Proposal: A Social Learning and Collaboration Platform

     Penn State University is a public non-profit university with a rich academic tradition dating back to its founding in 1855 (The Pennsylvania State University, 2006). Its recent history has included the formation, in 1998, of the Penn State World Campus, adding online learning to Penn State’s expanding mission of access. The main mission of the World Campus is to offer learning to students located worldwide who have access to the internet, but may not have easy access to a campus in Pennsylvania. The World Campus offers more than 60 degrees and certificates in either a fully online or blended format (combining online and face-to-face elements). World Campus distant students are promised the “same high-quality, academically challenging courses” they would experience on campus and “the flexibility to study wherever you are” (World Campus Web site, 2008).
    The World Campus currently employs approximately 125 people to help realize this mission – workers who serve in such diverse functions as academic advising, registration, billing and finance, instructional design, academic program management, marketing, and technical support. Many of these workers work at home or at a distance and as such, have a need for an information technology solution to help them feel connected with the day-to-day operations of the organization. With such a large organization, training, collaboration, and communication needs can be wide-ranging and complex. For example, someone in instructional design might benefit from learning about new technologies and their pedagogical implications, while someone in marketing might benefit from learning the latest in Web analytics technology, and a new hire in registration would need to learn the systems and applications necessary to register World Campus students. There is a need for rapid and efficient communication between people in the various roles and in different status levels within the organization (the organization does maintain a loose hierarchy of workers typical of academic institutions). Finally, the organization has a need for a unified system in which to manage projects and deadlines within teams. The system I propose will address all three of these needs. In short, the organization needs an organized and central way to manage personal connections, lessening the barriers to information seeking behavior including 1) understanding of others’ roles, 2) proximity or access to that person and 3) perceived costs (Borgatti and Cross, 2003). The modern workplace demands rapid turnaround time for information flow and collaboration (Fairbanks, 2007; Friedman, 2007), and this system will be a part of the World Campus’ goal of modernizing its workplace.
    The program I propose is an online system which would combine elements of social networking platforms such as Facebook (Facebook, 2008), professional networking platforms like LinkedIn (LinkedIn Corporation, 2008), project management systems such as Quickbase (), and learning management systems such as ANGEL or Moodle. Andrew Fairbanks of the IBM corporation, in a talk given during an Outreach learning lunch in 2007 entitled The Workplace and Workforce of Tomorrow, described such a platform in use at IBM to empower their workforce and reduce inefficiencies. Employees use the platform to discuss and collaborate on projects, exchange ideas, and post professional profiles that could be utilized to form global teams based on specialized skill sets. What I envision is something quite like this, only on a smaller scale. We already use systems effectively, which, if improved and integrated into a single interface or “portal”, could remain in use. The advantage of this would be that seasoned employees would not have to learn an entirely new system.
    Thus, what I envision would be composed of the following elements:
  • Project management systems. We already have a couple of project management systems in place with which seasoned employees are familiar, one of which is Quickbase, which currently manages programs, courses, people and tasks, and which could be further developed to manage non-course-related projects and requests to our IT support team. The other is PACTS (Program and Course Tracking System), which we use to further manage more detailed course and program information.
  • Social and professional networking. This part of the “portal” would be new for our organization. Employees would be encouraged to upload their photos, and would fill out professional information such as job title and description and team responsibilities. Optional information might include professional interests or aspirations outside the scope of routine job responsibilities, as well as personal interests. Employees could (and would be encouraged to) form “groups” in this network based on shared interests, and could use the network to pitch ideas, and even engage in informal learning by sharing and tagging links, writing blog posts, and sending “invitations” to informal learning groups.
  • Collaborative wiki. The organization currently uses what is referred to as the “World Campus Intranet” to collaborate on projects and documentation. The intranet is set up as a “wiki” where Web pages can be created by anyone and collaboratively edited.
  • Personal blogs. Staff personal blogs would also be aggregated and presented on this staff “portal”. Penn State provides a blogging platform for all students, faculty, and staff (2008a). Staff would have ownership of their peronal blog content but could “tag” or categorize entries so the portal’s search engine could find and re-publish these entries.
  • Formal learning management. Lastly, our organization has an occasional need for formal training beyond the scope of the simple documentation available in the current intranet. This training is needed when new employees are hired, and also when new technologies or new systems (such as the proposed one) are introduced. We’ve managed with traditional face-to-face training in the past, but with a growing organization including many new employees and employees working at home and from a distance, online training as a supplement to or replacement for face-to-face training makes sense. A system such as Moodle () provides a good way to manage learning objects such as lessons, videos and quizzes.
    To design and implement the portal with its exact specification would require a small team of professionals within the organization. The individuals would not necessarily need to be dedicated to the project, though the time commitment of each team member on the project should be expressed at the outset and reviewed periodically. For now, I anticipate two staff members will be needed: a Web designer, to design the portal interface, and a programmer, to review any programming needs that might arise and design solutions. Management should be involved at the outset to ensure buy-in. A small group of staff members in various roles and at various levels in the organization should be brought in at critical junctures in the design of the portal to test the site’s usability. The time commitment of these additional staff members would be minimal; they would simply practice clicking and navigating the site and answer a few questions that would inform any changes in the design.
