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The implications of information technology for the 16-19 age group in the United Kingdom

Grace Kenny
OECD PEB Consultant

The implications of IT for the 16-19 age group in the United Kingdom: In the past three years in the United Kingdom, institutions offering education and training to the 16-19 age group have undergone a triple transformation, with important implications for how information technology can support the buildings and facilities used by students.

Status of colleges: The further education sector (around 500 colleges) has become increasingly responsible for its own management, starting with its taking over financial management for recurrent expenditure, and culminating with individual colleges' being instituted as independent corporations, no longer under the control of local education authorities. Powerful college based management systems are now required, to deal with personnel, finance, property and other tasks.

More students: The UK Government has set a target of a 25% growth in student enrolments over three years: as capital resources are limited, the use of existing staff and accommodation has to be made as efficient as possible, an improvement which can be encouraged by the use of computer based scheduling systems.

New teaching methods: New qualifications, known as National Vocational Qualifications, require students to acquire competences in a given subject. Practical competences are taught in real work environments as far as possible but since these are expensive in accommodation and staff time, there is an increasing need for open access, student centred resource areas, well stocked with computer based learning materials.

1 Introduction

1.1 Further Education

The context of my remarks is that of the UK over the past few years. As a researcher in the Architects and Building Branch of the Department for Education in London, I have been involved in preparing a design note for what is known as the further education sector in our country: it is otherwise known as the post compulsory sector, as the 16-19 age group, or more colloquially as FE. The sector currently includes around 500 establishments, or colleges, catering largely for the 16-19 age group, currently providing courses for just under one million students. During the preparation of this document, it became apparent to us that information technology was beginning to play an increasingly important role in underpinning and in some cases replacing various aspects of the organisation of teaching, learning, research and administration in these institutions.

These colleges, over the past three years, have been subject to an escalating process of decentralisation starting with their becoming responsible for their own recurrent budgets (Local Management of Colleges), and ending up in April of last year with their becoming independent corporations, set free from their local education authorities.

In addition the Government has become aware of the need to strengthen the competitiveness of the British workforce, both in Europe and in the world, and is encouraging a dual shift in the provision of education and training for this age group: first, colleges are being asked to enrol 25 per cent more students over the first three years of their independent existence (around an 8 per cent increase each year) (see Figure 1) and, second, the existing plethora of qualifications and courses is being streamlined, over time, to fit into a new, national framework, designed both to make the path through further education simpler, and to enhance the status of further education itself.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Participation in full time education in schools and
colleges by 16-18 year olds, England, 1988/89 to 1996/97.

1.2 Information technology

It is important to remember that information technology is simply a tool, a means to an end, and it is therefore essential to distinguish its differing roles in the different contexts in which it appears, so as to find the most appropriate ways of providing and supporting it. Like a language, it can be used as a conduit of communication (to support all the activities in an educational establishment, from administration to research) or it can be studied for its own sake (either as a skill important for any type of employment, or as discipline in its own right, with its own structure/ architecture, with a view to pursuing further research, design and/or teaching). The configuration of what is provided and how much technical knowledge the user needs to possess will vary according to the level of involvement required. Computer buffs and systems designers whiz kids have not done their discipline any good by parading their narrowly specialised knowledge to impress their colleagues. After all, it is not necessary to have a degree level knowledge of the structure and history of a language in order to be able to communicate in it, however fascinating these topics might be.

2 New status of colleges

The local management of colleges resulted in an increased need to accommodate financial management, marketing, curriculum management and management support. Full blown independence has expanded the need for finance, personnel and premises management together with student support facilities.

A recent publication, Getting your college ready (Touche Ross, 1992), suggests three main areas of activity where colleges need to provide services which were formerly often provided by the local authority; these are financial management, personnel management and premises management. Staff now have to be available within the college to provide these services, and other services may be provided either within each college or from an outside agency. The choice depends on a college's particular circumstances (eg size, geographic location and so on). See Figure 2.

Must have within college Should have within college Could have inside or outside college Should get outside college Must get outside college

Managerial staff
Finance manager x
Personnel manager x
Premises manager x
Support staff: Systems x
Accounting x
Payroll x
Personnel x
Premises x
Support staff: Services
Auditors x
Bankers x
Cleaners x
Caterers x
Ground staff x
Personnel advisers x
Solicitors x
Surveyors/architects x

Figure 2: Which resources should you retain within your college?

Most of these activities require computerised systems, especially if data are having to be provided in a standard format for national statistical information gathering. There are several initiatives in this area of educational administration in the UK. There is a pilot study under way, for instance, whereby colleges are providing information on teaching staff directly to the Department for Education's pensions section in the North of England (EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange). As administrators become more confident in using these systems, they are more anxious to keep complete control of their operation, and as long as in house technical support can be relied on, more and more colleges are withdrawing from using bureaux.

In addition, many of the staff who are involved in preparing publicity and information material in the new era of competition and marketing are also turning more to the use of in house desk top publishing and presentation systems, and these staff are increasingly straddling the traditional boundaries between support and teaching and administrative sectors. Even students, under strict supervision, can be involved in such college support activities, as part of their exposure to real working practices (see Section 4).

