eLearning Systems Management

The August Collegium is an ongoing experiment to redesign and reposition higher education as a self-directed, democratic model of developing of learning fluency (Jenson, 2015). Students collaborate with each other, with learning coaches, and with subject experts to design an individualized learning experience that is somewhat reminiscent of Bishop and Verleger’s (2013) cooperative or problem-based learning. In this context, education transcends simple content mastery and thus requires a high level use of technology for purposes beyond administration and information transfer.

Documentation like this strategic plan is only effective at describing functions of technology, not at initiating them (Stensaker, Maasen, Borgan, Oftebro, & Karseth, 2007). However, initiation requires an understanding not only of the starting point, but also of the objectives that must be reached (Gosper, Malfroy, & McKenzie, 2013). The success of the August Collegium depends upon the leadership and management practices that follow for the development and maintenance of a high quality and sustainable eLearning environment

Developing an eLearning environment

The eLearning environment provided by the August Collegium is built around a strong core of institution-wide support for data management, connectivity, and integration. In higher education, the learning environment must be designed to support the needs of students (Biggs, 2012) and current trends indicate that this requires support for a learning experience that is open, social, collaborative and mobile (White, 2008). These objectives are largely reached by a decentralized integration of Web 2.0 technologies (Brown, 2010) into learning design and experiences by teachers and students as needed. Though it is more difficult to manage, this distributed approach may improve the amount of student participation as it more closely aligns with their needs (Gosper et al., 2013). Nevertheless research into current uses of technology indicates a need for a high level of support in effective use for learning (Gosper et al., 2013; Stensaker et al. 2007; Way & Webb, 2007).

Core technology services provide integration, connectivity and data management leaving the choice of applying these resources to the students and departments. Users are expected to provide their own devices for personal access and use of these core technologies (Gosper et al., 2013). This focused application on the development and maintenance of core technologies rather than peripheral applications is expected to drive higher-level use of technology for learning and teaching (Way & Webb, 2007).

The challenge of scalability is somewhat abated with the affordances of cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies, however it is still difficult to respond to changing motivations, applications, and impact of using the eLearning environment (Way & Webb, 2007). Reaching a certain stage of technological maturity does not reduce this challenge, it simply changes it, and there are few good models to follow (Brown, 2010). What good examples and best practices exist are difficult to apply since technology operates in a complex environment where “the whole is far more than the sum of its parts” and one little change can lead to dramatic results (Snowden & Boon, 2007). Thus, the key challenge in developing this eLearning environment has been and continues to be establishing the vision, outcomes, organizational relationships, and thought processes that will support its creation and use (Stensaker et al., 2007).

Leading and Managing Educational Change

Change leadership within the August Collegium is driven primarily by “people and pedagogy” requirements (Stensaker et al., 2007). Students, learning coaches, and subject experts (key human factors in the August Collegium) all require different kinds of support from technology. Under the direction of an ICT representative, members from each of these groups will form a single governing body to develop and update the strategic vision for the eLearning environment. The strength of this diverse approach to leadership is that it bypasses the organizational silos separating vision from implementation from use. It represents the real needs of users (Holt et al., 2013; Puzziferro & Shelton, 2009) but this comes at the cost of time and the need for strong leadership and communication skills to promote understanding among diverse groups of people (Bryson, 1995).

The process of transition into a technology-rich environment is managed from the bottom up in terms of governance, but top down in terms of implementation. As the strategy is developed by the governing body, a task force of ICT members and the governing body work together on the process of implementation (Bryson, 1995). These cooperative groups are designed around the initiation of projects, but ongoing maintenance is the responsibility of the dedicated ICT staff. From an HR and budgeting standpoint, long-term costs for maintenance and training must be considered for the lifetime of any proposed technology changes. This helps to insure that development and support of core technologies is emphasized over peripheral applications that are not crucial to the institution as a whole (Gosper et al., 2007). It may also encourage an iterative approach of testing technology solutions before the entire strategy has been developed (Bryson, 1995).

Accompanying proposals for new technology should be a plan for their use (Brown, 2010; Holt et al., 2013). A balance must be found between constant input and revision to stay ahead of the curve, but also keeping enough structure and consistency to be useful. Planning and transparency in communication are important to bring these diverse aspects together (Holt et al, 2013). However, will likely be some level of misunderstanding between the technology developers and the users of the technology. This creates a challenge of insuring alignment with strategic plans, comprehensive plans, and devices used to implement the plans (Bryson, 1995). Crucial to successful resolution of such disagreements is the consideration of the mission of the organization and how this relates to the changes that are proposed (1995).

Infrastructure for eLearning

Cloud technology providing an open, mobile, collaborative, and social learning experience has shifted the focus of internal infrastructure development toward management, integration, and connectivity support rather than hardware maintenance (Hayes, 2008; White, 2008). External Web 2.0 and open education resources are preferred to internal resources as they enable wider access to the learning environment (White, 2008) and enjoy dedicated support. They also enjoy the benefits of “peer review” and “transparency of process” resulting in “better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost” and no “vendor lock-in” (p. 6).

Some local hardware is still necessary for connectivity: power outlets, spaces for technology use, wireless internet coverage and printing, scanning, and communication services required for flexible and consistent access to the cloud-based resources (Gosper et al., 2013). All these kinds of inputs and outputs that students cannot conveniently provide on their own are considered part of the infrastructure for eLearning.

