The value of virtual learning experiences such as field trips is becoming apparent - but how do college tutors set these projects up? With the help of regional support centres, as Tony Tysome explains
Bede College geography tutor Edward Anderson is planning an ambitious field trip for his students. In just one afternoon’s visit to the Lake District, they will climb mountains and comb valleys to gain panoramic and detailed close-up views of the landscape and its various geological features. Any information they need about what they see will be immediately to hand. Best of all, they are guaranteed not to get wet.
The field trip is, of course, “virtual”: Anderson dreamt up the idea of computer-based field trips in response to increasingly tight health and safety regulations, which are making visits to geologically interesting sites difficult and expensive. But he also expects that the virtual trips will significantly enhance his students’ learning, possibly even more than a real visit would.
“They will be able to see much more than they would if they were physically there, and they can get a great deal more information than they could from books by using features such as interactive diagrams,” he says.
The average college lecturer might wonder how Anderson can afford to spend weeks of his time developing his field-trip project. But he is no ordinary lecturer: he is an information learning technology (ILT) champion and, as such, he gets specialist training from one of 13 regional support centres (RSCs) around the country.
RSCs were set up just over three years ago under the former Further Education Funding Council, as part of a government-backed learning network initiative designed to get all further education colleges linked to the national university computer network, Janet. The centres are based in the 13 former FEFC regions, and continue to be supported with an average budget of about £250,000 a year each by the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England via the Joint Information Systems Committee.
Originally, the centres focused on the technical job of getting the Janet link up and running and helping colleges get to grips with how to use the network. More technical support was needed as a growing number of colleges bought virtual learning environment systems. Now that VLEs are more common, the centres are spending more time supporting college lecturers such as Anderson to develop imaginative ways to use their newly acquired facilities.
Every college is meant to have an ILT champion who receives training from RSC support staff, and is then expected to pass their knowledge on to colleagues. They help to realise the potential of VLEs, which allow staff and students to access information and data, websites, multimedia resources and message boards whenever they need to.
Gareth Davies, manager of RSC Northern, says: “We are making staff more aware of e-learning - what can be done and what resources there are. The result is that learning is becoming more exciting. Students no longer have to just sit there and take copious notes. They can work at their own pace and come back to the information they need or contact their lecturers via email.”
According to Jackie Wilson, assistant principal for ILT and resources at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington, RSCs have become “part of the jigsaw of support”. RSCs organise regular meetings at colleges where staff can share problems, exchange ideas and receive training. As a result, teaching styles have been transformed.
“Staff now know how to use the large number of digital projectors we have that are connected to the internet,” she says. “It means they can draw on resources from the college network or the internet during a lesson, such as a website, an animation or a short video clip. They are no longer just talking at students, they are helping them explore and interact.”
The new technology is already such a permanent feature of teaching that most staff see it as indispensable. “It’s a bit like when overhead projectors first came in. They were a novelty for a short time, but there soon came a point when we couldn’t live without them,” Wilson says.
Merv Stapleton, e-learning manager at City of Sunderland College, says that the centres have helped colleges progress quickly, to the extent that they have overtaken universities in the application of e-learning in teaching. “Feedback from our Quality Assurance Agency inspector suggested we were well ahead of his higher education institution,” Stapleton says. “That is only anecdotal, but certainly I would say that most colleges are at least on a par with universities - and probably ahead in many cases. Nevertheless, it still feels like we are in the foothills, because the technology is advancing so rapidly.”
Peter Kilcoyne, ILT curriculum adviser for RSC West Midlands, warns that while some colleges have taken big strides forward, others are struggling. This is partly because funding changes have left many with little choice but to slash their staff training budget.
“Most colleges used to have about £150,000 a year to support staff development. But this year, that has all been incorporated in their general budget,” he says. “That is a bit of a disaster for us. We are finding some colleges have lost about 75 per cent of their staff development budget. The government is trying to bring in a lot of changes in further education. But I don’t know how that’s going to happen without the right staff training in ILT and other areas.”
Ministers should recognise that ILT is “potentially a very powerful tool that can be used to meet the government’s widening participation and social inclusion targets”, he adds.
In the meantime, ILT champions such as Anderson will have to continue to invest their own time, as well as their enthusiasm, to support the RSC agenda. Anderson adds: “Progress really depends on the personnel in the college and how far the development budget goes. There are still not many people with the time or the skills to devote to this kind of thing.”