Awareness for a more flexible approach to education using Elearning

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Recently, there has been an increase in the awareness for a more flexible approach to educational practices using technological methods in education institutions through e-learning. Going by modern trends and expectations from all stakeholders, the idea seems to be warmly embraced despite the multi-faced implications for both institutions and learners. This has been evident in many institutions through the application of various forms of technologically-aided educational platforms like digital libraries, e-portfolios, online assessment platforms etc.

However, e-learning has only being applied to mostly improve already existing educational methods (Laurillard, 2008). Therefore, the issue of how e-learning can be adopted by the educational sector as an integral and essential component in many educational institutions still needs to be addressed. This development was clearly admitted by Prof Sir Ron Cooke (Chairman of UK universities' Joint Information Systems Committee - JISC) who agrees that developing centers of expertise in educational technology through consistent involvement of institutions is necessary (Lipsett ,2008). In order to achieve this, educational institutions will need to support the propagation of this new model for education. The question raised now is how convinced are these institutions of benefits of e-learning (McPherson and Nunes, 2006) without taking into consideration the silent negative effects that may arise from its adoption.

Perceived benefits e-learning may offer can sometimes be seen as being difficult to implement because the amount of change requirement required for adoption in most HE institutions can only be achieved by more persuasive efforts by all stakeholders involved. Laurillard (2008) clearly states efforts can be actualized by recognition of teaching professionals as the primary agents of change. Notably, the structure of e-learning methods encourages flexibility which may not be feasible under normal pedagogical methods. A study by Nichols (2008) identified the importance of the institution's internal organizational culture and strategic thinking for implementing such changes. Therefore, distorting these established ways of impacting knowledge on learners usually implies as radical change imposed by demands of modern technologies. Therefore, an introduction of e-learning in educational institutions teaching framework requires a carefully managed approach (McPherson and Nunes, 2006) which might require exceptional supervision for a successful conclusion.

This paper will aim to evaluate the critical success factors behind the adoption of e-learning in educational institutions. The next section will explain two important aspects i) e-learning as opposed to traditional pedagogical methods in an effort to identifying a common ground for the two methods and ii) the adoption of e-learning by educational institutions. The following section will take evaluate the critical success factors in e-learning adoption. This will form the framework for this research to gain an insight into how they affect e-learning adoption.

LITERATURE REVIEW

E-Learning

Learning is said to be a necessary aspect of human endeavor (informal or formal) in an effort to gain knowledge (Zhang and Nunamaker, 2003). However, the evolution of the internet is responsible for a radical change of the normal classroom method of learning through technologically-aided tools. It is estimated that in the next 15 years, expected earnings from e-learning will hit a staggering $215 billion if anticipated growth from cross-country is met (Hezel Associates, 2005). However, previous pedagogical ways of teaching are still preferred by majority of learners leaving e-learning to support already existing methods.

E-learning simply put is learning via means of the internet (Zhang and Nunamaker, 2003). Wild et al. (2002) defines e-learning as method of education by means of networking and distribution technologies. As the name implies, just a computer and internet is all that is required by the learners to enroll for courses in an e-learning platform which provides a more relaxed and stress free setting for regulated learning without facing the pressures encountered during the course of classroom lectures. Notably, different institutions have different motivations for opting for e-learning. Modern trends have shown that e-learning is a welcome idea because of its benefits especially in the issue of flexibility which favors the learners. This transition is characterized by an approach that takes into consideration how the learners determine the pace of learning they choose to enroll for.

E-learning vs. Pedagogical learning

The major differences between e-learning and traditional classroom learning lies in the delivery of course content. There have been different literatures on the disparities between the two methods of learning but however, each method makes up for the others weaknesses. Hence, the role of choosing between these methods of learning lies with the institution and whatever available infrastructure in place for e-learning adoption. The table below shows the advantages and disadvantages of e-learning and traditional classroom learning which are summarized by Zhang et al. (2004).

Figure : E-learning V.S. Traditional classroom learning

From the table above, that both methods of learning tend to complement each other. This is the situation faced by many institutions when considering an e-learning adoption strategy. For instance, if potential students of the institution consider the time and location constraints of furthering their education, they may consider opting for an online degree which promises a flexible and life-made-easy method of learning. Laurillard (2008) commented about the pressure that faculties of institutions will encounter if a learner approach is applied to an e-learning implementation which aims to satisfy every learners needs.

As Bersin (2005) noted, e-learning does not replace the need for instructor centered learning but rather, complement it. Although, e-learning can offers a more flexible approach, it still has its shortcomings which can only be compensated for by the classroom method.

Many institutions acknowledge the issue of self discipline on the part of the learners which explains the high dropout rates of most e-learning programs when compared to conventional methods of classroom teaching (Zhang et al., 2004). Learning that to be taken seriously requires commitment from both the learner and teacher. Hence, e-learning will not ever fully replace classroom based learning because the high level of commitment and self control which is required is often too arduous for the average learner. This maybe a reason why many institutions show some level of restraint in fully integrating e-learning platforms; as their reputation may be at stake if…...

