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This report is concerned with investigating the effectiveness of FE colleges' strategies to embrace new technologies and generate new business and learning opportunities. To provide comprehensive and cohesive coverage of the issues under review - the analysis will consider the following areas:
A major problem that has confronted many FE colleges over the last 20 years is that the development of their management information systems has occurred in many respects on a piecemeal basis. Whilst some of the responsibility for this situation lies with the colleges - the lack of strategic thinking and the lack of integration between different systems - has been compounded by the changes made by a variety of governments to inspection procedures, funding mechanisms and many other areas.
A sustained period of stability without dramatic change and secure funding is the most important requirement if FE colleges are going to reap the full rewards of the investment they have made in MLEs and VLEs. The students (i.e. the customers) must be the focal point of the strategic plan for any college. If a college fails to satisfy the needs of its students - then it will like any other business which offers a poor range of products and services - will lose income and will find it very difficult to recover if the decline lasts for s sustained period of time. Therefore, the students must be provided with a quality experience when they log on to the college computer system and use the VLE.
2.2 Features of a VLE
A VLE is a single piece of software which provides an integrated online learning environment, bringing together functions including content delivery, communications facilities, assessment, student tracking and links to other systems, including MIS, VLEs can be used in a variety of ways e.g.
To deliver entire courses to distance learning students
To provide additional content and support to complement face to face classes
To provide support through the communication facilities to classes delivered entirely face to face
VLEs are accessible via standard browsers - therefore, they are available from the college intranet, and, if the college chooses via the Internet. This means that students can access the VLE from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. This provides students with significantly greater flexibility in learning; and also has implications for when and where staff provide student support.
The main functions that the complete VLE needs to deliver are:
Controlled, secure access to the curriculum
Tracking student activity and achievement using simple processes for course administration and student tracking
Support of on-line learning, including access to learning resources, assessment and guidance
Communication between the learner, the tutor and other learning support specialists to provide direct support and feedback for learners, and peer group communications
Links to other administrative systems, both in-house and externally
VLEs should also be customable
As VLEs improve, and particularly as the links to MIS become more effective and transparent - they will become a common and universal tool for delivering content and / or providing support to both face to face and distance learning students. Most students and most lecturers will at some point use a VLE. As more externally sourced content becomes available, and as it becomes easier for staff to put their own content into the VLE framework, they will become a routine tool for lecturers to use - in most cases, complementing other tools rather than replacing them.
The immediacy of content updating and support, and the removal of geographical barriers to learning will mean that the pattern of attendance of students - even those on conventional face to face courses - will change significantly, with less classroom-based teaching, and far more activity in learning resource centres from home or from work. The need for physical attendance will reduce, both from students and for staff. Where some of a lecturer's workload is via a VLE, that work can be done from anywhere, including home.
However, a VLE is not a panacea - it will improve flexibility and access to a wide range of content and support. It will not automatically improve teaching and learning. There are many other factors involved and of course some learning programmes are not suitable for delivery via a VLE. Plus some students require a considerable amount of face-to-face support because they lack self-confidence and they may be technophobes.
2.3 Intranet Or VLE?
In order to answer this question it is always important to start from the teaching and learning needs, and progress from there to the tools that are required to meet those needs. The following questions should be asked:
Who are the learners? / Where they are located? / How will they study?
Will they have online content, or just online support? / Will they work in groups or individually?
Will they be organised in virtual classes? / Who will be putting the content together?
Who will be putting the content on the system? / Who will facilitate the learning (if anyone)? / Who will administer the system?
Reasons For Using An Intranet
When staff want to make quickly available items such as schemes of work, assessments, lecture notes and so on. This is often more easily and conveniently done through shared folders on an intranet, rather than a VLE.
Depending on how the intranet is organised, it can be easier for staff to put up content on an intranet than it is on a VLE, especially if they are using shared folders alone.
If a lecturer only has small amounts of information to place online, it might be simpler to do this on the intranet rather than go to the trouble of setting up virtual classes on a VLE.
If a lecturer wants to mainly support students who are attending conventional face to face classes (as opposed to providing support and content) this may be more easily done through using intranet-based email and discussion groups, or even dedicated conferencing systems.
On the whole an individual lecturer is likely to use the college intranet where they wanted to deliver only a small amount of content. As their online work increases, a VLE would be better suited to their needs.
2.4 Misconceptions About The New Technologies
The conversion of a class based course into a virtual learning experience is not an easy one. To begin with whilst it is a relatively simple procedure to make class based notes available via an intranet or a VLE. They will not be suitable for students who have enrolled onto a distance learning version of a course. This is because when a lecturer uses a handout in a class which may be one or two sides of A4 - he or she may well spend 15 to 30 minutes explaining about the contents. Of course in a face-to-face learning situation students can ask questions and seek clarification. Two-way communication is instantaneous - it is very easy for the lecturer to check the students' understanding of the materials.
