The two institutions I decided to dissect are the West Valley College and Virgina’s Techs plan. Both universities primary focus is to expand on fully online distance education courses as well as provide more blended courses with enhanced multimedia enrichment.
With the overwhelming amount of options available to higher education institutions, it is pertinent that due diligence and proper attention be given to the various offerings that currently exist in this domain. Numerous post-secondary institutions have realized over the past decade that the need to develop strategies and methodologies designed to take advantage of these new offerings.
In a recent article posted by Clay Shirky on the issues facing Higher Education, he addresses increased tuition costs, and how as a result of a series of temporary solutions over the past 40 years they have created a crisis. These decisions have been made in order to preserve a set of practices that have been in place since their existence. Shirky contends that tuition has risen steeply due to various factors. One of which is the competition between universities to entice the best and the brightest. This has caused staff sizes and faculty numbers to balloon and lead to the creation of unnecessary facilities and labs: and today’s students are footing the bill.
He argues that this system is not sustainable and makes the case that new model need to be adopted. The current belief that more financial aid from public funds has to be abandoned and a new path forward needs to emerge.
State and Provincial purse strings are tightening and legislators are looking towards finding efficiencies in current systems, which often times leads to the development of more shared services.
A stalwart example of this is BCCampus and their approach to develop an organization that’s sole purpose is to research, explore and support the development of resources for Elearning strategies and management solutions. As stated in their most recent annual report, they measure the pulse of other institutions and identifying the areas that Universities are struggling with. In addition to that they have created an open and accessible resource that can help guide the decisions of campus wide initiatives as well as support the instructors on the use of these new technologies.
Over the past several years British Columbia Higher Education institutions have benefited from working in collaboration with BCCampus. This truly is an example that other provinces and states can aspire to follow. I refer to this model as I feel as if it is a great benchmark for comparison. Although it is more of a collaborative effort from a collection of universities, the key frameworks are relevant to any higher education institution.
West Valley College:
Examining the West Valley College strategic plan for e-learning demonstrated a clear focus forward and is a reasonable five-year plan. Their objectives are to improve on the previous growth of the 15% of the past decade. Their goal and mission statement is to provide more technology mediated instruction and encourage more blended learning models. In addition to this they have crafted a mission statement that promotes the development of programs and instruction methodologies that teach global citizenship.
Specifically, West Valley College proposes these changes by 5 key areas of growth. The objective is to take the five years and determine readiness areas for the implementation of e-learning strategies and increased training programs for their instructors. Additionally they wish to investigate new methods and e-learning tools available that can be embedded into current courses and provide real results.
The other focus of West Valley College is to create a culture that would facilitate the renewal of hybrid courses and provide recommendations for this process. Furthermore, they wish to redesign the current Distance Education Learning site to make it more robust and capable of handling the increased demand and allow for greater functionality.
Virginia Tech University:
Virginia Tech University published a 2010 progress report on the success of their distance and distributed e-learning strategic plan after the first year of its intended four year roll out. The objectives for this report are broken up into the following subsections: learning, discovery, engagement, organizational, infrastructure, and resource management. This comprehensive plan is broken done into more discrete goals, even going so far as to provide a section on alumni engagement.
The plan begins with a focus on undergraduate education and encouraging more students to take fully online courses, as well as expanding access online certificate programs and increasing program marketing. They also wish to focus on extending these improvements to their graduate and professional education courses.
In addition to this expanded access and the implementation off more e-learning tools, they have also promoted the strengthening and development of the whole student in areas of leadership, multiculturalism, and internationalism. In order to facilitate this they have focused on developing international partnerships with other High Education institutions throughout the world.
Furthermore they have created faculty initiatives to encourage instructors to take professional development initiatives as well as to maintain the quality of service they pride themselves in at Virginia Tech.
Along with these organizational issues, they have also made a push for developing infrastructure and ensuring that IT security is maintained while bringing down traditional administrative barriers.
Finally they have put in a piece on resource management to ensure that tuition costs are competitive with other universities offering similar courses and that financial resources are properly allocated to pursue the objectives they have laid out.
Putting these two plans side by side reveals a lot of the inadequacies that are evident in the West Valley College plan. Although they say the right things and focus on key areas like global citizenship, there is no discrete goals and objectives as outlined in the Virginia Tech plan that are measureable.
The first page of the West Valley College plan indicates there has been an explosive growth in full time students attending the college. Although the chart is placed front and center on the first page, it becomes evident it just window dressing, as they have only seen a 15% increase in full time students online. Although this may represent a large number of students, it shouldn’t be described as explosive (and in no way be the main part of their thesis).
