April 24, 2017

3. What should go into an e-learning plan

This is the third in a series of four posts 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 plan. The last post will discuss how to implement an e-learning plan.

The importance of context, once again

Once again, context will determine the really useful parts of a plan, i.e. its content. In this post I will be focusing on the framework of a plan, the headings, if you like, which will be more consistent across contexts, but nevertheless can still be influenced by context.

In this post I will describe all the elements of a plan, but some of these elements won’t be relevant or necessary in all contexts. For instance, in the first year or first time round in developing an e-learning plan, you really do have to spell out the values and principles that drive the plan, and a clear rationale for e-learning will be necessary. In later years, these may be so well instilled within the organization that they will not need repeating, and the plan will focus more on new directions in technology, for instance, within these overall values and rationales.

Mandate for the plan

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Especially in the first iteration, an e-learning plan should briefly spell out who commissioned it, why, who will respond to it, and the immediate steps that will follow acceptance or amendments to the plan. This may not be in the plan itself, but in a covering letter or frontispiece, written by the sponsor of the plan.

The main thing to remember about an actual plan (as distinct from the planning process) is this is mainly a communications tool, setting out what needs to be done, why, and who is responsible for doing it. It should go out to almost everyone in the institution, because e-learning is now likely to affect most of the key stakeholders.

The big picture

This will put the e-learning plan into the ‘big picture’ of where the institution is going. This may mean referencing the strategic plan, or key decisions that have been made about the institution, such as the need to increase access or internationalize the curricula or focus on the quality of undergraduate teaching. In particular, at this stage the plan needs to be linked to any statements about learning technologies in the strategic or academic plans. In some circumstances, the e-learning plan may be the direct consequence of a senior leadership decision – in other words, sitting relatively independent of the other directions in the strategic plan, but itself a new direction seen by the senior ‘sponsor’ as important in its own right. If so, this needs to be explained (and preferably incorporated into the next iteration of the strategic plan).

There is often lots of discussion about whether or not to develop a vision statement for e-learning. I would stick though to the big picture in this section and try to tie the e-learning plan to institutional vision, mission and strategic directions. For instance, the institutional vision of one institution where I worked was ‘to be a world leader in justice and public safety education’ and its mission statement was ‘innovative education for those who make communities safe.’ This provided a clear basis for the rationale for technology-based learning, and not just standard, everyday e-learning, but leading edge e-learning.

Unfortunately, though, not all institutions have clear or compelling strategic plans or mission statements, in which case it may be necessary to make a ‘stand-alone’ case for the use of learning technologies, and in this case, some statement of an overall institutional vision for e-learning would be helpful. The key point here is to set the plan in the broader context of the future of the organization.

Methodology

A brief section on how the e-learning plan was developed, in particular including the framework set by the sponsor(s) and the consultative process. A list of all the groups consulted can go into an appendix.

Core values and principles

The core values and principles that will underly the use of technology for teaching may need to be discussed and agreed before any real progress can be made, especially in institutions where there is strong resistance to the idea or practice of e-learning. Getting these core principles established can then take a lot of negative issues off the table in the rest of the planning exercise. Examples of core values and principles are:

  • e-learning will be used only where there are clearly identified benefits
  • e-learning is being used not to replace instructors but to strengthen their role in teaching and learning
  • increases in workload for instructors and students will be avoided by following best practices in e-learning
  • before important decisions are made about e-learning there will be open consultation with key stakeholders (which of course is a main reason for such a planning exercise).
Such principles would then provide a set of criteria that will need to be followed within the e-learning plan. Recommendations will need to be consistent with such principles. It will be less important to spell out these core principles in institutions where faculty and instructors have a general acceptance of the value of e-learning.

The current context of e-learning in the organization

This is basically a summary of the SWOT analysis. It should describe the main strengths and weaknesses of e-learning and the opportunities and threats, but this should be embedded in actual examples of what is happening in the institution. This is the place where barriers to change need to be identified, as well as identifying those areas that are leaders in e-learning, and why. It is really important to be honest but respectful in this section and it will need very careful writing. However, the worst strategy is to try to avoid upsetting anyone. This is the one opportunity to address any underlying problems, such as lack of faculty training or support units stretched too thinly. At the same time, the issues must be evidence-based, in the sense that these are issues that have been commonly raised across several divisions.

The value of a good SWOT analysis is that it identifies possible strategic directions or needed actions that will follow later in the report, and also, importantly, it demonstrates to key stakeholders that they have been listened to.

Rationale or goals for e-learning

These are actually somewhat different. Rationale deals with the arguments for using technology for teaching and learning. These are likely to be general arguments that would apply to any post-secondary education institution. They are not usually set out in any order of priority.

Rationales might include the following:

  • improving the quality of learning
  • widening access
  • increasing flexibility
  • teaching 21st century skills
  • developing IT literate graduates
  • enhancing classroom teaching
  • improving cost effectiveness.

