Descriptive (network) versus normative (community) based development of e-learning in organisations

As part of a conversation on the Moodle site for the Online Connectivism Conference Stephen Downes posts the following.

Only individuals in a community have agency. Which means that we need to look very closely at what happens when someone says “the community begins to establish which knowledge is important.” What this means is that some few members of the community undertake this action, and are then in some way able to impose this as a directive on the community as a whole.

We need to distinguish between two senses if ‘becomes important’ here:

1. The sense in which the phrase is descriptive, an emergent phenomenon, that we are able to identify after the fact, and

2. The sense in which the phrase is normative, an individual action, which becomes definitive of membership or good conduct in the community.

The first is very easily established via a network. But the second requires a somewhat more cohesive and restrictive organization, which requires an injunction on individual freedom of action.

When somebody says a network “isn’t sufficient” I always look to see what it is that the network is deemed to be insufficient for. And on analysis, it is always some stipulation – some custom, value, belief or law – that one person wants to impose on another.

To my mind, the only impositions that can be justified are those that are necessary to counteract other attempts to impose one person’s will over another, those, in other words, that preserve autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction.

A timely post that connects with some discussions we were having locally at CQU yesterday about supporting e-learning within a university. It also connects with vague ideas expressed in an earlier post.

The current local problems – well, one of them

In terms of implementing e-learning at CQU we’re too much in the normative sense, as explained by Stephen. There are too many individuals or small groups who have defined what is “good” and attempting to enforce that definition on everyone else.

The groups/individuals doing this include

  1. Blackboard staff
    These are staff employed by CQU to support the use of Blackboard. Their emphasis is always on how to efficiently and effectively use Blackboard to solve problems. Even if it is the wrong problem. This is an example of one of the flaws which Introna (1995) identifies with teleological design process. The loss of the big picture and its replacement with an emphasis on solving their bit of the problem. See the previous post for some discussion of this and pointers to other material.
  2. Senior staff
    Staff in fairly important positions that are confident in their abilities and intelligence. People who have formed opinions about how best to do something. This might be as minor as replacing the green in the logo with pink. It can extend to “every course will use problem-based learning” type statements.
  3. Individual academic staff
    I’m sure every university has the small number of very vocal academic staff who are absolutely certain that what they do and how they do it is just the bee’s knees, often with little evidence to support the belief, and they will make sure that they must be allowed to continue doing what they do, exactly the way they want to do it, with the tools they want to use.
  4. Well-meaning technical staff
    I’ve recently seen lots of examples of staff with technical skills knowing of a technology that might provide some advantage and then making the decision to implement it in the belief that it will make a difference. But this is almost always done without any interaction or understanding of the students or staff and the real impact it will have on them. Is this what was really needed?
  5. Controlling senior staff
    These are the managers who are frustrated by the mistakes of a number (often a very small number) of academic staff and then implement a very normative decision upon all staff to prevent those mistakes from happening again. Though often the decision is almost completely clueless and does nothing to address the problem. The only success these types of decision often have is to annoy those staff who were doing the right thing in the first place.
  6. The above list is not meant to denigrate or insult any existing staff. It’s an attempt to identify some categories by which the normative sense impinges on the development of e-learning. I can see myself, at various times, in at least 3 of the 5 above categories.

    Networks and the nature of universities

    Now we enter a realm where time is running out and my thinking is very wooly.

    The basic problem though is if you agree that learning towards the descriptive/emergent sense Stephen describes is “better”. Then how can you create this within an organisation like a university. The nature of universities is that resources are scarce and hence having normative decisions made is standard. Someone decides where the resources gets put, which gives power, which leads to more normative type decisions.

    With e-learning the easy use of technology to support and enhance learning is scarce. Where “easy use” consists of at least tools that are difficult to use and staff who don’t have the background/skills to use the tools. So do you address this, in part, by removing the scarcity of “easy use” of technology.

    But what about the normative decisions that have already been made in the organisation? i.e. the excepted norms and ways of doing things.

    Obviously, I need to do more thinking and more reading.

    Anyone have the answer?

