What will colleges of the future look like?

State-of-the-art buildings, flexible study and virtual learning modules will liberate FE students, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Forget classrooms. Forget blackboards or even interactive whiteboards. Forget three terms a year and having to write out job applications at the end of a course. In fact, erase every preconception you ever had about college learning and step into the future.

Here, you'll find yourself being educated anywhere from a mini space centre to the inside of an aircraft to a "learning street"– wide channels which form the heart of a department and run between workshop rooms. You'll find yourself just as likely to learn from a peer in Poland as a tutor in Telford and you'll find yourself on a course tailored to suit your timescales and with a guaranteed job at the end.

How do I know? Two reasons. First, a look into the further education sector reveals that the trends are already becoming clear and second, Michael Heppell told me. Heppell is about to launch his new book, Future Proof Your College, at the Association of College's annual conference aptly entitled "Shaping Futures". As part of his research, he's been talking to college principals, students, employers and futurists to form a clear picture of FE tomorrow.

"The first thing that became clear was that individual learning is going to become increasingly important," he says. "The idea of putting a lot of people in a classroom and feeding them information is already becoming a thing of the past. You simply have to go onto Google to gain information these days. What FE is doing is turning that knowledge into learning in ways that are both innovative and which are bespoke to an individual's needs."

So, whereas in the past, you might have phoned a college to find out when the next business administration course starts, you are now more likely to be able to call up and say, "I need to learn these specific elements of business administration which I'll be able to apply in my job as a PA in the manufacturing industry and I need to do it every other Saturday."

At Lewisham College, there is growing recognition that college staff will need to be a different breed than those who gained their teaching qualifications in times of yore. "If you're going to be a cutting edge learning organisation that's fit for purpose in the future, your staff need to be your best learners," insists the principal, Dame Ruth Silver. "With that in mind, we have devised a brand new teaching qualification in the teaching of practical learning. To do this, teachers, teacher trainers and students got together and worked out the common competencies required and devised a curriculum for training teachers which has now been validated by South Bank University. We're in our first year, with 30 very excited trainees.

"Initiatives like these are getting the college spinning towards tomorrow in a very strategic way."

David Hunter, chief executive of the Sector Skills Council, LLUK (Life Long Learning UK), agrees that FE colleges of the future will be demand-led, flexible, focus on areas of specialism and have the highest calibre of staff. "In the future, there will be a great increase in FE teachers who are career changers, either skilled workers opting to trade in the tools for the college campus or high flyers across all professions opting for a new career that offers job satisfaction, more flexible hours and a chance to pass on their skills," he says.

Tutors won't be the only leaders of learning, according to Heppell. "Nearly every principal we talked to was going through a new build programme in excess of £20m and a major focus of each design was around students being able to come together in their own groups and mini societies – ranging from state-of-the-art atriums to specially designed pods."

It is happening virtually too. "Say, you sign up for a course in engineering. The college might teach you the basics for mechanics, but if there's a particular aspect that you're really passionate about, colleges will increasingly assist you in finding out if there's anyone else in the world with a shared passion who you cannot just share essays with, but drawings, and views on the bigger picture. The speed at which this can happen is amazing. It used to take weeks, but now it can take days or even hours."

This reflects the shift towards both globalisation and technological innovation in FE, says Heppell. "One futurist told me that in five years' time, you might go to a college for two-thirds of your time, while the remaining third will be spent gaining specialist knowledge in a virtual environment from, say, Japan or China. It's already starting to happen through things like Facebook, where people share their learning interests. What we're likely to see more of is this being formalised as part of a college curriculum."

Learners who were born since 1990 are digital natives, says Heppell. "They will expect nothing less."

Hastings College is among those with a bold approach to incorporating technology. Here, learners can use mobile technology to interact with their tutors, their timetables, their learning materials and each other. Principal Sue Middlehurst adds, "The building is designed to bring rapidly changing information and images to everyone in the building through display and interactive screens. This will include essential information, collecting student views, viewing real-time activities from the teaching areas and displaying student work. It is intended that this will include a large screen on the exterior of the building – like at Wembley Arena – used to illustrate all aspects of the college's activities."

