Distributed Learning Environments and OER: The Change Management Challenge

This is a guest post by Patrick Masson and Ken Udas for the On the Horizon series on distributed learning environments. Patrick Masson is currently serving as the Chief Information Officer for The State University of New York, College of Technology at Delhi. As CIO, Mr. Masson provides oversight, leadership and vision for the college’s Campus Information Services including enterprise/desktop applications, technical centers and labs, server/systems administration, network & telecommunications, online/distance learning, the campus print shop as well as user support such as help desk services. Dr. Ken Udas has served as the Executive Director of Penn State World Campus since August 2006. He has assumed leadership roles in online and distance education since the mid-1990s. In addition to distance education administration and leadership, his professional interests include educational access, open educational resources, and internationalization of education.

We have fantastic roles in our organizations. Borrowing terminology from the 1980s, we are “intrepreneurs,” which granted, does not sound as interesting as being entrepreneurs, but still, not so bad. We are branded internally as change agents in what is turning out to be one of the most dynamic areas (online learning) in a rapidly growing part (educational technology) of a changing sector (higher education). We are embedded directly in the culture and practice of higher education, initially invited to provide insight and define direction; assuming programmatic and operational authority. These are large institutions, with all of the trappings of formal, nested organizations, and all of the traditions of large, established, public universities. Both of our organizations have plenty of legacy, pride, and brand loyalty, which taken together help provide a form of cultural cohesion that managers in many other organizations work very hard to achieve. They are things that we value, while also recognizing that they can impede the institution, particularly if the organization considers itself rather successful.

According to the organizational chart, we sit closer to the top than the bottom of our organizations, but are clearly in the middle of the “value chain.” Personally, we both feel and behave as if we operate at the organizational fringes, but in reality, it is not true. We support practices and activities that are not necessarily consistent with the culture and processes we have inherited, and in both of our cases, there are expectations that we will instigate change to accommodate a perceived future, even if that future can not readily be defined. Within our institutions there is a sense of urgency as emerging technical practices and educational activities challenge the traditional academic processes, even its culture, one of centralized authority, top-down decision-making and long-term planing: these are the proliferation of Open Source Software (OSS) and Web2.0 tools, the evolution of the Learning Management Systems (LMS) to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and on to the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and the publication of not only Open Courseware but Open Educational Resources (OER). While we both serve in critical, central parts of the organization, where our degrees of freedom can feel quite narrow, but our potential impact is significant, those in our position can play vital roles in helping our institutions recognize then adopt these new approaches… but only if we change the way we do things.

This should be easy, right?

So now, where do we start? Obviously, we start right in the middle of the organization, within our roles, where small changes can result in big impacts. Yet we recognize that the routines and protocols of higher education tend to be somewhat self-validating and reinforcing. For example, within central administration, project management tends to be based on traditional planning methods and our core technology systems tend to be enterprise oriented. There seems to be a connection between the ways that we operate, plan, resource, budget, etc. and the artifacts that we create, select, and use. There is some sort of core conspiracy that is part of our organizational genetics, which preserves the organization.

However, looking at the development and governance approach of OSS, the VLE/PLE and OER suggests a model for our institutions themselves. These services share similar traits that not only provide for continual development that meets the evolving needs of their users while ensuring quality and availability: openness and transparency, self-organizing groups, collaboration, evidence based and distributed decision-making, incremental and iterative development and finally maturity and honesty.

In our article we will point to methods that have fundamentally changed the way we do things, so change never seems disruptive, jarring, or radical, instead seeming continuous – a natural progression down a path we discover as we walk it and where direction is defined at the same pace is can be articulated. We ask what it would be like for our learners, faculty, and administrators to learn, work, and play in flexible, agile organizations using tools and undertaking practices that support personalized experiences. What are the conditions and approaches that might allow this to happen?

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2 Responses to Distributed Learning Environments and OER: The Change Management Challenge

  1. Jon Mott says:

    I like the way you’ve framed the challenge of being what I am at my institution–a mid-level higher ed bureaucrat. It would be easy to go with the flow and perpetuate the status quo. But vastly more fulfilling approach is the one you advocate–think about what the future should look like, think about what it’s like to be one of our institution’s learners and make the world a better place for them.

    One of the biggest challenges I see before us is to figure out how to maintain just the right amount of uniformity and consistency in our systems / infrastructure while allowing for (and actively implementing) the kinds of new PLE functionality and applications you reference. Striking the right balance is, I believe, at the heart of providing what appears to be a natural, evolving, continuously improving “open learning network” in which changes are welcome, not jarring or off-putting.

  2. Patrick Masson says:


    Thanks for the note. “Striking the right balance” is exactly what we’ll be discussing, an approach–tactics, techniques and technologies– that can bridge the gap between a vision (sense?) that so many of us are trying to get to and the reality of traditional organizations with institutional inertia pushing us down another path.

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