Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings

E-Learning Plan for NASFAA
April 2002

This plan was written for OMDE 621, Distance Training, over the course of the semester. It was written in sections, as the relevant material was studied in the course, and then compiled into one comprehensive document at the end of the semester. It is designed to be a practical plan for implementation of an e-learning function within the author's organization.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), a non-profit higher education association, provides support services in the form of current news, legislative advocacy, research, analysis, training, and professional development to its 3,100 college and university member institutions employing more than 10,000 individual financial aid administrators who deliver financial assistance to students pursuing a postsecondary education in the US. While the information and training NASFAA provides is highly valued by its members, its services are fragmented and compartmentalized, making it difficult for members to identify those services and resources that would be most useful to them. NASFAA also faces some critical challenges with regard to pricing, since several key products and services have historically been add-ons to NASFAA base membership fee.

The objective of NASFAA’s e-Learning plan is to create a comprehensive plan for the delivery of e-Learning through face-to-face and online training services, and information services primarily provided via the Web, but supported in some cases by hard copy documents. The key to this plan will be taking a comprehensive, strategic approach to integrating all of the training and information dissemination services NASFAA currently provides or wishes to provide under one umbrella of services. These include:

• Daily information updates provided via the Web site

• Materials relating to legislative advocacy, including guidelines for working with Congress and the regulatory agencies

• Daily e-mail to members with updates from Web site

• E-mail mailing list groups for other specialized topics or committees

• The encyclopedia of student financial aid provided in PDF format on a CD ROM and soon to be made available on the Web

• Comprehensive neophyte training materials used by state and regional associations to provide training to new aid administrators

• Instructor-led training workshops on selected specialized topics provided by instructors from regional and state associations, using NASFAA's training materials in the fall and spring of each year

• Web-based training modules for neophytes and experienced financial aid administrators

• Face-to-face conferences and symposia, including a national conference, an annual leadership conference for new leaders in state and regional financial aid associations, and symposia for experienced financial aid administrators with the potential for Internet-based follow-up

Part A. Vision and Mission Statements

NASFAA’s vision is to be the essential and primary source of learning support for college and university student financial aid administrators nationwide. Aid administrators look to NASFAA to set the standards for professionalism for the industry, to provide up-to-date, comprehensive learning products, and to facilitate knowledge sharing among financial aid professionals. Under this vision, NASFAA’s services are so completely integrated that aid administrators don't think of us as providing online or face-to-face services. The three components of our e-Learning system – online training on the Web, knowledge management primarily on the Web, and classroom training – provide a seamless set of immediately updated resources that aid administrators know they can rely on for accuracy, consistency, timeliness, and applicability to their day to day jobs.

NASFAA exists to promote the professional preparation, effectiveness, and mutual support of persons involved in student financial aid administration. The mission of its online learning environment is to promote, encourage, and support professional preparation, information sharing, timely and accurate training, both online and in the classroom, and collaboration among individuals and other organizations concerned with the support of professional student financial aid administrators. NASFAA is committed to providing an integrated learning environment, where comprehensive online training and knowledge resources and associated classroom resources demonstrate consistency, timeliness, and accuracy, thus helping ensure that postsecondary institutions have the resources to assist students in a manner consistent with fiscal responsibility and donor policies and regulations.

Part B: Asynchronous & Synchronous Delivery Models

NASFAA’s e-Learning program will incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous delivery models to the extent practical and desirable to meet the overall objectives of the project. Asynchronous technologies carry the distinct advantage of permitting learners at NASFAA's member institutions to participate according to their own schedules and in their own offices or homes, using commonly available Internet/Web technologies. Asynchronous delivery components will include self-paced learning modules much like tutorials, which the learner completes on his or her own, and which include practice exercises and tests of the learner's understanding of the content. Discussion forums will be used to support the learner's participation in the tutorials and will provide some of the community support that is so important to the distance training environment. Learners will be assigned experienced financial aid professionals as mentors, and will communicate using e-mail. E-mail support will also be provided to learners via a help desk function available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The NASFAA knowledge management database will be available for searching and research on an asynchronous basis on the Web 24/7.

