Four years on from FELTAG

This guest post is by Ros Smith, author of the updated Evolution of FELTAG guide.

Over the last few months, I had the privilege to ‘talk FELTAG’ with some leading senior managers and practitioners in further education (FE). Why? It was time to take a fresh look at the impact of the FELTAG recommendations on the sector before updating our Evolution of FELTAG report.

The report provides an important insight into the digital landscape of the UK FE and skills sector. And this latest glimpse reveals a sector that is agile and robust, and more than capable of responding to the very tough challenges it faces with its own blend of visionary thinking and hard-nosed astuteness. The good news is that the spirit of FELTAG is very much alive and well, and in a college near you!

Here are some of the key findings from our 2017 FELTAG update.

Keeping abreast of change

Many organisations are addressing their FELTAG goals by drawing up a digital strategy. This in itself recognises the importance of technology in the sector. However, things are never as simple as they sound. The first issue you have to confront is the connection between your organisation’s digital aspirations and its other strategic aims. Interconnectedness is key. There is no value, after all, in procuring a new VLE or learning management system without a programme of staff development to ensure the technology is used to its full potential. Nor is there any point in having a strategy for innovative curriculum delivery without first having the right tools in place.
Getting the equation right depends on a holistic vision, careful planning, and a lot of determination – the next ingredient you need when implementing your strategy:

“It’s like an eco-system or a fine Swiss watch. Each cog is important individually but even more important is how it links into the others…. To achieve these goals, we have been on a three-year journey.” Dr Ken Thomson, principal and chief executive, Forth Valley College.

BYOD
Wi-Fi across the campus is not a cheap option, but forward-thinking organisations have put this at the top of their shopping list to support an increase in curriculum delivery via online and blended learning. Effectively located Wi-Fi hotspots and a robust BYOD policy can make a real difference to learners, and there can be benefits all round. Learners using their own devices have a learning environment they can personalise to suit their needs; replacing an ageing stock of desktop PCs becomes less of a problem to the organisation, but perhaps the biggest winner of all is learning:

“One of the biggest milestones for us has been the installation of Wi-Fi on all campuses. With Wi-Fi access everywhere, the entire college can become a learning space.” Graham Razey, principal, East Kent College

Preparing for an even brighter digital future
The next generation of digital platforms will be nothing if not user-friendly. Providers want to see their teaching and support staff able to create blended learning resources with as much ease and fluency as they use social media. More than one provider had changed key learning platforms for that reason:

“Choose a learning management system that learners and staff feel at ease with. Technology has to work first time and feel comfortable. Only then will your staff move from partial buy-in to full take-up.” Pete Gallop, head of ICT and LRC, The Isle of Wight College

Cornwall College Group took an altogether different tack, keeping Moodle as its cross-campus VLE but ensuring that users’ needs were met by altering the look and feel of the VLE. Their case study describes how Moodle can be adapted to enhance its functionality and refresh its appeal.

The common thread in all accounts, however, was the need to inspire digital confidence and competence of staff. Our interviewees were aware that they needed to support all – the unconfident as well as the front runners – and had taken action to ensure this could happen:

“I said to staff two years ago when we started the drive for creative learning and teaching that I was taking the responsibility for what happened. This meant they were free to experiment without blame.” Ken Thomson, chief executive, Forth Valley College.

Where are you on the digital scale?
The most common answer to this question was somewhere between partially and fully embedded. Of course, there is a difference between being competent in handling IT in everyday life and using it with confidence in the classroom or as a blended learning option. Nonetheless, there were promising signs for the FELTAG agenda:

The majority of our senior managers enthused about the willingness of staff to try new approaches
“We have some highly innovative teachers in the Group. The creativity and passion of our staff, and their willingness to engage with new methods, is making a real difference to learners here.” Michelle Swithenbank, deputy chief executive, the Hull College Group

Senior managers and governors provide firm backing for innovation in learning and teaching
“The spirit of innovation and experimentation amongst our staff, leadership and governors has been without a doubt our most valuable asset on this journey.” Simon Barrable, deputy principal, Portsmouth College

Innovating with less familiar technologies such as augmented and virtual reality is taking root in day-to-day teaching and training
“Learning this way is so much more interesting, but learners also expect it. We would be wasting our time if we didn’t make use of the technology that’s out there.” Michael Grundy, engineering programme leader, Goole College

There are indications of improvements in terms of grades, digital capabilities and employability skills when technology is at the centre rather than on the periphery of curriculum delivery
“I have always said this would be a five-year project but already we are seeing tangible benefits. The digital capabilities of students have improved and so have their independent learning skills. You can also see this in the improved grades.” Simon Barrable, Portsmouth College

Digital is less often viewed as a separate entity
The titles of digital strategies now more frequently feature creativity and innovation rather than technology. A small thing in itself, but could it indicate technology is no longer seen as the new kid on the block? The real benefit of digital technology has always been its capacity to transform the way things are done for the better, and that is what the strategies of many organisations across the sector are now aiming for.
“The days of always doing what you have always done are no longer acceptable, either to learners or employers.” Neil Bates, chief executive, PROCAT

Join speakers from PROCAT, the Hull Group, Forth Valley College and Portsmouth College at our sessions at Digifest on 14-15 March and follow #feltag to follow discussions.

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