Providers will have to say how much of their courses are delivered online in their individualised learner record (ILR) data returns, the Skills Funding Agency has announced.

The rule will be in force next academic year. The news comes just weeks after the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag), recommended that 10 per cent of all publicly-funded courses should be delivered online by 2015/16, with incentives to rise to 50 per cent by 2017/18.

An agency spokesperson told FE Week: “The Skills Funding Statement 2013-16 set out that the government wants to see ‘many more radical approaches to the use of available educational technologies’.

“The agency was tasked with working with the sector to ‘look at how we can put in place appropriate funding mechanisms to better facilitate online learning’.
“The new data will enable the agency to work collaboratively with the sector to understand how this activity can be measured.”

However, he did not say whether the move had been prompted by the Feltag report.

He added: “Recommendations from Feltag will be considered as the agency and the sector progress with this work.”

Association of Colleges technology manager Matt Dean said: “Given the Feltag recommendation, it’s a good idea to work out how to collect data via the ILR, but it’s important to check the accuracy and validity before taking significant decisions on the basis of the information.

“Colleges will also be keen to know more about how to go about developing 10 per cent of a course or programme for online delivery, the inherent cost implications… and what’s meant by ‘incentives’ to push for the 50 per cent online delivery figure by 2017/18.”

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “We supported many of Feltag’s recommendations but we are concerned about making online delivery a mandatory element of course content because it may not be appropriate for all learners in all programmes.

“Providers require flexibility to deliver the most appropriate programmes for their learners and employers, and we should not be making elements of those programmes mandatory.
“This can only lead to yet more measurement of inputs rather than the focus on outcomes of the learning.

“We should encourage more online learning where it works but not setting targets and measuring programmes on a learner by learner basis.”

Steve Hewitt, management information system officer at London’s Morley College, said the move was “practical in the short term, but it depends on how they define ‘delivered online’ — especially if there’s some spurious 10 per cent threshold that everyone has to meet”.

He said: “The idea of a minimum threshold of online delivery seems a pretty 20th Century way of looking at things.

“If a tutor shows the whole class something they’ve found on YouTube, is it online delivery if the tutor emails them, but not if everyone’s sat in a classroom watching it all together?

“Students will be doing almost all of their research for any given course online anyway, even things like dance and plumbing, so why would we want to reduce the practical, hands-on experience that only high quality vocational education can deliver, by setting an arbitrary threshold?”

Kirstie Donnelly, UK managing director of City & Guilds, which took part in Feltag research, had mixed feelings about the new ILR requirement.

She said: “I fully support any move to ensure that the sector recognises the valuable role online delivery can play…to me, it’s a no-brainer.”

She added: “However I still have some concerns… For this to work, providers must be given the help and support they need to become more digital.”