Can colleges and skills providers become efficient and financially stable, while also providing an excellent learning experience that produces a workforce with the skills required to help the UK economy thrive post-Brexit and beyond?
The answer is yes, but the process is neither easy, nor short; it involves a commitment to digital transformation that some colleges have already embraced and others must adopt, or risk a struggle.
Our vision for the sector over the five years to 2022 is for FE (further education) organisations to be digital by default, supported by a digitally capable workforce that understands the needs of employers and the jobs learners will need to fill.
Flexible, convenient and accessible learning
Education technology (edtech) will challenge more advanced learners, while enabling the less able to receive the individual support they require to succeed. Technology will not only personalise learning, but feedback and assessment, too, so that individuals can progress at their own pace and study where and when they choose, regardless of age, background or personal circumstance.
By 2022, national education technology strategies for post-16 education will be in place in England and Wales, with Northern Ireland probably following suit. As a result of these strategies, learners throughout the UK are likely to be supported by a myriad of technological tools, apps, simulations and virtual reality platforms.
Indeed, virtual reality tools will be increasingly employed to save money, reduce risk and add excitement, for example enabling learners to “use” potentially dangerous machinery, hazardous or expensive substances in safety and to practice without blowing the budget.
Learners will expect “always-on” access to the internet and technology regardless of their location, or workplace environment, and to use a device of their choice. Formative assessment will mainly be carried out online via quizzes with instant constructive feedback, virtual observations or e-portfolio evidence, while summative and end-point assessments are likely to incorporate the use of technology as a way of reducing costs.
High-quality digital content and the digital capabilities of teaching staff will become major learner and employer satisfaction indicators.
Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, data intelligence will inform strategic and operational decision making, particularly around teaching and learning support, pastoral care and curriculum design.
Learning analytics data, for example, will detect when and for how long a student is engaging with the VLE, or whether work is handed in on time, and track attendance. Such information will make it easy to spot learners who are struggling and arrange intervention and tailored support.
Helping to provide this digital-first, data-led environment will be a digital infrastructure that also takes account of information security and the new (May 2018) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The sector must absorb the potential risks associated with implementing technology, to ensure security and business continuity. Robust cyber security policies will minimise the risk of breaches that could result in data loss, chaos and reputational damage and maximise user awareness of safe practice.
Institutes of Technology, T-levels and apprenticeships
Aligning with the government’s industrial and digital strategies, which address the technical skills gap in the UK and aim to boost productivity, FE organisations will be taking a leading role in Institutes of Technology (IoTs), and the delivery of T-levels and apprenticeships.
Current policy dictates that IoTs (due to open from 2019) will be joint projects between colleges, universities and employers, focusing on sub-degree level education. Meanwhile, an overhaul of technical education means that a myriad of 13,000 vocational courses will have been replaced by 15 comprehensive T-level routes, including construction, engineering and manufacturing, childcare and education, and digital.
Apprenticeships have already changed to become employer-led standards, with colleges vying with each other and independent providers to supply training.
Colleges will have developed stronger relationships with universities in order to deliver degrees and higher level apprenticeships, or will have attained degree-awarding powers themselves.
Across the UK right now, the FE estate structure is already changing, with a shift toward bigger, regional colleges, which have strong links with each other, with independent providers and industry.
All of this adds up to a new era of collaboration and competition, where the most successful colleges will be those that use technology effectively to facilitate smooth and successful partnerships between themselves, students and employers.
Their investment in new facilities and equipment required to deliver these reforms will have been designed at the outset with technology at the heart of all operations, transcending geographical locations.
The sector will be technically-focused by 2022 and will also be looking to develop internationally. Technology will support global mobility of learners and the collaboration of colleges, following in the footsteps of many UK universities with established overseas partnerships.
The sector will have harnessed the use of technology to prepare learners for the world of work locally, regionally, nationally and globally and, in doing so, equipped them with the digital skills, knowledge and behaviours they require to live, work and play, safely and securely, in an ever-changing digitally focused world.