This is the first of a series of four posts on e-learning plans. This post discusses why an e-learning plan is needed, the second post discusses how to go about developing an e-learning plan, the third post discusses what should be in an e-learning plan, and the last post discusses how to implement an e-learning plan.
Arguments against an e-learning plan
The basic argument against any kind of planning is that it goes against the organizational culture, especially of universities. Planning is often (incorrectly) considered a top-down exercise, imposed by management, taking up precious research time in token consultation, and then recommendations are ignored after completion because there are no resources to implement them. Faculty in particular see institutional planning as a waste of time.
Against this though needs to be balanced the wasted time of faculty and instructors trying to make technology work without adequate training or support, duplication of activities and hence costs diverted from ‘front-line’ teaching, and above all poor quality teaching because technology is either badly used or not used where it could help improve the learning experience.
‘You can’t predict the future.’ There are two parts of this argument, one general and one particular. The first is that it is impossible to know what faculty or instructors will want to be doing next year, never mind in three or five years time. The external environment changes too rapidly. The second is that the technology changes too rapidly – who knows what Apple or Google will come up with next year?
The first argument is somewhat ironical, given the slow pace of change in most universities. In any case, the whole point of a plan is to reduce the risk from external forces and to take some control over one’s destiny. In particular, a very large investment has already been made in educational technologies, with little evidence of clearly measurable benefits. Now is the time to start focusing on priorities and clear goals, and that needs a plan of some kind. In terms of technology, teaching requirements change less rapidly and learning management systems have been around for 15 years or so, so it is a fallacy to assume that decisions that can last for several years can’t be made in this area.
Lack of a knowledge base in e-learning planning
This argument states that e-learning is so new we don’t know what should go in a plan, and whether or not a plan will work. No-one knows how to do this well.
I hope to show over the next two posts that this is not so; we do have some good principles and processes that can be used to develop powerful e-learning plans, and some experience of what works and what doesn’t.
There are costs in developing an e-learning plan. People have to attend meetings, a consultant may have to be hired, and it is likely to result in recommendations that cost money that will have to come from the teaching budgets.
This is all true, but there are also significant costs in not doing the planning – lost opportunities, institutional inertia, loss of quality, duplication of activities and lack of clear benefits from using technology for teaching.
Some rationales for an e-learning plan
I am sometimes asked by a degree quality assurance board (DQAB) to evaluate a college’s capacity to support the online delivery component of a degree program. The DQAB wants to ensure that if a college is offering a degree, the online component will be of at least the same quality as a face-to-face program. This usually means applying e-learning quality standards to the degree proposal.
Most times when I have been asked to do this, the college has had no plan for e-learning or online learning, other than the intent to develop some online courses within a particular degree program (it may already have other online courses in non-degree or continuing education programs). I may therefore be able to assess from the degree application or subsequent questions to the college whether there are support units to help faculty, whether there is technical support for students, whether the college has a set of quality guidelines for online learning, etc. But what I cannot assess (nor more importantly can the college) is the capacity to grow into more online learning.
To do that, I need to know the college’s intentions for all future online learning, including blended learning, at least for the upcoming one to three years. This information often is simply not available. The decision to use online learning is often made not even by a program or department, but by an individual instructor, sometimes just a few weeks before they start teaching. The institution’s strategy may be little more than making available a learning management system (or even worse, a lecture capture system), and hoping that faculty and instructors will use it for online learning – a sure way to fail my quality test.
The main reason that a plan is needed is so that a program team or academic department, or the institution as a whole, has a clear idea about why it is using online learning, which courses will be delivered fully online, and which in a blended mode. Out of this will come all sorts of requirements, such as faculty training, instructional and media design, IT technical support, and online student advising and support. One of the consequences of not having a plan is that the support areas have no idea what’s likely to come down the pipeline. Frequently they are always running to catch up with demand. The problem scales up when many different departments or programs begin to experiment with blended or fully online learning. It is often at this point that the institution decides it needs a plan (but I believe that at this stage, it’s sometimes too late – too many decisions have already been made that will be difficult to undo).
The boss wants it
Another reason (and the most common trigger) for an e-learning plan is that the President or senior administration believes that for strategic reasons the college or university needs to move more aggressively into e-learning, but the institution is not moving fast enough. The hope is that a plan will enable the barriers to be identified and removed, necessary additional resources identified, and above all a clear message sent to faculty about the importance of e-learning or teaching with technology.
Technology development: will it never end?
Finally the rapid change in technology and the implications for teaching and learning means that some sort of strategy or plan needs to be developed to facilitate decision-making. In particular, what should be the institution’s strategy in supporting a range of web 2.0 technologies? Should the LMS license be reviewed, given all the developments in this area? These decisions are often made from too narrow a perspective, if they just focus on a particular technology in isolation. An e-learning plan allows an institution to step back from the short-term, and look at where it wants to go in the longer term, and where and how these new technology developments fit with its overall goals and mandate.
The main argument for developing an e-learning plan has to lie in the benefits it can bring: clarity of purpose and measurable goals for the use of technology for teaching; setting priorities; identifying needs and resources; improved quality of teaching and learning; greater student accessibility; and above all, if done well, buy-in and commitment from faculty, instructors and administrators for the intelligent use of technology for teaching.
The next post will look at how to go about developing an e-learning plan.
- Does your institution have an e-learning plan or a plan for learning technologies?
- If so, has it worked? If not, why not?
- What are your views on the potential value of an e-learning plan? Do you buy the arguments for a plan? If not, why not?