Synchronous technologies pose some problems for NASFAA's learners, because they are employees of institutions, are not required by their employers to participate, and therefore can not adhere to a schedule determined by NASFAA. Nonetheless, the program will incorporate some synchronous components. These components will include occasional scheduled chats, using commonly available Internet chat rooms to provide real-time exchange of information and experiences among participants in the training program. Beyond this, NASFAA will continue to monitor the cost reductions that are occurring in the delivery of synchronous learning services in order to add to the menu of learning opportunities for participants.

Classroom training will continue to be offered, as the best example of asynchronous learning with which NASFAA has a great deal of experience. Classroom training has the distinct advantage of providing the opportunity for professionals to share common experiences, work on solving common problems together, and collaborate on issues and questions of important to the profession. The major change for classroom training will be integrating it more closely with Web-based training and with the knowledge management resources and services that NASFAA offers as part of its e-Learning program.

Part C: Virtual Teams & Collaboration

Because NASFAA has members at colleges and universities across the country participating in governance and committee activities, creating virtual teams engaged in collaborative activities is essential to the mission of the organization. The primary members of virtual teams will be elected members of the NASFAA board of directors, and the standing and ad hoc committees that do the work of the association, with the help of the staff in Washington, DC. As a first step in empowering the association's leaders to work in a collaborative manner, NASFAA will rely on the use of asynchronous methods, including list serves and discussion forums (or computer conferencing). List serves are already in use by NASFAA to communicate with 10,000 individuals at its 3,000 member institutions, with presidents of the state and regional associations that are affiliated with NASFAA, and with members of the board of directors. Additional list serves will be created and supported by NASFAA to enable its standing and ad hoc committee members to communicate.

The second form of collaboration will be asynchronous Web discussion forums. These discussion forums will be organized along the lines of the list serves, and will permit the board members, committee members, and state and regional association leaders to communicate asynchronously on the Web and for a permanent record to be maintained through threaded discussion capabilities. NASFAA also plans to implement discussion forums for providing technical assistance to members, who currently use a special mailbox to obtain responses to those questions. The discussion forum alternative for members' technical questions will enable a more permanent record to be maintained. In addition, NASFAA is working on a database of technical questions and answers that will eventually be searchable on its Web site, as part of its knowledge management system.

In the future, once the use of list serves and discussion forums is implemented and integrated into the association's routine business practices, NASFAA will expand its collaborative capabilities by testing the use of white boarding as a way for committees and the board to develop proposals, plans, and work product in a collaborative manner on the Web.

Part D: E-Learning Infrastructure

NASFAA supports its e-Learning program utilizing resources from its internal IT department and through outsourcing.

The internal IT department supports the NASFAA Web site at http://www.nasfaa.org, which is the key component for information dissemination and access to knowledge management resources. The Web site runs on Microsoft Internet Information Server and utilizes a SQL database for indexing and sorting the thousands of documents that are maintained on the site. The NASFAA IT department also supports a daily newsletter emailed to over 10,000 representatives of NASFAA member institutions. The Web site content is updated on a daily basis by a staff of three Webmasters. NASFAA also provides a searchable CD-ROM based encyclopedia of documents relating to student financial aid in Adobe Acrobat Reader format. NASFAA is in the process of migrating this important knowledge resource to the NASFAA Web site. The IT staff and the Web support staff are determining the technical requirements for this transition and the setup of the user login to ensure that subscribers have easy access to the same resources on the Web that they have on the CD ROM.