However, in a virtual learning environment the student only has the notes - yes - they will have access to the lecturer via email or an electronic notice board. However, a lecturer does not have the time to continuously explain the content of every handout that the students are using. Therefore, a two page handout that is used in the class room is likely to be at least five times longer when it used to support distance learning students. This implication means that the conversion of class based courses into distance learning programmes must be meticulously planned over a suitable timescale. An upfront investment in new learning materials is likely to be necessary. This has huge resource implications for any FE college.
2.5 Why Distance Learning?
Given the rapid development of information technology it is very easy regardless of which field you operate in e.g. education, business etc - to become blinded by the searing white light that is being blazed by new technological innovations. Too often information technology and its myriad of related developments - becomes an end in itself. It is all too easy to become blinded to the limitations of IT and on occasions its inappropriateness to the needs of certain learners.
Distance education was defined by the educational theorist - Michael Moore - as "the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviours are executed from the learning behavioursâ€¦.so that the communication between the learner and the teacher must be facilitated by print, electronic, mechanical, or other devices"
Today, distance education calls upon an impressive range of technologies to enable teachers and students who are separated by distance to communicate with each other either in real time (synchronous) or delayed time (asynchronous). Distance learning epitomises the move away from institute based learning to a more direct, student-centred approach. As a concept, distance learning has existed for over a century, notably in the form of paper based correspondence courses.
Student centred learning approaches are characterised by the learner becoming central to the process of learning. What does student centred learning entail? Essentially, the learner takes responsibility for his or her own learning and the teacher becomes a resource in the process. Learners should be able to learn at their own pace, and in a manner which they feel comfortable with.
Distance learning technologies (VLEs etc) and methods can provide many of these attributes. Students with access to the appropriate technologies can study at their own pace and in a place (perhaps at home or work) that suits their lifestyles and the demands on their time. The diversity of technologies now available to the distance educator also ensure that several different modes of learning are possible, catering for the cognitive styles and approaches to study of a diverse range of students.
The most popular methods today are electronic mail, computer mediated communications (CMC), bulletin board systems (BBS) and of course the telephone. The Internet and World Wide Web are increasingly being used to deliver a range of multi-media materials, and as bandwidths are broadened and technologies improve in performance, more will be done. Currently, the University of Plymouth is delivering courses to a wide range of learners - nurses, midwives, doctors, surgeons, probation officers, the military and business users.
However, there are many problems associated with distance learning. For example, distance learning students are separated from their tutors and their peers. For some this can be a particular problem. With distance learning there is a lack of social interaction - - the sharing of ideas, discoveries, successes and failures and general social support, are all to a certain extent missing from the distance learning environment. Students may therefore feel isolated, start to lose motivation, experience frustration or anger, and a host of other unwelcome emotions. How, these issues can be resolved will be given further consideration in due course.
SECTION 3 - IMPLEMENTATION IN WORK CONTEXTS
3.1 Culture Change
The rapid development of new technologies will have a major impact on how learning programmes are delivered for a considerable time to come. However, it is interesting to draw a parallel between the impact of new technologies on FE colleges and how business organisations cope with the implementation of new accounting systems. Small, medium and large companies have spent billions of pounds on new computer hardware and accounting software programs. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that very few organisations make full use of their new accounting systems.
On most occasions this has very little to do with the new systems and more to do with existing problems within the organisation. For example, the implementation of a new accounting system will not improve the efficiency of a poorly motivated and ineffectively managed workforce. Often new IT systems simply compound the existing problems faced within the organisation. A parallel can be drawn with the adoption of the new technologies in FE colleges. If a class-based course is poorly managed, poorly attended and produces indifferent results - then converting it to a distance learning programme will not resolve these issues.
Since the beginning of the early 1990s FE colleges have been subject to substantial changes. For example, there was incorporation - this entailed colleges becoming independent organisations freed from local authority control. Since the election of the Labour Government in 1997 there has been a policy which has sought to rationalise the FE sector through the merger of colleges and the creation of local partnerships. This theme of rationalisation of provision is carried on through a number of Government documents relating to FE and the Learning Skills Council (LSC).
These documents (DfEE 1999, DfEE 2000a, DfEE 2000b) suggest that rationalisation will be achieved through targeting resources towards specific specialisms within each institution rather than allowing institutes to do anything and everything. Also in 2005 there was a massive re-direction of resources away from adult learning to increasing the provision for 14 to 19 years within FE colleges. There are currently 120,000 students within this age range attending some form of provision within FE colleges.
