That Universities can provide a better quality, more reliable elearning service and, at the same time, repurpose resources away from low-level infrastructure resources towards higher-level customisation roles, by replacing the current model for learning management systems.

The current model for course sites means that all content and technology used as part of course websites is hosted and maintained by the University and its technical services. The replacement model would instead have a small amount of local customisation but the majority of the technology and content would be hosted and maintained on the numerous free web services now widely available as part of the “Web 2.0” approach.

The Problem

The Top-Ten IT Issues, 2006 as identified by the 7th annual EDUCAUSE Current Issues Survey are (I’ve added the emphasis):

  1. Security and Identity Management
  2. Funding IT
  3. Administrative/ERP/Information Systems
  4. Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity
  5. Faculty Development, Support, and Training
  6. Infrastructure
  7. Strategic Planning
  8. Governance, Organization, and Leadership
  9. E-Learning/Distributed Teaching and Learning
  10. Web Systems and Services

Further on down in the article

For four of the past seven years, respondents to the Current Issues Survey ranked Funding IT as the number-one issue to resolve for the strategic success of their IT organizations and institutions. For the other three years, including this year, the issue was ranked number two

And the obvious conclusion is stated

Being realistic about IT funding when costs are increasing (and budgets are not) means pursuing ways to reduce costs and reallocate savings.

The increasing adoption of e-learning, as currently implemented, generally requires institutions to host the course management system and provide all of the services – including video and audio streaming.

This can be expensive and difficult to do effectively. Especially if the institution is aiming for a global reach. CQU has, for a number of years, had various debates and difficulties around its widely distributed campuses and how best to provide reasonable services to them. In particular, how to ensure that our widely distributed students and staff are able to access resources hosted at the central Rockhampton campus quickly and effectively.

A potential solution

Where ever possible the services required for e-learning, currently understood as a course website, should be implemented using services provided on the web. The work of the University IT staff should be focused on providing local customisations designed to encourage adoption and support use within the institution. Rather than fulfilling infrastructure roles.

Some examples

Potential Benefits

  • Provide more reliable services
  • Provide faster access to services
  • Save money on infrastructure
  • Re-purpose resources to higher up the stack
  • Address the skills shortage??
  • Able to “market” the institution as leading edge
    I’m not aware of any other University doing this. An experiement along these lines would place the organisation at the forefront of elearning.

Potential Hurdles

  • Barriers to the “everything is open” idea
    Most of these free web services are based on the idea of the content being available to everyone. There are a couple of problems with this idea

    1. Many academics are not comfortable with this idea
    2. Many academics use material provided by textbooks that is copyrighted and can’t be made freely available
  • Trust, and the host your own preference
  • Infrastructure is simpler than customisation
    Provision of servers, networks etc is a fairly standarised, “low-level” skill. Some refer to it as the “plumbing” of the computer world. Providing customisation at a business level requires a much greater level of skill and understanding. It’s harder to do.

More to come, but others are talking about this.

Other considerations

The personal learning environment (PLE) and Web 2.0 ideas are arguing that we should move away from the course website idea. There’s good reason to do this.

However, the way Universities and academics currently think of elearning is so closely tied with this way of thinking it will be around for awhile. In order to sell this idea to those people it needs to be packaged in a way that makes sense to them – that is compatible with what they know.

Implementation could provide scaffolding to enable the PLE idea and should help further investigation of that idea. Most of the tools/services I’ve mentioned above generate RSS/Atom feeds and/or have open APIs that would help.