MARCHMONT OBSERVATORY FINAL EVALUATION REPORT: EQUAL PROJECT ON THE USE OF ICT IN RURAL INDUSTRIES NOVEMBER 2005 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The evaluation team at the Marchmont Observatory would like to thank all those individuals who freely gave their time in support of the EQUAL ICT in Rural Industries project review. These include project officers Richard Atkinson, Brian Gilder, Alex Lindsay, Shirley Merrick and Claire Puckett from the five SWELBC colleges active in the project; college principals Andrew Counsell and Terry Duggleby; SWRDA representatives Barnaby Harris and Fabian King; LANTRA contact Lyndsey Bird. Especial thanks to Dr Martyn Warren of the Rural Futures Unit, University of Plymouth, for kindly sharing his previous reports on the AgriNet projects; and all those anonymous beneficiaries across colleges who were prepared to take part in the learners’ survey through the good efforts of project officers. Finally, the evaluators wish to acknowledge the pivotal contribution to the project made by its manager Geoff Lawrence up to his untimely demise in early 2005. We are grateful to him for inviting Marchmont to lead the evaluation initiative and trust this report presents project outcomes that adequately reflect his dedication, and that of project staff. TABLE OF CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 2 TABLE OF CONTENTS 3 1 Introduction 4 2 The background to the ICT in Rural Industries project 6 2.1 The UK context .......................................................................................... 6 2.2 The South West context ........................................................................... 8 3 Evaluation methodologies and the EQUAL programme 10 3.1 Evaluation for EQUAL ............................................................................. 10 3.2 Evaluation methodologies used for ICT in Rural Industries ................ 11 4 Summative review of the ICT in Rural Industries project 13 4.1 Beneficiaries............................................................................................ 13 4.1.1 Individuals .......................................................................................... 13 4.1.2 Rural networks ................................................................................... 15 4.2 Innovation ................................................................................................ 18 4.2.1 Mobile learning ................................................................................... 18 4.2.2 Mobile devices ................................................................................... 18 4.2.3 Talking Heads .................................................................................... 19 4.2.4 Intranet development ......................................................................... 19 4.2.5 Farm decision support system............................................................ 19 4.2.6 Learner tracking software ................................................................... 19 4.2.7 Internal communications .................................................................... 19 4.2.8 Dissemination .................................................................................... 20 4.3 Equal opportunities ................................................................................ 20 4.4 Empowerment and participation ............................................................ 20 4.5 Development Partnership ....................................................................... 22 4.6 Thematic approaches ............................................................................. 23 4.7 Transnationality ...................................................................................... 24 Common interests, methodology and underlying problems .............................. 24 Transnational meetings .................................................................................... 25 4.8 Dissemination and mainstreaming ........................................................ 26 4.3.1 Project dissemination ......................................................................... 26 4.3.2 Project mainstreaming ....................................................................... 27 5 Conclusions 34 1 Introduction This is the final evaluation report of the Round 1 EQUAL project ICT in Rural Industries, which brought together in a Development Partnership (DP) the six land based colleges in the South West who collectively form the SWELBC consortium (South West England Land Based Colleges): Cornwall / Duchy College, Cornwall Bicton College, Devon Kingston Maurward College, Dorset Lackham College, Wiltshire Hartpury College, Gloucestershire Cannington College, Somerset. The aims of the project are to … support people working in rural businesses (including owner-managers and those in family businesses) to develop their capacity to manage change, through collaboration in identifying business threats/opportunities and meeting learning needs arising from this. [The project] supports innovative, collaborative learning models to address the strategic objective of Theme F making use of ICT to improve access to skills for adaptability in rural enterprises /communities … Our focus is on those especially at risk from change, including owner/managers and workers in businesses facing the greatest need to diversify and in peripheral areas, plus those for whom change could exacerbate prior disadvantage. According to the evaluation brief, the work programme of the EQUAL ICT in Rural Industries project included: Identification of the learning needs and barriers faced by the target group Establishment of learning networks, bringing together/building on existing business networks Development and testing of the learning network model, which will include significant elements of peer group collaboration and facilitated interaction Bringing together the features required to make learning networks function in rural communities, including Facilitator skills Technology models/products plus content to enable ICT to be used to enhance the activities/effectiveness of networks, particularly through peer group interaction. Development of learning content to support the skills needed to take advantage of new/diversified business opportunities. In the context of this EQUAL project, the role of summative evaluation was seen as informing: the mainstreaming process, drawing out the good practice created, valuable products and to identify the policy implications the design and management of future projects, the role of SWELBC and how to gain value from transnational working The summative evaluation was envisaged to draw on monitoring data, utilising feedback from focus groups and interviews with participants in the pilots plus project workers. It was also anticipated to include interviews from audiences identified for mainstreaming (both horizontal and vertical) to obtain their input into the value of the project. For the ICT in Rural Industries project, mainstreaming under EQUAL addresses the extent to which opportunities are taken up to become embedded in future practice: horizontal mainstreaming - by directly measuring the use of products with the SWELBC, creation of further networks using the model, and by using feedback from other land based organisations in the UK. vertical mainstreaming - via interviews with policy bodies as outlined for summative evaluation. The external evaluation has therefore taken particular note of how well these above dimensions have been addressed in the work programme, and satisfactorily demonstrated by participation with and delivery to appropriate target groups. Further details on the evaluation methodology used are given in section 3 below. 2 The background to the ICT in Rural Industries project 2.1 The UK context The UK countryside is in a transitional phase in which the challenges posed to the rural economy following the upheavals caused by foot and mouth disease (FMD) are continuing to change the social and economic landscape. At the same time it is recognised that the rural economy follows its own distinctive patterns that set it aside from urban areas, in which the following themes are highlighted: The increasing prevalence of home working The presence of micro-enterprises, the self-employed and freelancers Recent moves towards diversification away from ‘traditional’ industries and occupations. According to the State of the Countryside Report 20051: Even in the most affluent areas, one in six households has an income of less than 60 per cent of the English median … Relatively high levels of employment are partly due … to higher levels of self-employment and home- working. In advance of the changes that CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] reform will bring … increasing diversification and the increasing age of those owning farms (60 per cent of whom are now over 55) suggests that there remain broader challenges in the social and economic sustainability of farming. When considering training in order to remain competitive, rural entrepreneurs operate at a significant disadvantage compared with their urban equivalents which also extends to their access to business advice: There is concern that firms in the more remote rural areas may be significantly disadvantaged in terms of access to suitable externally sourced training, largely because the majority of ‘off the job’ training opportunities are urban based … The greater use of training that involves an external input is necessary, particularly if rural SMEs are to upgrade their technological skills and knowledge base and successfully adapt to the use of more advanced computer-based equipment. Because of the distance from the main centres of training, SMEs in peripheral rural areas particularly, have external training needs, which require more customised forms of delivery than is necessary in more urban locations … [Another] potential disadvantages faced by businesses located in rural areas is a greater average distance from business advice and support services provided through the market, such as from banks, accountants and consultants2. Uptake of ICT is often considered to be a proxy for innovation in small firms, where for example there has been found to be a correlation between lack of innovation and distance from major roads or air transport. 1 Commission for Rural Communities. State of the Countryside Report 2005. 2005. 2 Smallbone, D and Major, E. Rural businesses and competitiveness: an assessment of the evidence base. Report by the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research, Middlesex University, for the Countryside Agency, Aug 2003. Although the effective use of ICT is potentially one of the ways that rural businesses can overcome some of the disadvantages with respect to distance from major markets and sources of supply, previous research evidence has suggested they typically lag behind their urban counterparts in this regard … there is a danger that rural SMEs may be disadvantaged by their slowness to exploit the technology now available to them. [Smallbone and Major, op.cit] A recent survey showed that, for rural businesses the main barriers to the further use of ICT were a lack of time for training and direct use of ICT, a lack of appropriate personal skills and the cost of the equipment. At the same time, there is evidence that small rural firms recognise the need to upgrade their skills and competence in the field of computing and the use of IT. [Smallbone and Major, op.cit] To address this gap, a recent report3 on rural microbusinesses recommended awareness and education programmes, training and provision of ICT infrastructure, paying particular attention to the needs of microenterprises and small firms. The shared circumstances of service delivery in a rural location however often mask the significant differences operating across a diverse range of industry sectors where innovation is not always an automatic solution. According to the Live/Work report, rural Business Link advisors linked rural home working specifically to farm diversification and provided anecdotal evidence of an increasing variety of business start-ups in farm-based environments, sometimes food or craft related and often also including the use of ICT. Isolation has been found to be a particular challenge for rural businesses working from home and one which acts against awareness of training opportunities available. The Live/Work survey classed the South West region as having the second largest group in the UK of rural home workers compared to urban (13.2% compared with 8.5%) and the second highest incidence of home workers overall. Lack of visibility is however a problem for rural businesses, both from each other and, ironically, also for those already with a Web presence - where physical location is not included in a Web site. Fortunately for home based businesses in the South West, the report praised the Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) for their own innovative efforts in developing a methodology to track and support home based working across a range of departmental indicators. SWRDA has also proposed criteria for monitoring organisational change and adaptation in businesses through growing sophistication in their ICT use (the ‘e-adoption ladder’4). At the upper end of the spectrum, development of new business models based on collaboration and improved supply chain engagement are seen as key evidence of positive organisational growth. Collaborative networks were also seen by Live/Work as another means of encouraging successful home based businesses to boost business growth, GDP and turnover. 