THE E-LEARNING PROCESS IN IRELAND: STRATEGY, STRUCTURES AND VALUES IN A TIME OF CHANGE

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1 THE E-LEARNING PROCESS IN IRELAND: STRATEGY, STRUCTURES AND VALUES IN A TIME OF CHANGE NEIL O SULLIVAN Universal Learning Systems, Dublin, DR ALAN BRUCE Universal Learning Systems, Dublin Abstract: This paper describes the elearning planning process being implemented by Irish schools. The Open Discovery Space (ODS) Project has identified it as an appropriate model for assisting schools progress from the early stage of ICT and elearning integration in teaching and learning to becoming what is termed an emature school. The paper outlines the strategies involved and highlights some of the key tools used in the planning process. The paper also attempts to highlight the benefits of ODS for such a planning process for both primary and post primary schools across Europe. Keywords: E-Learning, Distance learning, Open Discovery Space, 1. STRATEGIC CONTEXTS: CHANGE MANAGEMENT IN IRISH EDUCATION SYSTEMS In Ireland coordination between the national educational system and schools has traditionally mainly focused on administrative and resource issues rather then fully developing and embedding a shared visionary and strategic perspective on the role and purpose of education and learning in a rapidly changing and transformed society. The changed external environment and deepening impact of the economic crisis since 2008, have thrown down a profound challenge to the traditional schooling systems that comprise formal Irish education. This challenge relates to themes around control, governance, community engagement, relevance, critical thinking capacity, assessment/examinations, research, innovation, inclusion and teacher competence and formation. Key to these strategic issues is the understanding and deployment of advanced ICT systems, which act as both a challenge and incentive to wider change processes. Research suggests that there needs to be more systematic approaches to innovation and responses to learner needs with greater focus on the concept of schools becoming learning organizations around the issue of inclusion [1]. Changes within the school environment will affect other areas, resulting in a knock on effect that illustrates the delicate nature of implementing change in schools. The systematic approach to meaningful learning includes collaborative approaches and consideration of the multiple actors and sectors involved in the process. In keeping with the ecological model it is argued that schools do not work in isolation but are dependent on greater social systems. Ireland is at an important crossroads in terms of its social, economic and cultural systems and needs. Irish society is in a time of profound change in which the core values of its educational system and higher education in particular need to be defined clearly. The capacity and quality of its educational systems are evidently critical in providing individuals with opportunities and space for development, in developing social solidarity, in promoting tolerance and diversity and in creating the basis for sustainable and enriching levels of socio-economic participation. In addition, the educational system and its structures must accomplish these objectives in an increasingly globalized and interdependent environment. 1

2 At tertiary level, promoting equality of opportunity has been one of the five overarching functions of the Higher Education Authority since its establishment in Following two national policy statements in 1995, the HEA introduced the targeted initiative scheme in 1996 to promote enhanced access and participation for traditionally excluded groups. Initiatives and resources have grown considerably since then. By 2004 over 40 million had been allocated to support initiatives in nine participating institutions [2]. The strategic need has been to promote linkages across society where education is seen as part of a developmental continuum for individuals and groups alike. Increasingly these links are seen not only in terms of personal enrichment and technical competence but also in terms of innovation, knowledge, workforce skills, research, diversity and social inclusion. In responding to the OECD Report on Quality Assurance in Irish Universities in April 2005, the Minister of Education stated: [3] The Government recognizes that our higher education system is central to a wide range of national social, economic and cultural objectives. It follows that strategy for the sector must be informed by the inputs of the relevant range of stakeholders. What we require is for each of our existing universities and institutes of technology to be supported in developing and enhancing their roles according to their existing strengths as part of a unified higher education system that aspires to world class standards. The Minister continued by suggesting that strategic priorities would focus on a number of themes including: Greater flexibility in course offerings for diverse student needs in lifelong learning contexts Promotion of quality in teaching and learning Effective technology transfer Increased participation and improved access. 2. ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION Such approaches at macro-educational levels have been cascaded across the educational system and have been given added emphasis by the dimensions of the economic crisis since These approaches and innovative learning strategies therefore can be connected to notions in Ireland of the Whole School Approach. The Department of Education and Science in Ireland advocates a whole school approach. This is a coordinated framework where management and teachers embrace a team based approach to assessments, transition, Special Needs Assistance work, curricula and differentiation. This approach has enabled a broader understanding of the concept of supports as well as promoting collaborative working in a system where teachers/specialists and particular individuals worked in isolation and maintained ultimate responsibility for child development. The development of innovative learning techniques therefore has been explicitly linked, at least in policy terms, to the development of the entire range of broader human developmental needs and potential progression routes. It is acknowledged that structural reform has lagged behind. In such an environment, technologically supported learning for example, can easily be relegated to a simple technical support rather than a powerful instrument of learning and institutional transformation. In Ireland in many cases parents have struggled to gain resources and support for their child and there is a lack of understanding of how best to ensure that children gain appropriate access to teaching and learning in schools. The quality of the supportive technological infrastructure in the school is a very important enabling aspect. However, real meaningful elearning occurs when the focus shifts form technology to it use by the learner. When integrated into what the teachers do it can facilitate creativity, exploration and interdisciplinary work. However, teachers must be provided with the necessary reasons, skills and toolbox to enable them to embed e-learning. 2

