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Collaboration Critical to Launching and Improving Technology-Enhanced Courses
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Collaboration Critical to Launching and Improving Technology-Enhanced Courses

Bringing together disparate arms of an institution is a major challenge, but the benefits of sharing operational best practices are endless.

Higher education institutions, by their very nature, foster what I call “pockets of excellence” in their various academic and administrative units. When it comes to leveraging existing or emerging technologies in their courses (for teaching or training), for instance, these units normally excel in specific areas, but not in all. Of course, one of the major problems many institutions run into is that every department tries to recreate the wheel, or to create one on its own.

To address this, we created a cross-departmental Online Learning Council at Drexel University. Early on, with broad-based representation in the Council, these pockets of excellence were identified and, over time, their elements discussed, shared and leveraged. At the outset, the Council had four focal points:

  1. Quality
  2. Scalability
  3. Retention
  4. Student support and engagement

As the larger group moved forward, it added subgroups focused on accessibility as well as communication. Further, the Council added an academic integrity subgroup to its Quality Committee. Currently, the Council has nearly 100 members representing every academic unit and many administrative ones at Drexel. Deepening and broadening the membership of the Council is an ongoing process.

Thus far, the most substantive contribution the Council has made was to illustrate its own worth in being a central place for sharing best practices, operational and otherwise. There were few venues at the University where this could happen at a practical, working level prior to the Council. Council members had many stories to tell their new colleagues and the ensuing collaboration was eye-opening for everyone. We quickly discovered that the Council’s work would positively impact those working on face-to-face (F2F), hybrid and online ones. This is to say, all could realize benefits from the Council’s work.

Some of the challenges to the Council’s success were rooted in siloed mentalities and hierarchical structures where resources, ideas, successes and experiences were both closely guarded and rarely shared. With 14 excellent colleges and schools, it is challenging to create any semblance of an institutional central focus. Some units had excellent online programs while others had none. A few departments were forerunners in the hybrid course space while others waited to enter. Still others had vibrant programs where technology-infused F2F courses were common, while other units used primarily traditional pedagogies in their F2F classes.

The open and frank discussions that permeated Council sessions broke down those barriers as practitioners became eager to share their success stories, highlight findings and initiatives and partner with representatives from within their units to expose them to these pockets of excellence to the advantage of all. Broad discussions turned into real, focused projects.

To date, the work products of the Council include conferences and symposia, guest speaker sessions, conference presentations and white papers, workshops and information sessions, along with objectively-administered course reviews and course design consultations. Specifically, there was a conference focused on assessment, a symposium focused on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), workshops on accessibility, demonstrations of applications that tackled cheating and academic integrity and information sessions on closed captioning technology. Many were highlighted in an annual report format, celebrating the progress and success of the Council. Currently, the Council is involved in planning a regional assessment conference for Fall 2014, as well as a joint Quality Matters – eLearning 3.0 conference in March 2015.

These outcomes are the result of coordinated leadership (and support) from the academic as well as administrative sides, an active and vibrant Council that has monthly meetings, committees that meet regularly on their focal points and create many of the above work products, and smaller working groups that put together self-serve online courses, meaningful and timely information sessions or more detailed workshops.

As the Council proceeded, a parallel effort ensued to get the University onto a single learning management system for the first time in its history. While another group took ownership of that roadmap, the Council uncovered ancillary technologies, licenses and pilot projects that often conflicted or overlapped. In some cases, two or three academic units were licensing the same product or application unbeknownst to the others. Over time, coordination (not control) of these more wasteful and inefficient practices proved to be both academically beneficial and fiscally responsible. Collaboration and engagement within the Council surfaced these issues and others that might well have continued uncoordinated and remained unnoticed otherwise. In one case, the University purchased an institution-wide site license for a product for the same price as three of its individual units had been paying. In two or three other cases, site licenses were funded and the benefits broadcast across the institution, where only a few units had been enjoying their benefits before.

More challenges and opportunities await the Council in 2014. The membership is being renewed, the committees recast and the project list expanded. Inclusion has been the watchword and when the myriad academic and administrative units participate in an active way — they can help lead the charge for collaboration, coordination and tangible outcomes that have and will continue to benefit the broader University community.

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2 Responses to Collaboration Critical to Launching and Improving Technology-Enhanced Courses

  1. Ryan Loche Reply

    2014/02/07 at 1:38 pm

    Technology standards should be set at the institutional level. I like Scheuermann’s point about there being “pockets of excellence;” in fact, I would say it’s more so “pockets of (tech) innovation.” However, today’s students expect there to be a certain standard of technology across their university experience — from easy online enrollment to lecture-capture technology to automated student record systems. There may always be a few departments that are more “cutting edge,” but all should meet a basic standard established by the institution that’s suitable for students’ needs.

  2. James Branden Reply

    2014/02/07 at 3:12 pm

    This piece presents a useful model for institutions to emulate. The council described here sounds like an effective overarching body but, at the same time, breaking it into subgroups allows it to function almost like a working group, where members can bring forward issues they’re dealing with in their own departments to receive advice and learn best practices.

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