3 Under the radar: tracking and supporting rural home based business. Report by the Live/Work Network for the Commission for Rural Communities, Jul 2005. 4 SWRDA. Personal communication, Oct 2005. To extract value from the technology, rural communities and those that serve them have to learn to align online networks with offline structures that may have remained unchanged for decades5. The potential role and development of learning networks to improving competitiveness of small rural businesses, and of ICT in boosting participation in them, is a key theme of the ICT in Rural Industries project. 2.2 The South West context The FMD outbreak in the South West brought into sharp relief the need to rethink future strategies for a cross section of land based industries within the region. The resulting widespread and lengthy disruption to countryside access affected many small rural businesses beyond those immediately involved in stock rearing. For the land based industry colleges, traditional face to face delivery of education and training at a central location also became more problematical. The potential of innovative technologies to offer distant access to learners via outreach initiatives offered a way forward. As early as the late 1990s colleges had begun to investigate how rural outreach programmes could contribute to accessibility and diversification, which had been heralded by a decline in farming income per person in the late 1990s (from £10,600 in 1998 to £7,800 in 20006). The AgriNet (1 and 2) projects were designed to extend and complement existing provision by providing mobile facilities for adult learners in their communities. AgriNet 1 ran from1996 to 2000 and aimed to establish Internet based IT training for farmers, growers, rural and other land based industries in Devon and Cornwall, based on the principles that7: Training and equipment would travel to the learners; Workshops would be flexible and delivered at any place and time to suit the clients; Training materials and internet workshops would be relevant to the business needs of farmers, growers, and land based industries. AgriNet 1 attracted initial funding from the European Social Fund Objective 5b and subsequently the then-Department of Education and Employment, with match resources provided by a wide range of government and voluntary organisations. It trained a total of 2500 learners and developed a major partnership with the Young Farmers’ Clubs, training members to cascade skills on to others. Both mobile units and laptops were deployed to offer Internet training in community locations and often over evenings and weekends. Positive responses by beneficiaries led on to further opportunities under the successor project, AgriConneXion (AgriNet 2). Following a funding gap, AgriConneXion was established in a shape much closer to the present EQUAL project of this review. The establishment of SWRDA within the AgriNet 1 period was able to unlock Skills Development Fund resources to the six land based industry colleges to expand outreach provision piloted under AgriNet 1 throughout the region. New mobile units were specially equipped and rotated on a monthly basis around two clusters of partner colleges in the north and south of the 5 Commission for Rural Communities. Beyond digital divides? The future for ICT in rural areas, by J Craig and B Greenhill. Apr 2005. (CRC 04) 6 The use of ICT in rural industries. EQUAL final Action 2 project report, Sep 2005. 7 AgriNet 1: taking technology to the countryside, by M Warren. Report to the Seale Hayne Educational Trust, Feb 2002. South West. Training was to be delivered at farms, village halls, village pubs and rural business locations, and dedicated materials developed. With funding originally available over the year 2001, the unfortunate onset of FMD interrupted delivery of the project and extended its timescale. There were negative implications also on staffing resources allocated and shared between colleges, based on part time and sessional staff employment patterns that reduced the consistency of support and continuity available to learners. Over the time that AgriConneXions was active, training was extended to 500 learners from older age groups mainly for leisure purposes. Coordinated partnership activities and closer collaboration with rural business networking groups such as South West Agricultural and Rural Development (SWARD; now the SW Rural Enterprise Gateway) were noted as future opportunities for greater industry engagement amongst participating colleges8. Lessons learned from the AgriNet 1 and 2 projects have been specifically addressed in the development of the EQUAL Round 1 ICT in Rural Industries project. 8 AgriNet 2: AgriConneXion, by M Warren. University of Plymouth at Seale Hayne, May 2002. 3 Evaluation methodologies and the EQUAL programme 3.1 Evaluation for EQUAL Summative evaluation differs principally from formative evaluation in that it is an exercise geared to a wider external audience, rather than internal project personnel. It aims to identify the main issues emerging from a project in terms of their overall implications for future development beyond the project lifetime. In so doing, summative evaluation makes the links between project performance indicators and their broader impact on changing policy and practice. Within the EQUAL programme there is a particular emphasis on mainstreaming of project findings and activities. Mainstreaming goes beyond monitoring and dissemination activities to demonstrate improvements that have taken place as a result of a project - whether as knowledge gained, new activities launched or audiences engaged – that would otherwise not have happened. These may include novel processes, outcomes or products that can usefully be transferred outside their original community or user groups into a broader environment. EQUAL’s Theme F under which the ICT in Rural Industries project has been funded recognises the economic and social pressures impinging on land based businesses in the UK. Theme F relates to Adaptability – specifically, supporting the adaptability to structural change which will be necessary for the survival of enterprises in the sector. The EQUAL programme’s Principles are set out as follows, together with sample questions as to how their impact may be assessed within a project9: Innovation: new methods of delivery, new systems or innovative actions to tackle identified gaps. What was new about the DP: did those activities work? Equal opportunities: strategies and activities to support equality within and beyond the project. Was the range of beneficiaries representative? Empowerment and participation: providing the opportunity for target groups to influence and participate in activities proposed. Did beneficiaries contribute to the design of work programmes and products ? Development Partnerships: involving multiple public, private and voluntary sector agencies including representatives of workers and employers as well as education and training providers. How effective was the partnership and its collaboration throughout the project, including initial design, management and delivery, and products / outcomes? Thematic approaches: exploring new ways of tackling discrimination and inequality. Were these distinctively recognised and articulated by the project? 9 ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd. Guidance note on evaluation. Nov 2002. Transnationality: ensuring links are made with partners in other Member States to exchange practice and develop common European activities, practices and solutions. How did transnational activities add value and did they reflect wider European priorities? Dissemination and mainstreaming: steering policy developments at national and European levels. What is the potential for replication? Has the DP influenced local, regional and national policy? We shall look below at implementation of each of these Principles within the ICT in Rural Industries project. 3.2 Evaluation methodologies used for ICT in Rural Industries In its evaluation tender, the Marchmont Observatory proposed the following criteria as a useful guide for evaluation of the ICT in Rural Industries project activities, according to the Principles set out above: Rural networks that have not previously been in existence Facilitator training programmes that would not otherwise have been developed Increases in participation by users and practitioners in existing learning provision, and uptake of innovative ICT facilities and services Development of new traditional, online and blended learning solutions Numbers of clients gaining jobs/returning to work/improving their business Greater awareness of and participation in transnational networks and activities Moves to sustain and build network activities beyond the end of the project Project publicity, awareness raising and dissemination programmes To assess the overall impact of levels of increased activities across the EQUAL areas above, the project evaluators proposed a combination of qualitative and quantitative research techniques. It was intended that these would sample formative indicators to support and track developments captured by internal monitoring procedures, as well as inform the longer term, outward facing implications of policy and wider practice for summative evaluation. They included: Qualitative research: Semi-structured telephone and face to face interviews at regular intervals with project officers (formative) Attendance and observation at occasional project steering group meetings Review of feedback generated from project activities Participation in project events (including design and delivery of evaluation workshop for project officers) Semi-structured telephone and face to face interviews and discussions with selected college principals and key stakeholders within region (summative). These included: o LANTRA (the Sector Skills Council for training in the land based industries) o SWRDA o SW Rural Enterprise Gateway o University of Plymouth Rural Futures Group, School of Geography Quantitative research: Development and analysis of questionnaire survey (closed) to project beneficiaries across partners Monitoring/tracking of numerical indicators in regular project returns to identify trends in participation. In the sections which follow we shall review each of the above activity areas in terms of its summative impact on mainstreaming the lessons of the EQUAL Round 1 ICT in Rural Industries project. Detailed feedback captured by semi-structured interviews with EQUAL project officers may be found in on the project work space in the form of interim evaluation reports 1 and 2, whilst details of the quantitative survey of project beneficiaries with questionnaire are included in interim evaluation report 3, also on the work space. 