Area Reviews: what colleges apparently don’t need to know

It would appear that they don’t need to know too much about the effect that technology has on key review questions such as reducing costs or raising quality and efficiency. Not to mention the need for colleges to ‘be equipped to respond to the reform and expansion of the apprenticeship programme.’  An important area that warrants serious use of the ‘right’ technology.

I may be wrong as I am only going by the objectives of area reviews and the criteria stated for consultant’s (as in cash for) which still doesn’t include specialist knowledge in technology. But I would have thought by now that even those in high places should be aware that using a few ‘techie’ sounding words here and there will not suffice. Not if it impacts on the bottom line it doesn’t.

Well clearly it hasn’t rung a bell with those colleges currently experiencing difficulty, nor will it if the organisation isn’t advised on best use of technology to manage their business following a review, assuming the organisation is still there. It is quite likely that the leadership may believe that such systems are in place, especially if their MIS manager recommended it and cost a fortune, it would be understandable. Unfortunately, that’s not our experience.

For example, when working within the remit of shared services and they having checked out the IT infrastructure, it ought to be of interest to learn if the organisation is actually using outdated and inefficient methods of learner management. Methods that are widely used but are are an unnecessary drain on finance by providing untimely data, leading to negative outcomes, retention or growth.  (how would they know?).

Or that their very costly hardware, software or VLE platforms are not actually being used as planned, frustrating staff that want, need and expect to use current technology whilst completely turning off learners whose expectations would be that of 2016, not before they were born.

By not including learning technology specialists in the consultation, it may be that those on high are now relying on organisations such as Jisc ‘the digital technology organisation for the sector, by the sector’ which has declared its support for colleges engaged in the area review. The support using various ‘tools’ and signposting colleges to its own technical services.

Be that as it may, the learning technology support that we and other specialists offer comes from a broader base of up to date knowledge of the FE & Skills sector, ultimately directing learning providers to practical, effective technology which is currently in use  by their peers, rather than a more narrow viewpoint with guidance based on research from a decade ago.

And the use of ‘self-assessment’ tools, however cleverly designed, are invariably completed by senior managers which previous studies concluded were flawed as most were completed by senior management rather than practitioners, who may have a different perspective of what works and what does not. The method of review we employ and proven with more than 40 colleges, includes interviewing all stakeholders ‘from the bottom up’ , learner to governor, so as to analyse and advise on how an organisations technology is actually being used, and could be used better, rather than how it is assumed to be used, giving themselves an optimistic assessment.

In terms of efficiency and raising quality, technology has a large part to play, as in ‘the real world, what ‘business’ doesn’t use real-time data. But whilst the headlines talk of the cost to implement the spirit of FELTAG, there are many examples of colleges and ITP’s making savings of £200-£400,000 within 18 months of full implementation of technology for work based learning and that’s just the ‘financial’ benefits. But buyer beware, a typical and costly mistake given the wrong information such as with learner management systems (ePortfolios) not just an MIS.

So whether or not an organisation is about to be or has been ‘reviewed’, or is not affected by the area reviews and simply wants to be sure its provision is on the right track. It would be wise to have an impartial root and branch review of its own practices and consider what the successful college up the road is using to run its business, stimulate staff and learners whilst fending off the challenges which are no longer something that happens to others.

Perhaps 40 minutes of free, impartial discussion ought to be worth consideration, but I would say that wouldn’t I?

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant
Incentive8

See also: Incentive8’s range of services
What is an ePortfolio
Incentive8’s ‘Learning Technology Review’ is fit for purpose – Why?
Bob Harrison: FE and Schools Education & Technology Update April 2016
HM Government: Reviewing post-16 education and- raining institutions – updated guidance on area reviews

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