If you want to get FELTAG right – forget the 10%

This may seem like an odd title to a post, and I expect that some readers will find this post uneasy – but I feel that there is a need for a reality check here, and urge people to read the entire post before judging.

Anyone working in FE in the UK should be aware of the term FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) – who submitted a series of recommendations to Government to improve the quality of FE. There were many recommendations submitted, most were accepted (some with ammends) in the Government response but the one that has got everyone’s attention is the idea that all funded FE courses have to have 10% online to get any funding, and here lies the problem.

Speed Limit 10
Over the years I have run many training sessions or presentations on the notion of blended learning – and always start with an activity to define what we mean by blended learning. My definition is “The optimum mix of online and face to face delivery” for a particular situation. The key word there is the word ‘optimum’ – for some situations it may be 5% online, another maybe 25%, another 50% etc. There is no magic percentage that is the optimum value as every situation is different, so in only a very small number of scenarios is 10% going to be the optimum. What most FE providers are doing at the moment is scrabbling around desperately trying to get all of their courses to this magical 10% number, and as resources are so tight, there is no incentive or reason to go beyond the 10% – and this is what worries me. The purpose of FELTAG was to raise standards of education, and the report included many recommendations and actions covering the whole gambit of use of technology in teaching and learning – the 10% element was only one small part of it – however the term FELTAG has accidentally become synonymous with 10% and rather than being a quality improvement exercise it appears to have turned into a tick box activity driven by the funding mechanism that itself doesn’t appear to understand what online learning is or isn’t.

Following discussions on Twitter and other blogs, working with FE providers and talking to key individuals in this area it is clear to me that this has become the reality. Looking at the titles of various webinars and training courses being offered by different bodies, they all seem to focus on the 10% issue, rather than the potential quality issues, or potential financial gains issues.

I appreciate that most providers have small learning tech teams and many have never had, and still don’t have full SMT support – so this is a huge and real problem. My prediction for September 2015 is we will have lots of courses that do have the mandatory 10% online provision – but most of these will be of poor quality, with over stressed teachers, stability issues with the systems, and the 10% being an expensive tokenistic gesture that isn’t integrated into the whole teaching and learning process and culture. The other problem is that we don’t even know what 10% means – so some will create something that they think is 10% only to find out it isn’t, or others will go over the top investing too much time and effort artificially doing things, when in fact they may have already been meeting the 10% criteria.

So – what do I propose?

This brings me back to the title of the post. The best way to get this right (in my opinion) is to stop thinking about and talking about 10% – but instead to focus on identifying what the best mix of online and face to face each course would benefit from (and don’t try putting percentages against this). If we focus on this we will in almost all cases easily cover and surpass the 10% requirement, without it being an issue in itself. This approach also negates the problem of not knowing how big or where the financial goalposts are (and that will also keep moving) – if we provide something that is genuinely good, it doesn’t matter where the goalposts move to the provision will either be on target or easy to adapt slightly to get on target. If we aim for the magic 10% there is a risk we could miss altogether, and having to re-engineer something later on could be very expensive, and time consuming.

Firslty we need to make sure the snior managers are clear about what they are doing and why – there are various different models that can be employed when developing blended learning courses – and we need to get the right ones for the right purposes. We also need to ensure that we get staff buy in. Senior managers simply asking teaching staff to put 10% online (without any financial gain)  isn’t going to get staff buy in. A model where staff see reward for their efforts and benefits to them and the learners need to be found. Then we need to invest heavily in the staff work force – that has been identified on numerous occassions. There are plenty of opportunities available from the various support organisations involved, as well as many people like myself that has extensive experience of creating blended learning provision in FE and HE.

Some FE providers are shouting out that it isn’t possible to achieve any of this with the resources that they have – yes it may be difficult, but anything is possible if there is a desire and a will from the teaching staff to make it happen, and clear strategic leadership from above.