3 The availability of cheaper computing tools, mobile devices and Web 2.0 features means that students are acquiring new interactive learning skills. The challenge for teachers and schools is to find appropriate and structured ways to incorporate these skills and student s technologies into mainstream learning. 3. DEVELOPING A NEW IRISH FRAMEWORK In Ireland schools are encouraged to incorporate what is termed an elearning plan into the Whole School Plan. The Whole School Plan sets out the school s educational philosophy. It sets out the school s aims and plans for implementing the curriculum and managing its resources. The elearning Plan is a subset of the Whole School Plan and it takes into account the ICT resources available to the school and the level and competence of staff to implement the plan. A clear definition of elearning is needed at the outset to enhance the success of this strategy. The National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) [2] describes elearning in their handbook for schools: elearning is simply learning that takes place with the assistance of digital technology. The use of computers and other digital devices together with online learning tools and materials are the prerequisites for elearning to take place. Now, and in the near future making good quality online resources, tools both interactive and static will enable anywhere anytime learning which can enhance personal and self directed learning. elearning could be video recording or online interviews, collaborative blogs maximising the available Web 2.0 tools at hand. The NCTE elearning Planning Process The elearnng Resources are made available to schools at: In the Plan to become what is termed an emature school the NCTE outline a series of actions that schools can take to develop e-learning in the school over set time frames. It identifies five areas where schools can improve and develop the level of integration in the school: 1. Leadership and Vision 2. ICT in the Curriculum 3. Professional Development 4. elearning Culture 5. ICT Infrastructure In developing its e-learning plan, the school identifies targets under the key headings above. There are a number of key characteristics to the elearning plan: It is integrated it into the Whole School Planning document It involves the leadership and direction of the principal and the ICT coordinating teacher It involves consultation with all school staff It focuses on how ICT is integrated in the delivery of the curriculum It identifies the resources and skills that are required to enable ICT integration to occur It helps identify the required budget It outlines an evaluation mechanism to ensure that it is reviewed on a regular basis So the process of developing an e-learning plan offers multiple advantages to schools. It allows the school community to develop an agreed vision for the e-learning school. This vision will be the guiding light for the way forward. The school plan incorporates a significant dimension to the elearning vision of the school. It will document how ICT will support teaching, learning and assessment strategies in the school. It will provide a focussed elearning strategy to help the school realise its elearning vision for the future. The Plan will in addition help clarify funding requirements. The e-learning Plan describes a series of actions that a school will take to integrate ICT more deeply into its teaching and learning activities over a specific time-frame. Key characteristics are: It is a whole school planning document It involves the leadership of the principal and/or the ICT Coordinating teacher It involves consultation with the entire school 3

