All change – City and Guilds boss Kirstie Donnelly lauds the positivity in FE revealed in new report
Are you reading this on a smartphone? An iPad or tablet? Or on a computer, prompted by a link you saw on Twitter? The fact is that digital is everywhere these days – including further education.
We’ve just released some research which clearly shows that the further education (FE) sector is finally ready and willing to embrace technology (see Technology in FE: Special Report). Of the more than 600 FE professionals asked, 80 per cent believe technology has the power to positively impact teaching and learning – a welcome response and one that I think even a year ago would have been very different.
Although the sector has been playing catch-up to other areas of education over the past few years, there is now real momentum for digital adoption in FE. Last month the Government responded positively to the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group’s (FELTAG) call to Government, FE organisations and the funding and regulatory structure to make the changes and investments necessary to enable more take-up of learning technology.
While it is too early to say whether political support will translate into action, it’s good to see recognition of the potential positive disruption that enabling technology can play in improving teaching and learning. What is clear is that it remains an uphill journey to enable the FE sector to make the use of technology the norm in teaching, learning and assessment. That is not to say that the sector isn’t willing to try.
Reasons to be cheerful – positive workforce and leaders on board
For me, two findings stood out from the survey that demonstrated the positive attitudes among practitioners. First, despite not being ‘digital natives’, experienced tutors are positive about the advantages of new tools – in some cases more so than their younger colleagues. More than a third who qualified before 1999 say they use all the technology available to them, compared with 17 per cent of those who qualified three to four years ago which really highlights that age is no barrier to enthusiasm. Second, there is support from the top: 71 per cent of tutors say their leadership team encourages the use of new technology. I certainly see this at first hand and we recently hosted a principals' event looking at how FE leaders can embed a culture of digital within their organisations which confirmed this support.
However, enthusiasm for what the digital future can offer among tutors and managers is not yet being matched by uptake in the classroom. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents told us they lack confidence in learning to use new technologies – unsurprising, then, that fewer than one in seven uses all the technology available to them. What our survey highlights is a group of practitioners who recognise the importance of technology but are crying out for encouragement and support as they introduce it into teaching, learning and assessment, alongside relevant content that sits behind the technology.
FE tutors emphasise the need for more investment in new resources, along with more training and time for experimentation: 62 per cent say they lack the time to properly explore all options while two thirds say more time to experiment would encourage them to use technology. Six out of ten emphasise the need for more specific training on how to use technology and two thirds want access to resources that help organisations develop online materials internally.
Many tutors told us that they would really value access to external and internal support networks. We agree that this is crucial, which is why we launched the Think Out Loud Club in February 2014 – an online and offline network for learning technology evangelists to share their experiences. The Think Out Loud Club provides information on latest technologies and hosts events where practitioners can come together and learn from each other.
But it’s not just about keeping up with the latest trends. We conducted our research to learn more about what digital really means in FE – how practitioners are using or not using technology and what are the capabilities and attitudes towards digital within teaching, learning and assessment at this level. We feel really strongly that without assessing the role of learning technology in FE, we can’t properly appreciate the changes needed within organisations and the system as a whole to help encourage more experimentation and adoption. Despite concerns about funding and capability, the appetite is there and tutors are using technology in different ways - three quarters of tutors find technology useful for tracking student progress, or conducting tests, while 72 per cent value it for sharing resources with students outside of lessons.
The research threw up further issues, not least where to look for support, given the growing range of resources being used, and the variety of ways these are being implemented to support teaching, learning and assessment across all subjects. It’s clear there is a knowledge gap when it comes to finding organisations to encourage better use of technology in FE; with 78 per cent of tutors unaware of companies or support services geared up to do this.
Implementation across the sector is also inconsistent, and those organisations with less advanced technology struggle most to ensure what they have is fully used across all departments. Many staff are delivering teaching off-site where access to particular resources is limited, but for most the key issue is having time to learn how to effectively make use of what is available.
Relevant content, rather than technology, is the issue
There is also a slightly misguided perception that technology is not relevant or appropriate for all subjects and that this is holding some tutors back. Yet our research identifies that it is not the technology itself but the lack of subject-relevant content to use with this technology that is a bigger issue. There is clearly an opportunity to provide more content to support specific subjects.
Although access and implementation are not consistent across the FE sector, the issues surrounding the use of technology within it are universal, regardless of age, experience or industry. There is huge opportunity, therefore, to leverage tutors’ desire to better embed technology into their practice by helping them learn from each other, develop materials they can deliver through technology and affording them the time to explore and experiment. The hope is that the momentum sparked in the first half of this year will drive the sector forwards and that the Government and funding systems will provide the necessary investment and support to allow digital to flourish in FE – and for FE to flourish, enabled by digital!
The last word goes to one of the tutors in our survey. “Change is good for the technology side of things in my sector,” he said. “Scary at first but great fun once you have got to grips with it to learn and challenge.”
Technology in FE: Special Report
Kirstie Donnelly MBE is UK managing director of City & Guilds