Thursday 20 February 2014

Implementing a university-wide change programme to promote blended learning: Where do we start?

Change is rarely easy, and universities are notoriously conservative institutions which are inherently cautious. The implementation of a change programme involving technology requires a delicate balance in order to bring about genuinely new ways of working whilst endeavouring to address the understandable concerns of staff. What approaches actually work?

At the University of Westminster we are embarking on a wide-ranging programme known as Learning Futures which aims to transform the student and staff experience by creating a streamlined, forward-looking and engaging curriculum. The programme comprises a range of parallel projects which address themes such as curriculum and assessment, learning and teaching, academic support, employability, internationalisation, and sustainability. Ive been involved in the learning and teaching strand of the Learning Futures programme since the start, specifically in relation to the promotion of technology-enhanced learning and blended learning approaches.

The proposed changes have all emerged from staff themselves in a bottom-up approach, albeit with the full support of the senior management of the university. The enthusiasm of staff in generating new ideas and their continued commitment in developing the projects has been a revelation. However, up to now it has largely been driven by a relatively small proportion of staff the so-called early adopters’– the committed minority who are willing to experiment and keen to innovate. As we move towards the implementation phase of the programme it will be critical to maintain momentum in the face of the resistance to change which is bound to emerge.

What resistance?
It is inevitable that there will be resistance to change, particularly change which involves the introduction of new technologies. As Wheeler (2014a) points out, there is a perception amongst some academic staff that technology will undermine their role and require the investment of a lot of time learning new skills. If there is resentment or distrust, this can be transmitted to students. 

Marshall (2010) suggests that the resistance to change may be borne out of a perceived lack of convincing evidence that technology actually benefits the students learning, despite the fact that, as Garrison and Vaughan (2013) point out, this is not a defensible position. Nevertheless, such resistance patently exists, and this invariably makes it difficult to get buy-in from the remainder of the staff.

We have a clear vision about where we want to be. We are obviously not starting from scratch, since technology is already used widely throughout the university and there are many examples of highly innovative practice. What we are seeking to achieve is a much more integrated approach to technology-enhanced learning where the technology is seamlessly embedded in our courses and both staff and students are comfortable with technology.

So, weve generated the ideas, we have the approval of senior management to proceed, and we have project structures in place. But now we actually have to move from the strategy to the tactics. Where do we start?

Ive been doing quite a lot of research around this, and there are obviously loads of issues to consider, but three immediate questions emerge:

1.       Should we assess the extent to which the institution is ready for change?
I have mixed views on this issue. I can see that there would be some value in assessing institutional readiness, but given that the decision has been taken to go ahead with the change programme are we just wasting valuable time? There is obviously a certain appetite for change, as demonstrated by the ideas and proposals already generated in the early stages of the programme. We could carry out an audit of existing practice, but this will probably take a long time and all it is likely to tell us is what we already know: that there are pockets of innovative practice involving technology but the majority of courses are delivered primarily through traditional means. What else could we do to assess our readiness?

There are tools available which are specifically designed for this very purpose. For example:
  • ELTI (Embedding Learning Technologies Institutionally) A JISC audit tool which is designed to inform the process of embedding learning technologies, assist in developing institutional structures, culture and expertise and to encourage cross boundary collaboration and groupings.
  • The eMM Framework (E-Learning Maturity Model) which is designed to measure the capability of institutions to sustainably engage in technology-supported learning and teaching.

Has anyone got experience of using these tools and if so, were they useful?

2.       How do we ensure that staff have the skills and confidence necessary to adopt technologies more widely?
It is highly likely that only those early adopters will feel comfortable working extensively with new technologies. Wheeler (2014b) highlights the importance of universities providing high quality, sustainable support to academics to ensure that they see the relevance of new technologies and gain confidence in using them. The recently published NMC Horizon Report2014 identifies the challenge of low digital fluency of faculty and proposes professional development for academic staff, not just in digital media skills, but also in the underlying concepts of digital literacy (Johnson et al., 2014).

Garrison & Vaughan (2008) indicate that the most common form of professional development involves skills-based training in specific techniques or software. However, they suggest that such an approach rarely has sufficient follow-up and ongoing support for academic staff, and thus the impact is minimal. They propose an alternative approach based around the idea of a Community of Inquiry in which local faculty groupings of eight to twelve staff engage in a continuous process of reflection and discourse about teaching problems where there is a focus on getting things done. The communities adopt a blended learning approach which combines face-to-face and online activities.

What approaches have been used at other institutions?

