All further education colleges should be linked to a national information highway, a report commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council recommended this week.
The network proposed in the Higginson report would enable colleges to share electronic teaching materials and to widen access for students who need to study off campus.
The report reveals the very patchy use of computers in colleges around the country. Some centres of excellence are highlighted where imaginative use is made of technology, but the report also uncovers ineffective systems, poor access to terminals, and teachers fearful of losing control of the learning environment and reluctant to increase their use of technology.
Sir Gordon Higginson's Pounds 84 million package of proposals includes a five-year training programme intended to help colleges as well as individual teachers to cope with change.
The report envisages the funding council providing Pounds 58.8 million centrally over five years, with colleges contributing just under half that amount from their own budgets. Businesses would be encouraged to take part in joint ventures to contribute to the overall cost.
The funding council said it would consult the further education sector before making any decision on the recommendations, but if enough money was secured the initiative would begin in 1997/8.
"Top slicing or earmarked funding in the further education sector is very rare," Sir Gordon said. "We felt therefore that we had to produce a very persuasive report, and we think we have."
The cooperative nature of the plan contrasts strongly with the current ethos of competition between colleges. "We came down very firmly in favour of collaboration between institutions in the FE sector, while the institutions can retain considerable freedom in terms of what they employ and what they buy," Sir Gordon said.
The committee said it found outstanding examples of colleges using new technologies to benefit students but at the other end of the spectrum there was evidence of teachers struggling with "ineffective or disjointed college information systems" and of colleges lacking a strategy for technological development. "In some college students suffer the consequences of poor access to modern computing equipment, limited software and inadequate networking provision."
In the middle ground most colleges contained both pockets of excellence and areas which would clearly benefit from development. A substantial number of new centres have been established in colleges for flexible resource based learning. The report finds that some students use technology as a matter of routine but "large areas of the curriculum remain relatively unaffected by technology".
Many teachers were found to be "coming to terms rather reluctantly" with information technology and there were suspicions that computers were being used to drive down teaching hours with the principal aim of saving money. Some teachers were also found to be fearful of losing their responsibility for the management of learning.
"Teachers need to be confident that their credibility is not at risk if they develop new ways of teaching which move away from the traditions of the classroom," the report says.
Sir Gordon said: "What we want to avoid at all costs is frightening teachers off. I do not see the role of the teacher being degraded in any way. I see it being enhanced."