Professor of Leadership and Professional Learning, School of Education, University of Leeds
Chair of Educational Technology, Innovation and Change and Director of Digital Learning, University of Leeds
Research Series 5.5, August 2016
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Technology-enhanced learning (TEL) delineates the defining feature of the changed and changing learning landscape in higher education (HE), within which sector its provision and use have escalated over the last decade. This document is a report of a research project that focused on examining how strategic change initiatives and the embedding of technological developments in institutions may enhance students’ experience of higher education. One specific strategic change-focused initiative was central to our examination: the Changing the Learning Landscape (CLL) programme (described in outline below).
Launched in September 2012 and involving the participation of 149 institutions over a two-year period, the CLL initiative was directed at supporting and facilitating higher education providers in England, in both the higher education and further education sectors, to develop their strategic change approaches and capacity in relation to TEL, including through inter-institutional networks and partnerships. It was managed by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (the Leadership Foundation) through a programme board comprising representatives from the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), the Higher Education Academy (HEA), JISC, the National Union of Students (NUS), and an external evaluator in a participant–observer role.
In June 2014, the Leadership Foundation issued an invitation to tender for a research project to look at improving student learning outcomes through strategic change, focusing particularly on ‘the learning which has come out of the Changing the Learning Landscape project’ - The Leadership Foundation's Invitation to Tender. The research project reported in this document was the result of our successful bid, and was carried out between September 2014 and April 2015.
The main aim of the research was to examine how strategic change initiatives and the embedding of technological developments in institutions providing higher education may enhance the student experience, and to discuss the implications of our findings for institutional policy and practice. More specifically, the key objectives were to identify factors that influence the success of strategic change in institutions, and, in particular, to examine the outcomes of the CLL initiative.
A qualitative approach was applied to data collection and analysis, using face-to-face interviews as the main method, supplemented by analysis of the Leadership Foundation’s documentation relating to the participation of higher education institutions (HEIs) in the CLL initiative. Consistent with the funders’ expressed wishes, five case analyses were undertaken, whereby a single, discrete CLL project served as the unit of analysis and involved interviews with: students; the CLL project lead at the HEI where the project was based; and other key players (typically these interviewees included academics, members of senior management, academic developers and learning technologists from the HEI in question, and in some cases the external consultant appointed to support the project team). In total, 40 interviews were conducted. Each case project was selected after initial data collection and analysis indicated its potential to be interesting and illuminative in relation to TEL-focused strategic change. Thereafter a wider pool of project participants was interviewed.
In addition to the case analyses, some data were derived from ‘stand-alone’ interviews with students and academics or academic related staff from a sample of the HEIs that participated in the CLL initiative.
Implications of the findings
Changing the higher education learning landscape across the sector seems likely to be a protracted process, with some institutions preferring to take small, incremental steps than to introduce the wider-scale, more sweeping changes that mark out the sector leaders.
The success of the CLL initiative has demonstrated the benefits of external support and expert advice in advancing TEL-focused strategic change, particularly in institutions that lack the relevant expertise. Such institutions should not necessarily rely solely on in-house resources. Offering valuable consultancy at no, or very little, cost, the CLL initiative represented a particularly good ‘deal’ for those institutions that might hesitate, or struggle, to justify committing scarce resources to buying in external advice. If the learning landscape is to change significantly across the whole higher education sector, rather than just within the best-resourced institutions, there is a real need for more such initiatives to be rolled out.
Yet no matter how helpful and informative it is, consultancy or similar support can only provide direction and impetus; responsibility for pursuing that direction by implementing the recommended change lies with the institution. Here, effective leadership of TEL-related strategic change must be focused on a well-formulated strategy that reflects an informed, ambitious but realisable vision. To merit all three of these adjectives, the vision must be grounded in sound knowledge and understanding of learning technologies and of the TEL field, and of the context in which the strategy is to be applied: the institution, its culture and its people. Above all, senior management must actively – rather than nominally – support and promote such a vision. Without such support from the top, even the most creative and well-formulated bottom-up initiatives are likely to have limited success.
A short report which summarises some of the key project findings is available at www.lfhe.ac.uk/Evans5.4
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