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Transforming Institutions Through e-Learning

Christina Smart
Last modified 05 Nov, 2007
Published 05 Nov, 2007
Two years ago the Scottish Funding Council funded six projects with the aims of achieving “accelerated strategic change using e-learning”. These projects have now reached the end of their funded period. We spoke to Lou McGill the JISC programme manager for the e-Learning Transformation Programme about what the projects have achieved so far.


Back in 2005 The SFC funded six large scale projects (£6 million in total) to explore how to transform e-learning in institutions. The programme was a response to the 2003 report [1], [2] from the Scottish Funding Council’s e-learning working group which recommended that

“We should consider investing in collaborative, transformational e-learning developments from strategic funds”.

They also recommended that developments should be “driven by learning, not technology” and should occur within “a planned process of organisational development”.

Two years on these projects have reached the end of their funding, but the developments they have started will continue over the next few years. Each project has written a series of transformation stories to report the results and challenges thus far. We spoke to Lou McGill the programme manager for these projects about what it takes to achieve long term transformation of HE and FE institutions.

The projects:

The six e-Learning Transformation projects are:

  • TESEP – Transforming and Enhancing the Student Experience Through Pedagogy [3]
  • ISLE – Individualised Support for Learning Through e-Portfolios [4]
  • REAP – Re-Engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education [5]
  • e-Construction Transformation Project [6]
  • CELLS - Collaborative e-Learning in the Life Sciences [7]
  • BlendEd - Collaborative Transformation of Course Delivery [8]

The Interview

CS: Can we begin with an overview of the rationale behind the projects?

LMc: The SFC asked JISC to manage the programme on their behalf partly because the JISC has the mechanisms in place to manage large projects but also this ensures linkage into previous and current JISC work to make sure the projects build on lessons that have already been learned in those areas [9].

An external evaluation team (Glenaffric [10]) were also appointed to focus on programme level evaluation. The evaluation team also supported the projects through their own project level evaluation processes. Evaluation has been a significant element of these projects.

In terms of the rationale behind the programme, and this approach to funding e-learning developments in Scotland it follows the report in 2003 in which the Council’s e-Learning Working Group recommended that we should be thinking about learning and not technology [2]. It also concluded that economies of scale also require collaborative solutions and that strategic change requires re-engineering of institutional processes. The Group noted that as well as incremental change, which is happening all the time, what would be required is actually transformational change. They said transformational change requires a conscious decision made by one or a number of institutions to do something differently in a systematic way across the whole institution. That’s important because quite often development money goes to support projects in one small part of an institution, and then sustainability and support at an institutional level for these projects can become quite challenging. So this programme was aiming to engage the whole institution, and that’s what makes this programme really different and interesting.

CS: So can you tell us a bit about the different ways in which projects went about tackling that accelerated organisational change?

LMc: The scale of these projects had a significant impact on how they approached this task, as they all involved several institutions, some had as little as three, one project had as many as 11 partners. What that meant was that project teams had to consider how they were going to transform practice within each institution, where institutions had quite different cultures and different states of readiness. All of the projects spent a considerable amount of time at the beginning of their projects trying to understand the concept of transformation and what it meant to them. Projects needed a lot of support at the beginning to think about this and also how they would measure the impact of the changes that they had made.

CS: So was there an element of benchmarking then?

LMc: Yes, this programme started before the Higher Education Academy e-Learning Benchmarking Programme [11] but the need to establish base line measures meant that the work was happening in parallel to the work in England and Wales. There were several requirements on projects particularly that, although the funding was for two years, this kind of transformation would take much longer. Measurements would therefore need to be taken at the start of the projects, throughout the project and continue after the funded period. It was quite challenging for projects to decide what their base line data was going to be and each institution had to ensure that the evaluation and benchmarking approaches were appropriate to them.

What became apparent is that what is transformational for one institution may not be for another, it all depends on what their starting points are.

Some of the projects are focussing on the transition of learners into and through institutions (ISLE and TESEP). One project (REAP) took the approach of re-engineering their assessment practice and completely re-designed their courses in response. Their idea was that ‘we don’t just use technology to remodel what we’ve already done in the past – but we actually re-think way we’re assessing, and what we’re assessing and to use technology to support these new ways of thinking’.

Some of the projects took the approach of looking at developing and using resources to support learning (CELLS, BlendEd and eConstruction). These projects felt that collaborative content development would provide significant efficiency gains and contribute to transforming teaching and learning practice. These project teams developed an understanding of how they could change the way staff think about using resources in their teaching and how students might use those resources in their learning.

