You may have noticed that Christmas is nearly upon us. The annual descent into wintery scenes on the TV – surely you've not missed the £5 million John Lewis advert? – lots of people wearing woolly jumpers and red and white themed adverts all over the web has begun. Go to any retailer's website and there will be banners urging you to "get ready for Christmas" or to "party in style this winter". And it must work, because IMRG, the UK's industry association for e-retailing, says that UK shoppers will spend over £7bn online this Christmas, up from £6.8bn last year.
This is because more people than ever have fast broadband in their homes and are increasingly internet savvy, using websites to pick up bargain presents without the need to fight through the crowds on the high street, at times dictated by stores' opening hours. What's more, the choice online far outstrips what the shops can offer.
It is clear the internet is making Christmas easier, helping people make their money go further and generally taking the hassle out of the frenetic run-up to the big day. But it's not just the festive season where the internet is having an impact. The web is the first port of call for nearly everything we do these days. From getting our news and watching TV to socialising and checking the weather, the internet is where to go to do it. And it's the same with learning.
Over the last decade it has been shown that high quality learning can be delivered online on a large scale, transforming people's lives, and helping families, communities and businesses thrive. Research shows people like the flexibility of being able to learn online – where they are not restricted by location or the time of day. This is particularly the case with entry-level learners who are, on the whole, digitally literate and feel at home learning over the internet.
We know this because we've helped more than three million learners gain new skills. Many have gained nationally recognised qualifications in maths, English and IT. Others have taken courses such as business, management, web design or health and safety.
Therefore, we are pushing the government to make 2012 the year when technology truly becomes a central aspect of its FE strategy and is as ubiquitous in skills delivery as it now is for Christmas shopping. At a time when resources are limited, it is vital the Government makes further use of the technological tools at its disposal to ensure its goals of high-quality teaching and learning, at all levels of the adult education system, are met. If they did, perhaps we could solve one of the country's critical competitiveness issues – the fact that, despite significant investment over the years, there are still too many adults lacking the skills needed to get a job or to progress in work.
Online learning – through the combination of courseware, learning platforms and tutors – provides media rich and interactive courses designed to 'teach' the learner while allowing the scarce resources of the tutor to be focused on motivating people, reviewing progress, setting goals and supporting learners in putting their learning into practice. It can also ensure effective assessment, giving tutors and learners information on how they are getting on. At the same time it can support better financial management among providers by linking teaching to payment, reporting and audit processes.
We believe online learning can support Functional Skills teaching. E-learning in English and maths has been shown to be effective and supportive of the wider aims of Functional Skills – the practical skills qualifications that were launched across England last year. Technology also allows standardised Skills for Life units to be easily embedded within a learner's programme, providing a flexible and customised course. For all these reasons, online learning and the use of technology throughout the sector is an absolute must.
So, if over the coming weeks you buy a present online, check to see the odds on a white Christmas, order your turkey on a supermarket website or download a video, remember, the internet is for life, not just for Christmas. So let's push to ensure that it is part of every aspect of our lives including learning.
Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation