Creating a Culture of E-Learning Quality: The Case for Continuous Innovation – Dr. Susan Aldridge

Dr. Susan Aldridge, delivered this speech, titled “Creating a Culture of E-Learning Quality: The Case for Continuous Innovation”. It was delivered at Distance Learning Administration Conference 2014.

As e-learning continues to gain traction, distance administrators are under increasing pressure to ensure that it serves students well – both personally and professionally. In meeting the challenge, we will need to move the campus discussion beyond technology’s transactional value as a flexible medium for academic delivery, by focusing on its experiential value, as a transformative tool for active, authentic, and personalized learning. That will mean cultivating a culture of e-learning quality, which empowers us to create, capture, and deliver ever more effective approaches for technology-enhanced learning and teaching.
In her keynote, Dr. Aldridge will offer a practical framework for fostering this culture, grounded in a proactive process for continuous innovation that not only encourages new insights and collaborative experimentation, but also mobilizes campus resources and mission investment.

Thank you for that very warm welcome. I am indeed honored to be here in beautiful Jekyll Island, with such distinguished and accomplished colleagues. Like pioneers in any evolving field, you continue to blaze new trails in distance education…which have made it possible for your institutions to transcend the boundaries of time and space with high-quality academic and professional development opportunities.

And today, there are millions of students, in many parts of the world, who are beyond grateful for your tremendous innovation and unwavering commitment. Even in the face of what has often been at best, blatant disbelief…and at worst, scathing criticism.

In fact, here’s a true story from the annals of distance education about a talented woman named Genevra Webb-Conlee…who back in 1999 decided it was high time to finish the four-year degree she had started years earlier…but put on hold indefinitely to work full-time and raise a family.

So she began looking for a program that would somehow fit her busy lifestyle…which included a significant commute, a 10-hour workday, and occasional travel as the business development manager for an aerospace company in Virginia.

After researching her options, she came up with an online degree program that seemed like a good prospect…but her company refused outright to pay for because it wasn’t accredited. Undeterred, she started looking for one that was. Genevra’s search led her to a regionally accredited public university with an academically rigorous online degree program that met her criteria.

Gearing up to sell her managers on the idea…she prepared an exhaustive presentation in four, two-inch binders, complete with section tabs. And armed with this information, she headed into a marathon, two-hour meeting on the merits of online learning…ultimately emerging with a tenuous agreement.

Still determined to prove her point, Genevra went on from there to graduate three years later with an impressive 4.0 GPA…subsequently earned a master’s degree…and has since enjoyed enormous professional and personal success.

As we all can attest, traditional academics were even more resistant to e-learning than employers were back then…and at times, could be downright unpleasant.
Long-time faculty member and fellow distance pioneer, Scott Freehafer, ran into a real brick wall some years ago at a college where he once taught business education. After uploading major portions of his course into an online format…a move he saw as a real benefit for his students…he received a nasty rebuke from his boss about this bold initiative…pointing to, among other things, Scott’s “obvious propensity for deviant behavior.”

Needless to say, it didn’t take him long to pack up his laptop and move on to a more progressive campus environment at the University of Findlay in Ohio…where as an associate professor, he is still teaching graduate courses online…and with increasingly positive results, given both his enthusiasm and his expertise.
I’m sure that for most of you, these stories are hardly surprising. But I use them to show how much progress we’ve made since then…with employers, academic leaders, and students alike rapidly coming around to the idea that online and traditional education are indeed created equal.

For example, in an often quoted survey conducted by Excelsior College and Zogby International, eighty-three percent of the fifteen hundred business executives polled agreed that an online degree is every bit as credible as its campus-based counterpart, when provided by an accredited institution with a reputable academic brand.

Likewise, the Sloan Consortium’s 2013 Online Learning Report noted that nearly three-quarters of the academic leaders it surveyed…from among twenty-eight hundred colleges and universities…rated e-learning outcomes as the same or superior to those in the face-to-face classroom.