Ateleological development as a "better way" to develop university e-learning systems

Cole Camplese, in a blog post titled 69,000 reasons to pay attention, reflects on issues around innovation, especially with “web 2.0 like” tools, in e-learning within universities

I’m not at all saying it is time to bail on innovation — what I am saying is that we have a huge uphill battle in getting faculty to try the things we talk about, why create more issues by pushing multiple platforms at them? What I am now thinking about is how do I spend my time helping the conversation move forward.

The problem he is facing is that there are 69,725 students at his institution using Angel – the institutions enterprise LMS/CMS. With that large user base, is pushing web 2.0 tools worth the effort? Is there a better way?

I’m facing a similar issue here at CQU. CQU’s official LMS is Blackboard. Also offically, CQU “supports” Webfuse, a home grown e-learning system that grew out of one of our faculties. Though in reality, the learning side of Webfuse hasn’t changed much since 2001/2. Disclaimer: I’m the original designer of Webfuse. The Webfuse work forms part of my thesis. Though I haven’t been working on it for at least 3 years.

At the moment, CQU has underway a process that is looking at what we do in the future around our enterprise LMS. Up until recently my money was on the university throwing out both Blackboard and Webfuse and going with either Sakai or Moodle.

As of Feb 1 this year I started as the Head of E-Learning and Materials Development at CQU. Which means I have some role to play in supporting Blackboard, Webfuse and in selecting what is next.

Like Cole, I’m a fan of blogs, wikis and related Web 2.0 type ideas. I’ve even got a whole category on this blog titled Web 2.0 course sites. I could see how something around this could be really interesting, effective and innovative.

But, like Cole, I’ve been thinking about our faculty and students. Is the innovation really worth the effort required to change practice?

So what is the solution?

My rough ideas around a solution – ateleological development

This idea grew out of another post which in turn draws on ideas in a paper
that some colleagues and I wrote.

What we’re talking about here is a design problem. We have a problem, how do we design the solution.

Introna’s (1995) idea is that there are two extremes in design: teleological and ateleological. The following table is Intonra’s (1995) summary of the differences.

Attributes of the design process Teleological development Ateleological development
Ultimate purpose Goal/purpose Wholeness/harmony
Intermediate goals Effectiveness/efficiency Equilibrium/homeostasis
Design focus Ends/result Means/process
Designers Explicit designer Member/part
Design scope Part Whole
Design process Creative problem solving Local adaptation, reflection and learning
Design problems Complexity and conflict Time
Design management Centralized Decentralized
Design control Direct intervention in line with a master plan Indirect via rules and regulators

The majority of change in organisations is teleological.

The analogy we’ve used to explain this is to imagine you are taking a trip to China – all expense paid. You get to decide how you will do it. You get to design your trip. Do you follow a

  • Teleological design process.
    Find the best luxury travel company that has pre-planned tours of China. Design by an external person, not the person taking the trip. Designed to do it efficiently…

  • Ateleological design process.
    Pack your backpack. Buy a one-way ticket to China and make it up as you go along. Responding to new information and your own contextual feelings as you travel. Each time you have a choice to make you concentrate on what you feel like doing next.

Most enterprise systems implementation, like adoption of an LMS at a university is driven by a teleological design process. Some group makes the decision and then fights the political battles to get acceptance amongst the potential users. Decisions to replace an LMS are the same.

Teleological decisions like this follow the typical lifecycle model for information systems (see the following figure). Large up-front costs, typically in purchase and change management, followed by a long period of lower cost operation (where the ROI comes) and finally it has to be replaced.

Lifecycle model. Adapted from Truex et al (1999)

Truex et al (1999) make the argument that this type of approach only works in a stable environment. I believe that e-learning within universities is far from stable due to both external factors influencing universities (including technological change, globalisation…the usual suspects) and the internal nature of universities (not the most stable organisational form known to man).

The alternative is ateleological (Introna, 1995) or emergent development (Truex et al, 1995). Introna’s characterisation of ateleological development is shown above. Truex et al suggest that emergent development includes the following characteristics

  • Analysis is always occuring, just not big up front analysis
  • Requirements negotiation is dynamic
  • Redevelopment of the systems is continuous

Theoretically you end up with a cost/time graph with no big peaks and troughs. Thought it would, on average, be a bit higher than the traditional approach.