The Web-based training component of NASFAA's e-Learning program is maintained on servers outside NASFAA. Beginning with the initial development of its Web-based training program in 2000, NASFAA has worked with another agency in the student financial aid business to support the learning management system and the databases to support that system. The learning management system currently in use, Aspen (formerly Ingenium, provided by Click2Learn.com), runs on the other agency's servers and is supported by a very large and sophisticated IT staff in partnership with NASFAA. Aspen also has the capability to keep track of classroom training workshops, through sophisticated scheduling and online catalogue capabilities. Face-to-face training will therefore be incorporated into the training resources supported by Aspen. NASFAA also uses the Click2Learn.com authoring system, Toolbook, for designing Web-based training modules. Given the volatility of the e-Learning marketplace, NASFAA and its partner will continue to monitor enhancements and new products, in order to ensure that the NASFAA e-Learning program is supported with the most stable, cost effective tools available.

Part E: Organization Dynamics

While the association is a small organization with a staff of 35, its operations tend to be highly departmentalized. Because there is little integration among the various projects and responsibilities of the staff, the organization as a whole tends to view new projects and initiatives as separate from the other activities of the organization. The staff also carries a fairly heavy burden of projects and responsibilities that do not change from year to year. This results in a high level of anxiety when new projects are introduced by the organization's board of directors or senior management.

At the same time, because the staff is small and highly motivated to provide high quality services to member institutions, it tends to be very agile and able to switch directions as new needs arise. The major challenge in implementing the e-Learning plan for this organization comes from taking a global, systems view. The e-Learning project involves integrating various pieces that are already in place, or in development, into a coherent whole of interconnecting knowledge bases, Web-based learning, and classroom learning. Being able to come out of the individual box of departmental responsibilities will be a challenge for many of the organization's staff members. To support the e-Learning project throughout the organization, NASFAA will establish a task force of key individuals representing various departments within the organization, including a member of senior management who will help to champion the project and empower staff.

Part F: Cost/Benefit Justification

The implementation of NASFAA's e-Learning plan will require substantial expenditures for development of the Web-based training component of the project. In addition, significantly lower expenditures will be required to integrate Web-based training with the NASFAA Web site knowledge management system and classroom-based training. The costs of development will be met through an outside grant already won by NASFAA, contributions from the two other partners in the Web-based training project, and contributions of staff time, training, and travel from the NASFAA budget. NASFAA is also actively seeking additional outside funding from other organizations involved in the delivery of student financial aid.

Once the Web-based training program is implemented, NASFAA expects to generate financial support to meet the ongoing costs of delivering Web-based training, updating materials, and meeting the requirements of maintaining the technology. The primary source of such support will be the additional revenue generated by selling the Web-based training modules to financial aid administrators, student loan personnel, loan guaranty agency personnel, high school counselors, and others with a need to understand the intricacies of student financial aid. NASFAA is currently working on a pricing plan for the Web-based modules, looking at the future development costs, ongoing maintenance costs, pricing of similar products in the marketplace, and surveys of NASFAA members. In addition to revenue from sales of the Web-based training modules, NASFAA expects to generate revenue from sponsorships by student loan agencies, lenders, and financial aid servicers with a direct interest in getting their names before financial aid administrators.

The NASFAA e-Learning program will be evaluated on an ongoing basis through pre- and post-tests built into the training modules online. While NASFAA is not in a position to actually measure job performance improvements, the pre- and post-training evaluations will provide the organization with information about the learning that is taking place and that presumably will impact on the learner's ability to do their jobs. This information will also be used to make necessary revisions in the training, and to provide outside funding sources with data about the outcomes of the training. NASFAA will also compare the results of Web-based training to those from participants in the classroom training. In addition, NASFAA will utilize surveys of e-Learning participants to gather self-reported evaluations of the Web-based training modules, the NASFAA knowledge management system, and the classroom-based training.

Part G: Staffing

The NASFAA e-Learning project will be staffed by a combination of current employees, outside consultants and trainers, and employees at the IT partner organization. A current full time employee with experience and training in e-Learning will serve as project manager, with responsibility for setting up and monitoring the project plan, identifying training needs, working with outside consultants, working with the IT partner organization, integrating the various aspects of the project, and coordinating the instructional design and development processes. A matrix approach to staffing will be used, whereby the project manager coordinates employees from various departments within NASFAA, as well as outside consultants and trainers. This represents the primary staffing challenge of this project.

