October 30, 2014

2. How to do an e-learning plan

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© Bates and Sangra, 2011: Creative Commons license

This is the second in a series of four posts on developing an e-learning plan. The first post discussed why an e-learning plan may be needed, this post, the second, will discuss how to do a plan,  the third post will discuss what should be in a plan, and the last post will discuss how to implement an e-learning plan.

The importance of context

This is the most difficult of the three posts to write, because how a plan is developed will depend very much on the context, and particularly on the size of the institution, the level at which the plan is to be done, and the personality and status of the key movers and shakers within the organization. An e-learning plan can cover a whole institution, an academic department or Faculty, or a program area. Indeed, a good plan is likely to have input and implications at all these levels, although the focus is likely to vary, depending on who commissions the plan (see ‘The sponsor’ below).

Second I have set out the actions needed for a plan in a logically ordered way, but in reality the development of a plan is likely to be less ordered and concise. In this context, General Eisenhower’s comment before the D-Day landing should be remembered: ‘Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.’

The sponsor

Every plan needs a sponsor. This is the person (or maybe the committee) that requests or commissions the plan. Ideally, the sponsor should have the power to approve and support the recommendations in the plan, and can ensure that the main recommendations are implemented. At an institutional level, the sponsor is likely to be the President (in a relatively small institution), or the VP Academic/Provost and/or a VP Administration (if IT Services report to this person), or a high level Technology Committee chaired by either or both the fore-mentioned VPs (in a larger institution). Indeed, the first step in developing an e-learning plan may be setting up a high level committee that represents all key stakeholders and which will eventually have responsibility for approving and implementing an integrated Technology Plan that includes plans for teaching, research, administrative and infrastructure requirements. However, it is best to keep the elearning plan simple and focused, at least initially.

Also, it should be recognized that although an e-learning plan will have major implications for IT Services and other administrative areas, it is primarily an academic plan, as its focus should be on the use of technology for teaching and learning. For this reason, although specialized units such as IT Services or a Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology are likely to be heavily engaged in developing an e-learning plan, it is probably not a good idea to have one of these units responsible for the plan, because a good e-learning plan will need to get the support of a wide range of stakeholders, and is likely to require resource decisions that will need to be taken beyond such specialized units. However, if the senior administration has shown no interest in developing a strategy for e-learning, then one of these centres might take leadership. The chances of such a centre’s plan being implemented are slight, but it might galvanize the administration to do something instead. In any case,the Directors of such centres are likely to be the ones who will need to persuade their VPs that an e-learning plan is needed.

The sponsor’s responsibility should cover the following:

  • setting a clear mandate for the plan: what it is meant to do, when it should be done by, and to whom the plan will be presented for approval or amendment. In particular, it should be clear whether the plan is to include all learning technologies, both for on-campus and distance teaching (preferably), or whether it is to focus on one or the other.
  • deciding on how the plan will be done, in broad outline (e.g. who will do it, who needs to be consulted,  and how the plan and any decisions will be communicated to the key stakeholders)
  • choosing who will do the plan; this may involve hiring an external consultant – in which case an internal counterpart should be appointed to work with the consultant – or appointing a chair and members of a team to develop the plan. Although a team approach has its value, the chair or lead person should have high status within the organization and be capable of producing a clear and practical plan, even if there are differences within the team.

Integrated planning

Ideally, an e-learning plan should be integrated within a broader planning cycle (see header to this post). It will be seen that an e-learning plan needs to be driven by the institution’s strategic directions, so it should link clearly to the strategic plan and an academic plan (if they are being developed). Thus the Strategic Plan should have  some statement about the institution’s intentions regarding the use of learning technologies, even if only at a broad level (e.g. ‘The University will increase its use of learning technologies to help deliver the IT skills and competencies needed in all professions.’).

Such a broad strategy should become more defined at the Faculty or departmental level and hence reflected in the Academic Plan. One of the benefits of doing an e-learning plan is that it requires academic departments to identify what kinds of courses (classroom, blended or online) they are likely to be developing. (e.g. ‘The Faculty of Medicine is heavily committed to delivering continuing professional education to a wide range of medical specialists across the province; this will involve extensive use of online learning, and in particular video-conferencing for demonstrating medical procedures.’) This kind of direction at the department or program level greatly facilitates the development of an e-learning plan, and helps locate it within the broader strategy of programs, faculties and the institution.

