From education to employment

Continued investment in technology must be at the heart of Further Education

The FE community holds the key to ensuring the future prosperity of the UK as it fulfils a crucial role in supplying the diverse skills base that we require to grow the economy and support new research to drive innovation and create new jobs.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, under which FE sits, may not have gone so far as the newly formed Department for Education in assuming the motto “Less is More”, however, it it is clear that it will expect FE colleges to be prepared to investigate ways they can run more efficiently to maintain and exceed their current levels of teaching and learning amidst a period of tight finances and budget cuts.

Delivering high quality educational provision on a shoestring is nothing new for FE institutions, who despite financial handicaps have successfully kept pace with their HE counterparts for a number of years. Therefore it is no great surprise to find that FE institutions are choosing to focus on solutions rather than problems and leading the way in finding new ways to exploit existing resources.

One such solution is sharing services as a way of continuing to deliver quality services. All colleges will be required from September 2010 to have an online learning environment in place for teachers and learners for the benefits to the learning experience that this brings. FE colleges will have to follow the example of their HE counterparts with partnerships such as SHWWEP (South West Wales Higher Education Partnership between Swansea University, Swansea Metropolitan University and Trinity University College) where three institutions share a single data centre) to significantly reduce infrastructure costs. As well as saving costs, members of this shared service are also finding that it encourages the dissemination of best practice.

The new Government needs to be committed to making learning more engaging, interactive and mobile because the needs of students are continuously becoming more diverse. The term ‘student’ now encompasses such a broad range of people across different backgrounds that what we need to do to radically improve the learning experience is create a broader learning environment rather than the traditional classroom setting. In order for there to be a more sustainable and enriching learning experience there needs to be continued investment in technology from the new Government and more research and development on what works within these new learning environments.

Future investment in technology by the Government will bring future savings – the FE community is not only harnessing technology to save or make money without compromising outcomes, it is also exploiting technology to positively impact on their bottom line. For example, City of Sunderland College is using our online learning platform to deliver project management training courses to NPower employees based over five sites across the North East via blended learning. The logistics of getting employees together in a single classroom would make the course impossible to run via traditional means and the blended learning approach also enables Sunderland to allow local businesses to tailor the course to their own needs. By delivering courses to local business, Sunderland is generating an additional revenue source.

Initiatives such as City of Sunderland College are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad of ways in which colleges must look to further exploit existing resources as a means to achieving “more with less”, yet this would not have been possible without the appropriate investment in technology in the first instance.

There is no doubt that we are seeing growing success with technology in education and skills; however let’s not be complacent; technology in itself will not be enough for continued effectiveness. The new Government needs to invest in teacher training in how to use technology within institutions. Research from Becta has shown that the efficiencies gained by using technology have saved over £1bn of teacher’s time between 2005 and 2008, imagine the results that we can achieve if this technology is used to its fullest capabilities. The challenge for our leaders is to facilitate change so that our FE colleges have the appropriate levels of understanding to lead the effective use of technology, freeing up valuable resources, raising standards and improving outcomes. It is this investment in teacher training that will really drive future progress.

Government and FE colleges will have tough funding choices to make in the coming months, it is critical to the future prosperity of the UK that the right decisions are made. Students demand access to the latest technology within their learning and investment in technology therefore helps FE establishments to improve student satisfaction levels and the entire educational experience. However, it also acts as an enabler for colleges to achieve cost savings and generate new revenues in other areas through more efficient practices and greater collaboration with industry. The benefits of a continued and sustained investment in the technology appropriate to learners’ needs is so wide-ranging that cuts in funding in this area would be incredibly short term and damaging to the sector’s long term growth. The institutions that prosper will be those that recognise the position that technology has at the heart of a thriving FE community and our new government would do well to take note of this.

Richard Horton is regional vice president EMEA at Blackboard, the education software company that works with more than 5,000 institutions and millions of users

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