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Opinion: 'Colleges should seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a digital revolution'

Highbury College's Cathy Ellis and Paul Rolfe reflect on the chance for colleges to shift to a digital mindset

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The recent comments from Peter Lauener, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the Education Funding Agency (EFA), to TES that the SFA may consider forgoing the revenue owed from property sales to encourage "creative thinking" by colleges presents significant opportunities for institutions to reimagine their campuses. Although this is set within the context of area-based reviews and reduced funding scenarios, it is nevertheless an open door for colleges to tap into the creative thinking which is a feature of our sector.

Being creative is what has enabled many colleges to navigate the numerous reforms over preceding years. Now, with the likely impact of area reviews redefining the college landscape, and the focus squarely on professional and technical education and training, we are perhaps in a perfect storm where colleges, trusted to take more control of their assets, could direct their investment towards a digital future rather than an industrial past. 

This needs to be based on a range of data from inside and outside the sector, and informed by trends in workplace practices, emerging technologies and business models which have developed within the digital age. Our greatest threat may no longer be another local college, but a small entrepreneurial business start-up with innovative ways to deliver learning.

We need to consider the lessons of digital disruption from other industries. For example, high street chains have seen shop sales decline and online sales increase year on year. Some have not survived this shift in shopping trends and have disappeared altogether. Those that have embraced technology, and in particular the potential of the internet, are the ones that have survived.

This has involved the development of new business models, new roles and new working practices. In the world of online shopping, face-to-face contact is more likely to be through the delivery of items rather than through travelling to a store to speak to a retail assistant. Armed with online rating systems, based on the analytics from customer feedback, we are more likely to shop in the comfort of our own home, or on our mobile device whilst travelling on the bus or train.

What has this got to do with an FE college?  We are only scratching the surface of how we can use technology to streamline our systems, to mine the volume of data to improve the learner experience and, across the sector, there has been a reticence in introducing more online and blended learning – partly fuelled by questions of funding, which were highlighted by the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag). Bob Harrison, education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems, a member of Feltag and chair of governors at Northern College, is right to stress the need to reinvest in "a differently skilled workforce".

What does this mean? Lecturers, who once created PowerPoint presentations, are becoming adept at making video tutorials so that their learners can have reinforcement and extension learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Tutors who are confident using social media tools, Skype, Google Hangouts and similar web-enabled collaborative tools. Moocs per se are not the answer but what they have demonstrated is the power of the video medium – short videos with expert tutors covering elements of the subject – reinforced by collaborative tools, online tasks and quizzes. A scheme of work asks several questions: does this need to be taught face-to-face, could it be learnt online or does it even need to be taught at all?  How do we work as lecturers? Are we making the most of the collective resources we have within the college? Are we breaking down silos through interdisciplinary working?

At Highbury College, we nurture a start-up mindset which facilitates creativity and innovation at all levels. This is supported by the principal’s "innovation council", which encourages staff and students to think and act differently. For example, we developed a digital maths academy with our students who had challenged us to make maths more accessible. Then we made it available for free on the internet and have attracted – without any promotion beyond a few tweets – visitors from over 15 countries in the first seven days. This is one example of taking to scale the power of technology to transform and enrich lives.

Like most colleges, we have invested in our digital infrastructure, and have a baseline which permits remote learning and working. With the prospect of greater freedoms from the SFA for colleges to realise their physical assets, we have the potential to develop this further and make significant changes in our learning and working practices.

Colleges which are able to realise assets, as proposed by Mr Lauener, may be on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine their business models and provide learning experiences fit for a digital future. Let’s embrace the opportunity and work creatively and smartly to build a new sector with "digital by default" at the heart of our system.

Cathy Ellis and Paul Rolfe work at Highbury College, Portsmouth. Cathy is director of research and development, and tweets at @cathyellis121. Paul is director of IT and innovation, and tweets at @psrolfe.

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