FE leading the way in EdTech

The trailblazers – further education colleges leading the way in technology adoption

Kenny Nicholl, Director of EMEA at Canva.

At Canvas, we look hard at technology uptake. It’s our job to know what software and hardware is being bought for colleges, what it’s doing for tutors – and, conversely, where opportunities for clever technology use are being missed.

This year, through global research, we’ve found that teachers and students across the UK believe that technology in schools can enhance learning. If lingering barriers, such as a lack of training for teachers are overcome, the potential benefits are seen as substantial. As many as three quarters (74%) of teachers agree that when integrated effectively and used properly, technology in the classroom can make their jobs easier.

But, while all levels of education appear to be moving on from the often reported ‘tech phobia’ of the past, it’s the further education (FE) world that’s leading the way in technology adoption.

Our latest research reveals that further education tutors are most likely to have computers in the classroom (83%, as opposed to 78% of primary schools and 80% of secondary schools.) This statistic alone is promising and is supported by anecdotal evidence from many of the colleges we work with across the country. But why is this trend emerging? Is it a quick fix to meet budget requirements or a valued tool to benefit students? 


Many sixth form colleges received a boost from academy conversion and, together with ‘start up’ colleges – academies since inception – have greater capacity to manage their own budgets. However, for state managed schools, many pockets of funding have disappeared in recent years – and FE institutions report that budget cuts are hitting them particularly hard.

This means that the sector has to innovate in order to save money and attract students, and clever use of technology can help. Technology such as virtual learning environments prove an investment which can ultimately save time, resources and reduce admin costs. And offering digital learning opportunities to students can position a college as a forward-thinking and attractive institution.

Marrying IT investment with money saving is hard, but can be achieved by encouraging a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, to work with a college’s own IT system. BYOD is already widely adopted in universities and workplaces across the UK, and FE lecturers are beginning to recognise that mobile applications and students’ own devices are likely to become more central to the learning experience in the future. 

In fact, our recent survey, found that 67% of teachers place mobile devices in the top three most important teaching technologies for the classroom in five
years’ time.

Moving beyond the cost

But while technology adoption can be a cost-saving exercise, the potential benefits to learning are vast – but aren’t always realised.

Technology is bought, but often not used, by institutions when a ‘top-down’ approach has been applied. Technology is too often not selected by the teachers who will be using equipment or programmes, but by governors or managers. A more democratic approach to purchasing is required, which involves teachers and students in the process, and includes ongoing evaluation and assessment. Technology purchasing must be viewed as an ongoing investment which can fundamentally change the learning environment.

A brave new world

If it’s used properly, and purchased to fulfil a real need, technology use can vastly enhance learning and teaching – and be particularly beneficial to sixth form students, as they prepare for work in a technology centric economy.

Using digital content and sharing lesson plans and ideas globally with a teacher network can create engaging and interesting lessons. New pedagogy like the ‘flipped classroom’ are powered by technology and can totally transform the learning experience. Completing rote material or passively ingesting lectures at home can free up classroom time for more in-depth and personalised teaching.

Tools like Canvas have the ability to immediately measure a student’s achievement on any given piece of
work, look at what aspects of the teaching and learning have worked and what have not, and then adapt their instruction accordingly. Students benefit from the more responsive teaching afforded by Canvas and a collaborative teaching and learning environment.

Ultimately, technology can do a lot for FE – but only if it’s bought for the right reasons, and used effectively across an entire institution.

Case study: Career Colleges Trust – Building tomorrow’s workforce

The Career Colleges Trust was founded in 2013 by former education secretary Lord Baker to improve vocational further education in the UK. We support a network of recognised ‘career colleges’ around the country specialising in a variety of industries from Hospitality to Digital Technology. 

By helping further education colleges to prepare students for their future careers in industry, we’re addressing an issue high on the agenda for academia and industry alike – the UK skills gap; where there aren’t enough skilled graduates to meet employer needs. We think that the skills shortage is stifling UK economic growth, but that greater emphasis on vocational training can go a long way to close the gap.

Making digital matches

At the Career Colleges Trust we talk about not just a skills gap, but a fundamental skills mismatch. And we believe that it’s crucial to understand where the mismatches between the
needs of employers and skills of students in FE lie.  

By far and away the greatest issue that employers report is around digital literacy; and their desire for tech-savvy graduates, ready to enter the working world. The pace of technology development in industry is astounding – and if we don’t help students acquire adequate digital skills in the classroom, we are limiting their chances in the world of work.

Technology use in the classroom supports a learning style which appeals to young minds. Many students in further education already use social media to question, challenge and enhance ideas in all aspects of their life. These tools can be harnessed to engage with pupils with learning, and brought into the learning environment. We encourage our colleges to look at the technology they’ve bought, to assess how they’re using it and to check whether they really have the tools they need to support their teaching.

One of the courses we provide for each of our career colleges is around the specific digital skills required in
various industries, and more generally in the world of work. Delivered online, using Canvas, this checklist is a kick-starter for colleges to begin to support online learning and digital
collaboration between students,
teachers and businesses.

Teaching the teachers

It’s natural that lecturers or college management may be reticent to use technology in the classroom, if they’re not as comfortable with it as their students. To address this, we provide all of our Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for teachers online using Canvas. This approach immerses teachers in a digital learning environment in a natural and low-pressure way, making them comfortable with the process and able to start seeing the benefits of using technology at work.

Training the teachers is key – and the intuitive and user-friendly nature of Canvas has made it the ideal tool to help. We’re keen to let teachers find their own way with the system – discovering how it can help in their own teaching. Ultimately, we believe that using tools like Canvas can help teachers in all aspects of their work – allowing them to have a much greater sense of students’ progress, strengths and weaknesses. They can collaborate much more closely with their students, and tailor their teaching to individual needs.

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