4 Summative review of the ICT in Rural Industries project The following sections look at project progress across the entire project life span of Actions 1, 2 and 3. Detailed project monitoring returns have continued to be submitted reporting progress at six monthly intervals up to and including the Action 3 period, with the latest to be reviewed dated September 2005. As has been reported elsewhere, at the inception of evaluation (in January 2004) it was envisaged that sufficient progress would have been made in the project to enable baseline identification of detailed benchmarks for measurement of ongoing change. However, unforeseen delays in approval of Action 2 altered the project timeline, which in turn affected project staff recruitment in partner colleges. Although the project initially began collecting monitoring data in October 2002 a project manager was not recruited until early 2003, with dedicated project staff at several of the partner colleges not in post until autumn 2003. To compensate for the delayed start, Action 2 was extended for several months to July 2005. The lateness of project staff appointments and the subsequent requirement to build understanding and capacity for the EQUAL programme context with other colleagues within the colleges further set back overall project design, marketing and delivery to beneficiaries. Therefore substantial progress with beneficiary enrolment numbers was not noted until the start of the autumn term 2004 - and then grew rapidly throughout the spring term 2005. The survey conducted in this period which forms interim report 3 confirmed the late arrival of many participants to the project, who nevertheless impressed with their enthusiasm. However, selection and use of benchmarks against which to measure positive change in beneficiaries were not able to be encompassed within the reduced activity time for the project. At this stage we must also note with great sorrow the death of the project manager, Mr Geoff Lawrence, in early 2005. Geoff’s central influence in guiding and steering the ICT in Rural Industries project was invaluable for the project officers over the two years that he was employed as manager. By the time of his demise, project activities and beneficiaries were well established and were able to continue to grow despite his sad loss. His contribution and commitment are much missed by all the team. In the section below, the monitoring returns tend to represent accumulated numbers of beneficiaries whilst the evaluation provides more qualitative detail in a ‘snapshot’ survey as to how identified groups are constituted. 4.1 Beneficiaries 4.1.1 Individuals According to the project monitoring forms submitted between April and September 2005 there have been no further changes to beneficiary numbers. These are therefore considered to be finalised at 323 starters, 87 completers, 233 ongoing participants and only three withdrawn from training. In addition, 54 companies have had their activities supported through EQUAL. As the final Action 2 project report confirms that beneficiary numbers stood at 244 at the end of December 2004, this is a pleasing 33% increase to beneficiaries in the four months elapsed to early 2005 which had already exceeded the original target number of 220. The evaluation survey confirms that most respondents by spring 2005 had been part of EQUAL for six months or less. Such excellent uptake over a short period of time suggests that interest in, and momentum for, direct participation in EQUAL would have been sustained beyond the end of Action 2 – and that an earlier project start would have made even more progress. The EQUAL programme highlights enhanced participation of such beneficiaries as the socially disadvantaged, unemployed, older people, those with disabilities and low skills, ethnic and racial groups and women. In the original project application the needs of women and those with difficulties with literacy and numeracy were given particular attention. Initial research as well as findings from the AgriNet projects suggested that women in rural areas suffer problems of isolation and lack of transport that would constrain their own access to improved skills, employment and business development. In addition, individuals already employed in rural settings but with low basic skills would similarly be unable to access learning opportunities during the usual working week. For some older rural microenterprise owner/managers, shifts in traditional employment patterns and economic pressures noted above have also created the need to re-skill towards diversification from existing occupations. It was therefore expected that beneficiaries would be: 1) largely female, 2) lacking in literacy and numeracy, 3) more likely to be employed, and 4) working in the land based sector, particularly in agriculture and horticulture. The Action 2 project report includes a gender and employment breakdown of beneficiary groups as recorded on monitoring forms that complements well the ‘snapshot’ survey analysis included in the third interim evaluation report. By the end of 2004 the majority of beneficiaries enrolled on the EQUAL project was male. Although not as representative of numbers enrolled as the monitoring returns, evaluation survey findings also confirm a preponderance of male beneficiaries (53% male to 47% female). Discrepancies suggest that additional female participants may have been enrolled in EQUAL to spring 2005, and also that beneficiaries selected for the evaluation survey by project officers tended more to be female than the overall beneficiary population. Also of interest to both surveys was the level of educational attainment of beneficiaries. These were recorded according to NVQ equivalencies in the monitoring returns and so differed in degree of self interpretation from the range of qualifications offered for selection in the evaluation survey. Nevertheless there is still broad agreement between the two: most beneficiaries report achievements in the NVQ 2/3 range of qualifications, although it is noticeable that fewer beneficiaries report no qualifications in the evaluation survey. However, explicit questions relating to participation in Skills for Life courses in literacy and numeracy were answered positively by 13% of respondents in the evaluation, and correlate well with 10% in the fnal report (reporting key/basic skills support). The evaluation survey went into greater detail than the final report in its treatment of respondents’ employment status, but agreed that the large majority of beneficiaries were employed and/or managed their own business (92% of those responding). An interesting breakdown was achieved across participants’ industry sectors which again confirmed the unexpectedly broad spread of beneficiaries beyond the traditional land based occupations. Here, these accounted for 50% of the respondents, with another 20% in the food and drink sector – arguably one of the main success stories of the project. The final report identified several key areas of the type of training and development needs arising out of the learning networks that had been established. These included: 1) general ICT skills, 2) specialist ICT skills, 3) work and business skills delivered via ICT, and 4) facilitation skills. These agree well with the range of ICT courses undertaken as queried of beneficiaries in the evaluation survey, where generic IT applications and specialist software were the most popular training undertaken. As would be expected in a project focusing on skills development in rural businesses, training in the workplace and using ICT made up the majority of project activities delivered to beneficiaries. Positive outcomes for beneficiaries flowing from the EQUAL project were well charted in both reports. The evaluation survey highlighted that the project had successfully brought into contact with learning many beneficiaries who would otherwise not have been involved in training. Of these, 73% surveyed reported that they would like to do further courses, of which 43% wished to pursue computer based courses and 27% face to face. Increased computer use, enhanced efficiency and related business benefits, improved confidence and greater effectiveness were all recorded by beneficiaries in specific recognition of the impact of EQUAL. We would therefore consider the project to have achieved its aims in beneficiary involvement where target numbers were well exceeded over a comparatively short period of time, With the reduced time scale in view, it is fair to say that a longer period of concentrated activity is likely to have built on initial positive outcomes and been more effective for longer term sustainability and mainstreaming of project impact. Project officers can be justifiedly proud of their achievements. To the primary beneficiaries of the project we may also add project officers’ own outcomes, and those of their colleagues at colleges, as secondary beneficiaries of the capacity building project activities. These include both generic improvements in effectiveness as well as specific development activities for practitioners which otherwise would not have taken place. These include: Generic: New skills acquired in project management and coordination Enhanced understanding and effective engagement with the EQUAL/European Social Fund funding framework Increased awareness and networking links with transnational partners and contexts Specific: Facilitation skills workshops for learners online (project officers / group leaders) Evaluation training seminar Project management course Therefore, according to two of our original evaluation criteria above, the following have been achieved by the project:: Increases in participation by users and practitioners in existing learning provision Facilitator training programmes that would not otherwise have been developed 4.1.2 Rural networks As was anticipated in the original project application and set out in section 2, rural networks were considered to be one of the central areas for development in the ICT in Rural Industries project. It was expected that these would initially be built on existing business networks, and enhance the peer group interaction already in place for small business network members through a facilitated learning environment. The project plan also recognised that, in addition to skills, a robust technical infrastructure would be needed together with content relevant to businesses’ needs. The project was indeed able to make contact with and enlist the participation of a number of primarily industry sector networks, both formal and informal. Colleges already had existing contacts across a range of industry sectors, and early in the project officers had agreed that they would complement each others’ efforts by tackling separate sectors. Due to areas of overlapping activity the sectoral allocation was not precise, but (as confirmed in the beneficiary survey) broadly devolved as follows: College A – Food & Drink (in partnership with South West Food & Drink Skills Network) / Accommodation & Catering College B – Agriculture College C – Construction / Engineering College D – Retail College E – Horticulture / Forestry Although involvement with industry sectors did not automatically generate learning network activity, officers were able to explore with sector representatives the learning needs of their respective networks. Where of sufficient interest ICT based training was sourced and delivered in response to specific sectoral needs identified, often with local experts. It should be noted that, in these instances, rather than develop wholly new content ‘in-house’ the project team sought out online learning resources already developed externally in partnership with industry sectors. This strategy Case study 1: Food & Drink sector With the advent of European legislation in Food Hygiene in recent years online learning courses have been developed to target a range of industry sub-sectors including food processing, catering and hospitality. The introduction of national qualifications for licensees (in the shape of a National Certificate) provided the opportunity to pilot an online version with publicans in 2004 using ‘el box’ (electronic tablet) technology. The lightweight, stylus-operated ‘Etch a Sketch’ design enabled learning to take place at any time and place to suit the long hours of landlord learners and proved popular with clients. Following their lead, an EQUAL project officer was able to build on existing links with the South West Food & Drink Skills Network to utilise el box technology to deliver workplace training in Food Hygiene for food manufacturing staff. The group leader was also trained to set up a Web based communications and reporting environment to facilitate networking and exchange by group members. Case study 2: Tourism / Accommodation sector Small business networks in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire were able to organise development activities in online technologies at flexible times to suit them. All accommodation providers (mainly female) have existing Web sites. They were able to form a ‘Web skills group’ which sourced training through a local designer to boost the volume of Web traffic visiting their sites. A local tourism promotions group also benefited from EQUAL project funding to gain access to training in media production to benefit their businesses. Following four workshops run by a local expert, the group successfully used digital images to produce DVDs advertising their individual areas of activity. enabled officers to guarantee the relevance and quality of proven industry targeted content to small business clients10. It should be remembered that the most significant network to have benefited from the activities of the ICT in Rural Industries project is the SWELBC (South West England Land Based Colleges) group themselves whose consortium has been considerably strengthened by the EQUAL project. When interviewed, principals from two of the five colleges actively participating in the project were unequivocal in their views of how EQUAL had provided a common vision, purpose and framework for their collaboration. As part of the UK wide Association of Land Based Colleges that covers all four UK nations, the South West is now considered the most innovative region in England from whom others take a lead. According to one principal, the EQUAL project has acted as a ‘gelling agent’ for SWELBC colleges to improve their awareness of each other’s initiatives and offer a platform for representatives to get together and discuss common issues. It has promoted awareness of complementarity in provision that has overcome any competition between colleges. Having gained experience in both bidding for and successfully managing a collaborative project, EQUAL has boosted colleges’ own confidence in their partnership to encourage them to join together and apply collectively for future funding opportunities. Other positive ‘spin offs’ have been beneficial for all SWELBC partners. The continuing contribution of another existing rural network that has provided much support to the project should be acknowledged: the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). Like its predecessor AgriNet projects, ICT in Rural Industries has been fortunate to have access to the NFU’s extensive contacts to identify the needs of, and offer taiilored training to, hard to reach rural clients. The NFU’s support has undoubtedly boosted participation in the project by the agricultural sector. We may therefore claim success for EQUAL using the following evaluation criteria: Enhanced uptake of innovative ICT facilities and services Numbers of clients improving their business Moves to sustain and build network activities beyond the end of the project Cautionary notes in interpretation however must be sounded by the evaluation team concerning evidence for rural networks that have not previously been in existence, and the impact of online facilitation activities in creating and sustaining networks. Although a good deal of technical innovation has taken place within the project for individual beneficiary businesses (see below), some of whom are also members of existing networks, in the main this has concentrated on developing additional strands of online activities that run alongside those already carried out by network members. It is difficult to say whether enhanced group identity and business cooperation have resulted explicitly from EQUAL project involvement for these members, although no 10 Training E-learning gains ground in the pub trade. The Publican, 17 May 2004. http://www.thepublican.com/cgi- bin/item.cgi?id=13400&d=11&h=41&f=23&dateformat=%25o%20%25B%20%25Y. (Accessed 24 Nov 2005) doubt additional meetings around novel applications will have brought them together more frequently. One of the stakeholders interviewed in the evaluation – an expert on the ‘digital divide’ in rural small businesses - expressed doubts as to whether networks of themselves had been a realistic focus for the project. There was no dispute that the bringing together of like minded people in businesses could lead to business improvements, but for maximum effectiveness this should be business process driven; enhanced computing skills were not likely to be a central issue. The role of facilitation skills in opening up new collaboration activities for members – a key development area envisaged from the outset for the EQUAL project – is also problematical to assess as an achieved outcome. As a practical goal, specific use of online facilitation skills presupposes a wider and deeper establishment of online communications and learning networks than actually occurred, despite the best efforts of project officers. It may be that this original goal in the project application was too ambitious. Nevertheless, it would be useful for colleges to look at how they can harness skills developed by project officers and other staff in future projects and college based activities, which will inform and support mainstreaming efforts. We will now turn to look at the EQUAL Principles and how well they have been addressed within the ICT in Rural Industries project. 4.2 Innovation What was new about the DP: did those activities work? Technological innovation is arguably one of the areas of greatest achievement for the ICT in Rural Industries project, and one where value was added considerably to what would have been possible without EQUAL Programme funding. There is much evidence within the project of a stronger impact through enhanced use of technology to support and deliver learning using mixed models and types of technology in both content and delivery. These acted to raise effectiveness of the project to both internal and external audiences and are listed below. 4.2.1 Mobile learning The project was able to build on earlier efforts to establish outreach delivery via mobile learning units (MLUs) in the shape of specially equipped buses under AgriNet 1 and 2. MLUs were shared between college partners to deliver learning in ‘non- traditional’ community and village locations and respond to demand from individuals and rural businesses, sometimes in very small groups. Learning sites included (amongst others) workplaces, village halls, homes and farms, pubs, small market town stores and other learning centres. Satellite connectivity meant that users were able to log into college based Web sites and other resources regardless of infrastructure availability in a particular location. 4.2.2 Mobile devices We have already referred above to the use of el boxes by food manufacturing staff which were preloaded with learning content specific to particular industry sectors. Included in the resources were assessment routines and systems which also made it possible for learners to self assess their progress and eventually receive formal certification. In addition to PC tablet technology the project was also able to explore innovative use of mobile phones using a range of applications to support geographically remote learners. Links were developed with other projects such as the Learning and Skills Development Agency m-learning project. Mobile phone based games to improve literacy and numeracy were piloted. Mobile camera phones were also utilised to collect photographic evidence for NVQ portfolios. Officers were able to trial course booking systems by text, including use of wireless LAN connections to offer booking facilities. 4.2.3 Talking Heads The Talking Heads application combined both innovative delivery and content using the mixed use of video, text and graphics over the Internet. A particular user friendly feature was the ability for the individual to adjust access parameters according to line speed available so that streaming applications could be reserved for faster connections. 4.2.4 Intranet development College partners significantly developed their Intranets and Web sites, some creating new content as well as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). Most notable amongst these are the Virtual Farm and Virtual Estate created by two college partners. Of use for staff and content development to internal as well as external audiences, typical content covered details of college history as well as online learning materials. The Virtual Farm developed under EQUAL offers a huge range of information on all aspects of agriculture and stock rearing including data as well as good practice on environmental management. It includes additional features such as benchmarking tools to self assess farm performance, results of college field trials and sample herd health plans. Other areas under development by the project included a ‘Virtual Pig Farm', 'Virtual Arboretum' and 'Virtual Engineering Workshop'. 4.2.5 Farm decision support system The secure farm decision support system was set up on partner VLEs to help individuals working on a farm cope with data and improve data management. For poultry farmers this could typically include integration with predictive growth models of organically reared stock according to DeFRA weight specifications. Following its implementation improved communications were noted between all partners as well as the participating farmers themselves. ICT was here an essential link in the development process from research to implementation. 4.2.6 Learner tracking software The EQUAL project developed database software to record details of beneficiaries for learner tracking purposes. It was shared by all partners across colleges and produced especially to support this particular application within the project. Beneficiary summary forms were designed to monitor a range of hard and soft indicators, together with bespoke software to collate information and assess performance against base line benchmarks. Of particular benefit was the facility the software provided to monitor equal opportunities participation. Knowledge gained by officers was cascaded to other staff within partner institutions. 4.2.7 Internal communications At an early stage in the project officers agreed to test the use of an externally hosted Web based communications platform that would support their own linkages between sites and act as a repository for internal documentation. Initial trials with one free product ultimately proved unsuccessful but led on to a subsequent selection which was adopted and well used by partners for project management and communication. The portal was also tested with beneficiaries for its potential to widen participation. Returning to our evaluation criteria: Development of new traditional, online and blended learning solutions 4.2.8 Dissemination One of the project’s major dissemination outputs was the production of a multimedia DVD reflecting the range of beneficiaries supported by EQUAL. Designed and developed jointly by officers, the disk included snapshot interviews with isolated small rural businesses describing how the project had helped them to make their products and services visible in a wider marketplace. 4.3 Equal opportunities Was the range of beneficiaries representative? Individuals and types of small businesses participating in the ICT in Rural Industries project eventually extended well beyond the envisaged target group of mainly agricultural and horticultural clients in the land based sector. It was originally anticipated that beneficiaries would comprise groups of particular significance to the EQUAL programme: women, older workers, the less able and the lower skilled were seen at most risk of demographic and technological changes within rural environments. The equal opportunities policy of the managing partner college was adopted at an early stage in project development. In the event, once project delivery commenced the range of beneficiaries expanded to reflect a much greater diversity of industries and occupations. At one partner college alone these included local government, joiners and builders, postal delivery staff, plant nursery employees, local printers and schools, with only one farm worker representing the original target group. Beneficiaries at other colleges included the retail sector as department stores in market towns, food producers across the spectrum from farm gate to delicatessens, rural craft businesses, tourism and accommodation providers, engineering companies, doctors’ and veterinary practices, and college staff themselves. The learner tracking databank monitored equal opportunities criteria and collated details and feedback from beneficiaries, with the ultimate aim of capturing a breakdown of individual types of beneficiary across partner colleges. Other activities included software development to convert existing material to SENDA compliant formats to permit practitioners and users to tailor the appearance of documents to their particular audiences and needs. One small e-learning business was able to use EQUAL funding to market SENDA based courses to clients in its own learning network. Officers agreed that the project had been especially strong in its major aim of widening access to ICT and learning opportunities for ‘hard to reach’ individuals and businesses in dispersed and isolated rural locations. We would consider that the wide cross-section of beneficiaries eventually involved is more representative of the true mix of rural industries than those initially earmarked for the project. 