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Paul Bailey's reflections on e-learning

Jane Plenderleith and Veronica Adamson
Last modified 25 Mar, 2006
Published 25 Mar, 2006
Paul Bailey left his post as director of the JISC e-Learning Programme at the end of March 06 to pursue a different life. Glenaffric talked to him about his experiences, his views on educational technology developments in further and higher education, and his vision for the future of the e-Learning Programme.

In early March 2006, after around six years in the JISC development team, Paul Bailey left his post as director of the JISC e-Learning Programme to pursue a different life. Those who worked closely with Paul recognised that in his head there was a wealth of insight into the scope, content and overall vision for the ongoing development of the JISC e-Learning Programme, and that it might be a good idea to capture that in some way before he left.

On a cold February day in London, Paul gave an in-depth interview to Veronica Adamson and Jane Plenderleith of Glenaffric Ltd, who have worked with Paul and other members of the development team for a number of years. The conversation took place over several hours in two different but equally challenging locations, the basement café of a professional engineering institute and the doorway of a minute, draughty coffee shop.

Paul talked about the things in his time with JISC that had given him most satisfaction, and the things that he felt had been less successful than he had hoped. The discussion covered a wide range of issues from the evolving understanding of the role of formative evaluation and synthesising lessons for JISC programmes, to the significance of interoperability at the very core of JISC development activities. The need for a strong, shared vision and understanding across the various strands of the e-Learning Programme was highlighted, and Paul had some candid and insightful views on the challenging, exciting but often quite uncomfortable position at the leading edge of technnology developments in the sector.

The following account of the discussion has been edited for brevity and sensitivity.

Looking back over your time with JISC, what are you most pleased about?

There are a number of things we introduced in the MLEs for Lifelong Learning Programme that some of my colleagues were quite resistant about at the time. I wanted to open up the box of my programme and form a kind of management group of external consultants, which was an approach we had not used before in development programmes. Now the provision for ongoing support and evaluation is integral to the CSR(Comprehensive Spending Review) programme planning, so I think I must have won the critics over. We have consultants supporting all the various strands of the e-Learning Programme. The new Design for Learning Programme has integrated its support and evaluation provision from the start.

Do you think the development group has a clearer idea now of what it expects from programme evaluation?

JISC is increasingly required to demonstrate accountability for the funding it receives and allocates. The kind of formative evaluation we have developed is recognised and quite well established now, and the new programme management methodology emphasises this approach. There is a real need for ongoing formative feedback within a programme to inform its ongoing direction and maximise its success. Now there is an interest in synthesising lessons, outputs and processes that takes forward the kind of approaches to formative evaluation we have developed.

Are there things that you are less happy about?

Well, we have tried a lot of ideas over the years and not all of them have worked as well as we might have hoped. Some of the initial e-Learning Programme ideas were perhaps too ambitious. Some of the things we were trying to achieve were good in principle, but didn’t work in practice, maybe because people were just not ready for them, or misunderstood what we were trying to do.

I have learned a lot about how things happen, or not. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to do it like this’ and expect it to work exactly as you want it to. Quite rightly, people in the sector influence so much of what we are able to do and what comes out of developments.

The original vision for the e-Learning Programme was quite clear, but maybe we have not yet managed to pull it all together as well as we hoped. People think the DEL funding skewed things, but actually it enabled us to put things in place to pull the whole programme together. But because we had to spend so much time developing DEL, some of the rest of the programme got sidelined and some developments started to go in a particular direction without necessarily remaining integrated with the core e-learning vision.

Programme managers need to be able to balance their own autonomy with a focus on developments across the team and the programme. JISC’s distributed way of working means the team has to work hard to maintain a shared understanding of goals and approaches. Different people in the team do different things and have different priorities that are all fundamentally important and shape what we do. What is really important is maintaining a clear overview of where these things all fit in the bigger picture and vision for the programme.

Way back in our MLE (Managed Learning Environment) developments we held fast to the idea that we really wanted to move the standards agenda forward. To a large extent we have got there with MLEs for Lifelong Learning. The models have been refined, the reference model work is starting to surface key issues and approaches. At the same time, the standards agenda has been kept alive for the e-learning and pedagogy strand. Now the user environments stuff is gathering information about what the users really do. So there is somewhere now for the pedagogy developments to go in the wider context of the programme.