Of course, there can also be a ‘bottom-up’ movement, where individual instructors or course teams identify needs that are then incorporated into an Academic Plan that then influences the Strategic Plan. Thus in reality there is usually a flow of ideas and strategies in both directions. The important thing to have though is a process that allows these ideas to flow throughout the institution and for decisions to be made and priorities set.

Lastly, the e-learning plan (or more likely an integrated Technology Plan which incorporates the e-learning plan) will need to be ready in time for it to be included in the budget process, if there are cost implications (which there almost certainly will be.) Nevertheless it is quite likely in some institutions that there is no strategic or academic plan, or if there is, there is no mention of e-learning or learning technologies. In that case, an e-learning plan is likely to struggle to be accepted, but may play an important role in influencing strategic thinking at a senior management level in subsequent years.

Who should be involved?

This again will depend on the size and nature of the institution. In a large university, faculty need to be heavily involved in all stages of the process. This means in effect having meetings with faculty across every main department or faculty grouping. This is necessary because the learning technology needs of engineers are very different from those of social scientists. Also, some departments or divisions will have a very clear idea of their learning technology needs; others will be much further behind in their thinking in this area, and indeed may need a lot of help in defining their needs. Nevertheless in all cases faculty  should be involved. I will discuss below some of the activities and methods that can be used to engage faculty in this process of identifying their needs and intentions. In two year colleges, full time instructors should be involved, but often it is difficult for them to find time to attend meetings because of their teaching load. For this reason, Deans or Heads of department in two year colleges will probably need to be heavily involved in developing an e-learning plan.

Secondly, whether a team or an individual is tasked with developing the plan, it is likely to need some kind of cross-institutional committee to facilitate the development of the e-learning plan. This could be an ad hoc committee set up especially to steer the planning process, or an already existing committee (such as an educational technology committee), or a specially created sub-committee of a larger committee. The important point is that members of the e-learning planning committee can act as a champion and liaison within their own areas, and help facilitate the collection of information and meetings within their departments. Such an e-learning planning committee is likely to include a couple of Deans, some faculty members, the Directors of IT Services and Learning Technology units, and a student representative.

If a Dean or senior academic chairs the team or e-learning steering committee, they will almost certainly need the extensive commitment of someone, probably from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, to do the donkey work of arranging meetings within the different Faculties, taking notes of meetings, and writing up and analysing the outcomes of these meetings, even if in the end the final writing of the plan will be done by the Chair. The e-learning plan will take up a major portion of this technical support person’s time for a period of six months to a year. The choice of this technical support person is critical. This person must have a good understanding of the issues around the choice and use of technology for teaching, have good communications skills, be able to synthesize a wide range of input from stakeholders, and be respected across the university or college.

Although there is more controversy about this issue, it is my belief that students also need to be engaged in the e-learning plan development. There are various ways to do this, which I will describe later, and it is important to have realistic expectations about what students can contribute to the discussions, but they provide an important and different perspective.

Lastly, in some institutions, the Board can play an important role, both in ensuring that the institution is looking at modern methods of teaching and has strategies and plans to support the use of learning technologies, and in possibly helping to locate earmarked funding if the plan identifies such needs.

The eight stages of planning

Once the sponsor has set in motion the e-learning planning process by setting a clear mandate and appointing someone responsible for managing the planning process, the following steps need to be put in place:

1. Discussion and buy-in by the executive team of the need for an e-learning plan, and support for the process.

2. Communication throughout the institution of the mandate of the e-learning plan, why the plan is needed,  how it will be conducted and integrated with other planning activities, who will be involved, and the expectations being placed on stakeholders to participate fully. The Deans have an important role in ensuring this message is received and understood within their departments.

3. Analysis of the strategic plan and academic plan (and if available, departmental teaching plans) for strategies and directions for e-learning. (There may be no reference to learning technology in these plans, in which case interviews with senior administrators and Deans may be necessary to identify implicit strategies, directions and priorities).

