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Collaborations as Channel for Innovative Practices

Collaborations as Channel for Innovative Practices

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Published by leeyiksheng
Paper presented at AACE Global Learn 2010
Paper presented at AACE Global Learn 2010

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Published by: leeyiksheng on May 17, 2010
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10/24/2010

Collaborations as Channel for Innovative Practices

Lee Yik Sheng Communication & Information Technology Centre Tunku Abdul Rahman College leeys@mail.tarc.edu.my Piong Teck Wah Communication & Information Technology Centre Tunku Abdul Rahman College piongtw@mail.tarc.edu.my

Abstract: Institutional implementation of e-learning normally engages various topdown strategies to promote its adoption amongst academic staff. These strategies are effective in bringing in the majority of the faculty to adopt e-learning. However, there still exists a chasm between its potential and its actual usage. The reason being the affordances of technology are not completely utilized to attain pedagogical changes. The majority of the adopters are using e-learning to replicate existing practices. Collaborative works between learning technologists and the academic staff could bridge this pedagogical chasm. These collaborations occur through informal social networks where both parties are mutually engaged in an enterprise to innovate on the existing use of technology. The outcome of the collaborations depends greatly on the intensity of the mutual engagements between the collaborators. Successful collaborations are able to bridge silos that exist between departments in an environment where inter-departmental politics could easily stifle such developments.

Introduction
In popular literature, technology is touted to change the field of education (Christensen, Johnson, & Horn, 2008). Some even go as far as to mention an entire generation (Tapscott, 2009). Significant changes resulting from mass collaboration through the use of technology are often highlighted (Tapscott & William, 2008; Shirky, 2009). Web 2.0 and cloud computing have become ubiquitous terms even amongst educators. Therefore, it is of no surprise that institutions of higher learning on a global scale have embarked on some form of e-learning initiatives. This is usually associated with the deployment of a learning management system (Becta, 2008) or any other systems with connotative terms e.g. virtual learning environment, course management system, etc. Various organizational strategies are set to promote the adoption of e-learning by the faculty staff and usually these top-down approaches are able to draw in the majority to implement the institutionally supported e-learning system in their existing teaching practices. These strategies include having an overall objective on technology-supported teaching and learning for the organization, funding for implementation, encouragement from senior and departmental management, centralized support through the formation of a learning centre, curriculum and course redevelopment, academic development via events, trainings and workshops to develop essential skills, etc. (Nichols, 2008). However, it is well-documented that there is a chasm between the potential offered by the use of technology, and its actual usage for the enhancement of teaching and learning practices (Elgort, 2005; McNaught, Lam, Keing, & Fai Cheng, 2006). Studies show that faculty staff frequently duplicate their existing practices based on an information transfer pedagogical model to their e-learning environment. The kind of positive disruptive changes promised in popular literature seldom materialize in the environment of higher learning institutions. As a result, the current state of affairs remains and the potential of pedagogical change through technological innovations is stunted (Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006). Top-down organizational strategies mentioned above are able to promote mass

adoption, but are less effective in developing and sustaining innovative changes to pedagogical practices amongst the faculty members.

The Study
Some studies have shown that building a community of inquiry or practice is able to fill the existing gap that other formal methods of staff development have left vacant i.e. seminars, workshops, training, etc. (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). Intra and inter-departmental collaborative efforts through formal or informal social networks are considered more likely to produce innovations and bring about changes to pedagogical practices (Kezar & Lester, 2009). Communities of practice are even considered as human agency for knowledge management and innovation (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002; Foray, 2006; Reimann, 2008). Engagement or collaboration between support staff, i.e. learning technologists, with academic staff in the form of a community of practice increases the potential to develop effective implementation of e-learning (Oliver, 2002; Oliver, 2005). This is due to the multidisciplinary nature of e-learning initiatives where a collaborative approach by a team of staff drawn from various departments across an institution is deemed adequate to meet this requirement (Conole, Smith, & White, 2007). This study is a practitioner action research that looks into such possibilities and ascertains the results of collaborative works on the use of e-learning. It asks the question of if collaborations are more likely to influence change, how does the change occur and what are the reasons? It also provides answers to the question of factors that spur or hinder the growth of collaborative efforts. The action research is carried out by a learning technologist with multiple faculty members from different departments. The collaborations take place in an environment where interdepartmental politics greatly discourage such efforts. There is no formal support for such collaborative efforts and participation is solely motivated by personal interest to make e-learning work more effectively for both students and staff. The goal is to change the way technology is being used and to introduce new ideas on how the institutional learning management system could be implemented to support pedagogical models that encourage collaborative, reflective and active learning. Data is collected using multiple methods to build living histories (Roth & Kleiner, 1995) as daily practices at workplace are seldom straightforward or routine especially when it involves parties from different departments. Findings extrapolated from the data are presented as different case studies below. Action research allows the learning technologist to learn from each cycle of implementation and to make adjustments to improve on the previous execution (Friedman, 2001; Oliver, Roberts, et al., 2007).

