Introducing an e-learning system into a school is a big change. Aside from all of the technical issues to consider, the biggest challenge a school community faces is changes to working practices. This blog introduces strategic issues related to the delivery, introduction and assessment of a learning management system.
Change is the only constant
In general, people don’t like change. It involves having to adjust to new routines and learn new ways of doing things, perhaps taking some people out of their comfort zone in terms of their skills and abilities in relation to new activities they may be asked to do as part of the change. An example is how the introduction of computers into the workplace forced employers and employees into new ways of working and required a rapid and radical change in working practices. Typists no longer had to worry about changing their ribbons, but had to now contend with screens and word processing software which was a level of conceptual abstraction away from the mechanical surety of striking metal onto paper. Suddenly the tools changed, and with it a new type of interaction happened that required people to learn drastically new processes and ways of working with tools.
Although computers are now omnipresent and the majority of the population have contact with some form of them in daily life, introducing a modern, internetworked learning management system into the classroom is still relatively in its infancy. One of the most popular open source LMS was released in 1999 and has only recently hit around 50,000 registered sites. In the UK the government recently pushed elearning and so now many more schools have some exposure to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), but using it effectively still seems to be a considerable challenge: it is the same as the change from typewriter to word processor.
Strategy and change management are intensely studied and theorised area of business management as it investigates one of the biggest problems that all organisations face: How to change direction and introduce new ways of working in response to changes in the wider social or economic environment. This research is useful for schools as it provides an outline of some of the activities that people within the organisation can do to help deliver, use and continue to use a VLE.
The follow list gives some pointers around which you can consider how to introduce, or reintroduce, a VLE into your learning community.
Prepare for change
One of the most common problems organizations face is that the scale and scope of the change is not fully considered, and this creates pitfalls further down the line. A VLE affects management, teachers, students, staff and parents. It affords a new channel of communication and interaction and therefore can alter the relationships between these stakeholders.
Successful rollouts consider how each of these stakeholders could be affected and plans made to take advantages of what the VLE can do. This means the senior management should firstly fully understand what the VLE can do, and then invite representatives from each stakeholder group to discuss how it can be used effectively. Preparing for change in this way opens up dialogue about what is going to happen and offers a chance for vital feedback from affected groups so that problems can be resolved or opportunities for efficiencies or improvements can be built into the system before it is delivered.
At this stage a project plan might have been produced with timelines, tasks, roles and responsibilities. This is an important part of the rollout as it gives a point of reference for who needs to do what by when. Another key element that helps everyone to understand what the system is and how it is going to be used is to create a formal elearning strategy document. This sets out the context and vision for the use of the VLE and what part it will play in the life of the school. One example is the E-Learning strategy at UCL. The strategy document can be thought of a kind of curriculum, and it can play an important part later on in the process as it acts as a guide that aligns practice and vision.
In summary, consider what the VLE can offer in terms of communication and interaction between the stakeholders, open dialogue with these groups and consider how the system can improve how work happens, and finally produce some plans that make the change more concrete in terms of who is going to do what. Next, I’ll cover some of the things that you can practically do to help the rollout succeed.
Successful change management often involves two activities happening simultaneously. These are communicating the changes, and providing adequate support for stakeholders who will have to incorporate their working practices to incorporate the new system and the potentials it offers.
The cycle of communication serves two purposes. First it reminds people about the forthcoming changes, and can also serve to build some buzz or excitement about it. Second, as a feedback activity it offers the chance for stakeholders to explain if there are any problems or missed opportunities that were not picked up during the planning stage. For example, when staff are being trained on the system, they might have some good ideas about how to make it work better to suit their particular situation. This idea might be applicable across different departments, so the rollout plan could be modified to include these ideas that benefit others.
Supporting staff is one of the most important aspects of the change. Often new skills are needed, or existing skills require updating to accommodate the way the new system works. An example of this is how people manage documents, moving from a static single copy of a document such as a calendar produced in a word processor stored on a pen drive to a cloud based multi-user editable calendar that can be published on the internet.
Introducing new software, new interfaces, new ways of working, and squeezing this into an ever diminishing schedule of time available for training is the biggest threat to introducing a VLE. Teachers are already stretched with teaching and grading responsibilities, and other commitments to professional development so how can VLE training be delivered effectively.
Although initial training can introduce the system and get staff up and running, management should consider a longer term commitment and build in training opportunities in combination with other development activities. Forming a group of enthusiastic teachers from across departments who can share and discuss their use of the VLE can build a strong base of expertise within the school. These champions can then be called on to share best practice and teaching ideas in short presentations to other staff members.
A VLE is not only for students. It could be be used to deliver staff training by encouraging staff to share their courses and content with each other and encourage reflection and constructive feedback. One advantage of this is that staff do not have to be present at the same time, and the training can be delivered gradually over days or weeks which relieves some of the scheduling pressure. Another advantage of sharing teaching practice using an open-source LMS is that staff discover it as a way to share content and activities which can help them reduce their preparation and assessment time when creating or updating courses.
Creating a permanent change of process requires commitment from key stakeholders. Management, teachers and staff need to be directed and motivated to change their working practices. There are several things that can be done to help this happen. First, leading from the top, management should be using the system and be seen to use it. This may mean transferring some types of communication or management activity on to the VLE. An example might be transmitting news or storing development plans on there.
Second, as part of performance management, minimum benchmarks related to the use of the VLE can be set. This relates back to the strategy document, as goals from there can be used as a basis for negotiation between management and teachers in order to produce definable actions and tasks.
Performance management benchmarks might range from requiring teachers to have setup and enrolled their classes into an open-source LMS and have added materials to it for students to access, to more complex interactions such as adding online assignments or forums that start to use some of the more powerful affordances that blended learning provide. In conjunction with these performance management targets, management should be aware of the necessity to provide adequate support and training for staff, and that everyone recognises that change requires learning and can be traumatic for some if they feel they do not have adequate skills to meet the targets.
Performance management targets should be open to feedback and be modifiable so that new, good or bad processes discovered by staff can be incorporated or discarded. In short, the strategy document offers a general goal, but at the actual point of use there should be some flexibility in what is required in terms of daily use.
In summary, introducing an open source LMS does not stop with the system going online, but is a continual process of negotiation between understanding the vision for the VLE and its daily use.
This paper was based on elements taken from the paper by Oakland and Tanner (2007). Their research is summarised by this model which shows that change management is a continual process that requires feedback and modification, albeit on different timescales.
To introduce a VLE successfully requires a series of steps that involve planning for change, implementation and assessment of its use carried out within a cycle of follow up and reevaluation. These steps are similar to developing and delivering a curriculum which, like normal teaching and learning, requires access to resources and training.
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