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Real lives bring the real world to every college;FE Focus;Opinion

ONE DAY soon, I'll sit at my workstation and teach online. My students may be in an IT suite a few yards away, at home several miles away or halfway across the world.

Meanwhile, learning encounters are face to face, and as the end of the session approaches those faces are often pink with anxiety as students juggle life's bagful of vicissitudes with the additional pressures of taking up work-placements and figuring out what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

Some students amaze with their ability to sail through a myriad of challenges. Judy managed to finish her course a few weeks early so that she could fit in having her baby before she started university. Never late for class or with assessments during her pregnancy, she blossomed and made it all look terribly easy. The class were involved all the way and were even treated to a scan photograph. Mother and baby visited the class today, with baby right on schedule as regards sleeping, feeding and being cute, and Judy all set to collect a list of summer reading in preparation for her new course.

At the other extreme, there is Billy, who started off with so much promise and has allowed himself to slip farther and farther behind. There are no obvious reasons, and despite several new beginnings, he just hasn't been able to get his act together and has bumped along the bottom all year.

Most students, however, fall somewhere in between. College is a community and there is always someone who can spot a potential problem in time, or someone who can offer help and advice, whether that is a classmate or a staff member. When college is perceived as a community, when lecturers are perceived as professional and helpful, and your classmates are also friends, you are in a pretty strong position to succeed. Occasionally, though, that doesn't happen, and the results can be disastrous.

I have fallen heir to a small Friday group who are feeling unloved and alienated and, as a result, have had very little success. "At school, if you fell behind or stayed away, they told your mum and dad, but not here," Laura said. Tom had done reasonably well at school, but his confidence had been destroyed. "I just felt shoved in at the deep end, and felt stupid." He solved the problem for a while by switching off or staying away whenever he could.

Tracy said: "The older people are seen as goody-goodies and the lecturers have more time for them." She shrugged the problems off. "You come in, do your work and you go away. You have your friends outside college. College and your real life, they're completely separate."

With only a few Fridays to go, there is a mountain to climb with this group, and though the signs are more promising, it may well be too late. It's a situation we take very seriously indeed. If college does nothing else, it should allow students to go out through our doors feeling like a million dollars. Failure isn't an option here.

Stepping out into the world of employment can be an exhilarating and testing experience. Julie was given an assignment by a prospective employer and asked to fax material by one o'clock. By lunchtime, she was frozen by nerves. "I know I've done assessment after assessment like this," she wailed, "but this is the real world."

It's easy to see it as a divide, but college is a real world, too, a world that is often maddening, frustrating and challenging. It's also great fun. As I use my non-teaching time to sign up for courses to brush up my software skills, I know that one day soon the real world will be a "virtual" world. Let's hope it's still a community and that it's just as maddening, frustrating and challenging.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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