In the digital environment, students should enjoy a seamless experience with every aspect of the institution across multiple platforms (Marshall, 2004). However, it will be a challenge to integrate data from external systems that is essential for tracking student progress and designing the personalized learning models. This challenge of inter-operability requires some kind of common standard to “codify the boring so the exciting can happen on top of them” (Cooper & Kraan, 2009). The simplest method to follow will be to store data separately from the applications that use them and to create interoperability standards and APIs with which multiple programs can access the core user, information, and activity details for purposes of learning and teaching or administration.

These types of institution-wide technology provisions are suggested and designed by the iCT department to support the strategic needs identified by the representative body described already. Examples of this technology might include fundamental services like database maintenance, Internet access, technical support, security, and digital rights management. Library, finance, record, timetable and in-classroom systems will also be managed at this level because of their sensitivity and potential for working together more effectively (Cooper & Kraan, 2009). On the other hand, academic resources for research and scholarship that apply to a specific discipline or department (Stensaker et al., 2007; White, 2007) will only be considered for development as internal infrastructure as determined by the governing board.

Curriculum Design

The emphasis on core infrastructure is purposeful to “promote innovation in teaching,” (Johnson et al., 2013). In order to encourage use of the systems for these creative ends, Stensaker et al. (2007) recommend investing in communication about application of systems, not just in their development. A strong infrastructure and model for change only becomes valuable for learning when users can create “authentic activities” or meaningful experiences (Herrington & Kervin, 2007). Students receive guidance in the effective use of this learning environment (Biggs, 2012) from learning coaches and subject experts.

The “user-centric” model of the August Collegium “emphasizes participation (e.g., creating, re-mixing) over presentation” (White, 2008, p. 7). Learning coaches are responsible to identify and screen learning resources and subject experts do the same for information resources. A central resource database repository of these curriculum resources then allows any member of the collegium to add rankings, use details, and related resources or comments to them. Platforms for inter-departmental communication are an important part of encouraging collaboration across departments and transparency among users for improving the process of curriculum design (Puzziferro & Shelton, 2015). Insights from technology like “learning patterns” and “interactions” should be incorporated into the redesign of curriculum (White and Larusson, 2010).

Student and Staff Capability

Studies have demonstrated that students are interested in greater use of technology for the education process, but only if they perceive it has some strategic value for their learning experience (Gosper et al., 2013). Students want tools to be efficient, reliable, and established (Ibid). However, there is potential to expand the depth of interaction that takes place in terms of content (White & Larusson, 2010) and social interactions (Gilbert & Dabbagh, 2005).

This expansion is difficult because a different set of features will appeal to the expectations of an early adopter, who is needed to drive change, versus the mainstream user, who is needed to accept the change (White, 2007). Staff proficiency and digital help centres may help the mainstream users overcome their hurdles to accepting the technology and support them in using it effectively (Biggs, 2012).

Because students and staff have responsibility for developing the learning experience on a regular basis, they have a dedicated interest in knowing a broader range of functionality than that which they use regularly. The responsibility for this ongoing education may be given to HR (Marshall, 2004) or to a group of the staff who are interested in new applications of technology. Borrowing from the flipped classroom model (Bishop & Verleger, 2013), information and discussion resources are available asynchronously and classroom time will focus on discussion and application. However, the effectiveness of strategies for building staff capability in ICT depends on the incentives that are in place (Stensaker et al., 2007). Teacher perceptions of innovation are crucial and may be informed by opportunities for recognition or reward (Way & Webb, 2007). In regards to students, Biggs suggested constructive alignment of objectives, activity, and assessment. (2012) This should also apply to staff with the application of performance recognition, incentives, and assessment around the objectives for technology use and activity (Marshall, 2004). Evaluation of staff should focus on actual opportunities for improvement – revealing what the teacher doesn’t know and should try to discover (Puzziferro & Shelton, 2015).

Quality and Sustainability

Current models for ICT are focused on short-term gains, but sustainability requires a long-term focus for critical interventions (Marshall, 2004). There are two critical areas for ongoing development. First, the proprietary software database that manages user, information, and activity data must be updated in response to changes in use and demand. Second, learning coaches and subject experts must be familiar with uses they can make of this software. Finally, a need that can be expected to arise on a regular basis will be the integration between the core infrastructure and peripheral applications.

I have extensively studied the implications of learning and teaching in online environments and have proposed a theory of digital learning literacy derived from multiple sources on the subject (Jenson, 2015). This theory has informed the design of the August Collegium and the structure of its online learning environment. However, my understanding of the technology to support the teaching and learning process is limited to a basic functional theory. Before launching this eLearning environment, I will need to partner with individuals who have a comprehensive understanding of the design and maintenance of technology resources. Those who join the organization will find it necessary to develop an ability to discover and apply new resources to learning and teaching on a regular basis.

In the complex environment of technology, it is not possible to prepare a best response for every circumstance (Snowden & Boone, 2007). However, it is possible to prepare people to respond effectively by providing structure, strategy, policy, procedure, and tactics like those outlined in this document (White, 2007). The objectives for the eLearning environment proposed here will need to be updated as the ideas become actions with unexpected implications.

“The founders [of YouTube] could not possibly have predicted all the applications for streaming video technology that now exist. Once people started using YouTube creatively, however, the company could support and augment the emerging patterns of use” (Snowden & Boone, 2007). Preparation for this kind of response requires an understanding of the entire ecosystem in which the technology operates as well as a clear vision for the use of technology to support learning and teaching (Bryson, 1995). Because no change in technology is entirely predictable, management should be prepared to accept an iterative process whereby proposals are partially funded and tested before full development (Cummings, Phillips, Tilbrook, & Lowe, 2005). If there is need for this particular feature, users will be attracted to it and it will grow on its own (Snowden & Boone, 2007).



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