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e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University Abstract Although considerable time and effort has been expended in establishing and promoting the use of technology in higher education, it has been argued that many universities have been unable to make any significant improvements beyond those of a small group of innovators. This paper describes the experiences at Swansea University in Wales as they tackled this situation by attempting to utilise and harness the knowledge and experience of the wider academic community and build a Community of Practice around the area of e-Learning.

The use of technology in higher education in Wales is intended to lead to the enhancement of learning, teaching, assessment, the curriculum and core processes and the optimum learning experience, with an established threshold, based on robust technology, including encouraging developments at the forefront of this provision (O'Neill, 2007) However, as Salmon notes: there is considerable evidence that most Higher Education Institutions are still struggling to engage a significant percentage of students and staff in e-learning, and real development beyond projects by innovators has so far been modest. (Salmon, 2005) Innovations in education often fail - in 70% of cases compared with 47% in the public sector in general and 30% in the private sector (Bolman & Deal, 1999; Borins, 2001). The introduction of a blended or technology enhanced approach can be more of a challenge to academic staff than a more traditional method. A report by the Institute of IT Training highlighted this point with a quote from Steve Clark, Chief Executive of IT training company Epic. It’s easy running a classroom course, you just put some time down, get people to turn up, when it’s over they leave. But with other forms of blended learning you’ve got to sustain them over time. (Charles, 2005) Although somewhat tongue in check, Clark’s comment does illustrate the point that any blended e-learning requires additional thinking, skills and resources in order for it to be successful. One key element in successful implementations has been the provision of a comprehensive staff development and support structure that goes beyond a simple ‘driving lesson’ approach (Collis & Moonen, 2002). The ‘driving lesson’ approach, where training concentrates on a step by step guide to using the software, can lead to one of the main criticisms of e-learning; that it is often too technology oriented with the focus on providing the technology platform and ensuring participation rather than on the content of the learning itself (Xini & Petropoulos, 2004). Simple knowledge of processes is not enough as learners need to choose which knowledge to use and when (Kennewell, 2003). In addition, in HEIs where the implementation of e-Learning has not been as successful as anticipated, a key factor has been their use of technologists rather than teaching practitioners to deliver staff training (M.Bell & Page 1 of 6


e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University W.Bell, 2005). Furthermore, Bell & Bell (2005), in their successful Virtual Learning Environment implementation, discovered the importance of a multi-disciplinary support team and a proactive approach in which they engaged in a range of methods to discover their ‘customers’ needs. At Swansea, we had originally taken a fairly traditional approach to the introduction of e-Learning – install a VLE, run some training courses on how to use the VLE, set up a help desk and establish a committee to oversee the process. However, we found ourselves, in common with many universities (Salmon, 2005); with high usage figures, impressive increases for requests for new courses but mainly focused on content delivery with little real student engagement and thus little real learning taking place. This would be fine if the VLE was merely an additional tool provided at low cost but issues arise if it comes with a several thousand pounds a year price tag and a team of staff to run it. Thus the challenge was not promoting uptake but facilitating effective implementation that is likely to affect student learning in significant ways (Sharpe, Benfield, & Francis, 2006). Following a staff and student survey in 2006 we established that as well as the situation outlined above we had a few keen innovators developing some pockets of excellence in e-Learning and a small group of learning technologists who had begun to meet informally to discuss various aspects of e-Learning. We also discovered a need, in line with Collis and Moonen’s arguments (2002), to move away from the technologist led driving lesson method to a more wide ranging staff development programme. Additionally, a broadening of the community of elearning practitioners within the University, to include academics, librarians, IT staff, careers and other support staff in both delivery and staff development, could also assist this greater integration. Moreover, as Bell and Bell (2005) discovered, it is important to keep in continual contact with both students and staff in order to discover their needs and provide on-going support though questionnaires, helplines, focus groups and discussion groups. As well as working with users it is also important to work with non-users and very low level users to find out why they are not engaging with e-Learning. What are the barriers that keep them from using eLearning? Are they issues of access, inclination or opportunity? So, given what we had discovered and that there was only a small central e-Learning team, the question was, “Where do we go from here?” No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew. Albert Einstein Clearly in order to achieve the desired “effective implementation that is likely to affect student learning in significant ways” we would, as Einstein suggests, need to approach the situation anew. Additionally, due to the increasingly rapid nature of technological change, we need to continually approach our situation anew. As Garratt argues, in this context about business but it is equally applicable to universities; Unless directors, staff and customers are linked through conscious learning on a regular and rigorous basis the enterprise will die – its rate Page 2 of 6


