Information and Communications Technologies
The purpose of this document is to draw out key lessons, illustrated with examples, from the three projects which linked ICT to learning and regeneration.
|ICT - Projects
Sheffield's Network of Private/Public and Community Based Learning Centres .
|City & County of
||Spinning a Learning Network
New Learning and Communications Technologies
||New Information and Learning
Overview of Projects
ICT and its Potential
What impact does or can ICT have on lifelong learning and regeneration within learning communities?
The impact of ICT has to date been limited, but clearly it has enormous potential. This can be seen, for example, in the development of the University for Industry concept (Ufi).
- Easier access to learning materials and information through a PC, or through digital TV or playstation.
This will ease access for isolated rural communities and for people working long hours, or who have to stay at home to look after children, who cannot find time to attend college etc. For example, the Thames Valley 'Virtual College' offers a range of courses that can be downloaded directly to people's homes as a precursor to Ufi.
- Easier participation - because we can find out more information and send E-mails all round the world cheaply and efficiently.
This revolution in global communication can mean a greater quality of participation (as well as quantity) at a far lower cost than very expensive and limited questionnaire samples and market research can support.
- New technologies can stimulate the curiosity and desire to learn at all ages.
When older people are given the chance to use laptop computers in the community, they become very interested in using the new equipment, despite not having seen a need for it before. Once people grasp its potential, they can get hooked!
Challenging some of the assumptions about ICT
Within the last year ICT has become a priority among all Learning City Network members and Pathfinder projects. The particular interest of the Government in ICT - which is clearly reflected in funding regimes, the priorities of regeneration bodies and indeed throughout the public sector, has provided an added impetus.
However, the variety and complexity of funding streams and the rapid development of ICT equipment makes the task of creating and developing an ICT infrastructure difficult. People and providers are wary of buying computers that can date so quickly. Technical hype can promise more (and more quickly) than it is possible to deliver. The result is that key people such as head teachers become frustrated at the slow pace and the problems of sustaining PCs etc. We have all learned that we need to invest properly and not go for cheap, quick fix solutions.
ICT is not a quick solution or panacea. It can bring as many problems as solutions. It cannot be simply imposed. Communities need to feel some ownership so that the ICT infrastructure is developed both from the bottom-up as well as the top-down.
At the individual level, there are still many adults (though far fewer children) who do not have regular access to a PC. One of the key barriers cited for non-participation is lack of information. Many people don't know how or where to get 'user-friendly' information. There may also be a reluctance or inability on the part of many non-learners to go to traditional institutions.
An example of good practice from outside the Pathfinder Initiative, which demonstrates the functions outlined in Practice, Progress and Value is BRAIN.
The Brent Resource & Information Network offers a wide range of community information and interaction, covering areas as diverse as education, arts, social services, sports, health and government.
BRAIN was developed by Brent Council in consultation with the community of Brent for community and voluntary groups, and anyone living and working within Brent. BRAIN won the Local Government Association Community website of the year Award in 1999.
Common questions about the potential role and impact of ICT
- Can ICT 'trigger' the interests of those people who are currently not thinking about learning?
- Examples often look good on paper but don't deliver. How do we avoid disappointment?
- We need to establish hard facts rather than hype. How many machines? What are the technical difficulties? How many people use it regularly? Is the technology replicable?
- What role does the internet have to play? Can ICT be a further barrier for those at the margins or beyond learning?
- How can ICT help people in rural communities access learning?
- Personality and perceptions have a great impact on how potential learners make decisions - and with whom.
1 Lessons from evaluating Partnerships
1.1 Complexity of Partnerships
Few communities develop what might be called 'greenfield 'partnerships Most are based on, or have to take account of existing relationships and agendas. It is important therefore that in the early stages, partners have the chance to explore points of difference and to identify areas of work. Where partnerships already exist, it is necessary to discuss 'joined-up' work.
The aim of West Berkshire 's Pathfinder project was to develop an electronic community network. This was achieved t h rough a process of planning and review which was a direct result of the increasing activity a round new technologies.
