Last month, a report for the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) assessed digital skills in the further education (FE) sector and found them wanting. Leaders must address the strategic and operational impact of technology, the report said.
It’s a timely warning – especially in light of the government's edtech strategy, which places digital innovation at the heart of education policy. But how can colleges drive change while preserving their identity and delivering the skills the UK so urgently needs both affordably and effectively?
The sector is crying out for a bold, clear plan to drive such change, enabling colleges to look to the future. There’s a real need for simplicity and flexibility in the FE system, rather than the current complexity. We need something that everyone understands – from employers to learners and parents. We need clarity over what FE skills training does and the possibilities it affords employers. And we need to offer clear advice and guidance to help learners make the right choices.
"All talk no action" is a criticism I’ve heard a lot lately. Across all regions of the UK, there’s a perception that policy-makers, experts and influencers are doing a lot of head-scratching that amounts to little change – and certainly doesn’t bring additional funding. A quick glance at the list of commissions and inquiries currently gathering evidence seems to support these concerns. No wonder there’s a high level of frustration with the existing system.
It will be a challenge for colleges to adapt, but as head of further education and skills at Jisc, I help institutions identify how they can innovate to meet the specific needs of their learners and community. We share our experiences and highlight technology that is already working for other providers and in other industries. That offers reassurance so that FE leaders can innovate without taking drastic risks.
It’s about recognising when technology has a role to play. For example, learning to spray-paint a car or visiting an oil rig can be expensive. Simulating that experience in a college environment using virtual reality technology is a safer, easier and more cost-efficient approach with a lower carbon footprint.
Technology-enhanced training is increasingly necessary as the fourth industrial revolution – the digital revolution – disrupts the workplace. Demand for FE will increase as lifelong learning becomes the norm and greater numbers of people look to upskill and reskill throughout their careers. Some jobs will change too, due to advances in AI and automation, adding further demand for FE and skills training.
Colleges mustn’t fear this brave new world. While the pace of change is fast, community and place remains central to the FE space. Bricks and mortar are no less important today than they’ve ever been, despite the rise in distance learning and online programmes.
Blended learning, allowing colleges to deliver flexible courses that combine on-site and off-site study, is gaining traction – and having somewhere to study where learners come together with other people is crucial. Providers must identify their technology needs in this context and start a cycle of innovation and investment. The colleges of the future must be digitally fit for purpose.
Paul McKean is a member of the steering group for an inquiry by the Skills Commission, Policy Connect and the Learning and Work Institute (and funded by FELT) that will investigate the FE provider base, employer needs, and the implementation of national policy. He urges colleges to submit evidence to the inquiry, via Policy Connect, to help shape the future of the skills system. The deadline is 27 May 2019. Meanwhile, FE practitioners interested in developing their digital capabilities can attend Jisc’s Connect More events around the UK, 4 June – 4 July 2019.