Post #1: What makes a successful technology project in FE? Advice for funders and the funded

Earlier this year I was employed by the Learning and Skills Information Service (LSIS) to evaluate the impact of two funding strands on the Further Education (FE) sector. This involved studying the 100+ projects funded by one or other scheme to identify factors that correlated with project success or failure, and identifying recommendations to assist the FE sector and future funders. With the closure of LSIS, and with a new FE funder only just on the horizon (the Education & Training Foundation), I thought it would be useful to share the findings of this research.

This first blog post focuses on the Leadership in Technology funding strand. The Leadership in Technology (LiT) grant scheme, run each year by LSIS (2010 – 2013), offered FE providers the chance to bid for and win a small amount of funding for the efficient and effective use of technology within their specific Further Education context.

The grants, of up to £6,000, were intended for use in one of two possible contexts: for teaching, learning and assessment purposes; or within leadership, management and governance. Half of the funds had to be used to employ a mentor to coach and assist the funded organisation in the implementation of the technology and new ways of working. About 60 projects were funded across the three years.

A link to the full report is provided at the bottom of this post, together with seven narratives that give case studies of successful projects. The most interesting findings of the LiT evaluation were as follows:

1. Small funding initiatives have the potential for significant impact within FE organisations. The LiT grants were a very good use of limited funds: small pots of money allowed the inclusion of a large number of organisations within the FE sector, and the short timescale (one year) drove rapid change and maintained focus. The scheme provided just enough money, time and expertise (via the mentor) to give an organisation the impetus to step away from front-line provision and spend time focusing on ways to improve their service. Without this type of funding it is likely that many opportunities for up-skilling and enthusing employees and learners, improving efficiency and effectiveness, and discovering ways to save significant sums of money would have been lost.
My opinion: If I were considering how best to fund future projects I would definitely recommend this ‘small amount of money across lots of organisations’ approach. Many might argue that a project needs a budget of tens of thousands to have a chance of creating any impact. However, this small grant still attracted three bids for every successful grant holder, showing there are organisations prepared to bid for small pots of cash (particularly those in the Adult Community Learning or Work-based Learning sub-sectors). Most importantly, the outcomes were often as significant as those I’ve observed in projects with far larger budgets.
One thought – the project management involved in organizing and evaluating 60 projects shouldn’t be underestimated, but I created efficient ways to do this (e.g. plotting project names and vital details geographically using BatchGeo – and colour-coding things like sub-sector – was really useful both for me to keep track of projects, and as a communication tool to discuss projects with others such as LSIS).

2. We must never underestimate the difficulty in integrating new ways of working into embedded cultural and organisational practice. This was the largest blocker to success, and many project holders reported that they wished they had spent more time getting staff and management buy-in for the project.
My opinion: All too often the project action plan focuses only on what will be done and how. It totally fails to consider people – who will be involved, who will be affected etc. My main recommendation was to include people in the action plan – this is central to change management / systems thinking approaches and often has profound effects (see my up-coming blog post about the Organisational Effectiveness projects). When I was asked to give the keynote speech at the LSIS ‘Technology for Success’ project I created a slide that gave a few practical questions I thought should be included in future action plans – check out the full presentation on slideshare, or the relevant slides below:



3.Dissemination events should be organized by the funder, and be compulsory for all project holders. Evidence showed that dissemination outside of an organisation rarely occurred naturally other than via ‘known networks’ to which the organisation already belonged. This may be because known networks have a history of give-and-take, meet regularly to share and exchange knowledge, and thus are considered less threatening than just advertising methods of success to potential commercial rivals. Events such as the LSIS Technology for Success conference offered an invaluable way to encourage people to share, network, discuss and disseminate their practice.

4. Project mentors were vital: they were experts in a specific problem, and were listened to because they were external to the organisational culture. All the LiT projects had to name and fund a mentor, who would coach the organisation through the process of identifying and integrating a technology solution. These individuals were identified by the funded organisation as having the skills and knowledge they needed. Mentors provided a method to rapidly up-skill organisational representatives and assist with cultural change. They tend to be listened to far more than those employed internally.

5. Forget ‘cutting edge’ technologies – funding the basics can still have massive organisational benefits. This was particularly true of organisations that were spread across many geographical locations (e.g. adult community learning sites across a county). They tended to apply for LiT funding in order to implement basic ICT solutions (e.g. to replace face-to-face training with an online presentation to teach tutors how to use a whiteboard) rather than experiment with new technologies.
My opinion: Whilst these projects might not feel as exciting to some funders, when successful they made some of the largest economic savings of all LiT projects. Many FE organisations have not yet had the time to step away from front-line services and consider how to integrate basic technologies. Given the chance, this can save thousands of pounds. It’s not sexy, just common-sense use of technology, but if you’re interested in ROI then these kinds of project – especially for work-based or adult community learning sub-sectors, and/or in organisations with several geographical locations – should be top of the list.

Here are the links to the full report, plus the seven case study project examples:

Full report
This includes seven examples of successful projects in the appendix, these being:
Narrative 1: A successful offline e-portfolio
Narrative 2: WBL successful VLE and culture change
Narrative 3: Sixth form embracing mobile use to increase engagement
Narrative 4: iTunesU and QR codes in FE College reach out to students outside the classroom
Narrative 5: Using video to evidence progress in learners with disabilities
Narrative 6: Shift to ICT CPD materials in face of restructuring and downsizing
Narrative 7: How, when and why projects go wrong