4.4 Empowerment and participation Did beneficiaries contribute to the design of work programmes and products ? Empowerment and inclusion has been at the core of design of project activities. From the outset officers marketed courses and encouraged groups to harness the capabilities of ICT to arrange their own training content at a time and location to suit themselves. One learning group of women with school age children who could not access mainstream training set up their own group’s organisation, facilitation methods and learning required. Specification, sourcing and development of project software systems and learning materials were conducted following extensive consultation with target groups, especially sector specific clients. Strategies were designed to link initiatives with individuals’ own economic development as a means of making activities relevant to users in small businesses according to priorities they had identified for themselves. In officer surveys of early impacts of training on beneficiaries, evidence confirmed that training had empowered users by: Benefiting the efficiency of the business – 62.5% Extending their personal skills – 93.75% Improving their effectiveness at work – 87% Improving their work-life balance – 75% Improved their confidence in the future of the business – 75%. Beneficiaries reported that they had enjoyed the training, appreciated the locality of provision and found the experience very positive. Similar results were captured by the beneficiaries’ survey highlighted in interim report 3 in the form of ‘soft’ outcomes relating to empowerment. Here, beneficiaries were asked about changes they may have experienced since beginning the EQUAL project. These related to ‘self agency’ as concerned improved confidence and efficiency, and also elicited positive work related outcomes that would not otherwise have taken place. Those responding confirmed affirmative results: Better with computers at work - 23% Saving time and working more efficiently – 30% Better at finding things out for themselves – 20% Bought a computer since starting EQUAL – 40% Got an Internet connection at home – 20% Begun work related training – 20% Improved mathematics skills – 44% of those reporting skills benefits Improved language skills – 25% of those reporting skills benefits Empowerment was also widely experienced by project officers themselves as well as college practitioners who were able to take advantage of cascaded training and enhanced ICT facilities such as VLEs. All project officers have responded enthusiastically to the many opportunities for personal empowerment and development the project has provided. Officers have been able to select and use their existing and newly developed skills in the most appropriate way to promote project progress, which is itself empowering. They have had sufficient flexibility to be able to build on their strengths and set up a ‘virtuous circle’ of empowerment - with appropriate recognition for their efforts. Project officers have felt sufficiently empowered by EQUAL to take the initiative with their own development. To illustrate, they have organised ongoing training sessions to ensure that both they and the wider project community are able to make full use of the opportunities presented by EQUAL to set their new skills into an appropriate context. These have included: Two day training workshops in group facilitation arranged at several intervals throughout the project for officers, group leaders and colleagues at partner colleges One week residential course in project management for project officers One day seminar in evaluation techniques appropriate to EQUAL and similar European Social Fund projects, developed and run by a member of the Marchmont Observatory evaluation team in conjunction with a colleague from the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education As well as specific training opportunities made available through EQUAL as above, other college staff have under EQUAL become familiar with the use of virtual environments. Some have created online resources to enrich their own provision and have progressed very quickly in integrating their activities. In every case project participation has brought with it empowerment leading to positive growth. As an extension, it may be assumed that partner colleges have themselves been empowered at institutional level to build organisational capacity. 4.5 Development Partnership How effective was the partnership and its collaboration throughout the project, including initial design, management and delivery, and products / outcomes? The Development Partnership (DP) was fortunate to have a recognisable identity in the form of SWELBC available from the outset of the project, and one which was able to carry on the momentum for collaboration begun under the AgriConneXions project described above. The individual college partners under SWELBC have each been subject to the same recent pressures throughout the South West region regarding the need to diversify their provision and audiences beyond traditional land based industries and enhance their outreach delivery. Thus EQUAL provided an ideal opportunity for colleges to rethink collectively their approaches to innovative technologies, how integration with ICT could add value to existing courses and, importantly, how to achieve complementarity in their provision. The project was therefore able to harness an appropriate commonality of interest from its DP members from the outset which was reflected in an application to EQUAL which all colleges endorsed. Saying this, amongst the partners there was a substantial range of size of institution, existing familiarity with European Social Fund (ESF) project frameworks and overall project management and administration skills. The managing partner (College B) is arguably the largest further education college in England and has worked closely for a number of years with other public sector institutions in collaborative funding bids and related projects. It was therefore the natural partner to take over leadership of the project once initial plans had been jointly developed and approved. It has also provided ongoing guidance and capacity building in match funding and related skills with other partners once the EQUAL funding was awarded. Progress remained uneven amongst partners over the EQUAL project period. One of the six SWELBC colleges (its original lead partner) became involved in an internal reorganisation shortly after project start and so was not able to participate actively, for which contractual amendments were required. Smaller partners less experienced with ESF have had more of a struggle to become conversant with the more complex resourcing issues associated with the funding framework. In each case, the presence or absence of dedicated staff for project management, delivery and administration has been critical in determining overall effectiveness of partner activities. With a delayed start to Action 2, late recruitment of project officers had a subsequent impact on the timetable of project activities which ultimately resulted in a shorter work programme than would have been desirable. By the time officers were fully up to capacity with their own skills and had made contact with sufficient numbers of beneficiaries, the project timetable was already well advanced through Action 2. All officers felt as if they had only just got activities operating successfully, and beneficiaries engaged, at their own college by the time this most active phase of the project came to a close. Principals interviewed (see under Mainstreaming below) were unanimous in how helpful the project had been in establishing a coherent regional identity for SWELBC that could move forward more strategically in future partnerships. Indeed the influence, interest and support by senior management within the colleges was another major factor in the positioning of the EQUAL project in its home institution and the level of support and awareness it attracted from other colleagues. There was a notable inverse correlation between the sense of isolation and lack of support experienced by officers and their feelings of empowerment and effectiveness in post. Not only at college management level, but also the quality of project workers’ relationship with senior IT personnel at the college was critical in determining the rate of project progress. Unlike some further education colleges which compete for learners within restricted geographical areas, the regional presence and spread of SWELBC institutions has meant that partners feel empowered to collaborate without undue negative impact on their own provision. There has also been scope for colleges to develop further particular areas of interest in which they see themselves as institutional experts. Hence College C, which is especially strong in ICT and innovative technologies, was able to take the lead on development of Virtual Learning Environments which other partners could emulate. Where Colleges A and E benefited from existing close links with sub-regional agricultural advice agencies, all partners were better able to follow their example to strengthen their own relationships with counterpart organisations active in their location. Although distinctive activities and target audiences were well distributed throughout the project there was also good agreement and joint working on common objectives, such as the project’s dissemination DVD and final conference. 4.6 Thematic approaches Were these distinctively recognised and articulated by the project? Theme E: Promoting lifelong learning and inclusive work practices which encourage the recruitment and retention of those suffering discrimination and inequality in connection with the labour market Theme F: Supporting the adaptability of firms and employees to structural economic change and the use of information technology and other new technologies In its original application document the ICT in Rural Industries Project explicitly articulated its primary links to EQUAL’s Theme F, Adaptability, with Theme E, Inclusivity, as a secondary area of activity. These twin themes have remained central to the project’s design and delivery, with the structural economic change evident in the South West driving a regional agenda for change in which ICT is considered a major opportunity for positive benefits (see Mainstreaming below). In the way ongoing activities have been configured within the project, Theme E reflects work with individuals at risk of labour market exclusion and Theme F addresses participation by small businesses primarily. The evaluation team would consider that the broad socioeconomic base of individual project beneficiaries actually exceeds the fairly narrow remit of those most likely to suffer from exclusion. The project’s breadth of outreach activities has widened access to all potential participants living in rural communities throughout the region. New opportunities presented offer benefits not only to those already, or likely to be, engaged with the labour market but also potential personal development for enhanced communication and learning pathways. On the other hand, Theme F has been a central guiding principle for all project activities involving small businesses. The project’s focus on ICT has ensured that innovation has been at the heart of the added value the project can offer to a wide range of rural industries throughout the South West. For many participating businesses it is demonstrable that, without project intervention, it would have taken much longer for them to be able to articulate and harness the benefits of innovative technology in the most relevant ways for their business strategies. There is no doubt that the EQUAL project has helped to ‘level the playing field’ and reduce the so- called rural digital divide for its business community. One further comment should be made: the cohorts of individual and business beneficiaries for ICT in Rural Industries have been mainly self selecting. It is in the nature of projects focusing on innovative technologies that they do not tend to attract participation from those for whom technology is not of interest. Therefore, those hardest to reach in terms of social exclusion in the countryside are likely to remain beyond the project’s sphere of influence. This caveat does not reflect negatively on the project itself. 