Structure - Taking the Lead: Strategic Management for e-Learning
A Theme from Strategic Management for e-Learning, part of the Taking the Lead: Strategic Management for e-Learning excutive summary.
A Theme from Strategic Management for e-Learning
Form should follow function and it may seem perverse to give early prominence to questions of form and structure. However, the frequency with which institutions reorganise the units responsible for supporting e-learning justifies this prominence. Questions of organisational structure and responsibility also tend to be the province of senior institutional managers rather than being left to the discretion of those working within these structures. For these reasons, it is important that senior leaders ask and find answers to the following questions:
- How should you organise and manage for e-learning?
- More specifically, who should be responsible for what and how should their various efforts be integrated and led?
Conventional classroom teaching is generally a one-person activity in the higher education sector. The teacher undertakes all the lesson planning, classroom teaching, assessment, student advising and administrative duties associated with delivering a course. It is also an activity that lends itself to autonomous decision-making. e-Learning requires each of the above tasks to be performed, but also requires the development of online teaching resources, the management of some form of learning management system, and the provision of a range of network services to allow both teachers and students to make use of the system. Some important decisions must be made about how each of these roles will be supported within an institution.
One set of decisions needs to be made about the extent to which teachers will be assisted in their development of online teaching materials. Ideally, a subject teacher will have the help of an instructional designer, a multimedia expert and a web developer who will work alongside the teacher as a ‘production team.’ However, the realities of cost and time tend to preclude such an intensive approach. Most institutions opt instead for a small, central support unit comprising instructional developers who help teachers develop and manage their online courses. The extent of this assistance is likely to depend on the size of the support unit and the number of courses that are developed and redeveloped each year.
Another set of decisions needs to be made about the location of these online support people within the institution. One option is to establish a separate e-learning support unit. While an arrangement like this provides a concentrated focus, it is likely to create overlaps and discontinuities with the institution’s other systems for teacher and student support. Instead, institutions are increasingly trying to co-locate all their academic support staff to ensure the optimum use of limited support personnel and to avoid divorcing e-learning from other modes of teaching and learning. A related issue is whether teaching units should be encouraged to appoint their own e-learning facilitators to ensure a more responsive and customised support for teachers. Again, this is a fairly expensive option that requires strong and sustained encouragement by leadership if it is to succeed and be sustained.
Most institutions have no trouble separating teaching support and network support operations. The latter commonly remain the responsibility of institutional IT units. As these are the units with the appropriate expertise and mandate, there is seldom any dispute about assigning these responsibilities to them.
Problems are likely to arise where there are ill-defined accountabilities between these various service units or where there is inadequate institutional leadership for the e-learning programme. One example, occurring in more than one institution, is the decision concerning the purchase or replacement of a learning management system. Both the IT unit and an e-learning support unit are likely to bring quite different principles and assumptions to such a decision and it is likely to need the involvement of a senior institutional leader to reach a balanced decision.
The last point illustrates the crucial need for strong leadership from a designated member of the senior management team. Where this is the chief executive, so much the better. However, this is not always practical where a chief executive does not want to be championing individual projects or causes. It may be just as effective if another member of the senior team takes on this role of championing and driving the e-learning programme.
There is also a danger in delegating final responsibility for the e-learning strategy and programmes still further down the management line to, say, the director of an e-learning unit. The latter will probably lack the resources or the mandate to drive a strong strategy across the institution. Directors of e-learning units might find it difficult to solicit the continuing cooperation of divisional and programme heads, and to promote their own resource and system requirements against the competing claims of other, larger units.
In the case studies, we present a variety of organisational arrangements for supporting e-learning. At the University of Auckland, the e-learning support unit has been brought into a larger aggregation, comprising all the teaching and student support units. At UCOL, senior leaders have recognised the central role of the Library in knowledge management and located their e-learning support services within that unit. In the AUT University case study, we see an interesting example of a senior manager seeking to exercise strategic leadership over his institution’s teaching and learning activities, including e-learning. At NorthTec, leadership is being driven strongly by the chief executive. At Bay of Plenty Polytechnic and Manukau Institute of Technology, strong leadership is being exercised at the e-learning support unit level.