The Governance of E-Learning
Governance is about how decisions are made about current and future plans for e-learning and technology more broadly and who makes those decisions. It involves evaluating, directing and monitoring the use of e-learning. Two conflicting pressures are making e-learning and technology governance much more complex than it used to be. On the one hand institutions need to have enterprise-wide infrastructure, particularly related to networking and security. There is also a strong argument for having some enterprise-level e-learning applications such as a learning management system and virtual classroom systems. On the other hand, many other applications are becoming increasingly user-driven, networked and cloud-based and lose much of their value if they are confined behind a college or university firewall. For example, the main value of social networking services is the ability to connect and network with people anywhere in the world. Bates & Sangrà (2011) conclude: “A model of governance is needed that enables both the needs of the institution as a whole and the needs of the many end users to be accommodated. The role of IT professionals in providing leadership in technology management and innovation remains critical, but increasingly this role is being shared with end users, such as faculty and administrators” (p. 124).
Academic Technology Committees
One of the most common governance mechanisms in higher education is the academic or educational technology committee. E-learning and educational technology cut across academic, technical and support areas so it is important to ensure that the diversity of needs and perspectives is taken into account when implementing e-learning. Too often e-learning is seen as primarily a technical issue and governance committees tend to be dominated or driven by IT departments when really the educators should be setting the agenda. Along with membership, the key issues to consider in establishing educational technology committees are mandate, decision-making authority, reporting structure and whether it is a permanent, ad hoc or temporary committee.
pp. 110-114 of Bates & Sangrà (chapter 5, from the section Conclusions Regarding Projects to Support Technology Integration to end of the section, Common Issues and Strategies for Technology Committees) to find out more about the role technology committees and how the institutions they studied used them.
Closely related to governance is where e-learning fits in the organizational and reporting structure of the institution, e.g., does it reside in the portfolio of one of the senior administrators? Is it located on the academic/educational side of the organization or on the technical or administrative side? The answers to these questions will tell us how seriously the institution takes e-learning. The academic/educational portfolio is where the power lies in all academic organizations so clearly if responsibility for e-learning is in this portfolio it sends a strong message. However, it is also critical to look at who has responsibility for e-learning, where they fit in the hierarchy, and what else that person has in her or his portfolio. Obviously the more senior the person, the better but if that person has such a large and diverse portfolio that they can’t devote the time needed to e-learning, it may be better to have somebody less senior with responsibility. For example, when I was the Dean of the Learning & Teaching Centre (LTC) at BCIT, I had responsibility for e-learning and I sat on the Deans’ Council along with the School Deans and the Vice-President of Education. This gave our department direct input into the academic governance of the institution. However about two years after I left, responsibility for the Learning & Teaching Centre was given to the Dean of the School of Computing & Academic Studies. While technically this didn’t change the status of the LTC because it was still led by a Dean, it did effectively diminish its status because this Dean’s primary responsibility was his School and he couldn’t provide hands-on leadership of the LTC. As well, because he represented a School, I would argue it would make it difficult for him to adequately present an institutional perspective on e-learning. In September of 2014 the organizational structure was changed again. The Learning & Teaching Centre at BCIT now reports to a new Associate Vice President of Educational Support & Innovation who reports to the Vice-President, Education. The jury is out on what this means and whether this a positive organizational change but it may be worth noting that the first person to occupy this new position resigned after less than two years.
Earlier in my career, in 2003 when I was the Associate Director of Distance Education & Technology at the University of British Columbia, the department was moved from the Associate Vice-President, Continuing Studies to the Associate Vice-President, Academic. This made a lot of sense because Continuing Studies had evolved over the years from a unit with a focus on providing access to adult learners to one with a focus on generating revenue through the provision of non-credit courses and programs primarily to the already well-educated. The mandate of Distance Education & Technology to use technology to make university education more accessible was much more closely aligned with the portfolio of the Vice-President, Academic. However, the organizational change emerged from the recommendations of an external review and, in hindsight, appears to have been part of a covert plan to completely decentralize the e-learning support to the faculties. Shortly after the organizational change, a university-wide committee was established to develop the decentralization plan. The plan was finalized in early 2005 and the decentralization was scheduled for implementation in June. This all came to a screeching halt in March of 2005 when the new Associate Vice-President, Academic decided to kill the plan and instead have the newly-created Office of Learning Technology take over Distance Education & Technology. This would eventually become what is now Centre of Teaching, Learning & Technology (CTLT). Ironically, this is a much larger and highly-centralized operation than the department of Distance Education & Technology ever was.
So you can see this a complicated issue and the ideal organizational arrangement depends on how e-learning is going to be used and how widespread the proposed implementation will be. In the next section we look at the different models of organization support.
- Does the organization of academic technology support services need re-organizing in your institution? If so, how would you do that and why?
- Do you think your institution might be willing to spend at least 5% of its teaching budget on academic technology support (if it’s not already doing so)? How would you try to ‘sell’ this to your management?
- Guri-Rosenblit (2005) points to eight paradoxes that she says helps to explain the the wide gap between the rhetoric and the reality of e-learning implementation in higher education. Is her analysis relevant to institutional situations that you are aware of?