Managing a National Discipline-based Project:
The Geography Discipline Network

MICK HEALEY and PHIL GRAVESTOCK

Geography Discipline Network (GDN) Project Director and Project Manager
Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

Paper presented to the HEFCE Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning Inaugural Conference, Nottingham, 28 February 1997

 

1 Project Management Issues

Talking about project management is a hazardous venture. This is because there is a danger of creating an expectation that the speaker will provide a model of best practice management. Let us straight-away disabuse you of any such expectation!

Our aim this afternoon is rather to outline some of the project management issues we have faced, and are facing, and to share with you our approach to dealing with them. We suspect that many of the issues are common to several projects, but that the responses may alter given the varied aims and contexts of our different projects. We would appreciate discussion of alternative methods of project organisation and suggestions about other ways of responding to these issues.

We have grouped the issues under three headings:

Before turning to these we need to say a few words about the aim and nature of the project.

2 Project Aim and Nature

The aim of the GDN is to identify and disseminate good practice in the teaching, learning and assessment of geography at undergraduate and taught postgraduate levels in higher education institutions.

The project team consists of a group of geography specialists and educational developers from nine old and new universities and colleges of higher education.

The team will produce two main outputs:

a) A resources database of case studies of interesting teaching and learning practices on the World-Wide Web (URL: http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn). Examples are being sought from around the world, but especially from the UK, North America and Australasia. The principle for acceptance of a case study is that it should be of interest to staff in other geography departments and potentially transferable, with suitable modifications, to other institutions. We are initially seeking abstracts of interesting practices of up to 300 words. The first 50 of which are already on the database. We also have permission to add abstracts from papers published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education (JGHE).

b) Ten guides will be produced covering a range of methods of delivering and assessing teaching and learning. Each guide will contain an overview of issues and methods for the particular application, case studies including contact names and addresses, and an annotated list of other sources:

The guides will be disseminated through a national conference and 50 department-based workshops. The guides and workshops will be available at no charge to providers of geography in England and Northern Ireland and may be purchased by others. The team intend to continue to identify examples of good practice and offer full cost workshops after HEFCE funding has ceased.

3 Team and Project Issues

With a team of twenty-two geographers and educational developers from nine institutions the major issue to date has been team building and reaching agreement over the development of the project.

3.1 Team building and reaching agreement

We have attempted to achieve this in five ways:

a) Careful choice of the team: Nearly all of the geographers knew each other beforehand and had worked together on various educational initiatives beforehand through involvement with eg the JGHE, and the Higher Education Study Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG). Similarly many of the educational developers had worked together before. It helps that two of the educational developers are also geographers, thus providing a bridge between the two camps. We are thus building on existing networks, with experienced individuals who share goals of educational improvement.

b) Detailed planning and clear division of responsibilities: We learnt that a Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning was being discussed at quite an early stage and we started to plan a possible bid at a meeting in Cheltenham before a JGHE Editorial Board meeting in April 1995. We thus had the basic framework for a bid and some idea of who wanted to be involved, at least among the geographers, when HEFCE published the details of the Fund in December 1995. Nevertheless there were several changes of personnel and organisation in the period up to the deadline. For example, the restriction of the Lead Site to institutions where the subject had been assessed as excellent led to a rethink within the consortium. We ended up volunteering Cheltenham and Gloucester CHE when I received an 'invitation' from the Director that she wanted our department to put in a bid! We were also keen to ensure that the consortium was representative of the old and new universities and colleges and that the majority of the departments included had been assessed as excellent. We decided at an early stage on a division of labour such that there would be one site where all the management and co-ordination would take place and that each of the guides and associated workshop materials would be the responsibility of two or three individuals at a particular institution.

c) Team meetings: Despite detailed planning at the bid stage there were many points of detail to agree when we learnt we had been successful, including:

We started this project with a two day workshop held in October 1996. An important function of this first meeting was also team building. Among the outputs of that meeting were a one/two page outline of each guide and the agreement by one team to produce a pilot of its guide. We held an additional meeting in January 1997 to discuss these outlines and the pilot guide and to refine the common framework for the project materials.

d) Investment in the team: We believe that the main factor influencing our ability to achieve the objective of the project is the quality of the team. We have therefore invested almost two-thirds of our budget in the team to pay:

e) Use of advisers: To extend the expertise we have in the team we built into the budget the cost of advisers. The role of most of them is to evaluate the suitability and quality of the materials we are producing. These include two academics from overseas who will advise us on the appropriateness of the materials we produce for geographers in higher education in North America and Australasia. This will be critical for our aim to develop an income stream to enable us to continue the project when FDTL funding ceases. We also have one adviser, whose role in addition, is to facilitate the team meetings. This has been important in allowing the management team to participate actively in the meetings rather than having to concentrate on chairing the meetings.

4 Discipline-based Issues

There have been two main discipline-based issues:

4.1 Obtaining support for the project

This we tried to ensure by obtaining the written support at the bid stage of various professional and academic groups:

This support has been useful in giving legitimacy and status to the project.

4.2 Promoting the project and involving the discipline

As the main aim of the project involves the identification and dissemination of good teaching and learning practices much of our effort has gone into publicizing what we are doing and seeking the cooperation of tutors in geography. Within the first seven months of the project we will have made presentations to five conferences and workshops in England and overseas:

We will also have written twice to all heads of geography departments in the UK and put out requests for abstracts on various geography and educational mailbases and via various professional association Newsletters.

5 Institutional Issues

These mainly involve the day to day running of the project in the lead site. So far this part of the project has run very smoothly.

5.1 Obtaining support for the project

Support has been forthcoming from the College, Faculty and Department in which the project is based. The latter has been facilitated by the fact that the Project Director is also the head of department in which the project is based!

5.2 Co-ordinating project personnel

The only full-time project member of staff is the Project Officer. This is the critical role for the success of the project. Phil and I meet formally on average about once a week to discuss the day to day management of the project and to review progress against the timetable. The detailed planning at the bid stage and the subsequent agreements reached with the rest of the team have meant that we have been able to concentrate most of our effort on implementing policies rather than discussing what the policies should be.

6 Conclusion

The foregoing paints a rosy picture. We have been fortunate to have an excellent team of people, and a detailed plan with, what we think are, achievable, though quite ambitious goals. We hope that we will have the same view at the end of the project in 21 months time! This has enabled us to hit the ground running. To right the balance a little we should like to end by identifying some of the problems which have come to light so far. No doubt more problems will become apparent as the project progresses.

a) Team membership changes: We have already had two changes of educational developers and a third who has been seconded for a year to another position. At this stage continuity is not a problem, but changes in the team in the future will be more difficult to manage.

b) Obtaining responses from the team: Getting responses from some members of the team for requests for information and views on various issues has been slow. This could become more of an issue as the deadlines for drafts of the guides comes closer.

c) Obtaining responses from the discipline: Getting departments to respond to the request for their preferred choice of a free workshop and persuading tutors to submit abstracts of interesting teaching and learning practices has also been difficult. We are currently about to send a chase-up letter to heads who have not replied and are going to make personal contacts with people we know who have interesting teaching and learning practices.

d) Budget pressures: Despite our apparent detailed planning we have already found that we have underestimated, first, the costs of travel and subsistence to promote the project and obtain the co-operation of tutors and, secondly, the cost of the hardware and software necessary for us to undertake the desk-top publishing of the guides and workshop materials and to establish the web site.

e) Time pressures: Delays in getting responses from the discipline and, to a lesser extent, the team are causing us to reconsider some of the deadlines we set on our initial timetable.

So far none of these problems is unmanageable and adjustments can be made to the project to overcome them. However, the project is at an early stage in its development and more significant adjustments may be required to respond to issues which arise in the future.


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