1.2 Different types of partnerships
There are many different types of partnerships: strategic, operational and community.
Whilst there are principles common to all types of partnership i.e. building trust, clear understanding of agendas and contributions, actions and protocols may vary, particlarly across the different levels of partnership.
Communities are encouraged to map the work of all partnerships, and to tap into local knowledge, innovation and ownership. An accurate understanding of the types of partnership will in itself 'add value'.
New Technologies and the West Berkshire Learning Partnership is a subgroup of the Learning Partnership. It focuses solely on using technology to increase participation and involve communities in debate. It is clear that, to be successful, technology needs people with the skills and confidence to engage in dialogue and debate through this medium. Key - and still unanswered -is the question of how to expand the numbers of people participating and to deepen the quality of participation.
The subgroup has launched a partnership website (EezEE Web) and takes responsibility for the content and links to other sites for information, advice and guidance about learning and support.
The subgroup have developed an action plan to address a common concern that, because of the limited access of those at most disadvantage, technology can emphasise and contribute to social exclusion.
Due to the vast array of existing ICT models, funded through a diverse array of public and private sector routes, a systematic review of individual projects is made very difficult.
The subgroup has begun to discuss the role of technology in providing information, not purely as a point of access, but also to encourage feedback. It believes however, that ICT is mainly primarily a 'social tool' within community networks.
Sheffield's CITINET believes that the function of the partnership should be 'doing things'. The Steering Group takes a very practical view of strategic issues - for example, provision is being mapped through the development of an online database of learning opportunities. This is of use to learners and referral agencies.
CITINET has succeeded in "maintaining momentum" through its practical approach, and, so far, has avoided falling into the trap of becoming a talking shop. The original plan was that an operational executive would be formed, allowing the Steering Group to take on a more operational role, allowing the Steering Group itself to focus on strategic issues. In fact, this was delayed since it was felt important in the first year to maintain the involvement of all partners by dealing with key issues through the Steering Group. Email list discussions were used as a backup for issues that could not be dealt with in meetings. Operational details were generally dealt with through the formation of ad hoc working groups.
Community organisations and public and private sector partners are able to participate through a forum. This meets three times a year and brings together the whole network to focus on three practical themes - sharing ideas, identifying common problems and working together on common solutions. The forum is also supplemented by discussion via email lists, which are well supported by member organisations.
CITINET tries to ensure 'strategic linkage' with local and national initiatives by putting energy into joint working - for example on Excellence in Cities and Single Regeneration Budget projects.
1.3 Partnership Champions
Successful learning partnerships frequently develop through the efforts of a single individual - a champion -who builds commitment to, and support of, the need for a common vision. This individual is usually well known and respected within the community and already acts as a well known ambassador for the community.
As things develop, it becomes necessary to broaden the membership of the partnership. Strategic partners are needed who can give authority to the partnership and represent the community. The need to ensure wide ownership is especially true, lest a 'leadership gap'
develops if, and when, the champion moves on.
CITINET was launched by the three founding partners, Sheffield College, Sheffield City Council and Sheffield TEC. This has been crucial in providing a solid foundation within the city. The engagement of key organisations in other sectors - for example the Engineering Employers Federation, Sheffield Science Parks and Meadowhall Centre has strengthened this foundation. At an early stage, Sheffield First, the overarching body developing economic regeneration strategies for the city, endorsed CITINET, and this has also helped build a launchpad. Momentum has been maintained through a proactive policy of briefing key players in the city and by working on practical issues with new partners. There have been gaps in which certain strategic developments have failed to take account of the existence of CITINET, but this has generally been a temporary situation which has been remedied.
The fact that CITINET has been central to key strategic developments, such as Ufi, has helped consolidate its place in the city's 'strategic landscape'.
In contrast, not all ICT projects develop in this way.
Generally ICT projects have not been led or initiated by individuals or been very community focused. They have been the result of funding bids by different organisations. One lesson that we have learnt is the need to find new and existing community champions who have a local vision for ICT and to support them via a network.
