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June 2020
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Delivering diplomas: Digital dilemmas

Education is being reformed through various initiatives, and the Government’s flagship vocational qualification, the 14 – 19 diploma is playing a key role in the process.

Naturally the delivery model for diplomas must be flexible to allow for learning in a range of settings, however this affects ICT provision and many schools have not yet contemplated the sheer scope of such change. Steve Smith, director of learning at Ramesys, guides us through the key technological issues.

In response to the changing work and educational environment, the 14- 19 agenda is set to significantly transform learning as we know it. As with any change, there are challenges to tackle, and the 14 -19 agenda must be viewed strategically in order for schools and local authorities to determine the wider picture.

Many schools have spent years planning their 14 – 19 provision. Best practice examples of how schools have worked collaboratively to deliver successful outcomes are often proudly revealed, along with how employer engagement is encouraged, and other equally as encouraging reports. However there is one area that may not have received the consideration required; the technological issues within the education and wider children’s services environment.

Moving between learning environments to study is completely alien to many. After all most of us were educated in the same location for a number of years, and only experienced a change of setting when the move was made from primary to secondary school.

For today’s generation it is vastly different; they will not be restricted by location. In contrast they will study in multiple locations. Students enrolled on diploma courses will find their studies take them to more than one institution. For instance they could be required to study at school, a local college, and a work-based learning establishment to create a more holistic learning experience.

14 – 19 learners are ‘peripatetic’ learners, and therefore have a home school; a second education institution base such as another school or an FE college where they study some elements or modules that their home institution cannot provide; and a work place base where professionals support them in a particular area of study.

Flexibility is therefore crucial to ensure that learning can take place in a number of settings, and consequently ICT must be ubiquitous. As one can imagine, there are technological issues to be addressed if it is going to be possible for students and staff to move between learning centres. Registration, access control, and cashless catering plus many other elements must be considered.

It could be argued that if ICT is not thought through, technology could become a barrier, not an enabler. So, what are these issues, do they affect the staff as much as the students, and how can they be addressed?

Students on the move

Focussing on just one area as an example, student mobility requires registration information to be collected at more than one establishment. However currently the majority of MIS systems have data hosted on servers in the ‘home’ school. This raises an issue of how students register in each place of study, and how can the data be made visible to staff in different institutions? To overcome this, MIS systems should be centralised and web-based interfaces provided and views on the data.

Moving onto other systems which may be linked to the staff member or student’s identity, such as access control or cashless catering. As an example, one centre may have a system based on swipe cards, another biometrics. In one, the access control system may be used for student self registration, in another staff may still call the register and enter the data via a keyboard. Even if all centres use the same system based on swipe cards, unless the data can be centralised, identity information would need to be maintained separately at each centre.

Emma Duffield, a Year 11 student at the Piggott School in Reading explains that these are issues that need to be considered: -I currently study in just one location, but if I moved from place to place to study, the contact I need to have with ICT would be an issue. I am always misplacing things, so if I had a swipe card for each place, it would cause problems! I think biometrics is a good idea even though it sounds like something out of Star Trek!

The area that generates perhaps the most concern is the Managed Learning Environment (MLE) and the access to/submission of resources and assignments. If each learning centre has a different system, does this mean that a student will have to log-on to several according to their place of study? Would this require staff to upload materials to different MLEs to cater for students coming from different institutions? How would the work-based tutors update online resources, records and reports?

All of this highlights the need for a joined-up approach, but what about the wider children’s services area?

Collaborative children’s services

The Systems Interoperability Framework or SIF (formerly the Schools Interoperability Framework) can help overcome many of the issues highlighted.

Organisations must work collaboratively to ensure success, and this is a view shared by those within the industry. Robert Fitzgerald, children’s services senior product manager, from OLM Systems, part of OLM Group, the leading supplier of integrated information solutions to the care sector, explains: -The difficulties of interoperability amongst system suppliers within children’s services have risen to prominence this year with the arrival of ContactPoint. This project has provided a renewed rationale for looking again at ICT integration and has challenged authorities to look more closely at how they can execute the Information Sharing Agenda amongst all professionals working within children’s services as a whole. It is still surprisingly difficult to get an education systems supplier and a social care systems supplier to work together so that data about children in care, for example, can be appropriately shared. SIF may well be the answer.

The SIF vision is a relatively simple one, but the complexity of achieving it is significant. Proof of Concept (PoC) work in Birmingham and in Northern Ireland has formed part of Becta’s evaluation of the use of SIF in schools. Both proved a success, but the findings in respect of the Northern Ireland PoC suggest that SIF works and points the way forward, but the range of data and applications covered by SIF is currently far too limited.

So, for the utopia of complete interoperability between the plethora of school applications to be achieved, let alone meet the challenges in the wider children’s services world, the data model needs to be expanded significantly, and the number of organisations being prepared to adopt SIF needs to increase massively.

-It has been proven that the appropriate sharing of key child and family information can inform early intervention programmes, support families experiencing difficulties and improve the life chances of less fortunate children. The sharing of this information must be facilitated by ICT, not hampered by it, concludes Robert.

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