Vol. 15 : No. 4
Editor's Note: This article shares a richness of thinking, planning and experience. It applies a multidimensional planning model to three totally different training systems. Sharp focus and economy of language accelerate you through layers of experience and expertise to a successful end result. We challenge our readers to structure this model in table format to determine the multiplicity of factors that ensure success.
Planning in E-Learning Collaborations:
Richard T. Hezel and Paula Szulc Dominguez
These are good days to be involved in the nexus where education meets technology. Economic slowdowns and dot.com crashes and layoffs notwithstanding, each day brings announcements of e-mergers among institutions of higher education, headlines concerning expanded online learning opportunities for military members in the field, and stories of innovative uses of technology that allow students in under-resourced schools to have personal contact with leading artists and scientists. Of course, we have heard the unbridled enthusiasm for these technology-assisted initiatives. One could get the impression that this is an education revolution that differs elementally from anything that has come before. Indeed, the technologies and their applications are different from those of a decade ago. But what often goes unnoticed is that those educational technology initiatives that thrive today rest on the same bedrock of strategic planning that has contributed to sound decision making in education for much longer than the World Wide Web's lifespan.
At the core of even the most successful bleeding edge education venture lie intelligence gathering, analysis, and synthesis--steps that remain remarkably stable regardless of the technology or the distance-learning era. For educational decision-makers to develop and implement e-learning programs that will withstand the vagaries of the technology de jour, attention must be paid to key issues involving policy, needs, and management. In this article, we describe the kind of information that has consistently proven to be fundamental to creating quality e-learning initiatives.
We draw upon our observations and experience as active contributors to e-learning. Although our work includes clients in education, state and federal government, the military, non-profit organizations, and corporations, we highlight here those e-learning projects in higher education that involve multiple partners, because such projects offer considerable benefits to members even while they require a balance of competing needs. The information we present also applies to individual institutions launching their own e-learning projects and which face similar decisions within a more constrained environment.
Most traffic wrecks that take place on the e-learning highway are due to omission rather than commission – institutional partnerships that are keen on technology have a tendency to become caught up in the fast-paced nature of technological change and perceive time spent on laying the groundwork to be time wasted. In such cases, a safe bet would say that the technology, not the need, is driving the change. The pervasive rush to break into e-learning just to stay up with the competition forces planning and sound management decisions into the development hinterland, always with the promise to revisit the strategic process as the need arises.
Observations from Hezel Associates' 14 years of research on planning and coordinating distance learning initiatives has led us to conclude that needs, markets, revenue models, program development, and governance concerns should be dealt with during the forefront of planning, even before technical issues. Organizations which engage in a purposeful process of defining their mission and vision, anticipating the challenges they will face, describing the questions they will have to answer, and determining how they will gauge their progress are more likely to experience long-term success. The contrast of positive results from well-planned e-learning projects versus the unhappy outcomes associated with seat-of-the-pants management confirms our hypothesis.
Sometimes organizations, void of sound initial planning, become successful. In those cases a willingness to "play" with the technology and the application, to test the capabilities, and to nimbly adapt the technology to the e-learning application rescues the project. But this is the exception, rather than the rule.
If technology is not the starting point for conversations about planning for e-learning, then what is? We employ a 15-step model to describe the ideal planning process. We begin by gathering and analyzing targeted information about e-learning programs and services. These data inform the next step: to perform a needs assessment and market analysis of potential users in order to understand their programmatic interests and motivations. Next, we conduct a financial feasibility study and develop an e-learning business case for the organization. Then the e-learning leaders prepare a mission and goals that align with the organization's institutional mission and culture. Creating and nurturing collaborative relationships among the departments, agencies, businesses, and individuals that will be key participants constitutes the next step. The technical expert composes a technical feasibility study and designs the system and plans for the rollout. Decision-makers need to identify sources for sustainable funding and articulate strategies to reach identified markets. In addition, an evaluation plan will help to assess the system's management and outcomes in terms of costs and effectiveness. A system must be implemented to engage, support, and train faculty members in order to expand the content and programs offered. Attention also centers on creating and delivering student support services, with an eye towards limiting student attrition. The e-learning program unfolds through phased installation and with a pilot test of the services and system. Based on the evaluation data we gather, the planning process generates recommendations for improving the e-learning initiative, which can then be incorporated into the full-scale roll out.
