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Provision Mapping for Online Learning Environments: Is it possible and can it work?

By Anita Devi / September 2013

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In his 2003 article for eLearn Magazine, Massood Zarrabian discussed the eLearning market and the importance of appropriate software to support the learner's motivation and engagement. Continuing in that vein, this article unpacks the components of an online learning environment to demonstrate how a strategic approach to provision enables providers to meet the needs of diverse learners. The approach used is "provision management." This is a common mapping tool used in the England & Wales (UK) school system to support inclusive practice in face-to-face educational settings. The purpose is to identify a baseline of inclusive practice for those students with special educational needs or other additional educational needs.

Nisai Virtual Academy/Nisai Learning is the first online provider in the UK to take on the provision management approach and apply it to a virtual learning environment, in order to synergize the blended learning experience between the mainstream environment (i.e. the school/client) and the Nisai Virtual Academy. Nisai Learning was established in 1995 to provide an alternative educational solution for those young people who were unable to access mainstream classroom learning; either due to medical or health reasons, school phobia, behavioral issues, special educational needs, and/or disability. Over the years, Nisai Learning has enabled many young people to acquire qualifications, gain access to continuing education, and enhance their long-term employability chances. This article charts Nisai's journey in adopting provision mapping as a way of identifying what aspects of their provision works to enhance motivation and engagement, why, and for which type of learner/need.

What is Provision Mapping?

Provision mapping is a management tool that provides a "snap-shot" of what is available to meet the needs of all learners as well as those with diverse needs. It is multi-layered in format and has predominantly been used in mainstream/face-to-face schools to bridge the gap between teaching, learning policy, and practice. The driving factor behind provision maps is a commitment to "inclusion" and explicitly defining a corporate approach to what is the baseline offer for all students and thereafter what is "additional and different" for those with a specific need. Once the core map is developed, it is possible to create additional maps that provide information on cost, impact, and monitoring additional support. It should be noted provision maps do not look at learning styles of the learner, but instead what is offered to the learner, what enables and/or accelerates their learning, and how cost effective the provision is, in terms of impact.

The Basics of the Core Provision Map

The core provision map divides the learning environment and available resources into three-layers. The first, commonly known as "Wave 1 Provision" or "Quality First Inclusive Teaching"(QFT) includes a list of everything that is available for all students. Therefore in a live, virtual learning environment, this might include: username, password, access to a personal tutor, high quality lessons, etc.

Wave 2, the second layer includes short-term (usually 6-12 weeks) interventions used to support the learner. These could include additional learning opportunities, access to additional resources, or increased personal tutor time. It is important to note the word "need" here is used in its broadest sense (i.e. it includes those with learning, physical, and medical difficulties; as well as those for whom English is an additional language and those whose are gifted and talented and need a more challenging environment).

Wave 3 relates to an individualized adaption needed on a long-term basis to support a learner. The provision is specific and within the online environment could include tailored accessibility features.

Visually, all three waves are often presented as a triangle with the largest amount of provision being based in Wave 1 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Three Waves of Provision
Three Waves of Provision

How are Provision Maps Developed?

Two schools of thought exist in terms of how provision maps can be introduced to staff and developed. In the first model, a template is provided and either a key individual with responsibility for this area or members of the leadership/management team fills it in. This primarily includes those who are involved in the strategic overview, and not necessarily those involved in frontline delivery. It is then disseminated for use. In the second model, all members of the learning community are involved in a dialogue about what constitutes "good practice" (including parents, families, learners, and those involved in governance). Through the process of "appreciative inquiry" (AI) everyone is given the opportunity to celebrate existing good practice, as well as collectively define aspirations for growth (as shown in Figure 2).

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a model for organizational change. It starts from the position of defining the topic and discussion and then discovering what the organization does best in this area. The next step is to "dream" (i.e. what could be done better or differently). Next is designing a plan—short, medium, and long-term—to make the dream a reality, which becomes the prerequisite for implementation. At which point the cycle begins again.

Figure 2. Appreciative Inquiry Model
Appreciative Inquiry Model

Both methods result in a provision map, which can be a paper version or online, however the second approach carries more kudos and gravitas in terms of furthering the use beyond the mapping stage. Anecdotal feedback from organizations that have adopted the first approach tends to demonstrate how the generated provision map ends up as a filed document, whereas with the second approach there is wider ownership of the end product. The second approach also gives the organization autonomy to design the layout and format for the map, depending on the audience, purpose and its intended use.

