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Benchmarking Blackboard – From Champions To Transformers

‘Champions’, ‘pioneers’ .. the words convey something of the frontier spirit that has symbolised the growth of eLearning. In the UK the government’s ‘Information and Learning Technology (ILT) champions initiative proved very successful in raising the awareness of the role that ICT could play in teaching and learning. This work is being further developed by the National Learning Network (NLN) Transformation Board with its remit to oversee the implementation of the post-16 e-Learning strategy (as directed by the DfES/LSC e-Learning Policy Steering Group).

At a national level steps have been taken through the NLN to address the issue of sustainability in eLearning. But how does this translate to the local level. How can institutions benchmark their own development of eLearning? Becta’s annual ILT monitoring survey and report provide some sector indicators of the progress made in ILT and the JISC/Becta Total Cost of Ownership project currently being undertaken will help institutions to quantify the sustainability issues of ILT by helping them to measure what their actual investment has been to support ILT to date.

Now that over 50% of colleges in UK have committed to a VLE as the platform for delivering eLearning, the Educational Technology Framework, devised by Steven Gilfus of Blackboard, may provide a useful model which institutions might use to benchmark their position on the road from pioneering to transformational ILT. It will help institutions identify where they are on the path from tentative first beginnings to a breakthrough position where the use of the VLE is standard across all curriculum areas in an institution.

The model proposes five key phases with key transition points at each stage, which indicate what is required to enable the institution to move to the next stage. In short, it outlines the processes and the developmental factors required to achieve sustainability across the enterprise in the adoption of the chosen VLE.

Phase 1 Exploratory
Phase 2 Supported
Phase 3 Strategic
Phase 4 Mission Critical
Phase 5 Transformational

The Educational Technology Framework:
The Five Phases, Stephen, Gilfus, Blackboard, 2004.

A Brief Outline of the 5 Phases

Phase 1 : Exploratory
The Exploratory phase is characterised by an ad hoc approach. Typically, the VLE will emerge in one part of the institution, largely driven by enthusiasts. Sets up costs are minimal in terms of actual outlay and are often covered by finding necessary funds from within the existing budget. At this stage there is no explicit strategy or planning and training and support are offered on an individualised basis.

Transition Factors of Phase 1

  • Technology champions emerge
  • Training initiatives begin
  • Identification of best practices
  • From “word of mouth” to collective voice
  • Departmental involvement – i.e. no longer limited to individual enthusiasts

Phase 2 : Supported

In phase 2 the usage has moved out of individual departments to being present across several departments. It is typically still being financed, however, through existing operating budgets. Much of the VLE development up to this point will have been organic as teachers become aware of the functions a VLE can offer and begin to introduce them in their curriculum. VLE content is used to supplement not replace classroom delivery. Teachers will be setting the pace and as the momentum is pedagogically driven it is important that senior managers support such organic development. Their support will facilitate ‘buy in’ from curriculum staff.

Transition Factors of Phase 2

  • Training programmes are provided regularly
  • Ad-hoc Help Desk evolves
  • Policies and procedures develop
  • A common understanding of the role of the VLE is developed within the institution
  • Existing support staff claim additional responsibilities

Phase 3: Strategic
A broader spectrum of users are now using the VLE as a key component of their learning experience and they expect it to be always available. VLE activity will be written into schemes of work and departmental targets. Support structures such as eLearning teams / units will be established as an institutional framework becomes necessary to support the growing numbers of eLearners. Financing such development will require capital investment (eg, upgrade of IT infrastructure to support the large-scale usage; purchase of additional applications to fully exploit the VLE’s potential) as well as significant recurrent financing ( eg staffing costs, staff development initiatives). At this stage too the issue of moving to a Managed Learning Environment (MLE) emerges, as integration with other institutional systems is required.

Transition Factors of Phase 3

  • “Always on” mentality
  • Academic/Administrative collaboration defined
  • Processes and procedures become established
  • Implementation of institution’s academic/strategic plan
  • Systems integration begins

Phase 4: Mission Critical
Typically, this stage is characterised by widespread adoption of the VLE across all departments. A centralised support service will be in place and academic/ administrative collaboration will move the institution into the MLE domain. Staff development will become a norm with accreditation opportunities available. Financial resources will be annually committed and technology development plans established.

Transition Factors of Phase 4

  • Widespread institutional adoption
  • The VLE becomes a key component for educational delivery
  • Essential to all academic constituents
  • MIS a significant player
  • Top Down/Bottom Up awareness and responsibilities are clearly defined

Phase 5: Transformational
At this stage the VLE has become fully integrated within the institution to the point where it is taken for granted. It has moved from the fringe activity of the early adopters to mainstream usage where it is an established component of all courses. A centralised educational technology resource is the norm and curriculum delivery is dependent upon the VLE. In short the VLE has become key to the learners’ experience and it would be unthinkable for it not to be available. Funding for the VLE and the various support components is top sliced and institutionalized

Key Factors of Phase 5

  • Actual curriculum changes are dependent on the academic technologies
  • Represents the institutional experience, and critical for learner experience
  • Firmly established as critical delivery mechanism

The Gilfus model, based on Blackboard adoption in over 2000 institutions, is interesting as it attempts to define the emergence of a new curriculum paradigm. Teachers can be switched on to using ICT for a number of reasons but let’s not forget that a key catalyst to eLearning will be students themselves and their expectations that the technologies they take for granted in their everyday lives (instant messaging, mobile devices etc) should be available for them as learners. As institutions develop to prepare for the next generation of learners this matrix can assist them in benchmarking where they currently are in terms of ILT readiness so that they are able to offer their students the tools they will demand as 21st century learners.

Cathy Ellis
Guildford College

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