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The sector needs cash and confidence for a tech revolution

With the drive to increase efficiency and productivity, the potential of digital learning to improve education standards has never been greater

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Ever since grainy films displayed on overhead projectors were first used to train troops during the Second World War, ed tech has become an increasingly important part of the education world.

Anyone who was lucky enough to be among the 45,000 punters who filled the cavernous ExCel centre in London for the Bett show last month will have been left in no doubt that it’s impossible to explore pedagogy without considering the technology at teachers’ fingertips. I was privileged to moderate several events at Bett’s first FE and skills theatre; a long-overdue acknowledgement of the sector’s importance by the country’s biggest ed tech event.

But if technology has become such a key part of education, then how can we still be getting it so badly wrong?

With the drive to increase efficiency and productivity that heralded the area reviews, the potential of digital learning to enhance education has never been greater. And yet providers are still grappling with a funding system that prioritises bricks and mortar over Periscope and Raspberry Pis, and a culture that deters teachers from giving access to technology to those who would benefit from it most.

In spite of the laudable work done by Feltag, we are left with a funding system that prevents cash-strapped providers from switching funding from one pot (capital) to plug the technological gap holding their learners back.

The pronouncement by Skills Funding Agency chief executive Peter Lauener that he could be willing to allow colleges to keep all the proceeds from selling off physical assets if they were “thinking creatively” about offering a curriculum structured and delivered around the needs of their learners is one that should be welcomed.

This will, however, inevitably trigger fears that the move could lead to college campuses being flogged off for a quick buck, while learners find themselves watching a lesson on YouTube and lecturers end up at the job centre. As one reader, reflecting on Richard Bradford’s thought-provoking piece on self-organised learning environments (Soles) in last week’s TES put it: “I have little confidence that this will turn out to be anything more than shoddy ‘apprenticeships’ taught online, monitored (if at all) by poorly trained, low-paid assessors, rather than taught by professionals.” (Subscribers can read Richard Bradford’s article here)

But a digital approach to pedagogy doesn’t have to mean teaching on the cheap. As Feltag’s Bob Harrison points out, a shift away from physical classrooms could free up more resources to invest in teaching and digital infrastructure. And, with a rationalisation of campuses leading to the strong possibility that many learners will face longer (and more expensive) journeys to college, a sophisticated and student-focused blended learning approach could help to prevent numbers from dwindling.

Of course, ed tech is no silver bullet. As Diana Tremayne argues, the assumption that technology is merely for the brightest learners leaves those disillusioned by school without access to the very approaches that could help to re-engage them. The danger is that the providers with the most to fear from the FE commissioner may prefer to stick to tried and tested methods rather than dabbling in uncharted waters. Similarly, as Bradford noted, a struggling college may be understandably anxious about experimenting with Soles when facing inspection, a mounting deficit and an uncertain future.

While many in the sector have complained that the area reviews amount to little more than a cost-cutting exercise, the government has consistently claimed that the end goal is the long-term sustainability of institutions. If this really is the case, it’s time for ministers to give providers the confidence and cash needed to embrace a digital future, and experiment with technology without fear of failure. Otherwise, the sector that emerges from this once-in-a-generation opportunity to redraw FE could end up looking more like the MiniDisc than the iPod.

This article is from the 5 February issue of TES. Pick up a copy of this week's TES magazine from any good newsagent. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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