November/December 2000 // Faculty and Staff Development
Learning Technology Mentors: Bottom-up Action through Top-down Investment
by Carmel McNaught and Paul Kennedy
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Carmel McNaught and Paul Kennedy "Learning Technology Mentors: Bottom-up Action through Top-down Investment" The Technology Source, November/December 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Universities in Australia are facing intense change. They are educating more students from an increasing variety of backgrounds, with decreasing government funds. As a result, they must compete vigorously for students and external sources of funding. One university under such pressure is the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), a technological university that was founded in 1887. An old university by Australian standards, RMIT is highly diverse, bi-sectoral (it includes a vocational sector), and has the largest number of international students of any Australian university. Facing changing times, universities such as RMIT have to reassess their fundamental business of teaching and learning. Information Technology (IT) is an important factor in streamlining operations, especially in the area of delivering educational offerings to students. Staff development is needed so that a significant number of faculty members are able to teach online effectively.

The RMIT Teaching and Learning Strategy

The RMIT Teaching and Learning Strategy (TLS) is a key policy document that describes a student-centered learning environment with the following features:

  • Courses and programs designed to develop students who are knowledgeable, critical, responsible, and creative and who have an international outlook and capacity for life-long learning, leadership, and employment;

  • Courses and programs that suit the particular learning needs of students, considering their prior experiences and current situations;

  • Programs designed and implemented holistically, with coherent connections among core courses;

  • Students and the community regarded as significant stakeholders;

  • Assessment directly related to explicitly stated objectives; and

  • Quality improvement and assurance based on reflective practice and customer-focused systems design.

RMIT allocates resources to implement this strategy both in human and financial terms. For example, each of RMIT's seven faculties has two senior positions—Director of Teaching Quality (DoTQ) and Director of Information Technology (DoIT). Each faculty has a Faculty Education Services Group (FESG) that provides technical and educational support for teaching staff.

In 1998, RMIT established the Information Technology Alignment Project (ITAP) to facilitate the teaching strategy through flexible, electronically mediated learning environments. The ITAP report forms the basis for a $A50 million * RMIT investment over four years (1999-2002). The report describes several elements of the IT strategy, including the following:

  • IT infrastructure aligned with the needs of students, delivering the systems and hardware necessary for electronic learning environments and computer-based learning resources;

  • A Distributed Learning System (DLS) that consists of a set of online tools compliant with the emerging EDUCAUSE Instructional Management System (IMS) and that is designed to assist faculty/staff in developing online courses;

  • An Academic Management System (AMS), fully integrated with the DLS and electronically accessible to academics and students, which provides enrollment and program and course progress records;

  • A Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) project, an extensive review of the university's administrative and academic processes; and

  • Extensive staff development.

Through the ITAP report, the university has articulated its objectives for using IT in teaching and learning. IT will enrich RMIT's learning environment by augmenting traditional methods rather than displacing them and by emphasizing interactivity, flexibility, and time/space independence. To mitigate the risk inherent in its large investment, RMIT is mandating IT standards compliant with the instructional management system for the whole university.

Faculty members who are not technological whiz kids need to have online tools that enable them to develop pedagogically sound, interesting, and relevant online courses efficiently. Here are some features of our Distributed Learning System (DLS):

  • We use a suite of tools (Blackboard CourseInfo, WebBoard, QuestionMark, Perception, and some in-house RMIT tools);

  • We explain the functionality of each tool in terms of student learning activities;

  • We use only tools that are IMS-compliant;

  • We use a team approach to all online projects; and

  • We use a benchmarking exercise, involving all seven RMIT faculties, to evaluate the toolset and the effectiveness of our learning environments as an ongoing process.

An early report on RMIT's distributed learning system (McNaught et al, 1999) contains descriptions and evaluations of the toolset and its implementation.

The Learning Technology Mentor Program

RMIT has seven strong faculties that often resist central directions from the university administration. As a result, RMIT has not had a strong faculty development program in recent years. To mend this problem, RMIT called for a faculty development program that promotes sound educational practice, does not increase faculty work loads greatly, organizes adequate support for all faculty, allows every department to "own" flexible learning systems, and is linked to RMIT's business and vision.

The response to this call was the appointment of Learning Technology Mentors (LTMs) in each department of the university. LTMs are usually faculty members who are granted time release to spend one day a week developing online materials and supporting online teaching and learning among colleagues in their departments. While one day a week is not a great deal of time, it is enough to give the faculty members space in which to learn new skills and enact them. There were 66 LTMs in the second semester of 1999, one in each department of the university and some in central areas such as the library. In 2000, the time releases of many LTMs are being extended by six months, and each department is receiving two more LTMs.

The dean, department heads, and IT directors are involved in selecting learning technology mentors and ensuring that they assume leadership positions in their departments so that the importance of online learning to each department is clearly understood. Each department will have selected up to three LTMs by the end of 2000. Each LTM will have intensive training in DLS tools and educational design for online learning. Also, LTMs will participate in the RMIT organizational learning module. A period of continuing professional development and opportunities for consolidation and outreach in each department will follow this intensive training.

