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On the right track?

Which way are we heading - and which way should we be heading - with technology in post-16 learning? Ian Nash talks to the adult skills minister and Martin Whittaker asks the Open University's vice chancellor

Ivan Lewis adult skills minister

The Government wants more out of its e-learning experts and is going to cut bureaucracy to get it. The National Learning Network, created by the Government to promote e-learning in sixth-form colleges and work-based training, is to get a freer hand in this, says the adult skills minister, Ivan Lewis.

"We will cut the bureaucracy and extend the ICT strategy to the adult and community learning sector. There will be a cross-government strategy that puts e-learning at the centre of personalised learning programmes across the board," he says.

Mr Lewis's plans for the NLN are a response to the gap between the hardware heap and people's willingness and ability to use it. The "use your kit" drive could mean the end of the techie-ghetto in colleges where those with IT know-how are often seen as a separate breed from teachers.

The minister is also determined to accelerate e-learning beyond education, to go right across the public sector, with the NLN playing a key part. The new-look network will take on much of the ICT development work now done by the Department for Education and Skills. In so doing, it will be expected to "ensure maximum involvement of people on the ground".

Mr Lewis told The TES that he would "decentralise, localise, simplify and strengthen" the NLN. "There will be a clearer definition of responsibilities. More decisions about e-learning will be taken by those close to the management arrangements," he said.

While the Government had made much progress promoting e-learning in colleges, more was needed to extend it into adult and community learning.

There was also a need to improve the ICT skills of other professions such as doctors, nurses and social workers.

"All colleges now have broadband. In 1999, there was only one computer for every 21 college students; there is now one to every four. One in two students has access to the internet and it is rapidly approaching universal access," he said.

With more than 2,000 courses available, 755 were available exclusively online and ICT learning materials were being developed across the curriculum with a very big push in science. "There is more support than ever for teachers and learners, with information and learning technology champions and regional networks giving technical and pedagogical support."

But there were even wider issues to consider. "Are our institutions using ICT to provide management information in accordance with the evidence of what is effective? Many are, but there are still too many where it is not in the mainstream and where it is seen as the responsibility of a separate team," Mr Lewis said.

Part of the problem was the generation gap. "Our generation is not generally ICT literate or confident. For my children at nine and 10 this is part of their daily lives at school and in the home. For many of our teachers and leaders it has not been their experience; it's not second nature."

To make it so is at the heart of what the Government has asked the NLN to do - to raise the profile of ICT. "If you go into schools and colleges you will be impressed with the ICT kit - the level of investment has been substantial. But in too many institutions, it has still not been central to teaching as much of the curriculum as it should be."

Mr Lewis sees the NLN as an agent for rapid change, but not in isolation.

"With its support, the Centre for Excellence in Leadership must make ICT a top priority for management training."

In the mid to late 1990s, the use of ICT in college administration often proved a disaster. Many Management Information Systems (MIS) failed, churning out erroneous results and wrong data, leading to incorrect funding forecasts. It was as much to do with poor software as it was human error.

But vast improvements have created support systems not just for single organisations but also for wider collaboration.

Effective development of new systems is crucial to our economic survival, says Mr Lewis. "Nations with the infrastructure and skilled personnel across a wide range of sectors will inevitably be at the cutting edge of the global economy."

"ICT has a massive potential to support every government department as well as mainstream communications from government to citizen.

"Personalised learning must reach every public service, whether it is about communicating clearly between a service and customers or whether it's training doctors and nurses so they can log on and give you three or four options as to where you might have an operation."

This means the NLN working hand in glove with organisations such as the NHS University and new E-learning Sector Skills Council, responsible for spreading best practice across industry.

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