Kezar (2001), focused on change management in universities, and suggest the following as some research-based principles

  • Promote organisational self-discovery
  • Focus on adaptability
  • Construct opportunities for interaction
  • Strive to create homeostasis
  • Be open to a disorderly process
  • Facilitated shared governance and collective decision making
  • Connect the change process to individual and institutional identity

After that long side-tack, how do you solve this problem.

I think an ateleological design process is the way to go. Some rough ideas of its form include

  • Start with whatever the institution currently has
  • Interact heavily with the staff and students and try to determine what they think is important, what they want to do, what they need, what are their driving problems?
  • Tweak the current systems to provide some quick wins in terms of what staff and students want
  • Usually not with the existing LMS, look at intermediary information systems
    Most of the commercial LMSs I have seen are horribly inflexible and simply aren’t suitable as a long-term basis for e-learning using an ateleological approach. The infrastructure needs to be more flexible. An intermediary information system wraps around the LMS, provides the needed flexibility but still lets staff and students work with the current system.

    I think CQU needs to do this with Blackboard. Not sure about Angel.

  • Return to step 2

A lot of interaction and rapid response to those needs will, I believe, quickly allow something very interesting and different emerge. While at the same time not requiring huge leaps of change from staff and students.

Having I convinced myself? If so, how to operationalise this at CQU?


Lucas Introna. (1996) Notes on ateleological information systems development, Information Technology & People. 9(4): 20-39

Duanne Truex, Richard Baskerville, Heinz Klein. (1999). Growing systems in emergent organisations, Communications of the ACM, 42(8): 117-123

CAUDIT CIO's top 10 issues list – and what it says about them (to me)

According to their website CAUDIT is described as

The Council of Australian University Directors of IT (CAUDIT), includes the CIOs or IT Directors of every university in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, as well as the CIO’s of prestigious research institutions, CSIRO and AIMS.

Last week I came across the CAUDIT CIO’s top 10 issues list for 2006. The list is

  1. Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery
  2. Identity Management : Authentication, Authorisation, Access
  3. Funding / Resourcing
  4. Work Force Planning: Recruitment, Training, Succession, Retention, Change Management
  5. Security
  6. Governance
  7. Service Management : Support and Delivery: Availability, Capacity, Change Management
  8. Information Management : Storage, Archiving, Records Management
  9. Legacy Systems : Administration : Student Management / ERP
  10. Strategic Planning

What I found interesting was that e-learning, teaching and learning, research and other core tasks for universities did not rank a mention.

In fact, the entire top 10 issues list is focused on issues that have an internal focus. A focus on how IT does some task. No mention of how IT will focus on something important to the organisation.

Sure security, continuity, governance etc are all important and enable the institution and its aims. If they weren’t there, the institution would be in trouble.

What about strategic planning? Isn’t that outward looking. Maybe. But it’s usually more inward looking than outward.

At least the EDCAUSE list included something along those lines.

  1. Security and Identity Management
  2. Funding IT
  3. Administrative/ERP/Information Systems
  4. Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity
  5. Faculty Development, Support, and Training
  6. Infrastructure
  7. Strategic Planning
  8. Governance, Organization, and Leadership
  9. E-Learning/Distributed Teaching and Learning
  10. Web Systems and Services

Thesis 1.2 – Background to the research

Advanced industrial societies are currently undergoing a fundamental transformation from capital- and labour-based economies into knowledge economies (Burton-Jones 2001). In such economies knowledge, education, people and their ideas, become the key strategic resource necessary for prosperity (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). This transition to a knowledge economy is characterised by factors including globalization, increasing competition, knowledge sharing and transfer, and an information technology revolution (Zhang and Nunamaker 2003). This transition raises a number of issues for education systems, in particular how best to adapt such systems to the changes in the socio-economic landscape and provide the best educational opportunities and outcomes (Knight, Knight et al. 2006).