With the range of planning and early management stages, the partnership's strategic planning covers a lot of territory. This description of an approach to e-learning planning is fairly broad, so it may help to provide a few examples of past work to illustrate the spectrum of strategic planning activities in which institutions engage. Our examples from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Utah System of Higher Education, and UT TeleCampus (University of Texas), all touch upon different aspects of the planning process and timeline.
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) promotes inter-institutional cooperation among the 28 Jesuit institutions in the United States. With a Jesuit heritage that emphasizes reaching out through multiple avenues to learning communities, the institutional mission aligns well with the use of technology. In 1997, AJCU received a Public Telecommunications Facilities Planning (PTFP) grant through the US Department of Commerce to conduct a planning study focusing on the technology capacity and needs of its member institutions, with the goal of creating a Jesuit system wide e-learning program. To complement the technical feasibility study and the construction plan that was put together, AJCU decided it also needed to examine the business of operating a distance education program. What kind of costs will be associated with creating such a system? What are the redundancies that can be eliminated? What kind of financial commitments will member institutions have to make?
A business plan for the proposed JesuitNet helped to:
AJCU needed to know how it should target its activities as a consortium in a way that made sense and was cost effective. Discussions with representatives from member institutions and an examination of needs and capabilities data led to recommendations that the best way to position the proposed system was as a support for distance education opportunities across member institutions. To this end, the e-learning system needed to:
Based on the financial feasibility of a national service, we determined that JesuitNet, structured appropriately, could expect to experience a financial return within a reasonable number of years. Creating a timeline for the rollout of an e-learning initiative among 28 independents colleges and universities would present a challenge. Not all institutions in any partnership are prepared to move in lock-step. Nevertheless, a schedule for initial marketing from pilot program stage to full-scale deployment had to be consistent. Finally, the various management options for JesuitNet, including outsourcing its operation, having AJCU assume responsibility, or giving administrative authority to a single member institution were all considered. Now, JesuitNet thrives with plans for even greater expansion.
The Need for Needs Assessment
Several years ago, the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) found itself facing some sobering demographic data. Utah houses a population that is younger than the national average and that continues to grow at a steady rate. The USHE understood that expanding the physical resources of the state's nine public institutions of higher education represented an approach to accommodating expected increases in demand for higher education that was not necessarily the most cost efficient. E-learning was an attractive alternative, and the imminent development of Western Governors University loomed as both an opportunity and a threat to small colleges. But that realization was not enough: a host of other questions stemmed from the decision to consider e-learning. What was the actual demand for technology delivered education in the state? How might the demand vary across different student markets? Which programs should be offered through technology? Which institution or set of institutions should be given primary responsibility for developing the e-learning program, and what are the criteria by which institutional capacity should be judged?
These questions are typical of the kind that we encounter in the early stages of an e-learning initiative. A needs assessment is the appropriate vehicle through which organizations such as USHE can gain information that will allow them to progress to the next level of planning. The statewide needs assessment in Utah focused on programmatic needs, interest in distance learning, availability of resources, and motivation to develop new programs within the System. In that study we addressed:
To address USHE's concerns, information was collected from key stakeholder groups throughout the state--through interviews with academic officers from all nine institutions, employers in the state, and students and faculty members. Each institution's readiness and capacity to employ distance learning technologies to deliver particular programs statewide and out of state were evaluated. The assessment did not stop there – in addition to the reactions from the stakeholder groups and the examination of institutional capacity, it was also necessary to consider the broader context surrounding postsecondary education in the state. For this reason, we reviewed employment data, demographic projections, and plans for the state's own telecommunications expansion.
Together, these pieces of information provided USHE concrete information concerning:
Based on the needs assessment, USHE recognized the System strengths that could be built upon (e.g., the state's telecommunications infrastructure, the breadth of programs available at the different institutions), as well as weaknesses that could undermine the success of any e-learning initiative. We offered a series of recommendations targeting multiple levels of involvement--for the state, the Board of Regents, the System, and individual institutions--which identified appropriate roles and described specific next steps for action.
Markets and Messages
Given the array of e-learning opportunities that are now available to students, one particular challenge involves how to position an institution or collaboration amid the competition. Even the best e-learning initiative will not succeed if its decision-makers do not respond to all of its various internal and external markets in an organized fashion. The UT TeleCampus, University of Texas, faced this challenge as it thought about representing the resources of its 15 institutional members. With an aggressive roll out of its online program anticipated, UT TeleCampus needed to create a consistent message about courses and services. Moreover, the marketing approach and messages needed to be able to respond to UT TeleCampus's hoped for expansion over the five-year period following its launch. One special concern was for the careful internal marketing of the UT TeleCampus – if the initiative were to succeed, it would have to overcome faculty resistance and administrative skepticism at multiple campuses. It was important for the UT TeleCampus to fashion a marketing strategy that would quickly commandeer and maintain a position in the e-learning marketplace.
