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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…”

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If you are serious about blended learning – give teachers a mobile phone

In 2002 when I was working as an FE/HE lecturer at a college, the team leader made a decision to provide all staff in the team with mobile phones. The team in question was a PE and Sport team, which due to the nature of the subject, we were often teaching on the field, in the sports hall or at non-college facilities. Health and Safety had insisted that when in these locations the teacher had to carry a mobile phone – so we had a bank of (I think) 4 such phones for this purpose – but logistically this was a nightmare. No-one took ownership of the phones, so they weren’t set up for individuals with useful numbers stored in memory – they were often not charged, and the mechanism of having to return phones after the session (when you didn’t always go straight back to the college after a session), was a nightmare, as well as someone having to co-ordinate a booking system to make sure staff took the right phone, to make the logistics work.

So to partly overcome this problem, and to try and improve communication within the team (which had expanded so much we now occupied 4 staff rooms rather than 1) – the team leader managed to argue the case to provide all staff with a mobile phone. At first it sounded very expensive, but the college managed to get a deal with their provider, so the handsets themselves were quite cheap, and the package was basically a pay as you go – but at a reduced rate due to the number of devices. Any private phone calls that staff made – they paid for themselves – and all in all this was a highly successful model of working.

What we realised very quickly after deploying this model, was because these were work mobile phones, we could pass the number onto students. This had numerous advantages:

  • If a student was running late due to traffic, bus broken down etc. They could text the tutor with an apology/explanation – which saved you disrupting the class to deal with their late arrival. They could now just sneak in, without the tutor having to stop.
  • If a student wasn’t understanding part of an assignment – they could either text or call – even out of hours. The beauty of a work mobile phone was I (as the tutor) had the choice as to whether I wanted to take that call, or to ignore it. If I was happy to take the call, and I could help the student, this would probably save me (as the tutor) time in the long run, as the assignment would be quicker and easier to mark, if it had been completed the way I had wanted it.
  • Logistically – if for example a venue changed at short notice – we had various mechanisms to get messages to students (email, VLE, SMS bulk messaging system, notice board) but we didn’t have a mechanism for the students to easily reply to these messages to enter a dialogue. Having the mobile phone in our possession meant we could pick up these queries even when not at our desks.
  • There are then the numerous teaching and learning things that we can do with mobiles (which I cannot cover here, but have discussed previously on this blog).

In 2002 I knew that our team was ahead of the game in this way of thinking, but I thought that within a few years this would be norm, it horrifies me that in 2014 with the cost of mobile telephony being as cheap as it is – hardly any institutions provide their teaching staff with mobile phones. We waste huge amounts of money setting up complex landline based systems with a phone on a desk, then ask teaching staff to spend 28+ hours a week teaching – not at their desk. They come back from a 5 or 6 hour stint in classrooms at various locations, to find not just a mountain of emails, but also half a dozen voicemail messages from parents, students, other colleges etc. all needing a response a few hours ago – and now they have to spend the next 45 minutes trying to chase things up. Had they been able to take the call in the 10 minute gap they had between lessons – the issue could have been resolved quickly and instantly which is better for them and better for the students.

As FE and HE institutions look to increase the amounts of online learning within the provision – one part of being an online tutor is we need to have as many methods of communication between student and tutor as possible – as different students will have different preferences as to how they communicate. Not all will like using email, and even less will want to use the inbuilt communication tools within the VLE. I recently worked with a college that conducted a survey asking learners what their preferred method of communication was, and as I expected – SMS (texting) still came out as the learners preferred method of communication. For them it is cheap (most contracts will offer at least 2000 text per month), it is quick, and they have a record of the conversation in their phone. When we offer online learning we need to provide students with the ability to communicate by phone (and a proper number not a 08 number to a switchboard that costs the learner), email, and SMS as a minimum.

We don’t have to provide top of the range phones. A basic mobile that does calls and texts would actually suffice, and cost hardly anything – although for a little extra you could get a basic Smartphone which would then cover the email, VLE and Skype communication options as well.

If teams are unsure how to fund such an initiative – here is an idea: Most teams that I talk to have weekly meetings, that last at least an hour. If we assume that the staff time at that meeting is worth (estimating low here) £10 per person per hour – why not agree that in the first week of each month, there is no meeting. We could then get a contract on a basic Smartphone for £7.50 per month, leaving £2.50 per month spare to cover any out of contract calls, or data usage. If there is any really important information that staff needed to get at the missed meeting – why not write this up as a summary and send to the team to read on their new mobile phones.

As colleges start to seriously look at elements of online learning – the provision to staff of mobile phones is the easiest, and cheapest thing we can do – the efficiency benefits it brings, easily outweighs the costs, and should be a no-brainer for management to see and action. I hope that in the coming months and years there is a wake up in the sector that paying lots of money to tie a phone to a desk that a tutor is hardly ever at – is absurd, whereas spending money to provide a communication mechanism that follows the tutor around, is what students and tutors want, will increase efficiency and staff morale, improves health and safety and is an essential thing that needs to happen.

If anyone would like to discuss further then please comment below, or via my work mobile phone 07922115678.

