ALT Symposium: Learning Technology in FE and HE

I’ve recently attended the ALT Symposium in Further and Higher Education co-hosted by the BIS. It was a huge success and the talks were really inspirational. Here are some thoughts.

While the speakers discussed different themes, from learning badges to content development consortia, the common theme seemed to be the need for more flexibility and openness in education – in short, a changing pedagogical landscape which will take into account learners’ changing needs in terms of access to education.

One aspect of this is widening participation in the sense of reaching out to learners who may otherwise have dropped out of formal education, due to various challenging life circumstances, thus limiting their opportunities to realise their potential and pursue the path they really want (@BryanMMathers). The main issue here seems to be the current institutional context which puts emphasis on the traditional full-time 18-22 year old student, thus not encouraging flexibility in terms of learning provision (@mweller). Current times demand, however, that we break up with the traditional educational model, for instance by allowing learners to build up credit over longer period of time (@NeilMorrisLeeds).

So increased flexibility in terms of provision and learner access seems to be a direction that education providers will need to consider very seriously. Another related thing is flexibility for institutions in terms of accessing and/or developing high quality learning materials. This is difficult given financial and other restrictions that they face, however not impossible. The Blended Learning Consortium is a good example of FE colleges working together to produce high-quality learning objects, following a “propose-vote-consult-develop-share” model (@FeBlc).

Digital learning is becoming increasingly more important and one part of this is open access to digital resources. For example, 5% of all OU courses go to OpenLearn and become available for free. University of Leeds have developed two popular MOOCs on Blended Learning in FE: Getting Started and Embedding Practice.

At the same time, as the speakers and members of the audience noted, the sector faces some important concerns. For example, what risk is there, that, as fees rise, educational institutions and students will be becoming more averse to innovative teaching ideas such as open access? Students come to university with certain expectations: a certain idea of what their education should be like and what an educational establishment should provide for their money. And they become increasingly ore conservative in terms of what they want.

The participants agreed that it is crucial to manage learners’ expectations: to overcome the resistance to change and to eradicate the “is-it-going-to-be-on-the-exam” culture. Institutions need to be more upfront about the new learning approaches and their benefits, about the fact that the university experience is part of learning as well (@mweller). Learner-centred approaches need to be more embedded in the curricula and educational technologies should not be seen as an extra, but rather as an integral part of the syllabus: students should learn how to study in the digital age (@NeilMorrisLeeds).

To facilitate this, technology should be easy enough to use not to create additional barriers. However, what is also crucial, is leadership: a strong message from the management what the minimum expectations in terms of ed tech are and a clear signal that the management is aware whether these expectations are met.