FE is at risk of getting left behind in the digital dust

With advancements in technology, FE has moved on, too – not that you’d be too aware of that if you were a visitor to this year’s Bett show, argues Bob Harrison.

It was a promising start to my 12th Bett (formerly British Educational Training and Technology) conference.

Following Business Secretary Vince Cable opening the show at Excel, in London, and FE Minister Matthew Hancock’s attendance and personal interest in digital technologies, there is a unique combination of factors that suggests the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will be taking a serious look at how technology-enhanced learning could support the government’s aims for the FE and skills sector.

This is particularly true of the massive open online course (MOOC) phenomenon which is gaining momentum in the USA and the UK.

As well as 100 ministers of education from around the globe being joined by the BIS ministers at the end-of-January event, the official Bett guide was entitled Schools and FE show guide 2013 and not only that, but there was a nominated FE day, too.

Sadly, the promise was not fulfilled from an FE perspective and what promised so much for FE veterans like me was short-lived and didn’t materialise.

Yes, the shiny gizmos, tablets, touch surface screens, high speed broadband Wi-Fi systems, sophisticated software, 3D printing and much more turned me into a rabbit in the digital future’s headlights, but where were all my FE friends and colleagues?

Perhaps they were down the road at Olympia at the mis-timed (or perhaps Bett was mistimed) Learning and Technologies UK show which features the best in the world of work-based learning?

Credit to the Association for Learning Technology who, encouragingly, are now official Bett partners for the first time, but even on the designated FE day the post-16 footprint was negligible.

I was disappointed, but not surprised as a Bett and FE veteran as it is what I have come
to expect”

I scoured the seminar programme and all the learning theatres for a sniff of FE providers who were “ahead of the curve” to learn from and perhaps share, but I was as disappointed with my non findings as I was with the lack of authenticity in Mr Cable’s words when saying things like “MOOCs, haptics, and cloud-computing”.

The words came out in the right order, but somehow you got the feeling that the real meaning didn’t really get communicated and got lost?

So I was disappointed, but not surprised as a Bett and FE veteran as it is what I have come to expect.

Since the demise of Becta (formerly British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) more than two years ago and with Jisc’s (formerly Joint Information Systems Committee) main eye being on the HE ball, compounded by the impending closure of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, who frankly never “got it,” there has been no real strategic leadership of technology in FE.

This has to change, as does the mindset of the funding, audit and inspection regimes which are stuck in an industrial mindset when we need to be preparing students for a digital future. Most occupations now have digital literacy at their heart.

The schools are radically changing the information and communications technology curriculum and the digital expectations of my grandchildren, who will leave school in the late 2020s, will not be met by FE colleges with a creaky technological infrastructure and a skills set which needs major investment and refreshment.

The perfect storm of cheap mobile devices, high-speed always on broadband wifi, open source, virtual and blended learning is sweeping across the Atlantic and it is time those responsible for FE woke up and felt the breeze.

Perhaps then next year FE will be on the inside of the Bett show guide and not just a name on the cover? I live in hope and look forward to seeing many more FE friends and colleagues next year.

Bob Harrison, education adviser at Toshiba Information Systems (UK) and chair of the Teaching Schools Technology Advisory Board

For more on education technology, check out FE Week’s guide to FE learning tech here

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  1. The last time I went to BETT was 1995 and it used to be just 10 minutes walk from where I worked.

    I found that it showed me nothing I couldn’t find out about better elsewhere (increasingly on line).

    For me BETT represents the the techno-deterministic dark side of educational technology – its all about product and reinforces an out moded institutional model of educational technology.

    This year I presented with Google about the how Google apps are inconvenient to traditional models of educational technology – Google apps being free, DIY and easy to use for example – quite inconvenient for traditional educational technology that seems to rely on perpetuating a form of educational “learned helplessness” .. don’t worry we have teachers and trainers who will teach you teach and train you how to use this educational technology.

    Although I pretty ducked into BETT and out again as quick as I could – maybe its symbolic that this is the first time I have been back to BETT in 18 years – maybe something might change .. although I doubt it – education and technology go together like Shirkey and principle

  2. I enthusiastically made the dreadful journey to the Bett exhibition at the Excel Centre to find out what is new and innovative in FE, but was sadly disappointed and came away within an hour, wondering why I had bothered. Why was the FE and Skills sector so poorly represented?

    Yes, there are significant elements of the FE and Skills sector that still need to embrace technology and prepare learners for a digital future; and not just for using word processing and spreadsheets! But it’s not all doom and gloom as some say, there are some inspirational things going on and I have been heartened by the enquiries I’ve had from funded providers asking how they can market and sell their e-learning.

  3. I’m with Carolyn. I was disappointed by Bett and the lack of FE but I am optimistic about the strides being made in the sector. In my college there’s much to be positive about.

    We’re experimenting with aids like Google apps to support t&l but we’re also using it to streamline our internal processes and increase collaboration.

    And yes whilst it’s true we still have more to do, there is good practice out there. I’m willing to give Bett another try…a lot can happen in a year.