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Preparing Academic for E-Teaching

Graham Lewis, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

All educational establishments are currently wrestling with the issues raised by entering the world of eTeaching – the use of internet technologies in teaching and learning.  Most obvious and perhaps the easiest to deal with is the provision of suitable infrastructure and tools for information and communication technology (ICT), but equally important, and much more difficult to deal with, is preparing the tutor to teach in these new environments.  Provision of services and of staff development are interdependent and we cannot discuss the later without reference to the former.  In this article I will look at the options open to HE institutions in enabling their staff to be effective eTeachers and, in particular, at one approach we have explored at Warwick. 

I use the term “eTeaching” for convenience and brevity as the set of skills that a tutor needs to be able to put together and run a component of a course using internet technologies. The skill set includes confidence and competence with both the technical ‘how-to’ of using the tools and what I refer to as ‘ePedagogy’ – the ‘when and why’ of using these technologies alongside face-to-face teaching, to achieve learning goals.  

Possible approaches to developing eTeaching

A number of different approaches are commonly taken to deal with this complex issue in HE.  Often several approaches are taken in parallel and this is a good thing although it is more often due to the fragmented nature of support services than by design.  The following list is arranged in order of the amount of technical assistance usually given or in reverse order of the amount of ‘technical’ effort that the academic invests.

  • Do nothing
  • Fund projects
  • IT training
  • IT training + ‘ePedagogy’ training
  • IT training + ‘ePedagogy’ training + project
  • Individual help with projects
  • Make so easy no direct help is needed
  • The development unit

Looking at staff development across these different approaches, I would like you to keep in mind the model of diffusion and innovation proposed by Rogers:

The adopter continuum
  • Innovators  (Techies – often true sometimes unfair)
  • Early Adopters - visionaries


  • Early Majority - pragmatists
  • Late Majority - conservatives
  • Laggards - Sceptics

The main reason for the oft-noted ‘chasm’ is that groups 1 and 2 are essentially self-motivated while groups 3-5 are not. 

I argue that these groups have different staff development needs and that no single approach will address the needs of all of them.  Consequently, from an institutional change perspective, when developing an approach you should be aware of whom you will be serving and whom you will not.

Key factors when comparing these models include:

  • Cost
  • Academic staff time
  • Technical staff time
  • Education developer and Learning technology staff time
  • Administration
  • Bidding Process
  • Reaction time to need
  • Speed of delivery
  • Flexibility to changing needs
  • Embedding of skills within departments
  • Likelihood of success
  • Evaluation
  • Transferability within the institution
  • Institutional Impact - visibility
  • Building of resources for future projects
  • Building of support community for developers
  • Skills and confidence levels of target audience
  • Scalability

In reality institutions adopt a mixture of these models and this is perhaps the best approach as they satisfy different needs.

An approach for Warwick

Combining training, ePedagogy and project development

The Warwick Online Course Construction (WOCC) programme initiated in 2000 attempts to combine the technical training, the ‘ePedagogy’ training and the project development (Model 5 in the above list) although there are elements of some of the other models too.  The ALTO programme at the University of Southampton that predates and inspired the WOCC programme uses a similar approach.

Real online ‘courses’

Participants are required to have a real application in mind for using web technologies and were asked for a short proposal (submitted by Web form).  The proposed projects might be to construct an entire online distance education course or simply to create some support materials for an existing course.  The most relevant proposals to the programme objectives were accepted with a limit of a dozen participants per run of the programme. Some proposals were steered to approaches other than WOCC or to support for technologies not covered in WOCC.  There was however no way of ensuring compliance with this requirement and a few still treated the programme as merely a training opportunity in the software covered.

Staff development is supplied over a realistic time-span – six months so that there is opportunity to develop a real online approach while participants have access to expertise and a group of people in much the same position.  The workshops provide a structure so that as technologies and approaches are covered, they can be applied to the growing projects.


The programme was intended to be flexible enough to cope with academic workloads and the specific needs of the subject material. While the core technologies used were the same, the final online courses are likely to be very different.

Once accepted on the programme, participants were interviewed to establish needs and opportunities. This was identified as a project-planning meeting although in the event, the level of knowledge among the majority of participants meant that they needed to attend the workshops before they could identify approaches.

The workshops

The dozen or so workshops that formed the spine of the programme had to be more flexible and adaptive to the needs of the participants than traditional IT training.  Each cohort differed in its level and range of confidence and competence and in the technologies that are of interest so each run of the programme must be adapted. 

Workshops were 3 hour afternoon sessions at the same time each week, initially weekly then further apart as the topics covered were of less common interest.  Each workshop included a strong hands on element.