4 It focuses on how ICT is integrated into the curriculum It identifies the resources and skills that are required to enable ICT integration to occur It identifies budget costs and clarifications It outlines an evaluation mechanism to ensure that it is reviewed on a regular basis. The e-learning Plan consists of a series of action plans designed to assist schools to describe what actions they plan to take over a specified time period and to monitor progress on an ongoing basis. Key elements of the successful development of an e-learning plan include identifying who are involved and clarifying visions and roles. The NCTE recommends the following: Leadership of Principal in driving the Vision The E-Learning Vision shared by all staff & stakeholders Clarity on the role of ICT coordinating teacher It is incorporated as part of whole school planning process The creation of an E-Learning Team The NCTE planning process includes an elearning Handbook which deals with the planning process in a systematic fashion. The Handbook also provides relevant tools such as: Templates for elearning audits The elearning Roadmap elearning Case Studies Advice and Support Information The Plan is divided into four consecutive stages: Step 1: involves a review of where the school is now and what needs to be done first. This should involve an audit of equipment, ICT infrastructure software and other elearning resources in the school. A significant part of this stage is also to identify the professional development requirements: setting attainable targets and defining manageable tasks which include specifying timeframes for tasks, identifying resources required to implement the plan and identifying who is responsible for each action and the development of an evaluation process. Step 2: involves development of the Plan. The Plan includes an overview of priorities to be achieved and the elearning actions to be carried out to achieve the plan. There are templates for layouts of Action Plans and Tasks included in the elearning Handbook. The Action Plans record the school priorities in relation actions to be completed. The templates, which are made available, will consist of priorities, targets and tasks. They include: Target: What do we want to achieve? Task: What needs to be done to achieve it? Timeframe: When is it to be done by? Remits: Who is to do it? Resources: What resources are needed? Success Criteria: What are the desired outcomes? Agreed Monitoring Procedures Agreed Evaluation Procedures Step 3: involves implementation and monitoring of the Plan. It involves undertaking procurement and continuing professional development as required. Step 4: evaluation of the Plan. This is the final stage of the planning cycle and provides a basis for the next planning cycle. It is at this point that the school assesses how well everything went. Systems and plans which worked are built upon and identifying items which require more work are also highlighted. The elearning Roadmap A significant tool in assisting the setting of targets is the elearning Roadmap. This has five areas of activity: Leadership & Planning ICT in the Curriculum Professional Development e-learning Culture ICT infrastructure. There are four stages to each area identified in the Roadmap. Initial E-enabled E-confident E- Mature 4

5 The elearning Roadmap is a dynamic document tailored to specific school needs with activity concentrated on teacher understanding and use, planning, student experience and Special Educational Needs. ICT is no longer a stand alone subject. The emature School The Roadmap describes the stages on the journey towards developing elearning as a seamless and invisible part of teaching and learning. There is a clear progression identified through the stages form Initial to eenabled to econfident to emature. On a national level and form a European wide context it is clear that all schools have unique features and no two schools are the same. In such circumstances identifying a school as being in the domain of ematurity needs discussion. Using the NCTE guidelines we will focus on features which might identify an emature school. For schools to seriously develop powerful elearning implementations the following is required: Adequate and appropriate ICT infrastructure, ICT equipment and Broadband An e-learning Vision in the school that supports creativity and innovation in embedding e-learning. Meet teachers professional development needs and support them in effectively delivering e-learning Providing teachers with access to relevant digital content and appropriate digital tools. The Characteristics identified for developing a positive elearning culture in the school include: Student learning needs remain central to all e-learning developments Technology is confidently used by staff members A range of e-learning tools are available through the school There is ease of access to shared e- learning resources and facilities by staff and students There is distributed broadband available Collaborative learning is promoted There is provision for e-learning enabled spaces A pathway for professional development for teachers is planned for There is wide-ranging access and use of elearning tools in all areas of teaching and learning Where possible self-directed and personalise e-learning is supported There is a willingness to use new e- learning tools and resources Students are given the opportunity to acquire digital literacy skills and adapt same and ethical use of digital technologies in their daily lives. 5. THE OPEN DISCOVERY SPACE PROJECT Open Discovery Space (ODS) [3] aims to serve as an accelerator of the sharing, adoption, usage, and re-purposing of the already rich existing educational content base. First of all, it will demonstrate ways to involve school communities in innovative teaching and learning practices through the effective use of elearning resources. It will promote community building between European schools and empower them to use, share and exploit unique resources from the wealth of educational repositories in meaningful educational activities. In addition, it will demonstrate the potential of elearning resources to meet the educational needs of these communities, supported by European Web portal: a community-oriented social platform where teachers, pupils and parents will be able to discover, acquire, discuss and adapt elearning resources on their topics of interest. Finally, it will assess the impact and document the process into a roadmap that will include guidelines for the design and implementation of effective resource-based educational activities that could act as a reference to be adopted by stakeholders in school education. Achieving desirable levels of elearning adaptation from an ODS deliverable point of view depends on a number of critical factors: 5