3 Increased enrolments

If enrolments are going to rise as the government hopes, within existing resources, there will be implications both at the administrative level (better use will have to be made of space and time) and at the pedagogic level (better use will have to be made of staff input, and courses will have to be delivered more efficiently).

3.1 Scheduling

There are several systems on the market in the UK now which aim to maximise the use of space and time for teaching. Most of them, however, attempt to fit one rigid framework - a departmentally or centrally prepared timetable - into another rigid framework - the existing set of buildings. On the other hand there is in existence a much more sophisticated system, first developed at University College London, and since then extended and improved by De Montfort University in Leicester, with support from the Higher and the Further Education Funding Councils and the Department for Education (Bowles, 1992). Its uniqueness lies in the fact that two operations which are normally carried out separately, timetabling and space allocation, are carried out simultaneously.

Briefly, the system operates as follows. There are two basic sets of input data, the first describing the nature and availability of staff, students and rooms, and the second describing the activities which have to be scheduled and accommodated.

For the first set the following information is provided for each student group (where a student group is the smallest group of students timetabled together regularly, and which at the limit might consist of only one student), for each staff member and for each space used for teaching:

  1. name;

  2. availability (items are available, not available or preferably not available for each of 48 hours each week, ie 8 hours a day for 6 days);

  3. size;

  4. base location (zone and department);

  5. for rooms only, type (which is decided upon by the user, and which generally falls in a range between un-serviced and highly serviced).
The second set of data comprises a list of all the activities which the user needs to timetable and accommodate. Each activity includes:
  1. a name;

  2. a length (duration in hours);

  3. the number of times the activity occurs each week;

  4. name of staff involved;

  5. name of student group involved;

  6. a room choice option (either a specific room, or one of a set of suitable rooms, or a preferred room type and location).
Once the data are entered and checked, the program orders the activities so as to deal with the most difficult first, thus ensuring the best solution is reached in the shortest possible time. The order of days and periods can be adjusted so as to reduce peaking. A search is made for a suitable space and time. The search relaxes size, location and then room type constraints if necessary, in order to find a suitable space. If a suitable space is identified but not available, the provisional allocation time can be altered to another time suitable to both the space and the people involved. This ensures that activities always take place in the most suitable spaces and that travel time is minimised. Spaces which are considerably larger than required are rejected. It may not be possible in a real institution of higher education to achieve a solution of 100% using the computer program alone, but when at least 90% of all activities have been scheduled, it is usually possible to deal with the remainder manually. Additionally, even in the earliest applications of the system and including many individual preferences and constraints, it was possible to achieve frequency levels of 75% and average occupancy levels of 80%. Higher than normal space utilisation levels are thus in practice compatible with the production of satisfactory timetables.

To summarise, the objectives of the computerised space allocation and timetabling program are:

  1. to improve space use and provide an effective solution to an institution's timetabling problem by coordinating space use at the institutional level whilst maintaining the personal choices usually included at the departmental level;

  2. to provide a wide range of statistics on space utilisation and on movement patterns generated by the timetable, thus enabling any under or over provision of various kinds of space to be recognised and the necessary action taken;

  3. to enable explicit assessment to be made of the impact of new policy decisions on patterns of space use;

  4. to enable administrators and academics alike to understand the effects of personal or departmental preferences on space use and space provision;

  5. to provide detailed information to assist in the planning of new accommodation and the adaptation of existing buildings. Space provision can be directly related to the projected pattern of activity requirements.

3.2 Reduced contact hours

If student numbers are to increase, even with better use of space and time, the same level and amount of teaching/learning are going to have to be delivered with far lower staff:student ratios than in the past. In a recent special section of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES, 1994) on computer aided learning and the preparation of technology based learning material, each writer at some stage in his or her description of the wonders of computer based material for a specific discipline mentions the economic advantages to be obtained.

For Engineering, "a 50 per cent reduction in staff delivery time over the "traditional" lecture based delivery for the same learning outcomes and comparable examination results; 20 per cent reduction in student formal contact time with a shift in emphasis from a predominantly "low quality" one to many lecture environment to a predominantly one to few (with technology) "high quality" tutorial environment; a flexible, self paced, self guided delivery with computer material available 24 hours a day; a rich, interactive learning environment in which the student is centrally involved in the learning process" (Cartwright, 1994).

For Politics, students can use computer based cases: "For example, if only two cases, each lasting for a seminar (or one case lasting two seminars) are incorporated in the structure of a typical ten week seminar course, there will be a 20 per cent staff time saving per seminar" (Leftwich, 1994).

For Surgery, "The resultant economy in individual teacher's time, the elimination of wasteful repetition of the same or almost identical teaching to small groups of students, and the ability to maximise gains from the patients who so devotedly permit their cases to be used for teaching should result in worthwhile educational gains.... Greater efficiency in clinical teaching might enable the course to be shortened, and this would have significant advantages in terms of the public purse" (Jameson, 1994).

For Accountancy, new software will "replace workshop/tutorials rather than lectures - because it is tutorials that soak up staff time and thus give the biggest potential for savings" (Wilkinson-Riddle, 1994).

