E-Learning Readiness at Community Colleges

I work for two large community college systems in the Houston, Texas area where I am a part-time instructor, or adjunct faculty member. Lone Star College and Houston Community College have both adopted e-learning programs that allow students to complete a two-year degree entirely online. Lone Star College has an average enrollment of approximately 95,000 students and offers an online Associate of Arts degree with optional concentrations in Business, Criminal Justice, Speech Communication, and International Studies as well as an online Associate of Science degree with an optional concentration in Computer Science. Houston Community College has an average enrollment of approximately 47,000 students and delivers a slightly more varied selection of online degree plans by offering an Associate of Arts degree with concentrations in Communication, Business, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Fine Arts as well as an Associate of Science degree with concentrations in Computer Science, Engineering, Health and Natural Sciences, and Mathematics. Both institutions have invested heavily in e-learning as a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction, as evidenced by their slick promotional web sites (http://www.lonestar.edu/lsc-online/ and http://de.hccs.edu/) designed to sell e-learning course options to prospective students.

Previously, I taught fully-online e-learning courses for Lone Star College as a philosophy instructor, though I currently teach only one hybrid e-learning course as a humanities instructor. I have yet to teach for Houston Community College’s Distance Education (DE) program in any discipline, though I am eager to complete the necessary training to become a DE instructor. Based on my experience teaching online courses with Lone Star College, I can definitely say that e-learning readiness should be a fundamental concern for students, instructors, and their host institutions in ways particular to each stakeholder group. Students must possess technological competencies and personal characteristics suitable for e-learning, instructors must develop their technological and pedagogical knowledge to ensure quality online learning experiences, and institutions must provide the resources and support services necessary for an e-learning program’s healthy maintenance and growth (Demir & Yurdugul, 2015; Ilgaz & Gulbahar, 2015; Nyoni, 2014). Even though my institutions have already adopted e-learning programs, an analysis of the e-learning readiness of their students, instructors, and organizations is still in order precisely because readiness for e-learning is not something achieved once and for all time (Marshall, 2010). Students, instructors, and institutions can be more or less ready to engage in e-learning at various points in the diffusion and implementation of such practices, and thus an examination of Lone Star College and Houston Community College in this context could only help identify areas where improvement is needed for their e-learning programs’ sustainability (Nichols, 2008).

In order to determine my institutions’ e-learning readiness, I will examine several factors in detail: (a) readiness of my institutions’ students to pursue e-learning, (b) types of learning that mesh well with my institutions’ students’ aptitudes and characteristics, (c) support services needed for the smooth operation of my institutions’ e-learning infrastructure, (d) methods of e-learning course development employed by my institutions, (e) technology needed for material access to e-learning at my institutions, (f) professional development opportunities needed to ensure instructors’ e-learning readiness, and (g) costs of implementing any possible reforms to my institutions’ current programs. I will focus on my personal experience of the institutions and support my observations with research on e-learning readiness and e-learning effectiveness. Based on my examination, I will make recommendations to the management of each institution about the viability and sustainability of its e-learning programs in the long term.

Student Readiness for E-Learning

The various aspects of student readiness for e-learning are captured in a reference model developed by Demir and Yurdugul (2015) that was designed to integrate a number of studies on the factors affecting such readiness. The factors identified were: (a) competency of technology usage, (b) self-directed learning, (c) access to technology, (d) confidence in prerequisite skills and yourself, (e) motivation, and (f) time management. Note that the factors influencing readiness for e-learning in the reference model are a mixture of personal characteristics and technical skills.

Additional research revealed that the notion of student readiness for e-learning can be supplemented and extended by examining student preparedness for e-learning, which typically investigates the behaviors of students rather than their personal characteristics (Parkes, Stein, & Reading, 2015). The students surveyed in Parkes et al.’s (2015) study were most prepared, though not very prepared, for the competencies of (a) forming connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge, (b) responding to others with respect, (c) using a web browser with skill and purpose, (d) downloading and uploading information and resources, (e) reading and writing at an appropriate level, and (f) identifying the requirements necessary to complete a task, among other factors. The students surveyed were least prepared for the competencies of (a) understanding one’s own cognitive processes and thinking strategies, (b) arranging a schedule to allow for regular online sessions, (c) balancing study with other time commitments, (d) presenting information in a variety of formats, (e) engaging in the process of reflection, and (f) seeking interaction with other members of the learning community, among other factors.

Demir and Yurdugul’s (2015) reference model readiness categories, combined with Parkes et al.’s (2015) preparedness factors, can now be applied to my institutions’ students to determine if they are ready for e-learning.

In my experience, the students of Lone Star College are ready for e-learning when it comes to the categories of access to technology, motivation, competency of technology usage, and confidence in prerequisite skills and yourself, but lack readiness in terms of self-directed learning and time management. I suspect that a study of their preparedness for e-learning would reveal a deficit in the skills of reading and writing at an appropriate level and identifying the requirements necessary to complete a task, two of the factors for which students in the preparedness study were found to be prepared, though not very prepared. Without sufficient readiness in terms of these behaviors, I would argue that most of my Lone Star College students have not been ready to engage in e-learning, even though their motivation to engage in it and their access to the technology needed for it is quite high. This may result from the fact that my students are predominantly under 25—some being high school students seeking dual credit—and have yet to master the necessary skills for e-learning success.

