The DfE has cut funding for England's most ambitious CPD programme for ICT. Bob Harrison asks its director, Peter Twining, 'How vital is Vital'?
It hs to be either a particularly quirky irony or exceptionally bad timing that, at a time when the Government is reforming the teaching of ICT in schools and the national curriculum, that the most successful continuing professional development (CPD) programme established for that specific purpose is being curtailed.
Vital was conceived by the last Government after several attempts to engage with and up-skill the education workforce to cope with the advances in learning technology and the implications for pedagogy, not to mention the ever increasing digital expectations of each new cohort of pupils.
Some were more successful than others but Vital, run by the world’s most successful online and distance learning provider, the Open University, and originally in collaboration with e-Skills UK, the IT employer organisation, seemed to be a perfect marriage of complementary skills and expertise.
The OU-run Vital officially closes down at the end of March 2013 when the funding from the Department for Education dries up and key elements of the service transfer to JISC. So how has it performed? Last week saw the final Vital board meeting where Vital director, Dr Peter Twining, produced his final report. While most of the targets and KPIs (key performance indicators) set by the DfE for the £9.4m investment were significantly exceeded, I was anxious to find out from Dr Twining what he thought about the project and its impact and what lessons he had learned.
How satisfied are you with the impact of the Vital project?
PT: That’s a really tough question. I believe in aiming high and inevitably we didn’t have the transformational impact on the education system that I aspired to. However, I do believe that Vital played an important role in helping to extend thinking about what effective CPD looks like. We were an important catalyst for helping move informal CPD, such as TeachMeets, more into the mainstream. We are also at the forefront of research into 1:1 computing and related digital technology strategies, and I think we will see growing impact from our work in this area, particularly through EdFutures.net and YOTS (Your Own Technology Survey), both of which will continue after the DfE funding for Vital ends.
What have been the biggest challenges?
PT: The changing educational context has been incredibly difficult for everyone working in the school sector over the last few years. One of Vital’s biggest problems was being funded on a one year cycle, from April to the following March. While we were successful in getting Vital’s funding extended twice, the uncertainty about whether this would happen meant that we were never able to offer schools a service spanning a full academic year (from September to July). You really need to be funded for a minimum of two years, so you can prepare your offer, promote it to schools in the Spring term with the intention of them planning to use the services for the following academic year (from September to July). Had we been able to do that I think we would have had even greater impact.
Why is Vital ending when the ICT curriculum is being reformed?
PT: Vital was set up by the Labour government in 2009 to enhance ‘ICT teaching’. That included ICT as a specialist subject as well as the use of digital technology to enhance learning across the curriculum. Having helped CAS being established as the subject association focused on computer science, we then concentrated on digital literacy and the cross curricula use of digital technology. Two key changes in policy inevitably meant that Vital wouldn’t continue to be funded by the DfE. Firstly and probably most importantly, was the policy of devolution of funding and decision making from the centre to the school level. Secondly, was the DfE’s shift in focus from ‘ICT teaching’ to computer science, which is evident in the current draft Programme of Study for Computing. So the writing was on the wall for Vital for quite some time. Indeed it was a significant achievement to have our funding extended in 2011 and again in 2012.
What is happening to all the resources Vital has generated?
PT: Vital developed four key sets of resources:
- the course materials from Phase 1 and the In-house Professional Development Partnership (IPDP) materials from Phase 2 – these will all continue to be available from Vitals’ labspace in the OpenLearn website;
- the Subject Portals, which are being taken over by JISC, who will continue to develop them as a free resource for teachers;
- EdFutures.net, the wiki in which we are sharing information about digital technology strategies such as 1:1 computing, Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) and the Digital Leaders Programmes. I will continue to manage and extend EdFutures.net;
- YOTS (Your Own Technology Survey), which is a free service to schools to help them audit their pupils’ access to the Internet and Internet enabled mobile devices from home. YOTS will also continue to be developed as part of my research.
What would you do differently if you could start again?
PT: I wish I had had the courage of my convictions at the start of Vital, when I wanted to develop a community around a wiki and forum – based on my experiences on the Schome Initiative. Unfortunately I allowed myself to be talked out of that early in Phase 1. It wasn’t until mid-way through Phase 3 that I moved back in that direction with the launch of EdFutures.net.
What will you be doing now the Vital project director role has ended?
PT: I will continue in my academic post at the Open University. It’s an exciting time for me as I will be taking a big block of study leave from April, during which I will be focused on developing EdFutures.net and YOTS. I’m more optimistic now about the pedagogical developments that are emerging around the use of mobile technology in schools than I have been at any point over the last 25 years, so its going to be wonderful to be able to explore these further over the coming year.
What do think of the Computing draft programmes of study produced by the DfE and currently out for consultation
PT: As anyone who has read my bliki will know, I am very concerned about the over-emphasis on computer science at the expense of digital literacy [see also "Why 'computing' for the digitally illiterate is dangerous"]. Computer science is important, but digital literacy is even more so. Actually, I’m even more concerned about the PoS for the other subjects, which seem to largely ignore the impact that digital technology has had on disciplines outside school. I strongly believe that school subjects should attempt to reflect their corresponding discipline – so, for example, when learning to find information in the English PoS I would have expected that to go beyond using the contents and index in a book to include using the Internet.
If you could write an epitaph for the Vital project what would it be?
PT: Given that three core strands of Vital’s work are going to be carrying on after the DfE funding ends I think it is much too soon to be thinking about epitaphs!
Bob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College and chairs the teaching schools’ New Technologies Advisory Board. He runs Support for Education and Training
Some Vital facts and figures:
Phase 1: More than 25,000 'training days' delivered.
Phase 2: More than 3,000 portal subscriptions sold (KPI was to sell 1,250)
Phase 3: More than 7,360 additional portal subscriptions sold
As of today there are more than 11,000 registered users.