Knowledge Management Strategies for Distance Education
Neil Butcher, South African Institute for Distance Education
As information proliferates, it becomes increasingly important to develop strategies to be able to store, search, sort, and analyse it effectively. If this is not done, this information will either quickly overwhelm us or become useless to us. This is of particular importance in the field of education (and even more so in distance education), where information plays such an important role in processes of teaching and learning. In response to these challenges, there has been a significant growth in the field of ‘knowledge management’, mostly in the business world but also, to a lesser extent in education itself.
This paper will seek to share some lessons learned in knowledge management over the past ten or so years, providing an introduction to the field and helping readers to think about what steps they might take to manage knowledge more effectively in their own setting.
It is thus clear that effective knowledge management strategies sit at the heart of learning organizations. In a business context, these ideas are typically associated with competition for customers. Organizations that ‘learn’ more effectively should theoretically be best positioned to meet the needs of customers, although they do not necessarily see the customer as part of the learning organization. This approach also changes the role of employees. As lower-level and repetitive tasks become increasingly automated, the need grows for knowledge workers, who have to apply greater knowledge and adapt quickly through learning.
These concepts should resonate in an educational context, as educational institutions should logically function as ‘learning organizations’ and educators as the ultimate ‘knowledge workers’. Any institution operating in the field of education should pride itself on creating structures that enable the organization itself to learn, as this can play a major role in fostering learning environments that stimulate the achievement of educational objectives. Sadly, though, it seems that many institutions offering education to learners do not reflect in their form the core function that they have been established to perform.
Educators are prime examples of knowledge workers because they typically have considerable personal discretion and responsibility in analysing, developing, and implementing their curricular goals. The most exciting part about applying these ideas in an educational context is that the primary ‘customers’ – the learners – can also become an integral part of the learning organization, as they can play a critical role in helping to create and share knowledge throughout the system. Thus, in an educational context, learners need not simply be perceived as passive ‘customers’, but can rather become knowledge workers themselves, playing a unique role in producing and managing knowledge within the learning organization. One of the key challenges posed by the advent of the knowledge economy is to develop the role of educators and learners as knowledge workers within broader, integrated education systems.
Creating learning organizations and harnessing educators and other employees effectively as knowledge workers demands effective strategies for managing knowledge. Unfortunately, however, many prevailing working practices militate against such strategies. Below is a list of problems that organizations often experience in this regard:
With some interpretation, it is easy to see how these problems map directly onto many education institutions and systems. And the problem is not simply one of bad management. As Caroll et al have noted, ‘the greatest obstacle to effectively managing teacher professional knowledge is the attitude – even among teachers – that teaching is basically common sense…the generally dismissive view of teaching knowledge, the highly personal nature of individual teachers’ concepts and techniques, and the lack of shared vocabulary and representations militate against the articulation and accumulation of professional knowledge by teachers’ .
The ability to harness information effectively is a crucial differentiator in the performance of organizations. Educational institutions have played a crucial role in using information of different kinds to generate knowledge, as any reader of academic texts will know. Likewise, the process of education is – in many ways – the construction of a set of services around information, which focuses on helping learners to convert that information into meaningful knowledge that they can act upon to improve the quality of their lives, whether it be intellectually, financially, socially, or personally. In principle, then, universities should be well placed to compete for resources.
Regretfully, however many education institutions have actually paid remarkably little attention to consolidating the information resources that they have created since their inception. Significant time and energy have been expended on the above-mentioned activities, yet institutionally there is very little to show for it. Information within education systems often resides largely with individuals, with the result that easy, well-ordered access to it often becomes impossible when academics leave for whatever reason. Institutional strategies for harnessing these extensive information resources – so that they can either reduce the investment necessary in future educational and knowledge production activities or increase their relative value – are completely inadequate. This means that investments made in generating information are largely dissipated when individuals resign or retire.