Programme objectives and outcomes

WOCC was seen from the outset as a vehicle for a number of overlapping objectives.  The overt short-term objectives were about enabling the participants, the longer term ones about enabling the institution.

Short term objectives were to

  • Provide an overview of eteaching, its potentials and pitfalls
  • Empower academics with the confidence and competence to use appropriate Internet technologies
  • Introduce good practice – epedagogy – alongside technical training.
  • Produce real online ‘courses’.
  • Create a community of eteachers at Warwick

Longer term objectives were to

  • Introduce some eteaching tools to Warwick – principally a virtual learning environment (Blackboard)
  • Assess eteaching tool needs
  • Create an informed population of academics that could then be consuklted about infrastructural and support needs.
  • Create a focus for eteaching development
  • Create a set of case studies that could be used to inform later runs of the programme
  • Improve collaboration between services supporting eteaching
  • Proof of concept - to establish how effective an approach of this type is compared or combined with other models taking place at Warwick.
Outcomes of the programme

WOCC as an approach to providing staff development for eTeaching shows a great deal of promise.  For the adopter categories for which it was designed – the early majority – those ready to engage with eTeaching but lacking the confidence to tackle it in isolation,

Its ‘casual’, non accredited format provide both its major strengths and weaknesses. The main stumbling block haunts most approaches to teaching development in general– that is, academic staff time. Despite the conditions of entry to the programme highlighting the production of a real outcome, in practice, in both runs, only around a third of participants had seriously begun working on their projects before the workshops had ended.  Wide ranges of reasons were given but they essentially boiled down to the pressures of other commitments. Participants did not therefore on the whole achieve a sufficient critical mass in their online course materials to put advice on design into context within the programme time-span. All participants reported that they were much better informed and confident at the end of the programme and were still determined to pursue their original goals.

Disappointingly, the ‘eTutor’ skills could not be tackled in more than a theoretical way, as the courses were not active with real students during the programme itself.  Future runs of the programme will revisit this in an attempt to deliver part of the programme itself online.

Participants were quickly able to reach a position of being able to decide on the usefulness of a particular technology to their specific teaching needs. This arose through the hands on element of the workshops and the way the presenters reacted to need combined with the very short learning curve required to gain competence with a range of ‘training wheel’ level eTeaching tools provided by a simple VLE. The aim of the workshops forming a spine to the programme with other facets being lunchtime problem solving sessions, case studies, online discourse etc was not achieved largely due to the small number of participants.  These are of course the same limitations that staff wanting to engage undergraduates in eLearning face.  Future runs of WOCC will likely open up some of the workshops and other activities to non-participants. It was also hoped that the participants would remain in touch as a WOCC ‘alumni’ continuing to inform each other of developments and opportunities and in the process build links across subject disciplines. This was far less successful than anticipated. Participants saw little benefit in consulting with those outside of their own subject areas, viewing the teaching issues as quite subject specific.  Their only common point of contact were the programme presenters. In this sense they have formed a constituency for the educational technologists involved but not a self supporting community as such.

It is difficult to document exactly how the existence of the programme itself has influenced decision making on the provision of infrastructure and support for eTeaching. Some of its other outcomes have, however, had an indirect effect  – the trailing of a VLE, creation of an informed community, review of the teaching development project fund, and so forth. The programme attempted to overcome the ‘bootstrap’ problem in implementing learning technology – asking the academics for their requirements is not as productive as it could be as the population is largely uninformed.  This means that the drivers for implementation and the decisions on what to implement fall on IT staff who see eTeaching from a different perspective.  Part of the aim of WOCC was to begin building an informed community that could be consulted on their needs. This was quite successful (see also objective 10) as this group was subsequently consulted by central IT services in scoping exercises for eTeaching tools.

With this approach, participants were self-selecting.  Interestingly, they represented virtually the entire range of the adopter continuum although I would say that the majority was in the targeted ‘early majority’ group. These individuals are mostly uninformed but sufficiently motivated to begin using the technologies if they are guided to some extent.  What they all had in common was an immediate need to produce an outcome to a deadline. A few had already been eTeachers with older technologies. A surprising number, particularly in the second cohort were highly technically competent and attended perhaps to gain some insight into the range of technologies available in the specific area of eTeaching as well as some insight into ePedagogy.

This approach to developing eTeaching is overall seen to be a success and we intend to continue using such a programme at Warwick as part of a mix of support models.  The programme itself will certainly continue to evolve to adapt to assist in preparing teaching staff to face a rapidly changing environment within which they can use the ICT provision to best effect.

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