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Let's hope the noughts are chasing the e-agenda

At this time of year I could, like most college managers, be away from college five days a week, most weeks attending courses, conferences, seminars or simply going to meetings.

We all know colleagues who do this and it doesn't necessarily make them bad people. It depends on whether it is time well spent and whether someone else would be better going instead. A case in point is the number of events on e-commerce (or e-business, or e-learning) currently bombarding the FE sector. Last week I attended a seminar on the "Knowledge Economye-business for higher and further education", accompanied by a more technically accomplished colleague.

Next week is e-business week, sponsored by Scottish Enterprise, including a business breakfast with Wendy Alexander, Lifelong Learning Minister. I don't see how I can possibly afford to miss that.

One could, however, stay in college and read the huge amount of literature that drops into one's in-tray - from both public sector organisations and private companies. Within the public sector the impetus has come from the Scottish Executive through its "Knowledge Economy Task Force". Significantly for further and higher education institutions, money is involved. A total of pound;5 million - pound;2.5 million for each sector - is being distributed in academic year 2001-2002 to encourage "ICT pervasiveness".

Where money is involved, especially in cash-strapped FE colleges, there is an even greater incentive to attend these events. But there is always the opportunity to network, perhaps find a potential collaborator, and thereby access even more money. This is not intended as cynicism: one of the more positive features of collaboration is the possibility of synergy, both in the attraction of resources and in terms of the outcomes which can be achieved.

But back to pervasiveness - what does it mean? The report of the Knowledg Economy Task Force, published in February 2001, indicated that the object of "pervasiveness" is to create a culture where accessing and using new technology is as familiar and comfortable to students and teachers and lecturers as the use of blackboards, whiteboards and books. The report goes on to indicate that courses, whatever their nature, should have embedded within them, to some extent, the practical use of ICT. Beyond this, it suggests that all staff should be familiar in its use and that management and administration should be ICT-led.

What does seem to be suggested is that the process and the context of the transformation are as, if not more, important than knowledge itself. What is required are not simply changes in the curricula, but in teaching methods and the creation of appropriate learning environments.

Certainly, the amount of money going into colleges for ICT has been considerable. For 2001-2002, the money is divided into three sections - for infrastructure, for staff development and for pervasiveness. There is no guarantee of the continuation of money for infrastructure or staff development, though the money for pervasiveness seems set to continue until 2004.

So far so good. But new technology will become old very quickly and the current stock will need updating within the next three to four years. If the Government or funding council have any doubts about the importance of their investment they need only refer back to the task force report which states that an appropriately skilled workforce is "the sine qua non of a new and prosperous Scotland".

As usual FE will rise to the challenge. But it will be up to the Government to ensure that the resources are commensurate with the requirements of its agenda.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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