Likewise, there are very few clear strategies for turning management information into an organizational asset. For example, information about potential, current, and future students – a highly valuable potential marketing asset – is not stored in formats that facilitate easy access or analysis, particularly across years. Similarly, accurate and relevant financial information is notoriously difficult to extract from financial systems (except in very specific, rigid formats), even for people at higher levels within the institution. Consequently, its potential for supporting decisions taken by people managing educational programmes or research projects is negligible, which severely hampers attempts to introduce cost-effectiveness into operations. Clearly, then, the challenges of effective knowledge management in education are significant.
Knowledge Management and Distance Education
Based on the introductory overview provided of what knowledge management is, it is relatively simple to identify various examples ways in which well-designed and effectively-functioning distance education systems already engage in practices of managing knowledge:
1) Typically, well-functioning distance education systems demand extensive investment of time and resources in rigorous processes of programme and course design and development. These investments usually involve diverse groups of experts, collaborating to produce programmes, courses, modules, and learning materials that enable independent study by learners. They can all justifiably be considered as investments in managing knowledge effectively. Importantly, they represent a process of taking knowledge that once was tacit (curriculum design, learning outcomes, teaching and learning strategies, and subject matter) and making it explicit by documenting it thoroughly. It is possible to leverage even more institutional value from these investments if the resulting materials are stored in a centrally accessible repository. In many cases, this value is not created because the resulting knowledge ‘products’ are not shared or made accessible beyond an individual department or faculty.
2) Cost-effective distance education systems require enrolments of large numbers of students on individual programmes in order to achieve the economies of scale needed to reduce the cost of learning per student. In order to be able to assure quality of delivery in such circumstances, well-functioning distance education programmes create standardized approaches to the way in which learners are supported (within learning materials, through student counselling and administrative systems, during tutorial support, and via feedback on assessment tasks). Again, providing this support typically requires processes of making tacit knowledge explicit, so that it can be documented and shared with often large, de-centralized networks of tutors and facilitators who constitute the primary point of reference between the student and the institution. Such systems are often very sophisticated in the way in which the structure and manage communication across the institution.
3) Provision of distance education and management of communication with large, dispersed groups of students across wide geographical areas also usually requires investments in very efficient administrative systems, which gather and store large volumes of data about learners and learning. In best-case scenarios, such systems will now harness the power of computers and databases to support student administration. Although these systems are not – in and of themselves – knowledge management systems, they are critical sources of data and information about what is happening within the distance education institution. Such systems are potentially enormously valuable building blocks within an overall knowledge management strategy, as they can feed reliable information reports on many critical aspects of the educational process into the institution, thus supporting the creation of learning organizations that are able to adjust how they operate based on knowledge of what is and is not working successfully.
4) Extensive literature has been produced about quality assurance in distance education, and robust, vibrant quality assurance systems are typically a feature of well-functioning distance education systems. Although quality assurance systems are by no means unique to distance education, the requirement to provide high quality learning experiences to large numbers of learners and the involvement of many employees in delivering such experiences has created a strong imperative for their development in such environments. The process of designing a quality assurance strategy is an important precursor to its successful implementation, and should involve a wide range of staff members at various phases. Developing quality assurance systems demands effective knowledge management across the organization.
As these illustrative examples show, distance education systems work hand in hand with knowledge management strategies. It is important to understand that many of the features of well-functioning distance education already constitute effective strategies of managing knowledge. Thus, knowledge management is not a new, ‘high technology’ concept that is beyond the reach of the average distance education institution. Nor is it a concept that should induce fear in distance educators, many of whom have for some time grasped its key principles intuitively in the way in which they have set up and manage distance education systems and programmes. However, many distance education institutions could benefit from approaching knowledge management more explicitly and working systematically to improve how knowledge is managed across the enterprise. The next section in this paper, thus, provides an introductory overview of how to tackle this task effectively. First, however, we provide a brief summary of key issues emerging from the above discussion.
Key Design Principles for a Knowledge Management Strategy
1. Start with Strategy
2. Involve users in the design of the knowledge management strategy and
3. Clearly distinguish knowledge management strategies from technology
implementation and information systems management
4. Ensure that the broader organizational environment supports and rewards
creation and sharing of knowledge
5. Approach knowledge management as an iterative process
6. Measure the impact of knowledge management