Focusing on integration – chapter 5

Back working on the thesis. The following is a rough draft of the introduction and part of the first section from Chapter 5 of the thesis. This chapter is starting to tell the story of Webfuse from 2000 to 2004 and beyond.

As I’m reading and writing, I’m remembering all sorts of details, which has led to a change in the title of the chapter. “Focusing on better integration” isn’t about technical integration, it’s about integrating “e-learning” into the everyday practice of academics. This is where I think Webfuse was a success.


The previous chapter, chapter 4, described the first iteration (1996 to 1999) of the action-research process that led to the development of Webfuse and the Information Systems Design Theory (ISDT) that forms the basis for this thesis. This chapter describes the final iteration of the action research process (2000-2004 and beyond) and how it leads to the formulation of the final version of the ISDT. A significant point of difference between this cycle and the previous is that an obviously more atelological process was taken. That is, unlike the previous cycle which started with a specific set of design principles informing the design of an information system, this cycle commences with an existing information systems with a number of known problems and then proceeds via various changes to attempt to address those problems. The final ISDT is an accumulation of the learning and reflection from this ateleological process of experimenting with the existing Webfuse system.

This chapter uses the same basic structure – adapted from the synthesised design and action research approach proposed by Cole et al (2005) – as used in chapter 4. However, in keeping with the more ateleological approach adopted in this cycle the description of the intervention does not include a section explaining the a priori design principles. The chapter starts with the problem definition (Section 5.2) and a description of the changing happening within the broader societal and institutional contexts during this period (Section 5.2.1) and also a brief summary of the problems with Webfuse that arose from the first iteration (Section 5.2.2). Next, the intervention is described (Section 0) as a collection of separate, but related changes in the system and its support. The outcomes of the intervention are then examined in the evaluation section (Section 5.4). All of this is brought together first as an ISDT for e-learning within universities (section 5.5) and the identification of lessons learned (Section 5.6).

Problem Definition

As described in Section 4.2 (cross ref) the basic problem needing to be solved was how (in 1996) to enable the Department of Mathematics and Computing (M&C) – and later the Faculty of Informatics and Communication – at Central Queensland University (CQU) to use the World-Wide-Web and other Internet-based technologies in its teaching and learning. The solution implemented to address this problem was the design and implementation of the Webfuse e-learning system (Section 4.3 cross ref). By 2000, the development and support of Webfuse entered a new phase informed by changes within the broader context and the desire to address the lessons learned during Webfuse’s early use. This section starts be describing the changes in the broader societal and the CQU context, which both enabled and influenced the development of Webfuse from 2000 onwards (Section 5.2.1). Section 5.2.2 describes how these contextual factors influenced how Webfuse was supported and developed during this period. Finally, section 5.2.3 briefly re-iterates the lessons learned during the use of Webfuse from 1997 through 1999 identified in Chapter 4.

Changes in institutional context

The period towards the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries saw considerable change in the context within which this work was performed. This section seeks to provide a brief summary of those changes and how they impacted the development and support of the Webfuse information system and eventually the direction taken with the ISDT. It starts with a summary of some of the major societal changes impacting higher education within Australia. Next, it provides a brief description of the changes, many influenced by societal factors, within the CQU context from 1999 onwards.

From 1999 onwards acceptance, access to and use of computers and the Internet amongst the staff and students of CQU increased significantly in line with changes within the broader societal context. Household Internet access within Australia quadrupled from 16% in 1998 to 64% in 2006/7 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008). For most of this time, however, the majority of Australian households made do without broadband Internet connections. By 2004/5, only 16% of Australian households had a broadband Internet connection, increasing to 43% by 2006/7 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008). However, cost remained a significant barrier with only 34% of people in bottom income quintile households have home Internet access compared with 77% in the top income quintile (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007). This rapid increase, mirrored in other advanced countries, represented the growing penetration of the Internet and the World-Wide Web into everyday life.

The growing adoption of information and communications technologies (ICTs) had a other broader societal impacts. In the years leading up to 2002 universities faced an almost overwhelming demand for information technology (IT) skills fuelled by the dot-com boom and the perceived Y2K crisis (Smyth and Gable 2008). In addition, the Australian government introduced an initiative in mid-1999, that allowed former full-fee paying overseas students – studying a specified set of programs, including IT – to apply for permanent residence within the first six months after course completion, even if they did not have work (Birrell 2000). At the same time, the more robust market disposition of the state meant that universities were not only required to be more efficient and effective in using state resources but were also required to compensate for reduced government funding by attracting private funds (Danaher, Gale et al. 2000). For a number of Australian universities this led to an increased reliance on overseas full-fee paying students in programs matching government specified skills areas. Initially this included a heavy emphasis on IT skills, but with a global downturn in IT from 2002 leading to a decline in demand for these courses (Smyth and Gable 2008), the emphasis shifted to other programs such as accounting. As outlined in Chapter 4, CQU had adopted a strategic direction based on planned growth into the market for overseas students and consequently fluctuations in demand impacted the institution.

In March 2000 the Australian federal and state ministers of education established the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) and assigned it the responsibility of providing public assurance of the quality of Australia’s universities and other institutions of higher education (AUQA 2000). Vidovich (2002) argues that the types of public sector policies that resulted in the formation of AUQA amount to mechanisms of indirect steerage developed as a complement to policies of devolution, decentralization and deregulation characteristic of a prevailing market ideology. Vidovich (2002) also argues that the rise of quality policy and globalisation within educational at around the same time suggests that the two were intimately bound. Woodhouse (2003) – the Executive Director of AUQA – argues that the most frequently cited reasons for the great increase in external quality agencies in higher education are: the increase in public funding, the connection between higher education and national needs and the growth in student numbers. Woodhouse (2003) reports that feedback on trial and substantive AUQA quality audits in 2001 and 2002 is positive, with universities reporting beneficial effects through the audits and self-reflection triggered by prospective audits. In a review of 320 substantive contributions from the first 15 volumes of the journal Quality in Higher Education, Harvey and Williams (2010) suggest that the overall tenor is that “external quality evaluations are not particularly good at encouraging improvement”.

By 1994, as one of eight nationally accredited Distance Education Centres, CQU had almost 5000 students in 400 courses studying by distance education (CQU 1999). By the late 1990s, the changes described in the previous paragraphs had begun to significantly influence the conceptions of on-campus and distance education. By this time Australian distance education had been through three phases: (1) external studies (1911 to early/mid 1970s); (2) distance education (early/mid 1970s to mid 1980s); and, (3) open learning (mid 1980s onwards) (Campion and Kelly 1988). By the late 1990s factors such as declining funds, advancing technology and the demography of students had triggered a profound process of change where distance education methods and systems were converging with those of face-to-face teaching (Moran and Myringer 1999). By 2004, Bigum and Rowan (2004) describe how flexibility in teaching and learning was commonplace within Australian higher education and how enthusiasm for the term arose from perceptions of it being: a) a more effective and efficient means of getting teaching resources to students, and b) through online teaching offering the possibility of generating revenue from overseas fee-paying students. The key idea of flexible learning was a move away from instructor choice of key learning dimensions toward an approach that offered the student the flexibility to pick from a number of choices (Collis and Moonen 2002). Dekkers and Andrews (2000) suggested that once the use of technology became more common, discussion of flexible learning, like that with open learning, would soon revert simply to discussion of teaching and learning.


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