From education to employment

Congratulating Vertically Challenged Colleges, Insolvency, Competition & MicroCredentials

Stefan Drew, previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges

#EdTech is slowly replacing more traditional teaching methods and we are beginning to see #biometrics and #AI being used for admin purposes as well as in the classrooms of the world. 

If this is new to you try reading the dozens of articles contributed by Jamie Smith.  

But though the application of technology is very important the #CollegeOfTheFuture is going to have to think beyond technology and consider their prospects’ curriculum needs in far more detail.

It’s not only the courses and topics that need to be included for school leavers, employers and the adult market. It’s also the psychology behind the way people now want, and need, to learn. Plus it’s about competing in a fast moving world where your competitor is quite possibly a provider in Queensland or an individual producing video courses hosted by Facebook. 

Forget Tradition For a Moment

Pershore College is to be congratulated. For some time I’ve challenged colleges to embrace new subjects; everything from drone technology to vertical farming. I believe colleges ignore these topics at their peril. 

Why? Because what is new today often becomes mainstream tomorrow. For example if engineering courses had remained “traditional” we wouldn’t have taught CAD, CadCam or robotics. 

Why congratulate Pershore College? 

Simple. They recently offered a two-day vertical farming workshop that delved into hydroponics, innovative filtration, aquaponics, LED lighting technology, plant nutrition etc.

Hydroponics is not new but technology is bringing changes to it and the other topics covered and their project disseminates innovation and forges employer engagement. 

Curriculum development and change aren’t all about new full-time courses. It can often start with a workshop, talk, conference, module in an existing course, an online course or short video. There are dozens of ways to explore new subjects but far too often colleges fail to undertake this sort of work and lose out to commercial providers that are fleet of foot and willing to take calculated risks.

Pershore’s project is ERDF funded and not specifically FE, the target audience is not primary food producers, rather it aims to help a wide spectrum of local businesses including suppliers to primary producers.

Colleges are well placed to innovate with new courses. They have space that often stands empty for 20 weeks or so each year. And it isn’t rocket science or expensive to work with external partners to develop these short interventions.

Curriculum Cross Fertilisation

One new curriculum idea can often lead to others. Often in other faculties. The problem is having the imagination to think outside the curriculum silo imposed by rigid faculty structures. 

For example, vertical farming impacts so many other areas.  In many cases it occupies town centre buildings. And by so doing impacts supply chains, traffic infrastructure, local providence, food miles and construction. 

Being intrigued by this I spent a couple of hours exploring the impact of vertical farming in towns. The result is a mindmap that, though far from complete, indicates the breadth of impact and potential curriculum development. 

I’m not suggesting we abandon existing curriculum but that we are quicker to explore curriculum innovation. When CadCam was being developed the world moved slower. Colleges could adopt new ideas over longer time scales and there was little curriculum competition compared with today. Now, if we are to avoid insolvency, we need to be ahead of the curriculum game and be constantly exploring new subjects and technologies. 

We’ve already missed out on things like drone training and certification and most readers probably don’t realise how big the drone industry has become. The private providers have now cornered this market and colleges have lost out on this and the incremental innovations that stem from teaching a given subject. If you are not convinced try starting a new area from scratch and see how much it costs to equip workshops, find qualified staff, and then hope that sufficient numbers of students can be recruited. 

By ignoring new technologies we fail to generate student numbers, risk income generation, leave classrooms and workshops empty for weeks each year. We leave whole new industries for our competitors to lock us out of and we slowly creep towards insolvency.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for drones in FHE. Pershore has an aerial management workshop planned … agri-drones used to finesse precision agriculture. 

We need every college in the country to emulate Pershore College

Managed correctly this ERDF project at Pershore could be the basis for FE developments across the whole curriculum. I await developments and trust they can fully exploit the opportunity. Climate change and water shortages are upon us and to feed the world we need to fully utilise vertical and precision farming. Algae and insect farming also show great promise but more of that later.  All are FE curriculum opportunities.

MicroCredentials: Threat or Opportunity?

Just over two years ago I wrote about BitDegrees & MicroDegrees. These are related to MOOCs and have now evolved to become the MicroCredentials that you may have seen promoted. 

FutureLearn describes MicroCredentials as “accredited, online credentials designed to help you build specialised skills relevant to your career. They offer valuable learning without the time and cost commitment of a full degree. The credential requires 100-150 hours of part-time study, generally over 10-12 weeks.”

MicroCredentials will turn the traditional HE course market upside down. And I believe offers FE similar opportunities. 

The current FutureLearn courses require the student to hold a degree or equivalent experience. Start dates are spread over the year and all assessments are online. Courses can’t be used to claim UCAS points but can count as course credits towards a degree. Their value ranges from 10-15 UK or 2-3 US credits. 

Priced at around £1000 per course MicroCredentials are affordable for professionals that want to rapidly upskill. Their real beauty is that they build on existing skills or related degrees without the time and cost commitment a degree entails. 

