How can you achieve mission-critical service levels?
When e-learning becomes vital to an institution’s teaching and learning strategy, the enabling systems and processes must be considered mission-critical. Hardware and software for e-learning should support a level of service on par with other major campus systems, such as student information systems. A system that affects all students and faculty and has a direct impact an institution’s primary purpose—instruction—requires 100 percent system up-time, good system performance (regardless of the number of concurrent users or network traffic), timely support services for students and faculty, and high data security.
Institutions committed to enterprise e-learning establish service-centered policies and processes, starting with a service level agreement, that enumerate obligations to users regarding system uptime, minimum performance at peak loads, backup and disaster recovery procedures, and help desk availability. The service level agreement will then guide the staffing plan and choice of an enterprise e-learning system.
One key component to achieving desired service levels will be to proactively plan for the expected growth, rather than reacting to growth after it has occurred. A pre-requisite to this will be projecting system usage and load over the next few years, given increasing numbers of users, increased system usage per user, and the ever-growing expectations of incoming students. This planning process will require bi-directional communication among all stakeholders.
An enterprise approach is characterized by formalized policies and procedures concerning maintenance and performance tuning, monitoring, and fail-over and back-up scenarios. Proper tuning ensures responsiveness during peak load times. System and application monitoring provide an early warning system for possible threats to uptime and provide data needed for capacity planning. Robust fail-over capabilities protect against hardware or software failures and maximize up-time in the event of a malfunction. Thorough back-up and disaster recovery plans that are frequently tested ensure that even if there is an unexpected event, contingencies can be deployed.
Another core component of an enterprise level strategy is the deployment of system administration best practices, such as virus protection precautions and the use of separate production and test systems. Separate systems ensure that adequate testing can be accomplished prior to launching patches, updates, or changes to the production system.
With an enterprise approach, institutions have the ability to add computing power as necessary to support rapid growth. The e-learning system remains up even when a server fails, and most maintenance can occur without taking the system down or disrupting service for users.
In transitioning to an enterprise e-learning strategy, many universities need to change their support approaches in order to support faculty and students effectively. They may need existing staff to take on new support responsibilities, either in other parts of the IT organization or within individual departments or schools. Enterprise systems open up the possibilities for greater distribution of administrative duties. Taking a completely centralized approach to e-learning administration can be difficult to fund and support, whereas an entirely decentralized approach can ultimately become too inefficient. The structure of your administration will likely need to be modified in favor of a more distributed model.
Often, enterprise-level deployments require a high degree of cross-departmental coordination in appropriately managing integrations with authentication, portal, student information, and library systems. The relationships between these units often exist in the pre-enterprise phase, but informally or as accommodations, rather than as part of a planned approach. Having academic technology representatives at the table as an equal partner when major system planning occurs is critical to the success of an enterprise e-learning strategy.
How can you implement an institution-level content strategy?
An enterprise e-learning strategy recognizes that electronic academic content is the largest investment in e-learning, and accordingly advocates policies and procedures to maximize the return-on-investment. To realize additional benefits from academic content, institutions must proactively define mechanisms for content development, sharing, and reuse—and implement technology solutions that improve and streamline these tasks.
Establishing clear intellectual property processes with faculty paves the way for the widest range of content reuse. Most reusable learning objects result from the development of fully online courses or degree programs. Often, these activities are funded by grants, release time, and so forth—when the intellectual property rights surrounding the content have been established in advance. Having a strategy to maximize the return-on-investment in the creation of exceptional online content is a critical element to an enterprise approach.
Some of the greatest ROI numbers in e-learning result from collaborations between institutions to offer educational programs in new ways. Content management strategies are critical to those initiatives because the creator of online content is almost never the only user or distributor of that content. However, this is a just one example of a general principle. Whenever a course delivers content that was created elsewhere, there’s an increased need for content management infrastructure.
