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Learners’ needs

An FE college

Truro College is a tertiary Further Education institute that has around 1900 full time students working toward ‘A’ levels, and over half that number again of mostly adult part-time students taking evening and vocational courses. There are a number of new initiatives in operation, including DE packages, and ‘open’ is the new buzzword within the college. The institution is funded by; the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), the European social fund (ESF), along with part-time students and government schemes such as New Deal. I am going to consider whose interests are being served in meeting learners’ needs at this institute.

Part 1

Learners’ needs – a students perspective

Learning is an experience that is unique in every individual, the needs are ‘diverse and complex’, <neville-g, Msg #94, David’s tutor group>. We all have different motivations, varied objectives, for enrolling on a course. The basic fact of differing motivation or ‘orientation to education’ (Morgan, 1995), is fundamental to understanding what the learners’ needs could be, from a student

Cantor (1992), points out different motivations for adult learners:

·        To make or maintain social relationships

·        To meet external expectations

·        Learn to better serve others

·        Professional development

·        Escape or stimulation

·        Pure interest

Morgan (1993), uses table 1.0 to categorise student orientation.

Orientation Interest Aim Concerns
Vocational Intrinsic




Relevance of course to future career

Recognition of worth of qualification

Academic Intrinsic


Following intellectual interest

Educational progression

Room to choose stimulating lectures

Grades, academic progress

Personal Intrinsic


Broadening or Self-improvement

Compensation or Proof of capability

Challenge, interesting material

Passing course, feedback.

Social Extrinsic Having a good time Facilities for sport and social activities

Table 1.0. Students’ educational orientations (Morgan, 1993).

Table 1.0 is practical for indicating the motivational aspects of learners, and although students orientations will merge, and perhaps conflict, ‘a criterion for classification is necessary’, <neville-g Msg #94, David’s tutor group>. The concept of ‘orientation to education’ is important, for it helps us to formulate possible reasons for student enrolment. This aids teachers/instructional designers in tailoring courses to the motivational needs of students.

Bustami-k, suggests five factors that determine learners’ needs. These are removed from motivation, although factor two could be considered linked. But, the five factors do assist the defining of learners’ needs.

1.      Demographic: age, distance, physical disabilities, employment, family commitments, etc.

2.      Aspirations: promotion of knowledge, employment, and social status.

3.      Learning capabilities: prior learning, skills, and experiences, time available for

4.      Accessibility of resources: postal facilities, technological hardware and skills, libraries,

5.      Financing: private, sponsorship.

<bustami-k, Msg #91,
David’s tutor group>

One could say Bustami-k has highlighted learners’ needs in terms of practicalities, the factors are related to learners’ situation, rather than student motivation.

The issue of learners’ needs, from a student perspective (but not only), is indeed ‘diverse and complex’. It’s worth noting that ‘just because you have an idea what students needs are does not guarantee that you can meet them fully – or even at all’. <nigel,
Msg #75, Nigel’s Tutor Group>.

Government interests

It is clear that FE is going through a period of expansion, the government are seeking growth within the sector. Karen Gold, writing an article for ‘FE Now!’, highlights this when she comments on the Education Secretary David Blunketts’ speech at the Association of Colleges annual conference:

‘Colleges would be expected to deliver major progress towards an extra 700,000 students in FE by 2001/2.’ (Gold, 1998).

Blunkett then goes on to say ‘Colleges could also look for money from the Higher Education Funding Council for teaching HNDs’, and, ‘the Government looked to FE to meet its agenda on social exclusion’, making reference to students that were more suited to vocational college courses than traditional school types.

It’s clear that the Government has interests that are to be served in the FE sector, which will affect learners’ needs. The government has pledged there is to be a broadening of access to Higher Education and that this is not to be simply centred in Universities, but that opportunities exist for FE institutions to develop this form of provision. There has been a joint Universities’ bid to the HEFC for funding to develop courses within the county which all of the Colleges will have some access to.

Bustami-k states:

‘Governments initiate and fund institutions of DL to serve the needs of the society and primarily the learners’

<bustami-k, Msg #92, David’s Tutor Group>

The initiation for courses can come from a variety of areas, and to think it is just governmental is limiting. Governments’ reasons for policy can be generated from a number of areas, encapsulating culture, unemployment figures, under represented skills in the workforce, and so on. Therefore, the learners’ needs are not always the primary concern, certainly not in FE.

Employers interests

‘We have often heard charges that graduates do not have the necessary skills for today’s industries, there has to be a reasonable amount of input from employers in order to identify the skill shortages’, <andrew-e, Msg #84, Nigel’s tutor group>. Employers define what skills are required for particular jobs, their desires reflect back to institutions and course designers, growth and expansion in industry creates educational niches. The learners’ needs are defined somewhat by the skills required by the relevant industrial position. One could argue that these are not learners’ needs, but employers’ wants. Employers want specific graduates that have a commodity, and that are of value. Truro College’s industrial links are an important aspect of course development, particularly in the HE sector. Indeed, validation of new schemes is impossible without industrial intervention and advice.

Institutions and teachers interests

‘Perhaps among the most important goals of employers in providing distance training is to achieve high productivity with low costs’. <bustami-k, Msg #91, David’s Tutor group>

This is a strong point and
applicable to Truro College. The institution’s needs are that education/training has to be shown as being cost effective, making a profit and having some impact on the success of the business. The mission statement of Truro College is to provide the education requirements of the local area. However, the College is linked to the economic offerings generated from Government interests, in that the broader the range of courses, the higher the intake, the more ‘bums on seats’ and the greater the financial gains. There is a limit to the amount of growth that a College can sustain in a local FE sector and, therefore, other opportunities need to be sought to increase provision. It is a competitive market and Truro College is in competition with at least one aggressive Local College, so it must match their developments in this area of education. ‘The catch is of course that market needs are the needs of the majority. If the number of student enrolments for a course is too low, the course doesn’t run, which deprives those few who did want to take it’, <louise-a, Msg #70, Mary’s Tutor Group> which, as well as student consequences, has consequences for the lecturers/course designers interests’, namely employment!

