Right time to take the tech challenge?

A response to the FE Week Technology Supplement September 2016

“Right time to take the tech challenge?” Is the title of the opening piece by Jude Burke for the Technology Supplement-2016 published by FE Week, which looks at ‘all things technology-related for the FE and Skills sector.’ Collating views and opinions of key stakeholders and sharing some of the many ways that colleges and other providers are embracing new and emerging technologies. But the right time? When was the right time, Jude?

Surely that was a while ago and easily measured by the hundreds of learning providers already exploiting the benefits as well as the millions in public money pumped through numerous agencies to raise awareness, train, cajole, provide support and guidance and often, but clearly not always, get the message across that innovative use of ‘so called’ technology in education, should not be an option, it is as essential in FE & Skills as in any other business. I know as I was very much part of it.

As to it ‘being a challenge’, well again, there are many examples of colleges and learning providers across the sector who have taken the so called challenge over the past decade, each providing the evidence which puts to shame those that still believe they will be pioneers in this ‘new technology’ rather than looking at similar organisations whilst seeking impartial advice.

But what is this so called ‘new’ technology? Perhaps someone should spell out yet again, exactly what the high tech Learning Technology hardware and software systems being used in education in 2016 comprise. Rather than pontificating how expensive or difficult it is without knowing what they don’t know.

It is not unheard of that such organisations may already have much of the technology needed but perhaps not used as well as it could be. That the skills needed by staff are no more challenging than they use elsewhere, they just don’t call it technology, knowing it as smartphones and tablets to access just about everything online by just about everybody including toddlers and great aunts, watching catch-up TV, shopping, banking and arranging travel online. Oh that technology!

Well it could be but rather depends on who you ask. Recently published ‘guides’ and ‘tools’ seemed to direct me to a ‘library’ of information and case studies, much of which being based on research from a decade ago. Technology and how it is developed and its practical use is much faster than that and is commonplace everywhere. If you know what to look for.

Another item features the time taken for the FELTAG report to be implemented across the sector, describing how two and a half years after it was launched, most in the sector very clearly aren’t ‘getting it.’ It being split between those learning providers seeing it as the blatantly obvious thing to do, for the benefit of its learners, employers, staff and its own salvation. Whilst others choose not to bother. But anyway, have been let off of the proverbial hook by the Skills Funding Agency back in July by it not setting a percentage target for online learning, citing barriers which in any business sense were inexcusable.

Further in the item, Maren Deepwell, chief executive of the Association of Learning Technology, was said to be “frustrated by the overall approach taken by the government towards the report’s recommendations. – I think they have taken the approach of letting providers decide what to do or how, we’re just being agnostic and our frameworks enables everything.

Very much along the lines of leadership that allow their staff or immediate management to decide ‘what to do or how’ – such as exemplified in the recent national survey citing barriers to eAssessment which included ‘can’t afford, haven’t the time, can’t get the internet, staff don’t like it’. All of which is now being taken seriously at further public expense and lost opportunities.

Ms Deepwell further says that she would also like to see the new skills minister Robert Halfon taking an active interest in promoting learning technology.

Well clearly he is Ms Deepwell, we only have to read the press releases, but why should Mr Halfon be any better placed to cut through the rhetoric being declared as facts any more than the other bodies that govern FE. Once again it depends on who they ask rather than simply question why in any other sense, like for like colleges and learning providers are poles apart in the use of technology and subsequent benefits to those that they serve. In my opinion FELTAG always needed a ‘carrot and stick’, but someone took the stick away.

Finally, at least as far as this observer is concerned, is a most interesting article titled ‘Jury still out in how well Area Reviews have embraced technology’ What technology is that then?

I wrote about this back in April ‘Area Reviews: what colleges apparently don’t need to know’ pointing out that technology was clearly not needed by those conducting the reviews.

Which pretty much ties in with the range of contributions in this piece including a further statement by ALT chief executive Maren Deepwell that “feedback from ALT members indicated that the reviews had been hit-and-miss in terms of how they embraced technology.”

Another example given is by Peter Rudd, vice principal of Portsmouth College who said he ‘wasn’t aware of any discussions that had arisen from the review process about how technology could be used to make significant savings.’

Once again demonstrating the great divide between leadership already committed to the benefits of technology and those clearly not, which I frankly find inexplicable as I can’t see it happening in the ‘real world’. That organisations with similar funding models, demographics and objectives, use processes as different as chalk and cheese to the benefit or detriment to the learner and community.

Other quotes from the article includes that of FE technology specialist Bob Harrison, a member of the national area review steering group, who it’s said “had been disappointed by the way learning technology had been approached in the reviews.” And “thinking about technology after a merger is sorted – “that’s the wrong way around.

Absolutely and surely it ought to be of interest in the early stages of a review to learn if for example, the organisation is actually using outdated and inefficient methods of learner management, which will provide untimely data, leading to negative outcomes, retention or growth etc. Practices which if nothing else is proven to be an unnecessary drain on finance and regardless of the name or grade of the college, are widely used across the sector. But how would reviewers without specialist knowledge know?

Whilst Paul McKean, head of FE and Skills at Jisc is said to have argued that it was too early to judge how the area reviews had embraced technology – and that its main role could come during the implementation phase of the reviews.’ Jisc is providing guidance, information and advice on technology, including the services that his firm can offer.

Other significant quotes from this particular article are by Bobbie McLelland, deputy director of FE and Skills at what was BIS, to an ALT symposium in May, that ‘technology was essential to meet the needs of learners, employers and local economies through the area review process.’ Ok where was it then?

And: Apprenticeship and skills minister Robert Halfon “Technology and ensuring colleges are harnessing the benefits it can bring, is at the heart of the area review process. We have been clear that we expect the sector to take a leading role in making use of technology through the area reviews.

Is that right Mr Halfon and yet the feedback referred to in this article is one of hit-and-miss in terms of analysing how a college embraced technology, presumably as the technological element of support that he refers to is to be provided mainly ‘after’ the review with the help of positioning tools.

The problem with the likes of myself reading this is that I tend to skip past the excellent examples of how organisations in the FE & Skills sector have embraced the use of innovative technology and ‘cherry pick’ the statements and views of key stakeholders and influencers which highlight the contradictions for all to see, if they choose to look.

One of these days I might get into a room with the policy makers and say ‘hang on a minute, that’s not how it need work’ just ask all these specialists and learning providers that have simply ‘got on with it’. Because at the end of the line there are learners waiting for teaching learning and assessment to be relevant to 2016, so why are the powers that be still talking about what is already proven and demonstrated in this supplement and elsewhere. If you know where to look.

So, is it the right time to take the challenge? Hardly a challenge and if not now when?

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant
Formerly eLearning Adviser (work based learning) with Jisc RSC
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