Like most FE principals, Anthony Bravo has a keen interest in how technology can help improve teaching. He reflects here on the performance of interactive learning software that his college has been trialling and a new two-year study into the effects of blended learning.

Although the phrase ‘blended learning’ has been in use for a decade, many of us are still grappling with what it means for our learners.

However many Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) studies or government initiatives there are about using technology, until we as teachers are comfortable with how it can be used effectively — both in and out of the classroom — it’s not going to feature naturally in our planning.

I had the opportunity recently to explore and even influence what blended learning could mean when I met Martin Biron, managing director of digital publisher Global Vocational Skills (GVS).

It is developing a suite of interactive learning software (i-GVS) and looking for somewhere to trial it.

As a college of technology, I jumped at the chance, and enlisted colleagues from Richmond upon Thames, Highbury and Cornwall Colleges too.

We are already trialling automotive and catering i-GVS units with our students, with other technical areas to be released shortly.

What do I think so far? From a technical perspective, GVS is ticking the right boxes.

The software runs on an industry-standard Moodle platform and can be hosted on your servers or in the cloud (if you want to host it on your servers, our experience suggests a separate Linux server works best).

It will also run on Google Docs. Our IT team installed it — they tell me it was easy to install and configure — and our teaching staff have access to customise it, if they want to plan what particular groups will see, for example.

Learners can log in from anywhere; they can access it from mobile devices but ours found it works better on screens 8” or larger (remember, this is still a pilot).

So what do I think it will mean for learners?

The i-GVS software will allow our learners to be more self-directed than ever.

Feedback on units is instant, not only allowing a student to work at their own pace, but also in a supported way, even outside of college.

It has the potential to widen participation, by engaging our existing learners in new ways and by being a useful weapon in the distance learning armoury.

It also differentiates, appealing to students at different levels and giving them the opportunity to advance their own learning at their own pace — which we see as a fantastic resource for apprentices.

Benefits for teaching staff include providing an additional means to monitor learners’ progression.

In an emergency, it also means learners can still access learning resources if their tutor is ill.

An unintended, but useful, benefit is that it could also improve our efficiency in terms of contact time.

Alongside the development of the software, the partners have launched project ‘HUbBLE’ with Southampton Solent University, a two-year programme to investigate the effects of blended learning and technology in the classroom.

From a technical perspective, it is ticking the right boxes

We are delighted that Martin Doel will lead on this project when he leaves [as chief executive of] AoC in September.

HUbBLE stands for Heutegogical Unification by Blended Learning Environments (to save you reaching for your dictionary, heutagogy is the study of self-determined learning; yes, I had to check!).

So not only are we getting to trial this software, we already have plans to measure how it works for our learners.

GVS is keen to develop interactive materials that work for our sector.

For example, we want to see maths strongly embedded, so are planning a working party of other colleges later this term to bring automotive and plumbing tutors together to explore how this can be done.

No doubt other vocational areas will follow shortly, as well as embedding English.

‘Blended learning’ tools, including i-GVS, will never replace a good teacher and we know that there are no short cuts to outstanding lessons or results.

However, from what we are seeing from i-GVS so far, I certainly think they can provide innovative ideas to help every teacher become a more effective teacher.