Maureen’s blog – May 2014

Maureen-Emmett_blog_v2bFUNCTIONAL-SKILLS

At last we’ve moved into the summer term and the rain has stopped! As we move into the season which sees us complete our current work and we start to plan for next year, I want to focus this month’s blog on the debate as to how we use technology in education more effectively.

In January 2013 the Further Education Learning Technology Action group (FELTAG) was set-up by Matthew Hancock the Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise. This group was formed to make practical recommendations on how digital technology could be used for effective teaching, learning and assessment. It’s now several months since the first FELTAG report was published with the expected conclusion that digital technology can be used to engage learners and support personalised learning by harnessing the practice already used by many learners in life and work…with the inevitable reference to social media. The government has supported the recommendations and made a first step by requiring all funded FE organisations to deliver at least 10% of learning using technology from next September. And so how do we respond to this?

Luckily in Functional Skills we’ve made a good start. Teaching is generally delivered using a blended approach as the majority of providers use one of the many online diagnostic assessment tools in the market that are linked to online resources. The resources generally have sufficient content to enable learners to work on the skill areas they need to improve. And so we could assume that Functional Skills teaching has been ahead of the game when it comes to online learning.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that most learners find working remotely on developing essential maths and English skills challenging, unless they are prodded and poked..in fact all of the online resources have tracking tools so that the tutor can check to see how much work has been done.
If we think that digital technology can take the hard work out of learning, we are mistaken. Learning and its application requires dedication commitment and slog! To learn something practical or academic requires knowledge acquisition and there is no magic wand. If we think that putting learners in front of a tablet or a screen they will miraculously understand the topic in question without further explanation and then be able to apply it…well, the evidence says otherwise.

Look at how we use the internet. Great for finding information, if used effectively. However, one of the areas where many marks are lost in Functional Skills ICT assessment is the internet search. Why? Because the assessment task will ask for a specific piece of information that requires problem solving skills to sift through the multiple results that will appear. Students have to read the results; recognise the good and not so good information; and then analyse their usefulness. Many learners seem unable to look further than the top (usually paid for) results. So how does understanding improve? By thought, debate and argument. We can say that social media is encouraging this process and there have been some excellent discussions on some forums. Some are less well thought through and the use of English in social media leaves a lot to be desired!

Don’t get me wrong. If interactive multi-user games help to improve maths skills by assessing probability then I’m all for it. And any means of encouraging reading is to be welcomed irrespective of the medium of delivery.

But if there is no real substitute for a good tutor to explain, encourage and cajole, how can we use technology to ensure we get the best from them?
There has been a lot of interest in flipped learning where the tutor records a presentation for learners to watch and/or listen to, and then invites them to identify the aspects of the topic they didn’t understand for later discussion in the classroom. This, it seems to me, represents a positive way forward which uses technology effectively and enables learners to take ownership of their learning.

And so I argue that technology can be harnessed and used effectively, but only as part of a blended approach. There will always be a role for the tutor who will use their judgement to work with the learner on the most appropriate course of action to improve their skills.

Note that Nelson Thornes Functional Skills Progress English and maths resources take this approach. They are available via your Moodle based VLE that can be used in a classroom or as remote learning. There are tutor notes, colourful source materials and worksheets for learners to use either on screen or as a printable downloadable resource.

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