At least two of the projects focussed on students when they first come to university. The REAP project focussed on students in their first year, as they were conscious of the drop out rate in the first few months. The TESEP project also focussed on student induction throughout the first year.

In answer to your question, projects took a range of approaches and they all had to look at their institutional strategies and policies as a whole, looking at Teaching and Learning Strategies, e-learning strategies and IT strategies and make sure that those strategies supported the changes and developments that were taking place. They took a wide cross institutional approach looking broadly at all areas, including things like staff development and induction. The projects also had to think about the learner experience, how they were going to support students through these developments and to ensure that the key focus of benefit was to the learners.

CS: So for e-learning development projects these were quite radical because they were taking a holistic approach?

LMc: Yes, because the challenges of engaging the whole institution to undertake changes of this type is significant. As a result some of the projects have produced some really good resources for other institutions to help them think about how they might make transformational changes too. These are really important outputs for the whole programme, because we have a range of methods and models that the wider community can utilise to try and implement similar transformations in using technology to support learning, within their own institutional context.

Most projects took a very pedagogically led approach, so some developed new pedagogic frameworks and models. For example the REAP project developed a set of principles around learners and self regulation. The ISLE project further developed the Effective Learning Framework (ELF) around personal development planning. The TESEP project also developed a set of principles around developing pedagogy, and technology was not a key driver at all. The TESEP project was very much about developing people’s capabilities to make changes through their pedagogic practice. The project involved giving staff lots of support particularly because people sometimes have difficulties in articulating what they want to do with their teaching.

Many of the projects have developed excellent case studies in a variety of formats including videos etc which highlight some of the processes they’ve used and the changes in perceptions of the people who went through the processes.

CS: Like the e-Learning Programme the aim of these projects is to improve learning but the means was through technology, does that create any tensions within projects and institutions?

LMc: The usual tensions apply. I think because the programme was about the learning and not the technology, it was clear from the start what the focus was. But it meant that they had to engage with nitty gritty problems that all projects do. For example if there is a pedagogical need to do some collaborative group work which would be best supported by using social software rather than your institutional VLE, projects had to look at their IT strategies and revise them if they didn’t already allow the use of social software.

As institutions bid for these projects they needed senior management support and that was crucial because it empowered projects to address issues in different institutional strategies.

One issue that emerged was that of engaging middle managers, and this came up with the MLEs Programme as well. It is fairly easy to get senior managers to support changes at strategic level, and projects can get staff and student buy-in to new developments. But some times it’s the middle managers who have a lot of control over the resourcing of technologies and courses. A couple of projects identified ways to work with these middle managers, which is another really useful output for the wide community.

CS: What would you say have been the lessons learned so far?

LMc: It would be very difficult to summarise the lessons. “So far” is appropriate because the projects are still learning and the evaluation will continue. None of the projects feel that they are at an end and they all have a commitment to carry on and sustain the work they have begun.

The projects have been through a whole range of lessons learned. Some lessons are specific to the projects, and these are outlined in the individual transformation stories. There were also a lot of lessons learned around the production and use of content, re-thinking learning and teaching practice and also around personal development planning.

In terms of the lessons learned at a programme level we recognised that there is a huge value in working in a cross institution way, but that it requires a significant effort to do so, which is often really underestimated. Lessons learned during development projects are sometimes only appropriate in the context of a particular institution. Because these projects involved collaboration with varying institutions we saw how institutional differences can affect the potential for transformation and the kind of models you might adopt within your own institutional context.

CS: I guess when people or projects go through a process that is truly transformational the benefit to them will be far greater than the benefits or advice that can be passed on to others. In other words institutions need to embark on similar developments.

LMc: Absolutely. And when the SFC chose to invest their money into six projects as opposed to across all the institutions in the HE and FE sector, the understanding was that this will be of benefit to the whole sector. The SCF will now be focussing on how these resources, models and key messages around change can be used by those institutions which haven’t been through the process. Several of the projects have adopted a ‘communities of practice’ approach to widen the range of people who can engage with the outputs. This aims to enable practitioners who have been through the process and know how it feels to offer advice and support to others.

CS: What would you say remain the biggest challenges? And have novel ways of addressing these emerged?

LMc: Engaging middle managers remains a big challenge as I’ve already said.

Another big challenge remains in cultural differences between sectors. The e-Construction project is a really good example. Not only did they have partners from the education sector, they had very close links with employers and the construction industry’s training bodies.

They all faced the challenge of understanding “what is transformation?” and what it means to each group of people within an institution. Added to that is how to measure that transformation and evaluate the process.

Another challenge is how far you need to develop a common language. It’s about how you work across multidisciplinary teams, not a new challenge but still a difficult one to resolve. How do you develop a common understanding across institutions and sectors?