Adopting method one above, the map design is pre-determined through a template format. However, with method two the final design evolves and can be multi-functional. In most cases, the design is co-created though the dynamic of the process and the ethos of the organization. The three factors that determine the design of a provision map are: the purpose (what will it include), the audience (who will view it), and the intent (what will it be utilized for).

As stated earlier provision maps can be multi-layered, some recording what's available, others defining the cost of providing the provision or the impact in terms of value-added. A core QFT map can also be used as a monitoring tool to support in-house quality assurance procedures. Examples of provision maps are provided in Martin's Making and Measuring Progress for Pupils with SEND [1].

Nisai Vitual Academy and Provision Mapping

Nisai Virtual Academy (NVA) provides high quality integrated academic and vocational education for hard-to-reach young adults, leading to social and employment opportunities that would otherwise be unattainable to them through mainstream routes. Using blended online learning, NVA's client base includes local authorities, further education colleges, schools, academies, and pupil referral units. Their students' needs range from medical, autistic spectrum disorder, behavioral needs, to teenage pregnancy. In effect, NVA supports a niche market of learners, who without the appropriate support could become NEETs (not in education or employment). Thus a Wave 1 provision for NVA would often be classified as Wave 2 or 3 provisions in a mainstream institution.

In 2011, NVA leaders decided to use their annual company conference to begin the provision mapping process. This company-wide dialogue—management, teachers, tutors, administration, technologists, and the commercial team—was the start of the conversation about the basic resources NVA offers all students: what that looks like and how different features (tools and opportunities) of the learning environment support the needs of different learners. The process was led by an independent education consultant; thus giving all those involved in delivery an opportunity to engage fully in the process. The dialogue was constructive and creative. It brought together different elements of the company under a single vision, it helped to reaffirm the company values, and the "student experience" was seen from a much more holistic approach of service delivery. What emerged was a first draft at two levels.

NVA's Level 1 Provision Map included all three waves, but considered each service aspect of the company in relation to each stakeholder. In effect what was produced was a 3 x 7 grid for each wave as shown in Table 1. The contents of each cell included specific features provided by the NVA to support the different stakeholders.

Administration Academic Technical Personal Social Emotional
Table 1: Level 1 NVA Provision Map Grid looking at services and client groups.

The range of stakeholders interacting with the NVA is provided in Figure 3. What is significant to note here is the two-way, inter-connecting arrows. The effectiveness of engagement depends on a two-way dialogue.

Figure 3. Map of NVA Stakeholders and Relationships
SNisai Virtual Academy

The second draft map looked at specific features on offer (e.g. private chat, variety and use of visuals, gender-specific provision, etc.) and how these might support the needs of different learners. To reach the point of two drafts, NVA had developed a visual framework of provision and a strategic pathway of the provision mapping process, which was linked to the academy improvement cycle. Provision mapping became very much part of the strategic plan and deliverable outcomes for the whole organization.

Post conference, the teachers and tutors met to further unpack the provision map and link it to their own professional development of learning about different special need—e.g. autism; dyslexia; speech, language, and communications needs; and behavior, social, and emotional needs. As a result three further refinements were made to the NVA Provision Map model (see Figure 4):

Figure 4. Version Two of the NVA Waves Model
NVA Waves Model

  1. Wave 1 was split into two layers: strategies for all learners and specific strategies for some learners. The focus was still very much on inclusion, but placing the student at the center of provision in a more learner-centered approach.
  2. Extending the learner-centered approach, the NVA defined its own model of teacher effectiveness embracing three key elements of knowing the learner, the learning environment, and systems and processes (see Figure 5). Each of these elements was further defined at a micro level and this became the focus of the NVA company conference in 2012.
  3. The final aspect to evolve was the strategic pathway. Teaching staff knew the pathway had to link into key deliverables that were measurable and accountable to their client-base as well vital to supporting student achievement. As a result the pathway in Figure 6 was collaboratively designed.
Figure 5. The NVA Model of Teacher Effectiveness at Wave 1
NVA Waves Model

Figure 6. A Strategic Overview of the NVA Provision Map
NVA Waves Model

More recently, in 2013 the NVA rebranded its parent company to become Nisai Learning. The opening of a physical learning hub (as an alternate provision) afforded Nisai Learning the opportunity to extend the provision mapping process within a blended environment, where an internal staff, not clients, leads face-to-face learning. Figure 7 provides an example of what a provision map could look like by mapping the first draft of a Wave 1 blended-learning provision map looking at how Nisai's provision adds value/is an additional resource to what mainstream schools provide. It does across three main areas of provision: the learning environment, vocational face-to-face learning opportunities, and online academic sessions.

