Gillian Macdonald visits Dundee College - a further education college making rapid progress with online learning with students, locals at neighbourhood centres, and businesses in the area
There's something about Dundee at the moment. The east coast city once renowned for its jute, jam and journalism is busy reinventing itself. In addition to new contemporary arts, dance and science centres, the city is realising its potential as a centre for the knowledge economy.
"Creative and cultural industries in the area have brought together strong developments in arts, design and dance, and these will be matched in future with technology," says Iain Ovens, principal of Dundee College which, he hopes, will be in the vanguard.
For the last four years the college has invested heavily in information and communications technology (ICT). Now it is beginning to benefit from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council's pound;29 million development funding for ICT across the FE sector, as well as from European and city council funding.
While facilities in most FE colleges are good and there is widespread access to media suites through institutions like the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Glasgow Telecolleges Network, Dundee has the advantage of its own ICT suite for training staff and students and a New Media Unit which creates software and online learning resources.
"We are at the forefront in terms of using ICT to deliver the curriculum, and we're well up on developments in online learning," says Ovens.
All students enrolling at the college can join a free one-week training course to familiarise them with online learning - 300-400 booked in over the summer. Twenty members of staff are currently having their skills brought up to speed so they can provide online learning across all fields; five or six lecturers have already completed their training and are now qualified to work as online tutors.
The strategy, says curriculum and resources development manager David Scott, is "to move us more into online learning materials", and in that aim he is helped by Scott Gibson and his team at the New Media Unit, who are developing creative online learning packages.
The college's website at www.dundeecoll.ac.uk has its own Online Learning Zone which hosts a number of courses for downloading, from the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) for a comprehensive introduction to computing and IT to a free course on HIV and Hepatitis B.
An area called Online References links students to a long list of reference materials, tutorials, archives and databases across the curriculum - art, business management, catering,computing, English, health, history, maths, science. Online Subscriptions gives them access to over 400 academic journals, articles from 100 European business journals and health and medical information.
"What we've done is create a good education portal into what we think are good sites, instead of picking up rubbish," says David Scott. He envisages around 50 per cent of the college's future business being online, and hopes that teaching staff will put their lectures on an intranet for students who have missed classes and update them weekly.
Dundee College also works closely with the council's 24 neighbourhood resource centres, and is piloting an online link with one in Douglas to support students doing the ECDL course this session. The student can drop in at the centre, get mentor support from staff there, use the online course and email work back to the college tutor who visits the centre for an hour a week.
The college is pioneering online work with local business under the European Adapt programme for retraining workers in small enterprises. With half a dozen lecturers qualified as online tutors, it is ready to deliver courses to local industry and will provide a regional model of what Learndirect Scotland (formerly the Scottish University for Industry) might be like in Tayside.
Iain Hails and his Adapt team at the college surveyed 1,000 companies across four sectors in the Tayside region to establish where the main skills gaps lay. The majority required IT and management skills. Dundee is now in a position to deliver the European Computer Driving Licence and management skills online, he says.
"A key feature of our courses," he points out, "is that a mentor is appointed in each small company, who serves not as a subject expert but as a facilitator. Another mentor works at the college end, supporting the company mentor and college tutors."
About 20 companies are taking part, with 200 learners, from engineers to heating insulation distributors to staff in a residential home.
High-speed links are required to deliver the courses, so the college gets BT to install BT Highway for the company and connects its own computer to a BT-hosted website. The college supplies PCs for the duration of the project and learning materials for the companies to pilot. The two-year project ends in December when the EU money stops. The college is looking at ways to continue the work.
FUSION2000:Bill Lucas, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning UK, will talk about the "Learning Citizen" on September 28 at 9am; Linda Harasim will talk about the Telelearning Network of Centres of Excellence, USA at 2.30pm.