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pound;400K buys wow factor

If your college is split across three sites, it pays to invest in a good computer system. Raymond Ross reports

How can a college embrace ICT fully in the classroom and offer a modern, blended approach to education? That is the challenge facing all FE establishments. The solution designed by Forth Valley College has won a national award.

The fifth largest college in Scotland, Forth Valley has more than 25,000 students, of whom 15,500 study part-time. It has three main sites in Alloa, Falkirk and Stirling, making online links all the more important.

The college is three years into a five-year project to set up a virtual learning environment (VLE), and support it with a help squad for staff.

Already their achievements have been recognised with the Scottish Further Education Unit's 2005 Professional Learning and Enhancement Award.

"A college-wide, central, shareable bank of electronic resources is now available for the first time," says Ken Thomson, the assistant principal in charge of learning and teaching. "This is important for a college whose classrooms are spread across multiple sites many miles apart.

The new system, accessible 24 hours a day, allows lecturers to convert hand-outs to interactive online materials with links to websites, PowerPoint presentations and other online resources. Lecture notes can be uploaded for those who missed them or for revision purposes. There's also the ability to conduct online assessments (formative and summative) and tag and store electronic resources in a database.

Regular, targeted workshops have been designed to train staff, and a virtual campus help squad works with them individually in their workrooms, providing them with the necessary skills.

The help squad teaches lecturers how to find and use electronic resources and design online assessments. They have also customised action plans to help them master the technology.

Such a structured approach has led to a significant increase in confidence and experience among lecturers using ICT in their teaching.

"Staff were neither resistant nor fearful," says Alison Inglis, the college's flexible learning manager. "They could see how much time, effort and money was being invested in the VLE and they were always aware of our support structure, so no one felt threatened. You have to work with staff at their own levels of IT competence to bring them forward.

"The VLE is now the major teaching tool and its impact on the students'

learning experience is the major positive.

"But it is not a vehicle for cutting contact time with students or a substitute for live teaching. You need live teaching which can make use of ICT to give added value and enjoyment to the students while allowing the lecturer to be more adventurous.

Students at Forth Valley have online learning guides that take them through a learning programme with dates and times, informing them how long a certain task should take and at what level it is aimed. They can access the system from home.

By May last year, there were 6,700 registered users. There are now around 10,000. Numbers will increase significantly when the college's third campus at Alloa is linked up in the next few months.

Dr Thomson attributes the college's winning of the Scottish Further Education Unit's award to innovation, a high level of investment and the help squad of three led by Alison Inglis.

The whole thing has cost pound;400,000, including staff time , the kit in classrooms and developing the learning materials.

"You need to build a firm infrastructure, pilot your ideas, and seek advice at every stage from IT professionals and your teaching staff to take your ideas forward," says Dr Thomson. "Our VLE is now talking to our management information system and, when we have built and integrated all our systems in the next two years, we will have achieved our aim - a managed learning environment.

"When we were inspected two years ago, we received very good feedback on our classroom practice. The VLE will enhance this. It's about putting the 'wow factor' into the classroom."

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