For example, a local Methodist minister in Hungerford started a Cybercafe in part of his church hall for community use. At first he struggled in isolation, but now has become part of an informal network involving schools, the local library and Newbury College which run courses in basic skills using the computers.
1.4 Communication is critical to successful partnerships
Partnerships - of all types and all levels - rely on effective and diverse methods of communications to sustain and develop their activity.
Effective communication is critical to all players involved in partnership activity: e.g. paid staff, volunteers, Steering Groups, informal/formal networks, public bodies, media and the broader community.
Effective partnerships use a wide range of tools to give, receive and reflect on information and activity.
A key component is a neutral individual or organisation to facilitate communication within partnerships. Sometimes such an 'outsider', can more easily spot tension or difficulty and may be better placed to tackle disagreements between partners.
Led initially by the Community Education Service, the community wanted to ensure that disadvantaged groups were able to use and benefit from new technologies.
Specifically, they sought to:
- assess the need for a community learning partnership;
- identify how learning needs would be assessed; and
- establish an infrastructure for the learning community.
Representatives from all ICT projects, and from existing partnerships were invited to development meetings which mapped experiences and activities. A common vision was developed and an existing group - the Professional Support Group (PSG) which formed the basis of the new Community Partnership - agreed to operate under the broad Learning City initiative umbrella.
Those involved attend regular PSG meetings to maintain communications and update each other. Specific, project-related meetings take place with community members, drawing in other community-based partners as needed. Since the Pathfinder project, a collaborative Skillscentre programme has started, which is run by the local school, community organisations such as Communities that Care, and the Learning Partnership. This acts as another driver for this multi-layered partnership.
The partners believe that the foundations of a learning community are in place and that new learners are coming forward to use the Skillscentre and other informal learning opportunities. The increase in numbers of learners is being sustained and there is also evidence of progression.
Practice, Progress and Value has proved useful in addressing many issues around the development of partnerships and joint working.
2 Lessons from evaluating Participation
2.1 Participation is a challenge to all partnerships
Learning Communities are committed to sharing under-standing and opening dialogue with their community. However, few have achieved this at any level beyond small-scale, in-depth studies into villages or estates. This is because such community consultation work is expensive and time consuming. Getting long-term feedback from local people is a real challenge and has long been a barrier to democratic processes and to true community participation in local decision making.
This drive for democracy and participation within local communities could be significantly improved with an increasing use of ICT.
West Berkshire sees the establishment of a simple but wide spread communications system as the key to achieving this and used part of its Pathfinder project to develop an action plan for 2000 - 2001, unlocking this potential. Such a system would aim to build upon existing community links that have not traditionally depended upon ICT.
2.2 Share examples of participation practice
All initiatives welcome the opportunity to hear about, and learn from, existing practice. It is a valuable learning process and provides ample opportunity for partners to think about replication within their own locality.
There are examples of good local forums, but these generally are not linked into a strategic partnership.
The purpose of the CITINET forum is to act as a bridge between 'on the ground' issues facing learning centres and the organisations running them, and the strategic issues such as resource planning, funding and links with wider developments. It also tries to tackle the fundamental questions - for example, there was a recent discussion about "what's in this partnership for you". This aimed to draw out a debate about
the benefits, but also the tensions involved in collaboration.
The format adopted for forum meetings, which combines an input from a speaker on a general issue with practical discussion around key issues, is another example of the attempt to bridge 'operational' and 'strategic' issues.
The issues that are raised in the forum are fed into the Steering Group, the members of which make a real attempt to respond to the questions that the forum raises.
2.3 Build on existing good relationships within partnerships
Human capacity, trust and understanding take a substantial time to build within partnerships and are key to their success.
It is important to acknowledge the success of existing partners or sectors, and openly to consider how to harness this expertise and trust in partnership activity.
New partnerships may not always be needed. An existing partnership may perhaps consider broadening its scope and altering its structure to take on changing local context or external challenges.
As a result of the Pathfinder project, the potential of ICT for encouraging feedback - as well as disseminating information - has become a focus for West Berkshire.
