Monthly Archives: September 2004

E-learning Fundamentals

The following observations may sound like common sense and well known issues. Still, I found that surprisingly little attention is paid to strategic issues and the embedding of e-learning as an institutional service. In fact there is considerable resistance in places to such developments.

1) Institutionalisation and mainstreaming
e-Learning has, in my opinion, covered good ground in terms of tools and technology. The next step is to institutionalise it. This is of great importance when it comes to joint networked courses with other universities or when trying to overcome geographical/temporal barriers to learning.

In the beginning, the impact of e-learning on the entire institutional structure is often grossly underestimated. It reaches beyond the academics to senior managers and support staff (library, IT, administration, student support, etc.). The INLEI (Impact of Network Learning on Educational Institutions) project was tasked by the JISC to look into these issues on behalf of the sector.

The required restructuring is adopted only slowly and often reluctantly. However, it’s the key to ensuring quality and embedding of e-learning as an institutional service.

2) Strategic planning
Infrastructure and ICT service are by now well developed and looked after. Now it’s time to use the technology effectively. To achieve this, a number of processes and policies need to be created which have to be fully supported by the senior management. They must aim to secure and exploit the e-learning investment (return of investment) as well as comply with legal requirements (e.g. IPR and copyright).

Successful implementation requires strategic thinking and vision by the institution (not individual departments or lecturers):
(a) What does the institution want to achieve with e-learning (e.g. widening access, increase students flexibility, improve employability, etc.);
(b) which developments should be ignored or seen as experimental only (e.g. m-Learning, gaming technology, virtual reality, etc.). This is mostly determined by budgetary constraints.

Anyway, ignoring these fundamentals may lead to uncoordinated diversification of budgets, potentials, and efforts with little if any direction.

3) Cultural change in teaching
This is arguably the most complex area of implementation – and one that money can’t buy off the shelf. A soft but firm change in pedagogy is necessary and strongly dependent on the enthusiasm and leadership demonstrated by the powers that be. Systematic emphasis in staff development programmes and CPD in combination with awareness raising strategies are needed to secure continued teaching quality.

Important trends in e-learning need to be evaluated:

  •  trend from content-oriented teaching to learning activities (or a combination of these)
  •  content and knowledge management
  •  social learning and support services
  •  creation and usage of trans-institutional resource databases
  •  inter-institutional authentication-systems
  •  implementation of technical standards for interoperability and reuse

Most of these trends are less of a technical nature but require a change in thinking and practice. The human factor plays a crucial role with reluctance to change working against developments. Because everyone has to overcome these difficulties, it pays for an institution to be an early adopter and lead the way instead of sitting back waiting.

Cultural change is not restricted to academics but has to simultaneously affect business processes and support. A good example is the role of libraries in managing and cataloguing electronic resources.

Finally, the most important and largely uncomfortable change is in my experience the loss of control over their teaching that is felt by many lecturers. Instead of being the “source of all knowledge” they become facilitators of learning and have to work in a team with learning technologists, instructional designers, e-librarians, and programmers.