Technology's high toll

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
The relentless cost of computer equipment - and updating it - is proving a real financial millstone, writes Julian Gravatt

In the world of further education, nothing is certain - except maybe three things: death, taxes and the need to replace your computer every couple of years. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is changing - quickly and unpredictably. And it is changing learning. It will also bring problems for the national Learning and Skills Council as it plans its provision.

The first problem is geographical. Technology is no respecter of boundaries, while the skills councils are divided into 47 areas. Outside London, they bear no small similarity to the 1972 local government map. Planning for conventional training will be hard enough; for online delivery, it will be quite another matter.

Will the councils only count those who are present or will providers be able to meet targets online? The Further Education Funding Council had a narrower funding remit but took years to deal with distance learning schemes that exploited gaps in the tariff. Its answer came in 19992000: local priorities for providers and a temporary tariff linking funding to tutors' hours. Time will tell whether this i works.

Technology's fluidity and the growth of online learning materials puts approaches based on tutor hours under pressure. As Chris Hughes pointed out in September's College Manager, technology gives individuals much greater control.

Faced with all this, the local learning and skills councils may be tempted to leave online learning to the University for Industry. By the end of next year, the UFIwill have spent more than pound;100m of public money on developing online learning - on marketing, learning materials and business processes. It will have 1,000 delivery centres by spring 2001, and it aims to have one million learners by 2003. Of these, 80 per cent will learn online.

It is tempting to concentrate on the things that don't yet work - the contract problems, for example. But the UFI is an experiment that may signal the future. If so, that future comprises multiple mini-courses that can be completed in a morning or afternoon: learning episodes that are not so much byte-size as nibbles. Students select dishes from this eat-as-much-as-you-like online buffet, while providers get paid per plate - like a publicly-funded sushi bar.

Trackin the consumption of one million learners is not easy, which is why the UFI is pioneering its managed learning environment. This is the latest holy grail in education - the information technology system that counts every last thing. But if it doesn't work, someone else will have to measure achievement.

The emphasis on short courses aims to spread awareness of technology across the population. The Prime Minister has backed a policy to deal with the digital divide and get everyone online by 2005:UK Online will spend pound;252m in the next two years on 600 centres.

The centres will offer technological awareness through short courses and open access. Many will be UFI centres, many managed by colleges. As the priority has been to place them in deprived parts of the country, there is an acceptance that fees need not be charged. Public money will be available via the Lottery's New Opportunities Fund and the Employment Service's ICT taster programme, but in the longer term the centres are expected to be self-supporting, presumably with a healthy dollop of skills council funding.

The Government's direct capital funding for ICT expenditure is a change from the Conservatives' approach: Labour ideology supports public-sector capital investment. One sign in further education has been the FEFC's pound;75m for Information and Learning Technology - as it is called in the sector - between 1999 and 2002. Welcome as this is, it is nowhere near enough to pay for the relentless costs of ICT. To deliver the target of one PC for every five full-time equivalent students and to keep the PCs up to date requires about 100,000 new PCs each year - at a total cost, including peripherals and networking, of about pound;100m a year. And reducing the ratio from 1:5 will increase that cost.

ICT expenditure is an integral part of any college's running costs, but is this equipment being put to best use? There is a risk that post-16 education could trivialise itself by prioritising access over content, familiarisation over learning. There is also an irony in the need to spend large sums of public money on equipment and training to help millions of individuals learn complex computer systems. Either way, the big computer companies will benefit: public sector business and better trained customers. Nice work if you can get it!

Julian Gravatt is director of finance at City Lit, London WC2

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