A Blended Approach to Learning

An interesting combination that may result from the two learning methods to produce a richer and more learner friendly course content delivery if all factors necessary for a successful implementation are in place. Osguthorpe & Graham (2003) described blended learning as a method of learning whereby face-to-face methods are combined with distance learning through the internet. Some other literatures define it as traditional class learning being propped up by hands-on computer labs ie e-learning used to support pedagogical classroom learning (Wagner et al., 2008).

A study by Nicoles (2008) identified that those institutions which had achieved a sustainable state of e-learning adoption had the best of both forms of learning and teachers as well as students were willing testify to that. Attaining such an optimal blend is easier said than done because of certain factors which will be talked about in the next section.

Adoption Of E-Learning In Educational Institutions

Nicoles (2008) noted significant efforts have been made on the part of government to achieve the actualization of educational policy reforms in 2003. UKs Department for Education and Skills (DfES) clearly defined is aims and objectives for e-learning where Charles Clarke identified the need for a rethink of the potential benefits of e-learning and how it could transform the methods of teaching and learning (DfES 2003). He also identified the need for all stakeholders (education providers, employers, local authorities, e-learning industry as well as government) to actively participate in the realization e-learning adoption.

However, these demands can imply significant change efforts on the part of the institutions. Laurillard (2008) noted the daunting challenges for teachers that would be encountered if such ambitions were to be actualized acknowledging the increase in the amount of funding allocated to the education sector. Nevertheless, this illustrates a clear commitment from government to encourage adoption and sustaining an e-learning strategy. Over the years, various e-learning projects have sprung up as a result of such awareness campaigns from government regulatory agencies and advisory committees like JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee).

Nicoles (2008) asserts the aim of e-learning adoption is to attain acceptability by educational institutions. From the literature, e-learning has adopted by educational institutions to complement traditional methods of learning. Such learning platforms may assume the form of a web portal which students can exploit to make the best of their learning experience. However, only institutions that are ready to embrace such technologies with serious commitment and sustainability plans reap the benefits. The fact that an e-learning plan is in place doesn't not guarantee a successful implementation strategy because demands of the system are too much. Van der Klink and Jochems (2004) confirmed this by admitting that the situation faced by many institutions is a case of either i) best laid plans with poor project execution or ii) good project execution without a sustainability plan. Be that as it may, any educational institution thinking of riding the wave of internet change, must consider e-learning to extend its serving capability to both learners and teachers.

RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

This research will focus primarily on an examination of adoption of e-learning in educational institutions and how it can help increase the awareness of the need for a more active role for e-learning will be proposed because most e-learning platforms of most institutions are there to support and compliment traditional ways of teaching. The rationale for this approach is to understand the success factors behind the e-learning adoption. Therefore, an evaluation of the organizational factors as proposed by McpPherson and Nunes (2006) will be used as a framework for this research.

An acceptable level of e-learning adoption by educational institutions can be achieved provided the basic social and technical requirements required are in place or at the least; plans are being laid down for such adoption. These basic factors can be described as the organizational factors for adoption of an e-learning system in an educational institution. These success factors were investigated by carrying out focused group interviews with HE practitioners in the educational sector. A critical research approach was adapted to this study gain insight into all the most important factors considered relevant to each participant. The findings of the research were numerous and had to be grouped under four main factors namely

Leadership, structural and cultural issues

Design issues

Technological issues and

Content delivery issues

CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS AS IDENTIFIED BY HE PRACTITIONERS

Leadership, structural and cultural issues: Although all four factors are to be considered in implementing an e-learning system, Nicols (2008) identified that the most important factor is leadership and noted that any institution who shared a common vision (from top-management down the faculty) will definitely adopt and sustain whatever e-learning plan it proposed. This is true as adoption of e-learning involves a significant amount of change that affects pedagogical methods of teaching. Cho and Berge (2003) recommended a soft and phase-by-phase change strategy, so that anxieties and pressures associated with such changes are reduced.

Adoption of e-learning by any institution can definitely be viewed as a social process because it alters established ways of doing things. As Hegarty et al. (2005) noted, organizational culture has to be prioritized by creating the enabling environment through staff development. Acknowledging staff of the institution as key players in any intended adoption process rests with management. As noted by some of the interviewees of McpPherson and Nunes (2006), identifying an e-learning champion to help create awareness and increase enthusiasm was noted to be crucial as most departments and faculties tend to be skeptical to any form of change to pedagogical methods.

Hence, a proper understanding of the organizational culture of the institution is considered important when considering factors necessary for successful adoption of e-learning. A proper analysis of how the e-learning system would impact learning and teaching cultures, as well as, creating the enabling environment to encourage such adoption through active dialogue and communication.

Design issues: The design stage of e-learning adoption is characterized as a representation of the decision making process which the faculty engages in to decide when and how to incorporate e-learning into course design (Ellis et al., 2007). This does not imply that this process be left entirely to the faculty, but rather, a collaborative effort from management, administrators, students, vendors and all relevant stakeholders. Therefore, choices made at the faculty level should reflect the institutions goals.

