ePortfolios for Apprentices: Making a business case

…to get it past finance

“The use of e-portfolios to support apprenticeship programmes is likely to be a key factor in ensuring the ongoing success of vocational qualifications in the digital age, thereby contributing to the skills campaign and ultimately the acquisition of world-class skills.” (Becta ePortfolios for Apprenticeships 2009)

A message myself and others have expressed in many ways over several years, so clearly not news and might just as easily have been written today as ‘post referendum’ the current skills minister stated that commitment to apprenticeships and investment in future skills development more broadly was ‘absolute’. (Nick Boles speaking at the AELP national conference London. June 2016)

Yet despite considerable evidence that hundreds of learning providers are using advanced Assessment ePortfolios to enhance quality and exercise dynamic growth in the provision. A great many colleges and independent providers are still not using learning technology to ‘manage’ apprenticeships in what has been a digital age for some time. Seemingly ‘stuck’ using methods spawned two decades ago and clung to by those avoiding change. Surely no way to ‘run a business’.

In these short articles I have addressed a number of issues which I hope will have informed those in such organisations, how to overcome some of the barriers to change and recognise the opportunities that similar organisations are benefiting from. Sufficient perhaps to begin the arduous task of making a business case for introducing an advanced Assessment ePortfolio.

In this article I will share some of the experiences of others, who when given the task to move an organisation forward, realise that it would be a ‘hard sell’ to senior management monetarily and culturally. From what I have learned in dealing with leadership is that the foundation to a business case is not ‘why we must invest in this bright new software’, as rather spell out ‘what are we doing now, what is it costing to be so inefficient’ and without change ‘what is the likely outcome if we are not meeting the expectation of the learner, the employer, the inspectorate or the funding agency’. In other words, consider one’s own defects before criticising the motives of others and as the primary concern is the cost of buying, why not start there.

Initiate an analysis of the current processes, costing and management outcomes for existing procedures for each department, if paper based, it would not be unusual to learn that the cost of stationery alone would exceed the software licence per learner. That before adding hours spent travelling, travel expenses (mileage) wasted journeys, writing reports, file storage, delayed access to data and much more. In that way, instead of confronting management with an added cost, you may well be demonstrating a way of cutting costs over a period.

I should say at this point that in my opinion, introducing an advanced Assessment ePortfolio is about achieving greater efficiency leading to direct and indirect benefits, it so happens that the ROI, is usually evident over a relatively short period of time.

By reviewing current practice for managing apprenticeships and in addition to a reality check on direct cost, it will identify weaknesses that a new system will be required to correct.

Such as with a large college which had WBL departments using a mix of paper and in-house systems, the fragmented use made tracking learner progress difficult and affected overall management of reporting. In total there were six different ePortfolios plus paper based portfolios being used. Management reporting and an overview of learner’s progress was missing and with an Ofsted inspection due, the college recognised the weakness and decided to implement a single ePortfolio solution.

Nothing quite like an impending inspection to focus the mind of leadership and it puts into question the value of  so called technical reviews based on a ‘self-analysis’ tool. Had a survey or questionnaire asked management ‘does the organisation use ePortfolio?’ the answer would in this instance be yes, which clearly wouldn’t provide a true picture of its effectiveness and may explain some of the negative experiences of ePortfolios as expressed in recent surveys. Another reason why the quality of research must dig further than the obvious.

But in this example the lead manager formed a working group consisting of people with a range of different job roles to identify cross department solutions. They reviewed the ePortfolios that were already being used as well as those in the market place and identified the particular requirements that the solution, in this case a single ePortfolio, needed to provide.

In addition to materials and processes, it was also recognised that change and implementation on this scale would impact on staff training on software, communication, IT skills etc. Not just front line assessors and verifiers but also administrators and management, which in turn required an appropriate plan and subsequent costing throughout the transition.

