Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Just Where are Institutions Going with eLearning - Note from ALT-C

I'm at ALT-C 2007 in Nottingham, England. The panel is discussing strategies for making eLearning (i.e., use of computer/Internet related technologies in ways that help improve and even transform learning) an important part of the fabric of higher education.

I make several working assumptions about any such strategy:
  • An effective strategy needs to reach, influence and support "early majority" and "late majority" adapters, not just innovators and early adopters.
  • Any strategy needs to be based largely on incremental, evolutionary patterns of change (with little or no funding for each little step in each course). Strategies that are based mainly on external funds going to good proposal writers are unlikely to create across the board change in a department or across an institution.
  • One limiting factor on any strategy such as this is the degree to which the academic staff, department, and institution see tangible, continuing rewards coming from this approach to teaching and learning. Those rewards need to provide the 'investment' to keep the change progressing. If the change isn't viral (capable of spreading from one instructor to others without any external support), then the rewards also need to be sufficient to justify support staff, materials, etc.
If those assumptions are sound, solving this problem, as framed, seems unlikely (other than viral uses of eLearning, which are likely to focus on time-saving if they're to appeal to the early and late majority).

Perhaps the answer is to change the question.

For example, instead of 'eLearning," pick a (subject-specific) challenge that is so compelling that a program meeting the goal would be substantially rewarded by the environment (increased enrollment and prestige, for example) while failure to keep up would be implicitly penalized. Pick a challenge for which eLearning is crucial.

Not all challenges meet that criterion, to say the least! How about improving the ability of graduating engineers to apply scientific concepts to design problems? educating students who can apply skills of digital writing to the challenges of their profession? The biggest win would be to identify such a challenge which also could be met by incremental, time-saving changes by the academic staff. That's the kind of challenge that could leverage quite a lot of change.

To repeat, the kind of challenge I'm talking about must be one which, if met, would produce significant, continuing rewards for the department (and institution), rewards not totally dependent on some temporary government funding program. The individual instructor needs to be rewarded too, either directly (e.g., by publications or time-saving) or by transfer of some of the rewards that initially come to the program.

Such a challenge might be identified by a particular academic program or institution on its own. Meanwhile, I hope, people in national funding programs might give some thought to dealing with national challenges, using eLearning as a means to some specific ends.

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