By Peter West
There are a few things that need to be in place before a school (or any educational organisation) can successfully implement an LMS and technology-enhanced learning. When these fundamentals are in place, the chance of success improves considerably. This is because the world of technology-enhanced learning/eLearning can be confusing.
Technology-enhanced education in an organisation requires servers, a wireless network, a wired network, and ancillary devices such as printers. When these are in place, a learning management system (or similar) can be considered. However, because of the technology, some believe that technology-enhanced learning is the domain of the ICT Department. That said, it is unfair to expect tech support staff to understand education. Most have never taught. And many come from non-education industries, such as financial institutions. They may have been in classrooms as students, or visited classes while installing or repairing hardware or software, but they are unlikely to have experienced the day-to-day life of a teacher.
Expecting an IT tech to understand education would be like taking someone who has never played football but has watched several games to be able to get on the field and immediately play like an expert. This is an unfair expectation.
ICT staff are knowledgeable, experienced, and often passionate about their work. They need to be appreciated and supported. However, their role is to make all the technology ‘work’. To make it robust, reliable, and as transparent as possible for their end-users. They need to allow teachers and students to leverage this to make teaching and learning better. Their job is not to investigate and implement new teaching and learning technologies in isolation, as they can’t be expected to understand those areas (which just happen to be the core business of an educational organisation).
Despite this reality, how many organisations have ICT staff dictating the choice of things that impact teaching and learning – such as the LMS to be used?
Imagine you are planning a road trip into remote parts of the country. You would need mechanics to service and check the vehicle before you left, replace parts that may not last the journey, suggest any spare parts that you may need to take, and provide other support for your journey. They would also need to be a phone call away to offer advice, organise parts, and suggest or organise local mechanics in the event of a breakdown.
The ICT Department in an educational organisation is similar. They are the mechanics to ensure all the technology works properly. A good ICT department does this transparently and well. They provide a vital support role and are extremely valuable.
However, they are not guides. They do not decide the destination. They do not understand the hazards along the way, or the best way to get there. You need a guide, or someone with previous experience, to perform that role for you.
Are educators your guides? They have a wealth of experience in teaching and learning, as they are “in the trenches” every day. However, do they have an understanding of technology… and I mean a real understanding? I am not talking about finding some useful apps or introducing some technology into a classroom. I mean a deep understanding of technology-enhanced learning (such as blended learning and its subset: flipped learning). This is actually the final goal of introducing an LMS. Do educators also have an understanding of networks, software, hardware, bandwidth, network security, data, and consistency across the organisation to streamline tech support? I am talking about finding and implementing solutions that can scale across an entire organisation.
Teaching is complex enough as is it. It is also a very busy profession, often with late nights and little free time. It is unfair to expect most teachers to take the many, many hours of personal time required to develop a breadth and depth of understanding required to have expertise in these areas.
If we were taking that road trip we mentioned earlier, teachers would be the adventurers who want to take the road trip but have never been in the remote areas before, and have no experience with travelling over rough terrain. However, they have to take the journey and are willing to learn.
eLearning overlaps ICT and education. eLearning specialists are people who have experience in both areas. They understand what it is like to stand in front of a group of people and ‘teach’, and what it is like to change this teaching paradigm to ‘real’ blended and flipped learning. They understand the importance of the LMS to move to technology-enhanced learning. They know because they have done it successfully. They haven’t just read the research. They haven’t ‘tried’ it for a year or two. They haven’t come from another industry and think their experience transfers. It doesn’t! They have lived and breathed the challenges and the struggles in a ‘real’ classroom (not just a lecture theatre) and have emerged victorious.
They have experience with learning design, even though they may not be specialists.
They have worked on computer networks, computers, and the associated software and ancillary hardware. They have an understanding of servers, VLANs, operating systems, and security issues.
When an eLearning specialist looks at a potential technology solution for an educational problem, they examine the educational value first. They realise that effective and successful teaching and learning are the core business of the organisation. They determine how the solution (e.g. the LMS) would benefit the students and the teacher, and how the classroom environment could improve. ‘Classroom’ can also cover a fully online experience, whether in a virtual classroom environment of a completely self-paced online experience.
They also look at ease of use by a typical teacher or student… and not just the ‘technical’ use. More importantly, they examine how easy it will be to use in the busy and complex environment of the typical classroom. They understand teachers don’t have the time or bandwidth to constantly learn lots of new technologies and approaches, but they do want to improve the educational possibilities for their students. Teachers are happy to learn if time is provided and the new solution isn’t just another well-meaning fad. Most teachers have seen enough of these fads over the years, and can identify one (and discard it) quickly and easily.
eLearning specialists don’t get dazzled by the latest ‘new’ thing that may be a lot of fun and a lot of ‘show’ but has little real and lasting impact.
They also then look at the technological impact. Will the prospective new solution integrate with current systems? Does it support SSO (Single Sign On) as a minimum and, if so, what is the protocol used? Will it require a lot of support? Does it keep student and staff data secure? Is it cloud-based or is it installed on local servers? How much bandwidth will it use? If it is cloud-based, are the servers in Australia or overseas? What are the licencing costs and implications? What level of support does the company provide, or will the ICT Department have to ensure they have enough resources available to support it?
While these aspects are the domain of the ICT Department, the eLearning specialist must also be aware of them and take them into consideration when first evaluating a solution. The ICT Department can then do the in-depth analysis, while knowing that the eLearning specialist will understand any concerns that they raise.
The eLearning staff are the guides on our adventurous road trip. They have been to the destination before. They have encountered the hazards along the way, and know how to avoid them. They know the type of vehicle required, and the modifications that need to be made to have a productive journey. They are happy to teach you about all this before and during the journey.
Synergy and success
Introducing an LMS and creating successful technology-enhanced learning across an entire organisation is difficult (but not complex). It requires cooperation and respect between all the major stakeholders – teachers, ICT staff, and eLearning staff. However, the process needs to be led by eLearning.
Is this ‘ideal’ state possible? Yes. Is it common? I will let you decide.
I have been fortunate to work in a number of organisations where knowledgeable and experienced eLearning staff were employed, where the ICT staff were exceptional, and where teachers were passionate. Places where the three groups – teachers, ICT staff, and eLearning staff – worked together extremely well to move the teaching and learning experience forward. These three groups saw each other as partners and collaborators, working together for the betterment of the educational experience and the organisation. Each respected the other’s knowledge and experience. They weren’t competing ‘silos’ wary of when one would encroach on ‘their territory’.
These organisations were very successful. They were great places to work, and great places for learning to occur. Our quest should be for every organisation to be like this. Our students deserve the benefits that this approach provides – a wonderful and ‘modern’ education.
What if you don’t have these specialists, yet you still want to introduce an LMS (and more)? Find good ICT staff who understand they are there to support education. They are vital. If you can’t afford them ‘full time’, find a good consulting company.
Find good eLearning staff with a track record of long-term success. They are not common, but they exist. In the meantime, beware of ‘making do’. Beware promoting the teacher who has found a few ‘shiny’ apps to use, or who has introduced some STEM solutions such as robotics into their classroom. They are wonderful to have, and should be encouraged and appreciated, but they are not eLearning specialists.