Thursday, 20 February 2014

Implementing a university-wide change programme to promote blended learning: Where do we start?

Change is rarely easy, and universities are notoriously conservative institutions which are inherently cautious. The implementation of a change programme involving technology requires a delicate balance in order to bring about genuinely new ways of working whilst endeavouring to address the understandable concerns of staff. What approaches actually work?

At the University of Westminster we are embarking on a wide-ranging programme known as Learning Futures which aims to transform the student and staff experience by creating a streamlined, forward-looking and engaging curriculum. The programme comprises a range of parallel projects which address themes such as curriculum and assessment, learning and teaching, academic support, employability, internationalisation, and sustainability. Ive been involved in the learning and teaching strand of the Learning Futures programme since the start, specifically in relation to the promotion of technology-enhanced learning and blended learning approaches.

The proposed changes have all emerged from staff themselves in a bottom-up approach, albeit with the full support of the senior management of the university. The enthusiasm of staff in generating new ideas and their continued commitment in developing the projects has been a revelation. However, up to now it has largely been driven by a relatively small proportion of staff the so-called early adopters’– the committed minority who are willing to experiment and keen to innovate. As we move towards the implementation phase of the programme it will be critical to maintain momentum in the face of the resistance to change which is bound to emerge.

What resistance?
It is inevitable that there will be resistance to change, particularly change which involves the introduction of new technologies. As Wheeler (2014a) points out, there is a perception amongst some academic staff that technology will undermine their role and require the investment of a lot of time learning new skills. If there is resentment or distrust, this can be transmitted to students. 

Marshall (2010) suggests that the resistance to change may be borne out of a perceived lack of convincing evidence that technology actually benefits the students learning, despite the fact that, as Garrison and Vaughan (2013) point out, this is not a defensible position. Nevertheless, such resistance patently exists, and this invariably makes it difficult to get buy-in from the remainder of the staff.

We have a clear vision about where we want to be. We are obviously not starting from scratch, since technology is already used widely throughout the university and there are many examples of highly innovative practice. What we are seeking to achieve is a much more integrated approach to technology-enhanced learning where the technology is seamlessly embedded in our courses and both staff and students are comfortable with technology.

So, weve generated the ideas, we have the approval of senior management to proceed, and we have project structures in place. But now we actually have to move from the strategy to the tactics. Where do we start?

Ive been doing quite a lot of research around this, and there are obviously loads of issues to consider, but three immediate questions emerge:

1.       Should we assess the extent to which the institution is ready for change?
I have mixed views on this issue. I can see that there would be some value in assessing institutional readiness, but given that the decision has been taken to go ahead with the change programme are we just wasting valuable time? There is obviously a certain appetite for change, as demonstrated by the ideas and proposals already generated in the early stages of the programme. We could carry out an audit of existing practice, but this will probably take a long time and all it is likely to tell us is what we already know: that there are pockets of innovative practice involving technology but the majority of courses are delivered primarily through traditional means. What else could we do to assess our readiness?

There are tools available which are specifically designed for this very purpose. For example:
  • ELTI (Embedding Learning Technologies Institutionally) A JISC audit tool which is designed to inform the process of embedding learning technologies, assist in developing institutional structures, culture and expertise and to encourage cross boundary collaboration and groupings.
  • The eMM Framework (E-Learning Maturity Model) which is designed to measure the capability of institutions to sustainably engage in technology-supported learning and teaching.

Has anyone got experience of using these tools and if so, were they useful?

2.       How do we ensure that staff have the skills and confidence necessary to adopt technologies more widely?
It is highly likely that only those early adopters will feel comfortable working extensively with new technologies. Wheeler (2014b) highlights the importance of universities providing high quality, sustainable support to academics to ensure that they see the relevance of new technologies and gain confidence in using them. The recently published NMC Horizon Report2014 identifies the challenge of low digital fluency of faculty and proposes professional development for academic staff, not just in digital media skills, but also in the underlying concepts of digital literacy (Johnson et al., 2014).

Garrison & Vaughan (2008) indicate that the most common form of professional development involves skills-based training in specific techniques or software. However, they suggest that such an approach rarely has sufficient follow-up and ongoing support for academic staff, and thus the impact is minimal. They propose an alternative approach based around the idea of a Community of Inquiry in which local faculty groupings of eight to twelve staff engage in a continuous process of reflection and discourse about teaching problems where there is a focus on getting things done. The communities adopt a blended learning approach which combines face-to-face and online activities.

What approaches have been used at other institutions?

3.       What are the mechanisms needed to actually implement change?
What structures need to be in place to promote the widespread adoption of technology in learning and teaching? What does the change programme actually involve? Are there tools and techniques we can adopt as a vehicle for change. For example:
  • Peter Reed (University of Liverpool) suggests a spine of core technologies used across the institution with, for example, baseline standards for the use of the VLE together with online assessment, lecture capture and ePortfolios
  •  Keith Smyth and colleagues at Edinburgh Napier University have developed the 3E Framework to support the meaningful incorporation of technology into learning, teaching and assessment
  • York St John University has published a Technology-Enhanced Learning Quality Framework (which incidentally is based on Edinburgh Napiers 3E Framework) which sets out minimum expectations in a university policy document which all members of staff are expected to adhere to.

What other mechanisms have been used, and how effective have they been?

Your views?
I would be really interested in hearing from colleagues at other institutions who have been through similar change programmes and have experience of implementing change. Please feel free to add your comments or contact me directly.

Authors note: I should stress that I am just a member of the Learning Futures team at the University of Westminster I am not leading the programme. I should also add that the views expressed above are my personal reflections, and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the University of Westminster.

  • Garrison, D. and Vaughan N. (2008) Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Garrison, D. & Vaughan, N., (2013) “Institutional change and leadership associated with blended learning innovation: Two case studies”, in Internet and Higher Education Vol. 18, July 2013
  • Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition [Online] Available from
  • Marshall, S(2010) 'Change, technology and higher education: are universities capable of organisational change?', Research in Learning Technology, 18: 3, 179 — 192
  • Wheeler, S. (2014a) The Survival of Higher Education (5): Recommendations
  • Wheeler, S. (2014b) The Survival of Higher Education (4) 5 Key Objectives