Figure 7. Nisai Learning Hub Wave 1: Quality First Inclusive Practice (Core offer to all students)


The provision mapping process is still in development at NVA, but this case study raises the question of its application to the online learning environment, particularly where providers are involved in the delivery of blended learning opportunities. Engaging all staff in an open dialogue about provision and quality helps to bridge the consistency and quality of provision between face-to-face interaction and online learning opportunities, between tutors and technology experts, and between commissioners (i.e. those who purchase the service on behalf of others) and users.

Without a doubt, using the appreciative inquiry approach, the process is long and costly in terms of time. There are no instant results. However, what does emerge is clarity about the organization's vision, values, and mission and the uniqueness of the service it provides in relation to the wider market. This in turn serves to define more succinctly the in-house strategic plan within a shared framework. One of the challenges that came up with the NVA approach is when staff changes occurred. In mainstream settings, a provision map can be used very easily to bring new staff up to speed on the ethos and expectations of the institution with regard to teaching and learning. In NVA's case, this aspect of linking provision mapping to the induction program for new staff and students has yet to be developed. In an ideal scenario, the map needs to be in a format, which at a glance, staff and students can see what is offered, to what quality, and for what benefit. There is also some work to be done linking the annual provision mapping dialogue with stakeholders to the organization improvement cycle. This remains a work in progress.

Once the NVA Provision Map is complete, there will be opportunities to link up it to that of their clients, thus enhancing the "local offer" and strengthening the partnership relationship. Figure 8 begins to clarify the structure behind this, but the dialogue with individual clients is on going. The collaborative approach between the two organizations (i.e. clients and Nisai Learning) will make it transparent to parents what is being offered and how their children will benefit. This will serve to enhance the student experience.

Figure 8. The relationship between mainstream settings, Nisai learning, and the Nisai Learning Hub
Nisai learning


Although provision maps and provision management systems are currently more prevalent in mainstream/face-to-face settings, the NVA has demonstrated their potential in a blended learning environment [2]. Defining corporately the quality of teaching and learning online helps to enhance the student experience and re-affirm the company/organizational ethos.

The use of provision maps in virtual environments is still embryonic and there is scope to develop this further in terms of appraisal systems for staff, funding, and research. The NVA provides one approach as to how this could be delivered and utilized. It is possible in time, other models will surface and provision mapping for any online learning experience will be part of the package offered by providers. In time, it is possible clients and students will choose which online provider to engage with or commission by considering and comparing the respective provision maps of each provider. Such an approach will inform the client/student not only about what's offered, but also the cost and the expected impact of engagement. This indeed will be quite a revolutionary jump for both the providers and customers.


[1] Martin, J. Making and Measuring Progress for Pupils with SEND (eBook). London, Optimus, 2012.

[2] Devi, A. and McGarry, A. Online pedagogy: reaching out to the "hard-to-reach" learners. Journal of Assistive Technologies 7,1 (2013)

About the Author

Anita Devi is a published author, speaker, and researcher in the UK and overseas. As an independent education consultant, she works with Nisai Learning in strategic development. Within the special educational needs (SEN) arena, Devi has experience in school leadership, policy development, local authority work, academia, research, consultancy, and SEN Online training. She is a member of the advisory panel for the National Association of Special Educational Needs (nasen) and Epilepsy Action, as well as one of the founder members of British Association of Assistive Technology (BATA). Devi is involved in various research projects and when possible she likes to spend time in the classroom enhancing learning opportunities. She is working toward completing her doctoral studies in biofeedback technology; having recently completed her Prince2 qualifications. In 2011, she received the "Excellence in Education" MK Pride Award for her work in transforming schools as well as her international work in supporting professional development. In 2013, her name and work was included in the The Independent on Sunday Happy List; i.e. contributing to the well being of the nation.

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