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Make the most of what you've got

FE has bought the hardware - now it must learn how to use it. Sue Jones reports

The Red Queen would have understood. "It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Colleges have hit their ICT hardware targets but, as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass world, they must run fast to stay ahead, according to a new survey.

With advances in technology and increases in student numbers, the sector is in a race to keep up with ever-expanding demand. But for now, further education's infrastructure is "robust", says the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). "The increased number of high-specification computers has transformed the capability of colleges to deal with the level of demand for ICT which they overwhelmingly describe as widespread," it says.

Becta's survey, ICT and e-learning in further education, is the latest in a series of reports by the agency tracking the expansion in ICT kicked off by the National Learning Network in 1999. Since then, the number of computers in English colleges has doubled to 320,000, and is likely to reach 350,000.

The Learning and Skills Council's target ratio of one internet-enabled computer to every five full-time equivalent (FTE) students has been bettered and stands at 4.5:1 (median ratio). And there is one to every permanent member of staff in 46 per cent of colleges, up from 26 per cent last year.

However, although 45 per cent of colleges say they could take an increase in traffic, half the sector is stretched to capacity and 7 per cent is struggling to meet demand. The student population is outpacing the supply of computers - up from 0.9 million FTEs in 2000-1 to 1.15m last year, while colleges were buying one extra computer for every 6.25 additional students.

And it's not just the hardware, it's what you do with it. "In general, I can see the technology itself is good - it's there, it's working," says Steve Davies, project officer for Becta's evidence and evaluation team. "Now we're moving into the next phase of getting staff on it and getting people to use it."

Most colleges have electronic whiteboards, though just under a third say they are in frequent use. More sophisticated systems, such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), which allow staff to bring together different kinds of material, use on-line discussion and track students through their course, are still regarded with caution. Seventy per cent of colleges have bought them, but only 15 per cent say they are in frequent use.

Colleges judge that 75 per cent of their staff are competent or advanced in their personal use of computers, and that 56 per cent are at the same standard with learners. They want more training in the integration of ICT into the curriculum and teaching, in technical skills for particular packages and the use of VLEs.

Now that the initial investment in capital costs and professional development from the National Learning Network and the Standards Fund is almost over, colleges are responsible for most of their ICT expenditure.

But Steve Davies is confident they can handle the demands of hardware replacement and training.

"Colleges are very budget aware," he says. "They feel they don't get a lot of money, so they've got to make the best possible use of every penny, and get the best use out of their computers until they die. And if that means getting these machines used, then they'll train people to use them."

"People in FE are very pragmatic," he added.

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