What’s needed for eLearning to Take Off?


A new discussion just started today as part of an online group organised by the Distance Education of New Zealand (DEANZ) – titled “What’s Needed for eLearning to Take Off?” If you’re interested you can join by signing up here.

The discussion is being led by Bill Rosenberg, Deputy Director of the University Centre for
Teaching and Learning (UCTL) at the University of Canterbury., and is based on a paper he wrote for the latest edition of the DEANZ Journal that starts from the premise that e-learning now has real potential for education, but we are struggling get sustained integration into teaching practice.

In his first post to the list, Bill poses a question:

The paper’s theme is that the need for staff development in the broadest sense – skills, time, incentives, recognition – is the biggest barrier to deepening the use of e-learning in the tertiary
sector. Is that true in your experience? If so, what can be done about it? If not, what from your experience could help where it is indeed a barrier?

I certainly agree that staff development is a major factor in the effective integration of eLearning, and that it needs to be approached in the broadest sense – however, I’m not sure that PD on its own will achieve the ‘potential’ that you refer to as the premise of your paper. Part of the problem is that there is a lack of understanding, or at best, an emerging understanding, of what that potential is.

One of my friends is a staff developer in an industry context – his role is to ensure staff are adequately skilled and knowledgeable in areas associated with the current work practice in that industry, and to ensure that staff are adequately prepared for changes that are made to those work practices. We regularly discuss our respective roles and views about training and professional learning (therein lies a point of difference to start with). The things that make his work effective include:

  • he has the time and requisite knowledge/skill to carry out his role – and resources to support him in this
  • staff are given time away from their regular tasks to attend the training sessions
  • training is a requirement of employees, with consequences for them if they fail to attend or if they fail to achieve a level of demonstrated competence at the end of the training
  • all training is aligned with the organisational goals and purposes of the company (in this case, an international group), about which there is clearly understood and agreed on practices
  • the company is subject to meeting the requirements of several external bodies, and these requirements are constantly changing – thus the need for regular and ongoing training. In addition, the external bodies have rigorous expectations of compliance and measured performance.

Which brings me to consider two key differences between his situation and ours:

  1. the level of time, resourcing and commitment to professional development varies greatly from institution to institution, and does not have the same priority an sense demonstrated outcome in terms of job performance
  2. education has only an emerging view of what eLearning might “look like” in practice, and there are very mixed messages inherent in our current legistlative and policy frameworks which makes it more difficult still to know exactly what it is that we are being professionally developed for.

The biggest issue for me is that, at an institutional level at least, so much of the professional learning that goes on is at the level of acquiring new skills (ie how to use an LMS) that are then employed in an additive manner to current practices. Because of the time constraints on staff, institutional demands (eg PBRF) and lack of clarity at a national policy and funding level, very little of the PD in the area of eLearning addresses sufficiently the need for development over an extended period of time, providing the opportunity to progress through the phases of concern suggested in a concerns based adoption model (CBAM) for instance.

To illustrate, one of my daughters is at a tertiary institution where extensive use is now made of an LMS. My daughter, who is a competent online operator, was initially pleased to see this – assuming that it would enable her to participate in elements of the course outside of the lecture hours, to access notes and resources referred to in lectures, and to review parts of the course in her own time etc. While some of this was able to happen, it was evident from the way the course was presented online that the expectation of the lecturer(s) was more pragmatic – the LMS was a way of distributing course readings, thus saving the time (and cost) of running them off and making them available in class. I would watch as my daughter spent many nights printing off hundreds of pages of journal articles, most of which had simply been photocopied and turned into PDFs for online distribution (I know this because you could see the pages of the book along the edge of the copy, and, in one case, the operators thumb appeared where she/he had held the book down for copying)

She has recently transferred to another tertiary institution, hoping things may be different there – but alas not.

Basically, the points I’d like to make here are:

  1. effective PD must be catered for longitudinally, catering for the growth of ideas and understandings beyond simply acquiring new skills (which may be perfectly legitimate as a first steps activity) to where there is a sense of renewal of practice etc
  2. we must clearly distinguish between PD at a personal level, and PD at an institutional level. The latter is required to bring about pedagogical change in our institutions, and requires a commitment to providing resources, time and recognition in order to support staff through it.
  3. institutional change will only occur within the context of national policy (informed by research etc) which in turn is appropriately interpreted in the form of funding arrangements and reporting/compliance requirements

Lastly, a quote from Neil Postman in his 1995 book “The End of Education”…
“technological change is not additive, it is ecological. A new technology does not change something, it changes everything.

I’m not sure that we have any level of agreement that this is what we’re facing in terms of eLearning (if, of course, we accept that eLearning is itself a form of technology)

3 thoughts on “What’s needed for eLearning to Take Off?

  1. As someone who has been the ‘client’ of e-learning when doing distance courses through ChCh College of Education and now as a facilitator of a cluster where I am always trying to interest schools in working collaboratively in an online environment, I found this post very interesting reading.

    I particularly think the point about many of these online courses or learning opportunities being ‘additive’ rather than replacing current practice is very pertinent. If schools are reporting to parents through an LMS and having ways for children to access learning outside of classroom hours, then there needs to be a corresponding shift in how things were done previously.

    An example of this is the way that one teacher at Wellington College is using Moodle in his history class. He put modules for the children to work through with a lot of interactive content in Moodle. The children are then expected to come to class with this knowledge already in place so they can then discuss the content and go deeper into the analysis of the events. He does not spend his class time giving the information any more. He has changed his current practice rather than adding on to what he does and this makes for more powerful learning.

    I found this a really interesting presentation at the Wellington College Teacher only day and think it does help show that those possibilities are.

  2. Hi Derek

    Thanks for bringing to my attention the concerns based adoption model.

    I am doing an e-learning leadership project this year; part of which focuses on embedding e-learning. Have been reading through Marie Jasinski “Innovate and integrate Embedding innovative practices” (2007) and did not realise that I had not fully taken in the importance of this model. Will go and investigate it further, thanks!


  3. I worked for a Corporation for six years so I understand the comparison of professional development between the two work environments. In the corporate environment, staff development was one of the top 5 goals of the corporation. A significant amount of time, money, and follow-up efforts were put into staff development. Staff development was tied to the institutional goals and each staff and their supervisors were accountable for the training needs of the department. Staff were given time off to ensure they completed their training before Annual Staff Reviews or even before a staff promotion was considered. The importance of staff development could be attributed to the profit motive which exists in the corporate world. Each employee knew how they impacted the company profits, whereas in the education sector, teacher accountability is not translated to profit. I believe comprehensive faculty support in e-learning, coupled with monetary and non-monetary rewards for professional development courses would positively impact e-learning in the education sector.

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