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The new challenges of E-learning

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2001 | BY William H. Graves 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

After many years at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Dr. William H. Graves founded and is now chairman of Eduprise, a company focused on helping institutions of higher education use technology to improve teaching and learning.

UBIQUITY: Do you think it's still necessary to proselytize for technology in education or is everybody converted by now?

WILLIAM H. GRAVES: In a sense you're right to suggest that everyone is converted. Most institutions have embraced the challenge of e-learning -- the use of Internet technologies in teaching and learning. But too few are clear about the changing nature of the challenge.

UBIQUITY: How has the challenge changed? What used to be the problem and what's the problem now?

GRAVES: The challenge initially was framed as advancing the faculty¹s willingness to adapt instruction to take advantage of the Internet revolution in human communication and resource sharing. And this accounts for the plethora of instructor support programs designed either 1) to enhance traditional classroom-based courses with web access to syllabi, materials, and discussions or 2) to put courses online in a distance education modality that eliminates or reduces "onground" classroom time. Today the challenge is to develop a prioritization and investment strategy that recognizes the evolving mission-critical role of e-learning. Students today expect much more than online access to course materials or even to courses. They expect online access to both academic and administrative services. So today¹s challenge is to integrate academic and administrative services on the web presenting a single and personalized point of contact for students, instructors, and other stakeholders.

UBIQUITY: What is the driving force behind that kind of change?

GRAVES: There are two driving forces: convenience and continuity. Convenience in education is like location in real estate. What's important is convenience, convenience, convenience -- the convenience of online syllabi, class notes, and threaded discussions, for example. But it¹s more than the vertical convenience of course services; it's also the horizontal convenience of a single point-of-contact for prospective and enrolled students seamlessly providing access to a wide variety of academic and student services online in an integrated Web environment. Institutions are discovering that what¹s necessary -- and convenient -- for the totally online student is also convenient for, and in demand by, the more traditional, residential student.

UBIQUITY: What are you referring to when you say "continuity"?

GRAVES: Is it necessary to distinguish between "distant" students and traditional students? Wouldn¹t life-long learning be a more meaningful concept if students had the flexibility throughout their life-long educational trajectories to opt for the combination of onground and online courses that would be most convenient for them at that moment? And wouldn¹t better articulation of credit transfers among institutions lend continuity to the life-long educational experience? Anyplace-anytime technologies can be used to take some of the friction out of the delivery of academic and student administrative services, as I¹ve suggested, but the same technologies also enable credit-banking and portfolio approaches to credentialing learning. In other words, technology can be a tool for making credentialed student learning a more seamless and continuous life-long process. One of our clients, Montgomery College in Maryland, refers to the student as the "center of the College¹s universe." Montgomery College understands convenience and continuity as keystones in an enterprise approach to e-learning.

UBIQUITY: Expand a little bit on the notion of "enterprise," which is obviously important to you since you fused it with the word "education" to form "Eduprise," the name of your company.

GRAVES: We think that having an enterprise strategy for e-learning is a key to progressing beyond what I sometimes call "random acts of progress" -- what some kinder people call "pockets of excellence." If those pockets of excellence are institutionally strategic, that¹s great. But, in general, an ad hoc pay-off is not the same as an enterprise pay-off. So today a lot of money is going into e-learning, and some progress is being made. However, for real progress that ties back into the institutional mission, institutions have to have a strategy that is enterprise in scope. Far too often the idea is to throw technology onto the playing field and cheer for those who pick up the ball and run with it. Relatively few institutions take a strategic approach to ensure a pay off at the institutional level.

UBIQUITY: Is the idea of adopting a strategic enterprise approach a hard sell still?

GRAVES: I wouldn't say it's a hard sell. But by definition, it requires top-down leadership -- along with bottom-up enthusiasm and innovation. Institutional leaders can't simply defer to the IT person or the person who's running the center for teaching and learning. E-learning has to be viewed and supported as the fabric of a strategy for advancing the institution¹s future. It has to cut across all the major offices of the university -- academic and administrative -- and be viewed as a common good. Everyone has to pull together, which, of course, is the most difficult of human endeavors. For example, the faculty and administration pulled together at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a new Eduprise client, and decided to require every student to take at least one virtual (anyplace-anytime) course as a means to ensure that its graduates have a working knowledge of the Internet as a medium for research, learning, and communications.

UBIQUITY: Have you found a significant change in the relationship between the academic people at the top and the IT people at the top in institutions nowadays?

