The People's Network and the Learning Revolution: Building the NOF Digitize Programme

Susi Woodhouse brings us up to date with developments.

The launch of the New Opportunities Fund’s £50 million NOF- digitise creation of learning materials (1) programme in July this year marks the beginning of a major UK-wide initiative set to create a fundamental step-change in learning support. For the past two years, a quiet revolution has been under way preparing the groundwork for a collective leap of faith into the future and the new opportunities it offers.

The Government has made clear the importance it attaches to the role of learning in all its guises as the cornerstone of people's lives. Furthermore, the Government sees universal access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and its use as a delivery mechanism for learning opportunities as the catalyst for change.

The People's Network

To enable this to happen, Government has invested in the People's Network (2): a £170 million project to create ICT learning centres in all 4,300 UK public libraries by the end of 2002 funded through the New Opportunities Fund, and supported with expert advice on planning and implementation from the People's Network Development Team at Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries (3).

£50 million of this funding stream is for NOF- digitise, which will provide a significant element of the "stuff" of the People's Network. This newly-digitised content will be made available free at the point of use not only via the People's Network, but also via the National Grid for Learning as a major contribution to online resources complementing National Curriculum materials This short article sets out how the programme has been put together and identifies issues, outcomes and impacts for the future.

NOF- digitise offers a landscape of opportunity complementing related programmes in other sectors including central Government's UKOnline portal, the National Electronic Library for Health, higher and further education's Distributed National Electronic Resource, and learning materials provided through the media and commerce. It has the potential to demonstrate excellence, celebrate diversity and become a benchmark for the future digital learning continuum informing the development of programmes such as the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s Culture Online.

In view of this intensive level of activity, not only in the UK but across the globe - what is it which makes this programme any different? At a strategic level, the programme - in harmony with other similar initiatives - recognises the importance of creating a “networked learning space” which takes advantage of connectivity to engage users in shaping not only their own ideas, learning and lives, but to offer opportunity to make informed choices, to feed imagination, to build capacity, and to support the development of communities of interest. However, over and above the sheer size of the sum of money being committed in one tranche of awards, there are three aspects that characterise the NOF-digitise programme that are special:

  • It reflects ALL walks of life, encompassing a broad church of interests and information, supporting learning for life in its broadest sense
  • It encompasses not only a wide range of participating organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors, but also the whole continuum of experience - from those who are old hands to those for whom this is a maiden voyage.
  • It will offer new opportunities for providers and partakers alike providing an invaluable legacy of increased competencies and confidence for both

Building blocks of the programme

The programme, launched in August 1999, sets out to improve the quality of life for all citizens through the imaginative and innovative use of Internet and digital technologies to create a coherent body of content that will unlock the rich resources of our knowledge organizations and support learning for life in its broadest sense. Three overarching themes were specified reflecting the policies of the present Government's strategies for the information age and ensuring a broad base for potential applicants: re-skilling the nation; cultural enrichment; and citizenship in a modern state. The New Opportunities Fund made clear its commitment to fund projects that used best practice in creating digital materials, and to fund content that reflected the rich diversity of resources that is achievable through partnership. The concept of partnership and collaboration was to form the bedrock of the whole programme.

It is important to appreciate that no-one had attempted a programme of such broad scale and scope before: it was impossible to predict what would happen, and all involved - applicants and assessors alike - would be part of a ground-breaking voyage of discovery requiring flexibility, adaptability and lateral thinking.

Stage one of the submission process resulted in some 340 applications totalling in excess of £140million and, following assessment by a panel of experts, some 200 institutions were subsequently invited to prepare full applications for Stage 2, of which 154 were awarded grants following further assessment. This bald summary is, of course, highly simplistic, and as the bones of the programmes began to emerge, there were many issues to be addressed. Indeed, this is still true as projects go "live" and vision becomes reality. No-one can come up with all the answers in advance of the questions, and one of the characteristics of NOF-digitise will be innovation through the sharing of experiences. The New Opportunities Fund’s attitude to the level of risk here is refreshingly healthy, and an apposite embodiment of its name.

The consortium approach to NOF- digitise

In order to embed the partnership approach at the heart of the programme, the People's Network Team at Resource undertook a careful topic analysis of the 343 applications for the Fund as an adjunct to the Stage One assessment process. This would identify synergies between individual applications and inform the shape of the framework for the overall programme in a way which reflected and enhanced its three broad themes. Following recommendations made by the Expert Panel on which applications should go forward to Stage Two, the next step was for Resource and the New Opportunities Fund to assemble individual applications into topic-based groups where it was felt likely that shared programmes for development, based on natural synergies could be found, and to invite those groups to work as consortia. Efficient and effective use of resources for all concerned and technical coherence were driving factors, but most important was the wish to embed an outward-facing focus on learners' needs by exploiting the flexibility of the networked environment which allows links and connections impossible in other media. This resulted in a mix of consortia addressing particular themes (such as manufacturing, genealogy, basic skills, science and invention, world cultures) and those looking at resources reflecting the character (i.e. sense of place) of a particular geographic area (the West Midlands, Wales, London, areas of outstanding natural beauty).