Of course these language barriers exist even in the projects dealing with a common discipline like the CELLS project which was developing materials for the life sciences. In that case the project was across HE and FE. In FE content sharing is more widespread because of the common curriculum whereas in HE there is less incentive to develop a culture of sharing.

In the area of content development several issues emerged which related to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and the SFC has organised an event in Scotland on the 31st October which will be attended by a whole range of agencies. The event aims to highlight the issues raised by the project and to find ways to move beyond the barriers and challenges to sharing.

CS: These projects had large scale funding, which was necessary for senior managers to “buy-in” to the process of accelerated strategic change. Does this mean that this sort of transformational change requires major investment by institutions?

LMc: Yes I think so, because we’re talking about a major time investment for staff. It takes a long time for staff to rethink practice and change practice, whether that’s course design or assessment approaches, and staff need additional support to be able to make these changes. For example the BlendEd project employed BlendEd Learning Technologists to support their practitioners to develop new materials and approaches. In the REAP project at Strathclyde University they re-engineered assessment in one course from each faculty, that meant staff required a lot of support both technically and pedagogically to do that.

We’ve known for some time that changing practice doesn’t give you more time, it just means you do different things with your time. In the TESEP project staff learned to use their time very differently, but were still just as busy.

CS: These projects were well funded, has that created problems for projects in terms of sustainability of project teams and momentum in the next phase?

LMc: It was acknowledged from the beginning that sustainability was a really important aspect of the programme. But by the very nature of taking an institutional approach you are going some steps towards creating sustainable models. If what you’re doing is enabling people throughout the institution to support a new way of learning, then there are lots of people who know about this new way of working. One example is the TESEP model was implemented in both an FE and an HE institution, but when the HE institution started thinking about a new build project they thought: “How does this support our TESEP principles?” That is sustainability in action.

Another example is from the BlendEd project where a lot of the colleges realised that they needed the BlendEd Learning Technologists, and those posts have since become permanent. The e-Construction Project has developed very close links with Learn Direct and Build which will ensure that their work will continue to be developed and disseminated.

CS: How will the work be taken forward over the next few years?

LMc: These projects were unusual because they were only funded for the first two years, but after that the project work will carry on, probably for the next four to five years. The kind of transformation we are talking about is long term. The impact on some of the aspects like student progression, student retention, student achievement, is only going to be significant in four or five year’s time. The base line measures that have been put in place will help to evaluate that.

CS: How will the long term impact of these projects be evaluated?

LMc: JISC is no longer supporting these projects and the SFC funding has finished. The evaluation team (Glenaffric) is due to do a final evaluation report this year. These projects were large and multi-institutional and the project management of these projects is significant and crucial. One risk is that at the end of the funded period those project managers are likely to move on. So the projects are now considering how they will co-ordinate evaluations across their partners when the project managers are now longer in post.

In terms of evaluation it is difficult to compare projects, because some projects have had impacts on students straight away, whereas others, have focussed to this point on content development so the impact on students wont be seen until these materials are being used with students. That’s why is essential to measure impact at different stages.

CS: Thank you Lou.


This set of projects has taken a very holistic approach to e-learning development. Each project has recognised that e-learning developments never take place in isolation and to achieve “accelerated strategic change using e-learning” institutions must provide models and resources to allow staff the freedom to think ‘outside the box’.

A report on the programme has now gone to the Scottish Funding Council and they will be considering the recommendations and how the resources and lessons learnt from these projects can be used by other institutions in Scotland and the UK more widely. The “Transformation stories” from each of the projects are now available on the JISC web site [9]. The evaluation report from the programme will be available at the end of the year.

The challenge for the future is two fold, firstly to maintain the momentum of change once funding finishes within the institutions involved in these projects. Secondly, to find the best (and most cost effective way) of using the models and resources produced in the programme to catalyse this sort of organisational change across Scottish and UK institutions.


[1] Introduction to the Scottish Funding Council eLearning Transformation Programme

[2] Joint SFEFC and SHEFC ELearning Group: Final Report

[3] TESEP Transforming and Enhancing the student Experience Through Pedagogy

[4] ISLE Individualised Support for Learning Through e-Portfolios

[5] REAP Re-Engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education

[6] eConstruction Transformation Project

[7] CELLS Collaborative e-Learning in the Life Sciences

[8] BlendEd Collaborative transformation of course delivery

[9] JISC site for the SFC eLearning Transformation Programme

[10] Glenaffric evaluation of the SFC eLearning Transformation Programme

[11] Higher Education Academy eLearning Benchmarking programme


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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