GRAVES: In some institutions the relationship is working better now than it's ever worked before, but I don't think that can be said universally. E-learning is really an academic opportunity, but it¹s too often seen as an IT support issue. Also as you know, there's a real demand for IT people -- a demand, for example, for CIOs. Because of the scarcity of the supply, we're seeing more and more CIOs come in from outside academe -- from industry, for example, with non-academic backgrounds. In some ways those marriages are just fine because those CIOs tend to know that their role is to manage the technology and its support, so they leave it to the academic officer to manage the underlying change in the mission or the delivery of the mission. In other cases, institutions are lucky to have an IT officer with an academic background who understands all these things, and who works fluently with the provost or the academic officer. One of our clients, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, created a CIO-like VP-level position to coordinate academic change and to supervise the work of a technology officer hired to manage the technology. So that top position, held by Dr. Robert Tyndall, focuses on the coordination of academic change and synchronizes the management and provision of technology support with that transformational change.

UBIQUITY: This might be a good point for you to describe Eduprise in terms of how large it is, where it is, and so forth.

GRAVES: As you know, over the years at the University of North Carolina I was a faculty member, academic administrator, and senior technology officer. I left the university a little over three years ago. About 14 colleagues joined me. At that time, we were all part of the Institute for Academic Technology, which I helped UNC create in 1989 with support from IBM. We became Eduprise, which today is a private company of well over 100 employees and approximately 50-60 institutional or enterprise clients. We've grown a lot and much of that growth has taken place in the past year and half. Our business model has changed somewhat since we started the company. And we are succeeding in our business model. We won¹t be an Internet casualty. Our clients see us as a trusted, long-term partner, and that¹s the foundation for our success.

UBIQUITY: What is your current business model?

GRAVES: Today, we're a product-independent e-learning services company. By e-learning, we mean the application of Internet technology to teaching and learning. That's not a purely distance education theme; it's a broad-based education theme that includes distance education in the anyplace-anytime modality. We help our clients assess their progress in e-learning and tailor an enterprise solution that takes into account their progress, their resources and expertise, and the gaps in their e-learning support services. We then fill the gaps in a continuing service relationship -- 3-year contracts are the norm. So we help clients strategize, assess, plan, implement, and support their e-learning initiatives. For example, we can help institutions develop a strategy for e-learning and a subsequent strategic plan. That sometimes means something very specific, like developing a business plan for a virtual campus, but it usually has a broader purpose involving both traditional and virtual academic programs. We often also help clients develop and implement a plan for single-point-of-contact student administrative services for e-learning, the concept I spoke of earlier. And these kind of consulting and evaluation services are only the tip of the iceberg -- our "Strategic Services."

UBIQUITY: What are the other services that you offer?

GRAVES: The other professional services are more rubber-hits-the-road kinds of services. We call them "Instructional Development Services." They include training faculty members to use e-learning software, assisting them in rethinking their pedagogy, assisting them with instructional design, helping them develop courses, and so on. In that regard, we've partnered with both Blackboard and Web CT so we can support either one of those popular e-learning platforms with training and development services. And we are in promising discussions with Promethius at the moment. Perhaps, most importantly, we can help faculty understand the new pedagogy, that is, the most effective practices for teaching when much of the learning environment is online. And we don¹t stop by providing only professional services; we also provide technology services.

UBIQUITY: What kind of technologies do you offer?

GRAVES: We don¹t sell technology; we provide technology support services. We provide "Infrastructure Support Services" -- hosting and complete support for either Blackboard, WebCT, WBT, or, in the future, Promethius. These server applications and the learning environments our clients build with them sit on our servers, and we manage them 24 hours a day. We provide an 800 number and an online technical help desk for both students and faculty 24 hours a day. The other side of the technology equation is what we call "Web Integration Services" to plan and integrate the client¹s back office student information system and other systems with one of the e-learning software packages and, perhaps, with a portal at the front end. It's a portal concept or single point-of-contact concept, pulling all of the technologies together, and working through a plan for doing that.

UBIQUITY: You tilted 100 percent from product to services.

GRAVES: Well, yes and no. We were always a services company. We never sold a software product. But, at first, when we sold a services contract, we provided software (ours) with our services because there was not then a maturing software market as there is today. And, although we provide consulting services, as described above, we are not a consulting company per se. We provide solutions, which involve consulting, faculty and curriculum development support, and technology support -- enterprise e-learning solutions.

UBIQUITY: And you don't provide software anymore?

