Wanted: pioneers

Published in TES magazine on 9 March, 2012 | By: Bob Harrison

FE Colleges used to be like the Wild West. After the pioneers blazed new trails, settlers behind them would ask, “Is it safe yet?” When the pioneers said it was, the settlers would follow, benefiting from the pioneers’ risk taking. But futurist Joel Barker thinks that in the 21st century, settlers will be at the highest risk. When the followers ask, “Is it safe out there?”, the pioneers will reply, “Sure, but there’s nothing left for you.”

FE is desperately in need of some “paradigm pioneers”, but where will they come from? The last Becta survey of FE colleges’ capacity to use technology effectively suggested that over 65 per cent of them were not equipped to “make the most effective use of technology for teaching and learning”. That was when Becta existed, FE had a technology strategy and the sector had vision and a collaborative approach to innovation.

When Becta closed, a handful of the FE team were transferred to the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS). Sadly, all of those staff have left and the assets are becoming dated and devalued. Equally sadly, there is no evidence that LSIS has the understanding, vision or leadership to become “paradigm pioneers” when it comes to the digital transformation that FE desperately needs.

The Association of Colleges, too, if its current conference programme is any indication, seems uninterested in what Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, calls a “growing crisis of relevance in our colleges”. Interestingly, the Open University’s £12 million, Department for Education-funded teacher CPD project, Vital, is raising the skill levels of schoolteachers. But FE colleges are not allowed access to the resources. So why isn’t the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) doing the same for colleges?

There are a few rays of hope. Preston College and a small number of others have discovered iTunes U. Hundreds of lecturers are developing pockets of innovative practice. But systemic change is needed. We also have the Association of Learning Technology, whose chief Seb Schmoller has been a consistent voice for the sector. Niace, too, is raising awareness in adult education of the power of digital technology to enhance learning with its “e-guides”. The question is, however, what will actually change for learners in our FE colleges?

There are a few college principals who are starting to realise that we cannot “carry on doing the wrong things well”, as Showk Badat, principal of the Essa Academy in Bolton, puts it. At least the DfE has followed up on Michael Gove’s Damascene conversion with a series of provocative questions and an online discussion forum, but where is that vision in BIS? Where are the visionaries and pioneers to come from? At the moment, their absence is the most notable thing about them.

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