Schools and universities will play increasingly important roles as society enters this new age of knowledge as society becomes increasingly dependent upon the social institutions that create knowledge and educate people (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Some believe that the university will be the central institution in post-industrial society (Bok 1990). A 2002 survey of 30 OECD countries indicated that more people than ever are completing tertiary education and that 1.9% of the combined GDP of these countries was devoted to higher education (OECD 2005). A report comparing education between the G8 countries show those countries spending between 1% and 2.7% of GDP on higher education during the year 2000 (Sen, Partelow et al. 2005).

The knowledge economy’s pervasive and ever-increasing demand for innovative delivery of education has led to dramatic changes in learning technology and organizations (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004). The new technological possibilities and the new learning environments they enable are contributing to an unavoidable pressure for change (Tsichritzis 1999). The advancement of computer and networking technologies are providing a diverse means to support learning in a more personalised, flexible, portable and on-demand manner (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004).

These new technologies have become a major force for change in higher education institutions that will potentially have a profound effect on the structure of higher education (Green and Hayward 1997). Some suggest that the rapidly evolving technology and emerging competition puts the very survival of the current form of the university at risk (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). For example, Peter Drucker suggests, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universitites won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book” (Lenzer and Johnson 1997). Unlike previous periods of technology-driven social change the impact of information technology affects the basic activities of a university, creating, preserving, integrating, transmitting and applying knowledge, and more fundamentally changing the relationship between people and knowledge (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).

Universities, however, are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of the University is still the traditional combination of teaching and academic research suggested by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). These observations are often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997). The nature of e-learning, to some extent, conflicts with the academic culture based on autonomy and a reward system based on research (OECD 2005). Yet, the growth of e-learning has been incremental and has not fundamentally challenged the face-to-face classroom (OECD 2005).

The emergence of the knowledge economy and the increasing influence of technology are not the only factors driving change within higher education. Indeed the last 30 years has seen a period of unprecedented change as higher education institutions across the world as they are being shaped by similar problems and forces (Green and Hayward 1997). These forces include: increased access and growth in participation, reduction in public funding, increased costs, increased calls for accountability in outcomes and subsequent arguments around autonomy, the changing nature and growth of knowledge and disciplines, industrialisation and industrial relations policy, and internationalisation (Green and Hayward 1997; Coaldrake and Stedman 1999; Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). The uncertainty about the future generated by these changes highlights the importance of building institutions that are responsive to change. (CRHEFP 1997). It is the institutions that are able to continually adapt to these changes that will be successful (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003) and survive (Klor de Alva 2000).

The use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in learning has a history going back at least 30 years and has been characterized by a variety of names including: computer-mediated communication (CMC), computer conferencing, computer-based training (CBT), computer-aided learning (CAL), computer-managed learning (CML), distributed learning, electronically enabled learning, online learning, web-based education, Internet-based learning, telematics and e-learning (McCormack and Jones 1997). The use of different terminologies and often different definitions for the same term makes it difficult to develop a generic definition (Ally 2004). From one perspective, e-learning is ” technology-based learning in which learning materials are delivered electronically to remote learners via a computer network” (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004). There are four main problems with this perspective:

  1. A content delivery emphasis.
    Much of the action, discussion and technology around e-learning has a focus on the transmission of content rather than on the construction of learning. Oliver (1999) suggests three critical elements of technology-based learning: content, learning activities and learning supports. Other work has identified five basic tasks performed as part of e-learning (McCormack and Jones 1997; Frizell and Hubscher 2002; Avgeriou, Papasalouros et al. 2003): information distribution, communication, assessment, management/administration and design.
  2. Assumption of distance.
    By 2005 the dominant mode of e-learning to which higher education institutions (HEIs) aspire is the integration of online components into their traditional face-to-face approaches, often called blended learning (Salmon 2005). The majority of e-learning activity is as a supplement to on-campus delivery at undergraduate level (OECD 2005).
  3. Limitation to network technologies.
    E-learning, as defined by the OECD (2005) can range from the use of PCs for word processing of assignments through use of specialist disciplinary software, handheld devices, learning management systems and simulations. It is not limited simply to the use of Internet or Web technologies.
  4. An emphasis on learning.
    Teaching and learning requires administrative support and, furthermore, that contemporary learning environments should integrate academic and administrative support services directly into the students’ environment (Segrave and Holt 2003). It has been suggested that the impact of information technology on the back office will be more important than its impact on the student/teacher interface due to the potential for large savings and the pruning of internal bureaucracies (CRHEFP 1997).

