Yeltsin's lesson for ICT

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Tony Jakimciw is principal of Dumfries and Galloway College

When asked by the press to describe, in one word, the state of the Russian economy, the late President Boris Yeltsin immediately replied: "Good".

Subsequently challenged to describe it in two words, he responded: "Not good".

This could just as easily be a status report on the use of ICT in teaching.

Much is good, with significant investment in equipment and infrastructure, and good progress in embedding it in Scotland's colleges. But, at institutional level, the picture is not so clear. There are undoubtedly major advances in using ICT to respond to changing patterns of learner demand, but will developments achieve the step change that is needed?

Learners are now more diverse in their ability, motivation, backgrounds and expectations. They increasingly demand what they expect of other "services": individualisation, flexibility, easier access - in short, more of what they want, not just what we find it convenient to provide.

Demographic changes mean that students are increasingly in employment and therefore not able to fit in with a delivery system that continues to consist of fixed delivery programmes with set entry and exit points in an academic year.

Undoubtedly, there is greater flexibility these days, but this often springs from the enthusiasm of particular individuals or departments rather than a holistic institutional response.

In the south of Scotland, there are additional drivers for change. Dumfries and Galloway College serves a declining and ageing population of 147,000 in an area of 2,500 square miles. The good news is that competition is not a problem - the nearest, general-purpose FE college is 75 miles away. The bad news is that, as far as providing adequacy and sufficiency goes, we are it.

Sustaining breadth of provision conflicts with achieving viable class sizes, and there are real barriers to access for students who often have return trips of 100 miles without such luxuries as buses.

But this is not another rural rant. It is why Dumfries and Galloway, and our partners Borders and Barony colleges, have jointly committed to a holistic institutional development programme to achieve a flexible blended curriculum.

Blend2learn is a three-year programme financed by the Scottish Funding Council, the colleges and the European Regional Development Fund. ICT plays a significant role, both as part of the "blend" and in creating a shared extranet. But the main focus is on pedagogic, cultural and operational change in order to meet learner expectations of flexible programmes, and the services and systems to support them.

Our aim is to address common issues and to extend the range of what we can offer and sustain through collaboration. We have no doubt about the scale of the challenge but, hopefully, in three years, our response to the two-word question will be "very good".

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