The future will be joined up

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Colleges will have to collaborate to produce online learning materials, according to one industry insider, reports Chris Johnston

THE HIGH cost of producing quality online learning materials will force a rash of college mergers, takeovers and collaborative agreements within a decade, according to a scenario for the further education sector presented to a conference last week.

Chris Yapp, fellow in lifelong learning for computer services company ICL, told the first Further Education Resources for Learning (FERL) national conference in Stratford-upon-Avon that technology will play an increasingly important role in delivering learning, hence the need for online materials.

He said the expense of creating them will lead to colleges in the same region collaborating and mean that as few as 50 principals will end up controlling between five and 10 colleges, with about 250 in total. Joint production of learning materials is already happening in Humberside.

Yapp also believes a number of colleges will focus on specific subject areas. There could be 10 "specialist" colleges providing courses in agriculture or the arts, for example, and 10 that concentrate only on distance-learning courses (perhaps because the cost of maintaining buildings becomes too high).

Those with strengths in creating online learning materials could find it more financially lucrative to produce these than actually run courses, leading to the existence of about 10 "content factories".

Another factor in the expected drive for mergers and collaboration will be the need to compete with private providers that can offer training more cheaply than colleges, Mr Yapp said.

To illustrate the need for economies of scale, he says the FE sector turns over roughly the same amount as ICL - about pound;3.5 billion - each year.

Mr Yapp told delegates that FE is entering a period of turbulence and unpredictability, and had to have a vision and move away from the "corner-shop models" to survive. He added that the balance would favour co-operation over competition between colleges and that regionalisation would be vital for the sector.

Information and communications technology would help to break down barriers to education as well as blur boundaries between schools, colleges, universities and libraries by making curricula more personal.

Despite the dramatic changes he predicts, Mr Yapp described it as a renaissance rather than a revolution, where people take precedence over the technology and the economy becomes knowledge-led. Last week, ICL announced that opportunities being created by Internet growth will lead to 1,000 new jobs in Britain as part of an extra 4,400 positions worldwide.

Mr Yapp's vision of the impact information and communications technology (ICT) will have on the way education is delivered is reinforced by new research conducted for the Economic and Social Research Council and the Foresight Programme.

Professor Richard Scase, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Kent at Canterbury, said that ICT and particularly the Internet, "offer opportunities for the learning process to be democratised and distributed to all sectors of society".

By 2010, he said the emphasis on lifelong learning will increase and technology will allow education to become more user-driven. However, Professor Scase warned that new technologies will split society into the "information rich" and the "information poor" and that inequalities in educational attainment will be a major barrier to Britain becoming a competitive information economy.

In his view, "the importance of ICTs in 2010 will depend on a range of demographic and social factors rather than entirely upon the capabilities of technologies themselves". Scase said political decision-making in the next few years will influence whether their potential encourages more social cohesion or merely entrenches existing inequalities.

Likewise, he believes technology has the ability to change work and employment patterns, but the cultures and practices of organisations will play a major role in determining to what degree this actually happens.

"Britain towards 2010: the changing business environment" by Professor Richard Scase can be read on the ESRC's website at: www.esrc.ac.uk2010docsbritain.html FERL: http:ferl.becta.org.uk Foresight Programme: www.foresight.gov.uk

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