Members of the current training staff will be trained in instructional design and authoring for the Web by a consultant/trainer who will also assist in the Web module development process, working side by side with the training staff members he or she has trained. The training staff and project director will also participate in outside vendor training in the use of the selected authoring tools. The long-term purpose of this approach to staffing is to ensure that NASFAA has the internal expertise to maintain the Web-based training effort and to build it further in future years. The NASFAA knowledge management system is currently developed by internal SMEs, and this approach will continue during the e-Learning project. Likewise, the classroom training component is handled by members of the training staff, who develop the training materials that are then delivered by representatives of member institutions around the country who have been trained by the NASFAA training staff.

The IT backbone and support for the e-Learning project will be staffed in three ways: by a partner organization, by current NASFAA staff, and by outside consultants. The Web-based training component will be housed at a partner organization that will take responsibility for maintaining the servers, setting up and maintaining the learning management system, ensuring that the registration and e-commerce systems are functioning properly, and providing around the clock technical support to the project. The NASFAA computer services department will have responsibility for maintaining the NASFAA Web site, where the knowledge management system will be housed, along with the registration system for the classroom training component of the plan. The NASFAA Webmaster and assistant Webmaster will hold responsibility for converting the current knowledge management system (on CD) to Web delivery and for maintaining that system with the most up-to-date information resources. An outside consultant will assist NASFAA staff in the technical requirements for changes needed to the NASFAA Web site to support there new initiatives.

Part H: Corporate University

NASFAA's vision for its e-Learning plan is essentially to create a corporate university or ongoing learning community for its participants. This learning community will constitute the essential community of practice for financial aid administrators across the spectrum of US colleges, universities, and trade and technical schools. As the primary professional association for college and university student financial aid administrators, NASFAA is in the unique position to create this learning community, with courses, knowledge bases, and other resources tailored to the particular business needs of members and their institutions.

NASFAA's focus is on the development of specific competencies designed to enable trainees to do certain jobs in their institutions. The design of our e-Learning and knowledge management component is focused on the development of an ongoing, active, thriving learning community, where members of that community share professional tips and ideas for doing their jobs, and benefit from a mentoring program provided by experienced professionals in the field. As NASFAA's project develops, the organization expects to fully implement the use of skills gaps analysis and the creation of personally designed curriculum maps. Eventually NASFAA expects to be able to certify financial aid administrators in the particular skills we are teaching.

Part I: Expanding Access

Because NASFAA's mission is to support student financial aid administrators at US colleges and universities, there is a need to ensure that NASFAA's e-Learning services are equally available to aid administrators serving US students attending institutions abroad, and aid administrators whose native language is not English. The U.S. Department of Education provides materials for students whose first language is Spanish. NASFAA's e-Learning plan should therefore provide similar support, especially for aid administrators at institutions in Puerto Rico whose students are eligible for US financial aid. While all e-Learning materials do not need to be translated into Spanish, key documents should be available in order to provide Spanish-speaking aid administrators with roadmaps to the training and knowledge management materials they need. NASFAA will also make special efforts to reach out to institutions that have traditionally had fewer resources to devote to professional development, include tribally-controlled community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Part J: Sustainability and Evolution

Because NASFAA's e-Learning plan involves the integration of existing classroom training and knowledge management features with a new Web-based training initiative, the primary key to sustaining the plan is developing an integrated overall systems view. Support from senior management, and, more importantly, from the membership-based board of directors are critical if NASFAA is to mobilize the financial, personnel, and systems resources to carry through and sustain this project. With a broad enough vision and sufficient resources devoted to the project, NASFAA's e-Learning project is likely to evolve into a full-blown professional certification program for financial aid administrators. This program could involve various levels of certification and could well require a work history in the financial aid office. By evolving into a certification program, the NASFAA e-Learning program would provide professional financial aid administrators with a recognized credential from the national professional association that would support them through their careers.