International Forum of Educational Technology & Society

Formal Discussion Initiation

Strategic e-learning implementation


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Time schedule:
Discussion: July 11-20, 2005
Summing-up: July 21-22, 2005

Moderators and Summarisers:
Mark Nichols and Bill Anderson
Massey University, New Zealand

 

‘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:

  • Systems thinking demands that e-learning be seen in its overall context which is made up of various internal systems, each of which are potentially influence or are influenced by the use of e-learning tools: enrolments, IT support, library services, staff development, quality assurance processes, timetabling, and others. An online systems framework is provided by Davis (in Anderson and Elloumi, 2004, 102):

Davis' Online systems framework

 

It is clear that changes in course design can have far-reaching implications. Issues of resource duplication (in the case of CD-ROMs, print materials, etc.) and continuity are not addressed in this diagram (though the latter might certainly be a part of the quality assessment process) because of the diagram’s focus on ‘online’, but such issues are still important elements of the distance education systems that form e-learning’s typical context.

  • Tertiary institutions are usually resource-constrained, meaning that development effort needs to be well targeted – and well managed. A coordinated approach may also make expectations and funding opportunities for e-learning initiatives clearer to academic staff (see below; ‘core’ activities might become a part of an academic’s standard job, ‘custom’ activities might be funded on a project basis).
  • Coordination results in an improved longevity of investment. When an embracer leaves an institution, they tend to take the knowledge required of how their paper makes specific use of technology with them. A coordinated approach can ensure that at least a base-level of e-learning application remains.
  • A coordinated approach might result in wider adoption of embracers’ techniques, as transferable innovation can be rolled out across other papers. This may also lead to institutional user-support and staff training for embracer-designed applications.
  • Within qualifications taught by both embracers and general academic staff there can be a standardization/innovation tension; coordination can ensure that this tension is managed within clear boundaries.
  • The student experience can become more consistent, with the associated benefits of less orientation time across new courses, clearer expectations, and more confident use of e-learning tools.
  • Coordinated development may become self-perpetuating, assisting with the assimilation of new staff and enhancing the ability of existing academic staff to support one another.

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.

  • E-learning pedagogies are probabilistic (see Reigeluth, 1999), that is to say, there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ approach because of the diverse contexts within which e-learning tools are applied, including the diversity between the students themselves and the varying teaching and learning demands of particular courses.
  • E-learning pedagogies are constrained by institutional factors, including the technologies and applications supported by the institution, quality assurance policies and standards, availability of staff training and support in e-learning, the existing level of staff proficiency in technology and e-learning, the perspectives of staff responsible for coordinating e-learning development, and the amount of time and funding made available for e-learning practice.
  • E-learning pedagogies must be defensible, that is, not used haphazardly but rather intelligently – preferably with some reference to proven educational practice. While e-learning pedagogies could be considered as specific to technological settings, they must also be underpinned by accepted educational theory.
  • E-learning pedagogies are evolving in the sense that new modes of practice and enhanced technological tools are continually emerging. E-learning practice cannot remain static, but should instead seek to make the most of new opportunities.

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.

 

Core pedagogies

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.

 

Paloff and Pratt's Community model


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.

 

Custom pedagogies

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):

  • Conceptual difficulty – what do students traditionally find difficult to grasp, or what is traditionally difficult to teach? There may be a creative use for e-learning tools that will improve the situation. The work of Jonassen et al (1997) demonstrates how this might be achieved. Experience indicates that most academics are already aware of how the conceptual difficulty might be addressed.
  • Multi-media and simulation opportunities – there may be particular aspects of a course that might benefit from the use of static or interactive media.
  • Academic staff member interest – there may be a particular interest the staff member has to do with technology that could become the focus of an e-learning project.

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.

 

Endnote

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.

 

Discussion questions

  1. Does the proposed ‘core and custom’ model seem to place managerial interests above those of academics? Of students?
  2. Does academic freedom relate to methodology or subject content? Where should the bounds of managerialism in education design and standardization lie? To put it provocatively, are academics free to teach their students poorly?
  3. As an academic, how would you respond to the ‘core and custom’ model if it were applied in your institutional setting?
  4. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of coordination? Of the ‘core and custom’ approach?

 

Bibliography

Davis, A. (2004). Developing an infrastructure for online learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and practice of online learning (pp.97-114). Retrieved 25 May, 2005, from http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book

Jonassen, D.H., Dyer, D., Peters, K., Robinson, T., Harvey, D., King, M., & Loughner, P. (1997). Cognitive flexibility hypertexts on the web: Engaging learners in meaning making. In B. Khan (Ed.), Web-based instruction (pp.119-133). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Ministry of Education (2004). Interim tertiary e-learning framework. Retrieved 26 May, 2005, from http://www.minedu.govt.nz

Moore, M. & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. USA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student. USA: Jossey-Bass.

Reigeluth, C. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models, Volume II (pp.5-29). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Twigg, C. (2001). Innovations in online learning: Moving beyond no significant difference. Retrieved 25 May, 2005, from http://www.center.rpi.edu/ResMono.html

 

 

 

About moderator

Mark Nichols and Bill Anderson are with College of Education of Massey University, New Zealand.

 


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