As a period of financial austerity challenges further education colleges to deliver better provision at a lower cost, many are looking towards shared services to continue to work as effectively and efficiently as possible.
But there appear to be barriers preventing mass take-up of shared services. While some colleges have already run shared models for five years or more, reducing their infrastructure costs significantly, others still debate whether they are a viable solution.
Good examples of shared services are found at the Bloomsbury Consortium, where five London university colleges share a single virtual learning environment (VLE). Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium is hosting a shared VLE for 12 colleges and itself (with 100,000 users) and another VLE shared among 250 secondary schools (with 65,000 users).
So what prevents colleges from taking the shared services route? Is it the technology or the people? The truth is that the provision of the technology infrastructure is not complex.
The barrier is people's mindset. They either fear they will be forced to change their business model with unforeseen consequences or that they will lose control of their processes and data. They are also reluctant to take the initial step of analysing their processes and deciding whether anything actually needs to be changed. Then, if something does need to change, who is going to be responsible for managing that?
In the aforementioned examples, some chose to manage their shared VLE in- house, while others chose an externally managed shared VLE. But all institutions involved have complete control of their data and users, operating within a totally secure environment whereby one institution cannot access another's information.
None of the institutions has had to make any process changes in order to have their course and student information flowing automatically from their respective student information systems into the shared VLE; automation of this type of information flow is again carried out securely for each institution. Collaboration between colleges is facilitated through specific shared areas set up for this purpose, with appropriate access granted to participating members.
There is no additional burden on the colleges to get them started and each member institution has complete control of its information and users.
As well as saving costs, members of the service meet regularly to share best practice. They learn from each other's successes and can adopt improvements in the time and fashion that best suits their priorities.
To move forward and enable more institutions to benefit from the cost and efficiency savings of running a shared service, we need a much stronger steer from management to drive the change.
Colleges must support their teachers by giving them professional development in how best to apply technology in their course or subject. Lecturers must fully understand how the technology can help deliver pedagogical objectives and understand the advantages of technology in key teaching and learning activities such as assessment - formative and summative - and providing effective feedback.
Only then will colleges be able to focus on their core purpose of improving learning for each and every student.
- Demetra Katsifli, Director of academic innovation, Blackboard.