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Online bank gets the credit

Hard on the heels of a critical report on lecturers' technological skills, one online project claims to have persuaded even "non-techies" that it can deliver effective assessment in colleges.

The project, funded by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council to the tune of pound;250,000, created a bank of online formative assessment instruments in 15 curricular areas at all levels. This involved 50 writers from more than 20 colleges in creating almost 3,000 questions.

Speaking at a seminar at the Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology exhibition in Glasgow, Mary McDonald of the Colleges Open Learning Exchange Group (COLEG), said that while non-technically minded staff were "initially anxious", effective staff development and support convinced them that online assessment could deliver.

"The project bridged the gap between technical and non-technical staff and also challenged staff to review their teaching and assessment approaches", she said. "Practically everybody who has been involved has talked enthusiastically about the project and even the quality assurance people, who are usually very dry about these things, have said how interesting it has been."

She praised the creativity and the enthusiasm of the writers and the "pedagogically sound" nature of the questions.

The upbeat note from COLEG contrasted sharply with the survey by the Joint Information Systems Committee for further and higher education which found significant inroads still had to be made to step up the uses college staff make of technology in their teaching (FE Focus, last week).

Three-quarters of the 2,500 staff who took part said they needed more help in using online learning effectively with students, but almost nine out of 10 said they did not have enough time to train.

David Beards, senior policy officer at the funding council, acknowledged at the SETT seminar that a number of challenges still remained, one being the creation of a managed learning environment. "This ties together all the business processes of a college. It could be things like management information systems and finance. All the systems can talk to each other, we can support learners better and staff are empowered because they have access to information that is spread across the institution," Mr Beards said.

There was also scope for the funding council to intervene in areas which colleges individually or collectively find difficult.

"Colleges are very good at providing staff development, but we can look at the training needs of all colleges and perhaps achieve economies of scale," he said. "We can also look at the professional development needs of different categories of staff and if training materials are not available for the groups we can commission them."

Technology transfer is another challenge. "There are pockets of innovation throughout the sector but these are not always shared and, particularly in the past, there has been an atmosphere of competition between the colleges," Mr Beards said. "We are essentially paying for staff from one college to implement something that already works in another."

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