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Investing in independence

Lectures are losing out to micros, a TES survey has revealed Ian Nash and Estelle Maxwell report. More than nine out of 10 colleges surveyed in England and Wales claimed to have comprehensive plans for information technology as a management and curriculum tool. But the range of strategies varied widely from Pounds 25,000 spent upgrading existing computers to a Pounds l.5 million spend on a single strategy to merge the systems for management information and supporting new curriculum and assessment systems.

South East Essex College is committed to an annual spend of 7 per cent of the entire budget - amounting to Pounds 750,000 this year alone. All staff are drawn into the strategy as the college has 160 personal computers networked to the desks of lecturers and support staff throughout the college.

The single aim was to make all staff and students more independent and self-reliant, said the IT co-ordinator. "We see student learning being far more independent within three to four years and have put a large injection of cash into computer-assisted learning."

A similar philosophy, "tying the two stands of college management together" is the approach used by a large Hertfordshire college. Including staff support, it has spent Pounds 500,000 on IT this year in pursuit of a "client-centred policy which makes no distinction between staff and students when giving access to the technology".

A Surrey college claims a radically different approach in which day-to-day management of systems and the development or purchase of software is devolved to faculty level. It is supporting this with a rolling programme of promoting IT in all curriculum areas and a cash injection this year of Pounds 200, 000 to improve and replace systems.

Other colleges have been warned off their schemes by the Further Education Funding Council inspectors, who appear to have found a considerable number of holes in spending policies.

One issue most often cited by principals and IT co-ordinators responding to the survey was the lack of expert back-up. One co-ordinator said: "The inspectors told us we needed more technical staff just to keep the stuff on the road. " Out of a spend of Pounds 160,000, about Pounds 40,000 went on administrative support and Pounds 120,000 on replacing hardware. In many colleges, this was having a backlash on spending in other areas.

Another co-ordinator put the same point more benignly: "Traditional investment in lecturing staff is important, but investment in technology is important too."

Other needs are even more pressing. In one small college, the computer system was so unreliable it collapsed in the middle of lessons. The principal approved a Pounds l40,000 two-year programme of hardware replacement. Inevitably, it is the sheer volume of information in the high-tech world that is the driving force behind many strategies.

One principal commented: "We must use IT to make the job easier. It may be the solution to the heavy National Vocational Qualification and GNVQ requirements and the burden on academic staff recording achievements."

Another said: "It was easy once when you were keeping records for, say, one subject for one year. It is more complicated now that we are in the market of lifetime learning and keeping the details of so many different types of achievement for such a long time."

Her answer was an initial Pounds 200,000 budget to expand into computer-based assessment and training. "We have seen its value in the early stages of things like the accreditation of prior learning. But we have not seen anything yet."

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