3.       What are the mechanisms needed to actually implement change?
What structures need to be in place to promote the widespread adoption of technology in learning and teaching? What does the change programme actually involve? Are there tools and techniques we can adopt as a vehicle for change. For example:
  • Peter Reed (University of Liverpool) suggests a spine of core technologies used across the institution with, for example, baseline standards for the use of the VLE together with online assessment, lecture capture and ePortfolios
  •  Keith Smyth and colleagues at Edinburgh Napier University have developed the 3E Framework to support the meaningful incorporation of technology into learning, teaching and assessment
  • York St John University has published a Technology-Enhanced Learning Quality Framework (which incidentally is based on Edinburgh Napiers 3E Framework) which sets out minimum expectations in a university policy document which all members of staff are expected to adhere to.

What other mechanisms have been used, and how effective have they been?

Your views?
I would be really interested in hearing from colleagues at other institutions who have been through similar change programmes and have experience of implementing change. Please feel free to add your comments or contact me directly.

Authors note: I should stress that I am just a member of the Learning Futures team at the University of Westminster I am not leading the programme. I should also add that the views expressed above are my personal reflections, and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the University of Westminster.

  • Garrison, D. and Vaughan N. (2008) Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Garrison, D. & Vaughan, N., (2013) “Institutional change and leadership associated with blended learning innovation: Two case studies”, in Internet and Higher Education Vol. 18, July 2013
  • Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition [Online] Available from
  • Marshall, S(2010) 'Change, technology and higher education: are universities capable of organisational change?', Research in Learning Technology, 18: 3, 179 — 192
  • Wheeler, S. (2014a) The Survival of Higher Education (5): Recommendations
  • Wheeler, S. (2014b) The Survival of Higher Education (4) 5 Key Objectives   


  1. This is a very useful article because it encapsulates much of the current thinking around innovation and adoption of new practices and technologies. I wonder if this would also gain a wider audience if you submitted it to an open access peer reviewed journal such as Research in Learning Technology (formerly ALT-J) or similar?

    1. Thanks for the comments, Steve. I'd always assumed that journal articles would have to be based on data rather than just personal reflections. Perhaps when the implementation is more advanced I might have a better basis for an article.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Very useful and interesting post. It sure sounds more exciting there than my experience of large change programmes!

    As Steve said, you touch on a number of really interesting points, which I think tend to get addressed separately and in isolation.
    1. Readiness for change. I think the answer is always 'no!'. People generally don't like change. I did do an audit of existing practice here at Liverpool which I found useful, but that was probably because I was a new member of staff. I suspect the results were nothing new to others.
    I also conducted a little staff survey which aimed to capture more detail from colleagues about the various implementations (experience, skills, attitudes, etc), but also subliminally served as a tool for stakeholder engagement. I'm hoping it will ease the burden/shock/resistance come implementation.

    2. Staff development is a huge issue. Quite simply, the developments in technology move far quicker than the developments in staff digital literacies. How we address this is an obvious challenge, but I think curriculum reviews like this is a perfect opportunity, and naturally rest upon the way in which technologies are introduced into the curriculum. When staff see tight integration I think it's much easier.
    I like to think back to Gilly Salmon's 5 stage model for CMC, but apply that more broadly to the introduction of technologies. Start basic and get more detailed.

    3. Mechanisms for change. I think this is more difficult. At Liverpool, we're having a strategic focus on Minimum Standards, Online Submission and Lecture Capture (the spine of my TEL Team), but these are also fairly feasible Institution-wide initiatives. I think a review like yours is a perfect opportunity to do these broad implementations.

    4. One thing I think you have missed off, is the student voice. I can't emphasise enough the importance of ensuring that TEL developments are in response to what students actually want. My TEL spine might not be the most exciting, but it is reflective of student feedback. And in world where NSS rules, it's definitely something to consider.

    Thanks for the post. keep 'em coming!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Quite agree with you on point two, Peter. It doesn't necessarily follow that staff development in a particular technology will lead to a member of staff using it - there's more to it. From my own research I've found motivators to use e-learning stem from much more personal perspectives, for instance the desire to be available and approachable to students leads to decisions being made about how to be available and where to be available (e-platforms rather than just through office hours). [Edited OP as I'd written "point three"]

  3. Thanks for taking the time to give such comprehensive comments, Peter - it's much appreciated. Your suggestions are duly noted.

    With regard to your final point on the student voice - I'm pleased to say that we do indeed have a parallel strand of the project which will specifically seek to involve students, not just as participants but actually as co-creators. I didn't mention that in the blog simply because I wanted to focus on a specific set of issues.


