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Introducing e-learning – getting started

August 17th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The introduction of technology Enhanced Learning into institutions or the workplace implies change. This can be difficult to manage. senior and middle managers complain of resistance by staff to change. Many teachers I talk to would like to use more technology for tecahing and learning, but are frustrated by what they see as organisational inertia or the lack of management backing for change.

My colleague Jenny Hughes, has recently written a chapter called ‘Introducing e-Learning – getting started’ to be published in a forthcoming e-book series. The chapter looks at practical steps to introducing e-learning from the position of a senior manager, a junior manager and classroom teacher. As ever we would be grateful for your feedback on this first draft. Does it make sense to you?.

Introducing e-learning – getting started

If you want to introduce e-learning methods into your organisation the way you go about it will be largely determined by the position you hold. We have considered how you may approach it firstly as a senior manager (e.g Head of HRD or a VET school principal) then as a middle manager (e.g a training officer or section leader) and finally as a classroom teacher or trainer.

Senior manager

Before you even consider introducing e-learning, ask yourself why you are doing it – what problem are you trying to solve with it and what do you want to achieve?  Just as important, how will you know that it has been achieved? What are your targets? Over what time period?  Change needs to be measurable.  ‘Introducing e-learning’ is just not specific enough! Do you want to install a complete learning management system including computerized student / trainee tracking, a repository of materials and course content or would you be happy if a handful of creative teachers or trainers got together and started experimenting with social software tools?

  • Consult early and consult often – if you force change on people, problems normally arise.  You need to ask yourself which groups of people will be affected by your planned changes and involve them as early as possible. Check that these people agree with it, or at least understand the need for change and have a chance to decide how the change will be managed and to be involved in the planning and implementation. Use face-to-face communications wherever possible.
  • Try to see the picture from the perspective of each group and ask yourself how they are likely to react. For example, older staff may feel threatened and have no interest in adopting new technologies.  The staff who teach IT often consider that e-learning is really under their remit and resent the involvement of other staff in their ‘territory’.   Another very sensitive group will be your IT technicians. They can make or break your plans by claiming they ‘cannot support’ this or that and raising all sorts of security issues and other obstacles.
  • Although you may be enthusiastic about e-learning try not to be too zealous – this is not sustainable in the long term. The idea is to convey your enthusiasm and stimulate theirs rather than hard selling e-learning. If you do, people will nod their acceptance then completely disregard it thinking this is yet another of those initiatives that will go away in time. Change is usually unsettling, so the manager, logically, needs to be a settling influence not someone who wants to fire people up with his own passion thinking this will motivate them.
  • Think carefully about the time frame. If you think that you need to introduce e-learning quickly, probe the reasons – is the urgency real? Will the effects of agreeing a more sensible time-frame really be more disastrous than presiding over a disastrous change? Quick change prevents proper consultation and involvement, which leads to difficulties that take time to resolve.
  • Think about the scale. Are you going for a top down approach which may be standard across the institution and include a Learning Management System and a Learning Content Management System? Or are you going to stimulate small scale explorations in the classroom with a few interested teachers and try to grow e-learning organically?
  • Avoid expressions like ‘mindset change’, and ‘changing people’s mindsets’ or ‘changing attitudes’, because this language often indicates a tendency towards imposed or enforced change and it implies strongly that the organization believes that its people currently have the ‘wrong’ mindset.
  • Workshops, rather than mass presentations, are very useful processes to develop collective understanding, approaches, policies, methods, systems, ideas, etc.
  • Staff surveys are a helpful way to repair damage and mistrust among staff – provided you allow people to complete them anonymously, and provided you publish and act on the findings.
  • You cannot easily impose change – people and teams need to be empowered to find their own solutions and responses, with facilitation and support from managers. Management and leadership style and behaviour are more important than policy and sophisticated implementation  processes and. Employees need to be able to trust the organization.
  • Lead by example – set up a Facebook group as part of the consultation process, use a page on the organization website to keep people up to date with planned changes, use different media to communicate with staff, make a podcast of your key messages and publish it on YouTube

John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School has designed the following eight step model, which we think is really useful so we have included it in full.

  • Increase urgency – inspire people to move, make objectives real and relevant.
  • Build the guiding team – get the right people in place with the right emotional commitment, and the right mix of skills and levels.
  • Get the vision right – get the team to establish a simple vision and strategy, focus on emotional and creative aspects necessary to drive service and efficiency.
  • Communicate for buy-in – Involve as many people as possible, communicate the essentials, simply, and to appeal and respond to people’s needs. De-clutter communications – make technology work for you rather than against.
  • Empower action – Remove obstacles, enable constructive feedback and lots of support from leaders – reward and recognise progress and achievements.
  • Create short-term wins – Set aims that are easy to achieve – in bite-size chunks. Manageable numbers of initiatives. Finish current stages before starting new ones.
  • Don’t let up – Foster and encourage determination and persistence – ongoing change – encourage ongoing progress reporting – highlight achieved and future milestones.
  • Make change stick – Reinforce the value of successful change via recruitment, promotion, new change leaders. Weave change into culture.