e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University of learning is outpaced by the rate of change in its external environment and so it fails. (Garratt, 2000) Thus we needed an instrument to enable us to affect the positive revolution from the then current mindset towards a rigorous learning community based around eLearning. While traditional change management often concentrates on finding what’s wrong within an organisation and attempting to fix it, Cooperrider and Whitney (2005) argue that what an organisation wants to achieve and see more of already exists somewhere within that organisation. They also argue that organisations move in the direction of what they study. Thus in order to achieve excellence, you have to study excellence. The methodology they use to achieve excellence by studying excellence is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). They argue that Every organisation has something that works right – things that give it life when it is most alive, effective, successful and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities. AI begins by identifying what is positive and connecting it in ways that heighten energy, vision and action for change. (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2008) Having been involved in the UK Joint Information Services Committee funded Emerge project http://elgg.jiscemerge.org.uk/, which used AI as a research tool, we were aware of and had used this methodology. As mentioned earlier, we knew that a small number of innovators already existed, who were doing excellent work in the field of e-Learning within the University. Additionally a small community of e-Learning practitioners had begun to coalesce around informal discussions on various aspects of using technology to enhance and support learning. The small group of learning technologists, on their own, would never be able to affect the desired ‘effective implementation that is likely to affect student learning in significant ways’. However, as Tapscott and Williams argue (2006), it can be achieved by harnessing the knowledge and resources of the wider community; though openness, peering, sharing and acting globally. In our University context this means open discussion, opening up access to the development of e-Learning to the wider academic community, sharing good practice and collaborating across the University rather than in departmental silos. Wenger et al., (2002) argue that a Community of Practice (CoP) usually builds on a pre-existing personal network and that as they are organic, when designing one, it is more a matter of shepherding its evolution rather than creating one from scratch. Therefore, building on our involvement in the Emerge project, we endeavoured to enlarge the exiting community of e-Learning practitioners into a effective and sustainable, cross-department CoP based around e-Learning. The CoP would be developed using the Appreciative Inquiry methodology with the aim being to find excellence in the use of e-Learning, determine what conditions made excellence possible and suggest how those conditions could be encouraged within the University. We followed Wenger’s seven principles for cultivating communities of practice as we developed our community. Page 3 of 6


e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University •

Design for evolution

Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives

Invite different levels of participation

Develop both public and private community spaces

Focus on value

Combine familiarity with excitement

Create a rhythm for the community

The original community was based around a group of learning technologists who attended the same conference, pooled their conference notes in a wiki and then met over coffee to discuss the issues that arose. At the heart of Appreciative Inquiry is the Appreciative Interview (Cooperider & Whitney, 2005). Using this method we interviewed the members of this embryonic community and asked them about successful communities they had been involved in the past. What was good about these communities? What had made them successful? What lessons could the CoP learn from these successful communities? One of the key themes that came out of this was that all communities have a social element – an opportunity to meet face to face. The social elements that we added enabled this dialogue to continue and develop further. These social events have included informal lunchtime training sessions; e-Learning and Cakes – a drop in ‘café style’ session; e-Learning and Beer – similar to e-Learning and cakes but outside normal working hours and involving people from other institutions and an e-Learning reading group – a more focused and academic session. An additional theme from the appreciative interviews was the need for members to have a role in the community. However, Wenger argues that it is not necessary for all community members to participate equally as they have different levels of interest in the community. A lecturer looking for advice may a have different level of interest from a learning technologist and a senior manager may have different level of interest from a librarian. To accommodate this we aimed to replicate Wenger’s model with a coordinator within a core group, with an active group, a peripheral group and outsiders rippling from the centre. To help facilitate these different levels of interest and commitment we planned and developed numerous private and public community spaces. These include the social elements mentioned earlier as well as online community spaces including a multiple author blog, a wiki, social bookmarking, RSS feeds, podcasts and various other ‘Web 2.0’ tools. The use of the ‘Web 2.0’ tools allows the site to be built collaboratively by the community and not be a central ‘How to do e-Learning’ site provided by central services. However, as Wenger argues, communities are more than just a calendar of events and for a successful community to grow the coordinator needs to ‘work’ the spaces between the events – one to one conversations, post meeting discussions etc. – in order to help develop connections within the community. For communities to thrive they need to combine both the familiar and the different. The familiarity of regular meetings allows members to feel comfortable and can foster open and honest discussion. However, communities also need variety to maintain interest and attract new members. Therefore, for example, we organised Page 4 of 6


