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December 17, 2011 / Kirsty Pitkin

Best Practice Criteria for Sustainable E-Learning

  1. Overview

  2. Participants heard three short presentations discussing the issues associated with economic, pedagogic and environmental best practice within e-learning, each of which suggested a series of criteria for best practice.  The presentations were followed by roundtable discussions allowing participants to evaluate and refine these criteria.  This summary provides an overview of the issues raised by these presentations.
  3. JISC and Best Practice E-Learning

  4. Rob Bristow provided an overview of the JISC Greening ICT programme and some of the projects that JISC is currently funding in this area.  
  5. Substantive body of knowledge illuminating areas of uncertainty in respect to Green ICT is key to what we are doing today #bpel
  6. Bristow outlined the different strands that projects fall into, including growing a knowledge base, technical innovation and work with estates departments.  
  7. There is a cluster of projects around dashboards, information giving and changing user behaviour; and projects examining file storage #bpel
  8. Bristow also described the work of specific projects, including the Procurement and Scope 3 Emissions work at De Montfort, which is examining the issue of embedded carbon.
  9. Economic Best Practice Criteria

  10. Andrew Lane, Professor of Environmental Systems at the Open University and the Director of the SusTeach project provided us with a brief introduction to the SusTeach project, before examining the economic factors effecting the sustainability of e-learning in more detail and proposing his draft criteria for best practice in this area.
  11. Lane We’re going through great changes in the way higher education is being funded, so it is important to look at the costs involved #bpel
  12. Lane discussed relevant costs and how these balance against the revenue streams available to institutions.  He observed that the economics are diverse and wide ranging, including the physical infrastructure costs, the cost of proving the content, and the support and utility costs, balanced against revenue from grants fees and other sources.
  13. Lane: Traditional campus based learning is limited by physical resources and the high fixed cost of infrastructure #bpel
  14. Lane focused particularly on the changes wrought by the emergence of e-learning resources, and the new models this has brought about.  He described the OU’s approach to oping with the costs associated with the demand for high quality e-learning resources, which involves a large student body using those resources over several years to help recoup the high upfront costs of developing the materials.
  15. Lane: I suspect we are spending a lot more time producing educational resources than face-to-face, much more so than in the past #bpel
  16. As this last tweet indicates, it is not just e-learning which demands digital educational resources.  Lane discussed the emergence of open educational resources (OERs) and the role that they may play in changing the economic models of learning.
  17. Lane: Making content free raises issues about existing business models & revenue streams. Describing the freemium model as a solution #bpel
  18. Examples of the freemium model include the OU’s Open Learn service, which makes some materials available for free but requires students to sign up on a course to learn more, and the Flatworld Knowledge project in the US, which uses a freemium model to reduce text book costs within the system.
  19. Lane concluded by outlining his suggested criteria to help establish economic best practice in e-learning, based on these observations.

    Suggested Criteria:

    * Use similar staff:student ratios to scale up teaching and support to student module/course populations
    * Use asynchronous communications technology to reduce the costs of meeting at the same time and place
    * Use open source software wherever possible to reduce purchase costs for HEIs and students alike
    * Collaborate on the development of educational resources to share some of the costs
    * Use high value (e.g. rich media) open educational resources wherever possible to save on direct and indirect costs
    * Use HE wide digital collections of open educational content
  20. Hear Andy Lane reflect on the main issues raised by the workshop in his own words…
  21. Reflections on issues raised by workshop – Andy Lane
  22. Pedagogic Best Practice Criteria

  23. Dr Doug Clow, lecturer in interactive media development at the Open University, discussed the pedagogical issues associated with sustainable e-learning.  The slides from his presentation are embedded below:
  24. Clow: What’s different about e-learning? Very little, fundamentally in pedagogic terms #bpel
  25. Clow discussed the issues which fed into his suggested criteria for best practice, beginning with the importance of embedding sustainability within our curriculum, and the need to recognise that there is no one “right” way of doing education.
  26. Clow: It is important to employ a variety of methods and tools appropriately, and there should be a process of learning design #bpel
  27. Next, Clow outlined how digital analytics provide a powerful tool that makes e-learning very different from traditional learning models.  Whilst he noted that there are privacy and other concerns associated with logging the every interaction of learners, there are demonstrable benefits to providing timely feedback to both students and lectures to help keep students on track and minimise drop outs.
  28. Clow: E-learners leave a digital exhaust, which allows learning analytics – a fundamental difference between traditional & e-learning #bpel
  29. Clow highlighted the importance of accessibility and the doors that e-learning can open up.  He also noted that the traits that make e-learning resources accessible to people with disabilities can also help enhance the usefulness of the materials for all students, whatever their context.
  30. Clow: Checking for accessibility is a good proxy for checking whether teachers are testing their material out #bpel
  31. Finally, Clow discussed the issue of assessment and how this can be structured to ensure sustainability:
  32. Clow: The style of assessment drives the type of learning the students will do, so making sure the assessment is appropriate is vital #bpel
  33. Clow concluded by distilling his suggested criteria for best practice, based on these arguments:

