Monday, November 28, 2011

Quality And Profits: The Case Study of Introducing Moodle in a For-Profit Business School


Dr. Kendall, the Programme Director of the MBA programme in a management college in the city, was recently advised by the accrediting university that the ‘student experience’ in the course must improve. During a recent conversation, the students told the University representatives that there was very little interaction outside the classroom hours between the tutors and themselves, and often they felt that they had been rushed through the programme. They also indicated that they felt that there wasn’t enough library resources, and they were not sure that the programme was preparing them adequately for a career in business.

There wasn’t a straightforward solution available to Dr. Kendall. First of all, his was a Higher Education programme in the midst of a Professional Training college, where most tutors were adjunct and they would not commit extra hours outside the contracted time for student contact. Library resources were hard to come by, as this wasn’t something the college administration really deemed necessary, given their background in Accountancy training. Furthermore, the majority of students were from overseas, balancing work and study, and were hardly available for any extra-curricular engagement anyway.

However, Dr Kendall was painfully aware that he must act, quickly and decisively. The university moderator was quite clear that he might not allow the college to take on any more new students unless actions had been taken to improve the student experience. The college management was equally clear that the programme wasn’t making money for them and they needed to take on more students and even be able to raise the student fees for the forthcoming intakes. Besides, spread over three campuses, the college management hardly ever interacted with the students, and did not see any reason for Dr Kendall’s alarm.


The Convergence of Interests

One solution, suggested to Dr Kendall by one of the members of the management team, Dr Eric Blair, the newly recruited brand manager of the college, was to create a student community. The rationale for this advice was more marketing than academic, but there was a clear pay-off for Dr Kendall : The community might pull the students to the college, making them spend more time and learning from each other and demanding more from tutors. What’s more, Dr Blair suggested rather persuasively, the students might feel more positively about the college if they were more involved, and this might reflect in their feedback, formal or informal, to the university. Using marketing-speak, Dr Blair talked about ‘engagement’ being the key to solve Dr. Kendall’s problems as well as something that may help the college raise the fees over time. Whatever was the merit of these arguments, Dr Kendall felt most persuaded to follow the advice because Eric had some budget to enhance student engagement.

Unbeknown to Dr Kendall, however,  Dr Blair was also keen to explore options. First of all, he was not convinced that the student experience at the college was good enough, and knew that any marketing efforts would be quite ineffective if the service levels did not improve. He was keen, from a business and marketing point of view, to help out Dr Kendall.

Dr Blair had a certain influence on the owners and board members of the business. His experiences in other large international education businesses were valued, but more importantly, he had the experience of raising money, from venture capital funds, for education businesses. The college wanted to tap such funding for its future expansion and this was the precise reason why Dr Blair was offered the position. Also, unlike Dr Kendall, Dr Blair was a business executive and spoke the language the board members understood: He set a goal – being able to charge double the fees for the MBA programme in twelve months’ time by enhancing the value perception of the programme – which was fully supported by the bankers, the Finance Director and the investors in the business.

The Baby Steps

Dr Kendall, therefore, was happy enough to accept the suggestion of building a student collaboration website which incorporates an online learning platform. This was to be a shoestring exercise, and an ‘Open Source’ platform, Moodle, was chosen. This was, however, a more difficult choice than it appeared: Both Dr Kendall and Dr Blair knew that to make Moodle work, it would need more time and effort than something that could be bought off the shelf. However, the upfront investment of buying a ready-to-use platform prohibited such choice: Dr Blair was simply reluctant to go back to the board asking for any significant investment upfront.

He could secure, however, a coalition of the willing within the organization. One of the senior managers, James, already tried using Moodle for professional accountancy courses, but it gained no traction as the tutors refused to post their notes on the site. Professional Accountancy training being tutor-driven as it is, James had very little negotiating power and had to abandon his plans to use Moodle for these courses. However, the infrastructure was already invested in, which Dr Blair could now use without any additional investment.

He also enlisted Daphne, the young IT specialist who recently joined the teaching staff of the college. Daphne had an Engineering degree, but completed Masters in Design from a Scottish University. She took up the teaching job being without an option in the recessionary job market, but was looking to move into User Experience work. Dr Blair convinced her to lead the task of running the Moodle for Dr Kendall’s students, arguing that this would give her enough ‘user’ facing time as she wanted to have and would allow her an opportunity to apply her professional expertise in the field of education.

Dr Kendall also mandated that all tutors in the MBA programme must use Moodle to post their notes and be available to answer student queries. Tutors were aware that they did not have as much negotiating power and mostly agreed to cooperate. However, they objected to extra work, particularly as they had to learn a new software. This was easily circumvented as Daphne, anxious to get the work going, volunteered to take on the job of posting all the notes, as long as these were supplied in Microsoft Word or PDF formats.

