Chalk and cheese

Chalk and Cheese – “you usually get what you pay for.”

A statement reported to have been made by an SFA policy manager during a talk at Bett recently said “The Skills Funding Agency isn’t going to implement a cheap rate for online learning. I think we all appreciate that it’s not the cheap option” he added.

FE Week: Online learning ‘not cheap option‘.

Well speaking for myself, I never considered online learning as having much to do with being ‘a cheap option’. Simply the blindingly obvious thing to do and I wouldn’t think that many others in the business of steering FE & Skills into the 21st century do either and the government response to the Feltag recommendations which was what the conversation related to, simply states that they ‘will introduce an online only funding rate.’ Followed by an announcement by the then skills minister, in June 2014,“This will allow us to road-test the funding and audit implications of online delivery“.  Must have been a heck of a long road. 

The SFA statement was made during a discussion at the technology event in January 2016 and wouldn’t matter a jot to me normally as I accept that the drive to delivering courses ‘online’ by just about every learning institution under the sun, including all the UK universities, appear to be passing by a large percentage of FE learning providers. No news there. But those organisations that haven’t already recognised the benefits highlighted in Feltag recommendations, including survival, won’t need another excuse not to move toward 2016 learning technology, especially if they can put the reason down to what they always believed, that of cost, now seemingly endorsed by the SFA.

21978756350_036901d459_zSo it was disappointing to read further, a response by someone of note which said that “Developing high quality online courses with interactive and engaging resources is incredibly time consuming and therefore expensive.” Of course it is but assuming the statement hasn’t been taken out of context, this suggests that all online courses have to be developed from scratch by a specialist, in which case they will be incredibly expensive and music to the ears of those that choose not to consider all options for going ‘online’ whilst the SFA gathers further information. No rush then.

But what of the gazillions of free online materials that might be used to support teaching, including the very best from around the world such as the Khan Academy. What of the free tools referred to in these pages and elsewhere that enable a teacher to transform existing paper based resources into something more dynamic and make available on line. We and therefore others can signpost teaching staff to banks of free or low cost resources covering pretty much any subject at any level, already developed to be engaging and interactive for delivery on or offline.

fl-logoWhat of our own FutureLearn which has just announced another 74 online courses starting this month, perhaps more suitable for staff development, but let’s not all of us get ‘picky’ this is what learners regard as normal. The course that I took with them recently was of the highest quality, created by the very best in their field, free, accessible 24/7 and of course, online. It’s not ‘the future‘, it’s NOW!.

Then to make worse an already frustrating read, was another reported statement which said “the SFA was right that developing and delivering high-quality online courses is not cheaper than face-to-face learning.” Of course it isn’t but then again, isn’t there a notable difference between teaching and learning delivery at one location within prescribed hours and that of making available, ‘supportive’ teaching, learning and assessment using ‘high quality, interactive and engaging resources delivered on a choice of digital devices anywhere in the world at any time of the learners choosing? But I wasn’t there and the statement may have included my point,  although in this case it has a familiar ring to it.

Thinking again of cost and the difference between online and class room resources, I would expect that teaching and learning materials used in a modern classroom should already be of a ‘high quality, with interactive and engaging resources’. Perhaps to use within a blended learning programme, possibly making better use of an interactive whiteboard or perish the thought, using tablets or mobile devices, even the internet. In many cases the resources made fit for online delivery, differ little from digital classroom material, the difference is primarily the choice of platform but then a VLE which most colleges have, will also have built in tools to ‘develop’ engaging interactive coursework with very little instruction, as so many colleges do, but few use effectively.

It would seem to me that the cost of what should already be part of a strategy for technological change in the classroom is being added to the cost of what the SFA define as online courses. At best it will add to the confusion, at worst it will be abandoned


In my opinion, the real cost is not so much as ‘developing’ resources as ‘developing’ a strategy to address the ethos of the Feltag recommendations. Conduct a root and branch technological review (and I don’t mean one where the smt conducts a self- assessment of their own opinion). With a major part of the strategy related to staff development, content creation and developing best practice in online delivery.

Fortunately there are far more learning providers out there that have the foresight to make use of the best learning technologies available to them  than there are learning providers that need a carrot or stick to get them off of the technological fence.  So by the time that certain agencies have completed their “information gathering to baseline current activity, as well as running a number of pilots and asking the sector to complete a temperature check survey.” Many learning providers may already be delivering the percentage level of courses online that the Feltag report originally recommended. Those that don’t, wont!

Finally, I have to admit that  “developing and delivering high-quality online courses is not cheaper than face-to-face  learning”. I searched online and I found that a box of chalks was much cheaper at £2.98 than a medium priced block of really good cheese at £3.05. But then my old granny used to say “you get what you pay for.”

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant

See also: Feltag, a directive an aspiration or just common sense?
Tools to enhance learning resources
Digitise learning materials
Feltag and Government response


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