This thesis, with its emphasis on implementing e-learning within higher education, adopts the definition provided by the OECD (2005) where e-learning is defined as “the use of information and communications technology to enhance and/or support learning in tertiary education”. In this definition, e-learning is expanded to include support for any and all tasks required to encourage and support efficient and effective teaching and learning. (Jones and Gregor 2004)

The importance of e-learning in contemporary universities cannot be denied (deFreitas and Oliver 2005). Allen and Seaman (2004) report on estimates that by October, 2004 over 2.6 million students will be studying online courses at US-based universities and that over 50% of institutions agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. The questions about e-learning have moved from a focus on use versus non-use to how, why and with what outcomes (Hitt and Hartman 2002).

Many institutions are adopting Course Management Systems (CMSs) as the solution to the “how to implement e-learning” question. Course Management Systems (CMSs) are software systems that are specifically designed and marketed to educational institutions to support teaching and learning and that generally provide tools for communication, student assessment, presentation of study material and organisation of student activities (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). There is, however, evidence to suggest that this strategy is not particularly innovative, is limited in quality and ability to integrate with other systems (Alexander 2001; Paulsen 2002). Even the most advanced institutions report little more than 50% adoption by faculty (Sausner 2005). With some exceptions universities have not employed technology to the same degree or as effectively as the business community (Piccoli, Ahmad et al. 2000). Successful implementation of CMSs in an academic environment is rather rare (Sarker and Nicholson 2005).

Early adoption of e-learning by Australian universities during the 1990s was done without critical examination of the merits and led to cases of wasted resources, unfulfilled expectations, and program and organizational failure (Pratt 2005). This may be due to the highly complex, confusing and almost over-whelming nature of many of the issues that information technology raises in universities (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002)

The transformation promised, or threatened, by e-learning is in reality a very fundamental transformation process, driven by technology but involving people, organizations, and cultures that must be addressed both systemically and ecologically (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Scholars in Information Systems can offer vision on structures and processes to effectively implement technology-mediated learning initiatives (Alavi and Leidner 2001).

Thesis 1.1 – Introduction

In the traditions of open source’s “release early, release often” and in an attempt to get me writing, I am going to start releasing parts of my PhD thesis. Almost certainly of limited use to others and likely to demonstrate various flaws, but hopefully the public release might generate some fixes and encourage some progress.

This is Chapter 1, Section 1 – the introduction. Subsequent bits to come as available.


This thesis describes the formulation and testing, over an extended period, of an Information Systems Design Theory (ISDT) (Walls, Widmeyer et al. 1992) for e-learning. In this thesis e-learning is defined as the use of information and communications technology to support and enhance learning and teaching in higher education institutions (HEIs) (OECD 2005). The e-learning ISDT provides guidance to practitioners on how to design and develop an e-learning information system that offers a greater variety of features, allows greater flexibility in the choice of applications, greater integration within the organization and encourages greater staff and student usage (Jones and Gregor 2004).

Unlike much design-science research, where constructed artefacts are rarely full-grown information systems that are used in practice (Hevner, March et al. 2004), this e-learning ISDT has been instantiated and tested in Webfuse (Jones 1999), a real-world information system that has been used by thousands of students and staff. The work described in this thesis started in 1996 with the intent to develop an integrated information system to enable use of web-based learning and provide a distinct advantage over competitors (Jones and Buchanan 1996). In the ten years since 1996 an iterative, action-research process has been used to evolve the system and the associated ISDT through three distinct generations. Each generation has lead to iterative improvements and testing of the ISDT.

This chapter provides an overview and background to the thesis. It starts by providing a brief background to the research, expanded further in Chapter 2, including a justification of the importance and relevance of the research. Drawing on this background the chapter then outlines the research problem and describes the research methodology adopted to address that problem. Limitations of this work are outlined before providing an overview of the structure and content of this thesis.

