Allen Crawford Thomas is an e-learning adviser at Jisc

Not for the first time, there’s a sense in the further education and skills sector that everything is in a state of flux. Government initiatives like New Challenges, New Chances and Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills are setting a vision for a world-class education system and a responsive, flexible FE and skills sector. The aim is to put learners at the heart of the education system while, at the same time, disruptive technologies (think smart devices and cloud computing) are challenging the way we think about teaching and learning.

Though it sounds like a fresh round of change, putting learners first and delivering creative and flexible learning experiences is what most teachers aim for. So I wonder if those of us who work in the sector can use this fresh push for excellence to redouble our efforts and borrow ideas from other spheres to encourage students to take control, and become more proactive about their learning – to ‘lean forward’?

In broadcasting, interactive television is bringing this proactive, lean forward approach into sharper focus.  A simple lean forward interaction between the viewer and their television enables the individual to access and use additional services, for example, on-demand TV or online banking. At a more engaged level, viewers can interact with programme content, for example altering the outcome of the story - Accidental Lovers allowed viewers to alter the plotline by sending in text messages.

Of course, taking inspiration from television doesn't mean we need to sign up for a part-time course in TV directing! There's plenty of innovation that we can extract from the technology we already have and use every day.

The future of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) may be under discussion, but the reality for many learning providers is that the VLE remains the primary online learner engagement tool. VLEs are usually equipped with collaborative social media and productivity based tools, and they offer a quick, easy way for teachers to set engaging group learning exercises. And as VLEs become more accessible on the move via smart devices, they can also provide a platform for flipped learning activities - setting learners tasks prior to attending class.

Smart devices also facilitate easy access to innovative technology such as Augmented Reality (AR) or opportunities to interact with Open Educational Resources such as iTunes U, which allow learners to access learning content whenever they choose. Kendal and South Staffordshire Colleges have already incorporated AR into learning and teaching activity and it is being used to inspire learners in subjects like construction, hairdressing, vehicle engineering and plumbing, as well as to boost the colleges’ reputations as forward-thinking, student-focused learning providers. Smart devices make it possible for learners to enjoy seamless learning- they can bring their own devices to the classroom to start work, and then use apps to continue sourcing information and sharing data later on.

Increasingly, apps provide a gateway to online software, making it easier for teachers and learners to share resources and understand subject knowledge. Apps such as Google+, Pinterest and Flipboard allow the creation of visually attractive learning resources. These can be shared and used to pursue enquiry. They are good examples of the emergence of crowd learning - learning from the expertise and views of others, usually via online social spaces. What makes these especially relevant to learners and teachers is that many are easy to use and freely available.

Gaming makes effective use of the lean forward experience, and it is already being developed as a way to encourage proactive learning techniques. Games actively encourage users to control the events and outcomes of a scenario and the game’s programme responds to the choices made by individual or groups of players. A feature of many games, whether educational or otherwise, is the collection of points or badges to reward and motivate effort.

The lean forward experience doesn’t have to be a championed, ‘just over the horizon’ concept that never seems to arrive. In many ways it is here now, and already making a contribution to learning and teaching activity. To address the demands in New Challenges, New Chances, teachers and educational professionals perhaps need to use the insights gained through the reflective ‘lean back’ experience to plan and implement their own ‘lean forward’ experiences.

Allen Crawford Thomas is an e-learning adviser at the West Midlands regional support centre of Jisc, a charity that champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research

Find out more about how VLEs can support teaching and learning in its infokit, and keep in touch with developments at the regional support centres on Twitter - you can also sign up to receive the termly magazine Jisc Inform

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