And let’s not forget the millions of students…both traditional and non-traditional…for whom digital technology is a way of life. To be sure, most of them rely on it almost exclusively for meeting their day-to-day information, entertainment, and communication needs…while many also see it as an indispensable tool for learning.

After polling three thousand undergraduates from nearly twelve hundred colleges and universities, the Educause Center for Applied Research found that students frequently favor and may actually learn more in technology-enhanced courses…citing such academic benefits as greater engagement…easier access to resources…and higher quality work.

No doubt, this shift in attitudes across the board has led to a steady uptick in the number of public and private institutions either entering the online market or expanding their share. And even among those that aren’t…a growing number of their faculty members are using digital technology in some form to complement the face-to-face learning experience.

But the e-learning boom is also being fueled in large part by the ever-increasing pressure on higher education to produce a measurably greater value on academic investment…in the face of rising student loan debt, shrinking public resources, and evolving workforce demands. Consequently, presidents, provosts, and trustees on campuses across the country are beginning to see technology as a magic bullet for reinventing their business models.

That’s why in making their case, far too many of these academic leaders are fixated on institutional survival…rather than focused on student success…out of their desire to teach more students with fewer resources, while rapidly uploading courses ahead of the competition. As a result, access and affordability are still driving the change in most schools…when quality should be taking the wheel.

Marketing professionals have long understood the critical role that quality plays as a brand differentiator in a highly competitive market like ours. To be sure, it is the benchmark of value…and our single greatest asset when it comes to attracting and retaining online students…who are far more likely to seek out and stick with academic options that provide a quality learning experience.

And while quality means different things to different people, you know you’ve achieved it when your students have acquired the knowledge, skills, and credentials they need to hit the ground running in a changing world and a changing workforce.

Indeed, to find and move ahead in a job, today’s graduates must be creative and critical, problem-solvers…who are able to think on their feet and out of the box as they tackle the increasingly complex and ambiguous challenges ahead. Likewise, they must have the capacity to reach beyond their own experience and expertise…to connect and collaborate across disciplines and viewpoints…cultures and generations.

Employers are also looking for self-directed learners, who have the capacity to discover and disseminate relevant knowledge, as well as the knack for synthesizing it across multiple modalities…which is why digital literacy and good communication skills are a must-have in the 21st century job market.

So as distance educators, we have a unique opportunity, as well as a real obligation to reframe the case for technology-enhanced education. Because after decades of research and practice, we have moved beyond technology’s transactional value as a medium of delivery…to embrace its experiential value as a transformative tool for providing a quality education as defined by today’s professional standards.

In fact, with the amazing array of digital technologies and techniques at our disposal…we have an extraordinary capacity to develop, evaluate, and refine the active, authentic, and customized learning experiences our students must have to succeed.

And given our considerable expertise, we also have both the credibility and the leverage to help our campus leaders harness these transformative tools…by creating a culture of quality that enables our institutions to forge new and better directions in technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

To be sure, cultural transformation of any kind requires a fundamental change in prevailing beliefs and behaviors. Or as organizational theorist Russell Ackoff once wrote…a different world-view rooted in a new reality.

Yet as technology-enhanced education continues making its way into the mainstream of higher learning, it is becoming the new reality on college campuses everywhere…as an integral part of the academic fabric. Which means that as experienced distance educators, we can play an essential role in cultivating a different world-view…predicated on quality.

In seeding the change, it’s always good to define an effective process for innovation…and not the disruptive kind that continues to feed the emphasis on transactional value. I’m talking about a very different approach that is first and foremost intentional from the standpoint that it begins with the outcome in mind and works purposefully to achieve it….which means that it is responsive, rather than reactive.

