Jay Dempster, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick
The theme for this issue was chosen to reflect the need to identify what ICT is aiming to achieve. After all, IT infrastructure a costly business, to which the proposed E-Strategy for the University (Warwick access only) is a testimony. The cost of investing in a Virtual Learning Environment and supporting it comes with a price tag of a million pounds or more. How are priorities set for our visions and goals, how do we learn from lessons elsewhere and how are the outcomes evaluated from our own approaches so we can learn from our experiences, respond and adapt effectively?
Articles for this issue have been selected that describe ways in which ICT interventions provide solutions for the support of learning and/or the resourcing of courses. Here I consider briefly the issues in balancing the costs and benefits of these two goals.
How does a university or a department undertake any form of analysis of likely costs and benefits when there is so little guidance on the matter. Many institutions inadvertently plan for "uncertain benefits/high costs" in order to satisfy secondary missions driven by political ("seen to be innovative") or technological ("we must use more IT") agendas.
For many organisations, it is often hard to decide what are the priorities in an ever-changing climate, especially true of higher education. Universities are under considerable pressure to review and change many of their practices. In learning and teaching, they are required to consider in more detail the appropriateness of their approaches, to be more explicit about their intentions and methods, to be able to give sound reasons for their approaches and to evaluate teaching in order to improve practice.
The most desirable outcome of using ICT is the "high benefits/low cost" situation, where we can enhance the quality of teaching and of student learning whilst reducing or maintaining the cost of delivery. It is surprising how low budget yet effective innovations that liberate course developers (at individual or departmental level) to implement educationally good ideas can go unnoticed in an organisation with as many operational layers as a University. Understandably, the outcomes concerning the “scaling up” and “mainstreaming” of approaches and use of ICT tools that have perhaps proved successful for individual “innovators” or “enthusiasts” is unknown territory. Nevertheless, the high benefits/low cost solutions are often overlooked in favour of more immediately impressive but untested solutions provided by a centralised development unit.
Academic development is exploratory by nature presenting a catch-22 in terms of IT investment. In developing new course approaches, it is desirable to test out ICT tools and materials as part of the evaluation process whilst avoiding the need to buy in expensive or complex software applications to do so. The journey is inexplicably intertwined with the whole business of academic development, rather than an IT-driven response.
Academic developers must develop appropriate ways to measure outcomes and increase understanding of successful approaches that are meaningful to their overal goals or mission. If this seems difficult, we should at least be able to identify what are sensible indicators of success in terms of costs and benefits. A university learning and teaching strategy or quality assurance framework is a valuable guide.
In general there appears to be an inherently conservative streak through all those purporting to embrace new models of teaching and learning, preferring in reality the familiar with its limitations rather than a vision of how practice might change for the better. Making the validity of the reason for change more explicit and demonstrating viability in the way the technology might be embedded can tender enthusiasm and engagement across several levels within the institutions.
IN THIS ISSUE:
The first article outlines the approach that the Centre for Academic Practice (CAP) is taking to encourage and assist the development of e-learning. It particularly distinguishes between development that produces resources for courses and development that provides learning tools and environments for use by students and tutors.
The second article is taken from a case study undertaken with the TELRI Project describing an approach to the use of web-based resources for chemistry to develop students' evaluative capabilities in retrieving and using relevant and valid information from the web and specialist subject databases.
The final article explores how ICT can assist students and lecturers in making the most of small-group learning and teaching, and to promote and support effective change in educational practice.
Dr Jay Dempster
Head of Educational Technology
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7652 4670