4. A SWOT analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to teaching, and the possible role of learning technologies within this context. (This is best done at a Faculty or divisional level, as part of the e-learning planning day (see below). The aim here is to identify areas where learning technologies can play an important role in dealing with general issues around teaching and learning within the division or department.

5. Visioning/identifying future needs. Mintzberg argues that what’s important is not so much strategic plans but strategic thinking. What are the learning needs of students today and tomorrow? How can we deliver teaching to meet the needs of a rapidly changing demographic? How do our students prefer to learn? What skills and competencies must students develop and what’s the best way to develop these skills? What learning technologies are we using now in the department, what works, and what should we be using in future? What are the current barriers to using learning technologies in the way we would like? How do the answers to the learning technology questions relate to the earlier questions about teaching?

This means holding a structured discussion about teaching methods and the role of learning technologies, in order for goals and strategies to be identified. Once identified these goals and strategies are likely to differ considerably from department to department.

One way of facilitating this structured discussion is to have a series of lunch hour ‘show and tell’ sessions of faculty using technology for teaching within the subject discipline, in advance of a half-day planning session. In the half-day there would be a short presentation of  a SWOT analysis of the department’s teaching context conducted in advance (perhaps by the Dean), followed by a brainstorming session where faculty are asked to develop concrete scenarios of how they would like to be teaching in the future. These scenarios would be collected for planning purposes. This would be more suitable where a department has not been using learning technologies to any extent or in very limited ways. This is as much an educational exercise as a planning exercise for faculty.

Another way is to hold a 90 minute session with a cross-section of instructors within a department to ask what technologies they are currently using, what technologies they would like to be using in future, and what the barriers are to increased use of learning technologies. This would be more suitable for a department more experienced in innovative uses of technology for teaching. Eventually, this kind of thinking and planning should push down to the program level (a bachelor’s, or masters program, or a foundation year).

In both methods (brainstorming or shorter 90 minute discussion sessions), learning technology and IT Service staff, and student representatives, should fully participate, as well as faculty and perhaps part-time instructors.Whatever method is used, the aim is to come away with  clear idea of where the department or division wants to go with learning technologies, what are the main barriers, and what resources are they looking for to support their use of learning technologies.

6. Analysis of data and the writing of the report. This requires pulling the information together from the various sources: strategic directions in the strategic plan; SWOT analyses; academic plans indicating courses to be offered and how they will be delivered; reports from meetings with individual faculties. What will be covered in the report will be discussed in the next post.

7. Delivery of the report to the sponsor. The sponsor may well want the report to go out to the academic divisions for comment and further input. The report will then be accepted or amended by the sponsor, budget implications identified, and priorities set. The plan may then be integrated within a broader Technology Plan, and then submitted as part of the budget process.

8. Final decisions following the budget process will then be communicated to the various stakeholders and the implementation plan (see next post) will be implemented.

How long?

Ideally, there should be an annual planning cycle that includes an e-learning plan. The first time an e-learning plan is done can take up to nine months in a large institution from start to finish, and a couple of months in a small institution. However, after the first year, the process tends to become more streamlined, and can be done in as short a time as six weeks, even in a large institution. However, because of rapid developments in technology, and changing needs and directions in teaching, some form of annual planning for learning technologies is essential.

Conclusion

There are many different ways to do an e-learning plan, but they all require some time and commitment from a wide range of stakeholders.. The process becomes quicker and easier over time, but a well-managed process is essential. In the next post, I will discuss what should be in an e-learning plan.

Questions

1. Does your institution have a process for planning for learning technologies? Does it work?

2. Is this really necessary? Wouldn’t it be better just to let management make these decisions? Or just let individual faculty members decide what they want to do?

3. If you think planning is needed, is this the best way to go about it? Could it be done more easily or simply? If so let me know!

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  1. [...] on developing an e-learning plan. The first post discussed why an e-learning plan may be needed, the second discussed how to do a plan, and this, the third post, will discuss what should be in a [...]

  2. [...] 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 [...]

  3. [...] on developing an e-learning plan. The first post discussed why an e-learning plan may be needed, the second discussed how to do a plan, the third post discussed what should be in a plan, and this post will [...]

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