In the remaining sections of this paper I will address the institutional, organizational and personal considerations at work in the design and implementation of this project.
Institutional Considerations
    The institution of higher education has seen some changes in recent years, and more changes are forecast for the near future. More students are taking classes online, both for convenience’s sake and in response to rising energy costs associated with traveling to a campus (Guess, 2008). As well, the legitimacy of online learning is gradually becoming accepted by the institution and by the society at large (Sloan-C, 2006). At the same time, the costs of higher education have risen dramatically in recent years. The current economic situation in the United States is forecast to seriously limit the availability of student loan funds. This will have an impact on the ability of middle-class families, who rely on these loans, to afford the high costs of higher education. It is likely that traditional institutions of higher education, such as Penn State, will face more competitive pressure than ever before from community colleges and for-profit degree providers. Finally, in spite of or even because of this economic climate, universities are voluntarily implementing bold new environmental initiatives in efforts to reduce waste and climate change-inducing emissions. In fact, it is possible that state-funded educational institutions like Penn State will face mandates in the foreseeable future for compliance with new environmental standards (Obama, 2008).
    Higher education institutions will have to respond to these modern pressures with innovation and flexibility. Employees will be at the heart of higher education innovation; thus, workforce education is going to be at the center of any innovation initiative. It may be useful to look at models in the private sector that have been successful at driving such innovation. Google (Gruca, 2006) is often cited as an excellent example of a company providing incentives to employee innovation. Employees work in a highly flexible, team-based environment with interpersonal interactions strongly encouraged. Employees at Google are also encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on projects of interest to them, and are not held accountable to organizational goals during this “free” professional development time. IBM’s global workforce is empowered to develop and communicate through its online initiatives, similarly to what I propose here.
    The system I propose will address or be in keeping with many of these current and future changes to the institution of higher education. By enabling workers to rapidly and effectively communicate via a unified portal, time and money will be saved. Innovation will be stimulated through the connected systems’ breaking down of heirarchical and role boundaries (ref?). The system will also meet the institutional goal of improved compliance to environmental standards and climate change initiatives. Employees working at home or working from a distance will not feel so isolated from their colleagues due to the social and professional networking components of the system, and improved communications will reduce time inefficiencies that might otherwise be a barrier to offsite workers. Additionally, by improving the online offering of employee training, offsite workers will be nearly as informed on the latest organizational knowledge as their onsite counterparts.
    A couple cautionary note ought to be offered here. The institutional pressures mentioned above, including pressures to innovate, reduce costs, and reduce environmental impact, will not be solved by solutions like the one proposed here alone. It must be part of a broader approach to these pressures. Penn State has recently implemented a large number of innovative environmental initiatives including environmentally-friendly computer purchasing policies, innovative recycling initiatives, and a program to purchase locally-produced foods for the dining halls on campus (PSU, 2008b). Many of these initiatives have cost-saving advantages as well. Penn State has also recently announced bold research initiatives aimed at innovation and regional economic growth (PSU, 2008c). Despite these initiatives, institutions are known to be slow to change, and higher education is no exception. Voss (2001) reminds us that though it is slow to occur, institutional change can come about by purposeful design or in response to “changing informal institutions in the larger societies” or by change in the “spontaneous order” – change due to actions by individuals unintentionally and incrementally changing the institution. Indeed this change must occur; “institutions are ‘dead’ if they are only represented in verbal designations and in physical objects” (Scott, 2001). Institutions, in addition to being composed of these “verbal designations” and “physical object”, are also comprised of people and the actions among those people. In my examination of the organizational and personal factors to be considered in implementing this project, I will explore further the roles that individuals will play in its successful implementation.
Organizational Considerations
    In my look at organizational considerations in this project, I will focus on Penn State Outreach, and in particular the World Campus division. The current state of workplace learning generally reflects Bratton’s (2008) dual view of adult education as preparation for workplace roles as well as the critical perspective. Workers are given explicit managerial encouragement and support for formal learning opportunities that can be directly applied in their jobs. Types of formal learning opportunities include national and international conference attendance, training and workshops offered by centralized Penn State units including Information Technology Services (ITS) and Human Resources, and training offered in-house on our systems and processes. Support for learning in the critical perspective exists, although to a somewhat lesser degree. Staff are simultaneously encouraged to explore and learn new technologies, with the idea that these new technologies might enhance the online learning experience of World Campus students, and reminded that professional development time is to be limited to a scant number of hours per week. This mixed message has led to frustration and a mixed enthusiasm for new technologies and new ways of doing work. Changes come, but they come slowly, with the day-to-day pressures of producing deliverables and meeting deadlines taking precedence over learning opportunities.
