September 20, 2018

Should online learning strategy be decided centrally?

The University of Ottawa’s e-Learning Plan, 2013

Kim, J. (2018) Looking at the Future of Online learning through an Institutional Lens, Inside Higher Education, February 19

This is an excellent article that discusses the ongoing saga of centralisation vs decentralization regarding online learning. Kim here is arguing, on balance, for a central institutional strategy for online learning.

Similar discussions have been ongoing about the organization of learning technology support units: should individual Faculties or departments manage their own learning technology support units or should they be managed centrally?

The need for institution-wide strategies for online learning

Kim writes:

The challenge is that online programs often develop to serve the particular need of a school, unit or department. Oftentimes, the the growth of low-residency and online learning was not the result of an institutional strategic plan – but rather a local response to particular opportunities….The challenge of uncoordinated online programs is that opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge are often missed. There is a fine line between useful specialization and silos.

Should there be a central strategy for online learning or should we let a million flowers bloom? Kim suggests the following for thinking about online learning through a strategic institutional lens:

  • understand all the online learning efforts that are already occurring at the college or university. The number of online and low-residency programs may be a surprise to many. (This was a certainly something we heard from some provosts when we did the Canadian national survey of online learning in 2017.)
  • university leadership should make a decision if online learning efforts should remain under the authority of each individual school or unit that is running these programs, or if there should be an effort to coordinate and centralize institutional efforts. What is important is to make an active decision.

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer that applies to very institution. The best decision on centralisation or decentralisation will depend on the circumstances. But the decision should not be accidental, driven by history, but should be a conscious choice of the central administration in terms of overall strategy. That is Kim’s argument.

Comment

In the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education

  • 14% of institutions had a fully implemented strategic plan for e-learning’
  • 26% had a plan and were in the processing of implementing it
  • 32% were in the process of developing one.

This means that nearly three-quarters of Canadian colleges and universities believe in the importance of an institutional plan for e-learning.

Note though that there is a difference between centralized organization (a learning technologies or online learning support unit) and centralized strategy and planning (e.g. determining the importance of online learning, priority areas, and resource allocation.) 

Models for planning and managing online learning

Table 1 below shows at least four possible models for managing online learning:

                       Table 1: Policies for online learning
Model Centralized Decentralized
1    Strategy and Organization
2 Strategy  Organization
3 Organization Strategy
4   Strategy and Organization  

Model 1 is the most decentralised, with individual departments or even instructors determining both the decision about which courses to offer online and what resources in terms of support staff will be needed.

In Model 2, the institution sets the overall strategy, but the organization and perhaps even the implementation is delegated to individual departments. This provides more autonomy at the ‘local’ level, but may make it more difficult for the central administration to get its strategy implemented.

In Model 3, there is one central organizational unit to support online learning, but individual departments set their own strategy but must look to the central unit for support services such as instructional design. Again, this allows more autonomy for departments, but allocation of resources becomes a challenge as the central unit has to meet competing demands.

Model 4 is the most centralised, with both strategy and organizational units developed and managed through the Provost’s Office or VP Education.

Which model is best?

Kim points out that historically, most institutions start with model 1 but as online learning expands, there becomes greater pressure to move to other models. He argues that there should be discussion within an institution about the best model, then a decision needs to be made to ensure that it happens.

A complicating factor is that often online learning in an institution gets its start from the unit responsible for distance education, which in many campus-based institutions has been the Continuing Studies division. This may be the main or only unit with instructional designers and media developers. As individual departments and larger Faculties begin to move into online learning , whether fully online or in blended format, for their credit-based programs, they begin to hanker for the same support personnel.

I have had quite a bit of experience with this, having been in at the beginning of online learning and having watched and often been directly impacted organizationally by its development over the years – I even got fired once (actually, politely asked to leave) to make a re-organisation easier, so these are not abstract questions but can affect the life and career of individuals.