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

Online learning – getting it right

In a few weeks time (14th November 2012) I will be presenting at a conference organised by Sector Training on ‘‘The Future of Blended and Distance Learning in Further Education and Training’. This conference really excites me, as the target audience for this are the senior decision makers in FE organisations. One of the problems with my area of work (learning technologies) is when events or training is arranged – you often get the in house learning technologist attending, who often know the key points of the message being presented, or aren’t high enough up the decision making food chain to get the strategic and financial backing that is required. Hopefully this conference will be different, as Sector Training (and Beej Kaczmarczyk in particular) is so well respected with the higher echelons of FE organisation management structures, that we will get some of the people that I have so desperately wanted to present to on this topic attending.

So why am I so keen?

learning technology (also known as ILT, eLearning, ICT, TEL……) has been around for many years, and within FE there has been some really impressive work (often on low budgets) to make huge differences to the learning experience of lots of traditional face to face learners, however in the main FE hasn’t engaged with the online learning market as much as HE has. In recent years though FE is starting to talk about this more and more, as the realisation that financially there is a very strong case for online delivery. Ideologically I would rather that organisations engaged with online learning because of the potential benefits to the learner, but I know realistically the purse strings always present the stronger case, and this is where my worry creeps in. Some organisations that I have worked with see online learning as a ‘cheap’ form of delivery, and many are jumping on the notion of ‘the flipped classroom’ as a way of ‘selling’ this to their staff. From my experience online learning is not a cheap solution – in the first year of running it will almost certainly make a loss, probably a loss in the second year, and then on the third time of running it may start to make a profit. The financial benefits come from attracting different markets (e.g. learners not able to attend face to face provision), economies of scale, and reducing the cost of providing buildings that are only used for 20% of the time.

If organisations try to do this ‘on the cheap’ they will probably run some very low quality provision, which won’t help recruit future learners and won’t reap positive returns overall (as well as letting down the learners involved). Saying this, it doesn’t have to be overly expensive – if you do it right. Here are my 5 top tips to ‘getting this right’.

1 – Get external help early and regularly
If an organisation is starting in this area of work, then it is unlikely that they will have the level of expertise in house to get this right first time, and a lot of time and money can be saved not making the same mistakes of others. This area requires full senior management support and commitment and often they will listen to an outside voice better than an internal one, especially if a few uncomfortable home truths need addressing. This external help does not have to be expensive – start with a single day, if the consultant hired is good then use them again and again as and when needed.

2 – Clearly identify your target market(s)
Not all subject areas or courses will work with this method of delivery. It is important that the people working on the courses, know who the learners are going to be and why they will be learning by this method, and what the unique selling point is. Research to see who else is running similar courses as there is no point competing with an established provider unless you do something significantly different.

3 – Invest in staff not technology
A mistake made by many, is there is often huge investment in tools but no or little investment in the person (e.g. the tutor) using them, which results in poor returns on investment. Staff need to be given high quality, appropriate and timely training. They then need time to practice and hone their skills and a supportive CPD mechanism. This again doesn’t have to be expensive it just needs to be strategically and carefully planned into the process.

4 – Online learning is not about content but interaction
During the dot com boom about 12 years ago, some HE organisations thought eLearning was going to be this wonderful cash cow where they could create content, and then sit back whilst the computer taught, assessed and supported the thousands of students with minimal involvement of an expensive human being. This wasn’t the case; education is not about content or resources (otherwise we would just read books) but is about interaction between tutor & student, and student & student, and this is still the case with online learning. Students need to be taught by a (human) teacher, not a computer or a (cheaper) assessor. The teaching staff need to be given proper time to carry out this teaching. It would be better for a teacher to have more time and less resources than full blown resources and no time. The Internet is full of useable resources. A good teacher can just guide and signpost learners to these resources, asking challenging questions and providing good feedback as part of the learning experience.

5 – Get the infra-structure right
Running online provision means that learners need to have access to content 24/7 and 365 days a year, and the access has to be reliable. Having system that fall over regularly isn’t an option, and we lose the ability to switch everything off for 6 weeks over the summer whilst servers and systems are upgraded. This doesn’t just refer to technical infra-structure, we also have to think about things like the enrolment processes, learner support, exams, authentication of evidence, internal observations etc. many in house systems need tweaking slightly to work with online learners.

I hope that these points provide some food for thought to organisations, and I can help people to realise the potential that online learning offers, without wasting huge amounts of money, or delivering sub-standard cheap education.

Sending online learners chocolate muffins


Chocolate Muffin

Originally uploaded by vivido

I am currently working on the eCPD programme and am supporting/facilitating 11 people around the country through predominantly distance support means (phone, email, Skype, Discussion forum etc)

Using an idea borrowed from Lilian Soon of xlearn is when someone has completed a task is to send them a chocolate muffin or similar as a reward – now because these things don’t post very well, we have to do this virtually – e.g. send them a picture of a muffin. This is very easy to do nowadays, you could go and buy a really nice muffin, photograph it and then eat it, or (if like me) you treat your body like a temple (yeah right!) then there are thousands of images on Flickr (like the one that I have used here).

When using Flickr, I always do an advanced search and select to only choose ones that are released under ‘creative commons’ – this means that I can use the images within copyright law. I can then send the image to a blog (e.g. here) – and then by going into the edit mode within my blog, I can find and copy the html code that Flickr has put there and then paste this into something like a discussion thread with a VLE.

Although this may seem a lot of effort for some people, when you are supporting people (staff or learners) via online techniques, these little techniques can make a huge difference and overcome the isolating nature that you often find in this area of work.