Acknowledging that there is more to what meets the eye can determine success when implementing e-learning when one considers the collaborative efforts involved in executing such projects (McPherson and Nunes, 2006). Technical support teams responsible for embedding course content into the e-learning platform need constant supervision from the faculty so as to ensure that the system meets standard requirements of the institution. Therefore, effective communication between these two key players must be ensured. Also, identifying what needs to be embedded into the e-learning systems can be an issue. Laurillard (2008) noted the challenges teachers will be faced with if such e-learning systems is to adopt a learner centric approach. As the name implies, the faculty may have to choose between suggesting a design that favors the learner as opposed to what can be achievable considering all possible constraints that maybe encountered.

Finally, it all comes to good project management practices being observed in the design process (McPherson and Nunes, 2006). Observing good practices by carefully revising all methods applied to the design phase is very imperative.

Technological issues: This is another important issue that McPherson and Nunes (2006) noted as educational institutions encountered challenges of regular change in information systems (IS). This is true because whatever technology seen as the best today may be outdated tomorrow. Such daunting issues will require the institution to establish an efficient technical support team to regularly evaluate and assess technologies used for the e-learning platform. This implies that a strategy for sustaining the e-learning change needs to be in place as high priority should be placed on what is to be expected of such technologies that would be used for the e-learning implementation. As Laurillard (2008) noted, institutions should carefully consider what technology can do for them before embarking on such projects, so that there is a clear distinction between the technologies and e-learning.

To encourage such adoption of e-learning, adequate funding will be required to integrate relevant software and hardware. As noted earlier, support for any provision of resources depends mostly on the level of commitment shown by management of the institution. As demands of the e-learning project change, so does funding required for the project.

Delivery issues: Content delivery through e-learning program is simply how the institution intends to go about carrying out lectures and assessment. The differentiations in e-learning content delivery have to be assessed by the adopting institution to suit their ICT infrastructure. Hence, there are differences of how these courses are delivered which has seen different delivery methods evolving over time.

Be that as it may, technologies are constantly evolving which leaves room for change in demands of both the learners and the teacher. Adopting an approach that would be learner centered may put teachers under undue pressure as mentioned earlier. Whereas, adopting a system that is teacher centered may not be perceived as being in the best interest of the learner.

CONCLUSION

Digital technologies are definitely changing the methods of educational practices. The issue of how this wave of change affects the educational sector will be a subject of debate for years to come. In spite of these changes, adoption by educational institutions has been known to be limited to the background in the sense that it is only used to supplement existing methods of teaching. This is partly due to the amount of resources and commitment that may be required to actualize such implementations. Asides that, it poses a huge threat to the teaching practitioners who may have to adapt to the radical change it may imply. This new development may be assumed to take the form of a double edged sword which can swing in both the positive and negative changes in the education sector. If such changes are fully integrated into the education sector, it may imply a trade-off between the teaching methods or a blend of the both methods.

However, many have argued that such a change is a welcome development because it is bound to happen. This development leaves one wondering of what the world would be like if ever learner had the freedom to choose which learning path to follow. Take for instance, if parents were to identify the academic strengths and weaknesses of their children had the opportunity of deciding which courses will be best suitable for their kids, most will opt for that. That would imply an increased level of flexibility which may take its toll on the teaching practitioners which may inevitably imply an increase in the number of teaching professionals. In reality, this type of methods has been actually applied but it is usually limited to those that have the financial and infrastructural capability to venture into such methods. However, the discipline required to follow up on such methods of learning is left to the learner which may be prone to an unresolved will to see it through to the finish line not excluding the lack of social interaction that classroom based learning has to offer. A blended approach may be easily conceptualized to reduce such tendencies, but in reality oil and water are distant relations that are never at peace with each other. Going forward, the ball lies in the hand of the learner who may have to choose between these two methods of learning.

Recently in the UK, there is an anticipated increase in the amount EU students will pay on tuition. This has been said to be a serious problem as the motivations for such increase has not been fully understood. Coupled with the education cuts currently witnessed in universities, it seems that all relevant stakeholders in HE feel pressurized to make decisions which may go out of their plans. However, as one door closes another opens. If education is going to be more expensive in times when productivity is valued more than qualifications and certificates, there may be more interest in alternative methods of learning like e-learning where learners can have a variety of options to suit their lifestyles.

Finally, it seems the best approach to resolving this dilemma is by collaborative efforts of both all stakeholders (government regulatory agencies, educational institutions, e-learning vendors and the society at large). The DfES made it quite clear of its resolve to see e-learning revolution through to fruition. Most countries in Europe especially UK can be identified as major drivers of technological inventions which can pose serious challenges. The problems is identifying the limit to which these endless opportunities of invention. More research still needs to be done on this area of e-learning to understand the fundamental elements that ensure solution on the interim before the intervention of another paradigm of learning.

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