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Online Learning Response Team: How We Work

Extension Engine’s Online Learning Response Team (OLRT) takes a custom approach to help your institution move online quickly to address near-term needs, without losing sight of longer-term goals. Benefits include:

  • A team with depth and diversity of online learning knowledge, including strategy, instructional design, and project management
  • Advisory and direct support to allow your organization to navigate the internal and external challenges created by COVID-19 
  • Low startup cost and quicker time to start due to experienced staff and a centralized knowledge base
  • Ability to balance your short-term needs to move online quickly and efficiently with longer-term goals to build lasting online learning infrastructure and capabilities

The OLRT has helped clients across the higher education and nonprofit sectors respond to COVID-19 by helping them understand which moves to make in a shifting landscape and providing the specialized support and resources to make them. While this is a process customized to each client, there is a philosophy and method underlying how we approach this work.

This article describes how we currently support organizations and how we could support your organization’s specific online teaching and learning needs.

The Client Experience

We build foundations and frameworks by which decisions can be made, we take collaboration seriously, and we thrive on iteration. Let’s explore what that means.

Building a Strong Foundation

Here’s what we know about our team: We work best when we can explore and fully understand our clients’ needs and some aspects of their organizational culture, and when we have access to informed, influential stakeholders. It’s critical that we spend time up front building these relationships and gaining deep insight so that we can design a custom plan to best address each client’s needs.

We’re confident that this time and effort pays off, but we also acknowledge that there can be tension between completing this important groundwork and jumping into the work at hand. We feel it, too: We want to start working with faculty and start seeing that work pay off as fast as possible. But we know what we have to understand in order to succeed at that work, and we’re confident that the up-front time and energy investment will pay off.

Read on to learn more about the three general phases these types of projects follow, the goals of each phase, and the activities that take place in each. This process is always adapted for each client, but the general phases are as outlined here.

How We Structure Our Work

Phase 1: Research

Phase goal: Create project goals and learn about your organization’s current state using a set of inputs describing your organization’s current state, short- and long-term aspirations, capacity, and resources.

Phase length: two to three weeks, depending on communication cadence

This is the “getting to know you” phase of work. While the sales process likely uncovered the 30,000-foot view of why we’re teaming up on this project, that’s only the start. In order to create a successful partnership, we need to understand characteristics such as the following:

  • The culture of your organization as it relates to topics including online teaching and learning, roles, standards, governance, expectations, etc.
  • Short- vs. long-term needs and goals, what you’ve already been doing to address those goals, and where you’ve encountered successes and challenges doing so, including things like:
    • Learner experience, satisfaction, and retention
    • Faculty strengths, mindset, and availability
    • Learning philosophy
    • Scalability
    • Sustainability
    • Technological inventory and capacity
    • Organizational structure strengths and opportunities
  • How your organization’s capacity and resources are currently and can best be used in the short and long term and any planned changes to that capacity

Sound like a lot of information? It is, and intentionally so. We need to understand your organization’s current state so that we can be good partners. We’ve found that honest understanding of these topics is critical to our ability to meet you where you are. This manifests at all levels, from the clarity and strength of the project goals all the way down to details such as how we report progress and status.

Phase 1 Activities

During this two- to three-week phase, our experts will walk you through a series of conversations intended to give us the necessary insight to  work with you effectively on designing a project that truly reflects where you are and where you want to go. Some of the information we need to know is easy to communicate; other pieces will require more discussion. We’ll move efficiently where we can so that we have the necessary time to spend where it’s needed. The better we understand these characteristics, the tighter our proposed solutions will be.

While we work through Phase 1, we will collect, synthesize, and share our notes and reflections. Ultimately, these will make their way into a few different places, most notably the Project Charter, which serves as our source of truth during implementation.

These conversations won’t all be focused on you: We’ll also discuss how EE operates in relation to what we learn and where our strengths lie, and we will work through project strategies to support both teams.

Phase 2: Solution Design + Exploration

Phase goal: Draft and refine a project design that proposes a range of potential solutions and provides a clear framework for prioritizing the necessary tasks and work streams to accomplish the project goals.

Phase length: two to three weeks, depending on communication cadence and decision-making speed

Let’s test this new relationship. How well did we uncover what we needed and synthesize that into recommendations? In this phase, we will iteratively draft recommendations, discuss prioritization and resources, and craft a project plan, all of which come together to address the gaps between where you are now, where you want to go in the short term, and how longer-term plans or strategy come into play.

