This page was originally authored by Mark McVittie (2008).
Edited by Diane Deluca (2009). See the Leadership section.
Electronic Learning or E-learning is moving further into the mainstream of education, and this movement is forcing higher educational institutions to broaden the course availability to online learners. Change is often difficult, and e-learning is a disruptive technology, or innovation, that forces an establishment to make that change at a pace that some have difficulty keeping up with.
E-Learning programs do not develop spontaneously and are not simple electronic translations of traditional textbooks and lectures. Although some education providers have attempted to cobble together various learning opportunities within an electronic platform - as an afterthought attempt to meet a growing demand - successful and proven virtual learning environments are the product of innovation and planning, supported by visionary leaders and a strong infrastructure.
History of the Growth of E-Learning
Although E-Learning is often perceived to be a relatively new concept, it is based on the premise of Distance Learning - a term used as early as 1858 by the University of London - has existed in various and developing forms for many years. The University of Houston started offering distance learning courses on local late-night television in 1953, initiating an early use of electronic media in learning. The first computer based learning platforms debuted in the early 1960's based on the Behaviourist theories of B.F. Skinner.
According to the Sloan Consortium - a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education - there were nearly 3.5 million students in the U.S. as of 2006 taking courses through e-learning. This represents almost 20% of the entire U.S. post-secondary student population, placing an expectation to provide a wider array of e-learning programs.
To meet the challenges of adapting to new developments in e-learning opportunities, institutions need to develop vision and strategic direction. Resourceful organizational leadership is essential to face numerous opponents to this disruptive technology, that some perceive as threatening the status quo in education.
Institutions need to spend time, energy and resources to fully understand how e-learning can serve its own educational values and how it can enhance existing quality for learners. Competition between institutions will often be based on quality of the educational product, and the leadership within the institution must determine the purpose of innovation for its own application. Once the purpose or goal is determined, the logical next step is to work on an effective strategy for that innovation to move forward.
When an educational provider is moving into e-learning, one recommended process is to focus on "low-risk niche areas in which technology can be understood and incubated and where, if there are failures, they will come early and be less expensive." (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p. 107) Strategic targets for e-learning must be determined and clarified, then one must look towards building sustainability of projects to facilitate transfer to other educational contexts.
Not only does an institution require vision to develop their own innovation, but also needs the ability to formulate a concrete and practical plan that will see that vision enabled. The desire to implement and see growth in a disruptive innovation like e-learning means that institutions must develop policy, provide direction and resources to support the human resources through, what will likely be, a challenging transformation.
Garrison and Anderson suggest that institutions develop a strategic plan which should address the topics listed below, while maintaining in the forefront a few key, attainable goals that have the full support of the leadership of the institution.
A strategic plan should address:
- Needs and risk assessment
- Educational principles and outcomes described
- Implementation initiatives and strategy
- Support services
- Budget and resources
- Research and development framework
Finally, it is crucial that a completed plan be adopted as a whole, and not become fragmented or implemented in an ad-hoc fashion. The plan should include time-lines for evaluation of the success in implementation of the strategic innovation.
Although many people perceive the word 'infrastructure' to refer to the management of buildings, resources and technology, much of this already exists in the educational community and likely does not require significant development. However, institutions who have determined their own e-learning innovation, and developed a plan to implement that innovation will find themselves wading into a virtual sea of available knowledge. The infrastructure that is required here will provide the ability to manage the flow and provide the correct access to that knowledge.
To date, many organizations have focused on building repositories of learning objects, and others have developed course management systems like WebCT and Blackboard. However, little attention has been paid to developing knowledge management systems that link the existing repositories of information to the desired educational product. The development of knowledge management systems that build upon and supports communities of practice will enhance the sustainability of this disruptive technology. This will provide the opportunity for existing faculty to build upon personal and disciplinary interests and has the best chance of changing the traditional classroom.
The introduction of e-learning to an educational institution requires a significant transformation in the management and teaching of that institution. This transformation will undoubtedly meet with objections and will require long-term commitment to develop and implement successful e-learning programs. Leaders need not only to hold traditional qualities of openness, honesty, respect, inspiration and fairness, but will also need to posses the ability to recognize talent and position that talent where it will have the greatest effect in promoting the goals of the strategic plan. Change has the greatest opportunity for success when middle-level leaders who have open access to both the grass-roots and senior management have the talent and support to promote that change from within.
Knowing how to arrange personnel resources is not the only leadership quality that will propel the introduction of e-learning from a pet project to an effective component of curriculum delivery. A solid and well thought out strategic plan, both long term and short term, is essential to success. A good strategic plan covers all aspects of managing e-learning from the initial vision of what e-learning will look like, to conception to implementation and to ongoing support. In other words, the strategic plan is the road map for the institution to follow. Technology changes quickly and an e-learning program must keep up with it. The strategic plan not only addresses how to manage the technology in the present, but also outlines approaches for handing technological changes, even those unknown, in the future.
Change management, both in technology and teaching, requires strong leadership. And, leadership comes from all levels of an institution, not just upper management, although management at all levels must be strident supporters of change. Involvement of managers and staff at all levels of the planning and management of e-learning is essential to its success. Also, leaders do not need to have heroic qualities or be an expert in e-learning, but they must be on-board with the vision of an e-learning project, be dedicated to the project and be willing to work collectively with other managers, as well as staff and faculty, to make e-learning successful.
Anderson, T. & Garrison, D.R. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice., 105-114. London: Routledge.
Bates, A.W. (2000). Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders, 42-44. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Seufert, S. (2007). Organizational Issues: How to reach sustainability of eLearning? Presented to the SVC Dissemination, Swiss Centre for Innovations in Learning, Berne, Switzerland. Retrieved Feb 25, 2008 from http://www.virtualcampus.ch/docs/svc_dissem2007/Seufert.pdf
Siemens, G. (2003). The Whole Picture of Elearning. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2008 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/wholepicture.htm
Siemens, G. (2004). Categories of eLearning. Retrieved Feb. 28, 2008 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/elearningcategories.htm
Sloan Consortium. (October 2007). Online Education Reaches New Heights. Retrieved Feb. 29, 2008 from http://www.sloan-c.org/news/pr/pr071022.asp
Strong, B. (2007). Strategic Planning for Technological Change. Retrieved Jan 15, 2009 from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EQM0737.pdf
University of London. (October 2007). Key Facts - External Program - University of London. Retrieved Mar. 1, 2008 from http://www.londonexternal.ac.uk/about_us/facts.shtml
elearnspace - everything elearning by George Siemens.
The Sloan Consortium - a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education.
Swiss Virtual Campus - a federal program of the Swiss institutions of higher education.
History of virtual learning environments - Wikipedia.
Silence and Voice - reflective practice in organizational learning, educational technology, and postmodern society.