National College of Ireland

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National College of Ireland

Business needs

Reliant on external funding from government and charitable institutions in order to support its work with pre-school children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the National College of Ireland’s Early Learning Initiative was finding that its largely paper-based tracking and progress systems were holding it back as the initiative expanded from its Dublin roots into the rest of Ireland.

“Donors were keen to see the difference that their funding was making, but preparing reports manually was time-consuming and potentially error-prone,” explains Michelle Moore, senior specialist heading the parent-child home visit programme for the College’s Early Learning Initiative.

In addition, she notes, manual report preparation was a poor use of valuable resources: ideally, the Initiative’s home visitors should be spending time working with children, rather than collating data or writing reports.

Challenge

Initially, explains Moore, the intention had been to leverage the College’s existing Microsoft Dynamics CRM system for the purpose, and simply provide additional log-on details for the Initiative’s staff.

But that wouldn’t work, it was then realised: not only were there data protection barriers to overcome, but the College’s system was aimed at adult students, rather than young children and families.

“The data that needed to be gathered was totally different,” says Moore. “The two data sets had no real overlap. Using the College’s CRM system just wasn’t an option.”

Moreover, if an IT-based solution was being deployed, there were obvious gains to be made from broadening the scope of the automation beyond purely data collection—managing the inventory of toys and books, for instance, ordering fresh stocks, and preparing visit schedules.

Accordingly, in late 2016 the College’s board authorised the publication of a Request for Proposals, to which Microsoft and eBECS responded with a proposal to Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Power BI to deliver:

  • A Mobile App for the Home Visitors
  • An Administration and Scheduling Solution for office staff
  • Powerful reporting and insights for management and sponsors into the programs activities and results.

By February 2017 a decision to move forward with the Microsoft and eBECS proposal had been reached, and in March, work began on solution delivery.

Why eBECS?

From the outset, explains Moore, the joint Microsoft-eBECS proposal stood out in terms of its commitment to deliver a flexible and innovative solution to support the Initiative’s educational goals.

As an example, she points to the suggestion that the solution be delivered without undertaking the usual process of site visits, workshops and briefings. Instead, much of the detailed work would be undertaken through a series of meetings over Skype—a suggestion which made the joint Microsoft-eBECS proposal extremely cost-effective and time efficient.

Solution

From the Microsoft-eBECS side, a team of six was assigned to work on the project—four people from eBECS, and two from Microsoft. From the College’s side, the main contact was Moore herself, who acted as the conduit between the Microsoft-eBECS team and the Initiative’s 27 home visitors.

Many of the home visitors, she explains, are locally-based early school leavers getting into work after raising families, and a key challenge for the project was to provide a technology solution suitable for people with limited exposure to corporate IT systems.

Another goal, she adds, was moving data collection away from open questions and free-format assessments, and towards tick boxes, pull-down option choices, and hard numeric data to be collected simply and efficiently on the mobile app.

“It would take time to get right—but the result would be better data, and data that was quantitative, rather than qualitative, and which was obtained more efficiently than was the case with people hand-writing or typing long summary reports.”

By late summer, the necessary work had been completed: data collection scripts had been iteratively refined, system capabilities built, and functionality delivered. In addition, each of the home visitors had been provided with the mobile devices that the system required.

Accordingly—and right on schedule—the system went live in early September.

Benefits

Almost immediately, says Moore, significant improvements began to be experienced—improvements that have continued to flow in as familiarity with the system increases.

“Previously, it could take a week for us to get each home visitor’s notes for each visit that they had made,” she explains. “Now, if a visit is complete by 9:30am, then we usually have the summary data by 9:45am—which means that needs can be addressed more quickly, and interventions put in place more effectively.”

And with home visitors spending less time completing notes and reports, she relates, they have the capacity to take on more home visits, and help more families.

“Notes generally took around 20 minutes to write—now it’s generally five minutes or less, as there’s only one free-format field to complete. So previously, a home visitor working 30 hours a week might have been able to support 9-10 families with two visits a week, whereas they are now able to support 13-14 families,” says Moore.

The net effect, she sums up, is clear. Donors’ dollars and euros go further, and work to support more families, and help more children. And with metrics continuing to show how effective the Initiative’s interventions are in helping those disadvantaged children to reach their age-related expectations, that has to be good news.

Solution overview

300 staff & >15000 students
National College of Ireland is a third-level education college in Dublin. Founded in 1951, it offers full and part-time courses from certificate to degree and postgraduate level in areas related to computing, business, and psychology. NCI provides an inspiring educational experience that is innovative, responsive and enterprise focused. Its mission statement is to change lives through education
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