As described by Alan Cadwallader, Executive Director of Learning Delivery at Open Polytechnic New Zealand (OPNZ), it was essential for the Open Polytechnic to transition to the digital age as a natural extension of its extensive experience with correspondence education. OPNZ provides vocational education and training to more than 30,000 annual registrants who are mostly employed, over 25 years of age, and with multiple responsibilities. Providing 120 programs and qualifications from certificates to bachelor’s degrees, OPNZ offers open, distance flexible learning, with an emphasis on ‘flexible’.
Starting a few years ago, OPNZ continues to work towards transformational change to provide a fully flexible, learner-driven experience. Restructuring the roles of academic staff is central to the Transformational Change Programme, separating functions to better support students with a new approach to open, distance and flexible learning.
Development of Digital Learning Platform: The first key shift was the decision to develop a new digital learning platform in-house, despite the challenges of uncertain costs and results. The learning management system used at the time supported a teacher-centered environment; the new platform was constructed to support a learner-centered approach.
The development of the digital learning platform started in academic year 2013-2014, using a group of thought leaders as a reference group. A minimally viable product was launched in 2014, with the first courses transferred to it from the Faculty of Business. The system is continuously under development as more is learnt about the learners’ experience and pathways; Mr. Cadwallader describes this as a “never-ending journey”. The process of transferring courses is a major undertaking, due to be completed in 2019.
The development of an organizationally-designed digital learning platform is a key element of a much wider change to the student-centered development and delivery of learning – in which the pedagogy and methodologies of learning were taken apart and reconstructed.
Student-Driven Learning Experience: The learning delivery model is being changed from one centered on the instructor and the content to offering students such features as:
- Individual choice of start dates;
- Seamless links from enrolment to class engagement;
- Follow own pace;
- Opportunity to suspend learning during ‘time-poor’ periods without penalty;
- Choice of when to initiate assessments; and
- Prior learning assessment and recognition.
Form Follows Function - A New Model for Development and Delivery: The redesign at OPNZ is based on ‘form follows function’ thinking. The various functions of the organization are outlined – teaching, content creation, assessment, student support, administration, etc. – and then the deliverables of each function are described. Once the deliverables are clear, the form in which they are to be delivered is determined. Extensive research and review of structures and services of other major distance and open learning institutions around the world informed the redesign, supplemented by advice from an international advisory group.>
As an example, OPNZ builds all its own course content. This function requires speed and agility to respond to industry changes and requirements as well as to what people want to learn and how they want to learn it, all with a strong emphasis on quality. OPNZ changed the form of content creation process by separating it from teaching and assessment, creating a separate functional area for learning design and development, with emphasis on structure and consistent style in presenting digital content. The essential step is the unbundling of the roles of content development and content delivery.
The goal of the unbundling is to strengthen each component of the process. The illustration below indicates how the various functions are separated.
Under this new model, academic staff members focus on functions of Research, Teaching and Subject Matter Expertise, driving the teaching experience as experts in digitally-enabled online learning. Faculty can also be seconded to other functional areas, using a formal process. For example, a degree program is in development in the Faculty of Health and Well Being, and faculty are seconded to Content Creation and Review for that project.
Core to the new Content Creation and Review function, courses are no longer built around required textbooks.
The Learning Support and Student Mentoring function involves student mentors who work with students throughout their learning journey to help with processes. While the academics/subject matter experts offer content support, student mentors help with challenges such as administrative processes, time management, compatibility of technologies, and study skills. As academic and mentor roles both contribute to student success, they are of equal status. OPNZ is experimenting with using contract employees in the student mentor role so this service can be supported anywhere at any time.
If after four weeks of enrolment and contact by a mentor, a student remains inactive, student fees are returned, registration is terminated and government funding, awarded on a per registrant basis, is not requested.
OPNZ has extensive experience with using technology for summative assessment, supported by contract adjunct markers. Under the new model, in the functional area of Assessment Authoring and Marking, newly hired specialists in assessment offer enhanced skills and capacities. All assessments are organized into a library and managed as a valued asset. As students progress at their own speed, they have access to assessment on demand through the digital learning platform.