We need not to get hung up on a tension between learning and teaching processes on the one hand, and technical implementation on the other. The programme needs to bring these together in a coherent whole. Really achieving the vision for JISC e-learning development depends on interoperability, but often this gets pushed back out of the way because it’s challenging, both technically and in terms of the culture in the sector. But interoperability is at the very heart of what JISC does.

Do you think there is still a job to be done to get that message across?

We are putting stuff together to inform the staff development agenda, but that doesn’t really push us forward far enough. We need to work closely with the HE Academy and other key agencies to ensure that this work is co-ordinated and meaningful for the sector. If you work at the practitioner level you are working with the critical mass. Raising their level of awareness and causing them to push for things to happen will help development work into the mainstream. For me, the big question at the moment is – does JISC drive or follow? You have to work on all these fronts at once, winning the hearts and minds, and pushing the boundaries. That way you can get progress as well as buy in.

What is proving successful with current programmes and what are the main challenges?

I think there are two big challenges at the moment. The first is the size and scope of the e Learning Programme. Someone needs to have a clear vision for the whole programme and be able to bring all the various strands and personalities together to share and work towards that vision. There is a lot of work on user analysis and scenario development that will move things forward on the basis of good intelligence and sound research methodologies. This could be a quite flexible and sensible approach as long as it doesn’t fall into the trap of just doing lots of bits of things in different areas, hoping that some of them will develop into bigger things that can be built on and taken forward.

The second big challenge is the level of strategic awareness that is needed and the amount of negotiation that takes place at a high level. The scale and complexity of the strategic context for the e-Learning Programme is quite daunting. We need to keep on top of strategic developments in e-learning policy and the key players in all the UK countries as well as the European agenda, and other international developments. Developing effective strategic liaison is quite a resource overhead for the development team, but it is essential to the success of the overall programme. It is important that projects are able to see the bigger picture of where their developments fit in the wider context of the programme, including building on what has gone before. We need to push the idea that we fund people to take part in a programme, not just to do a project that they have a particular interest in. Sometimes it’s hard for projects to realise that they are involved in something that may not be directly relevant to their institutions at that time. Managing expectations is a real issue, and dealing with the slow processes of institutional time.

Where do you think developments should go next? What are the hot topics of today, the issues of tomorrow?

The vision for e-learning that JISC is working for is actually pretty close to what the government agendas propose, with the focus on the individual learner and personalisation, moving away from institutional control. The e-Learning Programme has lots of potential for offering social technologies and personal services, exploring the boundaries of how we can make these services really work for people. There is a place for that, and a place for looking at how new models and how technologies fit in.

User environments developments should be future-looking. We mustn’t get stuck in the here and now and lose the impetus to move things forward.

Do you think moving things forward mean a balance between doing more of the same in different contexts, or discovering new things we don’t yet understand?

There are concerns in some places at the moment that the e-assessment agenda is really about implementing paper-based assessment electronically instead of trying to move to a new form of assessment linked to changing learning and teaching processes. We are trying to encourage the use of technology to effect quite radical changes in the way learning and teaching happens in institutions.

Developments in e-portfolio may inform big longer term issues for the sector, including potential moves for academic qualification based on exit profile rather than degree classification. Another key area is that we need to unpack is what we really mean by a personalised learning environment, and how individualised can learning realistically be.

To what extent do you think JISC is a victim of fashions in the development world? (portals, MLEs, e-portfolios, PLEs, mobile technologies…) Fundamentally, does JISC drive the development agenda, or respond to identified needs?

This is a Catch 22 but if we are a victim of fashion, it is through the committees. It is their vision that informs and channels the developments we try to put in place, and they need people who can really support that vision. We have to look at what users are doing with technology, and evaluate the developments we engage in with users. The key question is whether the technology implementation is having a real benefit or not in the sector.

How can JISC balance responding to the various demands of policy, technology drivers and user requirements?

This is a key element now in how programmes are designed. To a large extent we can be more directive in terms of what we want. We can specify that we want to build a demonstrator for a particular function, where before our programme objectives were about exploring various areas or issues. But there is an overlying concern about how long people will listen to the e-framework standards argument. We need to start to see tangible benefits from the work CETIS have been doing for years now to sell the standards agenda.

The developments with UCAS have huge potential for institutions to see beyond their own systems to the potential benefits of interoperable data transfer with other institutions and agencies. A service-oriented approach gets round the problem because it is focused on services that use the standards, not the standards themselves. We need to do more to encourage projects to share their developments and ideas with one another.


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