From education to employment

How colleges can do their homework

Maren Deepwell is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology

Colleges have seen a recent surge in research activity. Maren Deepwell, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology looks at the reasons and the issues raised by the growth of interest among practitioners.

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in the role of action research by FE practitioners looking critically at their teaching and learning and keen to improve through continuous professional development.

Five years ago, a detailed report from the 157 Group showed that relatively little time, effort and resources were being spent on such research. But a paper this month from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, A legacy of learning, shows a recent surge of research activity. Six out of ten people interviewed for the report said it should be a permanent pursuit in all colleges.

It is a development the Association for Learning Technology wholeheartedly endorses and actively supports. We understand that for students, teachers and leaders “learning how to learn” is our most valuable asset. That has always been true and research has always had a key role; however, it is not hard to see why the volume of such work is growing.

If you are teaching maths, science or English, then the current Department for Education consultations under the Education Secretary Michael Gove will have a major impact on how these subjects are taught and assessed from 2015 onwards. Vocational courses in colleges and the workplace will have far more academic maths and English content. Meanwhile employers look for candidates who don’t just have the skills and knowledge they require, but those who can adapt to the realities of a fast-paced workplace. A workplace in which technology plays an increasingly important role and in which managing change is a necessity.

Students also have to think about how to finance their studies, what subjects to choose or where to study; they have to gain skills that are more broadly transferable along the way.

For leaders, technologists and teachers delivering learning, this means not only keeping pace with changes accreditation bodies might make – or the demands of employers within their local community and elsewhere – but also with developments in how learning can be delivered, supported and assessed.

Technological developments and new models of online and blended learning encourage innovation and experimentation, but the demands of existing provision don’t necessarily allow much time for development, reflection and learning new skills.

Using technology effectively to support learning, teaching and assessment, particularly online and at scale, requires us to learn about it. We need time to find out how it works, evaluate research, share good practice and eventually design, implement and deliver new approaches. Many learning providers also involve students in such projects, aiming to better meet the requirements of their learners.

The question is, if you want to learn about new ways of using technology, how can you do so with minimal time and maximum return? Where are colleagues who have experience to share, who can you reflect with, how can you experiment?

This is the question that ALT tries to answer, with increased engagement with FE and Skills practitioners as well as those delivering adult learning. Our annual conference this year, which marks our twentieth anniversary, has thus a strong focus on practitioner research from the sector on the first day, bringing together a full programme addressing some of the key themes of the conference:

  • how to deliver effective learning using technology;


  • it’s all about the learner, which focuses on those we teach, but includes us as well;


  • openness including open educational resources (OERs), Open Access publishing and related topics.

The conference title this year is Building new cultures of learning. This doesn’t just refer to new delivery models, currently popular MOOCs for example. It also refers to our own cultures of learning, within our institutions, within our teams and for ourselves. We know that everybody learns, every day, but we also know that we can learn a lot more from each other, than in isolation.

ALT’s annual conference takes place at the university of Nottingham, 10-12 September. The conference programme will have a focus on FE, Skills and adult learning on Tuesday, 10 September. Registration is now open here. Details about how to participate online will be published in advance of the event, so if you cannot join us in person, you can still participate.

Maren Deepwell is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), an independent membership charity whose mission is to ensure that use of learning technology is effective and efficient, informed by research and practice, and grounded in an understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities, and the situations into which they are placed

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