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An interview with the new Director of the e-Learning Programme

Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 24 Jul, 2006
Published 24 Jul, 2006
Tish Roberts has recently taken over as Programme Director of the e-Learning Programme. This seemed an opportune moment to interview Tish about how she sees the next phase of the programme.

I began by asking Tish about her perspective on the work of the programme so far.

You are now assuming the challenging role of Programme Director for the e-Learning Programme, but you have been involved in the JISC Development Team for many years as a Programme Manager. What do you think have been the main strengths of the programme so far?

I think the good thing about the programme is its breadth - its aims and objectives are pretty broad and wide and are about advising and guiding the community on the use of e-learning. And it’s trying to tackle things at a number of levels including practice, institutional level, policy level etc.

This question of breadth could be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view – we have a huge variety of learners to consider, a huge variety of institutions and organisations are involved in the process of delivery, and this involves a wide range of different skills levels and approaches - so we do have to be broad in our approach.

I think the programme has been taking a very interesting approach in how it’s been looking at the technical dimension, and in its attempts to look at the supporting infrastructure and the use of technology in the e-learning process. It’s been innovative in terms of typical JISC projects and has been building on the experience of what does and doesn’t work. It’s been moving away from developing large applications and solutions to looking at developing small components and tools and seeing how they work together, this has been a response to the criticisms that have arisen from the widescale use of VLEs over the last few years.

We’ve learnt lessons and have taken notice of them and are genuinely building on our experience. We haven’t got it perfect, and haven’t reached the ultimate goal of plug and play interoperability and beautifully ‘metadata-ed’ content but I think we’re getting closer.

In terms of technologyis that your vision?

I see the goal as the user having technology available to meet their needs, not having to adapt to fit the technology, and technology that genuinely supports learning and research in a better way. There is so much for us to explore and discover, and ways we can use the technology that we can’t foresee at the moment – we need to realise the potential and promise it offers. At the moment it’s often stifling, difficult, expensive and wasteful.

I know it’s also about culture change and the people side of things, and I don’t divorce that in any way. I do want to remind the world that JISC’s focus is that ‘we’re JANET’, and people are using our network for mission critical things, and what we are trying to do in the e-Learning Programme is to enhance the use of that network and take on some of the risk for institutions so that they can always be focussed on the use of technology to support learning, teaching and research. Of course we do work that is concerned with practitioners, providing advice and so on, and as part of that we work with existing bodies, services and associations who have a remit in terms of practitioner and skill development, such as the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).

How do you see the next phase of the e-Learning Programme?

There is a need to get a balance between developing technology and demonstrating it in the community, and then providing help in terms of skills development, culture change and helping institutions and practitioners to look at the potential. So the next phase of the programme will involve more of the same with mixed levels of activity. At the highest level there will be development projects both within and between institutions, and we will carry on with focussed technical development projects and reference models, and try to get better links between them all which is one of the things we want to see happen.

We want to present the e-Learning Programme in a way that makes sense to the broader community. Although the funding comes from different sources which can be confusing for the community, we need to work on how to present the Programme in a coherent way that is not related to the funding source. We are trying to organise what we are doing along themed areas that the community can understand some of which are focussed on areas like e-assessment or e-portfolio, and others which are more cross-cutting like technology and standards, e-administration, aspects of teaching and learning, and the policies and strategies that we have to respond to. But the major focus is the use of technology in teaching and learning and we need to continue to develop the links between the core technology development and pedagogical work. This aspect is incredibly difficult, because it involves bringing completely different views of the world together but we think it’s important and the committee wants us to work on it.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

There are some things we have no control over, including the pressures of funding, and the question of trying to maintain coherence with the whole thing as we’ve discussed. There are sometimes rapid changes in levels of funding, certain areas of focus are highlighted by strategies from the Funding Councils, there are demands from the community, and very short time periods within which to deliver a programme of activity.

One of our worries is saturating the community with projects so that there are fewer people available to do the key jobs, and the effect this might have on quality. There is an issue around capacity and only a limited pool of people at the moment. This means that one of the aims of the activities we fund is to develop capacity, but the worry is that this is difficult, and we have to take it into account when managing projects.

To what extent is the development of capacity a primary aim of the projects?

The development of skills and expertise used to be a positive but unintended consequence, but all our evaluation studies pointed this out as a benefit so we now recognise this as an output we should aim for and embrace as an objective. We do skills development but of a different sort, it’s not about how to use a VLE but is about things like systems integration and project management.

The risk of this approach is that whilst people may be learning through the project, it may affect the quality of a technical product at the end of the project?

We aim to have a balanced portfolio of projects, these will include some which involve experienced people with a track record, but they will all have started somewhere. We have a huge number of projects at the moment, so we need to get a balance of people involved, some with a good track record who will build on that area and who are skills and domain experts, but we also want, and need, new people and institutions, and we want to encourage new institutions to join in.

We want to get a balance between ‘old hands’ and more high risk projects with people who don’t have a track record with us, it may be the first time they are doing something in this area, but they have a good idea, they really want to do it, and it aligns closely with their institutional strategy. We would like to have a greater spread of projects geographically, institutionally and across themes.

We are involved in a balancing act between taking risks for the community, engaging in exploration and research, and delivering something concrete.

If you had to characterise the main issues that people are confronted with in mid-2006 what would they be?

Well, a major pain point for institutions is still the lack of interoperability between systems – things not linking, duplication, the frustration that technology promises so much but is still so difficult to use or incorporate. At the same time technology promises so much, there’s the development of the web that means that people at home can do their banking, book flights and so on, yet when we go into our institution we sometimes can’t even change our name and address or get a list of students.

Also people in the community feel that they are confronted with more bureaucracy and yet the technology doesn’t seem to be making that any easier, and theoretically that’s exactly what it’s for. It’s meant to automate and take over those incredibly boring processes, and yet people feel ‘how come I’ve still got them all?’

Does it go back to some of the fundamental lessons learnt in the MLE programme about the need to rethink business processes etc?

We’re now in a transition and it can feel like the worst of both worlds

What other issues?

Lifelong Learning is already a pain point, institutions thinking they own the student and all the information about them. They see themselves as the gateway to all the resources and information.

There are some big agendas such as e-portfolio and e-assessment which are being pushed hard by HEFCE and the DfES through their e-Learning strategies. They are one of our stakeholder groups, and part of our remit as an advisory committee is to work with them and advise them on what experience is telling us. We can bring in our experts and advise on what a certain development might mean for the local, national and international contexts.

How do you see the next couple of years?

We think we’ve been doing lots of good work in the area of open standards, we’ve been very proactive and been involved in piloting specifications and standards that come out of various bodies, and we want to carry on with more of this work and look at the best way of doing it.

I also think we should focus on demonstrating the value of the service oriented approach, and the benefits this can offer for large scale, effective and flexible implementations and how it can support some of the key activities such as e-assessment, e-portfolio, and help us with handling content and learning flow and so on.

We have got to put some effective demonstrators together that tackle issues to make people’s lives easier, and the student experience better. Improving the administrative side can contribute to this as well as the pedagogic dimension.

We have a fundamental faith in the idea that ICT can improve the learning experience, and we know a lot more than we did and we’re learning more every day. We feel we’re now in a much stronger position to support the community to deliver the long awaited promise that ICT can help improve learning and teaching.


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