Whilst wishing to encourage as great a level of integration and joint working amongst consortium partners as possible, the over-riding concern was to provide a flexible framework within which individual solutions could be reached, not a straitjacket where one size had to fit all. Several different working models were suggested from complete integration - where a lead partner in a consortium managed and delivered the whole project - through more informal arrangements where individual partners' expertise and experience was used across the consortium to best effect, to a stand-alone option where - for very good reasons - an informed choice was made to continue as a single application. Indeed, many applications were partnerships from the outset, some very extensive -such as Gathering the Jewels led by the National Library of Wales with 172 contributing organisations.

Technical standards

Clearly, one of the major critical success factors for the digitisation programme is that it should be possible to share content seamlessly between projects, between projects and users, and between NOF-digitise other content creation programmes and users, to be able to find and use content without specialist tools, and to be able to manage it effectively in both the immediate and the long-term. The adoption of a range of technical standards for the programme was therefore seen as a must from the outset. The benefits of such a coherent, managed programme which ensures interoperability, sustainability, long-term accessibility and integrity are obvious and do not need to be rehearsed here.

The UK Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN) was asked to prepare a technical standards document for the programme which set out not only those standards which were to be mandatory across all projects, but also presented a range of others which would further enhance best practice creation, presentation and use of digital resources. These standards - which follow the digital lifecycle for ease of application - will be revised from time-to-time during the life of the programme to reflect developments in the field, and the latest version (July 2001) can be seen at http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/nof/technicalstandards.html

Support for projects

As the scale and scope of the programme began to emerge at Stage One, the New Opportunities Fund and Resource began to discuss how best to provide support and guidance to applicants at Stage Two. The need for expert advice on technical issues was clear, but other aspects such as business planning, intellectual property, project management also needed to be addressed and the Fund was keen to generate a sense of community amongst its digi applicants which would lead to shared work and experience and result in capacity building. The solution was a three-way partnership in which UKOLN provided technical guidance, and Resource and the Fund a range of project planning support via the UKOLN and People's Network websites together with a discussion list, all kick-started with a series of roadshows across the UK.

This support service continues through the life of the programme proper, and is seen as an important means of providing a vehicle for debate and discussion and supporting the development of the digi community. There is much to consider: cross programme issues such as the use of Geographic Information Systems, emerging models for rights management, and for service sustainability, resource discovery, re-use, long-term access and evaluation. See http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/nof and http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/nof/ for more information.

Stage Two: defining the future

The year of intense activity between the summers of 2000 and 2001 is one which will be remembered not only by project applicants as they put together their submissions in time for the February 2001 deadline but also by the New Opportunities Fund and Resource as the framework for a fair and accountable assessment process was put together and delivered. In order to meet the tight timescale, a forty-strong team of expert assessors (technical and business) was assembled and managed by Resource to support the New Opportunities Fund 's own team of case managers for the programme as the most efficient way of covering all aspects and ensuring that all applications received due and proper attention. Recommendations were then put to three meetings of a Panel of Experts whose job it was to consider the appropriateness and viability of applications in the context of the whole programme and to advise the New Opportunities Fund Board who made final decisions on grants to be awarded. Now the real work could - at last - begin.

The future starts here

The 154 grants awarded (ranging from £14,000 to £4 million) to some 37 consortia and 34 individual projects will together produce a digital learning materials foundry of well over 1 million images, tens of thousands of audio and video clips, innumerable pages of text and many hundreds of new learning packages on topics as diverse as biscuits, voluntary work, migration, biodiversity, football, contemporary art, music and photography, reading, etc... It is impossible to reflect the huge diversity that is NOF- digitisein this short article, but a handful of examples are embedded along the way.

Imagination, innovation and creativity are central to the success of the programme and will realise the promise of a rich fabric of learning resources delivering the vision of New Opportunity. To celebrate this, the Fund has begun work on a showcase website for all NOF-digitise projects which will develop over the life of the programme. At present it is a simple presentation of thumbnail sketches and can be viewed at http://www.nof-digitise.org

Impact

What will be the impact of all this? At the moment, of course, it is impossible to say for sure (and a multi-layered evaluation and impact programme is currently being prepared by the Fund and Resource). The expectation is that is will, in combination with other programmes, fuel a learning revolution for all, engaging interests, whetting appetites for more and changing people's lives for the better.

References

(1) www.nof-digitise.org
(2) www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk
(3) www.resource.gov.uk

Author Details

 
Susi Woodhouse
Senior Network Adviser,
People's Network Development Team,
Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries.www.resource.gov.uk
 
Date published: 
Wednesday, 3 October 2001
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