July 26, 2018

How do we build our collective capacity in Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)?

By Melissa King

Not so long ago, evaluation was considered a specialist niche area of expertise: a mysterious and highly technical undertaking only to be carried out by the initiated. There is growing recognition, however, that M&E processes and frameworks are an essential part of all education project work, and that those involved in programmes aiming to improve learner outcomes need to strengthen their understanding of the goals, methodologies and practices of M&E. There is a need to build our collective capacity in M&E, not just as individuals, but as a community working for educational change. Monitoring and evaluation is everyone’s responsibility.

Over the past two decades, government has expended a huge amount of energy and resources at both a policy and delivery level on the education system, in an attempt to rectify some of the negative impacts of the apartheid education system. In this it has been aided by private sector and donor organisations, which have also invested significant amounts, and by project implementers such as NGOs and other providers. There have been concerns, however, that many of these projects have not been effective, and do not offer large scale return on investment - as shown by learner performance in the NSC examination results and international comparability assessments. The education sector in general has recognised the need to focus on how to maximise the effect of education interventions. In order to do this, we need more data, a better understanding of when and how to gather this data, and how to interpret it in order to track what works and what doesn’t in innovations and interventions. In addition, evaluation approaches should be more inclusive: those who are delivering the programmes and working closely with the beneficiaries should also be involved in shaping ways of getting data, and in sharing their knowledge of contextual factors that affect analysis. This is one of the reasons why there has been a growing interest in collaboration between agencies and professionals who carry out M&E, and implementers who have been more used to being at the receiving end of an evaluation.

One way of promoting and supporting such collaboration is through a community of practice (CoP). A CoP is a group of people with a common interest who come together to learn more about it. The sharing of ideas, experiences, tools and resources in a particular field makes a CoP a context in which participants can learn new skills and information. BRIDGE runs a number of CoPs in different areas of education, giving shape to its mission of connecting people, driving collaboration and sharing ideas to shift practice towards quality education. The BRIDGE Monitoring and Evaluation Community of Practice, funded by the Zenex Foundation, has key goals relating to the dissemination of accessible information on M&E, and capacity building in M&E as applied in its members’ diverse educational contexts.

This CoP has been going since 2011, performing the useful function of showcasing evaluations on various funded projects, in particular those relating to maths and science. Since 2016, however, there has been a shift towards a focus on the discipline of M&E itself. At the end of 2017 BRIDGE entered into a partnership with the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association (SAMEA) to reshape the CoP as ‘learning space’ for M&E. Both organisations recognised common aims in their work: to share information, resources and knowledge about M&E, and to build capacity around M&E in the education sector.

The launch of this collaboration happened at the first CoP meeting of 2018 on 13th of March, where the aim of bringing together both practice and theory, and accommodating emerging and experienced M&E professionals as well as general education practitioners with an interest in the field, was considered in the context of the needs of CoP members who attended. Organisations present included NGOs, funders, government, municipalities, schools, unions, and education projects.

A variety of M&E ‘needs’ have been expressed in meetings held so far in 2017 and 2018, and these themes are addressed in the M&E CoP programme through a number of methods. These include ‘expert’ presentations, with question-and-answer sessions; interactive group work, at which tools are used or experiences, perspectives and problems shared through a structured activity; ‘how to’ brainstorming sessions; and useful updates on what is going on in the field. BRIDGE then disseminates all presentations or tools shared to its CoP database, and more widely through its Knowledge Hub on the BRIDGE website. In addition, we circulate a detailed ‘meeting highlights’ report, capturing discussions and ideas shared and including further links to resources.

M&E Community of Practice members share some ideas on how the CoP can be a learning space:

  • There should be opportunities to discuss specific questions from participants, relating to particular M&E challenges in their own contexts. The CoP could help participants generate practical solutions to real problems.
  • There needs to be some form of sharing by different participants from different contexts. People from different backgrounds bring different perspectives into discussions, which can be illuminating.
  • The CoP meeting content has to speak to a mixed range of participant knowledge and skills.
  • We need to demystify the language of M&E.
  • A learning space should be a safe space. People are always willing to talk about success stories, but not so willing to share mistakes and open themselves or their organisations up to criticism and judgement. However, it is from mistakes that we often learn the most.
  • We need help in ways in which CoP members can build M&E understanding in their own organisations: how do we ensure that M&E becomes part of the organisational culture wherever we work?
  • We need to improve our own ways of interpreting and reporting data in order to inform new decision making.

A community of practice serves as an immediate learning space for those attending, as well as having wider impact as CoP members take their learnings back into their own organisations and spheres of influence. The BRIDGE M&E Community of Practice hopes to contribute to more insightful use of data in the education sector in order to improve programme quality, and to enhanced collaboration between evaluation professionals and education implementers.