The marketing strategy that we recommended for UT TeleCampus included the four ingredients that are central to any strong marketing and communication plan. First, the UT TeleCampus marketing function needed to be organized with regard to business development, communications coordination, content development, and market analysis. Second, the UT TeleCampus needed a phased strategy that described objectives, particular market segments, content to be offered, price, and internal and external promotions. The phased nature of the strategy is a critical component, since marketing needs, objectives, and tactics change as an organization begins operation, gains prominence, and then becomes an e-learning leader. Third, the "culture" and set of values that UT TeleCampus needed to embrace in order to develop its marketing stance were identified. These include openness to collaboration, a proactive stance towards recruiting and assisting faculty members, and dedication to the notion that the bottom line is always the quality of course content. Finally, UT needed to incorporate certain processes – including recruiting, promoting, offering incentives, and engaging in partnerships--in order to build a successful operation.
The recommendations we suggested aligned well with UT's perspective and prior activities. Since the Fall 1999 launch of the online program, UT TeleCampus has seen enrollments increase by more than 400 percent, new courses and degree programs added each semester, and more than 100 faculty members at 11 campuses teaching online.
We began with a statement that the elements central to the success of e-learning have not experienced much change over the last decade, despite the obvious changes in technology that have occurred. This does not mean, however, that institutions and systems of institutions have not encountered new challenges as they plan for e-learning initiatives. In particular, three challenges have arisen that sorely test an organization's ability to plan for and manage e-learning. The first is a crying need for qualified staff to direct and operate the different facets of the initiatives' operation. Severe competition from the corporate sector has resulted in a brain drain that is keenly felt across all campuses that have invested in technology. Institutions of higher education can rarely compete with the kind of financial compensation and benefits that private companies offer. Individuals with expertise in information technology, instructional design, and administration are difficult to attract and retain. One fear is that the expansion of e-learning initiatives will be imperiled not by too few students taking online courses, but by the lack of competent personnel.
A second, newly emerging challenge centers on the redefinition of teaching and learning and the role of faculty members. A centuries-old model for enlightening the next generation is being renegotiated campus by campus. Institutions need to respond to faculty members' concerns about adequate preparation time, intellectual property, and compensation for teaching in e-learning settings, but the typical timeframe that is associated with policy making in higher education (think frozen maple syrup) can hardly keep up with institutional expectations for furthering an online education program.
The ever more rapid pace for decision-making is a third factor that confronts institutions as they plan for, implement, and manage e-learning programs. Whereas in the past, institutions have had several semesters to gather and consider relevant data, competition for online education today means that e-learning programs are lucky to have one semester to plan before students are enrolled. Many institutions, perhaps in response to high level administrative pressure, assemble a too limited body of data or rely on word-of-mouth for their decisions. The timeline necessary to generate revenue and recoup initial investment costs can become compressed as well, which can lead to false hopes for profit and poor decision-making when such monies do not materialize. Further, institutions can become so caught up in the business of daily operations that they do not collect and analyze the data necessary to evaluate their initial e-learning management plan, marketing strategies, and collaborative relationships. The emphasis on tomorrow's expansion means that data from last semester are old news.
Straightforward information-gathering steps can increase the likelihood for long-term success in e-learning. Technology represents just one consideration. At multiple points throughout the planning process, data concerning target audience needs, the surrounding political and social environments, as well as investment costs and projected financial returns can help decision-makers make the right choices. Although the situation becomes more complex when multiple institutions are involved, the presence of more than one entity does not alter the nature of the information that needs to be collected and analyzed. Today there is a host of e-learning management challenges to contend with, including a constant shortage of staff, faculty policy that does not align with stated needs, and demands for a too-quick demonstration of cost savings. With technology shifting daily and a host of new issues to be resolved, decision makers need to continue to turn to strategic information to help determine which direction represents the best option for their institution or partnership.
About the Authors:
Dr. Richard Hezel is President and founder of Hezel Associates, a planning, research, and evaluation firm specializing in e-learning. Based in Syracuse, NY, he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-422-3512.
Dr. Paula Szulc Dominguez is director of research and evaluation for Hezel Associates. She may be reached at email@example.com or at 806-722-7443. Together and with their other associates, Drs. Hezel and Dominguez have consulted and conducted distance-learning analyses throughout the United States.