Pockets of innovation must be stitched together

26th February 2016 at 00:00
picture of TES FE editor Stephen Exley
In a time of change, the sector needs to embrace new ways of thinking and learning

One of the FE sector’s most curious paradoxes is that the fewer colleges there are, the more organisations seem to spring up to represent them.

But aside from the stalwarts that are the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, who are the big players?

There’s the 157 Group of large, regionally influential colleges, which has ambitions to expand across the home nations. There’s the Mixed Economy Group, representing those colleges boasting substantial higher education offerings. There’s Landex, which stands up for land-based colleges. There’s even the Maple Group: the sixth-form college sector’s answer to the Russell Group of elite universities. And who could forget the Gazelle Group, representing those of an entrepreneurial persuasion?

But the most rapidly growing body, which appears highly likely to become the biggest of these specialist groupings in the near future, is an organisation that is only six months old – and which many in the sector will never have heard of.

The Blended Learning Consortium was created last summer by Heart of Worcestershire College (see pages 52-53 of this week's TES magazine). The organisation was the winner of the outstanding use of technology category in the 2015 TES FE Awards, in recognition of its work over the past four years to create a cross-college blended learning curriculum.

One of the main obstacles the college encountered was finding quality blended learning resources for the FE curriculum. So it started up its own group to enable the sector to create the resources it needed, with costs and expertise being shared across the partnership, which has now spread to more than 40 colleges. Membership fees stand at £5,000, and the group is now developing resources for its members across 16 curriculum areas.

With the Skills Funding Agency open to the idea of forgoing revenue to reward those colleges thinking “creatively” about how they use their assets, the potential for colleges to exploit digital learning has never been greater than it is now.

In September, a report by curriculum and e-learning agency Coralesce came to the scathing conclusion that FE providers in the UK were at least three years behind their counterparts in North America in their use of learning technology. One of the main problems identified was that there were pockets of best practice, but such innovations failed to spread.

Similarly, one of the difficulties faced by our TES FE Awards judges in recent years has been how to evaluate innovative practice in using technology, when such initiatives rarely spread beyond a single team or department. Today, the judges meet to discuss whether this year’s entries are any broader. It’s fair to say that the work done by Heart of Worcestershire bodes well.

Speaking of judging, I was invited by Jisc to help choose the 50 most influential social media users that the FE sector has to offer. In this issue, we highlight a few of the individuals making waves by using online networks to boost their practice in myriad ways (see pages 50-51).

The trick the sector has yet to master is how to share its best ideas, to harness them for the greater good. With the FE landscape about to be completely redrawn by the area reviews, the need to embrace new forms of teaching and learning has never been more acute.

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 26 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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