Finally, Dr Kendall also decided to review all contracts and move the tutors from an hourly to a package rate for teaching; the new contracts offered more money to the tutors but covered an undefined amount of extra work which must go into supporting students online. Most tutors did not see the students using the site anyway: They agreed.

Here come the students

When the first batch of students was registered on Moodle in October 2010, the expectations were rather modest. The site, despite the tacit agreement with the tutors, was bereft of any content at the time. This was not due to tutor’s reticence, but more because there was no content to give. Most tutors used whiteboards or overhead projectors in the class, and those who used Powerpoint slides were treating these as tools of the trade and did not see the point of giving them away. Desperate to register an early win, however, Daphne set up Moodle registration sessions, where she would hire out large classrooms with computer terminals, make all the students sit together and register into Moodle. This was effective: She had almost 200 students registered on Moodle in a matter of a few days.

These numbers were an important catalyst in a number of ways. Dr Blair declared an early victory and informed the board members that 90% of the MBA students registered on the Moodle platform within the first seven days of launch. It was an important half-truth: He never said that this was done through organized classroom sessions, but this allowed him to project this to be a popular initiative that the students love and ask formally for resources, including an Online Library subscription, to be integrated into it. He further pressed on the other departments, such as IT, to integrate various workflows, covering important other tasks that an overseas student needed done – such as request for council tax exemption letters, travel letters, holiday work authorization letters, turnitin access to check for appropriateness of referencing – to be integrated in the same platform.

Dr Kendall, meantime, sent the same message to the tutors, that almost all the students had now registered on Moodle and, even if they have no content to give, they should start answering the student queries etc on the Moodle forum.


The Unexpected Consequences of Being There

The students, however, started using Moodle straightaway, even before any content was posted onto it. The first post on Moodle forum, dated October 12th 2010, hours after the students were registered, read – “Moodle is the best thing that the college management has ever done. At least, we can now talk to each other about our studies, and get to know the students in other classes”. By October 17th, a Sunday, a student was writing about “forming a club of students which will run sessions… Can we have a petition to the college management to give us a classroom after the college hours?”

The first tutor notes came in a week later. The Marketing Strategy tutor reported that the students requested if the notes could be made available online, and he had to give in to them. Soon, almost all the module tutors got some notes onto the platform. The CEO of the company wanted to check out what’s going on and wanted to access Moodle: His first post, responding to the student request for facilities for the student club, was made on the November 24th, a month after the original post: “It is good to know that you wanted to take the initiative. Let your course administrator know when you want to organize this session and a room will be made available. I would love to attend the session.” The discussions with the course team resulted in formation of ‘Enterprise Network Club’, a monthly evening event where local entrepreneurs and employers were invited to talk face to face with the students. The first meeting of the ‘club’ was held on the 12th January, three months after the idea was proposed, and the CEO of the company did attend, much of Dr Kendall’s relief.

Everyone’s Baby

Despite its apparent success with students, six months after it was first launched, the site was still thin on content on some of courses. Two of the most highly regarded tutors refused to give any content for putting up. One of them wanted to protect his intellectual property and insisted that the site did not have the adequate level of security. The other argued that his content is mostly on Overhead Slides which he wrote by hand in the class; he also argued that he did not want to give his slides to students who did not come to the class. Some of the other tutors objected that they were having to do more work than they thought would be necessary, as the students kept sending queries through Moodle and annoyingly for them, N almost always did a follow-up.

Dr Blair was not successful in getting an Online Library subscription: The high cost of doing so deterred the board members. Instead, he secured an access to the university online library, which all students could use. This did not happen through Moodle, but he was happy nonetheless that this was now available. However , he had some minor wins: The board agreed to invest a modest amount in a Department library instead. The IT department was also lately persuaded to allow the Moodle to be connected to their databases, allowing the students to make the request through the Moodle rather than having to fill up a form physically.

Dr Kendall regards Moodle as a personal victory – he got annoyed when some of the tutors referred to it as ‘Noodle’; light-heartedly, they insist. He retained his accreditation, and has a greater quota nowadays. The university moderator is quite happy with progress, but the students are now complaining that access to Moodle is often difficult as the college does not have enough computer terminals for use of students. The university has now recommended that the college reviews its IT infrastructure, including the number of computer terminals and broadband access and load. Dr Blair has a new thing to argue about – giving a free laptop to students when they sign up for the course: He believes that this will enhance the ‘perception of the course, introduce a touch-and-feel dimension of the technology orientated nature of delivery’. The CEO contends that he recognizes the marketing-speak, but he would want to talk to some students first.    

