We recently took delivery of our 600th personal computer, or it might have been 700th: the figures don't mean very much. What is significant is that we order information technology equipment about as regularly as the refectory buys bread rolls.
So we should, of course, given the central role which computers play in the new ways of learning. Now that they can do so much so fast, are reassuringly easy to use, and cost relatively little, it would be astonishing, or culpable, if we didn't place the developing use of information technology at the heart of the strategic plans for the college. The past three years' allocation of capital equipment money has gone on little else, and it's likely that will be the way for some time to come. Until, in fact, the fundamental cultural change which this investment both makes possible and is intended to bring about is complete.
We have had false alarms, or perhaps I mean dawns, before. Language laboratories, overhead projectors, educational broadcasting - all have been trumpeted as the end of teaching as we know it. They would each change education radically and forever. Nothing much has happened. By and large the role of teacher as source of information, controller of pace and style, and as the determiner of sequence has been unaffected. Students have continued in a state of dependence, and, to that extent, we still have a teacher-centred system.
If that does not now change we must be wilfully suppressing the opportunities opened up by the introduction of new technology. It is because those opportunities are so attractive that missing them would be so bad for the colleges and our students.
Most colleges will have something like an open learning centre, a drop-in facility, a computer-based learning system available for non-timetabled use. Characteristically, students will come when they want, select the program they need, stay as long as they require and, generally, be responsible for their own progress. A pretty fair description of student-centred learning if ever there was one.
Where, as now, there are enough computers to go round, and the students are skilled enough to use them - as they emphatically are - the activity is not marginal but one which really does shift the balance between teaching and learning, one which has an impact upon the culture of the college. For years now, colleges have been pushing to modernise the curriculum, to cut it up into smaller bits, so as to make it possible for students to assemble their own combination to suit their own needs, and to make it possible to start a course whenever a new module starts.
If you put your modular curriculum on your computer network, you dramatically accelerate the whole process because the student no longer has to wait for new-module time to come round, but can start any time. The student is in charge and many of the traditional givens in college organisations no longer apply. Because the change is student-led, customer-driven, the revolution is enormously powerful and, to my mind, unstoppable.
Teachers feel the pressure first. Reductions in course hours, because students get more and more of what they need from the computer network, are hard enough to bear. Nobody likes to think they are dispensable. But it is the loss of control, the need to yield so much to students' own sense of responsibility and strength of purpose, which make the real difference.
This is not the end of teachers. Their core role of supporting, counselling and encouraging individuals, of ensuring that learning occurs remains as central as ever. That part of their mystique which derives from superior knowledge will go, but their capacity to stimulate students' imagination and creativity and to ensure their access to knowledge and technique will stay.
There are other compensations too. Access to information which was previously jealously guarded by senior managers becomes much easier once it's on the network. Management by the withholding of information will no longer be possible; transparency will replace secrecy - and is already doing so.
Key data on enrolments, class lists, rooming use, location of equipment, staff timetables, even budgets, used to be the implements of management power. Now all these cats are out of their bags, to be summoned by any half-competent keyboard operator.
As a consequence we are seeing the introduction of flatter structures and the establishment of powerful, semi-autonomous teams. They have the information, they are closest to the learning experience, they can exercise focused professional judgment.
Quite right, too. Enhanced responsibility does lead to better appreciation of professional expertise. So, as power ebbs from the teacher to the taught, so it flows from the manager to the managed. The culture of the college can become one of trust, of partnership, of mutual respect, not one of command and obey.
All this happens because investment in information technology, with its application to the whole curriculum and to all administrative systems, is different in kind from investment in other sorts of capital equipment. You could buy a new tenoning?? machine every year for a decade, and only the construction team would notice, you could fill the place with walk-in freezers and have no impact upon anybody except the caterers. Students still need access to this sort of specialist equipment, but it can perhaps most sensibly be a feature of their work experience placement. You get more value per pound from IT than from anything else.
It all needs support, of course, from the staff development budget, not just to help staff understand what the new gear will do, but to help them - all of them, not just teachers - see the place of new technology in the managing, monitoring and administration of the systems which make up a whole college, not one which is divided into those who teach and those who do other things. That bonding process, that reaffirmation of common interests is potentially the biggest gain from the new college culture.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College