We will take the lead and propose solutions in a lot of areas that tend to be interwoven, some of which may not be relevant to your organization. The following isn’t an exhaustive list, and we always learn more with every project. That said, the areas where we typically propose solutions include:

    • Digital learning strategy: how to meet your learning goals (e.g., learner completion rates, assessment metrics, etc.), which requires a blend of pedagogy, tools, and resources
    • Tech stack: the tools needed to facilitate effective and engaging teaching and learning, and the support those tools require; this, of course, will depend on what you have in place, the desired timeline, and the available budget
    • Resources: what it’s going to take to get from your current state to your short-term goals, and what else is required to achieve your long-term vision; resources on these projects are typically a blend of specialized staff, such as learning experience designers, media specialists, and project managers, along with infrastructure and artifacts, such as faculty handbooks and templates
    • Support model: defining how “active” we are in the project, which is typically along a spectrum of low-touch—more akin to consulting or a support desk model—to high-touch, which could mean developing content with faculty and authoring it for them on a learning management system (LMS), for example
  • Timeline and project structure: how long to allocate for project tasks and phases, how to organize workflows, and who’s doing what
  • Stakeholder reporting and management: how often we should meet, what types of meetings we should plan on having, who should be involved in meetings, and what types of information should be reported and to whom

That’s the “solution design” part of the phase title, so let’s talk a bit about the “exploration” side of things. It’s likely that some of the work we do will only be evident once we’re deeply into it, but that’s not always true, and one of the ways we can test the “fit” of proposed recommendations is to try what we can. Activities like providing direct faculty support, for example, can be piloted in a couple of forms: We could run a couple of 1:1 coaching sessions and a larger, group workshop and collect feedback from participants and project stakeholders to refine our approach. We can do quick tech tool explorations by creating a quick “script” and asking a few testers to explore and report back.

Phase 2 Activities

We will have a few in-depth conversations during this phase, all of which will focus tightly on how to meet the gap between where your organization is now and where you want to be. We will lead these conversations with our recommendations; your job will be to tell us where we’re right, where we’re wrong, and what feels right for your organization. This has to be a collaborative process: We can design the coolest project in the world, but if it doesn’t truly answer to who your organization is and its current status, it probably won’t succeed. We need your input to get this right, but we’ll always bring well-informed ideas to the table.

During, and by the end of, Phase 2, we will draft and finalize a set of critical project documents. We will make any final changes to our Project Charter, and we will create a Project Plan consisting of the elements listed above (and, of course, adapted to your organization). We’ll create a project timeline and budget, along with the outlines for all necessary project reporting. Additionally, we’ll produce any documentation needed to guide and support the project, such as a faculty resource kit, decision-making guides, communications protocols, etc. These components are often used by our staff as well as project contributors on your organization’s side, and preparing them at this stage of the project helps us move forward more quickly and efficiently.

A super important, very critical thing to consider!

By the time we get into solution design, we all want to be doing work. We know there’s a job to be done, we have a sense of what it is, and we can more or less visualize the finish line. However, we can only move into implementation once we’ve made the decisions that will shape our project, which means we need active, meaningful participation from your organization’s critical project stakeholders.

Almost inevitably, we have to collaboratively make trade-offs and prioritize efforts, which can be difficult; we will provide recommendations, share our perspective, and create a framework in which we can make these decisions. However, we need our counterparts in your organization to engage in this process, and the more efficiently we can move through these conversations, the faster we can get to work!

Phase 3: Implementation

Phase goal: Execute the identified tasks with a continual eye for additional or changed opportunities, ongoing analysis of success, and ongoing communication and refinement with project stakeholders.

Phase length: As long as required! We find six weeks to be about the shortest engagement time that allows for in-depth work and/or relationship building, especially with a client we’ve never worked with before.

Let’s do this! We’ve made the decisions, created a plan, and now it’s time to make progress. There isn’t actually a lot to say here, because each project is unique, and that’s how we like it. 

What we can say is a little bit about how we run implementation, which is an adaptation of the agile model. We hold stand-ups at least once per week with the delivery team, we document tasks and progress in a transparent way, we celebrate wins, and we quickly identify and flag warning signs. We collaborate frequently, leveraging our diverse perspectives, experience, and strengths to get to the best place possible.

Something else we’ve learned how to do well in the past few months, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to react to change. We could create a project plan that perfectly answers to an organization’s needs, reach implementation velocity, and then find that those needs have completely changed. Obviously, we never want that to happen, but it does, and that’s OK. Because of how we work, we can adjust as needed, and while we’ll need collaboration and feedback in how we react to changes, we’ll continue to lead with recommendations and flexibility.

Next Steps

Our approach to these types of needs is defined but flexible, and it allows us to be the best partner possible in difficult situations.

Want to learn how we might adapt it for your needs? Reach out. We’d love to talk.

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Kim Prokosch

Kim Prokosch is a Learning Experience Design Lead at Extension Engine. She supports a group of learning experience designers in their project work. Her masters work at the University of Colorado at Denver taught her the value of creating engaging, fun, and diverse learning experiences that resonate with a wide group of learners, and her doctoral work at Northeastern University taught her approaches for making those learning experiences meaningful, authentic, and transferrable to real world scenarios.

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