Chris Johnston talks to the leader of Learndirect, the online organisation with designs on all our educational futures
Vocational education runs in Helen Milner's family. Her father ended his FE career as principal of Crawley College, while her mother was a liberal studies lecturer at Guildford College before opening a village shop.
She is carrying on the tradition by playing a key role in the University for Industry, one of Britain's most ambitious education projects. The UFI was set up to make the Government's vision of an online learning society a reality.
Few could have a more intimate knowledge of the venture than Milner who is project manager at the UFI pilot project based at Sunderland University.
Milne's experience was strengthened by her role as project manager of Learning North East, which modelled the learning centres, call centres and electronic learner tracking and courses database system used by UFI.
The director of distributed learning since April last year, replacing Professor Bob Fryer, Milner is responsible for the operations of the Learndirect network - the UFI's operational arm - and the "hubs" that run the 900 learning centres delivering courses. Despite the enormity of the task, Milner is unfazed: "It's very exciting to be part of the team trying to bring about educational change across the country."
She also points out that rather than starting from scratch, UFI is building a framework in which existing institutions are being brought together to create a new type of provision.
Since December, Learndirect started charging applicants for its courses and Milner says the situation looks positive: around 50,000 learners have signed up for 120,000 courses.
While many are "bite-sized" - as little as 20 minutes long - the IT courses of between 15 and 30 hours are among the most popular. In just three days last week there were 2,500 registrations, helped in part by a new advertising campaign.
However, at least two hubs reported a collapse in enrolments after charging began. One has dropped fees until Easter for its ICT courses in a bid to drie up numbers. Inconsistencies could be another problem, as UFI has told hubs to set their own prices for courses.
Learndirect's website is attracting thousands of users, many of whom search its database of courses as well as accessing learning materials.
Milner says features such as the careers diagnostic package attract not only individuals wanting help with skills development but companies seeking to guide employees.
UFI's vision of a "clicks-and-mortar" approach appears to be paying off. Hubs are finding that some students want to go into a centre for learning support, to get away from the workplace or to take advantage of fast Internet access; others prefer to do all their learning online from home or work.
However, Milner says many learners prefer a combined approach. To help online-only learners, five hubs have set up "virtual learning centres" and another 28 hope to follow suit.
There is, of course, nothing to stop learners in Manchester signing up with a hub based in Norwich, for example - a aspect which could end up affecting UFI funding methods.
Complementary hubs servicing particular industries are also starting to take off, particularly in the automotive and farming sectors, Milner adds. The Army and RAF both have one, while Learndirect is being trialled in six prisons.
The UFI welcomes the new Learning and Skills Council, says chief executive Dr Anne Wright. She says the two organisations have similar visions and will work together to develop lifelong and online learning.
Milner stresses that the LSC poses no threat to FE colleges, which play a vital role in supporting hubs and are not merely a conduit for Further Education Funding Council money.
UFI will continue to focus on the Government's priorities of improving basic skills, supporting small business and attracting hard-to-reach learners.
"We're all learning how best we can provide and develop this service so that it makes a major contribution. I'm confident Learndirect has a bright future," Dr Wright said.
www.learndirect.co.uk Tel: 0800 100 900 UFI: www.ufiltd.co.uk