Aims of a curriculum design group at a university

This is a collection of rough ideas about what the overall aim should be for a curriculum design group at a University. In particular, a University like Central Queensland University.

The driver for this is that I’m now the “leader” of just such a group. A group that has been newly formed. We’re starting from scratch and need to figure out how, what and why we’re going to work. Obviously, this is very much a work in progress and required input and comments from a range of folk (one of the reasons for doing this on my blog).


Essentially CQU has been without curriculum design services for a number of years. This was picked up on by the AUQA audit of CQU which offered such comments as

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop strategies to systematically embed its generic skills and attributes into the curriculum, teaching and assessment practices of the University such that the CQU experience is of a consistent quality and is comparable with universities nationally.

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University encourage a more collegial approach to curriculum development, which will both stimulate and incorporate scholarship and research and philosophical discussions about quality education

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop a systematic approach to encouraging and resourcing research-informed teaching

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University increase its emphasis on academic professional development, via a variety of forms, especially focusing on such pedagogic issues as curriculum development and review, assessment practices and the teaching-research nexus


This question is much more important than it might appear. How people interpret what we do will influence what we can do. We need to have a consistent, simple message about what we do so we can simply spread the word.

The AUQA report focuses on curriculum design and the name of the unit in which we reside is the Curriculum Design & Development Unit.

This article from the British Medical Journal gives a good introduction to curriculum design. It’s definition of curriculum is one I like

If curriculum is defined more broadly than syllabus or course of study then it needs to contain more than mere statements of content to be studied. A curriculum has at least four important elements: content; teaching and learning strategies; assessment processes; and evaluation processes.

The advantage of this is that it encapsulates a lot of what we can/should do. The content section covers the tasks which the members of DTP and Rolley currently perform. Somewhat more problematically, it could also be seen to encapsulate video production. Evaluation also opens up some interesting missing roles.


I’d like to position CD&DU as a Professional Service Firm defined on this page as

A professional service firm applies specialist technical knowledge to the creation of customized solutions to clients’ problems.

We provide customised advice to CQU staff. How may the most effectively design their curriculum, given their context and the available resources?


Previous issues

  • Limited diversity in opinions
    Only the academic and the instructional designer were involved. If a team was involved, it was a couple of academics, typically from the same discipline
  • Use limited to a small collection of staff
    Only a small sub-set of staff made use of the service.

Existing issues

  • We’re a small group, limited resources
  • Uncertainty about connections/overlap with other groups


As top level aims, we should

  • Help staff develop the skills and confidence necessary so they can perform curriculum design themselves.
  • Provide an environment that encourages collaboration across disciplines.
  • Provide an environment that encourages implementation of good practice in L&T, an environment that makes it easy to do this.

Underneath those aims potentially fits the following

  • Be seen as academics who research.
  • Raise the visibility of our work and ourselves.
  • Make it ease to contact us.
  • Be seen as a one stop shop for preparation of course material
  • Treat print and online as two of a range of options

…there’s many more that should go here. Onto other things.

Open source in the education field

Dave Tosh, project manager of the elgg project, has a post suggesting that the open source model doesn’t work. He should know, given his three years working on elgg.

My interest in the post is due to a number of factors. I’m hoping to install and use elgg for my group here at CQU – that’s a task for tomorrow. I’m a long-term “open source” fan/promoter in various shapes and forms. That said, I’ve also had similar concerns as those expressed by Dave.

Though I must say that any conclusions based on an empirical data set of 1 case is not real strong. I also wonder how much of this post is due to the regular frustration that comes with being part of a software project. Especially one has good and challenging as elgg.

I think elgg, and more importantly the people behind it, has what it takes to succeed. Dave, for what it’s worth, stick with it.

Is it the education sector

Harold Jarche makes a good point that may it is open source in the education market that doesn’t work? Harold suggests that university IT departments might be to blame.

There may be some point in that, but I think it is more than that, at least in the case of elgg.