I have written this post as a ‘food for thought’ article. I hope that people don’t perceive this as a negative post – I am genuinely passionate about this area of work, and believe that great things can come from it, but I fear that at the moment, too many people are heading in the wrong direction – and a bit of feather ruffling will be benefical.

If any providers are interested in how I could help them with this area of work, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/aXLEc

17 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more! The whole point of elearning is that it’s a toolbox to use (alongside other toolboxes like role play, drama, discussion). If a whole swathe of tools are never used you can draw a conclusion about missed opportunities. However having a target for how many times you use a particular tool in a project is like installing a kitchen and saying “oops – I haven’t used spanners yet. Must make sure I do some spanner work today” as you set about laying tiling the floor …

  2. I really welcome the sensible tone you take with this article. I work at a college where there is not even a TEL “team”– it’s one guy, one day a week. Your description of on-line delivery which is of “poor quality, with over stressed teachers, stability issues with the systems, and the 10% being an expensive tokenistic gesture that isn’t integrated into the whole teaching and learning process and culture” is exactly what I fear. Your tones are reassuring, and surely, integrating technology into the whole provision is the way forward. But without resources I simply don’t see how this is possible. We can’t even get teachers to adopt Moodle! And the scary part is that all of this WILL be tied to funding. We can’t afford to lose a single penny in funding, and yet we’ve been told we can’t spend anything on technology either. There seems no way forward and I remain frustrated at yet another target-driven system which doesn’t take into account the capacity of many colleges.

    • Suzanne – without senior manager support you are always going to struggle, and the fact that the FELTAG recommendations came out at the same time as funding cuts within the sector haven’t helped, as managers have conveniently assumed that the two issues are linked.

      In response to the fact there is only 1 year to do this – the Government has been throwing money at FE for 14 years to move forwards in this area, the providers have taken the money, but in most cases haven’t moved forwards significantly. If they didn’t some financial incentive attached nothing would have happened. The challenge for you in your college is whether the senior managers can make the right decisions, to invest the right amount of money and support in the right areas, do get in touch if you want a chat.

  3. I understand that for the financial adminstrators they did need to have some measurable quantity – as that is how they work, but the risk that it presents…..

  4. Folks need to share content – why in Scotland we have been pushing Open Scotland agenda . The value is not in the content but in the blended part the human interaction . It may sound contrarian while asking people to give away their learning materials and telling them at the same time that the value in learning is the human factor not the learning materials .

    • I completely agree – and that is part of my arguement for the fact that it is possible to acheive this if there is a will. There is so much content out there that is available, we don’t need to build content (which takes ages) we just need to get good at aggrogating it and stringing it together in a sensible way that guides the learners through the process.

      For smaller providers in particular if they worked together to share resources with each other, they could also reduce their workload – but that requires a different level of thinking than what most managers are used to…

  5. Great article Dave, sensible and practical. I completely agree,thanks for raising this. Working in an Adult Ed community, it will be interesting to see how we are affected by this, in terms of funding. As Suzanne points out above, we too struggle just to get tutors to use our Moodle, so forcing tutors to put 10% of their course content online is a ‘bridge too far’ at the moment. As you say, blended learning is about the appropriate amount of content being put online

    • Hi Louise. FELTAG covers everything funded by the SFA which is most of the FE sector including colleges, WBL, ACL etc. So yes you should be affected, and of all the sectors it is ACL that I do feel sorry for as they haven’t had the same infrastructre investment as other areas – and it will be a huge challenge.

      Personally I would have preferred for providers to have more time to get to this level, so they could build up more strategically – but in reality – all that would have happened is many would have ignored and left to last few months anyway – so having a shorter deadline is (as painful as it sounds) probably better.

      I didn’t write the recommendations, nor the Government reponse – there are elements that I agree with, elements i disagree with, but my job is to help organisations to make the best of what they have. What I have found with the organisations that I have worked with recenlty, is I have been able to save them huge amounts of money – by stopping them heading in wrong direction with wrong technologies.

