The uptake of e-learning within universities has been taking place in a changing culture. This has been driven, in part, by the information and communication revolution but also by political and economic forces that result in increasing numbers and diversity of learners. Combined with the strong subject research focus at Warwick, these and numerous other often conflicting pressures on universities all mean that the roles of academics and staff supporting them are constantly evolving.
What characterises the early contributions to Interactions (chapters 1 & 2) is the more-or-less unsupported 'early adopters' who grappled with the technology itself – sometimes this interest in ‘gadgets’ being their chief motive. With the development of easy-to-use tools and availability of central support (chapter 3), more recent articles demonstrate how those energies have been increasingly focused on deep educational issues and professional skills. The early adopter, and indeed learning technology as a research field is maturing gradually and being replaced by an interest not so much in the technology but in what it can do to change or enhance learning and teaching philosophies and practices (chapter 7).
This has perhaps as much to do with the ubiquity of those technologies in every day life as it is with the infrastructures and professional development (outlined in chapter 3) that universities put in place to support new working practices; but both are necessary components. For those who have been involved for one to two decades in promoting and supporting what is now called “e-learning”, it is very gratifying to now be seeing many of the potentials of technology implemented successfully in programmes of study.
HE, and indeed the education sector as a whole, once it recognised the inevitability of e-learning becoming a part of teaching and learning, has tried a vast range of approaches to ensure that e-learning could take place (chapter 2). The dominant influence has been the virtual learning environment (VLE) that most institutions have used (home grown or commercially provided) to support e-learning. This has certainly drawn more academics into using the Web, but now is the time to bring the pedagogical aspirations to the foreground. The research-based learning mission at Warwick means that the design and deployment of such tools should aim to nurture an integrated approach to e-learning (for examples, see chapter 3). We have been fortunate in being able to develop flexible approaches – technically - to support what departments and disciplines need from e-learning –pedagogically (see examples in departments in chapter 4). There is still a great deal to learn with regard to how best to ‘blend’ the different e-learning facilities and to link online learning with traditional, classroom based activity. Our e-Learning Strategy is intentionally open-ended in its vision of what learning and teaching might actually look like. In our recent national “e-learning benchmarking” exercise, in which Warwick was a pilot institution, we termed this 'Managed Diversity'. Over the next few years, departments will have ample opportunity to obtain funding to explore more contemporary teaching methods and to gain recognition for curriculum leadership.
Winning hearts and minds is about embracing the possibilities of e-learning whilst recognising that the potential stretches far beyond the starting point of putting reading lists and lecture notes (and Powerpoint slides) online. Exploring the various levels of pedagogical ambition (chapter 7) inevitably involves some kind of reconstruction of teaching and learning that allows educators to push the boundaries of teaching and challenge the constraints of the technical systems and their design features. Examples of where this is happening can be found at go.warwick.ac.uk/cap/landt/rbl/, such as the Technology Enhanced Learning in Research Led Institutions (TELRI) project, Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme (URSS), the Reinvention Centre for Excellence led by Warwick, initiated in 2005. In this way, e-learning is an important lever for changing the nature of students’ engagement in higher education (chapters 5,6&7). In 2006-09, as we develop our new Learning and Teaching Strategy, it may be timely to craft an institutional vision of what HE will look like in the future rather than simply allowing it to evolve.
There remain a number of challenges that underpin our progress towards maturity in the application of e-learning. Future directions will need to take account of the culture and diversity at Warwick, as an international, research-intensive university.
- University teaching can be a highly individual activity and the integration and embedding of e-learning is dependent on the academic’s conception of teaching and learning, attitude to innovation and their own professional development. Whilst skilled in discipline-based research methods, many academics will need to develop capability to research into their own teaching. Evidence from staff who are undertaking the Warwick E-Learning Award programme suggests that academics face many issues for the first time when developing e-learning, such as a change in role from lecturing to facilitating, course redesign and development of new IT skills. This is helped by the introduction of mandatory professional development programmes for new lecturers and an increasing emphasis on the professionalism of teaching at national and international levels. ‘Good e-learning’ must be built on a foundation of ‘good teaching’ and it is perhaps scrutiny of the quality of university teaching that will lead to the realisation of the true potential of e-Learning.
- The assumption that students who grow up on a diet of interactive games and chat rooms will be comfortable in using these environments to learn can lead to many problems further down the line. Appropriate provision of student support to develop new social and organisational skills and enhance academic professionalism and employability are key areas we are just getting started on (see PDP).
- Warwick is proud to embrace research-based learning and the URSS, The Reinvention Centre and numerous, smaller scale, local initiatives attest to this. As a research-led university, we are also proud that our teaching is performed by researchers at the cutting edge of their disciplines. The crucial emphasis in the future will be our focus on research-led teaching - academics applying the same scholarship and enquiry-based learning to their teaching as they apply to their discipline-based research and expect students to apply to their learning. Warwickhas taken steps to encourage teaching staff to take an evidence-informed approach through the Teaching Enhancement Awards (TEA), a now peer-reviewed web-based journal, Interactions, and within the Masters level requirements for accredited HE practitioner programmes such as the PCAPP, Warwick E-Learning Award PGA, and MA: go.warwick.ac.uk/cap/courses/accredited/
- E-learning is a catch-all for a whole range of changing technologies. One feature they have in common is that they provide alternative channels of communication and interaction than is possible in the best of face-to-face situations. The specific nature of some e-learning facilities is not always a disadvantage. There is not a single “e-pedagogy” any more than there is a single method to support 'traditional' teaching and assessment. Careful selection and use of different technologies can provide forms of communication, collaboration and assessment that is not otherwise possible. It has been said that education is shaped and limited by the methods of assessment we use. Though there have been some illuminating developments, the assessment potential of e-learning is still in its infancy. While there are useful developments to support formative assessment and feedback to students (see chapter 6), the challenge for future practice partly stems from the fact that summative assessment at least is not an area we are free to take risks with. It will be interesting to see how e-learning might challenge these traditional educational paradigms.
- Whether e-learning is treated as separate from other learning on a managerial, strategic, tactical and pedagogical basis continues to be a moving target. On the one hand we are keen to embed e-learning into mainstream practices, on the other, we recognise there are additional operational as well as educational issues that make it practical to treat it as separate.
Looking back on a perilous journey over the last decade of e-learning at Warwickand beyond, one thing we can be sure of is that e-learning or whatever it may be called in the future, is here to stay. The challenge is to build our capacity to harness the technology in such a way can both shape and be shaped by what we decide higher education should is all about.
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick