DiigoNotes - Harnessing the Power of Technologies to Manage Collaborative e-Learning



    • Authors: Maree V. Gosper, Margot A. McNeill and Karen Woo
      VOL. 24, No. 1, 167 - 186

    • Many universities have invested substantial resources in sophisticated, fully integrated campus-wide IT infrastructure, not only to meet existing educational requirements but also to provide opportunities for future innovation in learning and teaching. In establishing this infrastructure, it is not unusual for the focus of development activity to be on ensuring the robustness and security of the technology, often to the detriment of support for staff and students in using the technologies for learning and teaching purposes (Burnett & Meadmore, 2002). The introduction of web-based lecture technologies (WBLT) into universities has often reflected such a pattern.

    • WBLT refer to a range of technologies used for digitally recording face-to-face lectures for web delivery and are essentially a one-way medium of communication well suited to the delivery of lecture content in close to real time.

    • The technologies have had a rapid uptake at many universities in response to student demands for increased flexibility in combining their study, work and family commitments (Phillips et al., 2007).

    • Research on web-based lectures has tended to focus on the technology itself (Bittencourt & Carr 2001, Day et al. 2004) and had provided little insight to its effective use as a learning and teaching tool.

    • Data was collected from a variety of sources: two project team self-reflection exercises; observations through attendance at project team meetings (both face-to-face and online); a content review of project documentation; unstructured discussions with both project team and reference group members; and individual surveys of the project team members, institutional sponsors and the reference group members covering process, outcomes, products and communication.

      • Three factors were identified as critical to the success of the project (Carter, 2008):
        1. Team Dynamics—some team members were previously well acquainted, they all got on well together, they had complementary skill sets and a shared and strong commitment to the Project aims;
        2. Communication Mechanisms—there was a good mix of face-to-face (funded and unfunded), online (e.g., Live Classroom) and asynchronous (e.g., Moodle) discussions;
        3. Management/Leadership—there was a clearly articulated aim, a commitment to project management principles, a strong project leader, an experienced project manager and a good focus on outcomes/dissemination.

    • 1. Initiating the Project

    • Critical to the success of the project was availability of an experienced project manager.

    • Research undertaken to establish the determinants of successful projects (Kirschner et al., 2004) found that an overwhelming majority (97%) of the successful projects had an experienced project manager at the helm. Part of this experience involved recognizing the need to implement sound project management strategies, define roles and responsibilities, systematically monitor performance and finish in time and on budget.

    • From these clear project objectives, a realistic set of deliverables was articulated as part of the project proposal and this then drove much of the subsequent decision-making in the planning stage.

    • 2. Planning

    • As well as identifying project activities, timelines, milestones for delivery of outputs and critical stages for review, the team took particular care to plan for collaboration and dissemination activities.

    • All but one of the team members had worked with other members in various ways. In effect, this shortened the team's orientation period that usually accompanies any team work project and allowed the team to move quickly into the work at hand in an efficient manner (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977).

    • key factor in planning for an effective team approach was the ability to budget for collaborative activities including travel, accommodation and refreshments.

    • Some of the successful strategies were:

    • to enable systematic reporting to maintain the profile of the project and its outcomes beyond the participating universities

    • Gaining sector level sponsorship

    • Selecting reference group members for their potential to contribute to the development of the project, as well as their capacity to disseminate findings across the sector. Members were invited to several face-to-face meetings as well as telephone and web conferences during the project and contributed feedback on various stages throughout;

    • Utilising networks that members of the project team had established with professional organizations

    • to provide opportunities for presentations and updates on progress and outcomes

    • Addressing capacity building imperatives through the inclusion of recommendations for policy, practice and professional development as outcomes;

    • Including discipline-based project teams undertaking action research in their own context in the research methodology to extend the project activities beyond the team and open further avenues of influence;

    • Selecting a project team from diverse locations which increased the opportunities available for presentations at local forums at no cost to the project.

    • a communication plan to disseminate the project's findings to key stakeholders was developed. After each major data collection and analysis phase, the team wrote at least one conference or journal paper. This strategy proved effective in encouraging the documentation, analysis and synthesis at each stage and lead to a number of refereed conference papers and journal articles. It also heightened awareness in the sector, which led to members of the project team being invited to present at a number of universities and requests from other universities to use the survey instruments and project resources.

    • Due to the challenges of working across three time zones and the impracticalities (both cost and time) of regular face-to-face meeting, it was decided from the initial planning phase to employ technologies to facilitate communication.

    • A comprehensive communication strategy for maintaining contact in the dispersed environment was developed, making extensive use of online collaboration tools and a project team website created using Moodle.

