Warm words but cold comfort for developers

August 1, 1997

The failure rate of IT projects is unacceptably high and Dearing has missed an opportunity to define the way institutions plan and implement them, Phil Hobbs argues

Seldom do policy advisers venture into the IT arena without claiming that it has a role to play in improving competitiveness. The Dearing committee's recommendations in this area are touchingly familiar, even mundane.

As with so many familiar wisdoms, the reality is different. The evidence is closer to the reverse. Most investments in IT within higher education have increased the cost of provision or reduced its quality; and in too many cases both. There is, unfortunately, a new evangelical religion - IT; and the Dearing committee has it. So have many others.

It is comforting to know that, irrespective of the committee's recommendations, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced details of a third phase of the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, despite the fact this decision seems at variance with the committee's suggested role of an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Learning technologies can improve competitiveness and there are outstanding examples. Admittedly not many examples, given the total central investment of around Pounds 100 million, but enough to prove that IT can improve efficiency (shorthand for reducing costs) and effectiveness (shorthand for improving quality). The problem is that the recommendations made in the Dearing report ignore harsh lessons learnt from these successes. As someone with an interest in seeing the promotion of communications and information technologies, I find their enthusiasm outstrips the real practicalities.

Key lessons, which the committee's recommendations seem to ignore, are that IT is an investment and should be treated as such. The outputs from IT projects need to be commensurate with the costs, and too often they are not. IT is complex and we can no longer survive on a mix of the enthusiastic amateur and the helping hand of staff training.

While the economic case for IT promoting competitiveness is not strong, this is compounded by the seeming casualness with which IT projects are funded; witness the surprise of many TLTP bidders that their project was funded. Unlike other long-term development expenditures, IT projects in higher education are seldom preceded by a careful consideration of costs and benefits. Funding bodies have committed some Pounds 55 million under TLTP without doing so. The committee's recommendations are, to some extent, a manifestation of this casualness. For all the exhortations to make greater use of C&IT there is little hard fact to support the case. Warm words, but cold comfort to those involved in persuading institutions to make the commitment which the committee is encouraging.

Part of the explanation of successful IT projects is that they have clear objectives. The Dearing committee could have promoted a standard set of objectives and minimum criteria for IT investments - in effect, a return on capital, as with investment in fixed assets. As it stands we have a set of recommendations which promotes continued investment in IT, but fails to address the criteria against which its success should be assessed.

The fact that Harvard could, as the committee notes, make its MBA available over the Internet is hardly sufficient reason for higher education in the United Kingdom to make the investments being called for. Assume that the sector does go down the route outlined by the committee, and that Harvard does not put its MBA on the Web; is that a measure of success? Does it justify the investment? I do not think so, and I want to be convinced.

It is difficult to pick winning projects but certainly the "gifted amateur" academic developer should be pensioned off. Failing IT projects can almost always be traced back to failures in software design and development, mistakes which professional developers are less likely to make. The committee's recommendations on an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education are vague, but the expectation is that it will coordinate C&IT developments and provide training. By implication, the developers remain the academic staff. As the committee notes, there is little high quality teaching software available, despite the Pounds 100 million investment to date. Professional programmers should work in partnership with academics who provide the content. Let us train academic staff to be effective implementors, not half-competent developers.

Out of ten, the Dearing committee's recommendations on IT and competitiveness get a modest six. Could have been more convincing, should have been more realistic. But if you are locked in a faith it is difficult to see the new light.

Phil Hobbs is director of the Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol.

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