DiigoNotes - Project Managing Strategic e-Learning Development Processes in a Large, Campus-Based University

    • Mary-Helen Ward, Sandra West, Mary Peat and Susan Atkinson
      VOL. 24, No. 1, 21 - 42

    • The way that e-learning is managed at the university has been described in an earlier paper by Ellis, Jarkey, Mahoney, Peat & Sheely (2007): they detail how the play between the strategic direction of the university and the learning and teaching goals within the faculties determines the shape of e-learning that then supports student learning.

    • The purpose of this paper is to describe how project management principles are applied to support strategic project-based collaborations between e-learning specialists and small teams of academics to create learning activities that are aligned with the learning outcomes of students.

      • Project management principles are intrinsic to the approach used on these strategic projects. In brief, the process includes:
        • an extended application and planning period, in which committees of academics represent faculties and help to articulate and prioritise projects over a six-month period followed by a conceptual planning process lasting from three to seven months (involving a project manager and academic staff)
        • a project development process lasting up to nine months (involving project manager, academic staff and educational designer/s)
        • a learning and evaluation period during which the students experience the e-learning activities.

    • provide a shared experience that helps to foster teamwork, dissemination of ideas and networking of teaching practitioners both within and across faculties.

    • The traditionally understood role of ‘non-academic support staff’ is changing within the modern university (Housego, 2002).

    • Project managers work closely with academics, developing the pedagogical underpinning of each project, suggesting technical solutions and negotiating with the academic to determine project workload and establish realistic project time frames. The team’s educational designers continue to liaise closely with the academic as the project is developed, and the evaluation and consequent tweaking of resources after students have used them is built into the project’s scoping process.

    • It can be a challenge to create new teams with members who each have specialised knowledge, and who require a shared understanding of how their skills and strengths interact most effectively (Caplan, 2004, pp. 186-187).

    • uncertainty about roles in multidisciplinary e-learning teams; both disciplinary specialists and educational designers reported difficulty in understanding what the other team members’ roles might encompass. Discipline specialists viewed their own roles as including “’coming up with ideas to put online’, ‘showing the best way to teach content in my discipline’ and ‘fostering creativity in the team’

    • Educational designers saw their roles as “’to provide specific information and content’, ‘provide good examples’, ‘ensure that project outcomes are met’, ‘provide technical and educational expertise’, and as an ‘agent of change by promoting new ways of looking at old problems’”(p. 738).

    • It is expected that each representative will raise faculty awareness of current university e-learning strategies, support the dissemination of e-learning operational information (deadlines, events, etc.) and maintain their involvement with regular e-learning cluster and working group meetings

    • Academics initiate a project through an application (in conjunction with the faculty representative); they provide the academic content during the project development phase of the cycle; and they oversee the evaluation (in conjunction with the project manager and the cluster director).

    • The project manager is responsible for the quality assurance of the development processes. S/he prepares, organizes, ensures completion of and sometimes maintains 12-15 strategic projects within each cluster every year. Their first contact with the academic applicant will usually be as much as a year before the development phase is commenced, and on the basis of ongoing discussion in that period the project is shaped and its size and scope determined. The importance of documentary tools to ensure that all team members are as clear as possible about the scope and limits of the project are emphasised by Hurst and Thomas (2004) and once development has commenced it is the project manager who ensures that deadlines are being met and satisfactory progress is being made, according to the Letter of Agreement and scoping documentation. The project manager is responsible for all project documentation and reporting, including assembling and distribution of applications for ranking by the faculty representatives, and may sometimes be involved in evaluation of project outcomes and on-going maintenance of the resources created within the project's development phase.

    • Educational designers are allocated to project teams on a contingent basis. Each semester the project managers negotiate the skills they require for each project in context of the available educational designers. For example, if a project requires substantial graphical work, an educational designer with expertise in graphic software packages will become part of the team.