Setting against this background of constant change - FE colleges are required to incorporate the new technologies into their long-term delivery strategies. Each organisation has its own distinctive culture. It is a combination of past leadership, current leadership, past crises and internal and external challenges. If FE colleges only dealt with full-cost courses - it would be relatively straight forward to identify its core learners and develop provision to meet the needs of the relevant market segment.
3.2 THE VAGARIES OF GOVERNMENT FUNDING
However, the vast majority of FE colleges still depend heavily on government funding (distributed through the LSC) for over 90% of their income. This has major implications on how colleges develop their virtual learning provision. For example, since 2000 Newcastle College has offered a variety of paper based distance learning courses (notably life coaching and business coaching). The natural progression has been to convert this paper based format into a virtual learning environment.
However, the creation of virtual learning courses are resource hungry in terms of the money, effort and time that is required to set up, test and implement this provision. Again the problem is not so much with the technology but rather with the bureaucratic nature of FE colleges and the vagaries of government funding. On a broader point organisations that are well led, proactive in terms of change management and have designed a seamless customer / client interface - are those organisations, which are best equipped to take advantage of new technological innovations.
On the whole FE colleges do not fall into this category of organisations. On the whole they are bureaucratic in nature, reactive to change in the external environment and tend not to have a strong focus on the needs and requirements of their clientele. Colleges are not wholly to blame for the current situation that has engulfed them. Since the early 1990s FE colleges, along with every other public sector organisation, have been subject to greater government scrutiny in terms of achieving targets and accounting for its actions.
Whilst greater accountability regarding the use of public funds is always highly desirable - the mechanisms for monitoring how FE colleges perform and spend their money are very bureaucratic. This has increased the strain on college management information systems and has placed greater pressure on both teaching and non-teaching staff. Perhaps the greatest barrier which is preventing colleges from taking full advantage of the new technologies is the vagaries in government funding. This is best illustrated by considering the example of Newcastle College.
Case Study - Newcastle College
In 1999 Newcastle College launched a series of life coaching and business coaching courses. The majority of these courses were free to students. Plus they were all paper based. All of the relevant learning materials were despatched to the students at the beginning of the programme. By 2003 the college had something like 15,000 students from throughout England and Wales on their distance learning programmes. Each course lasts 6 months and in order to remain active on the programme - a learner is required to submit an assignment every 4 weeks. This is a requirement of the LSC.
The success of the distance learning programmes at the college over this 4-year period highlighted some key factors about such provision needs to be developed, managed and controlled. To begin with - large scale distance learning programmes only work if they are administered by a dedicated support team. The college employs Learning Support Officers which maintain regular telephone and email contact with students to ensure that they comply with the course requirements and submit assignments on time. The maintenance of students and the tracking of their progress is the responsibility of a dedicated administration team.
The completed assignments are marked by a team of part-time assessors. They have no direct contract with the students. This is controlled by the support and administration teams. The aforementioned information provides an excellent example of the infrastructure colleges must create if large scale distance learning provision is going to be cost effective. The example of Newcastle College also demonstrates that is necessary to create a market first for distance learning. Clearly if the college had enrolled less than 5,000 students - then the cost effectiveness of the whole operation would have been brought into question.
A massive investment in VLEs does not make economic sense - if they are simply going to be used to support classes which are going to remain class-based. Also not all courses are suitable for conversion to distance learning provision. This is especially true of basic skills and entry level courses. People on these courses often lack self-confidence and may be returning to learning after many years of inactivity. Such students need to be taught in a classroom with lots of face-to-face support.
By 2003 Newcastle College were offering some of their paper based distance learning courses via a VLE. There are many benefits. Less paperwork is generated. Students' assignments can be marked much more quickly and so on. In 2005 Newcastle College were gearing up for the large scale conversion of their paper based courses into an electronic format. By the summer of 2005 Newcastle College were generating income of £8.5 million per year in tariff units from the Learning Skills Council. The distance learning provision had proved to be very successful.
However, at this time there was a significant shift in the government's educational policy. The government decided that it wanted to improve the quality of the learning provision for 14 to 19-year olds. This was achieved by diverting funds from adult education provision. Thus the LSC funding for the college's distance learning provision was cut to £2.5 million. A significant number of students on the college's distance learning programmes had to terminate their studies because the funding had been withdrawn. This case study provides an excellent example of the major difficulties colleges face when the government changes the funding rules.
SECTION 4 - RECOMMENDATIONS TO STAKEHOLDERS
4.1 WHICH COURSES ARE SUITABLE FOR CONVERSION TO DISTANCE LEARNING PROVISON?
Case Study - The Open University
In the 1960s the Labour Government approved the setting up of the Open University, which is based in Milton Keynes. The OU was originally set up to offer degree studies through terrestrial broadcasts (TV and Radio) in partnership with the BBC, but paper based materials and later computer mediated communication, have also become vital ingredients in distance delivery of under graduate taught programmes. The OU now boasts over 200,000 students enrolled at any particular time, and is in the largest "top ten" universities worldwide now known as "Mega Universities". It awards a number of qualifications including BA and BSc degrees, MA, MBA, MPhil and PhD, and more recently, Post Graduate Certificates in Education.
