Further education colleges have had to contend with a decade of cuts that have severely impacted their offer around staff, pay and provision. But reductions in government funding only represent one element of an uncertain landscape in which increased competition is rife, and colleges must contend with a complex oversight and regulatory environment.
These trends underscore the complexity confronting colleges operations. Over the last few years, we have witnessed increased consolidation within the further education sector, where the impacts of mergers have thrown up a lot of challenges. How can colleges in a group retain their individual identity but work together and manage provision across multiple sites, especially when they may be using different systems and processes?
As complexities increase and competition intensifies, change has become the only constant in education. And today’s colleges need to uncover new ways to meet these challenges head-on. It’s in the valuable by-product of these increased complexities that you find the solution to many of the challenges faced by the sector… data.
Data, it has been said, is the new oil. Data can unlock a range of insights that can improve efficiency and decision making. But the current pace of technology means that most FE providers are playing catch-up as they try to close the gap between their data aspirations and their data reality.
With the increasing consolidation of college and training providers into geographically dispersed multi-site campuses, staff may be required to report on data at both an individual and a group level. Under a merger, colleges may be brought together with different specialisms, processes and ways of collecting and analysing data. So colleges have a number of challenges around how they create a shared culture but also work to eliminate campus silos and promote collaborative working. Unless colleges have a willingness and capability to change the relationship with data, there will be more time spent discussing whose data is right rather than what the data is actually saying.
With data, accuracy is key. Of course, it should be recognised that data is not infallible, and the overall quality and completeness of data will be of critical importance to predict institutional performance.
Having data in different locations creates duplication, waste and frustration. Putting everything in one place will save you time so you can start getting the most from your data immediately. Keeping data held by your institution in a single data centre results in greater levels of security for the college, and also allows staff to access it anywhere, at any point, from nearly any device.
Where the sector could improve, is utilising data more effectively to inform decision making, and while this does happen in every college, the analysis could become more sophisticated. The real gap for further education colleges currently is using data to predict institutional performance. The uncertainty of the current FE landscape means that there is a need to use data to inform the choices made at a strategic and operational level. Data can be used to understand how learners are performing overall and identify when interventions will be most useful to address issues surrounding poor attainment and performance.
To create better institutional reporting it is important to focus on what you are trying to use the data for, not how good the charts look. Dashboards need to be straightforward, customisable and intuitive for non-technical staff.
One of the issues identified is that for the most part colleges do not have the in house capabilities to do sophisticated data modelling that could be used for prediction. Here again, there is a crucial need for functional data analysis capabilities around the whole financial sustainability element if colleges are not financially sustainable using better methods to forecast 16-19 numbers, adult education budgets and apprenticeship starts.
Having increased capabilities around this would prove valuable in terms of providing the kind of forecasting that is going to make a difference to the ability of the colleges to pull together robust and credible funding plans. In addition, there is a need for data to be able to see where the skills needs are in the local economy and to shape the curriculum offer around this. By using accurate information to ensure that the colleges' offer is aligned to the local job market, the opportunities that colleges are providing increase substantially.
There is little doubt that the proliferation of new technologies will continue to change and improve business processes in a diverse range of industries - education is no exception.
Digital transformation isn’t just about strategic change: colleges need to take a practical approach, with institution-wide buy in, to get things done. Digital transformation will be bring its own challenges for every college; but senior leadership teams will need to adopt the same principles if they are to succeed: invest in your staff - they are your single biggest protection against digital disruption.
Few colleges can afford to replace the legacy technology investments they have already made. Instead, many are looking to integrate and enhance existing infrastructure to realise further returns. But greater investment will be needed from the government, especially where there is a demand for specialist systems and hardware. Rapid advances mean that technology can quickly become outdated so colleges will undoubtedly need access to more capital funding to invest in facilities and technological infrastructure that to improve their processes and enhance the experience of learners.
There are of course many great examples of colleges investing in technology, but too often funding becomes a constraining force. There are examples of initiatives and projects that are seeking to redress that balance. And with it, there are many great examples of colleges using technology in innovative ways, but the challenges then become how to scale up, and ensure that when innovation is identified it can spread across further education.
There is considerable potential to use artificial intelligence more innovatively in further education. It is estimated that AI in the global education market is expected to grow by more than 45% up until 2024. The uses of artificial intelligence in further education could play a profound role in improving the experience of students and college staff. Artificial intelligence can be a key means through which learners and teachers can keep track and monitor outcomes. We are starting to see the rise of new technologies that are having a significant impact on the learner experience such as the digital campus assistant. The uses of technology can enhance the learning experience, but also importantly The uses of technology can enhance the learning experience, but also importantly contribute to the overall wellbeing to learners at colleges.
Machine learning, AI and learner analytics will soon become a key driver in student engagement as technology opens up new sources of student data. But colleges need to tread carefully. Students are becoming increasingly savvy about the commercial value of their personal data – and privacy laws are giving them ever greater control over how it is used.
Identifying the right opportunity for AI is key. It makes no sense to invest in artificial intelligence unless it has a clear impact on college strategy. So first, it’s important to answer some important questions: where could AI solve problems? And what do you want to achieve? Once you have established the need, the limits of possibility are only contained by the availability of data. Although the cost and the necessary skills to implement a successful AI project might not be as prohibitive as it once was, investing in successful AI at scale - across the college estate - takes time, finance and, more importantly, the right data culture.
Trying to predict where technology might take us in the next 10 years’ may not be practical, but we do know that just like today, it will be disrupting campuses and re-shaping the FE sector. But by sharing ideas and best practice, and by collectively lobbying government to support the use of AI and new technologies in the FE sector, colleges can prepare for this data revolution and thrive in an increasingly digital age, allowing them to make decisions that will benefit learners, staff and their local communities.
Thank you to all of the contributors who spoke on this topic at the UNIT-e briefing hosted by Collab Group in October. Collab Group colleges are shaping the future of FE provision, and UNIT-e is proud to be part of this sector-wide discussion as an exclusive partner for further education technology.