    • A cluster director works closely with the faculty representatives to develop e-learning awareness and strategies within the cluster and with the Director of Sydney eLearning to ensure congruence with university-level strategy. S/he also works closely with the project managers, advising and consulting on the progress of both current and future projects. A cluster director's experience in academic culture can be an especially useful aid in supporting a project manager when complex academic issues need to be resolved. They also play a key strategic role in their work with the faculty representatives on the selection of projects for the following year.

    • The purpose of the e-learning development cycle is to integrate innovative educational design into the curricular planning of faculties .The staged approach to the e-learning project management process allows it to extend over a two to three year period, but also to integrate with the teaching semesters of the University. Writing about the experience of incorporating eLearning into a university's teaching, Alexander (2001) points out that “Teachers' planning of learning experiences…is strongly underpinned by their thinking about what learning means.” (p. 244).

    • Stage 1: Project Selection

    • fostering and facilitation of nascent projects in the consultation process that takes place in the selection of the projects to be undertaken in the following year.

    • This extended period allows both academics and project managers to conceptualise the intended educational outcomes of the project in quite a detailed way. This is not to say that the project 's final form is always clear at this stage; this is usually decided once the educational designer becomes involved the following year. However, appropriate pedagogical principles, broad outcomes and curriculum design are often clarified in discussion during this period.

    • The selection process involves two formal written applications: the expression of interest and the formal application. Pro formas are provided for both of these, and academics are encouraged to submit drafts to the project manager and/or their faculty representative for comment.
      The expression of interest (usually no more than a page) asks the academic-in-charge for a brief description of what they would like assistance with and the aims of the project, the perceived benefits, and some details about the breadth of its application and which of the universities' strategic teaching goals it addresses, along with any key timeframe issues. These preliminary proposals are discussed at a meeting of faculty representatives, the cluster director and the e-learning project manager.

      • Table 1: Details Sought in Final Application (Expression of Interest)
        • Project title and description
        • Perceived benefits
        • Alignment with strategic e-learning objectives the university has identified
        • Alignment with university and/or faculty learning and teaching strategic plans
        • Resources required, other aid applied for, time and/or expertise faculty can devote
        • Listing of other issues that will assist in ranking, e.g., large classes, pre-existing resources
        • Date completed resource required
        • Additional information

    • From the time an academic makes their first enquiry, they are supported and assisted by their faculty representative and project manager, through ongoing discussions that help to shape the final application.

    • One common outcome of this part of the process is that academics report that they have become much more aware of the pedagogical basis for their teaching—what has been implicit in their transfer of disciplinary knowledge has now become explicit for them and for some has provided a language that is facilitating other discussions of learning and teaching matters within faculties.

    • Project selection is essentially a 'bottom-up' process: individuals are assisted to articulate their own teaching needs and align these with disciplinary pedagogical practice and university strategic policy, without pressure or involvement at the level of either faculty management or university management more widely (cf McMurray, 2001). The case that McMurray describes is one in which project management principles were used in a way that conflicted with the academic organisational culture; our choice has been to use them to support and foster teaching culture in faculties. Each e-learning project is generated by an academic, who is responsible for providing the academic content for the educational designer to create the resource. The autonomy of individual academics is not limited by this process—on the contrary they are supported to reach their self-defined teaching goals.

    • greater efforts are now made to be as transparent as possible about the process for allocating educational designers to teams, and the scoping document (discussed below) now includes very clear listings of the responsibility of each team member, along with the deadlines for content provision that are decided with academics as soon as the project has been approved for resource creation some months hence.

    • some projects are not effectively completed because of shifting academic interest and commitment.

    • “Sometimes the trick is simply to assign an initial responsibility, and then trade it off as necessary”

    • Stage 2: Project Development

    • Where projects have not been completed as planned it is commonly related either to the circumstances of the academic (change of employment or teaching allocation), or where a better solution than we were able to offer has been found (this frequently relates to advances in web-based technologies that we are not able to support).