Reflections

The experiences as narrated here cover a number of perspectives and relate to a number of theoretical perspectives on group behaviour and the research on introduction of technology in an organization. In the following paragraphs, we shall reflect on two such perspectives, one exploring the positive student experience and the other relating to the challenges such technology introduction usually faces.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this project is the students’ apparent satisfaction with the platform without content. It is possibly appropriate, in context, to look at the students as ‘digital natives’ and reflect on previous research on the Net Generation’s satisfaction with Online learning (Dziuban et al, 2010). This research identify six component areas from which such satisfaction emanates:

A.     Effective Institutional Responsiveness, or the feeling among the students that their institution is making some effort to accommodate their lifestyle needs.
B.     Increased Educational Engagement, or the satisfaction with the ‘enhanced ability to ask questions and clarify their concerns’.
C.     More Explicit Role Expectations, or knowing that the assessments are responsive and equitable, and having a clear vision of rules of engagement (achieved through interaction with others and tutors).
D.    Reduced Ambivalence, achieved through a ‘heightened sense of engagement and clearer understanding of expectations’.
E.     Increased Information Fluency, by developing an effective filtering mechanism, through interaction with others and tutors, of the information overload.
F.     Increased Commitment to Education, through empowerment with a sense of agency.
(Dziuban et al, 2010)

It can be said that the organizations commitment to deploy Moodle and engage students through this created the overall sense of empowerment, created the positive engagement and started the enabling conversations that the students craved for.

It is also interesting to look at another perspective, that of the people initiating the project inside the organization and the various challenges they faced in introducing the piece of new technology. An useful perspective is provided by Grudin (1994). In his effort to list the eight challenges that Groupware developers face in an organization, he touched upon various areas which remain valid even after a decade and half. Grudin’s list represents eight dimensions against which various aspects of this case can be explored:

1.     Disparity of Work and Benefit: The tutors saw additional work in implementing Online Learning, and the project would not have moved forward without the Project Coordinator stepping in to take on some of the workload. The benefits, increased student engagement, came only later.
2.     Critical Mass and Prisoners’ Dilemma Problems: The platform needed critical mass, and it would not have been helpful for any one individual to start using it first. The group registration session helped to get most people on board at the very beginning and was crucial for eventual adaptation of the site as the principal communication platform.
3.     Disruption of Social Processes: In some cases, introduction of Moodle laid open the students’ dissatisfaction with some of the tutors and facilities, and students took advantage of the direct communication facilities with the Executive Management. Some of the tutors and programme administrators felt undermined to a great extent. Their lack of enthusiasm, mainly due to this reason, had to be addressed.
4.     Exception Handling: The Moodle platform was not there to solve all the problems the students have, though there was an implicit expectation that it would do so eventually. In the areas where it fell short, the users were disappointed.
5.     Unobtrusive Accessibility: One of the most successful spin-offs from this Moodle experiment was the start of the ‘club’, a real group activity involving external participants and students on Moodle. The coordination of this activity was through the general forum, which was actually the least used area of Moodle, but turned out to be quite popular as this allowed the students to converse regardless of their course enrolments.
6.     Difficulty of Evaluation: It was difficult for the Project Team and its management sponsors to actually evaluate the impact of the project beyond anecdotal evidence. The communication aspect was well understood by all in the organization, but how it benefitted anyone was not entirely clear.
7.     Failure of Intuition: It was difficult for a management team to design an appropriate learning and collaboration platform for a body of students it did not know well. The project manager’s user facing design experience was therefore critical, but the project still suffered, at times, from the IT Team’s failure to understand the students’ needs and inability to communicate in the users’ language.
8.     Adoption Process: It was not just a piece of technology, but a culturally situated process of negotiation and involvement that was required to get the project going.
(Grudin, 1994)

The above model provides a framework to understand various aspects of introduction of a new piece of technology requiring group participation, and the narrative of this case can be explored in context.

References

Dziuban, C. D., Moskal, P. D., Bradford, G. R., Brophy-Ellison, J. and Groff, A.T. (2010) Constructs that impact the Net Generation’s Satisfaction with Online Learning; in Sharpe, R., Beetham, H., and De Freitas, S. (Eds), Rethinking Learning For A Digital Age, Routledge, NY.

Grudin, J. (1994), Groupware and Social Dynamics: Eight Challenges for Developers, Communications of the ACM, Vol 37 No. 1, January 1994, NY.


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