e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University regular Lunch and Learn sessions, informal sessions over lunch looking at various aspects of learning technology as well as adding a variety of ad hoc one off sessions. Similarly, while the online space had a set and familiar structure, we also included more dynamic areas allowing the exploration of new features and tools, which are updated and added to on a regular basis. So we’ve developed a Community of Practice but what is the CoP for? What does it aim to achieve? What is its value? The Appreciative Inquiry approach to community building allowed the CoP to discover its own value and purpose rather than having it defined at the outset, as with traditional projects groups. As the AI approach is intended to be a continual process, this enabled the group to continually assess its value over time. Thus what started out as an informal discussion of a conference over coffee, grew to a fledgling CoP and is now the primary social and online space within the University on using technology to support and enhance learning and teaching. Its purpose being for a loose, fairly informal collaboration between schools and departments on all aspects of e-learning. A forum to discuss, formulate and disseminate ideas and good practice and an area where learning and teaching rather than technology drive the process. A powerful tool in community building is the telling of stories. From Aesop to the World Bank (Heath & Heath, 2008) and medical education in the United States (Pink, 2005) stories have been used as teaching tools. One of the key elements of this development has also been story telling – the stories of successful communities that helped inform the initial development of the CoP, the sharing of stories of success with using e-Learning on the Learning Lab wiki and academics sharing their stories of projects and developments at various face to face events. One of the most used areas of the online space has been the wiki, where community members are encouraged to swop useful tools and information they have found and stories of experiences with these tools. This use has enabled the wiki to evolve into a powerful tool where the exchange of stories has led to the development of guidance notes and how tos, training sessions and community social events initiated and implemented by the community. This approach, we feel, makes the community and the development of e-Learning sustainable within the University, as it lessens the dependence on individual staff members and also on institutional funding. To paraphrase Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it enables – we hope, e-learning for the people, by the people and of the people. We feel that this community led approach is becoming increasingly important. As the environment in which universities work continues to change, due to technological advances, increasing internationalisation and the changing nature of the economy, the organisations that thrive will be, as Wenger argues, ones that understand how to translate the power of communities into successful knowledge organisations …… because they will serve as a learning laboratory for exploring how to design the world as a learning system (Wenger, et al., 2002)

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e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people – Chris Hall, Swansea University References Bolman, L., & Deal, T. (1999). 4 Steps to keeping change efforts heading in the right direction. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 22(3), 6-11. Borins, S. (2001). Innovation. success and failure in public management research. Public Management Review, 3(1), 3-17. Charles, B. (2005, January 2005). Implement the perfect solution. IT Training, 8. Collis, B., & Moonen, J. (2002). Flexible Learning in a Digital World. Open Learning, 17(3), 217-230. Cooperider, D., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler. Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koeler. Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. Garratt, B. (2000). The Learning Organization. London: Haper Collins. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2008). Made to stick. London: Random House. Kennewell, S. (2003). The Nature of ICT as a Subject. In S. Kennewell, J. Parkinson & H. Tanner (Eds.), Learning to teach ICT in the secondary school : a companion to school experience. London: RoutledgeFalmer. M.Bell, & W.Bell (2005). It's installed... now get on with it! Looking beyond the software to the cultural change. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(4), 643-656. O'Neill, C. (2007). Enhancing Learning And Teaching Through Technology: A Strategy For Higher Education In Wales. Cardiff: Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Pink, D. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. New York: Riverhead. Salmon, G. (2005). Flying not flapping: a strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions. ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, 13(3), 201-218. Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., & Francis, R. (2006). Implementing a university e-learning strategy: levers for change within academic schools. ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, 14(2), 135-151. Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2006). Wikinomics. London: Atlantic Books. Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. Xini, G., & Petropoulos, K. (2004). Designing Competency Based e-Learning Initiatives. Electronic Journal on e-Learning, 2(1), 227-236.

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e-Learning by the people, for the people and of the people