Exploring e-learning within the further education (FE) sector can be like trying to decipher a complicated road map: there are many roads that can be taken, most seem to go somewhere that look appealing, but few actually take the institution in the direction it wants to go. As with any journey, planning is key: without a clear e-learning strategy, or an agreed map for individual staff to follow, an institution can go round and round without a clear destination.
The FAIR Enough Project ran from 1 October 2002 until 31 January 2005 as part of the JISC funded FAIR (Focus on Institutional Resources) Programme. The project examined some of the technical and presentational issues surrounding the embedding of JISC collections and services into the variety of virtual learning environments (VLEs) and intranet delivery systems (portals) used by the Colleges within the Western Colleges Consortium (City of Bath College; Filton College; Norton Radstock (the lead institution); and Weston College). During the project, an investigation was undertaken into the related issues of institutional asset disclosure - with an emphasis on intellectual property rights (IPR) - and into cultural and educational challenges.
Areas of exploration
Issues surrounding the embedding of resources were explored through experimentation. The team attempted to identify why JISC collections and other electronic resources were underutilised across the FE community and then attempted to provide solutions to increase the use of these materials.
It is essential that staff have the information skills necessary to conduct an effective search of online materials and to manipulate the results. Our investigation highlighted that ongoing staff support and training is key. By offering a regular bi-weekly training session (for an hour or so) to groups of staff with similar needs, it is possible to give staff an opportunity to practice using available online resources to create materials for use with students. This practical approach has proven very effective and has been popular with practitioners.
When deciding how to make electronic resources available to staff and students, decisions need to be taken regarding placement, access and availability of the materials within existing college systems. It is vital to ensure that resources can be easily accessed when and where they are required. Our investigations confirmed that a variety of delivery methods should be available, and that the placement of links to online materials should be carefully considered.
An innovative initiative was established using uPortal, - a free, open-standards portal - which proved to be a viable solution to the problem of delivering a wide variety of electronic resources within a VLE. Deployment of a portal within the VLE balances targeted access with an element of choice. This has led to the development of a flexible tool that brings together electronic material in an efficient manner.
IPR and copyright
The effective use of online materials can be significantly impacted by the limitations and constraints imposed by Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and copyright. IPR are the legal rights attributed to the owner of a resource. Copyright refers to the permission granted by the owner of a resource for others to print, publish, distribute or display the resource in accordance with the associated copyright rules. We have found that confusion exists across the FE sector regarding issues pertaining to IPR and copyright. Staff development activities, targeted at different audiences and delivered at a number of events locally and nationally, have helped to bring these issues to the fore; however, they remain a significant barrier to the use of online resources.
The project team uncovered a striking difference between the attitudes of further and higher education practitioners in this area, brought about in part by the differences in how the sectors contribute to and use electronic resources. FE practitioners often need a single image or an extract of text around which to build an activity. They need to have ready access to such materials along with confidence that the selected item can be used as they intend.
Online collections of materials with prearranged permissions, available to colleges and universities via subscription, provide an opportunity for practitioners to use such resources for teaching without any copyright constraint. As part of this project a repository has been developed to enable practitioners across the Consortium to contribute to and to access multimedia elements without having to consider the origin or the copyright associated with the constituent parts. In order that practitioners can be encouraged to contribute to the repository, it is necessary to ensure the ongoing integrity of the elements. It is also necessary to define carefully the metadata associated with each element, in order to make it valuable to the widest possible audience.
Cultural and educational challenges
Technology has made some fundamental changes to the way that colleges and universities conduct the business of education. While some institutions have embraced these changes, financial and cultural challenges have prevented others from making significant progress. The same can be said regarding individuals within institutions: some have acquired excellent information skills, while others are just beginning to exploit the full potential of electronic resources.
Making a variety of resources available and ensuring that technology does not become a barrier to resource use is an excellent first step; however, ongoing support and staff development is integral to the process. An ad hoc approach will result in poor overall use of the resources available. Our research has shown that an institutional e-learning strategy is the key. This needs to be developed with a keen eye to the future and should be driven forward by the commitment of staff at all levels. By mapping out plans and then developing processes and procedures to embed them, an institution can signal a clear direction and can move forward with confidence.
Project outcomes and conclusions
Our experiments have highlighted a number of effective methods for embedding JISC collections and other electronic resources into VLEs and portals. There is no definitive answer as to how materials should be made available; instead a flexible approach linked to choice, personal preferences and the way in which individuals work, is best.
The FE community needs resources, including electronic resources, to be easy to identify, simple to use and quick to access. Time constraints are an ongoing barrier, so the addition of electronic materials must be shown to produce a positive effect quickly and easily. An ongoing institutional strategy must be developed to provide practical assistance regarding the utilisation of available resources.
The project investigated how the placement of links to resources within an intranet or VLE affected use. We found targeting resources at individuals to be an effective way of providing access to quality resources without overwhelming practitioners. The team developed a number of curriculum-based learning packages, which provided links to subscription and free JISC funded collections, for use within VLEs. The successful adoption of these curriculum-based packages has lead to the development of a portal environment within the VLE, using uPortal, to enhance the potential of this delivery method. The portal development is still in its infancy, but progress is continuing.
The Western Colleges Consortium has been a proponent of collaboration since its inception in 1997. Senior managers across the partnership recognise the benefits of combining resources, financial outlay and staff, to provide a centrally managed VLE for which the partners share equal responsibility. The dedicated team is central to the success of this collaboration. The principal lesson is a simple one: collaboration is an effective tool. It can be used to help overcome many barriers, but it must be well organised and effectively managed.
There is increased awareness nationally of the value of deploying e-resources alongside traditional teaching materials, as well as an increased recognition of the differences between HE and FE regarding collaboration and sharing materials. The fact that these areas are now part of the national agenda serves to reinforce the success of the FAIR Enough project and the value of the research carried out.
Online resources have changed the educational landscape. Practitioners are being required to develop new skills to successfully navigate this landscape. The FAIR Enough project has begun to map a direction and to show how institutions can embrace the use of online resources and embed them within existing practices while remaining focussed on the teaching and learning process. Anne Atkins, Senior Projects Officer, Western Colleges Consortium, firstname.lastname@example.org
James Clay, Director, Western Colleges Consortium, email@example.com