4.7 Transnationality How did transnational activities add value and did they reflect wider European priorities? Transnationality is one of the areas in which the ICT in Rural Industries project has been very proactive from its initial stages. Activity was driven to an extent by the delayed start to Action 2 of the work programme timetable, which meant that transnational EQUAL partners were further developed and able to finish their activities in advance of the UK project. It was therefore essential that the UK project participate in transnational activities and events from as early as possible in order to maximise benefit and learning to be derived from and exchanged with overseas partners’ experiences. There were certainly many elements of synergy evidenced in transnational partners’ main activity areas. Common strands recognised in all partner EQUAL projects were identified by the UK project officer leading transnational approaches as follows: Common interests, methodology and underlying problems They all addressed the underlying problem of individual exclusion and community impoverishment faced by marginalized target groups with a fragile business base and facing barriers to business diversification They were all seeking to develop innovative and integrated practices for meeting the needs of these target groups They all examined new ways of engaging individuals within excluded groups in lifelong learning or access to business development services They all identified the key role of mentoring, including peer group mentoring, and developed innovative mentoring models in working with the target groups They involved the development of learning materials and progression pathways to self sufficiency for individuals within the target groups They involved the use of innovative ICT applications/products in addressing the needs of the target groups. They were all committed to continuing transnational communication and sharing of best practice. Most members of the project team took part in a range of transnational visits, exchanges and conference events. These acted both to raise the profile of SWELBC as a consortium amongst other land based public and private sector organisations in Europe, and that of the South West within Europe as a predominantly rural region. All officers were enthusiastic about their improved awareness of international initiatives, the quality of contacts made with their transnational counterparts and the opportunities opened up for future collaboration. A range of innovative activities including development of common evaluation methodologies, online tutor training, mobility and equality issues were jointly taken forward by the transnational partnership. Enhanced linkages were evidenced in their continuation beyond the formal end of the transnational element of the work programme, and also by transnational partners’ participation in the UK project’s final dissemination conference. Transnational events attended by ICT in Rural Industries project officers included: Transnational meetings Bellano, Italy, October 2002 – Theme: Use of ICT in transnational activities, including proposed portal design Bilbao, Spain, December 2002 – Theme: Spanish education and training system; transnational evaluation design and development Lisbon, Portugal, April 2003 – Theme: Transnational evaluation; use of ICT for social inclusion Bath, UK, September 2003 – Theme: e-Learning conference Bilbao, Spain, May 2004 – Theme: Transnational congress (180 representatives from four partner countries) – concluding formal transnational participation s’Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, September 2004 – Theme: EUROPEA (European Association of Agricultural Colleges) General Assembly (45 representatives from 23 European countries) Budapest, Hungary, June 2005 – Theme: Hungarian land based / ICT training Hence, another of our evaluation criteria has been satisfied: Greater awareness of and participation in transnational networks and activities provision 4.8 Dissemination and mainstreaming What is the potential for replication? Has the DP influenced local, regional and national policy? Since the start of Round 2 of the EQUAL programme in the UK the links between dissemination and mainstreaming activities have been made much more explicit by the National Agency. It is now considered that it is not enough for projects simply to showcase their achievements: rather, it is essential as far as possible for projects to attempt to mainstream, or make efforts to translate and embed their good practice and innovation into appropriate practical activities with a wider audience. In order to do this partnerships should ensure that policymakers at all relevant levels are not only aware of the project’s achievements, but are able to make informed decisions to support and replicate them beyond the project’s lifetime and original target groups. Explicit outcomes for mainstreaming were however introduced following Round 1 projects’ funding periods, and so expected achievements of this project will tend to reflect influences on policy rather than practical outcomes. 4.3.1 Project dissemination In the area of dissemination the ICT in Rural Industries project has progressed unevenly. There were early hopes that there would be a Web site and project portal developed that would not only promote the project but also feature a range of innovative options for IT based communication between partners and beneficiaries. To this end, initial plans included trialing of existing free Web communications platforms with a view to their eventual integration with a project Web site to provide the full functionality desired. As events transpired however involvement of an expert in Web design was less effective than envisaged and did not result in a concrete Web site for the full partnership, which further delayed online developments. In the interim individual college partners continued to develop Virtual Learning Environments and their own institutional intranets, with the result that portal functionality was achieved more by colleges acting on their own behalf rather than as a collective entity identified with a dedicated Web site. This was clearly a major opportunity for group dissemination missed for the project, which was eventually represented on the Web by SWELBC’s own Web site with only limited links. The underdeveloped dissemination programme was also exacerbated by the lack of a regular newsletter programme that would have reflected ongoing project development for the entire partnership. Individual project officers also took forward marketing strategies to engage beneficiaries locally, which acted as early dissemination for their own colleges. Typical activities related to project flyers which were sent out targeting small businesses and talks given in community outreach locations. Opportunities were taken to ‘piggy back’ on other marketing efforts made by the colleges, either by post or in open day or business events. Once a small business network was successfully contacted officers were then able to make better progress through individual ‘champions’ or key influencers within that network. The project was certainly innovative in its use of other dissemination channels, of which the creation of a DVD to raise awareness of the project was a significant collective output. Officers pooled their respective strengths, and those of their institutions, to arrange involvement of suitable beneficiary small rural businesses, develop the storyboard, film and produce the DVD. It showcased the project at transnational events and the project’s final dissemination conference, which attracted an impressive range of key stakeholders, regional agencies and other representatives in a strong position to mainstream project findings. At the conference over sixty delegates were attracted with a central interest in ICT implementation in rural areas, representing a range of mainly public and voluntary sector organisations from throughout the South West. These included training providers, business advice agencies (many with an interest in broadband), representatives from local government and other projects. National and regional speakers were well received by those attending and were drawn from the South West Regional Development Agency, Microsoft UK, the Commission for Rural Communities, the Rural Futures Unit at the University of Plymouth, project officers and a small business beneficiary. Opportunities for networking and face to face discussions were a feature of the conference and appreciated by those attending. Breakout sessions facilitated by project officers posed delegates questions on appropriate technology, policy and support, engagement of rural businesses and learning and training. Consensus was achieved around: the importance of rural broadband in fully integrating the necessary infrastructure the requirement for business advisory groups to be client focused the increasing trends for e-business the need to develop better awareness and collaboration across networks and their members the role of continuing project funding and support to generate initiatives and attract new partners and audiences the current patchy picture both geographically and in industry sectors the popularity of blended learning, and for training to be funded at sub- qualification level the need for the rural social agenda to be better understood and integrated with other initiatives. Although not consistently developed, there is sufficient evidence for the following evaluation statement: Project publicity, awareness raising and dissemination programmes 4.3.2 Project mainstreaming As set out above, although a project’s mainstreaming efforts are linked to dissemination, presentation of its results to external audiences is only part of the picture. In order to validate findings and demonstrate the practicalIty of its approach in the ‘real world’, it is important for projects to continue to cultivate linkages with key stakeholders outside the project environment. These should not only include potential future project funders, but also those individuals and agencies for whom project progress represents possible future directions and new client groups. Ideally a project is seeking to become sustainable in at least the medium term, whether through an extension of its own funding period, new support for core activities or – better still – self financing to cover its own future development and delivery costs. A project’s best opportunity to achieve sustainability relies on its ability to establish and maintain links with key stakeholders as early as possible in its work programme. These will ensure that it is able to interact sufficiently well on a continuing basis with dynamic circumstances beyond its immediate context to forecast likely directions towards which to target its development. As highlighted by the AgriNet projects’ experience, current and expanding partnerships have an important role to play in supporting projects to recognise how they are positioned within a larger environment and their opportunities for future continuation. The ICT in Rural Industries project has clearly made efforts to secure the next stage of collaborative outcomes for the SWELBC partnership. A funding proposal was submitted to EQUAL for a follow-on Round 2 project which would make use of Internet radio to deliver a range of content of interest to the land