Findings
This study is represented by four case studies of collaborative works involving different academic staff. The cases are compared to identify similarities and differences in terms of results achieved and processes involved. Case Study 1 This collaboration started initially as a service to provide user support to the academic staff in developing animated learning materials for online delivery through the learning management system. The learning technologist later proposed to revamp the user interface for delivering the learning materials to encourage students to explore supplementary web resources. The purpose was to expose them to multiple perspectives of a similar topic. The user interface also served to encourage the students to discuss with their peers and their teacher on topics which they were learning. Therefore, the learning materials were designed and packaged as learning activities which the students could interact with together with their peers and teacher. Survey results showed that the students were generally positive towards the redesigned learning materials. This collaboration indeed produced some innovative utilization of technology to match the pedagogical goal of promoting active and cooperative learning amongst the students. Nevertheless, the collaboration did not progress beyond this initial stage of development. This could be due to the lack of mutual engagement between the collaborators to jointly share and develop more innovative practices that match the intended pedagogical model. The collaboration could have been perceived merely as some form of user support where the role of the learning technologist was to provide the technical service to develop the learning materials and the academic staff was to become the consumer of such service. There might have been a lack of

sense of ownership to continue the development of the innovative features introduced earlier. The collaboration was further strained by new responsibilities for the academic staff after her appointment as the divisional head. Case Study 2 This collaboration started quite similarly to Case Study 1 above. The provision of user support was the initial point of contact. Through the provision of technical services, the learning technologist was able to establish a working relationship with the academic staff. This allowed the learning technologist to propose a blended learning model to integrate online learning activities with conventional classroom activities. Classroom teaching and discussions were extended to the virtual learning environment using online forums. Learning materials were packaged within these learning activities with the inclusion of additional web resources and relevant web tools. The students were to participate in the online forums after each week of classes. The goal was to encourage the students to take the initiatives to learn on their own with their peers and be more responsible for their learning experience. The collaboration has succeeded in introducing changes to the norm of using the e-learning system solely for content delivery and information circulation. However, the students and the academic staff felt that they have been overburdened with the learning activities online. Consequently, this led to a reduction of the number of learning activities made available online in the following cycle of implementation. The pattern of service provider and consumer seen in previous case study resurfaced. The learning technologist often felt that he was bearing all the weight of responsibility in sustaining the collaboration and continue with the development of innovative activities using technology. The collaboration came to a halt when the academic staff involved furthered her studies in the UK. Case Study 3 The third collaboration began quite incidentally as the learning technologist and the academic staff were involved in a same project that was not related to e-learning. Through unintentional hallway conversations, the academic staff indicated that she was interested to explore ways in which online forums could be employed to achieve some manner of computer-supported collaborative learning. After some deliberations, the use of forums to encourage peer and collaborative learning was implemented. Throughout the implementation, the academic staff showed keen interest to learn from related literature which included research concepts and methods such as legitimate peripheral participation and social network analysis. Results from a social network analysis conducted on her students’ participation in the forums showed that her efforts have achieved mixed results where, although the majority of the students preferred a teacher-centric kind of discussion, a small group of students have indeed engaged in a preliminary form of collaborative learning. Although the collaboration only lasted for one semester, there were more chances for both parties to interact as equals, exchanging ideas and developing shared understanding. The working relationship and the bond of trust developed were stronger than in previous occasions. This led to a joint presentation at an international conference on how both parties had collaborated. Later, the academic staff said that she could not continue with the collaborative learning approach because she was overburdened with the workload and time required to facilitate the process although she thought that this approach of learning was more interesting and beneficial to the students. Case Study 4 The fourth case study could be considered as the most successful in terms of output, duration and number of collaborators involved. It started with a proposal from the learning technologist to a friend who was teaching languages at the former department from which the learning technologist was seconded. The proposal was to look into ways which forums in the learning management system could be used to encourage active and reflective learning amongst students. Both parties got together to discuss learning designs that could be used as learning activities that would integrate classroom teaching with the virtual learning environment through the use of forums. The approach adopted was that of blended learning. The collaborators were engaged in frequent informal meetings over lunches and chat sessions via instant messaging. Through these often seemingly mundane informal interactions, ideas were frequently exchanged; literature was introduced and incorporated after filtering for its practicality. These frequent exchanges helped to establish a mutual understanding on difficult concepts and cleared ambiguities,