By contrast, the students of Houston Community College are a bit older than the average and possess more of the self-directed learning and time management skills needed for e-learning success. While their preparedness in terms of actual behaviors needed for e-learning success is still low in my estimation, their demonstrated capacity for greater self-directed learning is evidence that they could pick up the necessary skills with some concerted effort.

Types of Learning Suited to My Institutions’ Students

Both Lone Star College and Houston Community College have a number of students that are unprepared for the types of learning that are commonly employed by e-learning courses as part of best practices for instructional design. Noesgaard and Orngreen (2015) examined the factors that make e-learning effective and determined, from a comprehensive literature review, that some of those factors were: (a) active learning, (b) collaboration, and (c) interaction between instructors and students as well as students and their peers.

From my experience, I would argue that both institutions have many students who lack experience with active learning, collaboration, and interaction. These three elements are a part of any e-learning course that has been designed, according to best practices, as a learner-centered experience; thus, my students do not have the requisite experience for the learner-centered pedagogy that lies beneath the surface of well-designed e-learning courses. Even when they do possess some experience with these methods or processes of learning, the students are often uncertain of how to proceed with a lesson that asks them to participate in the creation of new knowledge, work with others to determine both conflicting viewpoints and areas of agreement, or engage their instructors or peers.

While students at both institutions may lack some fundamental academic skills necessary for taking full advantage of e-learning, I believe that these hurdles to student readiness can be overcome by students’ continued exposure to the methods and processes of learning that are best suited for e-learning effectiveness. The type of learning best suited to my students at Lone Star College and Houston Community College is not the rote memorization of facts, but rather an engaged learning that keeps the social aspect of knowledge creation at the center of the learning experience. Students need to feel like they are engaged in the process of learning if they are to get the most out of their e-learning courses.

Institutional Support Structures

Demir and Yurgudul (2015) presented a reference model for institutional readiness for e-learning that contained the following factors: (a) competency of technology usage, (b) ICT infrastructure, (c) finance, (d) culture, (e) content, (f) human resources, and (g) management and leadership. I believe that Lone Star College and Houston Community College are both ready for e-learning with regard to many of these factors, though I am skeptical of their readiness when it comes to human resources. Human resources refers to the the adequacy of an institution’s assistance for instructors in need of training and urgent help in the facilitation of e-learning.

Lone Star College provides a basic course in using D2L for teaching an online course. It does not cover any of the learning management system’s functions in detail and merely serves to provide a minimal level of competency of technology usage to instructors of e-learning. Houston Community College requires that DE instructors pass through six e-learning courses prior to teaching online, but none of them are led by mentors, thus eliminating any potential feedback and assistance for instructors new to Moodle. Thus, both institutions are lacking in support services for the facilitation of e-learning, though they both have IT support available to students who are having technical problems.

Without comprehensive and situated training in e-learning design and development, instructors will be hard-pressed to deliver engaging learning experiences to students. Students who are already not prepared for e-learning cannot be expected to do well with a course design that merely replicates the lectures and assignments of the traditional classroom.

E-Learning Course Development

Lone Star College has instructional design staff members at each of their campuses to assist instructors in e-learning course design, but leaves the task of creating the courses from scratch to the instructors themselves. Houston Community College, on the other hand, encourages instructors to make use of course templates that have been developed for many introductory courses as part of a shared learning resources initiative. While these shared learning resources are a good start, especially for new instructors with little DE experience, the learning management system in which these resources are to be used—Moodle—is not as easy to use for instructors as other, comparable systems such as Blackboard or D2L.
Lone Star College has decided to give as much control to faculty as possible in the creation and design of their e-learning courses at the same time as it fails to provide the training necessary to make use of their preferred learning management system—D2L. Houston Community College has decided to make shared resources a priority, but has employed them in a manner that does not facilitate their actual usage by making them a part of a learning management system that is powerful, but hard to master. Houston Community College also gives as much control to instructors as possible when it comes to course design, thus making course development the responsibility of faculty alone.

Making course development the responsibility of instructors alone increases the workload of online instructors and nearly ensures that design will not be adequate to e-learning best practices because instructors are frequently not given specific training in active learning pedagogies. Both of my institutions are not ready for the deeper challenges of e-learning, beyond the issues of ICT infrastructure and financial support.

Material Access to Technology

Thankfully, there are no material access concerns when it comes to technology at either institution. Lone Star College and Houston Community College have invested significantly in computers for students to use on campus as well as the ICT infrastructure needed to run learning management systems and other backend processes vital to the e-learning initiative.

Professional Development Opportunities

While Houston Community College offers more opportunities for professional development in e-learning for instructors using Moodle, it is only superficially more comprehensive than Lone Star College’s basic foundations course for D2L. Houston Community College’s e-learning training consists of six courses that are self-paced learning modules designed for instructors to use on their own. Lone Star College’s basic foundations in D2L course is instructor-led and utilizes activities within the D2L system to situate the practice of using the learning management system.