Middle managers

As a middle manager, in some ways you are in the most difficult position if you want to introduce e-learning methods in your classrooms or workplace as you have to convince both those above you and below you. Convincing senior managers is usually fairly easy to start with if you present them with some concrete benefits of using e-learning in a specific context and tell them that in the first instance it will not cost anything. For example, telling management that you are going to get your first year building apprentices to set up a wiki around new materials or record their work experience on a blog and that there are no cost implications is very unthreatening whereas announcing that you are going to introduce e-learning across your department is going to raise all sorts of concerns.

The important thing is that once you have done something, share the success stories with your senior managers – get them to listen to the podcast your apprentices made or invite then to join your engineering students’ Facebook group.  This reassures them they made the right decision in allowing you to get on with it and actively engages them in the process. It is then much easier asking for extra money for a vid cam to improve on the audio podcasting than it would have been without any concrete outcomes.

A lot depends on how familiar your senior managers are with e-learning technologies and pedagogies and whether they are promoting it, indifferent or actively against the ideas.

If they are lacking in knowledge, one of your jobs is to educate them and the best way of doing this is to do some small scale stuff (such as the things suggested above) and show them the results. Make a clear, simple but well produced slide presentation explaining what you want to do and the benefits it will bring. Don’t send it to them as an email attachment – upload it to Slideshare and send them the link. In this way you are ‘training’ your managers in the use of e-learning –  don’t miss an opportunity!

If you do need extra resources, set out a clear proposal showing what is capital cost (such as hardware) and what is recurring revenue cost (such as broadband connection). Make sure you cost in EVERYTHING (see list above) – there is nothing designed to infuriate senior management as much as a proposal that is deliberately under-costed to increase its chances of approval then to find out after implementation has started there are extra costs which, if not met, waste the rest of the investment. Of course, this is true of any proposal but investment in e-learning seems particularly prone to escalating and ‘hidden’ costs.

When it comes to dealing with the people below you, the same rules apply as those set out for senior managers. To these we would add one or two specific ideas.

  • Begin with a grass roots approach
  • Start where you have most chance of success. – Find out who in your section or department is interested in e-learning or is confident about using ICT. Encourage and ‘grow’ these people and make sure you reward them in some way. (This could be a few hours non-contact time to develop some e-learning materials or chance to go to a training course, conference or visit. )
  • Talk about the successes at staff meetings.  Most people will see e-learning as yet more work for which there is no payback – you have to motivate them in some way.
  • Find a vocal group of beta testers
  • Don’t set strict rules – encourage exploration and experiment
  • Create opportunities for staff to look at e-learning being used effectively. This could be visits to other VET schools or training centres, (real or on-line), YouTube videos or practical training sessions – the best are those where they leave with e-learning ideas or materials or other products that they can use immediately in their classroom or work place.
  • Encourage staff to join in on-line forums or open meetings about e-learning. If they are not confident to start with, it is perfectly OK to ‘lurk’ in the background occasionally. is a good site for finding out about on-line events for trainers
  • Hold informal training sessions and encourage the use of microblogging as a back channel during training
  • Constantly monitor feedback and make changes as needed
  • Communicate the stories behind e-learning e.g How did social software start? What made Twitter happen? Will Facebook survive?

Teachers / trainers

If you are an individual teacher or trainer it can be very daunting trying to introduce e-learning into your teaching if you are working in an organisation where there is no experience or culture of e-learning. You cannot change this easily from your position. The best way of influencing things is to just try something out in your own classroom. You are definitely better starting off with some simple web 2.0 based activities as these have no cost implications. Choose this activity carefully – think of any objections that could be raised, however ridiculous. For example –

A Facebook group? – Facebook is banned or even firewalled because staff and trainees waste too much time on it.

A skype video interview between a group of apprentices and a skilled craftsman? – IT support section will not let you access Skype, (which uses a different port, which they will have closed and will not open for ‘security reasons’)

Sharing bookmarks using ? – the students will use it to share porn sites.

An audio podcast may be a good start if you have enough computers with built in mics and speakers or access to a mic and a recording device like an i-pod. Setting up a group wiki around a particular theme is also difficult to object to. Another possibility is to get trainees blogging (For detailed instructions on how to do all this, look at the Taccle handbook)

If you are lucky, you may find that your managers are just glad that someone is interested and give you the freedom to operate. There are very few who will actively prevent you as long as it does not cost them time or money, although you may find that some other staff have a negative attitude.

From this base you can gradually build up a small informal group of like-minded teachers to share ideas or swap materials.  A group of teachers will also have more influence. Make sure any positive outcomes are disseminated, preferably show casing trainees’ work.

One good way of doing this is to print out a list of guest log-ins and passwords to anything you are working on (e.g a wiki) or the url to web pages where your trainees are publishing work. Add a brief explanation and stick it on the wall as well as routinely sending it by email to other staff in your section ‘for information’. This has the double benefit of keeping what you are doing transparent and also makes some people curious enough to click on the hyperlink.

Invite other teachers along to your classroom when you know you will be using e-learning or invite them to drop in to your group meetings.

You will also need to introduce the idea of e-learning to your trainees.  Although many of the younger students will need no convincing, it can be difficult with older workers who may have a very fixed idea of what constitutes ‘training’ or ‘learning’.  Make sure that the first time you introduce a new application to a group that you allow enough time to explain how the technology works and time for them to familiarize themselves with it using a ‘test’ example before you start. For example…”let’s all try setting up a wiki about things to do with Christmas  / the World Cup / the best pubs in …” before you get onto the serious stuff.

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