Why FE is in danger of being a `museum piece'

27th June 2014 at 01:00
Embrace digital change or get stuck in the past, technologist warns

The further education sector must change its attitude to technology or risk becoming a "museum piece", according to a leading technologist.

Bob Harrison, a key member of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag), told TES that colleges should sell off "half-empty" buildings and invest in digital technology if they want to stay relevant for their students.

Mr Harrison spoke out after the government's response to Feltag's recommendations on how technology should be used to transform learning. The group said it was vital for the sector to keep abreast of rapidly accelerating change, and called for more online and remote learning as well as significant investment to improve the knowledge and skills of the workforce.

The government responded positively, pledging that all publicly funded FE courses would have an online element in future, and encouraging the Education and Training Foundation and digital charity Jisc to spend more of their resources on training the workforce to make better use of technology.

But Mr Harrison, education adviser to Toshiba, told TES that Feltag's suggestions were less about technology than changing attitudes. "Young people use technology in every other aspect of their life but are not allowed to use it in learning," he said. "If that mindset prevails in FE, what we will end up with is a museum piece, a historical model of how learning used to be."

Mr Harrison urged colleges to halt their large capital projects and refocus their spending. "Technology is a better investment for colleges than buildings," he said. "We need learning spaces but do we need these big palaces that are empty for half the year?

"Students of the future aren't going to want to travel 15 miles to listen to someone talk through a presentation when they can learn remotely via video link and download the presentation.

"Don't build any more buildings, sell off the ones that are half-empty and make sure every student on your programmes has a device and access to decent wi-fi."

Mr Harrison's comments echo the findings of a recent report by the Gazelle Colleges Group and technology firms Microsoft and Intel. Further Education Reimagined, published last month, calls for a widespread debate in FE about the potential of technology to create new opportunities for students.

It says colleges have failed to keep pace with the way young people consume information, and recommends they change the way they teach to reap the full benefits of technology.

However, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Learning, FE teachers may not be too far behind the curve. Of 1,000 teachers surveyed by the IfL last year, 86 per cent said digital technologies were an important part of their practice. Examples given included virtual learning environments, social media, online initial assessment tools and mobile devices.

IfL policy officer Shane Chowen, who has been involved with Feltag, agreed with the government that governors and senior leaders should set aside time for training and to embed technology into teaching and learning. "While online delivery is not possible with certain programmes or learners, the post-16 sector must be ready for a generation of learners whose expectations will reflect their prior use of technology," he added.

However, education technologist Crispin Weston said Feltag's position was "weakly argued" and warned that the government was in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past. "There's a massive opportunity for education technology, but at the moment the system is too bureaucratic and uncompetitive," he said. "The government should allow the creation of a competitive market-led system that will drive the technology industry to create a set of products useful for schools and colleges."

Matt Dean, technology policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said it was doing colleges a "disservice" to suggest they weren't already thinking about investment in learning technology. "That's not to say more help, information and guidance is not required, because it is," he added. "The argument to move away from bricks and mortar to a virtual learning environment isn't new. We agree with the government that a blend of online and face-to-face learning is most effective."

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