E-learning isn’t new, but many educational organisations still have a long way to go before they can say that it is an integral part of their everyday practice. Strategic and practical commitment from all levels of management is essential. But maybe we also need to reconsider how we can best support and encourage our teachers to embrace the changes (and challenges) that implementing e-learning can bring.
I believe the first step in re-thinking our approach is to understand how the needs of individual teachers (or even groups of teachers) may vary. Perhaps surprisingly, I have found that the types of support teachers need depends not so much on their current IT skills, or even on the number of technologies they have used in the past, but on their attitude towards the adoption of technology (or e-learning) in their work.
Consider these four groups of teachers:
- Innovative adopters – people who have advanced IT skills and who are always on the look-out for new technologies and new ways to use existing technologies. They are comfortable with risk and uncertainty and enjoy figuring things out for themselves. They look outside of the organisation for inspiration and need support to ‘test out’ their ideas at work.
- Enthusiastic adopters – people who have successfully implemented e-learning technologies in the past and are open to embracing more technology if they think it will help them to achieve high standards in their work. They like to have guidelines to follow and are keen to participate in workshops and up-skilling sessions that are directly (and immediately) relevant to them.
- Cautious adopters – people who are risk-averse and sceptical about new e-learning technologies and how they can be used in their work. They like to see that something has been done successfully by others before they will consider trying it themselves. They need the encouragement, and hands-on support, of their peers and supervisors.
- Reluctant adopters – people who are hesitant about using e-learning technologies in their work. They may have tried and failed in the past. They will need proportionately more support than any other adopter group to try again.
Each of these groups has quite different needs, so just providing traditional training in ‘how to use’ the latest e-learning tools is unlikely to engage many (if any) of these teachers. Instead we need to offer a range of support services and then allow our teachers to choose the services that meet their specific needs.
But how do we know which support services we should offer? My research suggests that we should start by looking at five key areas:
- Developing advocates (or champions) – both cautious and reluctant adopters prefer to rely on the support and encouragement of their peers, rather than on outsiders. So advocates are critical to us successfully embedding e-learning. As an organisation we need to proactively identify potential advocates (people who are seen as credible, trustworthy and competent by their peers) and work with them to develop and then share their e-learning skills and knowledge with others.
- Developing networks – teachers are usually members of a number of informal professional networks, generally in their teaching section or at their local campus. They use these networks to share information, ideas, tools and skills. But because the people they feel most comfortable with also tend to share their attitude towards e-learning, it can be difficult for new ideas and new ways of working to extend beyond small ‘pockets of innovation’. So as an organisation we need to provide opportunities for teachers to develop links with people outside of their normal circles. This will allow the cross-pollination of ideas and the sharing of a wider range of experiences and skills.
- Providing training – while standardised training that is simply rolled-out is unlikely to be effective, training is still a critical part of successfully embedding e-learning. Ideally training needs to be customised and delivered on a just-in-time and just-for-you basis. But most importantly, the focus of any training needs to be on enhancing teaching and learning, and not on the technology itself.
- Providing solutions – the best catalyst for change is having a problem that needs to be solved. So we need to work with teachers to identify which e-learning solutions can help to solve their current teaching and learning challenges. This may include sourcing existing e-learning resources or developing new e-learning resources with, or for, our teachers. We also need to provide support to overcome any difficulties teachers experience during the implementation of these solutions.
- Communicating and promoting – unless teachers know about and understand the benefits of e-learning, they aren’t likely to be motivated to implement it or even to learn more about it. So we need to take a marketing and promotional role to inform and inspire our teachers. We always need to be careful that the information we distribute, and the terminology we use, is tailored to the different adopter groups.
At TAFE Illawarra we have developed a Support Framework that identifies specific strategies for each of the adopter types in each of these five key areas. It is a great starting point for organisations looking to develop a holistic approach to supporting their teachers to embed e-learning in their day-to-day practice.
If you would like to read more and get a copy of the TAFE Illawarra Support Framework, download ‘Supporting teachers to embed flexible learning technologies in their teaching practice: a case study‘.
This paper was written by Tracey as part of the 2012 NCVER Building Researcher Capacity Community of Practice Scholarship Program and was published in 2013.
Image CC (by Blake Patterson)