4 New qualifications and teaching methods

A new framework of qualifications is being put in place in the United Kingdom, as a series of levels of attainment in technical and vocational education and training which will parallel the existing stages in the academically traditional series of qualifications. These qualifications are to be known as National Vocational Qualifications and General National Vocational Qualifications, and one of their innovative aspects is the fact that they are competence based. See Figure 3.

NVQ/GNVQ levelDescriptionBroadly equivalent to

5ProfessionMiddle management
Higher education
4Higher technician
Junior management
Advanced craft supervisor
2+ Advanced levels
2Basic craft4+ General Certificates of Secondary Education A to C
1FoundationOther GCSEs

Figure 3: National Vocational Qualifications/General
National Vocational Qualifications framework

An NVQ is defined as a "statement of competence", which describes the performance required to do a particular job to the required standard. These statements are defined by employers themselves. The detailed specification for an NVQ does not define the training program or topics of study necessary to demonstrate competence. In the case of NVQs offered in FE colleges, it is for the college to design a suitable course, taking account of the existing levels of knowledge, skill and understanding of the individual students.

Two key features of NVQ provision are, therefore:

However, if students are expected to be able to perform in a real or simulated work environment, at the same time they need to acquire the theoretical underpinning to this capability, and this requirement for the integration of practical and theoretical knowledge re-emphasises the need for practical, possibly heavily serviced and expensive spaces to be backed up by areas where students can access theoretical material, in the most economical way possible, namely without the intervention of expensive staff. Not only are there consortia in Higher and Further Education (eg the Teaching and Learning Technology Program, under the aegis of the Higher Education Funding Council) preparing multimedia material for a wide variety of courses, from music to accounting, but some FE colleges (and Oldham Sixth Form College near Manchester is in the forefront of this trend) are streamlining the delivery and collection of assignments to and from students.

At Oldham the buildings incorporate some 700 outlets, and accommodate some 200 computers, both Macs and PCs. Every single student and staff member can access the whole network, with certain administrative and all personal files remaining securely locked. Each teaching staff member has a "drop folder" and a "read folder", so that students can deliver their completed work electronically and can find out, from anywhere in the college, what new assignments have been set and whether there are any messages for them.

Another corollary of the new framework of qualifications in the FE sector is that potential students will be encouraged to access courses at any time, in a roll on, roll off mode. This is leading to an increase in the modularisation of courses, and the feeling is that it is going to be difficult in the future to provide courses in both a modularised, and a traditional form; the modularised method will prevail. This will be another push in the impetus to provide open, flexible, permanently available teaching and learning support, which, to be economically viable, will have to be provided electronically. There is considerable evidence that students welcome this approach, where, with adequate and suitable training and monitoring, they can work at their own pace. "Domination of the timetable by the one hour lecture slot may fade away" (Doughty, 1994).

5 General conclusions

To be appreciated and used well in an institution, information technology must be simple to use and reliable. At Oldham Sixth Form College enormous attention is paid to technical support, automatic logging on and off and backing up procedures are in place, constant monitoring ensures that licences are not contravened and that machines are allocated to those who need them most, and complicated strings of codes for logging onto overseas databases are automated.

Simplicity and reliability are appropriate to an organisation where the users are going to lack confidence initially, and where usage is going to be sustained and heavy. It may be that the large computer companies will not be the best ones to provide these appropriate and customised attributes. Certainly in the case of Oldham, it took some time to find a company which was willing to provide what the college wanted to receive, and not what the company wanted to provide.

There is a knock on effect when students realise that state of the art technology has been provided for them. In this sector, where expectations need to be raised, the provision of such technology, preferably in a new building such as at Oldham, raises the status of the establishment and instils a feeling of confidence and self confidence. At Oldham for instance, although the college has been open for two years, there have been no instances of vandalism, and there is open sharing of experiences, both professional and social, between staff and students, in the open, shared, learning and social areas.

At the same time, the administrative and support staff are part of this interactive network, to the extent that they share in offering advice and real work experience to appropriate students.


Bowles, A. J. & Messer, R. (1992). Space, Time and Resources Management System. Leicester: De Montfort University.

Cartwright, T. (1994). Pause for a sharp intake of breadth. Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, xii.

Doughty, G. (1994). Heading for independence at full tilt. Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, ix.

Gibberd, J., Jones, A., Kenny, G. & Lenssen, P. (1994). Design Note 50, Accommodation for Changes in Further Education. London: Architects and Building Branch, Department for Education.

Jameson, G. (1994). Cutting edge of the net. Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, xiii.

Leftwich, A. (1994). Developing a strong constitution. Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, xii.

THES (1994). Synthesis, Multimedia for teaching and learning, Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, i-xvi.

Touche Ross (1992). Getting your college ready: A handbook of guidance. published by permission of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London: HMSO.

Wilkinson-Riddle, G. (1994). Emulation as a form of flattery. Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1123, xv.

Please cite as: Kenny, G. (1994). The implications of information technology for the 16-19 age group in the United Kingdom. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 135-140. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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