GRAVES: We're still supporting clients using our software, but we are working with those clients to migrate to their choice of a software solution that best meets their needs today. We think the e-learning software market will continue to mature, and there will be new entrants into the market. As I said earlier, for example, we will probably be entering into a partnership with Promethius soon. Our approach is to follow the market and provide services around the most popular packages so our clients will have choices in meeting their needs. And we are prepared to help them migrate from one solution to another as software advances, which it will.

UBIQUITY: But without belaboring it, what made you make the business decision to stay away from the software aspect?

GRAVES: We never intended to be a software company. Our real strength is in understanding academe at the enterprise, departmental, and professorial level and in working with academics on the change management and pedagogical fronts, if you will. That's our strength, and we were therefore happy when the software market began to mature. When we started our company there wasn't much out there, and we had to provide software as the foundation for our services. Indeed, our software has some leading-edge features deriving from our focus on collaborative learning as a model that¹s especially appropriate in a networked world. But the companies that are primarily software companies, such as Blackboard, WebCT, and WBT will continue to innovate and provide quality products as good as anything we could develop, and yet software will continue to be only about 10% of any enterprise e-learning solution. We recognized that from the start, and now that we don¹t have to develop software, it's wiser for us to invest our money in the development of services constituting the other 90 percent of an enterprise solution. No other company can provide the comprehensive services that we provide, and no other company has its roots as deeply embedded in higher education as ours.

UBIQUITY: Do you mind if I ask who is your competition?

GRAVES: In fact, I don't mind. Because we are product independent, we can be and are very partner-centric. That's an added value on top of product independence. If you're technology agnostic, then you can potentially add value for the client by working with a range of partners. For example, we partner with the WebCT, Blackboard, and WBT software companies. We're SCT¹s exclusive e-learning services partner, and we also partner with ERP companies Datatel and PeopleSoft. We have the most comprehensive set of professional services on the market, and the only product-independent services. One company that is a nearly direct competitor is eCollege. But eCollege has its own software platform, and the company started life selling mostly into the continuing education or distance education market. We started with an enterprise approach and are product independent. Convene is another competitor but, again, is one that is focused on the distance or continuing ed market. And there's a Canadian company, Embanet, which is a smaller services company than ours and is not product independent, as far as I know. So those would probably be the three companies competing directly with us at some level in the higher ed market.

UBIQUITY: What remains controversial in terms of distance education and, more generally, computer-assisted education?

GRAVES: I think that there's a misunderstanding within some parts of the faculty of what e-learning is all about. It¹s possible for students to use "learningware" for self study, but most students will continue to need and want support from an instructor. Yet, many instructors believe that the changes underway are strictly about putting content online, and they fear that will remove them from the learning equation. The historical analogy would translate into libraries being the only resource needed for effective learning. But we have faculty offices and classrooms, and we¹ll continue to have them -- and the faculty. The changes underway are not about putting content online. They are about finding ways for instructors to make instruction more about learning and less about teaching. They are about the productivity of instruction form the point of view of what is learned, how much time it took to learn, at what cost, and so on. These are wonderful challenges for the nation¹s best minds, many of which are in higher education. Higher education¹s greatest asset is intellectual capital (human capital), not intellectual property. Education requires human communication and the sharing of resources -- and the Internet revolution provides exponential leverage for communication and resource sharing. The Internet is a great medium for partnering and for dividing and conquering thorny educational problems, and our business is built on a divide-and-conquer model. That¹s why we have so many enterprise clients complementing their expertise and resources with ours.

UBIQUITY: Do faculty members nowadays get more respect than they used to for using technology? And are they still worried that it will not help them get tenure.

GRAVES: Oh, I think they get a lot more respect now than in days gone by. E-learning is becoming part of the academic fabric, as opposed to being a separate activity that needs to be debated as having value or not. Technology is just there, and in fact everywhere. As for tenure, well, I don't claim that putting energy into e-learning speeds tenure and raises. It¹s really a question of whether your institution and your colleagues place measurable value on the core mission of student learning. If so, then tenure and rewards will find those who are engaged in the technology-enabled transformation to learning-centric instruction with quality results. It¹s about the quality of the work, not about the nature of the work. So I don't really see that old debate being as active as it used to be. What I do see on the part of the faculty is the expectation that support will be available. In other words, don't ask me to spend my time shifting the way I teach and supporting my students using technology unless you're willing to support me in doing so. It's not a one-person individual game. It's an institutional game, and there needs to be a strategy and of course, behind that strategy, a set of support structures and services.

UBIQUITY: Give us an example of a real success story.