This process is also inclusive because it engages everyone who has an investment in that outcome…from campus administrators and trustees…to faculty, staff, and students. And it’s above all continuous in that innovation doesn’t end with implementation only to start up again when the next big idea or challenge comes along.
Of course, egos and emotions often get in the way of real innovation…especially in higher ed where those egos and emotions belong to a lot of very smart people who are used to operating in certain ways. And this barrier is especially difficult to hurdle in schools where the virtual campus is distinctly separate from the physical one.

Therefore, in building support for quality innovation, we can all take a leaf from Thomas Edison’s book. In describing Edison’s approach, Andrew Hardagon at UC Davis wrote that the great inventor worked hard to create the future from the best pieces of the past that he could find and use…combining existing ideas in new ways to bridge old worlds and build new ones around the innovations that he saw as a result.

For our purposes, this composting strategy helps mobilize campus commitment and talent around merging the best of both worlds…online and face-to-face…in the service of effective teaching and learning.

Under this scenario, president, provosts, and deans assume the role of quality evangelists, who then empower their faculty, staff, and students to create a safe and open environment for mutual support and collaborative experimentation…rooted in the credo that all ideas are on the table and every voice will be heard.
In my experience, open and equitable dialogue…facilitates valuable and ongoing discovery…by enabling campus community members to define concerns, address impediments, and examine alternatives from within a broader context or systems perspective. So like Edison, we have the ability to see emerging patterns that lead to creative solutions.

Equally important, participatory communication such as this encourages both individual and collective ownership of the innovation process itself…which is essential if we ever hope to fully close the chasm between online and in-person that still exists in far too many institutions.

Composting also encourages everyone involved to think about quality improvement as a journey, rather than a destination…with the explicit goal of creating, capturing, and delivering progressively greater value on academic investment.

But before the journey begins, we need to develop a realistic blueprint for innovation…that is strategic and evidence-based…measurable and adaptive…with well-articulated goals and objectives. As such, it should reflect the values, as well as the circumstances that drive both the school’s mission and its students’ personal and professional needs…while taking into account external variables…such as the regulatory environment or the economic climate…that might have an impact on progress.

We must also have a clearly defined framework for implementing this blueprint. And given the nature of continuous quality improvement…design-thinking is a powerful choice…because it focuses everyone squarely on the student experience.

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Creating a Culture of E-Learning Quality:  The Case for Continuous Innovation

For starters, design-thinking is actually more mindset than method…in that it exploits the process of design to inspire fresh perspectives and novel approaches, while also paving the way for a culture of quality.

Consequently, every member of the campus community becomes a designer…invested in building, piloting, evaluating, and refining new and better forms of technology-enhanced teaching and learning. And by working in self-organizing teams, from within and across campus disciplines and functions, they have an even greater capacity for real innovation.

Likewise, this approach enables us to think big, start small, and scale as we go, by orchestrating short cycles of rapid iteration…and using continuous student feedback to add value with each successive round. So over time, campus stakeholders come to think of technology as more of an experiential tool than a transactional medium for meeting academic objectives and supporting student success.

Here’s a really good example of this from within the ranks of my own university.

For years now, budding trial lawyers have had the experiential learning advantage of moot courts and mock trials for mastering litigation skills. On the other hand, their transactional counterparts have been expected to learn the art of negotiation by reading textbooks and listening to lectures.

At least until one of our law professors at Drexel…Karl Okamoto…donned his design hat and created LawMeets…a “moot court” experience for emerging transactional attorneys, who want to practice and perfect their deal-making skills. Although Karl originally launched his brainchild as an in-person competition, he gradually realized that it might have an even greater educational impact in the online environment.

So working with a team of fellow designers, he created an interactive website that law students across the country are now using to post videos of themselves counseling “clients” which are peer-reviewed through a digital voting device. Top-rated performances are then evaluated by a cadre of seasoned practicing attorneys, who furnish a demonstration video of their own, as well.

Of course, given the dearth of experiential learning opportunities in this area of legal education, Karl’s colleagues in other law schools have enthusiastically incorporated these technology-enhanced exercises into their own classroom activities, with excellent results. And like any good designer, he has since added value to his original innovation…by developing a MOOC that combines LawMeets simulations with short vodcasts from some of the best legal minds in the country.

