CREATING SUPPORT AND TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS

Peter Moodiel

INTRODUCTION

In 1995 the University of Waikato offered no formal distance based courses, let alone any formal Internet based programmes. During the first half of 1996 it was recognised by the Director of the University’s Information and Technology Services Division (ITS) that online teaching was not only going to happen, it was already happening.

The emergence of the demand for online teaching and learning was seen not only as a challenge, but also as an opportunity to excel within the New Zealand and international tertiary education sectors. The nature of this opportunity is only now being fully realised by the wider higher education market. Research from U.S. based company Market Data Retrieval (MDR) suggests that in 1999 the number of colleges and universities in the United States offering online accredited degree programmes more than doubled from the 1998 figure of 15% to 34% (MDR, December 1999).

Between 1996 and 2000 the online learning opportunities offered at the University of Waikato have grown from one course with thirty students to over eighty courses with more than 2000 student participants. There is now a Bachelor of Teaching degree as well as a range of graduate programmes available online from Waikato University.

These courses have already been recognised as successful and innovative by schools and the community. In 1999 The University was the winner of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) Award for the most innovative use of information and communication technology in education. In April 2000 the first group of graduates with a Bachelor of Teaching degree taught online will receive their degrees. This will be a very special graduation ceremony – almost all of these students have already found employment in the education sector.

At Waikato University the approach to developing online learning has differed quite considerably from many other tertiary institutions. The differences can be categorised into two broad areas; one is the centralised approach to technical development and support, the other is the ‘needs driven’ approach to technical innovation.

THE CENTRALISED APPROACH TO TECHNICAL SUPPORT

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the University of Waikato went through a process of devolution of administrative, financial and technical support activities. Many other large educational organisations went through similar processes in a similar timeframe. In the middle of the 1990’s at Waikato there was a notable reversal of this process in many areas, especially in teaching technology.

While specialised elements of computer support were established in the faculties, many of the tasks which better suited centralised coordination moved back to the central technology group within the University. It was at this time that the online teaching systems were beginning their development from early email based teaching. These services were offered through the central IT support group.

Due to their large size many higher education organisations worldwide have developed strongly faculty based technology development specialists. This has often meant that the development of online teaching technology has taken place simultaneously in a number of small development areas within an institution or only in one small area.

This trend has meant that tools developed by software companies for online teaching have been developed with small workgroups in mind and have been best suited to implementation within departments and faculties rather than at an enterprise or institution wide level. This is now changing as the strategic importance of online learning is being recognised by more and more institutions. The development today of teaching tools which are more geared towards enterprise wide deployment along with our years of experience of providing a coordinated centralised approach to online learning has put us in a strong position for growth and development.

NEEDS DRIVEN APPROACH

In our experience the key to providing successful technical support to academic staff teaching in an online environment is allowing the teaching and learning needs to drive technical innovation rather than allowing technology to drive the academic staff. While this may seem to be self evident to some, it remains the key principle of the online learning technical support team at the University of Waikato. A sign on my office wall says "Technology is DRIVEN by change … Technology does NOT drive change". While the concept is a little simplistic, it serves well as a reminder to me and our team that we are here for teaching and teaching is the priority.

Very early in the development of the Waikato online learning programme it was recognised that the increasing integration of technology and pedagogy was already causing a blurring of the traditional lines of distinction between the purely technical university staff member and the academic professional. We were beginning to see a number of academic staff becoming increasingly involved in the routine creation and maintenance of web sites and other online tools. At the same time technical professionals were having more and more contact with students and academic staff.

Rather than shy away from what might easily have become an area of contention, we have embraced this conjoining of disciplines where possible. It is not uncommon for the "techie" staff these days to participate in online discussions so they can offer technical explanations and advice to students and teaching staff alike. The area of most trepidation for most staff is that this shift in responsibility of staff will result in lowered academic standards, or fewer jobs for academic staff! The technical staff also fear being forced to make academic judgements, although these fears have been unfounded. The cooperation between teaching staff and technical staff is leading to rapid innovation in online teaching and an environment and culture that is more responsive to student needs.

Successful technological developments in the area of online learning at Waikato have been driven by the needs of the teaching staff and the needs of the students. By adhering to this ‘needs driven approach’ the relationship between the academic staff and the support staff has been and continues to be built on trust and a willingness to meet needs and challenges. The mutual respect fosters a collaborative environment for future development.

COLLABORATION

The most important key in making our online teaching system work is communication and collaboration. By working together, the teaching and technical staff have achieved collectively what could not have been done individually. At one time computer support staff told the "users" what must be done and when it must happen. Now, in the Waikato online learning environment, the technical support staff make suggestions based on observation and experience, but also listening to requests and suggestions for future developments so they can provide tools appropriate to the learning situation.

SUMMARY

We have learnt that it takes time and effort to establish good working relationships between teachers and technicians that have progressive and constructive outcomes. The investment in time is well worth the effort in terms of learning outcomes for the ‘clients’, the students of the University.

Finding a combination of teaching staff who are willing to experiment and to compromise and to listen, as well as technical staff who are willing to listen first and then achieve the right results fast is challenging. It can be done, and the outcome is a recipe for a successful educational technology programme.

Market Data Retrieval. (1999, December). 1999 Higher Ed Technology Survey Findings. Retrieved March 16, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.schooldata.com/datapoint43.html