From dozens of e-learning consulting assignments of which about ten had to do with implementations of Virtual Learning Environments in educational institutes, the author derived two fundamentally different approaches for implementing e-learning systems: bottom-up initiatives by teachers and top-down initiatives by management, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Educational innovation with information technology often starts as a bottom-up process initiated by some teachers, ICT professionals or even students. At some moment, institutional management gets involved. Innovation converts from a bottom-up into a top-down process orchestrated by management. When observing the implementation of e-learning systems we see the same patterns.
As a consequence, how to implement an e-learning system heavily depends on the stage of educational innovation at an institute: bottom-up or top-down. Both situations require their own approach and both will be dealt with during our presentation. Although our experiences are based on Moodle implementations, our lessons learned may be relevant for other e-learning systems as well.
Although educational institutes vary greatly, individual teachers always have certain degrees of freedom. Even when formal procedures have to be followed for implementing new systems, they can be neglected when the investment costs are (or at least seem to be) about zero. This is the case when implementing a free and open source Virtual Learning Environment like Moodle. But even in the case of commercial systems, suppliers may be so eager to penetrate an institute for business that they are inclined to offer their services for free (for a limited time) to whoever lets them in.
When I was lecturing at a university of professional education without Virtual Learning Environment, one of my students constructed a website to distribute my materials. As I found it a bit messy, I replaced it with my own site, one year later. The third year, I wanted more interaction on my site. That’s why I downloaded Moodle for free. I uploaded it to a website I hired personally from a cheap provider. Then, I could facilitate my part-time students not only by distributing handouts and other materials, but also by offering them a forum for regulated contact with me, and, as they discovered soon, with their fellow-students. To stimulate their continuous learning, I gave them weekly assignments to be submitted and graded through the system. This all worked great (initially).
My personal history is not different from the experiences of many colleagues at other institutes and even at Human Resource Departments of commercial firms. The fact that systems like Moodle are free, that a provider is cheap (eventually you pay it yourself) and that installation on a server is straightforward, has given us the opportunity to acquire and implement a Virtual Learning Environment within hours. As your own system administrator, you could realise great benefits at minimal costs and create a great learning opportunity (at least for yourself).
When my provider, without prior notice, decided to move my VLE to another server, performance went down with about 90%. When I went temporarily to a third world country where Internet bandwidth was less than 1% of what I used in The Netherlands, I could hardly access my own VLE at home any more. Grading my weekly assignments was no longer possible. Students started complaining to the management and it became clear I had bitten off more than I could chew.
My personal experiences show in a nutshell the strengths and weaknesses of the bottom-up approach. Realising quick and cheap solutions and being able to learn a lot from them are unmistakably strengths. Crossing the border of an experimental playground and offering professional services while not being able to run them adequately are evident weaknesses. In fact implementing a Virtual Learning Environment requires expertise in the fields of management, education/training and ICTs. A motivated teacher can show the way, but not complete the whole expedition alone.
The same is true for an ambitious ICT department, also often an initiator of bottom-up innovation. In one case they installed the software and created more-or-less empty courses for all their institute’s courses. The whole was standardised and good looking. They failed, however, to involve the teaching staff in this process. When some teachers got interested, they were not very welcome, as they had their own ideas on how to use the system. In another case, the ICT department installed the software on their own initiative and thought that was all they needed to do. After a year they complained that teaching staff was not interested in their new stuff.
In general we would recommend to the bottom-up initiators to be aware of their limitations, to learn from others and to communicate about their successes and failures. Their managers should welcome these innovative initiatives, stress their experimental character, support them where possible and organise the dissemination of positive and/or negative experiences throughout the organisation.
3. The matrix
In four different countries we could organise workshops for teachers, ICT professionals and management/staff from institutes that all were in their bottom-up stage of innovation. During these workshops our participants contributed a wide range of issues that had to be solved when implementing a Virtual Learning Environment. They classified these issues as educational, technical or content/data related. Some were operational in nature, others tactical or even strategical. This resulted in a 3×3 System Management Matrix (see Figure below).
At later occasions the matrix turned out to be a valuable frame of reference to discuss relevant issues from management, educational and technological perspective. It helped to give all upcoming issues a place in a greater context, to discuss the allocation of responsibilities, to evaluate them and to make improvement plans and define improvement projects for the coming years.