FELTAG – Natural selection within FE?

FELTAG is an acronym for the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group – a group that was formed at the request of Matthew Hancock, the minister responsible for Further Education. The group was formed to advise Government on what needs to happen in FE to ensure that FE is making effective use of learning technology, and properly equipping learners for the demands of the current digital World.

Many would argue that FE has been doing a great job with regards learning technology, but the sad reality of the situation is that FE has had millions of pounds invested in it for this area of work since 2000, and in 2011 when Becta carried out it’s last annual survey, they deemed that only about 30% of Colleges were using learning technology effectively, and I would argue that the 30% using learning technology effectively probably got there as a result of very keen individuals taking the initiative and driving things from the bottom up, rather than as a result of the millions of pounds of tax payer money spent top down.

Many FE providers think they are doing great things with technology, but many are just using technology to do the same things as before without radically changing the teaching and learning process (e.g. writing on an Interactive whiteboard isn’t significantly different to writing on a blackboard with chalk; Putting a series of word based questions on the VLE for students to access at home isn’t significantly different to printing the word document out and taking it home in a folder).

In the last 10 or so years many colleges were engaging in a huge re-building programme as Government invested in colleges for the future – part of the rebuild process was the total teaching floor space had to be 10% less than before to take into account the fact that in the future more learning would take place online so colleges of the future would need less classrooms.

One of the headline grabbing recommendations is that all centrally funded FE courses will have to have 10% online delivery in order for the course to receive any funding, and financial incentives for courses to be up to 50% delivered online. It hasn’t been clarified by Government exactly what they mean by 10% (e.g. time, learning outcomes, weighting of units?) nor how will this be measured or enforced – but the 10% online element is now part of the language of FE planning.

Is forcing providers to have 10% online delivery the right step forward? Ideologically I would prefer it if people engaged in ‘blended’ learning because they saw the quality benefits that it brings, rather than because there is a financial gun held to their heads, however we have spent the last 14 years trying to encourage people to move in this direction, with only very limited success, so it probably is time for the funders to be financially more persuasive. Over the last few years I have worked with various providers including colleges, Work Based Learning (WBL), HE and charities wanting to increase and improve their blended provision, and one thing that I have suggested to them is rather than try and change a whole organisation in one go is to work with one area first and get it right there, then work with a few more areas, then work with the rest. This gives the organisation time to learn, time for the support mechanisms to establish, and if you make mistakes (which you will) you can learn from them, rather than affecting the whole organisation negatively. One problem with the FELTAG recommendations is this model is not an option, as the changes need to happen more quickly, so organisations will have to tackle whole areas at the same time.

One of the underlying principles of the FELTAG recommendations, is this is not about saving money – instead it is about raising quality of provision. In reality it will cost providers more money (certainly initially) which is not an easy pill for some to swallow. I have worked with various providers where the management are seeing the 10% online element as a simple way of reducing costs, by asking teachers to make 10% of their teaching online, and then expecting them to do an extra 10% of teaching (and marking) in its place. I am trying to reinforce the fact that to make this work, we have to get out of that mindset. All that would happen with this model, is low quality provision, overworked teachers (causing the good ones to leave) and low student satisfaction, that would in turn reduce intake in future years. To make this work there needs to be strong and clear strategic leadership from senior management, proper and managed investment to make this work, and teachers need to be an active part of the process, not just the whipping boys (and girls) at the bottom of the pile being dumped on from above. If organisations can get this right, then the rewards could be very fruitful, If a provider can create a high quality product – this will attract higher numbers of students, which will then bring an efficiency in numbers which is where there will be a cost saving element in the future for those that do get this right.

My predictions for the future in Further Education, as a result of FELTAG are:

  • Charles DarwinLots of providers will get this wrong, and will either fold or get taken over/merged with another provider.
  • Providers will start to be more specialised in the areas that they deliver – and will drop their weaker areas.
  • There will be an increase in the number of learners (I think we will see more short courses, and part-time study, and less full time provision).

I therefore see this as a form of natural selection – the stronger courses at the stronger providers will thrive and pick up students previously covered by other providers, and weaker courses and weaker organisations will naturally fall away, which in general I think will be a good thing.

I think that WBL and Adult Community Education (ACL) are likely to be concerned by all this. Many don’t have the same infrastructures and investments that colleges and Sixth form colleges have, which is likely to be a disadvantage to them, however there are many WBL and ACL providers who are doing good things, and they could really thrive in this environment, especially if a large FE college for example were to fold. It will be interesting to see if there is an expectation of the prison service to provide an element of online learning, logistically they cannot as the internet is banned in prisons, but not doing this would even further disadvantage the young people being detained and reducing their chance of employment on release, thus increasing their chances of re-offending. And finally specialist colleges – online learning is totally inappropriate for many disabled students, but may be very appropriate for other disabled students. This could be very good for some disabled learners who have found mainstream education difficult (for whatever reason) – if there are courses with say 50% online, this may open doors for them, as they can study at their own pace, with their own adapted equipment, with the ability to take regular breaks etc.

From a personal perspective, this is an exciting time – the fact that I have been so heavily involved working on large successful blended learning programmes in FE, means that I should be in high demand in the coming months and years (I have already noticed a huge increase in bookings in the last few months as a result of this). I feel a little sorry for the teachers and the students at providers that don’t get this right, I just hope that the good teachers move to the good providers, and students vote with their feet where necessary.

I hope that providers have the sense to seek outside help early in the process, rather than waiting until it is too late.

Going back to the title of this post – I do see this as a form of Darwinian natural selection (survival of the fittest) – in a way that we haven’t seen before – and the saying “..It is not the strongest, or fastest species that survive, but the ones that are most capable of adapting to changes in their environment that thrive…”

5 Responses

  1. Great piece Dave. If you look at parallels (not exact I appreciate) then the way banking, insurance, travel bookings and many other workplaces have all changed due to the web hasn’t yet been reflected in substantial change in FE. Thank you for posting.

    • I think looking at parallels is very valid. If we look at the Supermarket world, the one supermarket that chose not to jump feet first into online shopping was Morrisons, who then a few years later realised they had made a huge mistake as their profits fell, and they have had to invest heavily to play catch up. The difference between them and education, is education doesn’t have the background funds to ride such blips in profitability.

  2. FELTAG sounds familiar.
    Check this out: https://www.evernote.com/shard/s27/sh/f0651d70-3c01-4911-a619-d5991101e75b/d0de4e7ce01f4bfda54f88417fb92731

    20 Years ago at Apple I was in a position to support a major project that tackled the thorny subject of ICT adoption (ILT) in Learning at that time.

  3. I think your ideas on sharing content are brilliant. Because we have no budget to buy anything, we are being told we have to create content. But the quality will be dismal and it is a huge investment of time to create. The value of digital is in economies of scale. Little colleges can only participate if we build a sharing economy of digital resources; we can’t create them all ourselves.

  4. Suzanne – Content is no longer King – it is what you do with resources that matters. There is so much good stuff out there on YouTube, Wikimedia, Jorum, NLN etc. that most FE courses could be structured with only small amounts of ‘in-house’ created content. The skill is being able to choose what is appropriate or not appropriate and then structure activities around the content. I have run training sessions in the past with colleges on this basic pricinple – knowing how to find the resources, then doing something with them.

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