According to the case study, having completed the research, a written proposal which illustrated how the chosen system, would meet the provider need was presented to the stakeholders for approval. The management team recognised that the proposal would introduce many organisational benefits such as better reporting systems for tracking learner progress and increased efficiency and better success rates for the learners. ‘The capital spend was agreed’.

No it couldn’t have been that easy, but the business case was made more likely to succeed with much of the research and decision making being made by representatives of all departments led by a dynamic champion. Alison Humphreys, Learning and Development Manager at Prestons College, which has gone on to develop outstanding practices in the use of innovative technology.

In another example a large independent learning provider which had been upgrading its IT infrastructure steadily over time, investing in smartboards, workstations a VLE etc. and although aware of ePortfolios had not featured its introduction in the planning (no matter how much I ‘nagged’ them).

At a point the Operations Executive realised that with the change in emphasis of the Common Inspection Framework the company would need to implement new systems to comply with the changes and demonstrate the impact technology was having on learners. Deciding that whilst the catalyst for change would be an ePortfolio a much wider remit was essential and the Operations Executive and the Senior Management Team created a strategic proposal for the board to impress just how important the ILT strategy had become. Citing among other things that without it, the company was unlikely to achieve a grading above ‘unsatisfactory’ and therefore needed to be introduced urgently.

The proposal required significant investment in systems, hardware, acceptance by staff and above all, time and commitment from the management team. But the business case was absolutely clear and the subsequent action became an excellent model of how to make these major changes effective in the shortest time. Including the radical step to overcome one of the major barriers to achieve its goal by dedicating three periods of two weeks where the business closed for staff CPD training. Even I was amazed and I took part in some of the development.

Ofsted-logoThe Ofsted inspection report that eventually followed moved the independent provider up from a ‘satisfactory’ grade 3 to a grade 2, ‘good’ and doubtless well placed to achieve better next time. A huge achievement which began with an exemplary plan and management team.

The independent provider in this instance is Alliance Learning in Horwich, Bolton and when speaking of the experience at an event I was engaged in, I asked Paul Cocker, the Operations Executive at the time, what he thought the outcome for his company would have been had the proposal not been accepted or seriously watered down. His answer was “we would probably have gone out of business”.

The full case studies for Prestons College, Alliance Learning  and others may be found at; https://www.jisc.ac.uk/website/legacy/rsc#case-studies

In April 2012, myself and colleagues from the RSC Northwest, put on an event at Preston University to an audience of some 40 Learning providers. The event was called ‘Making a Business Case for ePortfolio’. It comprised live and virtual presentations from six learning providers, sharing their experience of implementing different, but advanced, Assessment ePortfolios. With particular emphasis on cost savings, ROI, efficiencies and unforeseen benefits. This was followed by supplier demonstrations of the latest systems, followed by round table discussion etc.

We followed that up six weeks later with a smaller workshop to ‘check’ how the delegates had progressed with their organisations and if we could help them move forward. Many had been given the go ahead to put a plan together, but more than half had been ‘stone walled’. The reasons?

Too expensive, the staff don’t like IT, we haven’t the time for training, what we have works fine’ etc.

I still have the feedback from that workshop and the presentations to show.

So here we are in 2016, with approximately half of the learning providers, their learners, employers and organisations reaping the benefits of technology at its best whilst others are not.

Hopefully this short guide will encourage if not alarm those that number among the ‘are not’ but feel they really ought.

The world is changing quickly and leadership has to change too. The old truism that we can’t presume what we did in the past will work in the future has never been more appropriate.

David Thodey, Former CEO & Executive Director, Telstra

All the “ePortfolios for apprentices” series of articles:

ePortfolios for apprentices: A guide for providers and employers
What is an eAssessment Portfolio? – The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
What are the barriers and how to ‘get over it’? Part one
What are the barriers and how to ‘get over it’? Part two
What are the benefits and who wouldn’t want them anyway?
What are the challenges and how others have found a way
Making a business case – to get it past finance
What next? – will depend on the Q & A

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant


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