‘E-learning’ is defined by the New Zealand Ministry of Education (2004, 3) as “learning that is enabled or supported by the use of digital tools and content. It typically involves some form of interactivity, which may include online interaction between the learner and their teacher or peers. E-learning opportunities are usually accessed via the internet, though other technologies such as CD-ROM are also used in e-learning.” It would be an extremely rare tertiary institution that does not have a Learning Management System (LMS) for online delivery, and a body of staff already using it in their courses.
Foundational to the strategic success of e-learning is an understanding that education institutions are based on systems. Moore and Kearsley (1996) make a simple yet enduring observation:
A common misperception among educators who are not familiar with a systems approach is that it is possible to benefit from introducing technology into education without doing anything to change the way in which education is currently organized… According to this view, once the technology is in place, there is little else to be done except to let teachers get on with their craft as they always have done… you cannot just ‘go it alone’ and maintain high quality and low costs. (pp. 6-7).
Yet for all of the interest in e-learning, activity in many institutions is remarkably ad-hoc even though standard LMS tools are typically made available to academic staff. In most institutions, the requirement to ‘get a course online’ (whatever that means) invariably results in courses that do not realize the possibilities. The differences between the application of technology from course to course is often hidden from individual staff (who tend to focus on their own papers), but it is all too clear to students. In an ad-hoc e-learning environment, tools are either supplemented by staff-specific systems (in the case of the embracers) or else woefully under-utilised. Ad-hoc e-learning environments fail to recognize the importance of systems thinking and, as a result, compromise educational quality.
In addition, educators who are early-adopters (so-called ‘embracers’ of technology) tend to make high-end use of LMS applications, and may bypass institutional processes and policies somewhat to make the technology subservient to their course needs. The vast majority of academic staff however are either tentative or potential users, or else are satisfied with the status quo. The strategic challenge tertiary institutions currently face is how to engage this extremely large majority in appropriate e-learning practice without restricting the activities of the embracers. In other words, how to efficiently coordinate e-learning development without stifling innovation, or how to help general academic staff up without pulling the innovators down.
E-learning will ideally be employed by institutions for reasons of enhancing the individualisation of instruction, improving educational quality, increasing access, reducing costs, and sustaining innovation (Twigg, 2001). The New Zealand Ministry of Education (2004) goals of accessibility, relevance and quality are similar. Small ad-hoc initiatives in pursuit of these goals do make a positive difference, but it can be difficult to transfer the successes of technology-embracers on an institutional scale. The reality is that realizing effectiveness, access and efficiency gains requires coordination of development and changes in systems. Such coordination reflects an institutional desire to implement e-learning strategically. But what might strategic e-learning coordination look like?
Coordinating e-learning activity
The case for coordination can be clearly stated:
The last of the points above is very significant as institutions seek to engage wider e-learning adoption. Without coordination, staff who are asked to place course materials online will tend to do just that and nothing more – for reasons ranging from resistance or time constraints, through to a lack of knowledge of what is truly possible. Number of courses in an LMS system is one thing; quality of practice is quite another!
Coordination sounds simple, but in practice it is quite complex because it must be based on firm answers to various groups of questions that have a managerial bias. The first questions relate to scale. What is the scale of the coordination? Is it intended to be within a programme, department, college or institution? The second group of questions relates to the scope of coordination. Should entire courses be templated, or just parts of courses (such as administrative information)? What, if any, are the boundaries for e-learning practice beyond the standard? Will coordination apply to the first iteration of a course, or to all updates as well? Coordination also requires an in-depth understanding of institutional systems and policy, and which of these are negotiable. The final questions relate to the systems of coordination. How will the standard be decided on? How will it be enforced (or will it be?) Will responsibility for coordination be centralized, or spread across the scale of coordination? How will a coordination system complement or supercede other systems already in place? What should be the parameters of standardisation, that is, how flexible and wide-reaching should the standards themselves be?
Core and custom pedagogies – a potential model for coordination
The remainder of this paper considers a potential system of coordination (there are others) that focuses particularly on pedagogies. The system is tentatively called ‘core and custom pedagogies’. Before outlining how this might work it is useful to reflect on the nature of e-learning interventions.
The nature of e-learning interventions
The following sets a framework of understanding for e-learning interventions.
This framework reinforces the importance of coordination of e-learning effort, and suggests that core and custom pedagogies must be carefully set and subject to regular review. Core pedagogies must be broad enough to enable quality use of e-learning while not disqualifying the use of additional, ‘custom’ approaches.
In their 2003 book, The virtual student, Palloff and Pratt suggest the following as a model for high-quality online courses (p.121). This (somewhat simplistic) model will be used as the basis for illustrating how a coordinated institutional e-learning approach using core and custom pedagogies could be operationalised.
This community-centred instructional model could serve as the basis for a pedagogical core, that is to say that all e-learning within the sphere of coordination should share the community-centred approach Palloff and Pratt suggest. At the very least, therefore, online courses should require some form of online interaction in the form of personal introductions and topic-related discussion. They should also encourage collaborative learning and make all course requirements, assessment expectations and online norms clear. If uploaded content becomes a part of the core, standards on file types, size and document format would be set. Staff requirements for online interaction should also be explicit.
Such a core might require staff to use a particular LMS template to ensure that a particular tool set is used within the course. It might also feature templates for syllabus or course outline information, which could be uploaded directly into the LMS with various policies and student services already inserted. Templates might also be created for online discussions or collaborative tasks to ensure that expectations are made clear to students. The use of the template might be reviewed by departmental peers, a programme leader, Head of Department, or dedicated e-learning facilitator. Variances to the template would need to be defended; the ‘core’ represents the baseline or minimal level of e-learning application.
While adopting a set of core practices is useful, it may stifle innovation and limit e-learning to the scope of what is possible in LMSs such as Blackboard, WebCT, or Moodle. A coordinated approach to e-learning within an institution should actively encourage flexibility according to opportunity or necessity, implemented on a project basis subject to funding and the four factors identified earlier in the framework for e-learning interventions. The following are suggested as potential reasons for potential custom e-learning development (potential because a solution may not necessarily lead to a role for technology):
Part of the custom offering within a department or university might consist of a number of pre-assembled custom solutions (such as online role-plays, the use of blogs, e-portfolios, etc) that could be readily applied as required. The freedom for innovation would be bounded only by the requirements that it not compromise the core and that innovative solutions are subject to the framework for e-learning interventions.
It must be stressed that the ‘core and custom’ approach is but one of many possible methods of coordination. The method most applicable to a given situation depends on the scale and scope of coordination desired.
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