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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

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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…”

What got me started in online learning

Earlier in the summer I was running some staff development, and a reluctant attendee asked how a sport science lecturer (as I was) ended up getting into online learning, so I told them about my first foray into this area of work.

In my first full year of teaching (1998), one of my units was a level 3 ‘diet and nutrition’ and one of the assignments was to carry out a basic analysis of a week’s diet, compare this to energy expenditure and then make suggestions of how to improve the diet. Or in other words the assignment from hell for a Level 3 sport student. Even though this should have been completed earlier in the year, I hardly had any work handed in on time as most students tactically worked out they were only ever going to get a pass, therefore there was no point in doing the assignment on time, instead they would wait until the end of the year and finish the assignment once teaching had finished. The problem was that I had about 40 students, and every single one came to see me for help with the assignment, and although I willingly helped them, if I spent 30 minutes with each student, that equated to 20 hours of my time – and I was still teaching on other courses – so for about 2 weeks at the end of term, if I wasn’t teaching I had a permanent queue of students outside the office waiting to see me (and I was part-time so wasn’t get paid for all this extra work).

I realised that the help that I was giving the learners was effectively the same over and over again, so the following year (and I now had 3 groups to teach, so 60+ students) I decided to create some information and instructions on how to complete the assignment. This included a worked example (Excel), a template diary they could use (Excel), an animated presentation that explained the steps that were needed (PowerPoint) and an instruction sheet (Word) which hyperlinked to the other files and a few useful websites as well. I didn’t have a VLE at my disposal, but we did have a shared network drive that I could upload files to and the students could access. So I uploaded the work to there, created a simple printed instruction sheet of how to locate this shared drive which I gave to the learners when the assignment was handed out. The result was that a larger percentage completed the assignments on time, some even got merit and distinction grades. Those that still waited until the end of term, when they came to see me, I gave them the instruction sheet again, sent them away to find a computer and come back if still not clear, most were able to follow the online support so I only had about 2 students to work with 1:1.

So my first foray into online learning (even though many would argue this isn’t online learning) was motivated by time saving potential for me. It took me about 2 or 3 hours to set up, but saved probably 30 hours (of my unpaid time!) in student support, and the quality of the work was significantly better.

Having created the folder structure on the joint drive I realised that there was potential in this way of working, and I uploaded more and more resources throughout the year, and started to create a resource bank to support the subjects I was teaching.

In my next blog post I will continue the story of how this behaviour evolved into me using (and creating) a VLE to support my classroom delivery, in what would now be identified as blended learning with elements of flipped classroom – but over 14 years ago and about 10 years before these 2 terms became fashionable!

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/8258/8671894359_891da1da8b_b.jpg on 2013-9-13
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/50251161@N08/8671894359/ created on 2013-04-21 12:50:39
Orin BlombergCC BY-NC 2.0

How to locate images on Wikimedia and embed into Moodle or Blackboard

There are lots of people that work in education that sadly think that Wikipedia is the work of the devil, and think that it will undermine academia as we know it, and should be banned at all costs. There are others that think Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, and there is no point of looking elsewhere for facts.

Regardless of your viewpoint on Wikipedia (which hopefully is somewhere between the 2 extremes above), one aspect of it that is very useful, is that there is lots of high quality media (mainly images, but also videos and audio) available on Wikimedia – that can be easily (and legally) embedded into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard.

As organisations scramble to set up online courses, the reality is that most people won’t have the time or money to generate their own high quality media – and I don’t think we need to, seeing as there is so much media out there that we can easily and legally use – the key is the academic structuring of this information and the asking of challenging and stimulating questions around this available media and information. e.g. the image below identifying a muscle in the human body – I couldn’t draw this myself, and it would be a waste of my time trying to.
Musculi coli sternocleidomastoideus

The video below shows how easy it is to find an image on wikimedia and embed it into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard