Thursday, 14 February 2008

York: a triptych of reflections

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the company of Jon, in York, at the Pathfinder programme meeting. There are a triptych of observations that I'd like to make about finding a breathing space, Web 2.0 and external funding/sustainability.

1. In our presentation, on developments at DMU to-date, I tried to emphasise: the relationships between our project and our new e-Learning strategy, to stress the value of Web 2.0 tools in team working, and in making work more fun. However, perhaps more importantly, I wanted to pick up on our critical friend's view [Terry Mayes] that perhaps project had given us some breathing space, to think about support, sustainability and lessons learned for e-Learning within our institution. Perhaps it has enabled us to look at the maturity of e-Learning, and staff support for e-Learning, and professional development e-Learning, and our institutional systems for e-Learning, and to see what will stick in the medium term. In one year's time, I hope that the cultural changes we have begun to embed, which involve integrating tools like podcasting, social networking and wikis into the curriculum, and developing approaches like team working between academic and academic-related staff to enhance the curriculum, and building strategic developments like a consistent approach to staff reward and recognition, will enable us to meet the challenges laid out in our institutional strategic plan. After all, e-Learning is a grea vehicle to enhance student learning, and deliver institutional benefits.

2. My second observation is about the programme evaluator's comment on the second day, that at programme start-up more projects intended to focus upon Web 2.0, but in reality, they thought there was a view that "Web 2.0? Yeah, we know what that is, and we'll take it when we are ready for it." This raised a couple of eyebrows on our table, and from a couple of buddies in the hall. Equally, it made me think about how such a simple, throwaway comment can impact on individuals, especially those managing projects focused upon Web 2.0. There is a possibility, of course, that I would find it a particularly demoralising point to make so demonstrably within the setting of a programme-level meeting. If we do indeed know what that is, then I really have to ask questions about our funding. Now as it happens, if you were to ask our academic staff, and their managers, our web strategy group, and our students about the use of Web 2.0 in the curriculum, they would have a different response. That response would talk about the need to understand the interface between institutional and non-institutional tools; that response would talk about addressing issues to do with data protection and privacy; that response would talk about issues to do with course design and staff development; and that response would talk about ownership and democracy within an educational context. That response would certainly not say "Web 2.0? Yeah, we know what that is, and we'll take it when we are ready for it." But what do I know?

3. I had an epiphany on the second afternoon, when one delegate trotted out the banal, reductionist view that quality assurance stifles innovation. I simply cannot believe that we are still having the same anodyne, anecdotal issues being raised that I faced as a TLTP project manager, back in the 1990s and early noughties. At that time I worked in a consortium of 12 institutions, and since I have worked with staff in another six. I also work in a department of academic quality, and all of our systems (periodic review, validation and programme-enhancement) recognize and support innovation and risk-taking that enhances or makes more effective the student experience.

This triggered a related observation, around external, project-based funding. Throughout the two days many individuals made claims about the level to which they could continue to innovate and move e-Learning forward without ring-fenced, designated project funding. There was also a critical friend session on value for money, and whilst I didn't attend, it gives the impression of maintaining a discourse around the cost effectiveness of e-Learning, linked to project funding.

However, the programme evaluators twice mentioned benefits realisation, without ever explaining what they meant. This is critical. In my understanding, as an accredited programme manager, benefits realisation maps project outcomes to institutional change through a programme, in order to deliver business benefits, which are in effect a step change in capacity and capability. So, for instance, we might have a programme, which is geared towards embedding e-Learning to deliver a more flexible, work-based curriculum. This might have projects on professional development, building a cohort of e-Learning champions, administrative process reconfiguration, overhauling technological infrastructure, Estates development, and marketing to non-traditional audiences. As each of these individual projects produce outcomes, they lever changes to business practices. So, for instance, once the professional development strand has delivered new development approaches, and the champions strand has delivered a commitment to rewarding e-learning leaders, those outcomes will hopefully forge a step-change in staffing capability and capacity. So, articulated benefits are realised over the life course of a programme, as project outcomes are delivered.

Now I find this particularly interesting for two reasons. Firstly, is Pathfinder a "programme"that is actually going to deliver business benefits across the sector? Is it a research-project, a change-management programme or both? Shouldn't it be about change-management? Given that we have 28 different institutions doing 28 different projects with some synergies between them, I doubt that it will deliver a step-change in sector-wide capability. But that does not mean that we shouldn't try. Maybe, the special interest groups are a means to this end, but I wonder whether they are able to lever institutional change, or sector-wide change. Secondly, we still seem to be hung up on project funding, rather than the benefits that our paymasters need to see, and which, more importantly will benefit our students.

Is this desperate need to see more project funding disenfranchising? It certainly gives us the excuse not to go back to our institutional managers and say we now have to embed these approaches or tools, or address these staffing issues, in order to deliver certain business benefits. My own take on this is that the perpetual round of external project funding may have run its course, and that as an association of e-Learning leaders we need to look at our institutional strategic plans and our institution's e-Learning maturity and argue our case locally, or in clusters. We have had funding from HEFCE, via JISC, HEA, TLTP, FDTL, ILTHE etc. for years. Isn't it time that we stopped looking at this 1990s model, that says "we need more money, we need more time", and recognize all of the work that we have done, and all of the developments that we have made, and our own personal, professional development, and find our own way in this world?

A recognition of business benefits, and working with those as a starting point, would enable us to join project (where it exists) and institutional funding to engage that step-change in capability. My dad, aged 67, who has worked on countless factory floors and who still works as a car-parking attendant would certainly want to know what 10 to 15 years of project funding, some of it supported by his tax-pound, has actually delivered. I think it has helped us to mature as e-Learning providers, and in working with staff to make learning more effective. I want to be able to tell him that I've used DMU's Pathfinder Project funding to engage with institutional strategic plans, and institutional strategic management, to make a case to the institution in moving forward, supported by our e-learning teams and developments. Involvement in this project and working with the wider community has shown me the value of the work that I and other professionals at DMU have been undertaking. I feel more empowered to engage with our staff and our students to make the internal case for continuation and sustainability, and to link that to project funding, as appropriate, rather than seeing that project funding as the central mechanism for change. Enfranchisement and self-awareness are important things - maybe it's time to fledge.

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