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Navigating the Waves of Change: Sociotechnical Approaches to Infrastructure Enhancement for Online Learning

Andrew Lau (UCLA Extension, USA)
Lindsay Vance (UCLA Extension, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 1:45pm
Institutional Strategies & Innovations
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Discovery Session
Atlantic Hall
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Discovery Session 1

How can administrators strategically increase their technological capacity in facing sea changes in online learning? Join us to discuss methods and strategies for staying afloat.

Extended Abstract

UCLA Extension is one of the largest providers of continuing education on the West Coast, offering approximately 4,500 courses over 100 certificate programs and across more than 20 disciplines. Of UCLA Extension's catalog of course offerings, approximately half are courses with some kind of online component, whether fully online, hybrid, web-enhanced, or web-distributed. In Fall 2014, UCLA Extension launched a major strategic plan initiative with the hopes of revamping the institution and renewing its commitment to offering extraordinary learning experiences for students. Among these include reflecting on the culture of UCLA Extension, fostering collaboration between program departments and campus partners, and strategizing initiatives around the effective and efficient provision of services for students and instructors. Within this context of larger institutional change, UCLA Extension's Office of Instructional Enhancement (OIE) has sought to update the technical infrastructure through which online, hybrid, web-enhanced, and web-distributed courses are delivered. But more than simply installing systems for staff, instructors, and students to use in their courses, enhancing the learning infrastructure requires attention to the social aspects of using technology for our complex set of internal and external stakeholders.

This challenge is not specific or unique to UCLA Extension, and is thrown into sharp relief when considered relative to the increasing pressure for institutions of higher education to "move online" for a variety of reasons, whether market competition, the need for reducing overhead for classes, the need to update learning platforms to meet today's learners needs, etc. In light of the pervasiveness of these issues, this presentation aims to address (in part) how can administrators strategically increase their technological capacity in facing the recent sea changes in online education. What resources are needed for successfully rolling out new systems for the purposes of ensuring extraordinary learning experiences for students? What support structures should be developed in tandem with systems implementation? How might administrators increase capacity for the management of learning infrastructure enhancement, while simultaneously taking into account the range of requirements of internal and external stakeholders? This presentation reports on recent enhancements to the learning infrastructure of UCLA Extension from the perspective of OIE, situated at a mesolayer between the high level strategic priorities and actions for the institution and the teaching practices of instructors, between institutional mandates and directives from the top and instruction-in-practice from below. In other words, OIE plays a pivotal role for UCLA Extension, working to translate the institutional vision down to the level of individual programs and courses, while simultaneously surfacing the concerns, needs, and desires of instructors and program department staff up through the institution.

The core set of learning infrastructure enhancements at the focus of this presentation include a) migration from the Blackboard learning management system to Canvas; b) implementation of the Concourse syllabus management system; and c) implementation of Equella, a content management repository. These are known institutionally as Wave 1, Wave 2A, and Wave 2B, respectively. Though each "wave" was and is centered on the implementation of a particular application or platform, each engenders their own set of unique challenges around the particulars of the platform but also the larger sociotechnical contexts in which these systems reside.

Using an approach inspired by participatory action research combined with agile project management methodologies (i.e., Scrum and Kanban), this research emphasizes reflexivity as an approach to technology implementation as well as empirical observation and assessment of the efficacies of learning infrastructure enhancement at UCLA Extension. Though Scrum and Kanban project management methodologies are largely used by technology development organizations, they were adapted by OIE for managing the complex interdependencies attendant to the learning infrastructure enhancements under OIE's charge. A full articulation of the Scrum and Kanban methodologies are beyond the scope of this presentation. However, the use of these agile project management approaches relates specifically to participatory action research in that both agile approaches and action research emphasize iterative action, reflection, and planning, for project management and empirical research, respectively. Moreover, the work involved in implementing new systems and integrating them with existing institutional systems requires sustained engagement with stakeholders or communities of practice, with continual negotiations around their instructional requirements, needs, and desires for course offerings. Overlaying agile project management with a participatory action research agenda takes advantage of these sustained relationships with stakeholders by capturing them as part of project development progress as well as empirical research.

UCLA Extension is currently in the midst of implementing these infrastructural enhancements, but findings thus far include: the importance of strategizing change management in conjunction with systems implementation; the development of robust and agile support structures for staff, instructors, and students; the creation, management, and accessibility of documentation and other resources for the purposes of training and development for staff and instructors; and the need to establish iterative workflows for the management of implementation initiatives and projects. Stories, notes, and reflections from the field will accompany each of the findings in hopes that attendees will glean insights from the challenges faced by UCLA Extension and the lessons we have learned over the past year.