Personally this document falls flat from the very beginning and the introduction doesn’t resonate as it should for such a transformative document. Truly invested institutions are going to provide more then two simple charts of relatively insignificant data.
In addition to this they loosely reference Marc Prensky’s theory by indicating that they are addressing the needs of today’s tech savvy millennials. Prensky’s argument for digital natives has been scrutinized for painting an entire generation with a generalized brush that isn’t entirely accurate. Students today do text more and use social media, however, they are not accustomed to learning tools and do not natively understand how to use these tools for educational purposes. Albeit, they do focus on readiness strategies for their students they don’t address the financial aspect that will be incurred by this and as such, it doesn’t seem as if they have taken this plan seriously.
It’s easy to offer small scale one or two day training sessions, but to effectively make a shift to blended or distance education learning courses, full time staff need to be trained and given a comprehensive mandate to move these new e-learning tools forward.
They also mention they want to improve the web presence of the e-learning site, but are extremely vague in their objectives. I would at least liked to have seen them mention whether they are moving to an adaptive CMS or incorporate a robust LMS. They could have spent a number of bullets addressing what type of LMS they were looking for if that is the case and identify clearly whether an open source solution like Moodle or other more intensive systems by Blackboard are more suitable.
This may be asking a bit much, but web presence is a massive decision and one that should not be made lightly. I truly feel that descriptive objectives would ensure the success of this plan moving forward.
Stacking this plan up next to the Virginia Tech plan isn’t even fair. Their document stands as a great example that others could use as a template that could be useful to other institutions. Looking at some of the rules as outlined by Sinclair et al in the e-learning and beyond discussion paper, a lot of their key areas align well with the goals and objectives addressed in Virginia Tech’s comprehensive plan.
The fact that they broke up each of the objectives into essential aspects was extremely well done. Although there are more important items in the plan, three areas that stuck out to me where: the organizational objectives, resource management and infrastructure objectives. These areas demonstrate how serious they are to turning this strategy into a reality. Ensuring that you have faculty properly trained and that you have the financial resources to follow through with that is vitally important.
Their section on e-learning and information systems fully identifies the type of site and system they will need and the specific requirements they are looking for as well. They even go so far as to identify the coding system, container and the development of partnerships with other universities using similar systems to reduce costs is a very thoughtful choice. Additionally, their need for a site with advanced interoperability to integrate other learning tools seamlessly indicates their commitment to e-learning.
However, there are a couple areas of concern for me was within the document. Several times they mention policy compliance within the description of the goals. I am hesitant about this as I am worried that current policies might stand in the way of moving forward with these initiatives. Although they stipulate they want to remove barriers, I’m unsure if this document supersedes those policies and will grant them the authority to have carte blanche when implementing this plan.
Other policy issues of importance revolve around intellectual property and copyright concerns. Both faculty and students need to be aware of this.
Since instructors will be putting material online in a blended format, they need to be aware of what content can be shared and what is not permitted.
Additionally the one area that is constantly hammered home and addressed in the e-learning discussion paper by Sinclair et al that is not fully developed in this document is the direct instruction of information literacy skills. Students need to be taught how to properly navigate the web, as well as understand how to validate sources and look for bias in different online resources. This is no easy undertaking and is only glossed over in the 5 year plan.
That aside, the last most intriguing area of this document revolves around international partnerships. This is twice within this document that they reference working together in a collaborative effort to pursue the best management strategies. This to me is evidence that they are truly committed to this and have crafted a thoughtful document that will institute real change.
The very nature of e-learning strategies and tools are developing faster then we one could possible imagine. Each year, new sites, functions and features are being developed at an alarming rate. However, deciding which is right for each institution and each specific program is a very complex decision. Development of a comprehensive plan is important for each higher education institution that wishes to move into the 21st century and adopt these solutions.
Therefore, the one area that is the most important when developing a plan is to put in place methods for collaborating with others. Any success in e-learning solutions can be directly related to the BCCampus program. Providing opportunities for shared resources and open dialogue on what offerings are actually worthwhile is the only way to navigate this domain.
The Virginia Tech plan takes this into account and ensures that these collaborative relationships are fostered and maintained. If any other institutions are looking to find success, discrete objectives and a promise to establish and maintain partnerships are the essential items to focus on.
E-learning will change the way we learn, but this needs to be an exercise in thoughtful implementation. These plans cannot be hastily pasted together and need to understand that this is a new realm for both instructors and students. Proper training and constant reflection on these plans are vital to the growth of e-learning tools and strategies.
Petter, C. & Clift, R. (2006). Putting Learning Before Technology: A Critique of E-Learning & Beyond. Confederation of University Faculty Associations.