The Adult Education Forum as seen from another sector’s perspective – Evan Dickerson

Reflections on January’s Adult Education Forum by Evan Dickerson, HE adviser

‘Community’ is a much used and, some might say, abused word. It is seized upon by politicians – national and local – to signify a sense of togetherness and civil behaviour. Those with common concerns or interests can belong to ‘communities of practice’, be they rigidly or loosely organised. Even the nature of conferences and events has changed to reflect the evolution of web 2.0 working; no longer are conferences organised by committee the only way forward, rather unconferences – events directed by those taking part around their own specific concerns of the moment – continue to gain credibility as a way of working.

Delegates at ACL Forum Jan 2012My main area of responsibility for JISC RSC London is as an Adviser to the Higher Education Institutions we support. Over 15 years working in the HE sector (firstly as a lecturer, later as a materials developer and then as an e-learning Co-ordinator) have consistently proven to me that the sector is a slow-moving one. Over ten years ago I delivered staff development events in which the phrase: “when e-learning is fully embedded…” frequently occurred. Today, the phrase is unfortunately often still needed, be it in relation to the  smaller HE providers that have only recently adopted a VLE or indeed the increasing number that seem currently to be migrating from one VLE to another, in an effort to reduce costs or keep up with the wider trend of using open source solutions. Whatever the reason that a learning provider has for adopting any technology, one thing the organisation must recognise is the change to its business model of provision to students and other stakeholders that will result, be this outward facing or with regards to behind the scenes processes. Meeting the challenges of these many layers of simultaneous change within a complex organisation, which even the smallest ACLs or HEIs are, can only be successfully done through a strategic approach that is facilitatory and practical yet also visionary.

I need hardly comment on the pressures facing the HE sector currently since these are always in the news. Any vice-chancellor has so many balls to juggle: changes to the student fees model, the perceived increase of student ‘choice’, the need to deliver a quality experience relative to cost (upfront and actual) that remains responsive to student voice and employer need, the growing mandate for research outputs as a route to income generation, the apparent Government preference for STEM subjects over the arts and humanities, the opening up of the HE marketplace to private providers and overseas institutions being able to properly establish themselves in the UK rather than just maintaining study abroad centres for their students, and lastly, whether to compete with or collaborate with Further Education colleges that offer HE level courses. Then there is also the requirement that the HE sector has to be a socially responsible example to other areas of the public sector with regards to environmental matters and carbon emissions, for example. But, ask yourselves, hasn’t ACL always operated in an atmosphere of constant change, even threat, depending on the favour of wider national policy? Yet, by spotting opportunities where they exist and making the most of the resources available to them, ACL providers continue not only to exist but innovate for the benefit of their students. Something that particularly impressed me was the mentions in the presentations of the use ACL providers have made of RSC London (Janet Evans, Bexley ACL), other JISC Services such as JISCLegal (Simon Beard, City Lit, regarding safeguarding) and JISC-funded toolkits such as the Suste-IT toolkit to identify possible areas for energy saving (Joni Cunningham, Redbridge Institute). This is notable because these services and toolkits were developed with large HE providers in mind. It would be interesting to know if other ACL providers will use them following this event. 

There are HEIs that have taken what I would call a really holistic strategic view, but they are in the minority. They’ve been brave enough to reconsider their business from the ground up, and with it change the culture of management to one that is engaged and engaging with any learning provider’s two greatest assets, its staff and its students. It is after all around learning, teaching and research where these two halves of the community come together. ACL is after all a sector with community at the very heart of its name and being. In every presentation made at the Forum event and within every conversation I heard, there was a true sense of common purpose in recognising your own challenges and identifying ways that you could share and learn from one another to meet those challenges. The world of HE has so much to learn from you, and they need to learn it soon if we are not to see only the fittest, most agile or most financially stable institutions survive.