From education to employment

Making sense of a new year for technology in learning

Seb Schmoller, Vice-Chair of the Governing Body of The Sheffield College

It is customary for people in my kind of role (see below) to provide start-of-year predictions or lists of challenges relating to a particular field, in my case to the field of technology in learning. Doing so is risky when there is a clear and stable direction of travel. It is semi-suicidal when, as now, the only certainty is that so much is uncertain.

Below are three issues that I think are important for the FE sector at this time. This is the first in a series of occasional pieces in FE News with a focus on learning technology. I am keen to get feedback by email on the points I make, which I will use to inform future pieces in FE News. My address is [email protected]

Avoid geeks bearing gifts

Technology is not an end in itself: it provides a medium to support teaching and learning, and is a way to empower learners. Frank McLoughlin, Principal of City and Islington College and Chair of the 157 Group, gave a brilliant half-hour talk at the 2010 ALT Conference “It’s the culture, stupid”. The talk reflects on Frank’s experience running an outstanding college and it has many insights into the place of ICT in this endeavour. Two that stick in my mind are Frank’s emphasis on the active use of data to support individual learners, e.g. to use ICT to support the processes of teaching and learning. The second is his warning to “beware boys – and girls – with toys”: there is plenty of money to be wasted on the next big thing in technology enabled learning, and now is not the time to be wasting it.


A study ALT has just completed for LSIS cautions against simplistic use of the term “innovation”, which has sometimes been seen – especially by Government and its agencies – as an end in itself, when what is important is whether or not change is for the better. A more-or-less essential pre-requisite for change for the better in the use of ICT to support the curriculum is to move away from a funding methodology based on the guided learning hour which, many believe, has been major disincentive to transformations in the way the curriculum is organised. With a guided learning hour defined as “all times when a member of staff is present to give specific guidance towards the learning aim being studied on a programme and includes lectures, tutorials and supervised study” there is an inbuilt bias towards a traditional classroom-based, teacher-centred approach, and towards technologies (like interactive whiteboards) that reinforce this. The sooner the sector can escape from the guided learning hour, the better from the point of view of the beneficial use of technology in learning.


Across the sector there is very extensive duplication. Learning providers run parallel systems that duplicate the same activities, for example the ICT systems that support operations, and the human/technical systems that create and develop curricula. In many (but not all) cases these activities are run on too small a scale to be effective and efficient – sometimes as what is literally a cottage industry. Short of rationalisations between providers at an unrealistically rapid rate (and which would in any case probably not be in the interests of learners or stakeholders), the main way to achieve scale economies is through collaboration and the sharing of services.

The business case is already strong for using cloud services (such as those provided by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft) for the generic provision of file storage, email, and standard applications like text processing and calendars. The case will get stronger still over the next 12 months, and those colleges who opt for cloud services will tie themselves into the rapid – indeed breathtaking – technical innovations that the massive R&D expenditure of Google and its siblings is bringing about. Alongside this there will surely be scope for pooling back-office services between colleges, especially if the Government tackles the VAT-related challenges that sharing services between discrete organisations can entail.

Rationalising curriculum development between providers is more complicated because “not invented here syndrome” is so strong, and because bringing about collaboration between people in separate or competing organisations puts very particular challenges on managers and on institutional leaders. But the potential benefits to learners and teachers as well as to the bottom line are great, and ICT is an important part of the infrastructure for collaboration and for delivering the curriculum.

Seb Schmoller is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology, 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

There is an informative presentation about cloud services by Robin Gadd, Head of Information and Systems at Brockenhurst College – “IT efficiency and college effectiveness: making cloud computing work for you” – on the ALT Open Access Repository at here.

Related Articles