The beginning of the LTM program is an extensive, week-long staff development exercise that covers several key topics:

  • RMIT's vision as a major international technological university based on the Boyer (1990) scholarship integrative model;

  • Evolution of RMIT's teaching and learning strategy;

  • The way Learning Technology Services, which is the department set up to enact the recommendations of the IT alignment project, works;

  • Roles of faculty members and staff in the faculty education services groups;

  • Funding mechanisms and the relationship between central and faculty funding; and

  • The distributed learning toolset and how it relates to the renewal of courses.

Additional staff development sessions include hands-on training sessions on DLS tools and educational sessions including assessment and evaluation, student support issues, and the role of the library and other service groups in supporting online learning. One or two of these sessions are offered each week throughout the whole year.

LTMs develop a work contract with the head of the Professional Development Team of Learning Technology Services. Department heads and the dean of the relevant faculty must agree to the tasks in each contract. This sign-off by senior faculty members provides assurance to LTMs that they will actually have the time release specified to do the work agreed to.

If individual faculty members wish, their involvement in the training program can lead to credit for a course in a Graduate Certificate of Flexible Learning. As there is a national move in Australia toward accreditation of university teachers, this is attractive to many faculty members.

Learning technology mentors provide weekly feedback on their work with the DLS, allowing DLS team members to receive more evaluative feedback than they did before the program. Also, the LTM program has become part of a suite of staff development initiatives and other programs that dovetail into the LTM system. Such programs include the following:

  • IT and information literacy sessions run by the Library. Several LTMs are actively recruiting their colleagues into these literacy sessions, which can provide an International Computer Driving License accredited by the Australian Computer Society.

  • Staff development for IT staff. IT staff members who are doing advanced technical staff development also benefit from aspects of the LTM program that focus on organizational understanding. Understanding and identifying with RMIT’s vision are essential for all staff involved in shaping RMIT's future.

  • Staff development for administrative staff. Those who work with the academic management system and help program teams using the AMS and business process re-engineering will also participate in development programs.

Staff development and support for developing materials and strategies must be distributed across an organization. Therefore, the FESGs are pivotal; growth should occur in these units rather than at the center. Technical support staff, educational designers, and graphical designers are needed most at the faculty level, and central courseware production should occur only for high-end media and multimedia production. We at RMIT are working toward this model.

It is crucial that courses included in the DLS are of high quality. Faculties should insure the quality of each subject registered in the DLS, while we provide educational guidelines, publishing standards, planning procedures, etc. This process is still being bedded down, but it provides reasonable quality assurance. Insuring that all staff adhere to quality standards requires a mixture of explicit procedures and ongoing professional development. Our quality concerns are genuine, and we will monitor this process closely.

Evaluating the LTM Program

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence of involvement in and commitment to our IT initiatives. The 1999 LTM reports clearly indicate this energy. Such enthusiasm is heartening but probably not adequate. We are working seriously on a balanced score card approach (Kaplan & Norton, 1996) to evaluate the ITAP investment. In this approach, we consider four linked aspects of university business:

  • Professional development programs relating to staff learning and growth,
  • Internal services/business processes such as IT infrastructure and administration,
  • The nature and distribution of student concerns, and
  • Financial return on investments.

We have developed several leading and lagging indicators for each of these aspects of university business; some examples are in the table below.

Business aspect Leading indicator Lagging indicator

Staff learning & growth

Number of LTMs trained

Number of quality-assured courses in the DLS

Infrastructure & administration

% of RMIT buildings with corporate standard cabling & networking infrastructure

Reliability & accessibility of IT systems for on- & off-campus users

Student concerns

Number of students registered on the DLS

Improved student satisfaction ratings in defined categories, e.g., in communication with faculty/staff, and the quality of feedback students receive on their work

Return on investments

Number of courses in the DLS

Number of quality-assured programs and courses targeted for off-shore delivery

These indicators must be measurable but valid, and striking this balance can be challenging. The time between measuring the leading and lagging indicators should be long enough to represent real change and short enough to satisfy an anxious chancellery! We have partially met this challenge by developing a matrix of indicators dealing with different aspects of ITAP. We have sets of indicators relating to the operation of the DLS, the LTM professional development program, the IT infrastructure, and the emerging AMS.

The Future Looks Bright

We still have to do a great deal of consolidation and development of our programs. We have been delighted by the enthusiasm of many LTMs; we have a sense of gathering momentum. In 1999, 190 courses used the DLS, and 600 were using it at the beginning of 2000. Several faculties are showing real commitment, though a couple of them still need a persuasive nudge. Have we reached critical mass yet, where the appropriate use of technology will sweep the university? Probably not, but we are on the right track. Our evaluations over the next few years will be crucial to gauging the success of this model.

*Australian dollars. Return to reading.


Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professorate. Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Kaplan, R. S., & Norton, D. P. (1996). Translating strategy into action: The balanced scorecard. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

McNaught, C., Kenny, J., Kennedy, P., & Lord, R. (1999). Developing and evaluating a university-wide online Distributed Learning System: The experience at RMIT University. Educational Technology and Society 2(4). Retrieved 10 July 2000 from the World Wide Web: vol_4_99/mcnaught.html

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