Lessons in the fast lane
The unit, the main professional support body for the sector, has just undergone its own makeover to emphasise its twin purposes, setting up a centre for learning effectiveness and a centre for college development.
John McCann, the SFEU's depute chief executive, believes the time is now right and that "colleges are waiting for a renewed emphasis on the learning process".
Mr McCann said: "There has been a lot of focus in the past decade on organisational issues and structures, and rightly so. I'm not saying this has meant the learning processes have been neglected - but you do wonder."
A research report just issued by the unit, based on an analysis by the FE professional development network, identified the promotion of new approaches to learning and teaching as a key staff development priority in colleges over the next five years.
A recent paper by FE practitioners recognised the challenge: "Lecturing in further education, while clearly part of the education profession, currently survives in the outer suburbs of respectability."
The report suggests this is because "further education does not display the recognised features of a profession; for example, lecturers can practise with subject qualifications only, the lack of any obligatory teaching qualification and the absence of any required CPD".
Mr McCann, a former HMI and depute principal at Glenrothes College, has a new mantra to emphasise what he suggests is the unique approach of the colleges -"respectful learning". The "respect", he says, is for the individual circumstances of the learner, for value and purpose in learning, for the whole person and for the capacity of the individual to learn.
Lest the casual listener misunderstands, Mr McCann emphasises: "We are not suggesting others are disrespectful of learning." Indeed, he acknowledges that primary schools may claim that they have a lot to offer other sectors in learning from their approaches "and they would be right". Jennie Baillie, head of the SFEU's learning effectiveness centre, is a former primary teacher.
But, Mr McCann adds, respect for learning in the college sector goes beyond the norm. "Colleges do go out into local communities and they do go into the workplace in a way that other sectors will find difficult."
His view is that colleges are distinctive, FE students are different and the way they learn must be different as well. The learning process in colleges, Mr McCann says, "will not be best understood through examination of educational provision delivered largely to more homogeneous populations elsewhere".
He believes the concept of "respectful learning" is an attempt to capture that uniqueness and contends: "It presents a challenge to us all how respectful are we?"
The SFEU is now likely to adapt and apply the latest techniques in learning such as study skills, mind-mapping and critical thinking approaches to colleges. But it will change the way it plans to work with colleges in the future, Mr McCann says, acting more as mentor and consultant. "In the past, we might have said, 'let's run 200 workshops'."
The unit now has a learning process team headed by Morag Kerr as the lead specialist. It has also seconded "e-mentors", specialists who will advise colleges on making online learning a reality in specific subject areas - "on the basis that engineers are more likely to listen to other engineers", as Mr McCann put it.
This emphasis on making ICT an integral part of teaching, as opposed to an external ingredient, follows significant investment in new technologies by the FE funding council - pound;29 million over the three years to 2002.
This has led to some dramatic breakthroughs: student access to computers has increased from a ratio of 11:1 to 5:1 and staff skills have improved.
But the SFEU's staff development paper notes that a survey last year indicated that "although there is an increase in the number of staff using information technology, there is still a need to further develop ICT skills in learning and teaching activities".
Mr McCann believes that close mentoring work with colleges is the way forward. "Seminars are fine and they give people a sense of what is possible. But there is then the question of how that is applied in the circumstances of a particular college. That is what we want to support more than we have been doing."
The unit's other emphasis will be on college development, working closely with managements and with assistant and depute principals in particular. Mr McCann's general view is that, while it is always possible to find concerns at the way a college is run, the sector-wide perspective is positive and reassuring - "and you only need to read the HMI reports on the colleges to see that".
Although the Association of Scottish Colleges will continue to be the main source of developments for boards of management while the SFEU concentrates on staff, the unit does aim to ensure college boards are up to speed with learning processes, and will supply materials.
They too, it seems, need to move on from a preoccupation with organisation and structures.