Methods of engagement

We deliberately talk about both engagement and communication in this section of the Toolkit because they are not necessarily the same thing. Transmitting a message is different from engaging in consultation and collaboration.

There are many approaches and tools available to help in this aspect of the project. Below is an example of how various approaches might look in practice during a VLE review and there are some examples from different universities in our case study vignettes.

Level of engagement Characteristics of approach Means of engagement
6. Empower Stakeholders set the agenda for change and self organise/manage. Not applicable for procurement but may be elements of this in implementation.
5. Collaborate Decisions taken in partnership with stakeholders. Stakeholder-led consultation. Stakeholders on Steering Group.
4. Involve Joint working to ensure views are heard and understood. Decision-making still largely in hands of project team. Jointly led workshops/focus groups/voting.
3. Consult Agenda largely framed by project team. Stakeholder views actively solicited. Workshops/focus groups/interviews/surveys led by project team.
2. Inform Stakeholders are regularly provided with contextualised information and made aware of means of participating in the project. Dialogue is implicitly welcomed. Blog with comment facility/mailing list/use of Twitter.
1. Notify Stakeholders are passive recipients of (largely un-contextualised) information. Static web pages/minutes made available/untargeted publicity.

Involving the right people at the right time

If you are to come to the best decision you need to ask the right questions of the right people.

In some cases you will need an assessment of staff and student capabilities in order to understand their perceptions and know what will be needed to move you beyond the status quo.

Here are just a few examples:
  • The University of York had invested heavily in customising its existing VLE and the degree of bespoke development made it difficult for end users to make like-for-like comparisons between different products. For this reason 'lay users' were involved in visioning and usability testing but a group of specialists undertook detailed product evaluation.
  • Edinburgh Napier University found that familiarity was as much a factor as the affordances of the product. Academics who used the existing VLE only occasionally were much more likely to find the interface difficult and clunky than regular users.
  • The University of Huddersfield had supplier involvement in user testing because it felt that simply locking academics in a room to replicate what they already do would not help them understand the affordances of other products.

Communication gatekeepers

In project management it is common to come across people who fulfil a 'gatekeeper' role.

Gatekeepers control access to something. This might be access to people e.g. a secretary who decides how important it is that you get time in a key decision maker's diary. It can equally be access to information e.g. somebody who controls a mailing list or newsletter.

We heard a cautionary tale about gatekeepers during one review:

The project team/institution did not want the choice of VLE to be seen as an IT decision and, partly because of this, the project team was 'stuck with' going through existing communications channels rather than circulating the same central communications to all.

The existence of faculty learning technologists was both a 'blessing and a curse' to the project. These individuals served as communications gatekeepers who tended to put their own spin (and possibly bias) on the messages.

The potential strength of this is messages being very tailored and targeted to specific groups but the benefits of this were possibly outweighed by the lack of a coherent message.

Anonymous VLE review project manager