based businesses in the project’s core community. The proposed project would have been a further visible vehicle for SWELBC as an identifiable group and sustained the successful working partnership now attained by SWELBC colleges. As it transpired the Round 2 bid was not successful, but such has been the momentum now gained by the partners that future bids are being formulated that will build on and enhance joint activities achieved to date. In the interim period it has been important for colleges to maintain their individual links with land based groups and networks beyond SWELBC which in many cases have been built up over time. A strategic case in point was SWARD (cited above), with its regional remit for business advice in agricultural and rural development, now recently restyled as the South West Rural Enterprise Gateway. Thus one partner college which had its own links to a sub-regional agency under SWARD has been able to maintain awareness of developing policy and practice relating to training and business development advice for rural businesses in the land based industries. The same college also enhanced existing links with the regional Food and Drink Network by its recruitment of network members as beneficiaries for the present project. Another partner college was similarly able to take advantage of co-location with a sub-regional agricultural advice service to offer targeted training to its employees, and also enhance its own collaboration with the local Business Link. At the latter’s request the college set up a training course to explore the potential of Web based marketing for small businesses. Following proposals by rural small businesses themselves, the college also developed a Web management course for those who are not professional Web designers. The courses act as concrete outputs for EQUAL in partnership with business advice groups and small businesses themselves. Beyond developing their links with rural groups, the college also collaborated with their local JISC Regional Support Centre (RSC) to host a regional event on the use of technology and available content in land based subjects which included the National Learning Network and other resources. A positive response by college staff resulted in two further development sessions with RSC support which also invited wider regional participation. In each of these cases the message is clear: good mainstreaming does not happen at the end of a project and after dissemination. It is essential for external linkages and active partnerships where possible to be maintained throughout a project’s life cycle to have the best chance of being mainstreamed by outside organisations once a project is completed. To ascertain how well the ICT in Rural Industries project had mainstreamed its activities, he evaluation team sought to elicit the views of key project stakeholders in a series of semi-structured interviews. Those interviewed consisted of representatives from: LANTRA, the Sector Skills Council for Land Based Industries The South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) The Rural Futures Unit, University of Plymouth Two college principals representing the collective SWELBC institutions. LANTRA As a major broker between employers and providers of skills training in the land based sector, LANTRA was a natural choice to enquire how well the project had mainstreamed its efforts. In an unstructured interview a representative from LANTRA described the continuing role of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in providing a large scale vocational training scheme (VTS) in the land based industries. The present VTS is due to complete in June 2006 and so has run in parallel with the EQUAL project, drawing down just under £1m from DeFRA over a four year period. Two of the partner colleges have benefited from proactive engagement with the scheme, including location of a staff member at one college with a remit to enhance SWELBC’s input into VTS. He has succeeded in transforming land based course provision and delivery in one sub-region. In parallel, LANTRA have developed a network of providers and trainers across four of the SWELBC colleges. These are evidence of pleasing cross fertilisation which has added value to the EQUAL project through reciprocation of efforts. The following questions were asked of representatives from both SWRDA and the Rural Futures Unit, each contact made through presentations at the project’s dissemination conference. Responses made were complementary as each represented the points of view of key proponents of rural broadband connectivity to overcome the ‘rural digital divide’. One set of responses reflects the opinions of a key supporter of broadband infrastructure and its capacity for small business growth, and the other an academic researcher into the socioeconomic effects of lack of connectivity for rural individuals and businesses. Are you personally aware of the SWELBC EQUAL ICT in Rural Industries project? In your view, what is the potential for South West colleges to raise SMEs’ awareness of ICT? Have you seen any evidence of more cohesive networks of businesses in the land based sector? What particular uses or types of ICT uptake would be helpful to improve rural businesses’ productivity in the South West? What further developments might need to happen for rural businesses to take better advantage of ICT? Which stakeholders should be involved? How can the region harness the benefits of projects like these? SWRDA SWRDA has been instrumental in driving awareness of the benefits of broadband to the region for several years, including its support of the RABBIT (Remote Area Broadband Inclusion Trial) initiative. They have been monitoring and recording good uptake of broadband from dial-up by small businesses. They see links between level of use, productivity and organisational transformation. Leading a regional project to promote connectivity, they are well placed to highlight best practice across the sub regions of the South West. SWRDA see such knowledge as especially helpful for Business Links as they are reconstituted under the aegis of the RDAs. SWRDA also see themselves as having a key role to play in negotiations with employers through such bodies as the CBI and the FSB. To them increasing cooperation between small businesses is an essential part of their supply chain to bring in practitioners and suppliers of ICT and e-learning. There is a convergence underway in which broadband connectivity has a strategic fit with local and regional policies, including skills. SWRDA have been key brokers for the developing broadband infrastructure and have an increasing awareness of the distinctive needs of industry sectors for broadband connectivity. Particular efforts have been made by both the Creative/IT industry sector as well as Food and Drink. They are seeking to benchmark 3000 businesses across five industry sectors in the region of which 70% of companies are sole traders. They support sub regional broadband initiatives which admittedly engage early to mid adopters of technology, which ironically also can act negatively to increase the digital divide. They have been looking at the potential of applications such as e-mail to engage businesses as well as the influencing role of key staff such as senior managers who plan for change. In their ‘e-adoption ladder’ model ICT is linked with business functions and includes aspects such as business profiling tools and customer supply. However, ICT cannot be implemented on its own as a ‘magic bullet’, but instead should be introduced jointly with business advice. There initially needs to be a propensity for change within businesses. Collaboration is also needed for changes to be made in work cultures, for which projects are able to bring together businesses and individuals. A much larger cultural and socioeconomic change is still needed which takes account of social networks and their impact on business culture. Rural Futures Unit, University of Plymouth Direct outreach approaches are critical to engaging small businesses, especially microbusinesses. Providers need to work sensitively with owner/managers in the land based sector, particularly where sole traders tend to equate computers with high educational attainments. For this group, if college based provision is offered they can swiftly disengage. A focus on business concerns is more effective, especially those that can streamline efficiencies in lodging quota returns, for example. Cascaded training by those already working in the land based sector can be very effective. The project’s initial focus of creating rural networks using ICT may have been too ambitious and the adoption of technical facilitation skills essentially a side issue. It is more practical to build on existing networks with a business focus on production and/or marketing. Here, improving group access to a technical infrastructure can be a powerful way of introducing small businesses to online working. The role of a group leader or champion is especially important to develop a practical process than can bring users in with a focus on business performance. ICT is only one way of achieving this; human skills are the most important factor. Evidence gathered from a recent survey endorses the strategic role of the South West Rural Enterprise Gateway (SWREG) as a successor body to SWARD, as well as its position as a key mainstreaming initiative for the project. The organisation supports creation and operation of self selecting groups of businesses in agricultural and rural development. Advisory staff located within Business Links service business networks, and outreach centres handle enquiries by groups for specific advice and signposting in specialist areas. SWREG links to other groups both in the UK and Europe and can provide ‘arms length’ support functions. Businesses tend to cluster according to their main business activities and information ‘hubs’ put groups in touch with each other regarding common concerns. The main focus is clustering rather than ICT. When surveyed, there seemed to be no particular ICT applications of interest to small land based businesses. Demand for broadband is firmly linked to its business effects on process and productivity. Stock control software is not specifically of interest although the time saved can be helpful. There is little awareness nor articulation of need from either individual businesses or their suppliers. Usage of the full potential of the Internet has perhaps the best potential, where there is an understanding that a Web site might improve business. There is a wide spectrum of skills between novice to expert and little difference between urban and rural responses sampled. Business Link has a major role with its more regional focus. There is a continuing tendency to overestimate ICT awareness in some land based sectors which disempowers and marginalises the 'laggards'. The challenge is to focus resources on where they are most likely to be effective and target potential users in a way that is appropriate to their needs. The arrival of broadband opens new opportunities and the need for new skills, together with accessible and user centred training, e-commerce software and services. Likely stakeholders here are SWRDA, user representatives and chambers of commerce amongst others. To properly harness the benefits of this type of project it should be subjected to robust user focused evaluation and then results disseminated. Positive case studies should be used to maximum effect. Future projects need to address the usual problem of funding gaps with longer time horizons, and then be expected to be accountable for real deliverables. The single regional focus of ‘policy, funding, delivery’ is improving but has a long way to go, and this is perhaps one of the problems. Ways should be found however to retain local control and flexibility. Two principals of SWELBC colleges who have been actively involved in project dissemination initiatives responded to the following questions concerning project mainstreaming: How has the ICT In Rural Industries project added value to: the activities of your colleges? SWELBC as a collective whole? Has the involvement of EQUAL beneficiaries boosted or widened businesses’ links with your college, or significantly expanded student diversity? Has enrolment generally improved since the EQUAL project started? Has EQUAL marketing and dissemination activity been