Content sharing often occurs for distribution of content that’s important to university processes but that most people may not think of as learning objects. Examples of this type of content include learning style inventories, end-of-term surveys, guides on how to be an online learner, or the academic honesty policy. These resources often have only one current version; if this content isn’t managed properly, it will quickly become dated and create inconsistencies. Providing the infrastructure for managing and distributing such content objects can reinforce good online teaching principles and enhance student support.
It’s easiest to share content when the intellectual property rights are established and understood. Enterprise content strategies frequently begin with a focus on distribution or reuse of content owned or licensed by the institution, including university-developed content, licensed materials, and repositories and test banks.
Clearly, there’s tremendous long-term potential for building learning object repositories that faculty can use to share content with each other. However, even without resolving all of the policy and strategy issues that are involved in such an endeavor, faculty have immediate needs for ad hoc content sharing to improve efficiency when working together. In an enterprise e-learning strategy, institutions aren’t just supporting the model of a single instructor handling all aspects of his or her individual course, but also the large multi-section courses that have multiple teaching assistants and instructors, team teaching of interdisciplinary classes, and so on. A content management infrastructure can greatly improve the efficiency of faculty and staff working together by enabling and restricting access to content in accordance with your organizational structure and roles.
How can you proactively measure e-learning’s effectiveness?
Enterprise e-learning is characterized by widespread usage among students and faculty. Such broad penetration gives institutions a new mechanism by which to assess student performance. Institutions have the ability to access and utilize detailed data that’s captured by the e-learning system about students’ learning activities and outcomes. This type of detailed quantitative data about how students behave during the learning process allows analysis to go deeper than evaluation of grade outcomes from traditional classrooms.
Data from an enterprise e-learning system, both on its own and when incorporated with data from other systems, provides a highly valuable input to formative and summative assessment activities. Teaching and learning can therefore be continuously improved through a cycle of measurement, analysis, and change, all of which is based on an assessment framework developed to effectively leverage the data collected by the academic enterprise system.
At institutions that engage in enterprise e-learning, the effectiveness of technology-enhanced learning is an issue of importance to the university as a whole, not just to the instructional design staff. This involves greater collaboration between the academic technologists who administer the e-learning platform and those responsible for departmental program management and review, academic assessment, and institutional research and effectiveness.
As part of an enterprise approach, institutions should develop a learning assessment framework to identify the ways in which student performance and activity data should be analyzed. Examining this data in light of other data sources, such as student records, may yield particular insights to improve teaching and learning and serve the institution’s overall quality goals. The questions that are answered with the data analysis are likely to be ones that respond to increasing accountability pressures, such as changing expectations of governments and accrediting bodies. The results of structured data analysis may also serve to ultimately enable the institution to improve its overall student outcomes. Some institutions may go a step further and invest in a data warehousing strategy for joint analysis of the learning system data with other data sources, such as student records.
It’s likely that longitudinal studies will ultimately be part of your strategy for measuring the effectiveness of e-learning at your institution, which requires capturing all relevant data as soon as possible. As you develop your analytical models, implement an enterprise e-learning solution that enables data collection and extraction from a wide spectrum of user activities. Even if you are unsure of the specific analyses you will need to conduct, the most extensive data collection will hold the highest potential for analysis in the future.
The move to deliver consistently higher levels of service and improved instructional outcomes via technology-supported education has become the norm among academic institutions. Whether driven internally by presidents, pro-vice chancellors, faculty and campus technology organizations, or externally by prospective students, competitors, and accrediting bodies, delivering e-learning through an enterprise approach requires the higher ed community to re-think our current systems and processes.
For most institutions, the transition to an enterprise approach will not happen overnight, but will require movement through a set of parallel stages that involve building a high-level vision and support, aligning stakeholder organizations, defining requirements and desired service levels, purchasing enabling e-learning technology, and measuring results for continuous improvement.
The rapid adoption of e-learning and its pivotal role in supporting institutional programs and goals has made the e-learning system an integral part of the academic enterprise, not something on the periphery of the institution’s mission. Institutions must take decisive steps toward developing a successful enterprise strategy that responds to growing student demands and expectations, provides a high level of service and support for all users, and drives the continual improvement of the learning environment.
Published: September 2004