E-Learning Standards: Beyond Technical Standards to Guides for Professional Practice

E-Learning Standards: Beyond Technical Standards to Guides for Professional Practice

Stephen Marshall (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-789-9.ch008
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Over the past decade e-learning standards have attracted substantial and growing attention from practitioners, institutions and governments. Millions of dollars are being invested in a process of standardization that, while aimed at supporting e-learning, seems to have neglected pedagogy and the need to engage with practitioners who are not technology specialists. In parallel, a culture of quality assurance has developed internationally within higher education resulting in quality frameworks that are driven by external compliance agendas rather than directly influencing the quality of the student and teacher experience of education. The e-learning Maturity Model provides a standard that guides professionals and organizations in assessing their e-learning capability, but also complements this with quality enhancement and feasibility elements that support reflection, prioritization of resources and guide personal and organizational development of e-learning.
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Tanenbaum’s wry observation on standards “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from” (Tanenbaum, 1981, p. 221) is an almost obligatory quote in papers that consider the role of standards in e-learning and higher education. However, when one assesses the standards available (Marshall, 2004) it is clear that if practitioners are seeking standards as guides for professional practice in e-learning they are not offered a wide selection of choices unless their interests run to interoperability or resource discovery.

Standards and standardization, rather than being seen positively as tools for simplifying and supporting professional work are widely regarded as irrelevant to most academics. The ‘standard’ approach to teaching implies a raft of negative connotations to those trying to improve the use of technology and the quality of the student e-learning experience. ‘Quality’ has similarly been transformed from a positive expectation to an idea tinged with negativity, the almost inevitable expectation that a quality agenda is one of auditing, compliance and expensive bureaucratic oversight.

It is easy to blame governments and consultants for the negative conceptions of standards and quality in higher education. However, some of the blame for these being ‘secret standards business’ (Mason, 2003) must lie with the lack of engagement by the wider academic community in setting their own professional standards. Part of the responsibility must lie with the culture of academic freedom, which many choose to interpret as a requirement for independence in all things and individual action without reference to the immediate institutional context or the needs of their programme or students. The reality is that collegiality is a strength of the university that requires collective action and responsibility, particularly as resources become ever more closely constrained and as universities take on a greater social role promoting equity and access to education for all groups.

This chapter explores the work on standards and quality that has been undertaken over the past decade. It takes a critical perspective on the extent to which this work has resulted in a greater sense of professional identity and participation amongst the e-learning community. The e-learning Maturity Model (eMM) is discussed as an example of how benchmarking and quality activities can be owned by the community and used as guides for professional practice, not just as a tool for management measurement and institutional accountability, but a positive force for growth and innovation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Coercive Isomorphism: Change as a consequence of formal informal pressures imposed on institutions externally, in the case of universities this includes the pressure to inform our teaching with research, and increasingly the need to produce graduates able to contribute to economic growth (Demers, 2007, p34).

Normative Isomorphism: Change that is driven by professionalism and the emergence of ‘legitimated professional practices’ that result in pressure for institutions to conform because their staff are able to draw on organized professional networks and professional standards that guide their activities (Demers, 2007, p34).

Process: Processes define a key aspect of the overall ability of institutions to perform well in the delivery of e-learning. Each process is selected on the basis of its necessity in the development and maintenance of capability in e-learning. All of the processes have been created after a rigorous and extensive programme of research, testing and feedback conducted internationally.

Dimension: The eMM supplements the CMM concept of maturity levels, which describe the evolution of the organisation as a whole, with dimensions. The five dimensions of the eMM are: (1) Delivery; (2)Planning; (3)Definition; (4) Management; (5) Optimisation. The key idea underlying the dimension concept is holistic capability. Rather than the eMM measuring progressive levels, it describes the capability of a process from these five synergistic perspectives. An organization that has developed capability on all dimensions for all processes will be more capable than one that has not. Capability at the higher dimensions that is not supported by capability at the lower dimensions will not deliver the desired outcomes; capability at the lower dimensions that is not supported by capability in the higher dimensions will be ad-hoc, unsustainable and unresponsive to changing organizational and learner needs.

Standard: “a document, established by consensus, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context” (ISO/IEC, 1996, p8). Standards in the strictest sense can only be created by specific organizations such as the International Standards Organization. In reality and common usage a standard can be an official document, but it also could be a de facto creation of a professional body or vendor, a specification, a reference model or framework, or a collection of guidelines. Guidelines or heuristics generated by expert practitioners and possessing strong face validity rather than empirical support constitute the predominant guides to good practice within e-learning evident in the literature..

Maturity Model: Maturity models are models of organisational improvement that are built on the observation that organisations involved in complex endeavors move through levels of effectiveness. As organisations become more exerienced in those endeavors and develop effective systems supporting the activities, they become more “mature” in their approach. The maturity model approach was first applied with the very successful software engineering Capability Maturity Model which defined five maturity levels: (1) Initial; (2)Repeatable; (3) Defined; (4) Managed; (5) Optimizing. The eMM, while based on the CMM maturity paradigm, has been developed in a different direction and treats these as dimensions of capability which can be developed simultaneously, rather than sequentially.

Practice: Practices are intended to capture the key essences of individual processes as specific items that can be assessed easily in a given institutional context. They specify the general concept defined by the process in detail so as to assist in the assessment of capability in that process. The practices are intended to be sufficiently generic that they can reflect the use of different pedagogies, technologies and organisational cultures. Each process is defined in this way by practices that address each of the five dimensions of the eMM.

Mimetic Isomorphism: The tendency for institutions to adopt ‘standard’ or common approaches in uncertain times. This is seen in the adoption of popular management fads such as business process re-engineering or Total Quality Management, a trend that universities are not immune to (Demers, 2007, p34).

eMM: The eMM, or e-learning Maturity Model in full, is a benchmarking methodology designed to help organisations assess the sustainability and effectiveness of their e-learning activities. The eMM also attempts to identify and provide evidence of support for the key organisational processes and practices that determine sustainability and effectiveness of e-learning..

Capability: Capability refers to the ability of an institution to ensure that e-learning design, development and deployment is meeting, and will continue to meet, the evolving needs of the students, staff and institution. Capability includes the ability of an institution to sustain e-learning support of teaching and learning as demand grows and staff change.

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