All entries for Monday 20 February 2006

February 20, 2006

E–learning Report: Setting clear expectations – response to the Learning and Teaching Strategy

Writing about web page

Warwick is currently redrawing its "teaching and learning strategy", a document intended to provide an outline of the aims and values to which teaching at Warwick should aspire. A series of draft proposals have been published for consultation within the University. My personal reponse is that these proposals are very good, and point towards a strategy that will provide clear and effective guidance to e-learning development. They are also suitably ambitious. However, after attending a consultation meeting on the proposals, I left with the feeling that there is something missing. The following text was submitted as feedback to the consultation process.

Excellence in creativity, innovation and diversity implies a mastery of change management. I argue that in order to achieve many of the aims and objectives laid out in the proposals, there must first be a commitment to understanding and effectively managing change throughout the university. Most importantly, an essential precursor to effective change is the clear and consistent setting and communication of expectations.

Why is change management of such importance? As a member of the E-learning Advisor Team, charged with the task of encouraging innovation and experimentation in learning and teaching, I frequently encounter a fundamental blocker to the success of such developments. No matter how highly we regard dynamism and creativity as an end towards which learning should strive, there seems to be a fundamental conservatism amongst those who are required to sign up to new developments. It could be argued that the introduction of top-up fees will drive our students to become even more conservative. They have definite expectations of a degree from Warwick and what contributes to its attainment. When faced with the introduction of a new requirement or activity (such as using a technology), their expectations are affronted. The response to change is often negative. Diversification of the nature of degrees, with for example the introduction of closer ties to career development, may further prompt such a response.

The Learning and Teaching Strategy proposals call for, as an aim, the recruitment of students with greater potential. I assume this means the recruitment of students who are dynamic and flexible, capable of working in an innovative and creative environment. This is a worthy aim, but we should not assume that it translates into students who can happily accept change and innovation at any point of their studies. They will have expectations of the nature of a degree and their commitment towards it. Creativity and innovation may well have a place within those expectations. That place should be significant. However, there is always a tension between change and the demand for firmly held reasonable expectations to be met.

As a solution to this which enables acceptable change whilst promoting creativity and innovation, the clear and consistent setting of expectations must be the highest priority. A module or programme that employs a specific teaching technique should be clearly signposted as such. Where students are expected to contribute to the development of a new technique, and that contribution is seen as a useful means for developing their own creative skills, they should be told so. We could state that these are expectations at a global university level, or for individual modules. The key is to set clear expectations and to stick to them.

Furthermore, business theorists might argue that in an increasingly competitive market, a quality leader such as Warwick must respond to commodification by helping the market to attain a more sophisticated understanding of its products. The aim of setting expectations more clearly is a vital requirement underpinning this sophistication. This is even more so for an institution that offers creativity, innovation and diversity as its selling point.

My conclusion then is that we could add as a further aim: an institutional focus upon setting clear and understandable expectations throughout (from recruitment onwards, and most importantly through induction), communicating these expectations, and enforcing our commitment to them.