Iain Thorburn visits Anniesland College, where substantial investment in hardware permits IT to be used as a learning too.
Flexible learning is replacing other forms of part-time further education, " says Hugh Walker, principal of Anniesland College, Glasgow. "And we have to invest in technology to prevent bottlenecks in the system that would restrict recruitment."
In terms of student numbers, Anniesland is one of the biggest FE colleges in Scotland, but by the gauge that counts for grant purposes - full-time equivalent students - it is middling to small. As one of Glasgow's designated community colleges, it majors in part-time education. And the investment of which the principal is talking is in the hardware of information technology.
According to its suppliers, the Glasgow University-based SCOTSYS, Anniesland is among the best-equipped of all its customers in the West of Scotland. The aim is not so much to teach IT as to use it as a learning tool. At present the college offers IT at National Certificate level and intends to build on this base.
But, says Hugh Paton, flexible learning co-ordinator, Anniesland's major role is to provide access to information - and technology is going to provide that access. Specifically, the college has invested in CD-Rom and multimedia (the merger of computers, video and telecommunications). "We're not being pulled along: we're pushing ahead," he says.
"In most colleges," says Jim Brady, head of communications, languages and media, "multimedia is an offshoot of computing. Here we aim to use it creatively. We're not aiming to produce boffins or attract anoraks.
"It is much more important to concentrate on basic entry level, to provide students with a communications tool."
Hugh Paton says: "The technology element is necessary, but not predominant. " So far, it is perhaps in maths that multimedia has made its most immediate impact. The Counting House is one of the college's four flexible learning units or FLUs. It uses CD-Rom, video and computer-based training to foster numeracy skills to first-year university levels.
A report by Her Majesty's Inspectors rated the unit "outstanding". But the vote of confidence that really counts comes from the university students who use it regularly: one has said he would never have finished his course without it.
The other FLUs deal with computing, communication, and business and management. This last, supported by EU funds, is housed in the college's Balshagray annexe.
These units, together with the library, says Hugh Paton, show multimedia in action. And the heart of the operation is the multimedia suite, which has 16 Apple Macs, all with CD-Rom, together with a Power Mac. "CD-Rom," he says, "is the way we should be progressing, multimedia is the delivery method, and networking, dare I say it, is the highway to almost unlimited information. "
The college is now developing its own resource materials, and here its close links with both the Scottish Council for Educational Technology and the Scottish Further Education Unit should prove fruitful.
SCET has a trading partnership with Sunburst, distributors of educational software in North America, and has chosen Anniesland for a pilot project in recording and updating student assessments using the Newton pocket computer.
"Most of the materials for Apple Mac come from North America," says SCET's head of software development, Phil Strange, "so the first thing we have to do is lose the American accent. In this case we are dealing with the recording of what they call 'observables' and we call 'learning outcomes', so if it translates, it should prove very useful in both schools and further education. "
In essence, the system enables the teacher to record the student's achievements on notebook computer and transfer the information on to the "learner profile" in the Mac. The saving in time and paper ought to be considerable, given that it should be possible to keep the profile constantly updated for a whole year group over a range of modules. Some 15 Anniesland staff are involved in the pilot. Hugh Paton believes it could improve tracking flexible learning students' progress and recording of workplace learning.
Anniesland staff have greeted the project enthusiastically. But their IT sights are now set firmly on its use as a learning tool for students rather than its applications in staff development and administration.
"Who's going to produce CD-Roms aimed at students?" asks Jim Brady. The answer would appear to be the Scottish colleges themselves, together with national bodies like SCET and the Scottish Further Education Unit.
The disparity of systems and hardware in UK institutions makes commercial production unlikely, and there is a limit to what can be achieved by adapting US products.
Anniesland is one of 30 members of the Colleges' Open Learning Exchange Group, which is committed to the development and exchange of resources. That group will be looking to technology for the distribution of resources, its predecessor body having proved that manual systems do not work.
FE, says Hugh Paton, lags behind higher education in networking, but has much more experience in flexible learning, hence the college's participation in the Flexible Learning in Higher Education Network. "We have to look at the articulation between further and higher education," he says.
But above all, colleges have to look to technology to overcome the constraints imposed by buildings. Hugh Paton says: "We don't have the physical space to accommodate everyone who wants to come to the college. Technology allows us to go to them."