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Looking to Britain's Auntie for training advice

Campus Review, 8 April 2003

THE BBC is an exemplar of visionary industry training, driving an innovative approach that features a knowledge management framework and the use of intranet technology to construct opportunities for interactive learning.

Vocational education and training consultant John Mitchell says the BBC is just one of a number of industry leaders in England developing innovative approaches propelled by a mix of factors including strong awareness of the need for skilled staff to compete in a European and global marketplace.

The need to shift the UK from a traditional manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy and the commitment of the Blair government to develop a high skills, valued-added economy are also drivers.

Mitchell, who heads Sydney-based John Mitchell and Associates, visited the UK earlier this year to carry out field research at the BBC and with a number of other advocates of innovative teaching and learning.

He says that lifelong learning and social capital are also influencing innovation in industry training in the UK where the level of awareness of the value of social capital in the training world appears to be much higher than in Australia.

Training systems such as Australia's vocational education and training sector generally promote the concept of human capital, without using the term, Mitchell says, through the valuing of competencies and qualifications, but are generally shy of the less concrete term social capital.

"This shyness may arise because social capital involves informal learning and social networks which are difficult to measure," he says in a report on his field research to the UK.

In addition to the BBC, Mitchell's field research also examined innovation in industry training provided by the Department for Education and Skills, the skill sector agencies, the University for Industry and the Marchmont Observatory.

The Marchmont Observatory, which Mitchell says models the use of collaboration for bringing together training providers and industry, was established at Exeter University as a national project in 1997 as a mechanism to identify and support good practice and innovation in teaching and to promote e-learning. The Marchmont website (www.lifelonglearning.ac.uk) includes a database of good practice in teaching and learning. The observatory now concentrates on identifying training needs in small business in the south-west of England. More details are available from the related website www.swslim.org.uk

The Sheffield-based University for Industry is a major provider of e-learning which has created the brand name Learndirect and offers entry to and support for its courses via many outlets such as 1500 libraries, "high street" shops and many universities. Some courses at basic levels are free, paid for says Mitchell by a government concerned with stimulating industry training and employability skills. The university's website is www.ufiltd.co.uk.

The Department for Education and Skills, which is overseeing the allocation of a significant increase in funding for adult learners, is innovative in its use of information and communications technology, online curriculum and leadership programs. One of its current foci is to transform the learning experience for young people from 14 to 19 years so that by the age of 16 they are committed to continued learning, whether in school, college of the workplace.

Mitchell singles out North East Surrey College of Technology where a strong partnership has been developed with technology and software companies Cisco and Microsoft as an example of progressive UK further education college.

The close relationship between these parties has led to the clever customisation of the manufacturer's existing content to suit a range of different student markets and levels. In London, for instance, the physical distance between the learner and the educational institution is less of an issue than the time and expense involved in the journey. Saving students travel time and costs is a motivation for using a mix of face-to-face and e-learning, notes Mitchell.

According to Mitchell, innovation in teaching and learning in England is underpinned by an evolving conceptual framework that takes into account the following components of VET: labour market requirements and learners needs; informal, workplace and lifelong learning; social capital; communities of practice; training partnerships; knowledge management; good practice; flexible delivery; e-business; technology; evaluation; policy initiatives; provider strategy-making; business benefits and student outcomes.