools through the National Grid for Learning, but John Brown, head of lifelong learning for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), contends that the modest sums have been a significant catalyst. "We're only at the halfway point, yet colleges have taken the signal and have stepped up their information and learning technology (ILT) investments in line with the Government's vision," he said.
It is difficult to say exactly how much colleges spend on technology, but Brown estimates it is in the region of pound;100 million a year. This figure can only rise as more and more colleges use it in an attempt to raise student achievement, operate more efficiently and widen participation by offering courses in more flexible ways.
The National Learning Network strategy will also strive to eliminate the sometimes stark differences in computer provision between colleges. Brown said some colleges meet the new target of one computer per five Full-time education (FTE) students, but many will have a lot of catching up to do to reach that number, as well as ensuring that there is one computer for every FTE staff member as the strategy demands.
Becta's Further education in transition report states that until now relatively few colleges have specifically incorporated ILT into their strategic planning for teaching and learning. The requirement for colleges to submit a strategy document has made colleges reassess their activities in this area.
In addition, this re-evaluation is being driven by the realisation of the significance of "managed learning environments" (MLEs), which can be likened to the engine that powers the e-learning bandwagon.
Some colleges have already included them in their ILT strategies, but John Grey, principal of Newark and Sherwood College and chair of the Joint Information Systems steering group on MLEs in FE, says opting for such a system involves much more than buying one off the shelf.
This is because an MLE includes the whole range of information systems in a college, including the "virtual learning environment" used to deliver online learning, and links into the college's student record and business systems among others.
Although all colleges in the first quarter of 2001 will share in the pound;5 million allocated to help them buy an MLE, Grey says colleges that do not have one in their plan should not go down that road just yet. The Further Education Funding Council is being flexible and allowing colleges to use the funds in ways they believe will help achieve the goals in their ILT plan.
West Cheshire College has been the FE testbed for LearnWise, an e-learning platform from Granada Learning. It has been developed with Capita Education to integrate with colleges' existing computer systems and make the transition less complicated.
Alan Teece, Granada's LearnWise director, says the system uses the IMS standard supported by Microsoft and recommended by the MLE steering group and creating online learning materials is as easy as saving a Word document in the ".lrn" (learning resource network) format. He says it is the first MLE to make the task that simple.
Launched for FE at the Association of Colleges conference in November, LearnWise is also being targeted at schools and is launched for that sector at BETT 2001.
Grey says a number of MLE vendors agreed at the Further Education Resources for Learning (FERL) conference in November to comply with the IMS standard, giving some hope that the sector will not end up with a number of incompatible systems. Efforts have also been made to ensure compatibility with what must be Britain's biggest e-learning initiative, the University for Industry's Learndirect venture.
While MLEs are on the agenda for an increasing number of colleges, Grey warns that the attitude of the new Learning and Skills Council, which takes over from the FEFC in April, could hinder progress. "If the LSC doesn't have a funding methodology that encourages colleges to use this kind of technology or reflects the need for individualised programmes and flexibility, none of it will mean anything," he says.
To encourage the sector's experiments with online learning, part of the National Learning Network funding is being used to create high quality interactive learning materials available free to all colleges. In spring, 250 hours of resources covering a range of subject areas will be released, followed by another tranche in 2002.
The ILT champions programme, in which a couple of staff members get specific training and pass on to colleagues their knowledge and enthusiasm about using technology in teaching has been successful, John Brown contends. However, he admits that the need for staff development across the sector is an acute concern: "I am well aware that there is still the need for a very substantial investment, and we hope that might be forthcoming in order to make the investment in the infrastructure and the content worthwhile." School teachers have at least been able to access technology training through the programme paid for by the National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund, while no similar initiative has been available to FE staff.
In keeping with the Government's sensible desire to map the effectiveness of its investment in technology across all sectors of education, an evaluation of the National Learning Network strategy has been set up by the DFEE. More than 40 colleges are taking part in a programme to measure its impact and how colleges are using ILT in teaching and learning.
The Further education in transition report contends that, despite its infancy, the network is helping to change the face of vocational education and training and "driving forward change, opening up new options for lifelong learners nationally".
Most principals and senior managers would agree that technology and online learning is going to have a significant impact on the way their college operates, if the process has not already begun.
However, it will not mean an end to FE as it has been known - good teaching and student support will continue to be as important as ever. The revolution means that more people will be able to access courses even if they cannot or do not want to set foot inside a college, which can only be good for all concerned.
Telford College of Arts and Technology's decision to make some management, business and information technology courses available through its website, allowing students to study when it suits them, is but one example of the changes that are under way.
Becta's John Brown firmly believes most colleges want to give students more flexibility and are embracing the technology that lets them do this. "The sector is keen and ready to make this move, and the sign is that substantial investment is being made from colleges' own resources."
Becta: Stand C30X40
Tel: 02476 847079
Further Education Funding Council
Further Education Resources for Learning
National Learning Network
Telford College of Art and Technology
Managed learning environments in further education: progress report
FERL information on MLEs:
Bob Powell, Becta's head of further education, will speak about the National Learning Network at BETT 2001 on January 10 Helping to plan for the future of further and higher education conference, February 7, 2001, Committee for Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Woburn House, London.