This open online course has received rave reviews from students, who overwhelmingly agree that the challenges are realistic, and the experience, worthwhile…citing the unique opportunity to connect online with recognized experts in their field. Inspired by the response, Karl is now gradually expanding his course roster.
Design thinking also encourages us to learn and adapt…quickly and effectively…which makes this framework highly compatible with our mission as educators. In fact, it can be a powerful, hands-on learning experience for students to use in developing career-relevant skills….as well as a great way to get them actively involved in the quality improvement process.

Several years ago, Utah State University put students in the driver’s seat of innovation when it launched a student-led, expert-supported design project on its campus…aimed at finding fresh new approaches for supporting student success…from enrollment all the way through graduation.

This unique, yearlong studio course attracted 15 students of different ages, backgrounds, and disciplines…from international studies…to language pathology…to crop science…who self-organized into four teams…where as one student put it, they “quickly learned to play to each other’s strengths and make the most of their combined abilities.”

After framing the challenge, the next step was to research current practices for supporting student success…with the goal of identifying both how and why they were failing to hit the mark. That meant interviewing and collaborating with fellow students and prospective employers, as well as campus experts from a variety of relevant areas like academic advising, career development, and administrative services.

Using this data, they brainstormed a myriad of ideas for improving the student experience…which resulted in a succession of prototypes to test and refine. And with each iteration, they were able to capture, create, and deliver the unique value their campus peers were looking for.

After months of trial and error, these student designers emerged with an effective solution. A user-friendly, Web-based “one-stop shopping” service delivery portal, which is not only seamless, but can also be customized to meet each student’s evolving personal, strategic, academic, and financial objectives.
And in the process, they mastered a number of critical workforce skills, including adaptive thinking and creative problem-solving…collaborative design and data-driven decision-making.

The university also learned its own important lesson. By empowering students to play a leading role in the quality improvement process, it could ensure an educational experience that was as meaningful for them as it was relevant to their success. What’s more, by knowing what works and what doesn’t from the student perspective, its leadership team was in a far better position to allocate precious institutional resources.

Of course, quality learning begins and ends with quality teaching. So in addition to student success, we should also be focused on faculty success in the technology-enhanced environment. That will mean working with our campus leaders to design, deliver, and continuously improve faculty development experiences that support quality instruction.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee embraced this challenge head-on when it began making the transition to hybrid teaching and learning more than a decade ago.
The idea was to provide a multi-faceted training program that would enable faculty members to rethink and redesign their courses…while creating student-centered learning activities that effectively incorporated online and face-to-face components. Faculty also needed to learn effective skills for managing online interaction…in addition to new methods of learning assessment.

With all of these objectives in mind, the university not only researched the burgeoning literature, but also looked at similar efforts around the country. And after synthesizing all of this information, it designed, evaluated, and modified as necessary a hybrid faculty development model that could be easily deployed into a variety of academic program areas.

This model is grounded in experiential learning through hands-on assignments, group discussion, and individual reflection. Modules are taught in the hybrid format, which intersperses face-to-face workshops with online learning activities.

As a result, instructors get to experience a hybrid course from the perspective of their students…an important first step in quality teaching. There are also ample opportunities for emerging hybrid faculty to work with their more seasoned peers…as a way to reinforce new skills and share promising practices.

Of course, you have all had a hand in realigning the attitudes and principles; norms and practices that have traditionally driven the academic enterprise. And conferences such as this one offer an extraordinary opportunity for us to build even stronger pipelines for innovation and investment…by disseminating groundbreaking research…exploring creative solutions…and forging robust coalitions.

So as we move into the future of higher education…I have no doubt that your remarkable work will set the bar for high-quality, technology-enhanced education that is as customized as it is authentic…engaging as it is transformative. Because when our students succeed…we all succeed.