especially in designing the learning activities. Two other colleagues from the same department were soon roped in to assist with the content analysis and subsequently invited to try out the learning design developed earlier with the initial academic staff with whom the collaboration started. The learning activity was then tested on a new blogging environment to allow greater freedom for the students to express themselves and for them to develop the sense of ownership of the new learning environment. The hope was to encourage students to be more responsible of their own learning experiences in a new personalized learning environment (Bernsteiner, Ostermann, & Staudinger, 2009). At the same time, the intention was also to allow the academic staff to facilitate their learning activities through the blending of classroom teaching with online learning activities. This infused the personal learning environment with the sense of teaching presence (Garrison & Anderson, 2002) which is essential for a successful elearning implementation. The blogging system also allowed the students to subscribe and comment on their fellow classmates’ blog postings. The blog environment provided the affordances for all the learning approaches mentioned earlier i.e. collaborative, reflective and active learning, to be incorporated into the design of the learning activities. Indeed, initial survey results showed that different student cohorts led by different teachers with differing levels of control over their learning activities in the blog system produced unique patterns of learning experiences which were strongly linked to the degrees of control asserted by the teachers respectively. The collaborators also jointly produced a couple of conference papers both locally and internationally. The collaboration is still on-going, but the pace has slackened due to the promotion of the initial collaborator to a non-academic department as a manager.

Discussion
The four case studies indicate that the collaborative efforts by the learning technologist and the academic staff in the cases did produce innovative changes to the way the institutional learning management system was being used for teaching and learning. In contrast, the majority of the online courses created in the learning system are designed to be used according to the informational transfer and content delivery model. Through the collaborations, the academic staff in the four case studies are able to innovate and make varying degrees of changes to accommodate other pedagogical models of learning i.e. collaborative, reflective and active learning approaches. The changes involve designing learning activities that would fully employ the potential afforded by the features found in the learning management system. The capability to use scripting language allows the learning materials to be repackaged as learning activities. This allows students to interact with the content in an active way, exposing themselves to multiple angles in looking at the same topic. Designing the online forums to integrate with classroom teaching allows the teachers to blend and extend the students’ learning experience beyond the spatial confinements of the classroom. More importantly, such learning design allows the students to learn from their peers in a collaborative manner. The addition of a blog system provides a personalized learning environment for students to express and take ownership of their learning experience. These teaching practices are not easily found in the majority of the courses offered in the learning management system. It indicates that although the regular top-down strategy of training and workshops is able to develop the necessary skills for the academicians to create their courses in the learning system, it is not able to generate changes that will bridge the chasm that exists between potential and actual practice. The majority do not show much innovation in terms of deploying other learning approaches apart from content delivery. All the collaborations found in the case studies have an informal start through the acquaintances established within the social network of staff working for the various departments within the same institution. They are not formal projects initiated by the management of the institution. They are pioneered by individuals as a bottom-up initiative. The reason for their beginning is the desire amongst the collaborators to see changes in the way technology is used to support teaching and to enable the students to benefit from it. Collaborations that are oriented towards a user support kind of relationship between the collaborators are more limited in the level of innovation achieved compared to collaborators who work as peers and have the sense of responsibility to contribute equally to the outcome of the joint enterprise. Frequent interactions, however mundane they might be, are important to cultivate a healthy relationship, deeper trust and mutual understanding that would encourage the collaborators to work even more closely to achieve success. The practitioner action research approach allows the collaborators, particularly in Case Study 3 and 4, to reflect critically on their own roles in the development of innovative practices (Oliver, Roberts, et al., 2007). Participation in the process is best defined as legitimate peripheral participation (Wenger, 1998) due to the interdepartmental factor. Having a focus such as producing joint papers for conferences from the outcomes of the collaborations promotes a stronger bond for the collaborators to continue their work together no matter how

peripheral it might be. This bond is even strong enough to breach the inter-departmental barriers that are constantly trying to take the energy and vibrancy away from the collaborations in order to preserve the existing departmental silos and status quo. Nevertheless, the collaborations are hampered by the existing workload which takes time and energy away from the academic staff to further enhance the innovative practices which have been initiated. Whenever there is a conflict of time between exploring innovative practices and teaching, the latter always gets priority (Smith & Oliver, 2000). Lack of obvious departmental and management support for collaborative works and innovations lowers the morale of the academicians to continue with the effort to change. Lack of appreciation and negative responses from the students also affect the academic staff emotionally. Personal interest and motivation for self development have limitations in supporting the growth of the collaborative effort. As such, collaborations mostly develop through existing social networks with a heavy investment of time to build trust and relationship, an environment which is conducive to promote these social connections is a necessity. This is something that the management of any institution needs to look into more seriously (Kezar & Lester, 2009) considering the documented fact that successful collaborations are complexly difficult to achieve (Conole, Smith, & White, 2007).

Conclusion
Collaborations in the form of social networks or communities of practice are able to produce innovations in the way technology is being used for e-learning implementation. Collaborations allow practitioners to mutually engage each other as peers, developing shared understanding and a sense of involvement in a joint enterprise that allow innovative practices to flourish and the collaborations to be sustained. Therefore, it is essential and more beneficial for institutions of higher learning to encourage the development of such collaborations through formal or informal means. A healthy environment for collaborations that is supported by the management of the institution will benefit all parties involved.

References
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