    Yet the pressure on the organization to move in the institutional directions discussed above persist. At a time when online learning is expected to gain a growing share of the higher education marketplace, increased competition is to be expected. Though the World Campus is widely regarded as an innovator in higher education circles, having introduced online learning in 1998, long before many other institutions, it must continue to innovate and expand its offerings to students in order to remain relevant and profitable in the field. The World Campus must not risk “not seeing the forest for the trees”, becoming consumed with the day-to-day management of workplace activities, and lacking the vision and initiative needed to innovate and thrive in the realm of online learning.
    Indeed, this vision is not lacking in the realms of upper management. Ken Udas, World Campus director, maintains a blog called Terra Incognita in which he, along with invited guest contributers, explores new directions in online teaching and learning (Udas, 2008). Indeed, many in World Campus and Outreach upper management are active in social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, and maintain professional blogs. This is often also the case with workers in the organization, though because of directives from their immediate supervisors to watch time spent with professional development activities, workers end up either feeling discouraged from exploring these areas and elect not to, or feel “rebellious” for doing so anyway. This is a situation that will need to change if this proposed system is to be truly effective. Staff will need to be explicitly allowed and encouraged to spend a portion of their time exploring new ideas and technologies, and to reflect on their findings in their teams, in their professional blogs, and in the online community the portal provides. Staff will also have to be allowed and encouraged to network with the larger Penn State, higher education, and IT communities in order to have an even larger source and sounding board for new ideas and innovations, and must be encouraged to bring new knowledge thus gained back to the organization. The new integrated portal will provide a mechanism for doing so.
Personal Considerations
    Concrete and explicit attention must be paid to the portal’s removal from the heirarchy of the organization – that is, to its role in making workers feel valued and valuable, no matter what their role in the organization. A twofold approach to successfully implementing the new system should be put in place: explicit encouragement from management as discussed above, and a grassroots appeal to personal factors important to the workers. This second approach can be achieved by appealing to common social norms.Workers’ desires to be viewed as professionals and as whole individuals will be reflected in the system. As well, norms of reciprocity as described by Borgatti & Cross (2003) will ensure widespread adoption once early adopters demonstrate the system’s usefulness through their valuable contributions. As discussed in the introduction to this paper, staff already use many of the systems described. Seeing these systems in use in a more integrated way, and including new systems and stronger support for social and professional networking, should convince employee’s of the portal’s usefulness and effectiveness.
    This system will also be critical in the attraction and retention of quality professionals. The World Campus has already made efforts in attracting qualified professionals to its growing workforce, and has made concessions including allowing new employees to work from their homes without having to relocate to the University Park/State College area. Employees working at a distance will have an especial need to feel connected to colleagues through technology; they will not miss out on training opportunities when training is offered online! More generally, employees who are given a simple way to interact with one another and who are encouraged to learn on their own will be happier, ultimately affecting retention.
    Finally, this system will offer a means by which new employees can quickly become oriented to the processes and systems they will need to learn to do their jobs, and they will quickly and easily feel comfortable with their new colleagues’ identities and roles. The World Campus is a complex organization and it often takes a new employee a year or more to become truly comfortable and competent in their jobs. Putting organizational information, training and social networking tools all in one place should help to decrease this transitional time.
    We should anticipate some personal resistance to the new portal, particularly to its new social learning and networking aspects. Staff may view it as yet another system to learn where so many systems are already in place. Traditional action is one way of explaining staff resistance to change (Boudon, 2001). Staff may be so accustomed to doing things one way, even if it is inefficient, that they resist new efficiencies, even if they are obvious. The only answer to this is patience, explicit managerial support, and a grassroots mechnism that promotes change.
    A new theory of learning for the digital age, connectivism, has been proposed to complement existing learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism (Siemens, 2004). Connectivism suggests that one way of learning in an age of information abundance made possible by the internet is done primarily by making connections and building networks rather than through the direct transfer or construction of knowledge. Knowing “who is who” and where to find them is one way of knowing “what you don’t know”. Traditional learning theories often represent learning as a linear path, whether designed by an instructor (as in behaviorism) or by the learner (as in constructivism). Connectivism suggests learning by discovery in the context of other learners making their own discoveries. It suggests a quid pro quo in that information consumption is complemented by information production. Connectivism is also reflective of social learning theories which explain how people learn in groups and networks.
    Connective learning theory is one lens through which to look at the project proposed here. Staff would make their own connection to other staff members through shared interests, and would bring in learning from outside resources and connections they’ve made by sharing and tagging links and blog posts. Elements of behaviorism and constructivism would be present too through guided training events and through the wiki, respectively. Such a bold project as the one described in this paper can be implemented and made successful through careful planning and review, by following the project plan outlined in the introduction. Many elements of the proposed system are already in place, so in many cases, staff would not have to learn an overwhelming new system. I have explained the institutional pressures that the organization faces, and the need to innovate. This unified system is modeled after successful programs and system in use at other organizations, and I have offered these as evidence.
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