Archive | April, 2013

Industry-funded degrees – a novel idea?

17 Apr

Fast food chain KFC made the news this week for its committment to match-funding a BA in Management for 60 of its employees. Employer-funded training is not a new phenomenon: many organisations, particularly in the business and engineering sectors where the specialist skills contribute to business objectives, support their employee’s development to Foundation Degree level.

KFC have committed to matching the employee’s costs for tuition and accommodation: purportedly costing them around £9,000 a year per student. What are the implications of this for KFC’s management students and for Higher Education as a whole? The rest of this post summarises some of my ideas on the subject.

The degree is currently being offered by just one university. This is not unusual for employer-funded training: in apprenticeships and Higher Education employers tend to form partnerships with one or a few institutions who are happy to integrate into the general content of the course the specific training the company wants its employees to receive. While this potentially has implications for the usefulness of the qualification to employees in the wider labour market, the regulation of academic qualifications in the UK and Europe  exists to prevent the content becoming too specific to a single employer.

One clear implication of the university-employer partnership is students’ loss of choice of institution: KFC’s management students will all study with the same university if they wish to make use of the match-funding. This is significant given the emphasis on choice in today’s education ‘market’. However it may also widen participation in Higher Education, engaging employees who might not have considered university due to lack of access to the necessary funding or the required grades for entry. This programme circumvents the rise in fees that has been the topic of much recent discussion, and the organisation’s link with the university delivering the course may well reduce the entry requirements for the students it refers. So, although this potentially undermines the idea of choice and competition that has dominated the sector, its impact on widening participation might be one to be welcomed.

It is difficult to draw conclusions on this specific example without further detail about how precisely it will work. But hwever else it is viewed, this move is representative of a wider, gradual integration of Higher Education and industry, along with increasing pressure for universities to focus on action research which has a direct impact on local or national industrial, economic or social objectives. As already mentioned, employer involvement in and funding of education is not new or ‘novel’: Foundation degrees, vocational training and even Masters Degrees have long received elements of employer funding. Certainly it will frustrate those with a ‘traditional’ view on Higher Education, who continue to emphasise the value of enquiry for its own sake and for its capacity to prompt innovation and truly new ideas – perhaps this is likely to be the biggest loss of our increasingly instrumental education system.


My big TEL question

4 Apr

Just how important is technology to teaching and learning?


As I look at this question, two things strike me. Firstly, it’s a very big question! I hope the ocTEL course might help me to establish where I stand on the issue. This leads to my second observation: it might appear from this question that I dislike, or doubt the value of learning technology.

This is not the case. I love new technologies: I love finding out how new tools work, what others believe they can offer and what I feel I can do with them. But exciting new tools are nothing without effective teaching practice and this, at times, is forgotten in the techno-joy which drives us TEL-enthusiasts. It’s easy to be excited about the ‘power’ or capacity of a new technology, but are we sometimes guilty of going straight into questions about how to get academics and students to engage with it, before we properly consider its actual pedagogical value? Earlier today I read this article on the ‘power’ of Twitter to reach people all over the globe: this is something I love about all forms of social networking, but if ‘power’ implies the capacity to effect change I fail to see how this aspect of Twitter is intrinsically empowering, particularly in an educational context.

So my question should perhaps be this: what do learning technologies allow us to achieve in teaching and learning that could not be achieved without?

For me, the debate on the value of TEL ties in with broader social narratives about the importance of technology in our everyday lives. In education, the discourse goes that we must use new technologies that our students increasingly expect: yet at the same time we discuss ways to improve staff and students’ information literacy, so this cannot be the whole story. It seems we are simply living in an age where, for a multitude of complementary reasons, technology is being increasingly integrated into all aspects of human life, including education. The fact that we do not fully understand this process is, I believe, justification for returning regularly to my big question.

A ‘Brave New World’ of Higher Education?

1 Apr

I’m reading lots of discussions at the moment about whether there is a need to change the way that Higher Education is delivered – this invariably linked to the idea  of technology enhanced learning (TEL). On the one side of this debate is fervent emphasis upon the potential of technology to transform teaching and learning, and the need for a new approach to meet the needs and demands of a new generation of student-consumers. On the other, the traditionalists dismiss both the idea of a need for a new approach, and the capacity of new technologies to add value: the former is moral panic and the latter a gimmick.

But whatever your viewpoint this whole debate suggests a need to make some kind of momentous decision. But how can this be? Social change is gradual. These debates are becoming mainstream precisely because the change is happening – gradually and not necessarily in the directions we imagine and talk about now – but of course happening. Universities are changing the way they attract, and teach, students: more traditional, red-brick institutions might be more resistant to this change, but are inevitably following the innovative trends set by the competition.  This is driven by the perceived expectations of students which are, in turn, shaped by the attitude of the universities, as well as state rheroric internalised from the assertions of school teachers and careers advisors that a degree is the way into a good job. The fact that students now purchase Higher Education supports the idea that they are doing so for tangible future gain.

We also live in a time where social attitudes and political discourse favour ‘networking’ and knowledge transfer over more ‘traditional’ didactic teaching. ICT has a hand in this as it introduces the idea that the imperative becomes not ‘knowing’ a subject inside-out, but knowing where and how to access different information about it. Knowledge is shared between business and academia, experts from different disciplines and students and their teachers. Academics no longer teach students a set of facts, but are responsible for encouraging them to enquire for themselves.

Is this so new? For a long time we have valued teaching that goes beyond rote learning – project-based learning in the fields of science, technology and engineering undermines the sense that this is a new phenomenon. Students of the arts have long been encouraged to make and defend their own interpretations of the subject matter. So what change does increasing use of ICT in teaching represent? Seemingly little more than experimentation with new tools to continue this trend of innovative teaching – whereas the fear of TEL perhaps links more tangibly to distaste for all things new: the changing place of Higher Education in society, and the new tools which have become available to support teaching and learning. The suggestion that these are intrinsically linked is an exaggeration, and one which justifies this fear rather than facing it.