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HEA/JISC e-Learning Benchmarking and Pathfinder Programmes build capacity and understanding in UK Institutions

Christina Smart
Last modified 13 Oct, 2008
Published 13 Oct, 2008
Last month the HEA and JISC published their report on the three year Benchmarking and Pathfinder Programmes. Using resources released from the UKeU, and guided by the 2005 HEFCE Strategy for e-Learning, the Programmes helped teams in 77 institutions to adopt methodologies to assess their e-learning maturity (benchmark) and teams in 36 of those institutions to strategically plan future e-learning developments (pathfinder).

The report by Terry Mayes, Jane Plenderleith and Veronica Adamson provides a well written and optimistic summary of the approach, methodologies and recommendations of the Benchmarking and Pathfinder programmes. Below is a brief summary of their report.

The Benchmarking Programme

The Benchmarking Programme began with a pilot phase of 12 institutions in January 2006. Two further phases followed which completed in July 2008. The authors observe that it was clear from the beginning of the Programme that the variety and diversity of universities in the UK meant that a single benchmarking methodology would not be appropriate. As a result five methodologies were offered to institutions:

  • ELTI (Embedding Learning Technologies Institutionally)
  • eMM (e-Learning Maturity Model)
  • Pick&Mix (developed by Professor Paul Bacsich)
  • MIT90s (developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s)
  • OBHE/ACU (Observatory for Borderless Higher Education/Association of Commonwealth Universities)

The two key drivers for institutional participation in the Programme were firstly to explore the extent to which e-learning approaches were in use across the institution, but also to "measure performance in the e-learning domain in relation to the rest of the sector through rigorous and recognised processes". While the Programme has gone some way to satisfying the first driver, the Programme was not able to produce e-learning league tables of UK universities. Mayes, Plenderleith and Adamson remark that the use of multiple methodologies was a significant barrier to the production of such a sector wide benchmark, but also assert:

"The benchmarking exercise has therefore been characterised and to some extent driven by two important and potentially conflicting assumptions – on the one hand that the results of institutional benchmarking should remain confidential to the institution and those with whom it chooses to share, and on the other that the programme will succeed in revealing the state of e-learning across the sector."

The authors also argue that benchmarking is something of a misnomer for the Programme which was in fact more a process of institutional self review and facilitate reflection.

Many institutions reported that a major benefit of participation in the Programme was to raise awareness of e-learning to both senior management and academic staff. However limited timescales for the exercise were an issue for some institutions, as were problems with restructuring and changing staff roles.

The Pathfinder Programme

The report notes that Institutions which went on to the Pathfinder Programme in general used the exercise to consolidate rather than innovate, in other words they built on perceived areas of weakness rather than on areas of strength, with a particular focus on reconfiguring internal processes to work better. A number of these institutions have gained significant backing from senior management and have put in place regular benchmarking reviews even after the funded period has ended. Pathfinder institutions established steering groups with the involvement of senior managers as well as critical friends.

Among the key messages of the programme is the importance of building on relationships within organisations, and focusing on transforming people rather than technology innovation. With institutions focussing on building capacity in the ability to implement and redesign higher level teaching and learning processes within institutions.

Central to both Programmes was the establishment of peer clusters which created a safe environment for institutions to share their problems and solutions. Dedicated consultants and critical friends were also a very important source of advice and guidance. The authors stress that these consultants and critical friends were crucial to the success of both Programmes.

Greater Technological Choice

Having spent eight years in an institutional e-learning support role in the past I was mightily encouraged by a quote in the report from the De Montfort University Pathfinder project:

"Almost imperceptibly it appears that institutional maturity for the uptake of e-learning has moved beyond the assurance that all modules are using an institutional VLE for baseline communication and information-sharing with students, to a position where innovation in approaches and technologies can address enhancement strategies."

This signals a move towards greater understanding of the role technology can play in supporting teaching and learning. With the explosion of social software tools and mash-ups academics and tutors now have access to a greater choice of tools allowing them to be more creative in their use of technology and not be restrained by the sometimes limited functionality offered by enterprise VLEs. This trend towards greater technological choice is also reflected in the recently published UCISA Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK by Browne, Hewitt, Jenkins and Walker

What benchmarking seems to offer institutions through the "sometimes painful process of self-review" is an opportunity to better understand e-learning use and developments in their organisation. The report notes:

"All of the institutions report real benefits from participating, and the project reports contain a message of significant progress in understanding e-learning processes, practice and provision. There is a sense of growing confidence about the use of technology for learning and teaching, and a much deeper understanding of the issues for institutional policy."

There are obvious parallels here with the adoption of SOA or Enterprise Architecture approaches within institutions. At the recent IMS summit SOA discussion participants noted that the process of mapping institutional IT systems and modelling business processes leads to a better collective understanding of how the organisation works, and is one of the most valuable outcomes of the exercise.

The HEA/JISC e-Learning Benchmarking and Pathfinder Programme report represents a significant body of work which can’t be represented in this article. There are further details of the institutions involved and the methodologies they used as well as summaries of the work undertaken by the Pathfinder projects.

The full report is essential reading for anyone involved in e-learning in the UK HE and FE sectors.

More information the HEA/JISC Benchmarking and Pathfinder Programmes are available from the HEA web site

Via Derek Morrison and Phil Barker


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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