“Big Game Hunting” for Macro-Scale Federal Grants
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Every so often, in the life of an instructional designer, an opportunity arises to go big game hunting for large-size grants. This is more than providing assists on pedagogical aspects of a grant or helping to execute on a large grant that has gone into overtime (the famous unfunded fourth or fifth year of a three-year grant).
A Confluence of Factors
Usually, for an educational institution or multiple ones to pursue a grant, there has to be a government agency that has put out a call for proposals, a principal investigator (PI) / project director (PD) who is an expert in the field, co-PIs with various types of applicable professional experiences, and a compelling research and / or curricular idea. In general, such grants are multi-year and multi-million dollar ones. The university or college is brought into play because of local capabilities, local resources, and trusted professional relationships.
And finally, the instructional designer (ID) is brought into play for any number of reasons:
- the ID has the requisite pedagogical and technological skills for the work
- the ID has a rare skill set, such as in particular computer languages
- the ID may help do the work that the PI and / or co-PI does not want (like data analytics, like research pedagogical research and writing up that part of the grant, like creating data visualizations, like documenting the work, like chasing copyright releases, and others)
- the ID has some reputation in the field and may strengthen the grant, and others.
There is not a real way to use friendship to be on the short-list. In my years in teaching and ID work, social ties may help with the free stuff—such as invitations to present for free on campus…but it is not something often done when there is cold hard cash on the line. Here, it is real for real, value for money. (My actual friends are good for friendship, and it stops there.)
Actual Value for $
Years ago, one of my former colleagues chided me for now including my fellow IDs on some funded projects. He was not thinking about how hard it is to get people to actually spend money if they feel that they don’t have to. I asked him a rhetorical question about how hard it would be to get a colleague to buy one a coffee. I don’t know that he agreed with me after the discussion, but as the years have passed, I can vouch for the idea that I have only been brought on board to paid projects when the PIs and co-PIs absolutely needed the actual deliverables, done legally, done educationally, done correctly, done functionally, and done right. [It has always seemed to me that when one pays out in charm, one gets charm in return. If one wants real, one has to engage in the real, by providing actual value.]
In alignment with the business literature, what works are lean teams with hard-working cross-functional team members who (1) collaborate well together, (2) engage each other politely but candidly, (3) follow through on promises to quality and under deadline, (4) act in the interests of the team (not the self), and (5) learn continuously.
It is also a lot about what a person does not do. Such teams do not work well when members (1) are dishonest (especially about capabilities, especially about other people), (2) self-deal, (3) ignore deadlines, (4) fail to show up, (5) fail to deliver to professional standards, (6) just “give advice” without doing any actual work, (7) engage in sloppy and non-rigorous work, (8) fail to follow the law in their work, (9) build to social relationships only without building to capabilities, (10) insist on bylines for their work (not the right context for such claims), and so on.
In any shared project, one has to disassociate from the work sufficiently so that if it is not included in the finalized proposal or publication or presentation, one is not emotionally hurt. There is not space for that type of personal indulgence. Also, anything created should be shared fully, with the raw files and the editable files shared, 100%. Sometimes, people will “protect” themselves by only sharing the final image or .pdf file. Better fair play means sharing the editable files and not protecting turf.
Rules of the Game and the Requisite Skills
Having worked on a number of grant proposals as a co-PI on several and a support researcher/writer on others, I have made some observations about this space about macro grants.
Doing one’s homework. It helps to read the documentation around the grant proposal, review what got funded in the past, elicit scuttlebutt about what works for funding, and explore more deeply. How does the funding agency like its data? What sort of logic model does it prefer? What sort of work aligns with the identity and objectives of the funding agency? Then, these observations have to be applied to the actual grant application.
Thinking it through. Recent research on the human brain suggests that people make better decisions when they are in an emotional “cold state” instead of an excited “hot” one. I have seen teams get overwhelmed by the amount of money they were pursuing and the opportunities there-in and miss gaps in their proposals. In one, for a digital game, the PI did not want to think about artwork or contents and had to be convinced that that should be included in the grant application.
In another case, the co-PI was very enthusiastic about using several different theoretical frameworks for the curricular design but couldn’t recognize these applications once they were instantiated. Both frameworks were expensive but in different ways. One involved requesting rights through a global multinational company that was so secretive that it took six months to acquire rights, and we only ever got the name of the lawyer at about the six-month mark, and our permissions were only for a year at a time. We had to renew the rights annually. And for the other framework, we had to pay actual money to the thinker for access to his ideas. The actual work could have been done with different frameworks because the insights were not that original by either thinker (although the ideas may have been more original at the moment of inception).
Besides a “cold (emotional) state,” there is a benefit to going skeptical. In a recent project, the local lead co-PI and I brainstormed a list of how the grant application would fail…and what that would look like, so we could do our best to avoid that (even with 1:9 odds of success). Because of this list, we ensured that we achieved the following:
- addressed the requirements of the grant;
- showcased the team’s capabilities in the proposal;
- highlighted new science (technologies, techniques, analytics, and others) in our work;
- demonstrated variances of communications strategies to various critical audiences;
- shared pedagogical designs and plans;
- made a business case for the costs;
- defined the respective roles of the team members and ensured that we did not leave gaps in the work or the capabilities;
- documented solidly with curriculum vitae (CVs), resumes, letters of support, and other elements;
- cited sources using academic standards;
- included learners (in higher education) in the work;
- described educational research that would be conducted during the project (along with other types of research);
- set up a clear and practical timeline;
- planned for the sustainability of the project beyond the funded five years;
- used a clear name for the project for easier reference;
- described regular distribution paths for the sharing of the research work; and others.