And from a recruitment point of view providers recruit internationally which is attractive to students that can then list a respected university on their CV and can often use their academic credits worldwide.

I predict that as MicroCredentials expand it will become possible to build a new type of Masters from credits gained in a dozen or more universities via MicroCredentials. Which university will exploit his first? Queensland, Monash, The OU, Dublin, or a new type of university not yet envisaged. Will HE follow the same path as the financial institutions and spawn an HE version of the fintech companies?  An international virtual university?

Are MicroCredentials Relevant to FE? 

Yes, I believe they are. 

Take the Vertical Farming example. Pershore College may well decide the vertical farming market is at a stage where they can go beyond a two-day workshop and offer a range of MicroCredentials at both FE & HE levels.  

One such course could be on LED lighting technologies in vertical farming. It would perhaps build on existing knowledge of lighting in the flower growing industry but delve deeper into things like colour balance, timings, CAD designed systems, energy conservation, light movers, economics, species requirements, etc.

A MicroCredential in aquaponics might also be offered and could explore everything from species, stocking rates, harvesting, growth rates, nutrient balance, pump systems, etc. This course might have two variants; one for vertical farming of crops like pak choi, lettuce etc. and one for hydroponic crops with higher nutrient demands such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans etc. grown in conventional greenhouses. 

FE MicroCredentials

There is no universal constant that prevents FE going down the MicroCredential route for vocational courses. 

For example a craft level individual has as much right to “build specialised skills relevant to their career” as graduates. Why can’t someone with basic horticultural qualifications take a specialist module in vertical farming or vertical gardening (there is a difference)? 

Why can’t restaurant owners or small food shops investigate and/or obtain MicroCredentials in herb or microgreens production? It might even be that several restaurants work together to run a small production cooperative where they reduce food miles, eliminate plastic wrapping, and boost sales because they have created a business that helps regenerate a city centre. 

It could be that in FE we offer CPD points rather than academic credits. Or maybe we need to devise an FE equivalent to academic credits. 

If We Don’t, Who Will?

My mindmap is a first stab at the vertical farming topic and only took a few hours. Undoubtedly it can be improved with time and more expertise. However, as a concept it works.

The curriculum we offer is going to change and if we don’t embrace change then our competitors will. They will steal our lunch and prosper whilst we see yet more colleges become insolvent. 

Colleges currently have a lot of underutilised capacity. I’m old enough to remember the constant room surveys instigated by the LSC as they checked room utilisation. It was based on a Guided Learning Hours requirement of 1440 hours over 39 weeks. 

Those 39 weeks indicated that college resources were not utilised for 13 weeks a year. What would that figure be today?

So FE colleges have the space available for running conferences, workshops etc. And MicroCredentials being online don’t need much space to produce and deliver. 

Colleges also have a wealth of excellent staff. A good number of these, given their head, would excel in the production and delivery of the type of course that could be delivered by colleges. And if a college lacks staff capacity then work with partners, buy in expertise or whatever it takes. 

If colleges fail to progress MicroCredentials or a similar product for FE they will continue to be dependent on funded courses. Board members have a fiduciary duty to the college which clashes with being totally dependent on poorly funded courses. MicroCredentials are an opportunity to break the stranglehold that current funding imposes.

Insect Farming is a Growing Challenge

I hinted earlier that insect farming is on the increase. Insect farming isn’t new. We’ve exploited bees for honey and wax for 9000 years. And true bee farming commenced with the medieval bee skep. Now we also harvest pollen and propolis from bees.  

But insect farming and potential related curricula doesn’t stop there. Insects are full of protein and are used as traditional meat substitutes in many parts of the world. I’ve tried crickets. They are a little nutty with a hint of woodsmoke.  But I draw the line at eating cockroaches! They are however eaten by the million in China. 

And let’s not forget mealworms, which the RSPB sells for bird food and are also used by anglers and in fish farms. 

The thing is it’s easy to ignore growing industries because they are foreign to us and our way of life. If FE is to prosper we need to reach beyond our traditional areas to grow our curriculum. It’s what communities require of us. 

Can you think laterally and determine potential courses in obscure parts of the curriculum?

Looking at the insect farming mindmap can you suggest an insect that is already farmed in huge numbers but not included in the mindmap? 

A Last Word on Sense and Nonsense

Predicting the future is an inexact science and experts get it wrong more often than right when it comes down to detail. However at a macro level it’s easier to increase accuracy. 

Cape Town has just suffered a huge drought, the Algarve has a water crisis and climate change is real.  The world needs food and water innovation. And whereas my predictions are unlikely to be totally accurate they point in the right direction. Vertical farms are reality and could solve the problems of the High St and FE solvency.

Whether FE is part of this is down to colleges. So it’s over to readers to take action before it’s too late. 

Stefan Drew, previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US.

Connect with Stefan on LinkedIn.

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