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Support for the Development of e-Learning Resources

Graham Lewis Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick


The validity of using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to support teaching and learning in higher education is gaining acceptance. Much of the development in this area involves Internet technologies – principally using the World Wide Web as a delivery vehicle.  The currently popular term for this approach is ‘e-learning’.  e-Learning approaches might range from online resources to support traditional teaching to fully automated remote learning courses.  It is generally agreed that universities are moving from the stage where much innovative work in e-learning is done by, largely unsupported, enthusiasts to a stage where all members of teaching staff will use these technologies to some extent.  This clearly demands a more strategic use of resources and this change in thinking is reflected in the number of ‘e-teaching/e-learning’ strategy documents appearing across the sector.

As demand for assistance with the development of e-learning resources grows, pressure increases on the limited resources that CAP and other services can provide.  There is a need within and without CAP to define our priorities to optimise the investment of our time in such work and a need to make clear to academic staff just what each of the services is able to do to assist them.


CAP staff have considerable experience of the dynamics of encouraging and supporting the development of e-learning resources for on-campus provision and already have models to achieve successful uptake of e-learning.  Some guiding principles by which we work are:

ICT is a means of enhancing teaching quality and the learning experience and this should be the primary driver behind engaging in ICT.  Using ICT effectively requires a considerable investment of time and we must be clear about the benefits before making this investment.  In terms of project development, the journey is as least as important as the destination – the process of engaging with the technology and rethinking approaches within new media often crystallises teaching goals for the academic and may even suggest new teaching goals.

ICT can also considerably enhance the efficiency of the management of teaching, offsetting the initial investment.  In many ways the information overload that results from ICT can only be handled by using that same technology.  However, we should be careful that we do not confuse the areas of administration and teaching – large-scale document management systems designed primarily for administration are unlikely to satisfy all the needs of online support for learning.

Personal involvement of staff in the development process is essential for truly imaginative and appropriate approaches to e-learning.  This requires that academic staff develop at least an awareness of the potentials of the technology.  Some will wish to have more involvement in the technical aspects than others. However, to make this investment of time efficient, central services should provide support in areas that require a great deal of technical expertise. The boundary between what staff themselves should do and what should be done for them, is a moving one as the technology becomes more accessible and the services must adapt accordingly. There will always be roles, such as graphics design, that are best delivered by central providers of expertise in order to maintain quality.  So, we do not argue that academics should become ‘Jacks of All Trades’.  One of CAP’s roles is to maintain a balance that optimises staff involvement without overburdening them with learning unnecessary skills. 

Departments and individuals want flexible modes of working with CAP.

CAP’s role is not to manage the technological issues directly but to understand the cultural and community context in which the adoption of new ways of working these is occurring – what drives involvement? What are the generic and subject specific aspects?  Staff are far from homogenous - they differ in the amount of help they require. Our interpretation is that departments want to be supported separately and that individuals prefer personal attention. As an institution we should be offering flexible support from idea to implementation to evaluation.

CAP is experienced in identifying the generic features of projects and in understanding how ideas developed in individual projects might impinge on the activity of the department and, by having the benefit of contact with many parts of the university, of the institution as a whole. 

CAP therefore adopts flexible modes of working with departments and addresses the needs of individuals as well as the department as a whole. Exactly how we work with a department is driven by the department. This is a very pro-active evangelistic approach.  Often we can provide that little extra momentum that turns an idea into a project.

By networking across departments and across institutions, we can cross fertilize departments with the best ideas in good practice and encourage collaboration between departments.  In this pastoral role we act both as speaking newsletters and as avenues of feedback to the effectiveness of central services. 

All staff should be given the opportunity of using the new technologies in their teaching and not just those individuals that are likely to produce highly visible and/or commercially viable products.  While we may explore the possibilities of remote learning for some subject areas, particularly postgraduate, a university e-Strategy should focus on supporting on-campus learning.  The provision of resources for remote learning may be quite different from the provision of resources to support on-campus students.  If we are serious about making changes in the way all staff work then we must make this as easy as possible.  Certainly the technological infrastructure must be there but also a training and support structure that is reactive to needs and proactive to projected needs. Training in the use of the technology itself must be closely linked to training in the best ways to use that technology to teach. 