A general rationale is likely to be needed where there is still relatively little acceptance of the importance of technology for teaching. However, the rationale, however eloquently worded, is likely to be weak if it is not tied to specific needs or goals translated into actions for teaching and learning.

Goals are more specific. They indicate deliberate choices about what the institution is trying to achieve in its use of technology, and they should be prioritized. Ideally the goals should be stated in a way that enables them to be measured in some way, such as partly implemented (defined) or fully implemented (also defined), successful or unsuccessful (with the criteria for success identified).

They should also be directly related to core academic or educational directions for the institution. This is important. There is no intrinsic value in using technology. It must serve educational purposes, such as better learning (however defined), more accessibility, cost-effectiveness, etc. These educational goals require parallel planning activities to identify them, and the e-learning goals should be directly linked to such educational goals.

A good plan will go beyond goals and identify strategies for reaching the goals, intended outcomes, and performance indicators. I give an example below from a large research university

Examples of goals, strategies and performance indicators for learning technologies

Academic Goal  Strategies Intended Outcomes Performance indicators (within 3 years)
Innovation in teaching 1. Redesignlarge lecture classes 1. a. More interaction with research professors1. b. Improved learning outcomes 1. a. 12 large lecture classes redesigned;1. b. student and faculty satisfaction rates improved by 15%1. c.  Student performance increased by 20%1. d. Cost equal to or less than lecture class
2. Combine virtual with wet labs 2. a. Better use of scarce lab space to handle increased enrolments;2. b. better understanding of experimental design  2. a. 30% increase in students in lab classes;2. b. experimental design assessed; 80% pass rate on experimental design assessment2. c. Cost per student per lab hour reduced
3. Use simulations for skills training 3. a. Better development of skills3. b. More time for students to practice skills 3. a. 25% increase in employer satisfaction ratings;3. b.  skills identified and assessed3. c. 5% improvement in completion rates3. d. Costs measured and contained within target

                                                                                                     from Bates and Sangra, 2011

Another important aspect not included in the above table is the cost or resources needed to implement the goals.

Identifying goals, and strategies for achieving goals, for learning technologies is probably the most difficult and most important part of the e-learning plan. Although the goals will appear early in the plan report, they may not be finalized until almost the day before the plan is widely distributed, because it means integrating the goals and strategies from the academic areas and programs with the overall institutional goals, and then prioritizing them. This is where a high level committee that has oversight of the e-learning plan can be very useful, especially in setting priorities for the different goals.

Summary of planned e-learning courses

The academic plans for program delivery over the next three years from each program area should provide essential information for the e-learning plan. In particular, how many fully online courses, and how many ‘hybrid’ courses (with a deliberate mix of classroom and online teaching), are planned in each department? An accurate figure should be obtained for the next 12 months, and an estimate obtained for a three year horizon. This will then enable service areas to identify likely demand for resources.

However, it should be recognized that many institutions have real problems identifying accurately the number of forthcoming courses that will be either hybrid or fully online. This requires putting in place an academic planning system where program areas or academic departments have to provide this information. It will also be important to track how many such courses were actually implemented each year, as well. (These might be key recommendations in the first iteration of the e-learning plan.)

Sometimes, senior administrators like to set targets for online or blended courses, i.e. 50% of all courses will be online by 2015. This has the advantage of sending a clear message to faculty/instructors about the strategic importance attached to e-learning by the administration, but personally I don’t like this approach. Picking an arbitrary number does not necessarily match the educational goals, or needs of students. It is much better in the long run for the demand to emerge as a result of faculty training in the use of technology, and faculty participation in the planning of e-learning as an integral part of program planning.

The combination of goals and the outcomes from the SWOT analysis, and the projected number of courses with a strong e-learning component, will then drive the remaining recommendations in the plan.

Specific recommendations

These will be very much context specific and will depend essentially on the current state of e-learning within the organization, and the overall strategic direction of the institution. However, I have listed some issues that commonly occur in an e-learning plan:

1. Innovation in teaching

This wider academic goal opens up a whole range of possibilities for e-learning, but it should not be innovation for innovation’s sake. Again innovative teaching should lead to measurable improvements in learning. If innovation though is an objective, strategies need to be put in place to not only evaluate the innovation, but also to ensure that, if successful on a small scale, it is supported and is disseminated across the institution.

For e-learning, this means that mandates may have to change and processes put into place to manage innovation. For instance, IT Services staff may need to be allowed to spend a certain amount of time supporting faculty wishing to use new technologies, but once the innovation starts requiring more than 5-10% of other people’s time, it should go through a project proposal process and be prioritized. Too often innovation starts with a single instructor, works for that instructor, then dies, because there is no innovation strategy. An innovation strategy should be a core component of many e-learning plans.