One aim of public access to ICT is to help people see the potential of new technologies for themselves. It is to improve the quality of their participation in their various communities, both socially and economically - not just a matter of getting maximum numbers on ICT courses. This is an important aim for all regeneration projects and for Learning Cities
3 Lessons on evaluating Performance
3.1 When does evaluation commence?
Many projects do not feel they are in a position to begin to evaluate their work - even at board level. They acknowledge the importance of evaluation but it is not a priority. Evaluation tends to happen only by external forces i.e. funding regimes, governmental or legal requirements.
3.2 Use a range of evaluation methodologies
Almost all activity undertaken within a learning community will have its own performance measures and outputs. These are determined by a combination of the funding
body and the partners.
Projects should have the flexibility to develop their own indicators, as well as using nationally or sectoral approved data.
Across West Berkshire there are many projects all with different methods of evaluation. Getting overall consensus even in the Learning Partnership is difficult. However, the methods of evaluation tend to reflect three different elements:
- some measure of quality assurance - i.e. a basic level of availability to the public, minimum numbers of working PCs with Internet access (Sheffield's Citinet has been a useful example in categorising what each type of centre should provide)
- numbers of people using the equipment -sometimes this is refined into target categories depending on the type of initial funding the project has. In rural areas or in schools with limited daytime use, these can be small numbers with only 4 or 5 people at each session; and
- that they facilitate progression either by leading to a formal qualification or by preparing people to go on to further courses.
West Berkshire would like to move towards a quality mark, given the development of Ufi facilities, which will probably be very significant in evaluating local ICT centres. There may be problems if the Partnership has to pass a negative judgement on something 'owned' by one of its partners. However, being able to be honest and to survive criticism is seen as a mark of progress.
3.3 How to assess Performance
There is limited information on performance or participation within a Learning Community. This is a reflection of organisations and society as a whole, which as yet are not dealing with the diversity and challenges posed by true participation and democracy to current policies and to patterns of social activity and work.
Sheffield's Network of Private/Public and Community based Learning Centres used the LCN Practice, Progress and Value Guide in its application for external funding.
Citinet aims to extend access within the community and to co-ordinate learning centre activity.
The process of evaluation used a range of evaluation tools - Practice, Progress and Value, the Citinet Prospectus and questionnaires.
All aspects of the Guide were reviewed. The strongest results were recorded against the partnership criteria: protocols, representation on boards, benchmarking with peers (both strategic partners - TEC, College, Council and community, private and public sector partners) and applying the 'value added chain'.
Practical Tips in Information and Communications Technology
- Make sure there is community ownership - respect, participation, influence.
- Ensure that partners share an overview.
- Facilitate an appreciation of pressures and restrictions on all partners.
- Try to create 'real partnerships', a win-win for all partners
- Try to ensure that you are able to demonstrate cost effectiveness.
- Have a contingency for staffing - the loss of a key worker is often detrimental to the timing and momentum of activity.
- Paper based information should be reproduced in ethnic languages wherever relevant and feasible.
- Information services must be accessible to local people. They need to be easy to use, be provided locally, and open at convenient times.
- Having support workers or volunteers to help use IT equipment is essential.
- The use of ICT as a communication tool offers real benefits, but addressing access and confidence issues among all partners requires effort and thought.
- Be prepared to provide support to users.
- Is there a strategic group solely focusing on ICT issues?
- Little support at present for entrepreneurs. More is needed if ICT is not just to be a top-down activity.
- All volunteers/support workers will need training -allow time and budget for this.
Potential causes of conflict
- Different performance indicators for different partners.
- Meetings which are not well structured, well attended and have clear action points or outcomes.
- Lack of reliable backup for technical matters.
Comments relevant to all forms of ICT partnership activity
- Allow opportunities to build on existing strengths.
- Support the preparation of joint funding opportunities.
- Anticipate delays and teething problems both with funding and IT equipment.
- Budget for updating equipment.
- A maintenance contract is essential - but costs. Ensure to budget for this service.
- Be sensitive to training needs for any staff - use the most appropriate form of training.
- Market the service coherently, continuously and to the range of target audiences?