In collaborative proposals, everyone has to do their part. Each element has to be achieved to quality. The lead has to pull together all the pieces.
Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration
Smart collaboration across distances requires the use of a secure online workspace where people may share their respective files. Perhaps there is a working document for the main proposal. There may be folders for imagery, research, letters of support, budget documents, and others.
Part of the collaboration involves the ability to self-discipline to the work, to call it as one sees it, and to share information politely, so that people are not offended. In my observations, people can be a little paranoid (because it is true that “only the paranoid survive”) and can misread people’s mistakes as something intentional. People have to build the trust so that others can believe them based on lived experiences and observations and reputations. There is no assumption that others will just somehow extend “fast trust.”
There will be iterating various diagrams and images dozens of time until satisfaction. There will be investments made into work that does not make. There will be snippets of prose edited out. That’s just the basic par for the course.
There will be late nights. There will be weekend work. The work is exacting and high-precision, and people need to make sure that what they contribute is accurate. Thankfully, people on a team have the know how and the capabilities to double-check everything. Also, each person has to play an important role in double-checking what they know. (Everyone will end up finding some mistakes to correct, IMHO.)
Part of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s requires working with administrators who may not have the full experience needed. They may ask for documentation that is not required before they will write a letter to support the work. They may not even be in the correct role to sign off on the project. They may want to use the work to shore up their own political interests. That’s just how things work. Some will request access to the work or the related data, but sharing is not allowed per se without the permission of the project leads. [I personally will share files like data handling plans because these may benefit the work of the administrators on current and future projects. In an institution of higher education, the general truth is that most researchers are pretty open with the work, at least with in-house administrators.]
Budgeting. Budgeting comes into play. How much will it cost to actualize what one has promised? Here, the money has to be real-world, and once one has signed on, there will be no extra funding if one runs over. One has to be competitive in terms of funding by being frugal and efficient; one has to be realistic about the technologies and time needed. One has to be flexible about funds because there will be adjustments now and again depending on what the various institutions are doing. Then, too, based on university policies, various campus bureaucracies take negotiated percentages of the budget for sponsored research overhead. If funded, the hours invested will be logged for internal records, but the payouts will be the ones one agreed to, for the lifespan of the grant (assuming actual work and actual progress with deliverables).
Each institution at the table pays its own way, generally, until a decision is made on the funding. If it’s a yes, that’s great; if it’s a no, then whatever sunk time there was is just essentially gone except for (1) the learning, (2) the transient professional relationships, and (3) a diminishing hope that the materials may be used at some future time on a different grant project. (In some rare cases, a resubmittal is requested with a gap addressed, and I have worked that pedagogical piece for a large grant.)
Work scheduling. Another important step involves budgeting time for the work. In a complex project, with the various interdependencies and the need for people to finish their work before others, coordination is critical. For this, Gantt charts and timelines and work tables may be used to express the necessary work.
Electronic submittal and electronic signatures. For federal grants, these are submitted via electronic systems. Usually, there is one point of contact for the whole collaborative grant, and that office handles the disparate files. Then, too, at the local campus, there is an electronic system to collect agreements and signatures.
Social capital for trying. On a university campus, the political economy benefits those willing to try. Being a co-PI on a grant raises one’s profile and enhances one’s social capital, even if one’s project is not funded. (The odds are about 2 – 10% funding for many of these larger grants, at least the ones that I’ve read the fine print on.) The setting up of a grant application is no small feat. It involves months of work by everyone involved. In that time, some people will be added, and others will be dropped (or will drop themselves). Ideas will be proposed, and some will take, and others will drop to the wayside. What “makes” depends on what the proponents advocate and can show themselves capable of doing. An idea is only as good as what one can make real. Every assertion about what one will do will be tested if the grant is funded.
A Basic Flowchart
A general walk-through is shown in the flowchart below. (Figure 1)
Figure 1. A Basic Flowchart of Pursuing Large-Scale Grants
To view the visual closer to actual size, please click "Details."
For large-scale grants, it may take a good half-year or more to find out the decisions of the double-blind committee. If it is a yes, then a lot of work follows for the next number of years. If it is a no, then one has to make peace with that decision and continue to bring it the next opportunity that arises (or that one makes). If it’s a “maybe,” then one has to address whatever issues were raised and then go back to waiting.
Finally, how can an instructional design prepare for such opportunities? It helps to have an updated CV handy, along with an updated short resume. It helps to have knowledge of grant writing and how to contribute. It helps to be a quick-study, so as to parachute in to a discipline and be able to function at a basic level early on. [It also helps to have at least the basic technological toolkit: the Adobe Creative Cloud set of tools, the MS Office Suite, MS Visio Professionals, to create the materials. Then, there is a need for the authoring tools for instructional designs, analytical tools for data analysis, and other tools of the trade.]
And even if the large ones do not come along, with co-PI opportunities, there are always the smaller ones with various types of design, development, and deployment work, and data analytics tasks, which can be fulfilling, too.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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