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JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants: funding bright ideas

Christina Smart
Last modified 09 Apr, 2010
Published 09 Apr, 2010
Two years ago the JISC e-learning team launched the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants Programme to encourage innovative approaches to learning and teaching for projects that didn't easily fit into its current development areas. Now in its fifth round we asked Heather Williamson, the current manager of this programme, about some of the projects funded so far and what the JISC has learned about funding the "bright ideas" that people have.

A call for the fifth round of Teaching and Learning Innovation Grants was announced at the end of February [1] supporting;

“one year projects of up to £50,000 each, dealing with innovative educational technology or practice in the e-learning domain”

On the face of it, it is a simple task to set aside a pot of funding for innovative educational technology or practice “bright ideas”, but setting up the programme has required a hard look at the whole funding process.

From the beginning the JISC e-Learning team recognised that applying for funding requires a considerable investment of time and effort, so the team tried to make the process easier by having two stages, an “expression of interest” stage via email submission followed by a virtual meeting with a panel, Dragon’s Den style.

Despite this the programme got off to a slow start. While there was a great deal of interest, the percentage of projects that were funded in the first rounds was very low. In the first two rounds out of almost 170 bids received just 4 projects received funding (2.4% success rate). To identify the problem the JISC team funded a review of the bidding process [2]. In his analysis Dr Neil Witt found that at the expression of interest stage many projects were “out of scope” either because they duplicated existing funded work, intended to use funding to purchase learning material or software, or were continuation funding for existing projects. Then at the interview stage projects either did not address a recognised need or were not innovative enough. As a result of the evaluation future calls provided clearer guidance to prospective projects on eligibility requirements and innovation in the context of the learning and teaching innovation grants.

Interestingly the review also found that half of the proposals came from institutions with no prior experience of bidding to the JISC suggesting that bidders see the programme as a way of putting their “toes in the water” without a huge investment of time.

The 14 projects that have been funded so far are an eclectic mix of novel ideas [3]; ranging from exploring using Quick Response codes [4], to “Mobairo Gakushu” a project using Nintendo DSi hand held games consoles to link students on exchange in Japan to other students and tutors back home [5].

Has the programme lived up to its promise? What sort of projects has it funded? And how easy is it to administer? We spoke to Heather Williamson, JISC programme manager about what the programme has achieved so far.

CS: Can you tell us about the background to the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants programme?

HW: Originally, in May 2007, Learning and Teaching Innovation grants were proposed as an open rolling call to the JISC Learning and Teaching Committee. That followed on from discussions at previous Learning and Teaching committee meetings because senior institutional managers were keen on having this sort of open rolling call. The idea was to allow new and innovative ideas to filter through from the community that didn’t fit conveniently within a traditional JISC call, which are often restricted in scope. A second aim was to lower the administrative burden for institutions looking to bid. Again, traditionally it can be quite a daunting process to put in a proposal to JISC. Finally the programme was also looking to fund smaller projects rather than big two or three year cross institutional projects.

CS: What sort of projects have been funded and how have these projects supported innovation in their home institutions?

HW: Since the first call in May 2008 14 projects have been funded, covering a diverse range of activities from the exploitation of Quick Response codes [4] through to remote non-destructive testing courses [6] using free and web 2.0 technologies.

All the projects are using or investigating innovative technologies and practice, but in quite different ways. For example the remote testing project is in some ways quite a traditional course, but using technology in an innovatory way to support distance learning. In contrast the QR codes project is using some interesting and novel ways of engaging learners. We’ve also got some research projects, for example, Optimising audio feed back [7] is a very small research project. Not unsurprisingly we’ve also got a number of projects looking at emerging technologies, one project is looking at using the Nintendo DSi handheld and how you can use that for remote education [5], and we’ve got Nintendo Wii remote technology being used in the Blind Cricket project [8]. Another project is looking at the use of twitter in health education [9].

In terms of how these projects have supported innovation in their home institutions, I think that is probably varied. The level of institutional benefit will vary with the level of institutional contribution. Some projects have a smaller institutional impact but a bigger community impact. The SIMiLLE project is using virtual world environments to create a pre course to engage language learners, almost like a cultural introduction to the institution and that project and approach is being moved into one of the departments at Essex [10]. Also the RATATAT project at Swansea has created a VLE on the fly to allow remote access to expensive equipment and this will continue after their funding comes to an end [6]. In contrast it is likely that the Blind cricket project will be more beneficial to the wider community [8].

There are a number of these projects that have the potential to have a wider impact and we have to remember that in JISC terms these are small projects with small levels of funding. I think that for the amount of money and time spent on them there is a good level of community benefit from these projects.

CS: The team has spent some time adapting the call and selection process, can you outline how this works and what changes you’ve made?