    • The online collaboration tools, Elluminate and Wimba's Live Classroom enabled the project team to conduct its regular meetings online. Both technologies were used at different times to support audio synchronous conversations and also enable the team to share project documents and digital resources using the virtual whiteboard. The synchronous nature on interactions added a human touch that can be missed with email.

    • The project team website became the project team's virtual 'head-office'.

    • The site was password protected and its access was limited to the team members, the reference group and the project evaluator. It provided a centralised place for tracking the project's development and served as a repository for outputs. The site was used to store all project documentation; meeting agendas and minutes, periodic progress reports, publications, presentation slides, along with records of disseminations activities and project management processes. With team members being distributed across Australia, having an easily accessible, secure site for documents was essential.

    • Day-to-day communication was also channeled through the web site. The discussion forum had the capacity to deliver new postings to the members' regular work-based email inboxes. This saved the team members from logging into the site regularly to check for updates. As such, it was instrumental in facilitating instant feedback and at the same time providing a central space for storing interactions between team members, keeping them transparent and also providing an ongoing record of decisions.

    • At first, the wiki was used for documenting all the formal and informal dissemination as part of the communication plan. This was proven to be effective because members were able to log in and add their latest activity at any time. Unlike a discussion forum or email list, the wiki kept all the activities in one page so the list was always readily available and version control issues were avoided. The wiki grew quickly and at the various stages of the project when reporting was required, the project manager was able to look at the wiki and get a complete list of the dissemination activities to date.

    • While the wiki was effective in capturing the dissemination activities, it was less successful when the team trialed it for collaborative authoring on publication drafts.

    • A separate public website was also established to include static information about the project plans, team members, progress against milestones and the publications.

    • Managing a collaborative project across four universities in three states required careful monitoring of both process and outcomes which was aided by the risk management approach adopted by the project team, another success factor identified in the literature (Kirschner et al., 2004).

    • The use of technologies to capture reflections and many of the project activities was invaluable in monitoring progress. The project team, evaluator and reference group all had full access to all the project documentation, record of discussions, minutes of meetings, research instruments, communications and dissemination plans and outputs that were lodged on the project team's website. Each month a project report was sent to the team members, evaluator and reference group members, followed by an online meeting to discuss issues. Online meetings were recorded and made available to the evaluator, the reference group and team members through the website. Having access to both the outputs and a record of the process enabled everyone to keep in close touch with the project.

      • Based on project management stages, the key points to emerge include: Initiation
        • The project has clearly defined aims and outcomes aligned with strategic agendas; and
        • A diverse and experienced team has been chosen and works collaboratively to conceptualise and scope the project and its outcomes.
        Planning
        • Ways of measuring the success of the project are clearly stated as outcomes, with a realistic plan for achieving them;
        • The true implications of collaboration are factored into project plans, timelines and budgets;
        • Communication strategies have been developed to keep stakeholders informed and engaged; and
        • Strategies for effective and ongoing dissemination of outcomes are embedded in project activities.

      • Execution
        • Collaborative tools and processes for regular communication across the project team have been agreed;
        • A realistic timeline has been agreed with room to cater for the unexpected;
        • Flexibility has been built in to plans to allow for collaboration across diverse contexts, for example differences in the academic cycles of universities (semester dates, exams, ethics requirements); and
        • External stakeholders are kept informed of progress.
        Monitoring
        • Known risks to the success of the project have been identified and planned for;
        • Strategies are in place to proactively identify and manage unforeseen situations; and
        • Processes for monitoring progress have been agreed and critical points have been identified for formative feedback.
        Closure
        • Realistic timeframes have been factored in for finalizing administrative; arrangements and developing and fine tuning the project report and other the final report and other artifacts; and
        • Points for critical reflection have been built in to all stages of the project to enable lessons to be shared.

    • technologies played a major part in contributing to the success of this project: facilitating regular communication to support the synergies available when team members with diverse skills and perspectives combine their efforts; overcoming distance as a barrier to collaboration; maintaining communication with a wide range of stakeholders and capturing the day-to-day operations during the project.

    • Maree Gosper is the Director of Technologies in Learning and Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Learning and Teaching Centre, Macquarie University. She has a particular interest in the integration of technologies into the curriculum and academic practice, as well as the development of organisational capacity surrounding their use. E-Mail: maree.gosper@mq.edu.au

      Margot McNeill is a lecturer in Higher Education Development at Macquarie University's Learning and Teaching Centre. Her research interests include educational technologies, curriculum design and innovative assessment practices. E-Mail: margot.mcneill@mq.edu.au

      Karen Woo is a program research and development officer at the Learning and Teaching Centre at Macquarie University with an interest in technologies in learning and teaching in higher education. E-Mail: karen.woo@mq.edu.au

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