Bob Harrison is a member of the Learning Futures Steering Group and was a leading member Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG). He is Chair of Governors at Northern College and a Governor of a Trafford school…Read more
The challenge of FELTAG
At the core of Bob’s thinking around the digital future of Further Education is the FELTAG ambition to:
…secure sector ownership of a flexible framework for change, and incentivise innovation, and thereby create the conditions for an agile evolution of the FE system. p.16
The key words, he says, are agile evolution: “It’s about survival, not about waiting for a grant or strategy to be handed down. My most retweeted tweet was:
“Those FE providers who embrace and embed FELTAG spirit will not only survive but thrive…those that don’t won’t.”
Bob maintains a healthy skepticism about the relationship between the scale of the ambition and the resources applied to deliver that ambition and is not shy about challenging the sector: “I know the scale of the challenge and it’s really not about technology—it’s about the capability of the workforce. There are huge challenges around infrastructure and governance, but the big issue is 120,000 staff across 1,000 providers needing to support learners in a digital future. Looked at in that context, the £1M budget secured by the Learning Futures programme is a drop in the ocean.”
He has, nevertheless, been encouraged by the management and delivery of Learning Futures and believes that what has been achieved will be a catalyst driving future developments. There are, he says, some really useful tools and practices emerging with some key lessons learned that have the capability to spread good practice.
Governors and leaders are critical to ‘agile evolution’
For his own part, Bob would have liked to have seen more project proposals focusing on governance and leadership. That, he says, is where the real return on investment will be realised. He believes that raising the vision, strategic planning, capacity and capability of governors and leaders is critical to the ‘agile evolution’ he is calling for. Northern College, where he is Chair of Governors, was graded ‘Outstanding’ in all areas in its recent Ofsted inspection. That, he says, is a direct result of having governors who understand the digital world and are prepared to challenge the executive. It stands in contrast to leaders and governors across FE and industry with a profile that can affect their capacity to challenge principals and chief executives about where learning and training using digital technology might be in 2020 and beyond.
Funding and regulation is stuck in the past
Bob says that funding and regulatory frameworks are predicated upon a learning design mindset that remains stuck in a post-industrial landscape rewarding providers for corralling students and teachers in the same place at the same time. This, he says, was at the core of the FELTAG recommendations:
“It’s not about money. There’s plenty of money in the sector. But it’s trapped in assets that deliver a post-industrial model of teaching, not fit for purpose, out-of-date, and with prestige buildings that stand empty for half the year.”
He wants the funders to make it easier for governors to realise those assets and reinvest them in a digital education and training infrastructure. “It really is as simple as that,” he says. “I can give you examples of multi-million pound investments in property still happening today—properties that will be massively underutilised. It’s madness, because people young and old are increasingly living their lives online, accessing information when and where they want it. The new edifice is digital—not physical. It’s about making the most of what digital technology has disrupted in every other part of our lives except FE.”
The effective use of technology enhances learning outcomes
Ofsted, Bob says, has yet to convince him that they’ve fully taken on board the FELTAG recommendations. As a college principal, he was kept awake at night by funding and inspection. The sector, he says, is full of teachers desperate to use technology to innovate, albeit in spite of and not because of the system:
If Further Education institutional cultures are to change, the regulatory and funding regimes must, at the very least, cease to inhibit innovation and ideally facilitate learning technology’s optimal use to improve learner outcomes. FELTAG Recommendations, p.5
The focus of Learning Futures—using learning technologies effectively—is at the core of his thinking: “People tend to think about the potential of digital technology in terms of uploading and downloading to learn. But once you upload content it’s already dated. Online access is only part of the solution. I’ve spent a lot of time studying this, including spending a couple of months at Stanford University, and there is no evidence anywhere in the world that establishes a causal relationship between any piece of technology and improved learning outcomes. There is, however, abundant evidence of a correlation between schools and colleges that use technology effectively to improve learning outcomes.”
It’s teachers and not technology, he says, that makes the difference. The potential and the power for learning are not through content but through co-creation, creativity, collaboration, communication, co-construction and co-operation. Those Cs are, in his view, far more powerful for learning than content:
“The Learning Futures dissemination will be one piece of a massive jigsaw, but it will be a significant piece if it promotes the pooling of resources and continuing collaboration. It’s not a time for competition.”
Mindsets need to change
Bob will be speaking at a Learning Futures dissemination conference at Blackburn College on 29th June because, he says, these events are crucial for sharing learning and changing mindsets. Reflecting on changing mindsets, he points out that 20-30 per cent of the sector workforce is due to retire in the next 10 years. It’s not a simple matter of an influx of 40,000 teachers who are digitally savvy—he doesn’t accept the ‘digital natives’ argument—but about teachers who will understand that there are new ways of doing things. He mentions the experience of a family member who is mystified that she has to drive to university at 7am, to sit at the back of a lecture theatre and listen to somebody reading a PowerPoint presentation!
Bob is the industry mentor for the Heart of Worcestershire College’s ‘Mastering the Governance of Technology’ project. He says he’s anxious to help them draw out key learning that will help governors to connect with and understand what’s coming next. It’s time for a paradigm shift, he says, and that’s why Worcestershire’s project will be critical in shaping the governance of the sector.
Learning Futures projects with governance focus
Bob Harrison is a member of the Learning Futures Steering Group and was a leading member Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG). He is Chair of Governors at Northern College and a Governor of a Trafford school. He has been Toshiba’s Education Adviser for 14 years following a career in schools, Further and Higher Education. He was Principal of South Nottingham College. He worked for the National College for School Leadership on the National Professional Qualification for Headship and designed and delivered the Learning Technology elements of the Building Schools for the Future Programme. Bob worked for the DfE in the Standards Unit and advised on the development of the FE Principals qualification. Bob is a board member of the UfI Trust and NIACE. He regularly visits Stanford University to research current developments around education’s digital future and is a judge for the Stanford University Education Faculty Learning Design and Technology Masters programme. He is also a judge for the TES FE Awards Innovative use of Technology category.