Thus, while there are positive aspects to both professional development programs, both institutions are lacking when it comes to comprehensive, situated training of instructors for e-learning courses that use active learning pedagogies. Both institutions need to institute a much-enhanced system of professional development if they wish to see best practices in e-learning used by well-prepared instructors to teach their online courses.

Projected Costs of Reform

The reform of the student mind is the task of education itself, so any costs associated with enhancing student competencies for e-learning would be factored into the overall cost of providing an education to enrolled students. The more specific costs associated with reforming e-learning at the instructor and institutional level are the costs of providing human resources to assist instructors with instructional design and providing comprehensive professional development opportunities for using the technology in which the institution has invested.

I have no idea how much a dedicated instructional design staffer at a community college might make, but I assume it is a comfortable salary with the usual benefits. Nor do I know how much a trainer would be paid for a specific professional development event, but I assume it would be comparable to the pay that I receive for teaching a semester-long course. Thus, the costs, if I am correct in my assumptions, would amount to hiring a greater number of full-time instructional design staff that doubled as trainers for faculty. This could cost as much as several million dollars at each institution if each campus location were to add staff of this type to their employment rolls.

Recommendations

My recommendation to the management of Lone Star College would be to hire more instructional design staff and trainers for professional development in e-learning and the constructivist pedagogies of active learning and learner-centered instruction. If the management does not have the will to do so, then their e-learning initiative could be hampered by a lack of quality content and poor instructional strategies that are ill-suited for e-learning contexts. Additionally, instructors will fall back on teacher- and content-centered instruction without the assistance necessary for becoming an effective facilitator of e-learning. The probable result is that students will drop out in such circumstances. E-learning suffers when there is a lack of contact with others or when there is a lack of interactivity of content, and this occurs most frequently when instructors lack training opportunities. Most of these instructors’ students will drop out of e-learning because of disinterest or difficulty with the self-regulated learning style required by reading- and writing-intensive online courses. Thus, if Lone Star College wishes its e-learning program to flourish and expand, it must do all it can to train instructors in the pedagogical and technological knowledge they desperately need to build effective and quality e-learning courses.

My recommendation to the management of Houston Community College would be to expand the training and professional development programs currently in place to further solidify the pedagogical and technological knowledge that DE instructors must have to be successful. Any expansion of the professional development for DE instructors would have to include facilitator-led workshops in which practical application of skills was a feature. In addition, the college should maintain and expand its shared learning resources initiative to include multiple versions of the same e-learning course for greater variety of instructional content and greater latitude for instructors to “remix” the materials provided in new and innovative ways. The cost of not implementing such expansions of existing programs would be that the e-learning initiative would potentially become stagnant due to the use of course templates with pre-determined lessons and content. If the management cannot allocate financial support for such expansions of professional development and shared learning resources, then e-learning at Houston Community College will still be on good footing, though perhaps it will lack what the e-learning initiative will need to grow and adapt.

Neither institution has reached a point of sustainable embedding for e-learning, in my opinion. Both institutions require leadership and management that will pursue funding and other institutional supports for e-learning as their primary objective. Without such institutional supports, then e-learning initiatives either become the province of the technology enthusiast, whose resources go unshared, or a wasteland where instructors are ineffective and nonresponsive to student needs and concerns (Nichols, 2008). Thus, these three stakeholder groups—students, instructors, and institutions—must be ready for all of the challenges that e-learning presents without flinching from what needs to be done to ensure long-term program sustainability. Institutional readiness directly affects instructor readiness, which in turn indirectly affects student readiness. Thus, institutional readiness may be seen as the key to providing a quality e-learning experience when all things are considered (Marshall, 2010).

References

Demir, Ö., & Yurdugul, H. (2015). The exploration of models regarding e-learning readiness: Reference model suggestions. International Journal of Progressive Education, 11(1), 173–194. Retrieved from http://inased.org/ijpe.htm

Ilgaz, H., & Gulbahar, Y. (2015). A snapshot of online learners: E-readiness, e-satisfaction and expectations. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(2), 171–187. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl

Marshall, S. (2010). A quality framework for continuous improvement of e-learning: The e-learning maturity model. Journal of Distance Education, 24(1), 143–165. Retrieved from http://www.ijede.ca/index.php/jde

Nichols, M. (2008). Institutional perspectives: The challenges of e-learning diffusion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(4), 598–609. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00761.x

Noesgaard, S. S., & Orngreen, R. (2015). The effectiveness of e-learning: An explorative and integrative review of the definitions, methodologies and factors that promote e-learning effectiveness. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 13(4), 278–290. Retrieved from http://www.ejel.org/

Nyoni, J. (2014). E-readiness of open and distance learning (ODL) facilitators: Implications for effective mediation. Perspectives in Education, 32(3), 78-91. Retrieved from http://www.perspectives-in-education.com/

Parkes, M., Stein, S., & Reading, C. (2015). Student preparedness for university e-learning environments. The Internet and Higher Education, 25, 1–10. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.10.002

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