Information technology is helping colleges to collaborate better, write Sally McKeown and Chris Johnston.
In some ways further education has been the poor relation ofuniversities, but that situation is fast changing. There will be 700,000 extra students in thesector by 2000, meaning far more people will attend a college than enter higher education.
This growth is partly why the Government is giving the under-funded sector more money. Funding is being allocated to improve information technology provision in colleges - pound;12 million for 1999-2000, pound;20 million for 2000-2001 and pound;42 million for 2001-2002.
The injection will allow the creation of a national learning network, a phrase used in the report that proposed the fledgling University for Industry in 1996. The network is expected to develop links with the National Grid for Learning.
John Brennan, the Association of Colleges' director of FE development, says being able to access such a network would be very beneficial to colleges and such a step is long overdue.
The idea was one proposed in the 1996 report of the Further Education Funding Council's learning and technology committee, but no action has been taken on the issue until now. Brennan says the lack of a coherent national strategy for ICT in FE colleges has prevented the joining up of the many colleges that have invested in equipment and even formed local networks with other colleges.
The lack of policy has also hindered experimentation with different ways of delivering courses and the development of learning materials. Brennan says activity has been piecemeal and not of benefit to the whole sector.
He believes the new funding will be enough to get the network established and help colleges start to make better use of IT in course delivery.
Another recommendation of the FEFC committee got a better reception. Its finding that staff development in information technology was essential led to the founding of QUILT - Quality in Information and Learning Technology. The programme aims to make FE college staff and governors more familiar with technology and provides a range of activities from awareness raising to skills training, as well as short courses, publications and multimedia information.
So far 350 colleges and 2,000 senior managers have become involved with QUILT and in just one year there have been more than 60 events involving 1,300 staff. Not restricting participation to certain groups of staff has contributed to its success.
The Further Education Development Agency initiative, which has been supported by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, exemplifies the new spirit of co-operation in a sector that has been fiercely competitive for many years. It has also fostered closer links between local colleges.
FEDA's Kevin Donovan says: "QUILT projects have been a model of collaboration. We have discovered that small-scale, college-based consortia produce results. There are 62 English and Welsh projects on a huge range of topics, which illustrates real staff development based on the real needs of staff and students."
Bobby Fortnam, head of learning resources at Exeter College, sees QUILT as one of the best value-for-money staff development projects. "The consensus across the colleges is that while all would have tried to make good use of the Internet, this project has helped us to achieve that aim in a quick and structured way," he says.
Choose Life is a project that has seen the Royal Forest of Dean College, the National Star Centre and Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education working together to train staff, not only to use information technology but to design creative and innovative electronic learning materials for disaffected young people and online tutoring.
But why did colleges like these get together on such an ambitious project? Judy Stradling, curriculum director at Gloscat, the FE college in Cheltenham and Gloucester, says: "There is a whole group of young people not yet participating in further education. We know most young people have an affinity and enthusiasm for technology as seen in the popularity of computer games. This project brought together lots of expertise from different parts of the community and made staff aware of the skills needed to convert academic ideas into a design brief. We have all learnt that the creative design of electronic learning materials is just as important as technical expertise."
Another spin-off from the influential FEFC report has been the Further Education Resources for Learning (FERL) website. It contains case studies and software for the very varied FE curricula.
The FERL website aims to help the FE sector get the best out of IT. There is also a research programme - the latest projects focus on the cost-effectiveness of information and learning technology. Nine colleges are looking at how technology is used in FE, on internal networks and the Internet.
Until now, colleges may not have reaped all the possible benefits that information technology can offer, but that is likely to change fast.
Sally McKeown is education officer for special needs and inclusion at BECTA QUILT (Quality in Information and Learning) AIMS TO: * support change by individuals and by institutions; reach 50,000 staff and governors in FE; provide a range of activities from awareness raising to skills training help staff in their day-to-day work.
* use the latest technology, including the Internet, CD-Rom, multimedia and video-conferencing and virtual reality.
* BETT CONNECTIONS BECTA stand D7201203 416994 www.becta.org.uk
FEDA stand P190171 840 5400 www.feda.ac.uk