6 Teacher education and professional development to leverage the benefits of the new technologies offered in ODS Ready availability of appropriate digital content and content tools An important element required for effective implementation of ODS is adequate broadband coverage and support for each school. This feature may be outside the scope of ODS but never the less it is a fundamental consideration on the adoption of elearning and the progression of schools from initial stages through to emature. Effective planning and implementation of ODS activities will ensure that effective use by teacher and learner which will foster creativity and innovation as these skills are pivotal in the skills for the knowledge economies. The ODS toolbox holds the promise of facilitating greater interactivity and greater levels of user generated content. ODS has the promise of transforming schools into e-learning environments by offering: The provision of an elearning infrastructure and technical service to each school Support the creativity and vision for elearning integration in schools Meeting the professional development needs of teachers to support the development of elearning in a school wide capacity. Provide on-demand access to digital content and tools ODS Supporting and Enhancing Learning Once a school has implemented an elearning Plan it becomes clear that the expertise of the teacher remains central to the development of digital content on a localised national and sub-national level for schools. Teachers can contribute significantly to creating curriculum based content with a localised focus given the right support and creation tools. Incorporating the ODS as described and utilising the portal will provide dynamic global and local curriculum related content, tagged to ensure ease of access. It will also provide access to online content creation tools and a platform that facilitates supports and encourages content creation, collaboration and sharing between students, teachers and other bodies and service. Facilitation of online communities of practice for teachers by ODS will assist teacher confidence and assist in building up user generated content for sharing. With ODS allowing access to other organisations and bodies it will help to develop strategic partnerships with organizations such as TV channels or other Industries to provide enriched indigenous content. CONCLUSION It is clear that becoming an emature school can be difficult to assess and achieve in all areas identified. Even some teachers may be emature while others are not in the same school. However the availability of ODS will help schools mover towards ematurity. ODS will help teachers and schools take account of the Web 2.0 enabled styles and methods of learning that students experience outside the classroom. Once effectively planned for and implemented ODS should offer teachers and school communities: Enhanced web portal for distributing classroom focussed content. Provide localised access to curriculumrelevant digital content for all teachers and students Support the creation and sharing of resources by teachers and students. Facilitate partnerships and collaborations between schools and other stakeholders both nationally and on a European wide basis. Make available services within and outside schools to facilitate and other communication tools. Appropriate technical support and maintenance to sustain the quality of service. Provide technical and pedagogical advice to schools and teachers 6

7 Provide best practice examples of innovative projects in schools including case studies and their dissemination to schools showcasing innovative e-learning models and e-learning school environments Encourage development of communities of practice to encourage sharing of methodologies and content via the ODS portal. LITERATURE [1] Kinsella, W. Senior, J.(2009) 'Developing inclusive schools; a systemic approach'. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 12 (5 and 6): [2] Government of Ireland (2004),Achieving Equity of Access in Higher Education, Action Plan , Dublin: Higher Education Authority, [3] Department of Education,Archived Speeches, Minister Mary Hanafin 25 April 2005, [4] National Centre for Technology in Education Ireland, Planning and Implementing e- Learning in your School practice, Dublin City University Dublin 9, [5] Competativeness and Innovation Program (CIP) Open Discovery Sapce Description of Work

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