      For some it may be a bridge too far – and for them, they may be interested in my previous blog post – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/feltag-natural-selection-within-fe/ I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but senior decision makers in too many organisations need a shake!

  6. I found the article very interesting and well balanced. My company have done little work with FE and HE (although I was a University lecturer for 28 years – most before even computers). Most of our work is with industry where we encounter very similar issues, usually with HR departments, flip boards and PowerPoint. We did work with a small FE college in Leicestershire some few years ago. Many staff and the head of IT were very interested in the development of blended learning, particularly to support their commercial activities with local companies. However, the Principals view was that its use was tinkering with true learning delivery and computers were no more than ‘boys toys’.

    I think there is still much to do to promote the advantages of learning in this way, to dispel the idea that content is all about coding, that only IT people can manage the process, that it will ‘take peoples jobs’ (particularly in industry) and more.

    To ruffle feathers is an excellent idea and should be applauded – well done.

    • As you say there are lots of misconceptions around this area of work – the good thing at the moment is this is happening, so it doesn’t matter what people’s opinions are – we just need to knuckle down and get on…

      • I agree with you entirely, we have been developing strategies, providing solutions and hosting sites for 14 years now and it does get better the more you push, demonstrate and cajole.

  7. Towards the end of your post, Dave, you say “I hope that people don’t perceive this as a negative post”. I must say don’t think what you have written is at all negative. Like others who have commented, I applaud you for a really well thought out response to the nonsense of the ‘FELTAG 10%’. In particular, I really like your suggestion that the best approach is to stop thinking about 10%! But I fear that it will be difficult for senior managers to follow this excellent advice. I perceive senior managers as being increasingly engaged in ‘compliance-mongering’. (Indeed only this morning I heard that the head of an educational organisation in the West Midlands told his staff that “the most important word in this organisation is compliance” – yuck!) Of course I don’t criticise managers personally for being compliance-mongers. That is probably the only way they can hang on to their jobs at present.

    When will government and its agencies realise that reductionist numerical targets always and inevitably result in gaming behaviour? Such targets simply lead to institutions focusing their time, money and energy on finding the easiest ways to meet the target rather than focusing their time, money and energy on the most effective ways to meet the needs of their clients/learners. John Seddon identified this back in 2008 in his excellent book ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’. As Seddon says “the controls being exerted [through target setting] are actually creating waste, driving up costs, worsening services and destroying morale.” The FELTAG 10%’ is just the latest example.

    As you say, Dave, there is no optimum percentage that applies in every situation, so why devote time, money and energy to getting auditors to decide whether each particular learning programme has 9% or 11% online provision? Surely it would be far better to ditch the auditors and and devote time, money and energy instead to developing awareness of the best mix of online and f2f learning environments for each particular learning context.

    • PS…

      I have just read page 44 of the SFA Provider Support Manual for 2014 to 2015 (in response to a post about the FELTAG 10% on another blog: http://stirringlearning.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/brutal-pods-for-bods-10-of-funded-feskills-learning-to-be-online-what-what-really-is-online/)

      The SFA document (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/320156/ILRProviderSupportManual_2014_15_v1_June2014.pdf) casts some light on how the SFA will seek to define “10% online”. We read:

      “The percentage of online delivery recorded in this field is the proportion of the SFA curriculum design (scheme of work) delivered by computer mediated activity rather than by a lecturer.”

      But how on earth can one compare numerically the proportion of ‘curriculum design… delivered’ by a face-to-face activity with the proportion ‘delivered’ on a VLE? How can one compare time designed to be spent in a classroom/workshop/laboratory with the amount of written/multimedia material designed to be accessed online? It’s a mathematical absurdity, a classic example of trying to compare apples with oranges. But next academic year auditors will, we must assume, be expected to arbitrate on whether a particular programme has 9% or 11% ‘online delivery’.

