Since its introduction in the 1990s, e-learning has grown rapidly at post-secondary institutions around the world. At leading colleges and universities, nearly all students take at least one course with a technology-supported component. As e-learning enters its second decade, many institutions find themselves at a critical juncture. With the use of course management systems continuing to expand, and course, program, and institution-level activities dependent on technology for success, many institutions have outgrown their current approaches to e-learning.
For many institutions, linear expansion of e-learning—adding a program, a person, or a larger server to an existing model—cannot scale to meet current needs or future demands. Moving e-learning to an enterprise level requires institutions to re-think the way they currently support technology-enhanced instruction. Adopting an enterprise approach to e-learning results in systems and processes that are powerful, reliable, and, most of all, flexible enough to support all stakeholders and provide benefits across the institution.
Are you outgrowing your current approach to e-learning?
With the expansion of course management systems, many institutions are pushing the boundaries of their e-learning systems to accomplish their goals. The following are common signs that you may be outgrowing your current approach to e-learning:
Scope of e-learning activity is consistently underestimated. Many members of your administration would be surprised to discover how much teaching activity occurs online—and how many faculty members and students feel the impact of e-learning on a daily basis. It’s often difficult to ensure access to funds necessary to support continued growth while ensuring delivery of consistently high-quality service.
It’s difficult to maintain quality of service. You need to replace or add to your system servers frequently because you can’t keep up with the growth of system usage. Students are dependent on the system to get their work done, and have no tolerance for variations in availability or performance.
Multiple e-learning systems are in use. Some of your professional schools or even individual departments maintain their own e-learning systems because they want to emphasize their own brand and maintain administrative control, even though it would be more cost-effective to centralize.
Inefficient content creation and usage persists. You suspect that certain types of core content are recreated many times, wasting time and storage space. It’s taking you and your faculty members longer than it should to assemble course materials. More important, your already overtaxed system is being unnecessarily strained, compromising service levels and adding to system overhead and expense.
There’s no clear policy on the security of learning data. The university priority on data security has gone way up, but there still isn’t an effective policy about the security of learning system data—or at least not one that has been implemented fully.
Learning outcomes fail to be evaluated. Your institution is unclear about what students are doing in the online learning environment. There’s no process to proactively assess the impact e-learning is having on educational outcomes, making it difficult to substantiate the value that e-learning is contributing to your institution.
If your institution is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you should start the transition to enterprise e-learning. Systems and processes that may have worked well during early periods of limited student and faculty usage may not be appropriate to meet the demands of a full-campus e-learning implementation. Even if you predict you won’t run into serious problems for another two years, you need to start planning the transition now in order to have your new systems and processes in place by the time you need them. If your institution fails to create the infrastructure to handle the inevitable growth, it will be much more difficult and disruptive to meet institutional needs in the future.
How is an enterprise approach different?
An enterprise approach to e-learning is developed to respond to the fact that it has an impact on the teaching and learning experience of every instructor and student throughout the university. The symptoms explored above are generally the result of rapid growth of e-learning without formulating a strategy to address the following four critical components in achieving success.
Institution-wide strategy and participation
The first component required is a commitment from senior administrators to use e-learning as a means of achieving the university’s strategic goals. But commitment from senior administrators alone isn’t enough. Institutions also need to expand the circle of influence to achieve much greater cross-functional participation. Balancing the autonomy and collaboration between the diverse academic and administrative constituents will be critical to achieving success in implementing an enterprise-wide e-learning strategy.
Mission-critical service level
The student's and faculty's demands and expectations of technology heighten and change as technology becomes an increasingly vital part of their daily activities. In a model that expects every student and instructor to be served by e-learning technology, the standards for reliability, up-time, and user support will skyrocket. Institutions must seriously evaluate what level of service is required at their institution, and design their technology solutions and processes in order to meet those higher standards.
Institution-level content strategy
An enterprise approach acknowledges that the development of electronic academic content is almost always the largest investment in e-learning. To minimize expenses of academic content creation, institutions must proactively define mechanisms for content development, sharing, and reuse, as well as implement technology solutions that improve and streamline these tasks.
Proactive measurement of learning effectiveness
With increasing amounts of e-learning activity comes detailed quantitative data about student activity during the learning process. Enterprise approaches capitalize on this new asset by developing institutional processes for a regular cycle of measurement, analysis, and change that are designed to continuously improve educational quality.
How can you encourage institution-wide strategy and participation?
Enterprise e-learning begins with a strategic commitment to support technology-enabled instruction across an entire institution: the academic enterprise. At a high level, academic officials recognize, accept, and promote e-learning as critical to institutional goals pertaining to academic achievement, student service, revenue enhancement, cost avoidance, or competitive differentiation. E-learning is deemed to be a mission-critical activity, complete with executive leadership and funding that reflects its importance to the success of the institution.
Attaining a single, seamless e-learning experience for both students and faculty requires a strategy of close integration among the academic departments or schools and administrative units. A smart enterprise approach balances autonomy and coordination in order to achieve cooperation from the many units affected by the choice and implementation of the e-learning system. As the importance and breadth of e-learning initiatives grow, leaders must bring new influential players and constituents to the table in order to be successful.
Implementing an enterprise approach requires your institution to view e-learning as more than the province of the academic computing office. The e-learning environment should be steered by representatives from various groups across the institution, with executive-level guidance and the authority to make and fund e-learning decisions with an institution-wide impact.
As the criticality of e-learning becomes more apparent across the campus, dialogue opens up between the instructional technology unit and other campus entities, such as registration and records, library services, and assessment and institutional research. The systems used by each of these units—e-learning, student information systems, and library systems, to name a few—must be integrated for easy, cross-functional data transfer. Expertise among those who run those mission-critical systems must be leveraged and shared. Moreover, all future technology decisions in each unit should be made in consultation with the other units to ensure that processes and technologies continue to operate effectively across entities.
Institutions that implement effective enterprise e-learning solutions also track metrics about the usage of the system. Any enterprise approach requires regular reporting and evaluation of the volume of usage by faculty and students, as well as analytics about the types of activities and instructional modes preferred by users. These metrics are the basis for planning to meet service levels and to justify supporting the investment in e-learning.
Enterprise approaches rely on building the e-learning capacity on one core system to serve the whole university. This often requires certain campuses or schools to relinquish their own separate e-learning system. However, it’s important for these organizations to be able to preserve their unique characteristics and brands for the benefit of the students’ learning experiences. While these schools might cease to run their own servers, they should not lose specific online branding or programmatic control. Often, academic enterprise technology can serve to ameliorate relationships between the central IT unit and their diverse customers by enabling autonomy and support to more peacefully co-exist.
For many institutions, committing to an enterprise-level approach begins with an accurate inventory of current e-learning volume, practices, and dependencies. Some post-secondary institutions begin with a strategic approach to online courses focused on revenue generation, cost reduction, or quality goals. However, for many other colleges and universities, e-learning has been “an experiment that succeeded,” growing without clear planning or high level administrative support. Removing the myths and establishing the facts can provide the critical boost required to gain executive commitment and achieve cross-campus communication.