Oh no, I've got that fin de siecle feeling again

7th January 2000 at 00:00
I SUPPOSE it was inevitable that as we moved from 1999 into 2000 we would be increasingly assailed by apocalyptic visions and dire predictions about the end of the world and the last judgment. Apparently 1,000 years ago at the end of the first millennium the same kinds of things were happening.

At the end of the last century, the phrase fin de siecle was being used to characterise the period and various aspects of it such as literature. Echoes here, surely, of our use of the word millennium and its pervasive influence. The phrase fin de siecle malaise passed into the language, too, as a description of a general sense of fatigue, self-doubt, disenchantment and weakness as the 19th century ended.

If many staff in the further education can recognise the sector and perhaps education generally in that description then I am sure that parallels can be drawn between pre-millennial angst and some of the current visions about the end of the FE world as we know it. This particular apocalyptic vision relates to the free-for-all in the learning arena brought about by new developments in ICT and especially in online learning.

Confusion and uncertainty are the real problem, however, and except for those at the leading edge of this technological change (and I have my doubts about many of the so-called experts) many staff are confused and concerned for their futures. But the most significant questions arise over who exactly the new learners will be, how they will be funded, how the various systems will be connected, what courses will be delivered using the new technology, how staff will be trained to utilise and interact with ICT.

How will online assessment be effected? And inevitably, who will provide the extra funding and how will it all be managed? Finally, will it still be lecturers who will do it?

Inevitably the answers cannot be provided by any one agency, and that is a significant contributor to the problem.

A useful attempt at making sense of all this can be seen in the recent development of a strategic framework by the Association of Scottish Colleges. Certain factos were deemed essential in implementing the vision for ICT. These included partnership, with FE colleges working together and with other agencies, and infrastructure investment to provide a predictable and reliable service to students, and the extra money to meet targets on ratios of computers to both students and staff.

Staff would have to be equipped with the skills to develop ICT. Here the ability to access up-to-date equipment is critical. And there must be high-quality materials for learning and assessment to contribute to lifelong learning. The ability to assess student progress online is seen as an essential component.

Access and progression - the enhanced support for students in achieving their full potential and assistance in making that progression and beyond - are also emphasised.

Finally the ASC framework welcomed the extra funding from the Government for ICT. However, it would still be essential for FE to draw on funds from a wide variety of sources, in partnership with other agencies. Funding should be predictable and sustainable over the long term.

As a strategy all this is useful, but what about implementation? Perhaps we are too impatient and once the Scottish University for Industry gets going and the recent ICT survey by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council has been analysed the way ahead will become clearer. Maybe, but the funding council process is unlikely to be finished before May and in the meantime other learning agencies will not be sitting about waiting for us.

Perhaps,just as the new millennium does not really start until January 1, 2001, the reality of this paradigm shift will not affect us until later. I don't believe that, so I suggest that the key agencies get moving now, and the funds start to flow.

Perhaps the most significant warning comes from a paraphrase of a message from Intel's Andy Grove - in five years time all colleges will be Internet colleges or they won't be colleges at all.

Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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