One key factor is the size of the institution. In very large research universities, a good case can be made for each large faculty to have its own strategy for online learning – and its own learning technology support (model 1). I worked in one institution where the Faculty of Arts/Humanities was larger than most of the other universities in the province added together. Often in a large Faculty, programming is very much delegated to individual departments so it makes sense that decisions about whether to go online should be made at the departmental level. They are more likely to be closer to the market.

However, even this university still has a large central unit that provides learning technology support and faculty development and training, and over many years has developed several overall institutional strategies for learning technologies, flexible learning, or digital learning. These however of necessity involved widespread discussion across all the interested parties in the university.

Even in very large institutions, there are smaller faculties or departments which are just not large enough to warrant a separate learning technology support unit, and in some cases large Faculties can be very conservative and very reluctant to move anything online, so some direction and cajoling from the central administration may be needed. 

Most of all, though, a central unit can provide connections and sharing of knowledge between the different decentralized support units regarding new learning designs, effective practices, and new research and new technology developments. In other words, there are more opportunities for some specialization in a larger unit, while the provost’s office can provide overall strategy and direction, co-ordination and knowledge sharing. (For a good example, see the University of British Columbia’s Flexibytes).

Matching resources to needs

Online development is rarely even across an institution. Indeed, it is probably a mistake for a medium to large institution to try to move on all fronts when implementing online learning. Some areas will be more ready to go than others, and there will always be limited resources. For this reason there needs to be flexibility

One problem that sometimes arises when there is no central strategy for online learning is that departments or Deans hire contracted support staff for online ‘projects’ using short-term funding. Once the short-term funding runs out, or if other priorities arise (such as the need for a new professor) the contracted staff get terminated, and all the knowledge and experience of developing online courses within that specific subject discipline is lost. 

One arrangement I came across many years ago at the University of South Australia was a service contract system. Deans wanted to have their own learning technology support staff, but the university faced the problem that these support staff were often hired on contract by the Dean then were terminated at the end of their contracts. As a result, the university had centralised the appointment of all learning technology support staff under a director reporting to the Provost, but the Director negotiated with each Dean a contract for the allocation of staff to the Faculty for a period of three years. This allowed support staff such as instructional designers to get to know the specific needs of a subject area and become familiar with instructors, but also allowed the central administration to move support staff to areas where they were most needed, and also provided continuity and secure work for the support staff.

Planning for digital learning

To some extent, this whole discussion is somewhat dated. In the future, we need to think less about ‘online learning’ and more about ‘digital learning and teaching’. Blended learning is breaking down the differences between online learning and face-to-face teaching. Soon all post-secondary instructors and students will be engaged in digital teaching and learning in one form or another.

This of course makes the need for an institutional strategy even more important. How can an institutions ensure that all instructors are properly supported for digital teaching and learning? Where are resources to support faculty instructors most needed? What is the best way to determine the balance between face-to-face and online delivery?

However, in our book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, written in 2011, Albert Sangra and I wrote (p.216):

…expertise in technology and its applications are spread throughout the organization. A good [technology] governance structure ensures that all the key stakeholders are engaged in decision-making at the right time and at the right level…for us, the critical location of decision-making should be at the program level…It is here that the market for the program, and the vision for teaching and learning, should be determined, as well as the method of delivery, and the main technologies to be used, with strong input from central services and learning technology units…’

Thus the real answer is that planning and strategy for digital learning are needed throughout the institution. A central plan that sets directions, priorities and overall resource allocation is essential, but so is planning at the program level (a degree or diploma or certificate program). Within that program plan, individual instructors then have to make decisions that best reflect the needs of the subject matter and above all the students for whom they will be responsible. Figure 1 below provides a chart that captures the ubiquity of decision-making about teaching and learning that is needed in a digital age. Nothing has changed over the last seven years that requires a change to this chart.

© Bates and Sangra, 2011

References

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 9

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