Bernard Quinn is NETSPass Project Coordinator at Gateshead Council. He reflects on the challenges of a large partnership and introduces some of the project successes to date.
Where did the idea for NETSPass come from?
It initially came from the learningSkills service at Gateshead Council. Talking to colleagues in the other six authority-based adult and community learning providers quickly confirmed that we all would benefit from coming together under the Learning Futures project banner. In Gateshead, we were already looking for ways of increasing the digital literacy of our own tutor pool, as well as all staff from administrators to senior managers, so we could all support and learn from each other. We started 3-4 years ago looking at tools for a VLE platform. We also wanted to bring all our separate digital activity together somehow. An external quality inspection commissioned by learningSkills underlined this area for development as part of our route to outstanding.
We had also started working together across the sub-region (seven local authority non-college adult community providers) to work on other nationally funded programmes; so, we had already established relationships for developing and sharing. Learning Futures was the right thing at the right time to explore our ability to work together whilst recognising the differences in our digital capacities in each local authority.
It’s a big partnership. How is that working?
We are seven local authorities from Northumberland down to County Durham. It’s working well. It’s working really well thanks to everyone, literally, from lead managers to tutors (digital champions). There are many challenges, though, in bringing people together—staff turnover, extra time pressures of development work—and the Learning Futures timeline is exceedingly tight in the context of a complex partnership. We got together for the first time in December—our first time sitting around a table. But once we had done that, made some decisions, and fleshed out the funding issues, the commitment was there. We meet once a month, and you can’t underestimate what that means for seven organisations whose diaries and other commitments were already in place for 2015. We’ve also had several full-day intensive workshops. We’re on target and are seeing good indications of value beyond Learning Futures by way of a long-term commitment across the sub-region to support each other across various models of digital delivery. We are all working beyond the monetary and time allocation and there has been no resistance to that.
“Our focus isn’t just the end of the programme but the next 5-10 years, because we now have a way of working together and we have a commitment and a mechanism to work through any difficulties and succeed.”
So, what have been some of the challenges?
Well, it’s a nice challenge to have, but the potential for mission drift is growing as we all become aware of the spin-off benefits and potential solutions for our own organisations. We have a significant ‘brains trust’ in the making and we need to harness that longer term.
One of our more tangible challenges has been around the design of the NETSPass Digital Curator Programme. This is one of our digital assets. It’s a 20-hour programme for 20 tutors per area running between April and July, and will be used to plan a roll-out across the sub‑region post-Learning Futures.
We also realised that the delivery model in each area was different: some a completely sub-contracted out delivery model (i.e. commission based); some more traditional in-house direct delivery (i.e. directly funded) and managed tutor pool; and others a mix of the two. That meant that we couldn’t deliver a ‘one size fits all’ model. It needed to be ‘smarter’—to be able to address the particular needs and profile of each region—and 3-4 different models were needed. That was a big shift in our initial thinking which had assumed a need for tight standardisation across every aspect. Our solution was to elevate standardisation above the level of the scheme of work by creating an overarching framework ‘control document’ that covered aims, strategies, outcomes, resources, activities, methodologies, etc. So, we now have a master document applying standards and content but giving partners the flexibility to address local needs and ways of working.
Is this a way forward for future collaborations?
Yes, it feels like that—a model for the sub-region to take forward that addresses individual organisational capacities but meets common goals. We were hoping for an outcome along these lines but had no idea how it would develop. And, if it works at a sub-regional level, we think it can work at a regional level, so that it can be applied throughout England addressing gaps and variables.
What have been some of the key successes to date?
The partnership has been a major success—working together so fluidly and with hardly any hitches. Without that, we would have struggled to get this far so quickly on the project. It’s a huge achievement. We’ve also pulled together a standard definition of what a digital curator is for the North East of England:
A Digital Curator is the focal point in a network of learners and tutors that develops and manages digital and online resources that add value to the teaching and learning process within the context of a subject area. (NETSPass 2015)
We’re now about to deliver and test a pilot digital programme to inspire and equip tutors to become digital curators.
How are you progressing with the NETSPass digital passport?
“Passport” sounds very grand but our short-term goals are, in some ways, relatively simple. Initially, we thought our Online Induction Programme would be the Digital Passport, but we now realise that our Digital Curator Programme is also a Digital passport – it seems so obvious now!
The induction programme via a VLE idea developed because of the amount of time it takes to induct staff into the service, and for staff to induct learners, compared to the limited induction experienced by learners. This face-to-face, paper-based process is time‑consuming, inefficient and costly. So, the asset we are creating and testing is the NETSPass Online Induction Programme. There will be tutor and learner programmes. The tutor programme will deliver four online modules that have been agreed across the region: health and safety/wellbeing; equality, diversity and inclusion; safeguarding; and e-safety. The aim is that any tutor will be able to go to any local authority partner equipped with a set of agreed minimum induction and digital skills standards. This will have the added benefit, potentially, of enhancing their mobility and their ability to work for more than one authority. We won’t be able to test the mobility aspect until after the Learning Futures programme, so we are thinking about how that might be done.
For both these assets, we have prepared 16 digital champions to support implementation across the seven sub-regions.
How helpful have you found the Learning Futures website and resources?
This has actually been one of our challenges and one of our weaknesses. The website is growing like topsy and we haven’t been successful in maximising its impact and potential across the partnership; but that’s something we’re going to tackle next. Back in November, we got the impression that it was for project leads and our multi-partner approach complicated that. But I’ve realised that it’s for everyone who has something to learn or contribute—we all need to be tapping into it—so I’m going to take that as a personal challenge to let our people know it’s there and encourage them to use the site.
Is there anything that, with hindsight, you would have done differently?
I wish we’d had time to design a more detailed roadmap to coordinate our diaries and timelines. But that’s part of the learning process—of action research—because we just had to adapt and act. It’s been time and not money that has created most of our challenges (though the money awarded doesn’t stretch far at all – we went for the maximum to moderate the impact on what we wanted to achieve); but the commitment of everyone involved has meant that so far we have, and will, overcome most resource-related obstacles. It is scary to think where we might fall down and where we might succeed. But that’s just part of the action research dynamic I suppose.