  4. Hi Tony, I think the Learning Future project is a positive step in the right direction but I agree with Nixon (1996) that we must come to term with the fact that any effective restructuring must take on board a key professional concern which involves ‘the recognition of teaching as an important area of professional expertise in its own right and of the need for structures of professional development and support to ensure the growth of that expertise’ (p. 14).
    I think that we are dealing with a complex scenario. The Higher Education sector is currently affected by neoliberal policies and development of audit culture, away from the idea of public good (Clegg, 2009. Academics are now working in a ‘world of supercomplexity’ (Barnett, 2008) where the framework on which their profession is based is continually changing as it is progressively influenced both by the state and the market. Stephen Ball (2008) argues that performativity, privatisation and the state are profoundly changing teaching and the meaning of professionalism. The idea of being re-oriented in terms of goals and commitment leads to a feeling of professional identity that is being threatened, as we are making ‘ourselves calculable rather than memorable, where experience is nothing, productivity is everything’ (p. 56). I think these changing conditions have serious consequences on the HE academic sense of profession in that their role seems not to offer autonomy and status. Nevertheless autonomy and status are the very characteristics of occupations that lay claim to being professions (Nixon, 1996).
    I agree with Barnett and Middlehurst, (1993) that we as academics are being increasingly asked to take on new commitments which results in the need to re-balance our professional activities. We have been asked to become more productive in our research and to be more entrepreneurial in relation to research, consultancy and teaching in order to attract third leg income but at the same time to become more effective as teachers seeking to raise the quality of our teaching, to be responsive to the perceptions of students, to take into account the views of employers in their curriculum and be willing to work in teams with regards to course design and delivery. Whilst we have to become more accountable to external constituencies for our actions and services, our sense of professional responsibility is also changing. I think all of this creates tensions and more barriers with engaging with changes in pedagogy. I think that people will naturally prioritise their time according to what we think will add more value to their professional life. Do academics feel that the University have a culture in which learning and teaching are valued in the same way as research?
    Lecturers and students all have expectations and a wealth of experience of the face to face, traditional models of teaching and learning. Like you, I also feel that truly sustainable innovation is difficult to achieve and is frankly quite rare. I think that there is a natural inertia, people do not all want to be challenged, they do not all appreciate being ‘forced out’ of their comfort zone. As an academic developer I have learned that for a practitioner’s attitude to change is paramount and that the process of change needs to be negotiated, entered into and supported (Land, 2001). Hanson (2009) suggests that academics need to belong to a community which can act as a safe place in which to explore new practice based on principles that are pedagogically defensible (Taylor, 1997). I also learnt that course teams have extremely varied experiences and enthusiasms with regard to technology. I think it is important to establish a need based training and a ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

  5. Garrison and Vaughan, (2012) suggests that in order for technology and innovation to lead to genuine improvements, there must be strong collaborative leadership, sustained commitment, teaching recognition and an infrastructure which supports change. In this context it is important that the University offers adequate educational development in order ‘to increase academic awareness of the complex interplay between technology, pedagogy and the cognitive content of their discipline’ (Rienties et al 2012, p. 122). The challenge is to demonstrate the relevance and advantages of technological change. I think it is important to collect and disseminate examples of its effective practice and therefore the need to take an active role in a research community.
    The effective utilisation of e-learning requires a ‘considerable shift both in skills and conception of learning and teaching’ (Hanson, 2009). Hanson suggests that the use of technologies threatens the intimacy of the interaction with the students that currently mostly takes place in the classroom. The loss of control over their teacher presence changes the balance of power and threatens their academic identity and self-efficacy. I believe that it is for this reason that the majority of academics are more likely to adopt an innovation if they are given incentives and substantial period of time to adapt (Lawless and Pellegrino, 2007), are supported by a professional community of practice (Unwin, 2007) and see that the effect of the innovation is to truly enhance the quality of the learning environment and outcomes.
    Baxter (2012) conducted research into the impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers and concluded in order to permeate professional identities at a deep and transformational level, it is vital that academic development identifies resistance discourse and ‘encompasses the psychosocial, ethical and political dimensions of this mode of teaching including the facets of identity construction and development’ so that ‘learning affects not only the ways in which lecturers teach online but contributes positively to feelings of self -salience, personal efficacy and confidence concomitantly leading to high levels of academic and professional autonomy, motivation and job satisfaction.’ (p. 9)
    I hope that through Learning Futures, we will be able to fulfil Kirkpatrick’s vision (2001) of an effective academic development programme which should ‘be supported by central policy and planning, address the development of technical and pedagogical skills, provide working models and examples of practice and provide opportunities for practice and reflection’ (p. 170)

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