A Kiwi's Perspective on E-Learning

Thanks Michael for this opportunity to share a kiwi perspective on e-learning and to talk about the eMM. I should start by saying that although I have been Acting Director at the UTDC, I’m now back in my primary role as a senior lecturer in e-learning. My Director is Professor Tom Angelo, well known and respected in the study of learning and teaching, and he helps keep me focussed on technology’s role as a support for student learning rather than an end in itself.

My main area of research is a tool called the e-Learning Maturity Model, or eMM which applies the Maturity Model concept to e-learning. As Michael noted, I’m sharing the experience of applying the eMM with others in order to encourage collaboration and further application internationally. Its a complex model and I’ll have to cover it in a few posts, I’m going to start with a bit of background in order to frame the eMM and explain my motivations for its development and ongoing evolution.

“They have no formal process, no measurements of what they do and no way of knowing when they are on the wrong track or off the track altogether.”

This quote, regarding the creation of computers software in the eighties and early nineties well describes the conversations I was having four years ago with a colleague – Dr Geoff Micthell, now at QUT in Australia. The frustration we had was that many of the e-learning initiatives we saw worked well for the academics responsible, but they rarely built on the work of colleagues and usually their initiatives were abandoned when the sponsor changed jobs. Worse still was the lack of engagement by the majority of academics who saw the work of the few early adopters as irrelevant or unachievable. We needed a mechanism for encouraging a more systematic, sustainable and effective way for an institution to invest in e-learning that was not dependent on the skills and energy of individuals. Michael Fullan clearly described the challenge we saw:

“The answer to large-scale reform is not to try to emulate the characteristics of the minority who are getting somewhere under present conditions � Rather, we must change existing conditions so that it is normal and possible for a majority of people to move forward”

We decided that the tools that had helped software engineers improve the quality of their work might have some utility for universities. The eMM was initially a simple idea – take the successful Capability Maturity Model used in software and change the barest minimum so that we could use it to examine how well universities were undertaking e-learning . Our goal was selfish – Victoria University is not a wealthy institution and we couldn’t afford to waste millions of dollars and scarce academic time on unproductive initiatives.

In practice, it wasn’t quite that simple (nothing ever is really). The big question then, and now, is:

“are there common practices or ways of creating e-learning resources and learning environments that are accepted, useful and able to be described in a way that others can adopt them and improve their own e-learning capability”

Our first experiments applying the eMM used Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles and the Quality on the Line benchmarks of the IHEP. Clearly these were unlikely to cover all of the key aspects needed for success in e-learning, but they provided us with a set of probably useful processes for assessment.

The application of the eMM using these processes to the New Zealand tertiary sector has been very successful. We have now assessed eleven institutions, including seven of our eight universities (we are a small country after all…). Since then, work with colleagues in Australia and the United Kingdom has seen the model greatly expanded and we think we’re a bit closer to understanding what it takes for e-learning to be successful and sustainable, but there’s still a lot to do.

Our first paper set out what we thought we be the benefits of an e-learning version of the CMM and I’m going to list them in full because I think they well describe why the eMM exists:

  1. Firstly, an e-learning model could provide a road map for higher education institutions looking to improve their e-learning processes. Most academics are familiar with the ad-hoc approach to e-learning where development of resources and support of students have more to do with individual heroics than good institutional planning. While some tertiary education institutions have embraced e-learning in a major way, many are looking for a clear model to guide their ongoing development of resources and enhance their support processes. It is clear that a series of signposts or a map that might guide institutional planners in areas of resource allocation and staff and student support has some merit.
  2. An accepted framework might also provide academics with the necessary means to encourage greater institutional involvement and provide University management with the framework necessary to frame long term institutional planning.
  3. Support for institutional planning might be enhanced by the ability of an institution or even a school to benchmark its current capability in an effort to identify and prioritise necessary improvements in its current practices. The lack of a unifying framework for e-learning makes it difficult for institutions to compare themselves against other bodies in meaningful ways. Importantly the model would allow for different technical platforms, organisational models and pedagogical beliefs. This might aid inter- and intra- institutional collaboration by allowing entities to identify areas in which improvements may produce the most immediate value as well as establish a framework for collaboration on future initiatives.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, like the CMM, the model might form the basis for an ongoing discussion within the e-learning community with a view to identifying the key practices necessary for achieving improvements in e-learning activities.

Four years later these still seem a good summary of the potential of the evolving eMM. The work is now freely available through the project web site and licensed using the Creative Commons to encourage collaboration and use. Our initial pilot has been complemented with work in the UK and we look forward to collaborations in the US and Australia.

Whew – a long introduction, and if you didn’t read the linked papers you may still be somewhat in the dark about the eMM actually is. Stay tuned and I’ll illustrate what it can do in my next post.

Cheers
Stephen

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