      However, what is really interesting on page 44 of the SFA document are the examples they provide of what does and does not allegedly constitute ‘online learning’. At first I was surprised to see what has been excluded (e.g. webinars and online support – both of which have a track-record of success). But then I re-read the sentence I quoted earlier in this comment and the penny dropped. They are not talking about online learning as such, they are talking about activities that involve NO contact between teacher and learner.

      So now we know the real agenda, to limit the contact time between teacher and learner and thus reduce staffing costs. It’s the educational equivalent of driver-less trains on the London Underground.

      How dare the government and its funding agency bring in a funding regime designed to reward institutions for limiting contact between teacher and learner?

      • As you say Terry, when you look at how the SFA are defining online learning, it is quite worrying. I eluded to this in my post with the line

        ‘a tick box activity driven by the funding mechanism that itself doesn’t appear to understand what online learning is or isn’t’

        At no point in the past has replacing the role of a teacher with a computer been a good idea, and something I have never endorsed – but as you say this seems to be where the SFA are heading. My hope is that the ‘trailblazer’ organisations that will be helping to identify the exact measures etc. will help to correct this.

        I think it is a classic case of left hand and right hand not talking to each other. The FELTAG recommendations, not the Government response suggested that this was about replacing teachers with computers, it just appears that the SFA has misinterpreted it that way, and I hope that this will be challenged.

    • Terry – as you say many managers will end up just aiming for compliance, as that is what they are good at, and to be fair that is what they are employed to do. The Government has had to create some form of ‘measurable’ incentive, as it is no longer acceptable to leave it up to the senior managers in organisations to decide what is best, as if they did this area of work wouldn’t move forwards at all – which takes us back to why FELTAG was started (students leaving FE were not deemed to have the right employability skills in the modern digital age – and even though millions of pounds of tax payers money had been thrown at FE in this area, there hadn’t been a significant behaviour change as a result).

      What is interesting is how for many years, some organisations wanted to do more online learning in FE but couldn’t due to the restrictive Government funding model (Guided Learning Hours), only for an almost overnight change from prevention of online learning, to insisting on online learning – and all at a time when funding for FE is being axed!

  8. Hi Dave,

    Interesting read. The most frustrating response to FELTAG is the number of companies using the 10% to sell online content that colleges ‘need’. Can’t say I blame them but the phone calls from e-learning developers are becoming boring.

    I agree re. blended learning being the optimum mix, not a predefined quota. I have been thinking about our response to FELTAG slightly differently and along the lines of learning outcomes. Rather than percentage of content delivered online, how percentage of learning outcomes met e.g. through online group work/collaboration and independent research. At the risk of embarrassing myself I put my ideas in a voicethread (a tongue-in-cheek spin off of flipped learning to support the FELTAG recommendations):

    Where I was going with this is that I think the learning process in FE has to be redefined rather than trying to take our existing model of delivery and then slam a 10% wedge of online content in there somewhere which seems to be where the sector is heading and goes against what the FELTAG set out to achieve.

    I think there also has to be better advice given to FE providers on what FELTAG is about and it should be directed at senior management, curriculum and learning technologists together as one🙂

    • Hi Ben, as you say – the main benefactors from FELTAG are the resource publishing companies who as you say can make an easy sale, and I anticipate that many organisations will take the path of least resistance and simply buy off the shelf self contained packages – which may meet the FELTAG funding criteria, but certainly won’t raise the standards of education in those organisations and fundamentally I see as a very risky long term strategy – that could cost them lots of money in the long run.

      No-one has ever clarified what the 10% should relate to, is it time, learning outcomes, assessment outcomes, assessement weighting, is it 10% of a unit or a whole programme etc. Going back to the title of the post, if people forget the 10% and just focus on developing high quality blended learning, with a sound strategically thought out model – then they will without resalising almost certainly cover the 10% of whatever.

      PS – like your use of Voicethread

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