    Suggested Criteria:

    * Curriculum: Sustainability is embedded within and across the curriculum
    * Learning Design: The design of e-learning activities is underpinned by a rational process of learning design and informed by evidence
    * Variety of methods: A variety of e-learning methods and tools are appropriately employed
    * Learning analytics: Information about learner activity, progress and outcomes is routinely, rapidly and actionably made available to staff and individual learners
    * Staff development: Staff have appropriate and broad experience of a range of e-learning methods and tools, and actively update their skills and understanding
    * Accessibility: Accessibility is explicitly assessed and meets or exceeds international standards and domestic legal requirements
    * Assessment: Assessment allows learners to demonstrate their learning and provides them with appropriate feedback
    * Enhancement: e-learning and outcomes are regularly reviewed and provision enhanced in light of developing tools and research
  34. Hear Doug Clow discuss the major issues raised by the event in his own words…
  35. Reflections on issues raised by workshop – Doug Clow
  36. Environmental Best Practice Criteria

  37. Peter James, Professor of Environmental Management at the University of Bradford and Director of Virtually Sustainable, discussed the environmental impacts of e-learning and some of the research which could help to inform best practice:
  38. James: Sustainability is a way into thinking about course viability #bpel
  39. James was keen to emphasise the new models that could become possible by re-evaluating sustainability:
  40. James: If we rethink the role of support for learners, and are ruthless in squeezing out costs, new models become possible #bpel
  41. However, he also stressed that e-learning is not entirely without a carbon footprint when you take into account the power usage and the materials required to make the technologies that we are using.
  42. Yowsers. Peter James points out that given our tech is made in China, we are effectively using dirty coal-powered ICT. #bpel
  43. James: Despite issues, most recent studies conclude that virtual technologies do have a lighter footprint than traditional models #bpel
  44. James outlined the more obvious environmental benefits of e-learning, including space efficiency, travel avoidance and print reduction, which have to be balanced against the environmental impacts of delivery – including personal computing.  However, he also noted that there are some more unexpected issues:
  45. James: There are some rebound effects, with some students doing more learning than they would otherwise have done #bpel
  46. James: The key environmental impact of video conferencing is often the computer monitors #bpel
  47. Finally, James discussed the carbon usage measurements they have collected, and the responsibility he feels that institutions should have to understand the environmental impact of their e-learning activities. 
  48. James: There should be a demonstration by the provider that they have an understanding of their environmental footprint #bpel
  49. Suggested Criteria:

    * Understanding
    the environmental footprint: There is a broad understanding of the
    environmental footprint involved in the institution’s delivery of
    e-learning and this is available to learners, accompanied by simply
    advice on how impacts can be minimised

    * Minimising
    personal computing impacts: personal computing devices used by staff
    and students are appropriately sized and powered down when not in

    * Energy
    efficient data centres: The data centres which are central to
    e-learning delivery have a PUE of below 1.4 if built before 2011, or
    1.2 if built after it, or have a concrete plan to achieve this
    within two years.

  50. Hear Peter James reflect on the issues raised by event as a whole…
  51. Reflections on issues raised by workshop – Peter James
  52. Participant Discussions

  53. Participants engaged in roundtable discussions to discuss the suggested criteria in more detail and provided feedback about how these could be adjusted or improved.
  54. Amanda Jefferies from the University of Hertfordshire provides a participant perspective on the proceedings…
  55. Reflections on issues raised by workshop – Amanda Jeffries
  56. Further Information

  57. More information about the event outputs is available from the Good Campus website.

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