Area reviews are set to shake the foundations of the further education sector. How? By forcing colleges to weigh up the sum total of their individual course provision and financial states in order to identify area-based savings, synergies and educational solutions.
Many have said that digital education may well have an enhanced role to play in these new-look FE offerings. This is a startling assertion, given the state of play within the sector. The AOSEC Digital Learning Network event in November welcomed representatives from around 15 colleges in the South East. What became apparent from this gathering of some of the most enthusiastic early adopters of digital solutions in FE was that they represent a minority within each of their organisations.
For every teacher avidly integrating video in class, running student-led peer reviews through social media channels and providing outstanding flipped learning opportunities, hundreds are nowhere near that point.
Furthermore, it would seem that the tiredly labelled “IT geeks” in these colleges – the ones who often know the most about digital learning and have the awareness of the college’s cultural fabric, too – are too bogged down with Moodle upgrades, wi-fi improvements and replacing laptop batteries to help their college identify a coherent digital strategy.
Without significantly more training and support at senior levels, these specialists who talk so passionately about digital learning will remain the geeks in the corner of the room. What is required here is nothing short of a cultural revolution.
At the AOSEC event, there was an unspoken consensus that technology can fill in the gaps beautifully, but it cannot ever replace the teacher. Instead, digital learning options are seen as the best way to teach more to students, and to help them to reach better educational outcomes through greater understanding and retention of information, as well as by building their ability to use this knowledge when sitting their exams.
But for these solutions to become significant building blocks of the new face of FE in time for the end of first-wave negotiations in March next year, not even a wholesale digital uprising could get there in time.
At best, I predict that heavy, over-specified virtual learning environments and school management systems will be the perceived order of the day. These huge, costly, empty vessels will provide a nice, simple-to-grasp solution. But implementation will see senior leaders dragged from the student-centred objectives around the quality of teaching and learning; and subjected to years of integrating data sets, aligning their organisational information systems and re-streamlining their business processes.
What is really needed is student and teacher-generated content that ties in closely with the syllabus and the culture of the college, content that is familiar and user-friendly, that motivates and inspires, because it’s relevant to the local employment context. This is the part of the puzzle that requires a new mindset, a significant shift in culture towards digital teaching techniques that better serve students and give them a stronger start to working life.
This will need engagement, buy-in and cross-college collaboration, as well as abundant leadership from the top – all at a time when the goodwill for such change is being squeezed out of colleges.
So, if area reviews generate funding for cultural change and retraining for digital delivery at all levels, they could be a very good thing. But if this becomes a macro exercise that ignores the detail in favour of political box-ticking, the outlook for FE could be much, much bleaker.
Richard Bradford is an FE college governor and managing director of Disquiet Dog, a digital marketing and development consultancy @disquietdog