Any lack of motivation on the part of academics is due largely to a lack of recognition for involvement in such work.  Time must be allocated for staff to explore new approaches and to develop new solutions.  Good work in this area must be recognised and rewarded appropriately

Development work should use appropriate and stable technology.  There is a great opportunity to be at the cutting edge of the use of these technologies in teaching and learning but this does not mean that we have to be at the cutting edge of the technologies themselves to achieve this.  Well-established and stable technologies are still under-explored as aids to teaching.

There is a need for the university to keep a watching brief on cutting edge technologies as they may be the everyday technologies of tomorrow but it should not be where our focus is. 

The main limiting factor to date has been the lack of an institutionally supported strategy.  The vision and availability of additional resources proposed by the e-Strategy offers an opportunity to address these issues but only if the approach draws upon what we have already learnt and includes the staff development issues as more than an afterthought. Many institutions have chosen the route of a development unit such as that proposed in the e-Strategy document simply because this is more visible than the enabler model.  The idea is attractive to university administrators as it seems to provide a simple solution to a complex problem.  It has yet to be shown that this approach has a substantial impact on the working practice of the host institution.  The e-Development Centre proposed in the e-Strategy would commit most of the available resources to one mode of operating.  While the resources offered by such a centre would be welcome, we would be concerned if the centre was not also active in promoting uptake in the way that CAP has been.

Large, well funded and technologically advanced projects have their place, particularly in terms of supporting remote learning but it is the much simpler technologies that individual members of staff can get personally involved in that will change institution wide practice.  At no point in the e-Strategy document is this issue of institutional change addressed and the provision for remote learning is confused with that of the support of on-campus learning.  There is clearly overlap in the infrastructure needs but the support needs and sometimes the technologies employed are quite different.

The effectiveness of our approach is more difficult to quantify but is aimed at causing a general change in the practice of all staff or at least to offer them the opportunity to explore new ways of teaching.  Because the changes are embedded more deeply in teaching practice rather than standing alongside traditional practice, the changes brought about by this method are more difficult to present as evidence of success of the approach.

Similarly, taking material away from academic staff and developing it as digital media can produce quality in terms of the technology and surface appearance but often not in terms of teaching and learning.  A simpler way for all staff to create and publish a Web page would have far greater impact than, say, provision of streaming video.  There is a need for specialised technical assistance that academics can draw upon but this should be supporting the development of academic staff rather than the development of the technology for its own sake. 

Evaluation must be an integral part of any project from its inception.  The high cost of developing e-learning and our relative inexperience in using it effectively in HE means that development in this area attracts close scrutiny and perhaps a more critical cost-benefit analysis than was expected of traditional methods. 

Dissemination and the creation of networks is essential to achieving institution-wide changes in working practice.  Despite printed newsletters, web sites and departmental contacts, staff still complain that they are ill informed of developments in IT and of training opportunities at Warwick. The discipline-based fragmented structure of universities mean that it is often difficult to inform individual academics. Those involved in good practice within departments have little incentive to spread that experience to other disciplines.  One of the most important roles that CAP serves is to enable lateral communication between departments and the most effective way we have of doing this is to speak directly to as many individuals as possible.  Intranet/Portal has its uses as a repository of information but is a passive and not very effective in communicating news.

When the funded period of a project is over, there is often a useful piece of work that may interest and encourage staff from diverse disciplines.  However, dissemination has always proved difficult. One possibility is that those who receive university funding to undertake teaching innovation should be invited to present a report at a 1-2 yearly conference at Warwick.  This would be made a condition of funding.  The event would be open to those from other institutions for a small fee.  The event would perform a number of useful functions for Warwick:  

Graham Lewis
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick

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