Each element of each assessment is tagged to learning outcomes or course goals. Consequently, they can be accessed according to purpose - full course assessments, formative assessments, micro course assessment or prior learning assessment and recognition.
The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand no longer has ‘schools’ associated with different professions; these schools often served as the public face of the organization. Under the new model, academic specialists within specified industry domains work within the functional area of Stakeholder, Industry and Professional Engagement. These specialists engage with industry to ensure curriculum reflects what is required of a graduate. In addition to the advice offered by ongoing industry advisory committees, industry advisors can be seconded from industry for additional expertise.
Course administration is provided by a dedicated area for program delivery management.
Benefits and Outcomes
The structure of functional units reflects and supports a student-centered approach to learning, where each aspect of their journey is supported through a clear line of responsibility and accountability.
Better understanding of experiences and choices of students allows more strategic allocation of resources, quicker intervention and improved management of learner exceptions and needs. As an additional student benefit, OPNZ committed to not increasing student fees and has now operated for four years without a fee increase.
Academic staff have viable roles in all the functional areas, through secondment or job change when appropriate. The creation of functional areas adds value to the roles of academic staff, offering opportunities for development of new expertise, career advancement and diversification; while some staff appreciate new opportunity, this is far from a unanimous opinion.
The structure supports a quicker and more effective response to industry and employer demand through specialized expertise and modified cost structures. Enhanced access to business intelligence indicates key directions for content development.
An unintended consequence of the in-house development of the digital learning platform is its revenue generating potential for OPNZ – over 35 educational institutions and corporations are partner organizations using the platform. The various partners outline their platform requirements and preferences, providing valuable input to development and enhancement of the platform. For example, one partner university wanted to gauge learning moods of their engineering students. OPNZ developers created “pulses” which can be built into a course in a few minutes. Using this feature, students can report live assessments of their learning such as “got it”, “maybe” or “not at all”. Instant input is provided to instructors and shared with the class; the feature is available in face-to-face and online classes.
Challenges and Enhancements
The process is extremely disruptive for academic staff. They see writing content and assessment as part of their professional lives and so they experience a loss of scope of practice and of autonomy for choice of activities.
As the unbundled model is introduced, faculty ask for the research evidence and evaluation of this approach. As the focus is learner-centered, the research focus is on learner activities and reactions.
Educational challenges include maintaining quality service models while introducing a new system. Phasing digital in while phasing paper out is an expensive and unwieldy process. Students used to the old system resist the change, asking for the opportunity to finish using paper. This results in slow-downs in the process.
On a management level, maintaining leadership vision and endurance is essential during a long process of organizational transformation. Strong commitment must be maintained over five years to bring about effective change. A particular challenge is organizational cohesion, as the creation of functional areas demands new strategies for working together.
Workforce reorganization in a unionized environment presents ongoing challenges. The management structure requires the right people able to be effective in their roles.
The OPNZ plan outlined 41 distinct undertakings to create and modify systems and processes to support the new model. The transformation is complex, demanding and does not produce quick results.
Open Polytechnic New Zealand is at the forefront of change in implementing this new learner-centered approach to teaching and learning, implementing organizational transformation based on form follows function. As Alan Cadwallader explains: “Much of the change being driven by the polytechnic’s Transformational Change Programme is still under implementation or is at the early stages of being institutionalised, while some of the elements are planned but yet to be implemented.”
Among the key learnings he offers at this early stage of Transformation Change implementation are the importance of:
- Securing the support and commitment of governance;
- Identifying, registering and managing risk;
- Accepting the messiness of change and navigating clean-up;
- Securing expertise, advice and input to the change program; and
- Consequences for the leadership and leadership team.
Student response and success is closely tracked so the model can be modified to ensure students, as well as faculty, industry and employers, are best served through quality education and results.
For Further Information
Open Polytechnic New Zealand
Lower Hutt, New Zealand