HW: The process of bidding for a Learning and Teaching Innovation grant project is not the usual process for a JISC call. And, as I mentioned earlier, is intended to reduce the initial burden on the bidder. As you have suggested the process has gone through a number of minor modifications in response to the evaluation report that Neil Witt [2] wrote which looked at the bidding process itself.

But essentially the current process is not greatly different to the one that we started with. Bidders are invited to submit short proposals via a word limited template. At that stage we don’t require any additional documentation such as letters of support. Sometimes people find this new format challenging, especially if they’re used to responding to a traditional JISC call. My advice for those finding it a challenge would be to look at the guidance for bidders document, alongside the actual proposals received for the last round (available from the programme web site).

Following receipt of the bid template, each proposal is marked by one member of the JISC executive and one external marker. The next step is to draw up a shortlist of the best proposals which are then put forward for interview by a panel which includes members of the JISC executive and JISC Learning and Teaching Committee. Projects invited to interview are asked at this point to submit a full budget and their letters of support, along with any supporting information they wish to use as part of their presentation. The interview usually takes place via video-conference (for the current round it will be via a video-enabled web-conference). Each project has 10-15 minutes in which to present their proposed project, followed by 10 minutes of questioning from the panel. We try to notify projects within a week whether they have been successful or not.

Here are my top tips for applying to Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants:

This is a popular call, but with limited funds it means that the success rate is not very high, for this call we expect to get between 70 and 100 bids and we are looking to fund up to 5 projects. So to give your proposal the best chance:

  • Read the call carefully.
  • Pay particular attention to the eligibility criteria in paragraph 7 and the evaluation criteria outlined in the call.
  • Ensure that your project is related to innovative technology or practice in the e-learning domain
  • It is always helpful for markers if they have a clear understanding of what the project intends to do, how it will be achieved, what the expected benefits, outputs and outcomes of the proposed project are.
  • Proposals which are vague about their activities, benefits and outputs generally don’t tend to get very high marks.

CS: Do you think the approach has fulfilled what it set out to do, i.e. stimulate innovation in areas outside the core e-learning programme activity areas?

HW: Yes, definitely. The challenge with these projects is to ensure that the findings and outputs from these projects are captured appropriately and disseminated. Currently the outputs of the current and past Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants projects will be incorporated into a forthcoming update to the JISC Innovative Practice with e-Learning guide [11]. We are also hoping to commission a review of the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants approach to help inform any future developments of the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants programme.

CS: Is it an approach that the JISC will continue to pursue?

HW: This is certainly the intention, and another round is due to be released later in the year. However, this will always be subject to the prevailing financial climate, but as this is a particularly popular call with the community, I am hopeful that it will be continued.

What is interesting about this call is that although the impact of the projects taken together may be less than other projects in programmes on a particular theme, such as Curriculum Design, these projects, which are usually managed by practitioners themselves, have a significant impact on their specific communities.

The Learning and Teaching Innovation grants programme is an incredibly popular call and half of those that bid have never submitted a bid to JISC before. I think because the projects are small they are reasonably low risk for institutions new to JISC. It is also interesting that there are often internal competitions within institutions to decide which idea goes forward due to the one bid per institution rule for this Call. The Call gets people’s attention, their motivation, their enthusiasm and gets people thinking innovatively. For the JISC I think Learning and Teaching Innovation grant programme represents good value for money, because these are small, very targeted projects.

CS: This is a very broad range of projects, some like e-proofs in the ExPOUND project [12] are very subject specific how is their work being disseminated?

HW: Dissemination for the whole programme is a challenge because the projects are so disparate. We rely on the projects themselves engaging with their community, because we can’t have an entire dissemination package around just one project. From the JISC end we are producing the Innovative Practice guide I’ve mentioned, but the projects are also doing a lot themselves. The Blind Cricket project is a good example of a project that is very well embedded within its community. It has high profile audiences including the BBC, some national charities and they’ve even got the national blind cricket team involved. Similarly the Poetiks project [13] which is focussing on using web 2.0 technology to teach poetry has a very motivated manager who will disseminate via the English literature practitioner community. We also see the HE Academy subject centres as an important dissemination tool for many of the projects.

A full list of the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant projects can be found at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/ltig.aspx The deadline for the current call is the 19th April, so there’s just enough time to pull that winning bid together.

References

[1] Current Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant call

[2] Review of the first two rounds of the Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant calls

[3] Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant Programme site

[4] QR codes project

[5] Mobairo Gakushu project

[6] RATATAT project

[7] Optimising Audio Feedback

[8] Blind Cricket project

[9] The Scale project

[10] SIMiLLE project

[11] JISC Innovative Practice with e-Learning guide

[12] ExPOUND project

[13] Poetiks project

 

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