Monday, 13 February 2012

FREE. FE Divided By These Things†.

Remarkable things are happening in the world of learning these days. Over a decade ago I put my first exercises, notes and tests on The Studyzone, really just with the idea of making my life easier - instead of taking piles of paper around with me I could access whatever I needed in the classroom. Then I realised that students who either missed a session or wanted to move forward more quickly could do so from home or work and, in a wonderfully new-sounding course at the time, IT2000 had 12 units at levels from beginner to advanced validated by the Open College Network which could be taken on-line with as much or as little communication from me as participants wanted. I also slowly added more and more of the materials and links to official assessment criteria and the like I needed for whatever I happened to be teaching and, as the years progressed, a good range of units built up.

My main purpose, however, remained the provision of easy access to guidance, information and tasks for students rather than expecting anyone to do the whole thing without coming into the classroom at the College where they'd enrolled.

Then, a few years ago, I heard about some interesting developments by the people at Edufire where complete chunks of courses in a whole range of things could be done totally on-line. Just as well, I suppose, as most of the tutors lived miles, if not several thousand miles away! Broadband speeds and technology had begun to permit video to be streamed at a rate that meant stuttering and freezing was becoming less of a problem. People did need to pay for many of these, though, and to join an on-line 'class' at set times. This may have suited quite a few but both aspects would be inclined to limit take-up so, whilst this still is an excellent development, and one where I'm happy to be a tutor too, it's more of a step in the evolution of learning that takes us a little further along the road I'm observing.

Shortly afterwards I was appointed an Associate Lecturer at Middlesex University's Institute of Work Based Learning where all the students were distant learners. The technology involved was pretty basic but the whole of the undergraduate or postgraduate courses were studied and supported on-line, including the viva element of a Masters programme, where, traditionally colleagues would interview the student and discuss various aspects of his or her project over a glass or two of fine wine but now didn't need to share the wine, this not being an obvious facility that Skype offered.

Along came The Khan Academy. well, it had probably been there for ages so I should say 'along came my noticing The Khan Academy!' This blew me away. I thought it was just a few videos of someone chatting while scribbling on a blackboard but I soon saw the extent to which this has grown and now my two sons use the Maths section regularly and are rapidly progressing through the stages and learning lots as they go. Which, of course, is the whole point of all this.

Then some really good universities began to offer courses that could be studied and assessed on-line and, most significantly, students would gain a certificate accrediting their success from that institution or, at least, a department within that institution which was almost as good as the real thing. I have recently published the amazing introductory course being offered by two wonderfully renowned professors operating through Udacity and now find that there is already a massive list of great courses being offered by prominent and well-respected institutions. All free and many with some form of accreditation and certification. There may be better but The Open Culture site, apart from the annoying ads at the top which I plead with you to ignore, seems to have a comprehensive and well-researched list.

The massively impressive Massachusetts Institute of Technology now launch MITx with their free on-line learning offer. They make a point of emphasising that their on-line courses are the same as those delivered in classes in terms of range and scope and that the same assessment standards will apply, making these totally free, totally on-line courses opportunities for students anywhere in the world to achieve an MIT qualification. Well, an MITx qualification. As I said, there have to be some issues to resolve when it comes to assessment still. There are many examples of students' attempts to fool tutors in class as it is through various combinations of Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, using others to complete assignments or just getting a lot more help than they should had they really known what they were talking about. Wise, especially streetwise, tutors can spot these cheats on most occasions but even Turnitin or similar software isn't going to be up to the job of detecting whether someone you don't know did the work or was it someone else you don't know?

I suggested to my class of about 30 students earlier this year that they might be an alternative option to coming in to College and over 50% were interested in the idea of studying at their own pace on-line if they could still achieve a decent qualification at the end of the day. That was when I said there'd have to be a fee which might not be fully covered by grants. Make it free and that percentage can only rise.

This is all happening much more quickly than I'd expected. I had had thoughts just a few months ago of finding a suitable institution and setting up an on-line 'university' where programmes could be delivered at Foundation Degree level and with the idea of competing with FE BTEC-type Level 3 Diploma courses. Now I am beginning to think that there will soon be a range of alternatives at reputable institutions already out there for them. And they'll be free. Once employers start to recognise such programmes and accept them as equal alternatives to the traditional form then whatever troubles FE Colleges think they face now will seem tiny if they don't make substantial changes to how they provide teaching and learning.

E-learning certainly rules. Free could be the beginning of the end of FE as we know it. I think I my just take that offer of Voluntary Redundancy after all.

†For those who didn't do Latin at school, re can mean by these things.

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