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Policy memory and new #edtech shores in #FE

Last week I was invited to contributed to a symposium organised by Policy Connect for the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), an independent FE think tank.

The symposium was chaired by Lord Chris Holmes, Chair of the EdTech Leadership Group and APPG for Assistive Technology; and fellow panellists included Paul McKean, Head of Further Education and Skills, Jisc, Deborah Millar, Group Director of Digital Learning Technology, Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education and Dick Palmer, Former Chief Executive, TEN Group, and Adviser to FELTAG. The symposium was closed by Dame Ruth Silver, President, FETL.

I enjoyed contributing to the event and the conversations before and afterwards, which included many inspiring examples of outstanding practice and innovation from different colleges and other providers. Having benefited from formative years in an FE College myself when I had few other ways forward these passionate and authentic perspectives always chime with me. Two things really stuck with me from the event:

First, in the closing remarks, Dame Ruth Silver reflected on the policy landscape and the need to galvanise individual initiatives and bodies into joint action. I picked up one of FETL’s publications (which are CC-licenced and freely available here) entitled ‘Possibility thinking: Reimagining the future of further education and skills‘ published in this edition in 2017 together with the RSA. In it, Dame Ruth Silver writes:

… while the sector must understand where it has come from and where it is now, the very nature of our changing context means that we must be prepared to learn continuously and to look ‘elsewhere and everywhere’ in forging a future for ourselves. … the sector must be cognisant of what has gone before, particularly in a sector in whcih policy memory is notoriously short. But, more than anything else, it must be loyal to the future; bold, creative and unapologetic in claiming its place in this emering terrioty.

A Script for the Future, Dame Ruth Silver, President, FETL

I agree with that perspective and having spent the last 10 years engaging with successive ministerial advisory groups from FELTAG to ETAG up to the current Edtech Strategy, it is only too clear to me that not only is the policy memory in the sector short – but also seemingly little political will to invest in stability, staff development and structures that would enable many of the recommendations made in that period to be implemented beyond pilot schemes or showcase colleges. So often calls for change to inspection frameworks, funding mechanisms and staff training have gone unheard and the resulting patchy development has spread the already broad spectrum of innovation further still.

Which brings me to reflect on the new shores of edtech in FE which we discussed on the day. As I said, there were many examples of great things happening all across the country, teachers learning from other teachers, students leading change, governors and senior leaders seeing the possibilities. But Dame Ruth Silver was right to ask us how so many different strands could come together to make a whole, how (in my words) wider collaboration instead of competition could be fostered between providers, industry, government agencies and sector bodies. In this context, the conversation felt very much like the exchanges which led to the original FELTAG recommendations published in 2013.

True, there is more talk now of AIs, VR and AR, of machine learning and automation. But beyond the tools that keep changing, the issues at the hear of the matter remain the same.

However, whilst the policy makers may not be moving on much, staff and learners are. Change is happening all across the system and whilst it is underfunded and under pressure, life doesn’t stop because policy progress is slow. I felt the perspective from ALT that I contributed was really relevant as it emphasised the need to empower staff through professional recognition and development to engage critically with Learning Technology, to ask difficult questions about ethical implications of technology, of inherent biases and inequality, and to encourage organisations to invest in their own expertise and experience (including the experience of things going wrong) as they approach the new shoes of edtech.

Vancouver CC-BY Maren Deepwell