The prevailing mindset about IT has to change

9th January 2009 at 00:00

Stephen Jones's description of the hazards of working in the computer suite (FE Focus, November 28) was a wonderfully witty piece. He paints a particularly bleak picture to great comic effect.

But it is somewhat surprising that circumstances where technology hinders rather than helps learning still exist. For most colleges, this is the computer suite as it might have been in the 1980s.

Clearly, we have to help prepare further education colleges for the fast- paced world of technology. The prevailing mindset in some areas is still too focused on the passing world of lectures and blackboards. This has to change if students and staff are to get the best out of digital technology.

Things are changing substantially through the Harnessing Technology programme, which uses digital technology for a more personalised approach to learning. Greater investment in buildings and information technology, with much better kit and learning resources available online through systems such as the Excellence Gateway, are showing benefits for learners, with improved knowledge retention and success rates.

There are many examples of excellent practice. North Devon College, for one, has IT champions in each department, drawn from teachers who use technology well in the classroom. Alton College uses technology to replace paper systems of tracking students. Through individual learning plans, students and teachers can monitor progress far more effectively.

When you look at the fantastic work that colleges such as City and Islington College in London are doing with social networking tools, such as Facebook, and the level of student and staff induction in the use of technology, you can see where its imaginative application is taking us. At its best, learning with technology in UK colleges stands comparison with the finest in the world.

That said, as Becta's research shows, there is a wide spread of effectiveness across colleges. Only one in four is able to deploy technology to full effectiveness, with excellent teaching and learning and very effective business support. Although there is no room for complacency, the rest are making progress towards this destination.

The need to add a new dimension to their practice is a challenge facing teachers, managers and support staff. We know from the Institute for Learning, the professional body for practitioners across FE, that there is hunger among its 173,000 members for more technology-related professional development. That is why we are so pleased to be working with colleges, agencies and membership organisations, such as the institute, the Association of Colleges and unions, to put more emphasis on staff development and ensure the sort of IT suite Mr Jones describes is consigned to history.

Of course things go wrong with computers, just as with students' pens, the coach taking them on a field trip and the dog that still eats coursework. That's life.

Technology works best where senior management takes the lead to convince staff that it will improve teaching and learning, where there is clear understanding of what the technology is expected to do, and where there is a realistic budget to support both initial investment and later development. The big issue is not just a matter of getting computers deployed and working; it concerns initial teacher training, staff and student induction and continuing professional development for all staff - not just lecturers in outmoded computer suites.

At Becta, we are always interested to hear from FE staff about the kind of national collective support they need. Email us.

Stephen Crowne, Chief executive, Becta, the government agency for technology in education.

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