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The education sector is seeking innovation at a time when budgets are increasingly being slashed. Colleges are now looking to technology not only as a way of improving efficiency and running costs, but as a means to improving the student experience in further education (FE).

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) annual conference allows education providers, technologists, researchers and policy makers to come together and discuss the latest technological developments.

The message ‘sit tight and carry on’ is not an option”

The event was titled ‘Thriving in a colder and more challenging climate’, a chilling reminder of the financial circumstances which the further education sector finds itself in at the moment.

Seb Schmoller, Chief Executive of ALT, said: “At times of crisis, and in many respects, there is a crisis; there are opportunities to use innovation as a way of overcoming the pressure that people are under.

“The message ‘sit tight and carry on’ is not an option, in the current economic climate people need to think carefully about how they can take advantage of technology and use it in a way that will benefit whatever they’re focussed on.”

Hundreds of delegates crammed into the main auditorium at the University of Leeds on Tuesday morning. Councillor Reverend Alan Taylor, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, opened the proceedings and welcomed the international attendees – some of which had come from as far as New Zealand, Japan and India.

Taylor said: “There’s never been a greater demand placed on teaching to reach its leaners using all the tools of the trade.

“It’s important that all young learners are equipped to use technology to their advantage.”

This was followed by a keynote speech given by Miguel Brechner, President of the Uruguayan Centre for Technological and Social Inclusion (CITS). Miguel’s presentation detailed Plan Ceibal, a project that hopes to give a laptop to every student and teacher in the country.

Brechner said: “When the President of Uruguay announced in 2006 that all children in public education should have a laptop, with connectivity before his mandate, everybody thought that that was a dream and that was vapourware in politics. But that was not so.”

Uruguay has accomplished a remarkable feat in the context of both education and technology. The government initially aimed to deliver 300,000 laptops over the space of 3 years, but has since gone on to deliver more than 450,000 units. This means every child between the first year of primary school and the third year of secondary school now owns their own public funded laptop.

As the first wave of children grow up, Plan Ceibal is set to filter into the Uruguay equivalent of both further and higher education.

The government’s dedication to providing widespread internet access has also been successful. Miguel said: “We have given internet and connectivity to 2500 schools and high schools.

“99% of the children have connectivity in their educational facilities, and 180,000 (40%) don’t have to walk more than 300 metres to get internet in our own network.”

Plan Ceibal shares many similarities with the FE sector in England. The project was conceived as a social inclusion programme and based on three ‘pillars’; equality, learning and technology. These ideals will feel familiar to anyone who that champions equal opportunities in education, and asks whether access to laptops and internet connectivity should ever be perceived as a ‘right’.

Delegates debated over whether the importance of technology has grown to a point where it is now deemed a social necessity. Questions remained over whether such a model could ever be considered in a nation such as our own.

The ALT conference also had a number of technology related exhibitors such as Adobe, Google and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) present.

Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC said: “This is one of relatively few conferences that attracts a good audience both from further education and higher education.

“Clearly the use of technology in improving and enhancing the student experience, and the quality of learning and teaching is important to both sectors.”

Malcolm Read was also attending as an invited speaker who discussed student feedback, e-assessment and open educational resources during the event.

He added: “(Technology) is one of those areas where further education makes a very significant contribution, perhaps because they can be a bit more flexible and responsive.

“They can also perhaps be more risk taking than universities in the way they tend to be in the innovative use of technology for teaching.”

It’s one of the best networking opportunities if you want to see what’s current in terms of research and what people are thinking.”

The ALT conference is also host to the Learning Technologist of the Year Award, a prestigious prize recognising excellent practice and outstanding achievement in the learning technology field.

The team award category was given to the In-Folio Implementation Team, five organisations who collectively developed an e-portfolio for use in the Independent Specialist Colleges Sector.

The Infolio system is particularly remarkable because it enables learners with disabilities or learning difficulties to record their achievements and abilities.

Shirley Evans, a JISC Techdis associate who worked on the project said: “Infolio can be used by a range of students, including students that have a learning difficulty.

“For example, it can also be used by students for who have a visual impairment, because they can resize the text and change the colour contrast. So it’s very flexible in that respect.”

Sal Cooke, Director at JISC Techdis and JISC services was thrilled to have In-Folio considered for the accolade. She said: “It’s really exciting for us to have been nominated and to win this award.

“I think that the recognition of the university, the service at JISC Techdis and those specialist colleges coming together, to actually give something back to the rest of the sector and get recognition for that is fantastic.”

She added the tool will now be used in 40 colleges and rolled out in other parts of the FE and skills sector.

Although the ALT conference is aimed at all levels of education, the event attracts a much higher number of delegates from higher education (HE) than FE.

Ellen Lessner, E-Learning co-ordinator at Abingdon Witney College believes this could be because the event is held so closely to enrolment time in the FE sector. She said: “It’s a big problem, I’m on the ALT FE Committee and it is something that we discuss every year. It’s got a lot to offer and there are a small number of us from FE who are allowed, or have managed to get out at the busiest time of the year.”

Ellen was blogging the event on behalf of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), providing coverage that is tailored particularly for the further education sector. She said: “I think the content is excellent. It’s one of the best networking opportunities if you want to see what’s current in terms of research and what people are thinking.”

The ALT conference was a vital opportunity for FE providers to learn about technology and how it can be used to improve their own services. It’s unclear whether the event will be able to attract a wider audience from the FE sector in the future, but this didn’t take away from the quality and beneficial content on offer at Leeds.

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