Like many colleges, Hastings is also focusing its efforts on the learning environment itself. "The college is presently exploring a number of sponsorship opportunities to ensure real work environments – for example, a fuselage for the cabin crew students. Also there'll be a satellite gallery for national art exhibitions."

Keighley College even provides a mini space centre with, among other things, a state-of-the-art mission control and an artificial extraterrestrial landscape with an accompanying workshop, which is available for all science students. And Telford College boasts "learning streets", equipped with touchdown desks with computers for the students to work on assignments and use the internet. Stefan Jakobek, an architect at HOK, who helped design the streets, says, "Smaller, more informal teaching sessions are held on the streets and students are encouraged to blend learning with their socialising in a relaxed environment."

Like many colleges, Oxford and Cherwell Valley College is ditching traditional terms. "From an operational perspective, the college can't afford to limit the building to a traditional three terms a year," explains Philip Waddup, director of property and environment. "This is not what industry expects," he adds.

John Latham, principal of Cornwall College, says his college's research arm marks their stride into the future. "One way in which we recently utilised this was to find out the commercial impact of our training on businesses. We wanted proof that employers' business was improving as a result of their work with us. We found that they got an average 17 per cent increase in turnover, and this is helping us further engage with businesses."

If this sounds like colleges are becoming more like universities, it's because they are, says John Boardman, head of the education team at Eversheds.

"FE has traditionally been the Cinderella of the education sector, but with the large number of college mergers, they are becoming the size of small universities – with the capabilities to match," he says.

Brian Turtle, principal of Belfast College, adds that colleges are increasingly partnering with universities, as well as schools and, perhaps most importantly, businesses to set the agenda for the future of FE. "Because of this, when employers think, 'I want to employ a skilled person,' their first port of call is a college – which is ultimately why filling out application forms at the end of a course is less and less necessary," he says.

Efficiency and speed will become key buzzwords of FE's future, predicts Heppell. "In the past, people were quite forgiving of FE in terms of levels of service because it was education. There was an acceptance that they didn't have to be as professional or even polite. But the customers expect value for money and as such, FE is becoming much more customer centric – whether that customer is an employer or student."

You might even find the word college becomes outdated. The Learning Shops at Cornwall College are already working by encouraging adults who are traditionally put off by the term "college." These centres, which are sprinkled throughout Cornwall, offer a range of courses delivered mainly through the use of computer based learning packages.

"Colleges wanting to become part of future education are creating change rather than waiting for it to happen to them," concludes Heppell.

AoC Beacon Awards

Helping to define the future of FE are the Association of College's (AoC) Beacon Awards, an annual series of industry and Government agency- sponsored prizes that recognise and celebrate outstanding teaching and learning in the sector

Examples include Blackburn College which last year won the TES/AoC Award for Widening Participation for its work with the Early Years Team at the local authority to deliver learning programmes in childcare in community settings. Two hundred participants have enrolled over the past five years, over half of whom are from an Asian background. And 51 per cent of the learners achieving NVQ level 2 enter employment.

Alice Thiagaraj, manager of the AoC Charitable Trust, explains that this year, the AoC Beacon Awards' impact on the future of FE will be in evidence for the first time. "We will be releasing the interim findings of a research project into the first 14 years of the awards. What this shows is how the capabilities of colleges that have been AoC Beacon winners can actually help shape Government standards for the sector."

It's often been the case, she explains, that once a college is rewarded with a Beacon Award, the initiative is picked up by other colleges over the next few years – whether it's ways of using new technologies or whole-college approaches to inclusive learning.

"The research demonstrates something of a symbiotic relationship between the sector and Government where, for example, innovations in Beacon Award colleges can influence what Ofsted might look for within other colleges, thereby helping to raise standard of provision across the sector. In turn, Government initiatives, such as Skills for Life, gave funding, increased rigour and status to work already being done by Beacon Award colleges."