GRAVES: We have many in our client base, so let me give several different kind of examples. One is the University of Baltimore. This public institution -- part of the University System of Maryland -- was facing declining enrollments in the Baltimore urban area. In consultation with the faculty, the Provost, Dr. Ron Legon, decided to use the convenience of anyplace-anytime (virtual) instruction as a means to attract more students. They focused the effort on their AACSB accredited MBA program, and decided to be the first to have a fully online AACSB accredited MBA program -- no classroom requirement. We were engaged to help, and the program was online in a very short time. The program has been underway now for a couple of years, and it has been a real success. They first developed a business plan and a strategy, and then succeeded in meeting that plan and graduating students, all with support from Eduprise. The program is now attracting students from outside of Maryland and even outside the country. Meanwhile, the Provost was also working with the Arts and Sciences faculty to provide the same Eduprise-based e-learning services to help the faculty enhance its traditionally delivered classroom-based courses with technology. So the University is moving toward a more continuous model, in which the boundary between distance applications and on-campus applications is becoming blurred or seamless -- and is increasing its enrollments in the process.

UBIQUITY: Example two?

GRAVES: The University of North Carolina Wilmington, which I previously mentioned in regard to the duties of the CIO position there, is a good example for another reason. UNCW¹s problem was quite unlike the University of Baltimore¹s. Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina, is a very attractive beach town with a very popular campus. UNCW is under mandate from the University of North Carolina system to increase its enrollments quickly and significantly in response to statewide demographics and educational needs. But UNCW couldn¹t really accommodate a lot of increased enrollments with its current physical plant. So instead, the University is putting programs and courses online to give students the option to take courses in the classroom or totally online, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the physical plant and at the same time accommodating necessary growth in the enrollment base. In this regard, UNCW calls itself a "blended" campus. And this model, too, is meeting its intended goals. With planning, implementation, and delivery support from Eduprise, UNCW changed its approach to investing in technology.

UBIQUITY: And the third example?

GRAVES: The third one would be the very interesting Kentucky Virtual University. The concept is tailor made for the Internet. It illustrates my claim that the Internet is a partnering medium. KVU is a virtual (anyplace-anytime) program run by less than 20 people led by a CEO, Dr.Mary Beth Susman, and reporting to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Most of KVU¹s staff members are focused on marketing and, especially, providing student services. KVU outsources its academic programs -- the courses, the degrees, the faculty -- from existing institutions, most of which are in Kentucky. They outsource technology support and some aspects of web site and course development from us at Eduprise. They're really taking advantage of the fact that the Internet provides leverage in the form of the investments that others have already made, whether in infrastructure and technology, professional expertise, or in academic programs that already exist and can be delivered via the Internet to reach a greater audience. The purpose is to raise Kentucky from its current status, which in terms of the college-going rate and baccalaureate degree holders is unfavorable. Economic development and increased and convenient access to education are KVU¹s drivers. We've been KVU¹s partner for two years. The effort has been successful by many measures. KVU enrollments in its third semester are in excess of 3,500. And now across the state border in Tennessee and driven by similar statewide needs, the Tennessee Board of Regents has engaged Eduprise to help plan and implement the Tennessee Regents Web-Based Degrees, a set of complementary two- and four-year degree programs that will be delivered in virtual (anyplace-anytime) mode. This is an important and bold effort by the nation¹s sixth largest system, and we are delighted to be a partner in the effort. Similarly, we are helping the University of Tennessee plan its New College, another virtual-campus effort in Tennessee.

UBIQUITY: Let's end on this note: Looking to the particular audience that's in the ACM community, what would you want to give our readers now as a message?

GRAVES: Think deeply about the Internet as a medium for partnering. There are many educational issues today for which a divide-and-conquer strategy makes a lot of sense, and the Internet empowers that approach. It allows us to say, OK, here's a problem that's intractable from the point of view of a single department or even from the point of view of a single institution. But when we combine forces and row in sync, using the Internet as a partnering medium, we can solve this problem to our mutual benefit. That's exactly what Kentucky is doing with its virtual university. So recognize the shift in thinking that has to take place to take advantage of the Internet. Traditional thinking is focused on a single institution or a single department, but our thinking is based on the economic theory of Ronald Coase, the Nobel Laureate, and is quite different -- as I described in an earlier article in Ubiquity. And it¹s different because the Internet begs us to think differently about how to gain leverage from other people's investments and expertise. That's probably my big message. That's why I left the university, and it's why and how we're in business.


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