Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 17 July 2009   Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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A systems approach to e-learning
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Learning on the go with an iPod Touch
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A systems approach to e-learning
by John Davis

My role as Academic Director of e-Learning is half time. I moonlight as a Reader in Engineering Systems. I want to explore in this article how a systems thinking approach affects my view of e-learning. In doing so, I want to reassess that hoary old question of saving money. 

The primary question in systems relates to purpose. It is the “why” question – “what are we REALLY trying to do here?”  So I’m going to be really boring and start off with a definition from which I can work: ”e-learning is a means to improve the experience of everyone involved in the learning process”.  There are three key words on which I wish to focus: a, process and everyone.

Our purpose then is to improve or even transform the learning experience. e-Learning is just ‘a’ means of improving the experience.  Hence it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Sure it’s the one we enjoy working with, but it must be seen the context of other tools and processes we may employ and must look for synergies with them. As e-learning exponents we have to be careful we don’t get too precious about what we are doing.  

The next systems question after purpose is about the system boundary: What’s inside and what’s outside. In Bristol we have decided to draw the boundary quite wide to include aspects of e-administration. We have done this because it fits in with the purpose of improving the learning experience for everyone and allows us to engage the financially motivated parts of the senior management team.  

For example, many of us are grappling with the issues of improving feedback - that most important part of the learning experience – for obvious educational reasons and also for strategic reasons (the National Student Survey). Students need high quality timely feedback. Staff need systems to help them do this with minimum overhead – the marking burden is enough in itself. The senior management team would be grateful if we spent less time shoving bits of paper around. So if we can make that whole process easier and more efficient we all benefit.

At Bristol we recently put some effort into a voice of the customer exercise followed by a business process analysis examining the on-line submission and management of coursework. Using semi-structured interviewing approaches produces a much richer picture of the domain than questionnaires and produces fascinating insights. For example it was suggested that the foyer outside one department office had been extended to accommodate the queue of students wanting to get their coursework handed in and ticked off the list by administrative staff.

We found a very wide variety of practice in this area, from purely paper based systems through a basic use of Blackboard to bespoke systems from the computer scientists. Conservative estimates of the savings possible (a fraction of the time spent on the processes), suggested that we could save £400k per annum. However the ‘realisability’ of these savings is not easy as they are not focussed in one or two posts but in a few percent of the time of thousands of people. The case is one of overall productivity rather than cutting posts.

The point here is that in working with Engineering Systems we strive to improve quality while reducing cost simultaneously. By broadening the system boundary, and understanding the process we may be able, some areas at least, to do the same in e-learning.

That leads on to the second of my key words. 

The purpose is to improve the process. Now it begins to get tricky. As we look at process improvement in most other sectors we reckon that we have first to understand the process before we can improve it. The real gurus of the field tell us we have to have a profound knowledge of the system we are dealing with and its processes. So how many of us really understand the learning process? If I ask the learning researchers to give me a description of the learning process in Higher Education (HE), they either look at me with dismay or with a kind of gently patronising “there, there, don’t worry about it, you’ll get over it” smile on their faces. 

So here is the challenge - do we claim to know enough about the process to dare to make interventions in that process to improve it? 

How technology fits into an organisationWhy do we concentrate on processes?  Because they are things which do the transformations we are looking for. In Engineering Systems we often use the ‘fried egg’ diagram shown in figure 1 to look at how technology fits into an organisation. It’s helpful, because it shows how we can often start in the wrong place!  We really enjoy working with the tools and they become an end in themselves without realising that they need to be embedded in our processes. In fact the better the clarity we have of the processes the more we will know about the tools we need and how we will use them. 

On the other hand there are the strategists who wax eloquent about the new culture of Web 2.0 Universities, yet struggle with how the culture change can happen because it is not linked into process.

The processes themselves then need to be understood as an expression of the prevailing culture. If we have a strong line management culture then the processes, say, for deploying and using e-learning will be pretty well defined and fixed. In a more “collection of autonomous scholars” culture then the processes will be much looser. 

There is a wide range of process tools to help us with process development, particular related to how we add value and reduce waste, if only we really understood the process.

In the e-learning context we see a lot of tool heads and we see a lot of strategists speaking at the culture level and maybe the bit in the middle is a bit boring. Yet perhaps it is here that we can make real contributions to our Institutions. This is particularly true on the boundary between e-learning and e-administration. Aspects such as the on-line submission and management of coursework mentioned above can have a big learning impact in terms of getting in depth feedback rapidly back to the student (good for NSS results!) , while at the same time delivering cost savings. The same applies to the careful use of digital repositories. Getting the workflow right to facilitate the CLA reporting process has great potential. So even the accountants might be made happy; which takes me to my third point.

So often our definitions of e-learning focus on the student. OK but what about the accountant just mentioned. Sure the clever stuff we really enjoy doing requires an upfront investment to get it going and ongoing investment to make it sustainable, but if we can sweeten the pill for the budget holders with, dare I say it, efficiency savings, maybe we can get them on our side more.

Then there are the staff.  Don’t we want to improve the experience for staff too? Happy staff make for happy students? Well perhaps that is an exaggeration. But in these days of scarce resources and increasing workloads, shouldn’t we be doing our bit to make the life of both academic and support staff that much more manageable, easy and fun where we can?

So…. an idea to play with; a wide system boundary with an understanding of process may make for 
“ a means to improve the learning process for everyone”

John Davis
of Bristol 

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