It's time for FE to show leadership for the innovative use of technology for learning
Culture, coaching and Collaboration reportFurther education (FE) should be bolder in its adoption of digital technologies for learning and teaching according to a report from the City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development, launched in London last week at the first meeting of the Think Out Loud Club,  a new FE learning technology community established in collaboration with the 157 Group, Toshiba, and the Ufi Trust.

The new report, "Culture, Coaching and Collaboration: How to unlock the potential of digital technology in vocational teaching and learning", by Charlynne Pullen and Olivia Varley-Winter, identifies the advantages for further education (FE) in making wise investments in digital technologies, and hails the work of pioneering FE colleges like Bridgend College, in Wales, and Reading College.

The report calls on the FE sector to be bolder with its use of technology to transform teaching and learning and to ensure students are workplace-ready. It says that to integrate better use of technology for teaching and learning the FE sector must:

  • Embed "a culture of experimentation where teachers are given the chance to develop new methods in collaboration with learners to understand how it impacts on their learning";
  • Support FE professionals and technology experts "to work together to use technology when developing new techniques and teaching methods";
  • Enable the leadership of FE colleges to "spearhead and explore new technologies to support the confident use of technology inside, and outside, the classroom".

'Most learners have a supercomputer in their pockets'

Kirstie DonnellyKirstie Donnelly"It’s impossible to ignore the fact that most learners have a supercomputer in their pocket today," commented City & Guilds UK managing director Kirstie Donnelly, "and this important research confirms what City & Guilds has known for a long time: technology has the ability to transform the way that vocational education is delivered.

"Further education, as a route into employment, has an opportunity to lead the way. We are committed to supporting the sector by ensuring that technology plays a central role in everything we create and enabling centres to share best practice through collaborations such as the Think Out Loud Club."

The report concludes with a warning that future success will depend on innovation in the sector, such as Reading College’s training kitchen where they film students as they work and use Google Docs for monitoring and assessment, rather than a top-down approach from policy-makers who often lack the technology or teaching experience.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, a consortium of 30 FE colleges dedicated to promoting high standards in FE, commented: "The findings presented in this report are a welcome and timely contribution to the shaping of the vocational ‘digital classroom’ of tomorrow. Putting technology at the heart of vocational learning in the FE sector is vital for ensuring that we train tomorrow’s workforce to become the highly-skilled and adaptable employees that British businesses need."

"Culture, coaching and collaboration" was released in an important week for for FE, arriving just a day before the report from the Further Education Learning technology Action Group (Feltag – see "New FE report could hold blueprint for ICT policy"} which calls on a range of policymakers and organisations to play a full part in changing the FE landscape for learning with technology. The City & Guilds report looks more closely at the FE culture and pedagogies, and what its own community can do, hence the encouragement to be "bolder".

There are some very helpful explorations and insightful quotes that contextualise the potential of technology to support change, like this one from Professor Adam Falk, the President of Williams College in the USA: “Effective (and cost-effective) technologies to support distance education and self-paced learning have been with us for many decades. Printing, television and the postal service are remarkable tools. And, in fact, they have been used since their inventions to enhance and deepen education.

'Neither books nor video nor chat rooms have made colleges obsolete'

"What none of them has done is change the fundamental fact that at its heart education is a social activity that takes its highest form within a real community of students and faculty. Neither books nor video nor chat rooms have made colleges obsolete.”

It includes a classic, from Larry Cuban's 1986 book Teachers and Machines: “The changes teachers have embraced… have solved problems that teachers identified as important, not necessarily ones defined by non-teachers. Moreover, what teachers adopted buttressed their authority, rather than undermined it. Thus, those technologies incorporated into routine teacher practice responded to daily classroom needs without undercutting the teacher’s control of the class… Teachers have altered their practice when a technological innovation helped them do a better job of what they already decided had to be done and matched their view of daily classroom realities.”

It would be wrong to take these quotes as somewhat negative. They merely recognise the over-promise and under-delivery of technology for learning. And its focus on pedagogies is supported by examples of good practice from pioneering FE colleges like Bridgend and Reading, describing exactly how the practical implementation of technology is used to enhance vocational education – like "quizzes on the go, practical teacher demonstrations captured on film, virtual monitoring of students’ progress using Google Docs, and simulators showing techniques such as constructing the wings of a plane".

Think Out Loud Club – walking the talk

Screenshot Think Out Loud ClubRather than just issue a report and hope that its recommendations will be taken up, City & Guilds decided to "walk the talk" by creating a new FE learning technology community with its own network on Google+ – the Think Out Loud Club – in collaboration with the 157 Group, Toshiba, and the Ufi Trust . The inaugural meeting was a "Big Think" event held at the Science Museum in London held it a new FE learning technology community established.

It was the kind of "bold" move called for in the report and the response from the community was positive. Like similar events in other sectors it produced its own sources of inspiration, like Moocs advocate, Open Badges activist Tim Riches (@triches) and  Yousef Fouda (@YFouda), chief technology officer at Warwickshire College, who outlined the culture change in his college, and the new practices unlocked, by the adoption of Google Apps for collaboration for the curriculum. And all of this was shared on social networking (check out the Twitter hashtag #FirstBigThink).

Having taken the first steps in changing the culture of FE this nascent community will be applying the recommendations of its own report (the Feltag report has plenty more, and for partners). "Culture, Coaching and Collaboration" warns poicymakers against "talking up" technology too much: "The 'digital revolution' does not help those who are considering how to start using digital technologies – it merely highlights how little they know at the moment. The crucial difference that digital technologies can make is to improve the quality of teaching and learning by being used in an appropriate way by a teacher, not by being a digital technology."

Leaders should also free up teachers to fell that they can make the time to experiment with pedagogies and technologies in their learning and teaching, and then share their practice, adds the report. And teachers are identified as the key to change: "So they need to start using them [technologies], albeit at their own pace and in a way that will make them most comfortable. Reflecting on their own pedagogy, and considering how to incorporate or adapt digital technologies to best fit with that pedagogy, is an important role for teachers."

The report concludes with a quote from a teacher from Reading College: "Teachers also started to come up with more ideas about how to use technology in lessons. The whole ethos of using technology is to tailor the technology to how the teachers want to use it. There is more cross-college collaboration because of technology than there was before, and it’s great to share our good practice and learn from others."

More information

"Culture, Coaching and Collaboration: How to unlock the potential of digital technology in vocational teaching and learning"  
City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development

GGCSA on Twitter – @skillsdev 
Think Out Loud Club on Twitter – @ThinkLoudClub
Big Think hashtag – #FirstBigThink