People enrolled on an OU course are not subsidised by the government. These are full-cost courses. The fees for an MBA course will be in the region of £7,500. These fees will either be paid by the student, their employer or a sponsoring organisation. Having 200,000 distance learning students provides the OU to benefit from huge economies of scale. Plus the OU is completely independent of government education funding mechanisms. This means that the OU can research and develop new learning provision without fear of interruption. This is something FE colleges do not have.
The Way Forward
In order to avoid the situation that resulted in Newcastle College having its distance learning funding cut from £8.5 million to £2.5 million in 2005 - colleges need to develop new markets for distance learning provision, which do not rely on government funding. These new markets will have to generate a considerable number of students in order to generate the economies of scale the OU benefits from. Also it is evident that only certain types of courses are suitable for conversion to a distance learning format. Also only students that are self-confident, self-disciplined and highly motivated can cope with the rigours that distance learning places on the individual. In order to be successful - colleges will have to adopt a new mind-set. One that is less bureaucratic and more entrepreneurial.
4.2 THE CREATION OF STRATEGIC LEARNING PARTNERSHIPS
FE colleges need to create strategic learning partnerships in order to share knowledge, expertise and resources. There are a wide range of potential partners - local authorities, hospital trusts, universities, and private training providers, national and local employers and so on. In order to create a more knowledgeable, skilful and productive workforce - employers need to invest in training and development. Distance learning provision in an electronic format provides a cost efficient method of achieving these goals for employers. Provided such provision is supported by on the job training, work-based coaching and a purposeful appraisal system.
NVQs first became available in the early 1990s. Newcastle College is currently in the process of setting up systems which will allow students to complete an NVQ in IT via distance learning provision. This development would be given a massive if the college could form a strategic partnership with a major regional employer (e.g. Northern Rock plc) to train and develop the IT skills and knowledge of its workforce. Whilst such a development would still depend on some government funding - having a major employer on board would ensure the success of the project. A private sector organisation is not going to participate in a large scale training initiative that is going to fail. Establishing a successful partnership with a high profile organisation would give the college a lot of kudos. In other words success breeds success. This in turn creates new business opportunities.
4.3 THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Senior college management need to radically alter their thinking and must set a good example to the other levels within the organisation regarding the benefits and opportunities that fully embracing new technologies can provide. The leaders of publicly funded educational and training institutions must play a major role in driving the ICT and e-learning agenda forward and how ICT is being used to support the efficient management and governance of effective teaching and learning within these institutions.
It is widely inferred that the strategic thinking of organisations should include a role for technology, since the expectation is that only by the appropriate use of technology can the government targets for growth, widening participation, workforce development, adult and community learning and basic skills be met. Indeed many of the key source documents, such as inspection reports, "Success For All", "Get on With IT" and the "DELG Report" show that the successful colleges are those that are embracing e-learning and ICT.
If a college is successful in creating strategic learning partnerships, as previously described, this would demonstrate to the other stakeholders (i.e. other management grades, teaching staff, non-teaching staff, students etc) that were proactive in terms of fully utilising the new technologies to create new business and employment opportunities. Such a development would act as a catalyst and would encourage the other stakeholders to fully embrace the new technologies in order to improve their professionalism and the quality of their work output. This would be achieved through the successful implementation of the college's ILT strategy.
4.5 IMPLEMENTING THE ILT STRATEGY
A recurring theme that has been established throughout this report is the notion that the new technologies do not sit in isolation. To realise the business objectives that have been set - it is important that a college fully integrates new technologies into all aspects of the college's policies and procedures. The ILT strategy must be transparent; the other stakeholders must be able to see that it actually functions, produces results and makes their working lives more productive.
Any FE college can spend large sums of money on new technologies and create state of the art learning environments. They may claim to be the cutting edge of the new learning revolution within their locality. However, if many of the facilities VLEs etc offer lay dormant and under utilised due to staff inertia, resistance to change, fear of redundancy etc - then the financial investment in new hardware and software will not generate the benefits senior management aspires to.
This report has provided a comprehensive review of the new technologies that are now available to FE colleges. However, we have learnt that these technologies do not exist in isolation. In order to succeed colleges must adopt a different mind-set and become proactive in terms of generating strategic learner partnerships with other public sector and private sector organisations.
The successful development of such partnerships will act as a catalyst and should produce a cultural change in attitudes with regard to all stakeholders coming to realise that new technologies when effectively implemented into the working culture of a college can deliver a vast array of benefits and new opportunities.