2. Faculty training and support

This is likely to be a component of most e-learning plans. Without adequate instructor training in both technology and pedagogy, it will be impossible to implement successfully many of the other recommendations in the plan. This is also the most likely big ticket item. Taking mid-career faculty out of research or teaching for training is very expensive. Again the e-learning plan cannot work in isolation. It needs to influence and be integrated with a general strategy for faculty development and training.

This would also be the part of the report where issues around central or local learning technology units may be addressed, such as whether to increase staffing or to change methods of working, or to add new staff to support emerging technologies.

3. Student support

E-learning has significant implications for both student administrative services and IT Services. The SWOT analysis should cover these areas as well as academic areas, and meetings should be held with relevant staff in both these areas as part of the information collection process.

4. IT support/technology issues

The SWOT analysis and interviews/discussions with instructors and admin and IT staff often throws up a number of issues around IT support for e-learning and this section of the report should try to address these issues. Common issues raised are not enough resources to support the growth of online learning, too narrow mandates, unreliable or underused technologies, ‘attitude’, etc. Upgrades or change of learning management systems is another recurrent issue. With regard to the latter, the e-learning plan may need to recommend better processes for reviewing such decisions.

5. Mandates for supporting e-learning

As institutions gradually expand into e-learning, there is often overlap and gaps in providing support for e-learning. For instance, student services may operate only in campus office hours, IT Services may not provide 24/7 technical support, academic departments may have started to hire contract web designers, even though there is a central unit that provides such services, and IT Services staff may not see supporting instructors’ or students’ use of web 2.0 technologies as part of their responsibilities. These problems normally become identified through the SWOT analysis or meetings with the various departments.

One important element of an e-learning plan, especially in its first iteration, is to to clarify responsibilities for e-learning support. This is often a sensitive issue, and risks annoying powerful Deans, Directors or CIOs. However, the responsibility of the planning team is to make recommendations that are in the best interests of all students and faculty. Also it should aim to make recommendations that save costs through eliminating waste or duplication. This is why there is sometimes value in using an external consultant who is independent and can walk away afterwards. It is also an argument for a high level steering committee where such contentious issues can be brought for discussion and resolution.

6. Emerging technologies

This area is one reason for an annual planning cycle for e-learning. What technologies are emerging from innovation towards mainstream, and what are the support implications of this, in terms of training, IT support, software and hardware purchases, and institutional policies (e.g. intellectual property, privacy and security)? What are the repercussions for other forms of teaching or learning technologies if there is increased use of selective emerging technologies? What are the resource implications? This will mean making recommendations about which technologies to support, and why (based on academic demand and educational benefits, as well as technical grounds).

7. Resources and/or financial strategy

Ideally, each recommendation in the plan should be fully costed, but in many cases this is not immediately possible or practical. Trying to nail down costs for all the recommendations could seriously slow down the planning process. A good deal of time could be wasted on recommendations that are not accepted or receive low priority. Also, some costs, such as training, would need to be defined in a broader context than just e-learning. Some recommendations may have no direct cost implications. And in some cases (such as faculty time) it may not be possible to allocate a direct cost.

What is probably better is to identify a financial strategy. Which of the recommendations should be funded centrally, which from existing academic department budgets, and which should have earmarked funding, maybe from external sources such as grants or sponsorship. This will then enable the appropriate area to decide on priorities.

Failure to identify resources needed though to implement a recommendation and then even more importantly a failure to find ways to make those resources available are often the main reasons for e-learning recommendations not to get implemented. A good plan will come up with a realistic financial strategy that will include suggestions of where the resources could come from (e.g. reallocation of time, with fewer lectures, for instance).

Other issues

Many other issues are likely to be identified and will need recommendations, depending on the context.

Conclusion

The first year of developing a plan is always the hardest and takes much longer. Once established, though, it is much quicker and easier to update and revise the plan in each subsequent year.

Second, an e-learning plan is likely to be much more effective if it is part of a broader planning cycle, as indicated in the graphic in the previous post.

Third, there is no denying that an e-learning plan requires a substantial effort. The need for extensive consultation needs to be balanced against the extra workload imposed on already busy faculty and staff. However, my experience is that once faculty, instructors and staff understand how the plan will influence their work, they are generally extremely keen to participate and will provide essential and high quality input to the process.

Above all, the methods I have suggested lead as much to an educational or learning experience for faculty and staff as a planning exercise. It should not be a top-down exercise but should fully involve faculty, staff and students.

Lastly, it is the strategic thinking that such a model stimulates in faculty and staff that is the biggest benefit,. It gets them to spend time thinking collectively about educational goals, teaching methods, the nature of students and their learning experience, and what learning outcomes they are trying to achieve, as well as what technologies to use. This alone makes the effort worthwhile.

How to implement an e-learning plan

Because this post is already too long, I will discuss this in another post – I didn’t plan this very well!

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  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] the existing financial situation.  What seems obvious would be to replace such mass lecture with more innovation in teaching. But how far would such education reforms go?  Would the adoption of more open, accommodating and […]

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