While area reviews mean colleges will become closer than ever before, Martin Simmons argues that collaboration was always going to be key to the sector’s future.

Mergers, funding ’simplification’, crazy targets, political dogma — where lies there any certainty in this landscape: this landscape, the beloved of so many, despite the best efforts of the meddlers and the ignorant? I can think of two certainties.

Firstly, our future learners will require and indeed thrive using digital technologies. Secondly, investment in FE will decline year-on-year for the foreseeable future. These two certainties make for difficult bedfellows and if we are to reconcile the opposites then we necessarily need to work in a different paradigm. That different paradigm is collaboration.

Curriculum development and delivery is where the real opportunities for successful collaboration lie

Having had the privilege to work in a team of eight colleges, together with an awarding organisation, sector skills council and private research organisation, I can attest to the truism that collectively we really can achieve, exponentially, more than we can ever achieve alone.

And curriculum development and delivery is where the real opportunities for successful collaboration lie. Yes, there are savings to be had in shared payroll, management information systems and, possibly, IT services, but nothing compared to what can be achieved by working together on curriculum content for online delivery.

We and others within the recently formed Designelearning Network have successfully delivered a blended learning solution to the first cohorts of budding e-learning Designers.

In less than one year, our project wrote — and had Ofqual approved — the content and detailed schemes of work for a new level three and four diploma in learning design, something we could never have achieved alone, more particularly as everyone in the team had their day jobs to do.

Again, a couple of indelible truths. Firstly, as we all know, it takes too long for individual practitioners to develop, let alone refresh, good quality online materials. Secondly, while you can buy materials from the private sector, much of it is prohibitively expensive and it is ‘locked down’ so that teachers cannot customise the materials for their own needs. As for MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) proceed cautiously.

At the risk of sounding like a 1960s advert for Kibbutz living, the answer to both ‘certainties’ may be found through collective, collaborative effort. If we find partners (whose values we share) and work together, then we will really accelerate the development of online content.

If the sector starts to train its own digital learning design technicians, then we will all have the capacity to adapt, customise and update the e-learning materials that we import from our partners.

Training the designers is now possible thanks to the diploma in digital learning design (collaboratively written and developed) — yes there is an investment required, but an extremely modest one given the potential return on that investment.

And no, it’s not Nirvana because all professionals will always want to change the content to suit themselves. But this is no different to buying a textbook: you use one section as is, another gets cut up and rejigged into a handout, a further bit is ignored.

It’s the mind-set that must change. And there is some precedent. Sharing between colleges on big European Social Fund-type projects has worked (it has also spectacularly not worked, but we cannot afford to work on the lowest common denominator) and I have heard objections on the grounds that we are competitors and need competitive advantage. But I have yet to hear a 16-year-old applicant ask whether our level two on-line childcare learning materials are of the same standard as our FE college 15 miles up the road.

You will notice that this article has not suggested that colleges will necessarily secure grand savings through on-line learning and that is because I don’t think there are (m)any — certainly in the short term. Using online learning to increase income, on the other hand, does open up both national and international learning opportunities, as I can clearly evidence.

Online learning — as many esteemed colleagues are advocating — is about meeting need, it is about what our learners demand, it is about the Martini of learning: “anytime anywhere”.