effective in improving outreach activities and/or links with your local community? Have the benefits of improved ICT facilities affected design and delivery of courses at your college? Have they boosted staff skills and capacity? What new areas of activity if any has the EQUAL project helped to deliver? New networking opportunities? Principal, College B At college level, the EQUAL project opened doors to a greater range of staff of the benefits of ICT. A case in point is the Virtual Farm Web site, for which EQUAL funding helped many to realise the advantages ICT could provide in their individual circumstances and offered a means for them to act more effectively on their own behalf. For SWELBC, the project acted as a means to bring partner colleges together to collaborate more closely and share activities. The project was needed as a catalyst for colleges to join together. The project definitely brought more learners into the college environment, although this may not have been as marked for every college. Access to learning was widened and improved. Where significant gains have been less evident at other colleges this was more likely to be due to insufficient capacity or ability to take full advantage of opportunities presented by the project. Previous to EQUAL the student population at the college was already wide and diverse. However, there is no still doubt that numbers of enrolments have increased: first year course registrations have doubled since the start of the project. This is not specifically attributable to the project but nevertheless has raised the college profile. Concerning college outreach initiatives, some provision has been more effective than others. Where attractiveness was limited this was largely due to a lack of targeted marketing activities. The project has enabled the college to learn what works well in course promotion to enable improvements to be made in future. It has provided a ‘cushion’ to allow approaches to be tried out that otherwise would not have been viable. The project has enabled expansion in methods of course delivery that has resulted in provision being taken to the learner rather than expecting attendance at the college. It helped the college to identify the changes that needed to be made as well as options for potential improvements. EQUAL influenced the college to take a realistic stance regarding provision that would be useful for industry and become more client facing. The project funded a dedicated officer who was able to boost his own capacity and has cascaded his development on to others. The college is now developing its provision for commercial enterprises to make training more accessible for industry and build closer links, including a new Web site. Contacts with business networks have been maintained but there is still potential for them to develop further. Staff have been engaged to build on existing provision. Principal, College C The college used EQUAL funding to develop a unique Web site accessible to rural communities, schools and other colleges. Its launch was advertised widely and captured interest from educational establishments within the UK and beyond. The Virtual Farm and its innovative ‘talking heads’ feature was a new dimension in educational terms for the college and better than print based information. It helped a tremendous volume of young people to learn about industry and was at the same time accessible to isolated small businesses. The site is practically based on measurable parameters and offers the advantages of industry experience, inviting additional feedback and offering advice also. It has proved a wonderful tool for communications with far more potential than originally expected. It addresses the needs of a wide audience and adds value to existing provision. Following the project dissemination event the principal demonstrated the Virtual Farm at an international meeting of land based colleges from 22 countries, at least 25% of whom had seen the Web site. The principal is current chair of SWELBC which meets five times a year. Thanks to SWELBC the South West is seen as the most proactive region in the country by NAPAO (National Association of Principal Agricultural Officers), now the representative body of the Association of Land Based Colleges which includes colleges in all four UK countries. The project has been a ‘gelling agent’ for SWELBC in its effect on inter-college partnerships. It has improved colleges’ general awareness of college based initiatives and brought representatives together to discuss common issues. All partners are geographically dispersed enough not to compete and can therefore aim to be complementary in their provision. Since EQUAL other collaborative bids have been submitted including a DeFRA project which would cascade training to beef farmers. Positive spin-off activity from EQUAL involves all SWELBC partners. Various industry related meetings have taken place disseminating the EQUAL project to land based businesses. These have included such SME networks as farmers’ markets, agricultural and horticultural businesses and rural stables. The project has enabled the college to grow closer to industry. Thanks to EQUAL new learning markets have opened up such as the NFU, Farmers’ Club, smallholders, caravan parks and guesthouses – encouraging all to look outwards towards access to ICT for business purposes. There is now a wider, more diverse clientele whose needs are better known. Through the project part time college enrolment is likely to have improved, particularly through mobile learning unit outreach: an articulated unit which can take up to eighteen people. The college demonstrated its Web site to community learners, and growth in enrolment was noted during the period of EQUAL funding. Satellite links have been established with the mobile learning unit from as far afield as an Edinburgh conference. The distance learning Web site thus accessed enabled a recruiting drive which attracted a wider audience. ICT facilities have been improved by the project, which now enables students to visit Web sites to improve their online research skills. Online activities can also be offered via the Web site. Staff training to use the Web site has included self learning mechanisms, learning by using the Web site. Such subjects as economics, accounting and production are now linked to the Web site, making links between areas which would not have been possible before. Targeted events such as Farm Advisory Board meetings have benefited by online coverage prior to the meeting. The Web site is a key influencer which then has positive social benefits through being cascaded on to others. Another related initiative is Smart Farm, linking to the company Dalgety’s Web site, through which farmers consulting feed merchants can check current developments. Other Web links have been made with maize fodder and rape seed trials which are likewise useful to industrial research. New areas of activity include transnational links which widen the college’s reach to colleges in other countries. These open up access to overseas exchange programmes as well as students from other countries. Generally, the Web site has been very useful for marketing initiatives. We can therefore confirm the following, particularly in relation to SWELBC: Moves to sustain and build network activities beyond the end of the project 5 Conclusions The evaluation team has now conducted a formative and summative review of the ICT in Rural Industries project. We have considered both ongoing project progress as well as looking back through overall project achievements over the course of its development, and have reported in some detail on the project’s impact on its target groups. Previous findings can be located in the project’s interim reports. Generally the project can be said to have mainly achieved what it set out to do and transmitted the benefits of ICT to a diverse group of rural clients. It has informed a wide range of small businesses in the countryside as to how their businesses can be transformed by ICT. SWELBC college partners can look with pride at a range of marketing and dissemination activities covering a set of ‘taster’ courses held at a large number of local and community settings. Mainstream college enrolments have also risen satisfactorily during the project’s most active period which, although it is difficult to prove conclusively, suggest that the project has been successful in its outreach efforts as well as its own innovative use of ICT. Despite ongoing delays at critical stages in the project’s development, target beneficiary numbers have been achieved – which raises the question as to how much may have been accomplished had the project got started sooner. When looking at the true nature of the project’s innovation, the technical achievement of the Virtual Farm has mainly centred round one college’s ambitious vision for development that was taken forward on behalf of the other partners. So swiftly is technology moving at present that what seemed brand new at project application several years ago would now be considered merely routine: every public and private sector organisation seeking to market their services now has a Web site. It may therefore be said that both the college partners and the small businesses which have been their constituency would have eventually launched and continually updated Web sites: EQUAL made it happen more readily and also more quickly in some cases. It has also been noticeable during the course of the evaluation that most of the college partners have set their own agenda in terms of how to make EQUAL funding integrate most productively into their own activities. These have included a reasonable proportion of outreach in community settings, where specific initiatives have mainly concerned individual colleges acting in their own behalf. In some instances colleges have been able to collaborate around a single strand such as continuing to share mobile learning units. For the most part outreach activities have increased the volume and breadth of client groups for single colleges rather than as joint efforts. Collective dissemination and awareness raising opportunities that would have arisen through development of a shared outward facing project Web site and leaflet were not taken up in a structured way until the final project conference, although the DVD remains an identifiable product. Therefore it may be said that there was not full development of a marketable group identity either for the project nor as a central point for SWELBC during the course of the project. For the most part colleges continued to plan their own resource management using EQUAL funding, often with positive results, but opportunities to publicise the project as a partnership initiative with longer term mainstreaming in view were missed. There have been questions asked by experts as to whether the original objective of the project – to create learning networks that had not previously existed – were practically achievable or realistic. Certainly all the evidence collected during the course of the evaluations suggests that existing networks have been able to benefit and strengthen through the use of ICT even if new groupings have not been launched. The project has proceeded in parallel with a number of related infrastructure developments within the region which provide an improved foundation on which businesses can now base their own individual growth. It may be argued that, with the enhanced infrastructure, project outcomes are more possible now than would have been possible at an earlier stage. For the most part, land based businesses do not naturally consider ICT as a means of giving themselves a competitive edge. Through the efforts of the ICT in Rural Industries project, many small firms in the South West are now likely to accord ICT more serious weight in terms of its potential contribution to their business. Business clusters to improve efficiencies and productivity are still more likely to be the major drivers for networking growth in this sector, but the use of ICT as another tool in the armoury of small businesses will certainly help them adapt more readily to changing circumstances in future. For these businesses, the project has opened up alternative strategies that can only provide them with a more secure footing in times to come, and has achieved its original objectives.
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