Task corruption in teaching @ university – negative impact of Place?

Busy being a good boy working on the thesis, currently reading a collection of literature to flesh out Chapter 2 which is drawing on the Ps Framework to illustrate the current state of e-learning within Universities. As the last post illustrates, the most recent paper I’m reading is White (2006).

The Ps Framework: a messy version

In her concluding remarks, White draws on the idea of task corruption suggested by Jan Chapman (1996) to describe some of the negative impacts of broader societal issues on learning and teaching at Universities. I’m attracted to this idea for two reasons:

  1. Increasingly I’ve thought most learning and teaching at universities is increasingly of less than stellar quality and “task corruption” provides an interesting (and at current glance, appropriate) perspective on why.
  2. It reinforces the potentially negative impacts that “Place” (one of the components of the Ps Framework) can have on the practice of learning and teaching (again one of many).

In the following, I’m trying to explain what task corruption is and explore what impact it might have on learning and teaching, and particularly e-learning (topic of the thesis), within universities.

What is “task corruption”

Task corruption is where either an institution or individual, conciously or unconsciously, adopts a process or an approach to a primary task that either avoids or destroys the task. Yesterday’s Dilbert cartoon – see below – is a great example.


White (2006) identifies two types of task corruption:

  1. amputation; and
    Where parts of the task are no longer performed or are ‘starved’ of attention at the expense of other parts of the task. White (2006) uses the following quote from one of the students she talked with as an example

    I personally believe that the way universities are run today is not necessarily in the best interests of students, but rather in securing numbers to generate a wealthy university and to establish research programs and post graduate programs rather than focusing on the majority of student who come to study in undergraduate degrees.

    I don’t think it would be too hard at some institutions to find a similar student quote in relation to full-fee paying overseas students at commercial campuses.

  2. simulation.
    Where the system or the individual is seen to comply with the task. i.e. they adopt the appearance of task engagement with the aim of avoiding real engagement.

    Perhaps an example of this is what happens in response to a rule at one organisation that states a course shall have no more than 2 assignments, if there is an exam worth more than a certain percentage. If you check course profiles this rule has essentially been followed. But scratch the surface and you find multi-part assignments, including sub-parts that have different due dates than other sub-parts of the same assignment.

Drawing further on Chapman, there is the observation that task corruption occurs most frequently with tasks where it is difficult to define or measure the quality of service (learning and teaching anyone?). Consequently, incentives (or punishiments) are based on quantity rather than quality. This certainly has resonances with personal experience and the almost exclusionary concern about end of term on failure rates, rather than on actual quality of learning.

Sadly, the most recent discussion of this work (Chapman, 2003) is in a journal to which I don’t currently have access. But it is interesting enough to follow up.

Implications for universities

My interest is in how you improve learning and teaching at universities, and one in particular. What implications do these ideas have for that?

Perhaps the most important one I can think of at the moment is to increase awareness of task corruption.

My feel is that task corruption is the dirty little secret of learning and teaching. Most people are aware it goes on, can probably point to some examples but professional pride (and perhaps other reasons) will prevent them from admitting this in a broader sense. In my experience management, especially those at a senior level, have developed the ability to ignore task corruption.

A certain sense of abstraction at the senior management level is good, otherwise you’d never get anything done. But perhaps, it’s been taken too far. Looking for and talking about the forms of task corruption within a university around learning and teaching could be a good first step in identifying those factors within the organisational and the social setting that are contributing to the task corruption. Hopefully as a first step in addressing these problems (and who says I can’t be wildly optimistic).

The problem isn’t limited to senior management. In an organisation that places emphasis on top-down, teleological design procesess the problem is (I believe) likely to occur within instructional design groups, information technology “support” groups etc.


Chapman, J. (1996). Hatred and corruption of task (Australian Institute of Social Analysis Working Paper No. 3). Carlton: AISA.

Chapman, J. (2003). Hatred and corruption of task. Organisational and Social Dynamics, 3(1):40-60

White, N. (2006). “Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective.” Higher Education Research & Development 25(3): 231-246.

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