The devil you know

Most university IT departments I know have a reasonable reliance on open source applications. Usually apache, MySQL and the like. Something that the lower level staff can install and use. Something that most people can understand, it’s a database or a web server. These projects are also big and well known. It’s almost getting to the stage of the old “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” statement. These systems are known. Are known to be good and are known to be used by a lot of institutions.

elgg is a different kettle of fish. First, it’s one of these “social software” things which reject much of the traditional beliefs of IT and management people. It actively challenges the hierarchical, command and control understanding of management. It’s this novelty that makes it that much harder for a project like elgg to get acceptance.

That acceptance, amongst management, is important if the revenue stream is going to come. Most of the bottom of folk using elgg don’t have access to funds, in large amounts, to help the project along. It’s the institutional money that’s needed and that requires management acceptance and understanding (the former is easier than the latter, and the latter is not necessarily required for the former).

This is why Moodle has found it much easier to get acceptance. For management, Moodle is just an open source course management system. A type of system they are already comfortable with. A type of system that is causing them problems, in terms of maintenance, cost and flexibility. Moodle is a solution to an existing problem. I’m not sure management see elgg the same way. Hence it’s a harder sell.

Even with this easier path, the main way Moodle is succeeding is when a new senior manager is appointed at an institution and brings with them an interest in open source or Moodle. I believe this is what happened at the Open University in the UK.

Novelty is a hard slog

Doing things different is a much harder sell. Takes longer for the pay back, longer for mindsets to change.

There’s more to say on this, but it’s getting late and the mind is freezing.

Universities as a business – but which business

Last week I gave a presentation to new academic staff at CQU, a part of their “induction” process. The presentation was titled Some possible futures of e-learning: Lessons and enablers.

The basic premise was something along the lines

  • Current e-learning practice is far from good.
  • Future e-learning practice will look nothing like it.
  • What are some the contextual factors, the lessons and the enablers that might guide the creation of that future practice?

One of the lessons I proposed was that the idea of the “University as a business” was a bit limited.

University as a business

The literature in and around higher education has, for at least 20 years, included a large percentage of discussion that universities should be run as businesses. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen references that this has been a complain, typically from business and politicians for a lot long than that.

This following quote summarises much of the current rationale behind that idea (Dodd, 2004)

Declining revenues and public support … coupled with increased competition, performance requirements, constituent accountability, globalization and changing political climates. All of this has forced a new reality for higher education … one that requires greater efficiency, effectiveness and business-like processes.

So if we adopt business-like processes then universities will be better value for money and all will be right with the world.

The main problem I have with this is that not all businesses are the same. Which type of business should a university borrow its practices from?

Types of businesses

I don’t believe it is possible to treat all businesses the same. The strategies and tactics required to run IBM are different from those to run a supermarket chain, a local corner store or a professional sports team.

I also don’t believe that each business or organisation is so unique that it needs to be entirely individually catered for. I think/hope that there is a useful middle road. McKelvey & Aldrich (1983) seem to agree, at least the quote in Rich (1992) indicates this

Classifying organizations into types presents an alternative to the idea that organizations are either all alike or are all individually unique.

University as a professional service firm

An ex-Harvard Business School professor, David Maister has made a name through working with professional service firms and is the author of the book Managing the Professional Service Firm. His description, from this book, of the professional service firm has, for me, striking similarities with universities.

Two aspects…create the special management challenges of the professional service firm. First… a high degree of customization in their work … Second, … strong component of face-to-face interaction with the client

Straight after this description comes the quote which strikes at the heart of the current “efficiency” emphasis in university management.

Management principles and approaches from the industrial or mass-consumer sectors, based..on standardization, supervision, and marketing of repetitive tasks..are not only inapplicable…but may be dangerously wrong.

What does that say about the adoption of such practices as quality assurance and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems by universities?

The Oxford Said Business School has an article online about professional service firms.


David Dodd (2004). Decisions, data and the universities as a business. College Planning & Management

B McKelvey and H Aldrich (1983) Populations, natural selection, and applied organizational science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28: 101-128

Philip Rich (1992). “The Organizational Taxonomy: Definition and Design.” The Academy of Management Review 17(4): 758-781