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Penelope and Maria plot a classroom revolution;FE Focus

Penelope and Maria are at the forefront of changes which the SFEU believes could revolutionise teaching and learning. "With slight modifications, we can sell them to the world," says Gerry Devlin, the unit's senior development officer.

The two names belong to software programs designed to bring order to the chaos which often results from moves to individualised learning.

Penelope is a personal learning plan which Marion Fyfe, who is seconded to the SFEU from Cumbernauld College, says helps to "customise courses, giving students more control and more choice over their learning". It is aimed at students with learning difficulties, setting short-term goals, and is currently being piloted in eight colleges.

Ms Fyfe says Penelope's flexibility is very attractive. "It can include in a communications module, for example, standard items for everyone but can also include additional elements to suit individual needs. That also means, of course, that courses can be varied from year to year."

Maria is for managing and recording integrated assessment. The mass of assessments required by competence-based learning which is now common in colleges has long irritated lecturers and Ian Robertson, SFEU director, believes Maria may be the key to coping with the system.

"It sets out a broader range of tasks for assessment which is more meaningful to the learner and reduces the number of assessments," he says.

Nancy Hammond, who has been piloting Maria in the social-care section of West Lothian College for the past two years, praises the system. She says the software eases the recording of achievement and motivates staff to carry out integrated assessment.

Ms Hammond says: "Integrated assessment is a deforestation of the planet job, but this piece of software cuts down the paperwork, including the administration required by Scotvec. It makes it easier for staff to come in and mark off their own individual assessments and for students to access their records."

Students will get their own passwords next session but Ms Hammond stresses this will allow them to view, not alter, their results.

Penelope and Maria have now been joined by another flexible-learning wonder known only as TPS. Gerry Devlin says this software has major potential for trainers and administrators in recording and tracking students' progress. It could also be an answer to the "administrative nightmare" of individualised programmes.

TPS can break down vocational qualifications into short-term goals where students can work on four-week tasks. Ian Robertson says this fits in perfectly with the "milestone" funding approach of the local enterprise companies (LECs) who, as in the Skillseekers training programme for school leavers, authorise payment to trainers only when learning goals have been reached.

The TPS software, having passed the tests set by Scotvec and the LECs, is therefore likely to have wide applications beyond FE colleges. It is currently being piloted by Borders Enterprise as well as in four colleges.

Alison Reid also sees scope for the development of these and other software packages outwith the FE and training sector.

"Personal learning plans are likely to become more and more important, as the Labour party's proposals for individualised programmes in schools have recently demonstrated.

"People are not just going to follow standardised courses as they did in the past.

"A portfolio of learning pathways will become more common and technology will be essential to support and co-ordinate that learning."

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