    • Stage 3: Evaluation

      • Common evaluation questions for this stage of the process include:
        1. what were the main two or three things you learned in your course (your main course outcomes)?
        2. What was the relationship between the key outcomes of your course and the e-learning activities you engaged in?
        3. To what extent do you think the e-learning activities helped you understand the main outcomes of your course?
        4. How did you approach your e-learning activities in your course? What did you do and why?

    • Kenny (2004) suggests that “When independent professionals such as academics and teachers are involved in an innovative project, the project management process needs to support practices that enable professional growth and learning.” (p. 390).

    • There are two key risks for our e-learning projects: either that the project is not completed in time and thus may never be completed, or that it is completed but does not meet the original aims or desired outcomes.

      • Some factors that could allow this to happen are:
        • insufficient material/content
        • insufficient or untimely feedback, resulting in delays in finalising work
        • timelines not adhered to
        • misunderstanding of team members as to what is required from them
        • misunderstanding of team members as to what it is possible to achieve through a project
        • unanticipated technical complexity arising during the project.

      • risk is managed by:
        • conceptual planning: as detailed above, several months of discussion takes place between individual academics and e-learning staff before the project is articulated for peer review
        • consultation: committee of academic peers (the faculty representatives and cluster director) discuss each project at least twice before approval is given and hours are allotted
        • detailed planning, initially by the project manager and later by educational designers, with the academic-in-charge, leading to
        • documentation, including a clear scoping document, giving details of who is expected to do what when, followed by
        • close supervision of educational designers by project manager, time tracking of project and continuing discussion with academic-in-charge
        • flexibility as far as possible within and between cluster teams to meet unexpected contingencies.

    • Sample Project Plan for Project Period 1
      Time Frame
      Brief Description of Task/Milestone
      Task 1 End April PM* and ED** meet to discuss project AiC*** and PM
      Milestone 1 Mid May All content has been provided to PM & ED AiC

    • Sample Risk Analysis for Project Period 1
      Time Frame
      Potential Risk
      Potential Impact
      Mid May 1. All content provided to ED AiC*** Some content delayed Med High Project scope may need to be reduced

    • Sample Communication Plan for Project Period 1
      Time Frame
      Communication Mode
      Late April Meeting AiC***, ED**, PM* Project planning
      Mid May Meeting AiC, ED, PM Project initiation; review
      milestone 1
      Late May Meeting AiC, ED, PM Review milestone 2
      Early June email From PM to AiC Confirm progess and review
      completion date
      Late June Meeting AiC, ED, PM Review milestones 3 and 4;
      Project review and sign-off of development phase
      * e-learning project manager ** educational designer *** academic-in-charge

      • project managers submit a written fortnightly internal report on all cluster projects (read by the e-learning operations manager who is thus monitoring overall project progressions), which is available for later auditing and analysis
      • project managers also write a detailed report at the end of each project period, covering all issues that have arisen in the projects, which is used in external reporting

      • letters of agreement and scoping documents formalise agreements about who will do what when - and also what will not be done in this project
      • educational designer sign-offs, which record agreement to the approach to be used in the project and lessen the risk of educational designers exceeding their brief.

    • The project manager and educational designer agree to and sign of on the approach that will be used to implement the project goals in the development and training phases of the project process.

    • The project management process has to be embedded within the organisational planning processes and in tune with the natural rhythms of the organisation. The support of senior management is important and can be demonstrated by the provision of adequate resources based on a thorough project scoping process prior to a decision to proceed. (403).

    • Mary-Helen Ward is the eLearning Project Manager for Sciences and Technology at the University of Sydney. E-Mail: mhward@usyd.edu.au

      Sandra West is an Associate Professor of Clinical Nursing at the University of Sydney, and also eLearning Cluster Director for Health Sciences, University of Sydney. E-Mail: swest@usyd.edu.au

      Mary Peat Mary Peat is the eLearning Cluster Director for Sciences and Technology at the University of Sydney. E-Mail: m.peat@usyd.edu.au

      Susan Atkinson is the eLearning Project Manager for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.he conception of the project and in the alignment of the project to the university's policy framework. E-Mail: satk0541@usyd.edu.au

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