'Risk-taking has got to be part of FE culture'

Edtech can make a positive difference to colleges – you just need to grab the opportunities available, writes Anthony Bravo

EdTech: we must have risk-culture in FE

I have a very simplistic approach: if technology makes a positive difference, use it. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly continuing down a path. Tech doesn’t need loyalty.

In further education, we should be ready to change anything for the sake of our students – and that means losing our fear of failure. Risk-taking has got to become part of our culture. Otherwise, we’re denying ourselves the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t.


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Students at the forefront

Fifteen years ago, when I was at Crossways Academy in Lewisham, we rebuilt the old school into a new college, putting in a robust new IT infrastructure. We became a world reference site for Cisco. We ran a pilot with Dell, giving students handheld devices. We brought in things that were cutting-edge back then – like a great building management systems (BMS) that enabled us to control our windows with computers and so on, and a proper virtual learning environment (VLE).

What I learnt is this: it’s not about the tech, it’s about the outcome. Because we had a technologically-enhanced environment, people visited from all over the world. That raised our learners’ aspirations, so they shifted from thinking they were at the back end to taking their place at the forefront. Some got to Oxford and Cambridge. In certain local wards, it was the first time anyone had done that.

Showcasing and sharing

I’ve got no original ideas – so I ask people for help when I’m stuck, and I’m all about sharing. I’m interested in technology but I’m no expert – I’m definitely not alone in that. Soon after joining Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) in 2009, I ran a survey to find out how happy the staff were with technology. It was clear from the responses that there was a skills gap.

So I found IT and media students who were articulate and friendly, and I paid them on a part-time basis to train a volunteer group of teachers on how to use technology better. When that went well, we developed the students into full-time digital apprentices (using our levy money), and we introduced the expectation that every subject would have at least one hour of blended learning a week. Eventually, the digital apprentices became digital leaders.

This all made a huge difference. My mission and mantra at BCoT is to put technology at the heart of the college. We have an online dashboard that enables teachers to monitor student progress, the VLE, and these new ways of working. Recently, we’ve been getting really excited about AI, VR, AR and gamification. We’re winning awards, and we recently ran a conference with Apple, Century Tech and other leaders in technology, showcasing and sharing. We’re finding smarter ways of doing things. When all the little things come together, they’re better than the sum of their individual parts.

As we develop the tech-enhanced future of FE, the key questions must be: what’s going to have impact, how will it support learners, and is it worth the disruption?

Getting bang for your buck

In FE, our core mission is to get people into work with the skills they need to contribute to UK plc. Technology is an enabler. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it can make processes better and help colleges get more bang for their buck. We’re seeing real change for the FE sector. There’s more interest from government, and we’re told there’s more money coming.

But right now, the challenge for a lot of colleges is they don’t have the cash to invest in tech. I’m always looking for ways to deliver a great learning experience at good value. We used our apprenticeship levy for the digital leaders, we saved on the teaching budget with the blended learning hour. The aim was to improve student experience with cost-neutral changes. We also looked at mitigating risk – so we worked with Jisc on a simulated anti-phishing attack at BCoT. Six months after we’d done that training, we were attacked for real – but only two people fell for it. That’s compared with a third of the entire staff the first time around.

Working together for a better future

The Technology Special Interest Group (SIG) is a forum to discuss how technology can have impact, enabling FE to move forward with a technology-enhanced vision for "Education 4.0". That might mean sharing specific products as well as discussing strategic ideas. How about having one shared, unified, sector-wide, sector-specific management information system, for example? What about if we all got together for product purchasing? The Technology SIG can be a conduit to advise the Association of Colleges (AoC), partners and stakeholders about the needs of FE. We can learn from each other, learn from industry – and just make the world a better place.

Therapy for techies

Most college principals don’t want to be leading edge. We want to look around and learn from what we see. One of the important functions of the Technology SIG is that pooling of ideas. For some, it’s therapy. If you’re interested in something but not an expert, it’s good to be completely immersed. It makes you think differently. We can all get pulled into the shape of our job, mould ourselves around the technology we have. We need a space to get all the big ideas out and see what’s new and innovative – then take it back and anchor it down. That’s what the FE sector needs: some big-thinking, blow-away-the-cobwebs therapy.

Anthony Bravo is principal of Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) and chair of the AoC Technology SIG

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