An institution can have so many internal variables that can be working against the interests of learners’

Suppose an institution proposes a media course, because of a shortage of trained professionals, and therefore a hole in the market, so is able to draw funding. The course requires a network of computers, for the distribution of information. The course leader may prefer and have experience of PC based networking systems. The IT staff /technicians of the institution, may also be skilled in PC systems. How do these employees cater for the needs of the students, who will go into an industry that uses mainly Apple MAC networks for media systems? The likely outcome is that the course will be shaped and made comfortable for those staff involved, depending on the expertise available. Is this meeting the needs of learners? Many courses in the FE sector are in fact run on a ‘shoe-string’, both traditional courses and DL programmes, with staff doing their best to train on the job. ‘We’re in a terrible hurry with deadlines, we’re not the best person for the job, were working in an uncharted area’. <nigel, Msg #75,
Nigel’s Tutor Group>

Government, industry,
economy, employers, teachers, course designers, and culture all have a bearing on the learning needs of students.

Gerlinde-b says:

‘The ‘real’ needs of the students are secondary to the (perceived) needs of a bureaucratic system and its representatives’. <gerlinde-b, Msg #77, Mary’s Tutor Group>

At Truro College, the needs of the students are secondary to the ‘real’ needs of society.

Part 2: Implications for practice

What has this ‘critical reflection’ (Imel, 1992), told me? What can I draw from this situation and apply to my own practise?

Firstly it is clear, that when we design courses we must consider the needs of society. There are so many interests involved, a ‘circle of interest’. It is impossible to separate the needs of society, the ‘circle of interest’, if we are working within a market. Outside of this market we are free, to design individual programmes that give individual students exactly what they desire, what they think they need, without society or without a ‘circle of interest’ being considered. This will not put food on our tables, as it will not be cost effective, it will also be doubtful as to the amount of academic weight the programme may have, but at least it could be done, in theory, and the students may or may not be content.

Secondly, I have to ask myself, do learners know what they need? My job as a teacher/facilitator is to broaden student perspectives and encourage self-development. There could be a conflict here if courses are designed with only the learners needs considered. We have to address the problem of balance between what the learners think they need and what societies think they need. It’s getting this ‘circle of interest’ to stay circular and not become distorted in leaning toward one set of interests more than another.

The OU H801 operates within a market and therefore has to be cost effective, obviously it cannot bow to the individual wants/needs/desires of the learners, again, a balance has to be struck between all the vested interests. A ‘happy medium’ in serving the needs of those concerned is appropriate. Truro College also operates within the competitive market and society as a whole. The College needs to be aware that it has a duty to try to address the interests of all concerned, but must pay attention to its clients, as should the OU.

‘The educational world should go beyond the broad based market place to the individual and meet the needs of as many individuals as it can’. <david-d, Msg #69, Mary’s Tutor Group>

A valid point, David-d goes on to say

‘The marketing issues should take a second place to the students needs. If these needs are not met who are we going to market a course to anyway?’

David-d is making the point that without customer satisfaction, an institution will obtain a bad reputation, and not recruit. I agree to a certain extent, but if the ‘circle of interest’ is not circular we have an in-balance of interest, that has consequences for learners themselves in gaining recognised qualifications. We need to tread carefully.

DE is particular in that it is a relatively new (science?) in comparison to education generally. It has had much bad press, and many institutions have jumped on the bandwagon in providing very bad educational programmes. DE has to steer a careful passage through uncharted
territory, it must not be allowed to be consumed by financial viability in the market place, nor seen to be a tool for Government saving. Addressing the needs of learners is extremely important, but not the ultimate factor.

Nigel, in reference to the OU

‘Our ‘top’ level courses have to be equivalent to those of conventional Universities, or we would not be doing our job. And that sets constraints on what we are able to do to ‘smoothe the gradient’. (And we are not just talking
of the ‘needs of the institution’ here. This is just as much a need of a student looking for a degree.)
<nigel, Msg #76, Nigel’s Tutor Group>

An interest of DE must be the breaking down of isolation that DE students can feel. To look at the motivation
and needs of learners’, the use of new technologies, how those needs differ from face-to-face tuition, and how to maintain a balance of interests for all concerned.

‘Instructors should be aware of the possible motivations behind their students’ enrolment. Then they can better shape the instructional materials.’ (Blackmore, 1996)

‘We need to ensure that students are supported adequately, not just educationally but emotionally as well. This, I think would be in the interests of the student and the providers. <graham-p, Msg #89, Nigel’s Tutor Group>


Blackmore, J. (1996) ‘Pedagogy: Learning Styles’, Telecommunications for Remote Work and Learning.

Cantor, Jeffrey A. (1992) ‘Delivering Instruction to Adult Learners’. Toronto: Wall & Emerson. (pp. 35-43.)

Gold, K. (1998) ‘Great step up for the sector’, FE Now!, issue 50: December 1998, page 1.

Imel, S. (1992) ‘Reflective Practice in Adult Education’. ERIC Digest No.122.

Morgan, A. (1993) ‘Improving Your Students’ Learning, Kogan Page, London.