The "dominant" assumptions underlying university-based e-learning: an introduction

As part of working on my thesis I’m working on chapter 2. As the traditional literature review one purpose of the chapter is to demonstrate what I know about the topic and to highlight what I think are the flaws or holes in current research and practice that I believe my research will address. The following builds on some initial ideas from a previous blog post and serves as some practice in formulating my ideas. So it will still be rough. Feel free to suggest improvements, point out problems and disagree.

I was going to leap headlong in describing the flaws of university based e-learning that I perceive. However, before getting to those I thought I’d address what I see as the source of these problems – the “dominant assumptions”.

I was going to develop a list of those dominant assumptions to include in this post. Then it got too long and was getting to inflexible. So now I’m going to give an introduction in this post and have separate posts to develop the assumptions I associated with different components.

The argument

The basic argument is that much of the organisational practice of selecting, designing and supporting e-learning information systems (including both the technology and how the technology is harnessed through organisational practices) within universities is far less effective than it could be. The vast majority of this practice can be argued to be more closely aligned with the band-wagon effect than of being appropriate for the organisation.

This is because of the complexity of the factors to be considered in order to make informed decisions about this practice and the observation that most most of these decisions are flawed because they draw on a limited set of dominant assumptions of different components that contribute to e-learning. These dominant conceptualisations are entirely incompatible with the nature of e-learning within universities and/or their unquestioned acceptance limits consideration of alternate perspectives that might be useful.

Important: I’m thinking directly about the practice of e-learning individual courses, though this is directly impacted upon by what I am thinking about. My focus is at the organisational level. With how a university, or perhaps one university organisational unit, and its management decide how to implement and support e-learning in terms of technology, policy and processes.

Introducting the Ps Framework

The Ps Framework is defined in this paper (Jones, Vallack and Fitzgerald-Hood, 2008) as

As a descriptive theory, the Ps Framework is proposed as a tool to make some sense of the complex, uncertain and contradictory information surrounding the organisational adoption of educational technology. The seven components of the Ps Framework identify many (any claim to exhaustive coverage would require additional research) of the important factors to be considered in such decisions.

Earlier in the same paper the explanation of descriptive theory (aka taxonomy or framework) is given as

Frameworks offer new ways of looking at phenomena and provide information on which to base sound, pragmatic decisions (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). Gregor (2006) defines taxonomies, models, classification schema and frameworks as theories for analysing, understanding and describing the salient attributes of phenomena and the relationships therein.

The sheer complexity and scope of the factors to be considered around the organisational implementation of e-learning within universities is such that, I believe, there is a need for some sort of framework to structure the discussion. The Ps Framework may not be the final or best word frameworks to structure this discussion but it’s the most complete one that I’m currently aware of.

There are other frameworks that have been used in e-learning, including:

  • the 4Es conceptual model (Collis et al, 2001)
    Used to preduct the acceptance of ICT innovations by an individual within an educational context – environment, effectiveness, ease of use and engagement.
  • the ACTIONS model (Bates, 2005)
    Provides guidance on selecting a particular educational technology – Access, Costs, Teaching and learning, Interactivity and user-friendliness, Organisational issues, Novelty and Speed.
  • the P3 model (Khan 2004)
    An approach to course development, delivery and maintenance.

I’m sure there are many others. If you know of any, please share them.

The components of the Ps Framework

The seven components of the Ps Framework (I’m quoting from the paper) are

  1. Purpose.
    What is the purpose or reason for the organization in adopting e-learning or changing how it currently implements e-learning? What does the organization hope to achieve? How does the organization conceptualise its future and how e-learning fits within it?
  2. Place.
    What is the nature of the organization in which e-learning will be implemented? What is the social and political context within which it operates? How is the nature of the system in which e-learning will be implemented understood?
  3. People.
    What type of people and roles exist within the organization? What are their beliefs, biases and cultures?
  4. Pedagogy.
    What are the conceptualisations about learning and teaching, which the people within the place bring to e-learning? What practices are being used to learn and teach? What practices might the people like to adopt? What practices are most appropriate?
  5. Past experience.
    What has gone on before with e-learning, both within and outside of this particular place? What worked and what didn’t? What other aspects of previous experience at this particular institution will impact upon current plans?
  6. Product.
    What type of "systems" or products are being considered? What is the nature of these products? What are their features? What are their affordances and limitations?
  7. Process.
    What are the characteristics of the process used to choose how or what will be implemented? What process will be used to implement the chosen approach?

The relationship between the seven components can be explained as starting with purpose. Some event or reason will require an organization to change the way in which it supports e-learning. This becomes the purpose underlying a process used by the organization to determine how (process) and what it (product) will change. This change will be influenced by a range of factors including: characteristics of the organization and its context (place); the nature of the individuals and cultures within it (people); the conceptualisations of learning and teaching (pedagogy) held by the people and the organization; and the historical precedents both within and outside the organisation (past experience). This is not to suggest that there exists a simple linear, or even hierarchical, relationship between the components of the Ps Framework. The context of implementing educational technology within a university is too complex for such a simple reductionist view. It is also likely that different actors within a particular organization will have very different perspectives on the components of the Ps Frameworks in any given context.

The dominant assumptions

In the previous post that this one has grown out of I argued near the end that

E-learning in universities generally suffers from bandwagons because the decision makers draw upon a number of dominant assumptions the negative influence what they do.

Many of these assumptions are so fundamental that they are never questioned. In fact, they are never even thought about. The decision makers don’t even know that they don’t know. This limits the quality of their decisions and contributes to the bandwagon effect.

For the rest of this post I use the components of the Ps Framework to develop an early list of these dominant assumptions and the problems they create. Where possible I try to include some explanation of the problem with each assumption and some examples.

Disclaimer: “dominant” is a bit strong for some (perhaps all) of these assumptions. Each of the assumptions has a different “dominance level”, which is a factor of how many people believe it and to what level they are unaware that there are more appropriate alternatives.

References

Bates, A. W. (2005). Technology, E-learning and Distance Education, Routledge.

Collis, B., O. Peters, et al. (2001). “A model for predicting the educational use of information and communication technologies.” Instructional Science 29(2): 95-125.

Gregor, S. (2006). “The nature of theory in information systems.” MIS Quarterly 30(3): 611-642.

Jones, D. and S. Gregor (2004). An information systems design theory for e-learning. Managing New Wave Information Systems: Enterprise, Government and Society, Proceedings of the 15th Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Hobart, Tasmania.

Jones, D., J. Vallack, et al. (2008). The Ps Framework: Mapping the landscape for the PLEs@CQUni project. Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? ASCILITE’2008, Melbourne.

Khan, B. (2004). “The People-Process-Product Continuum in E-Learning: The e-learning P3 model.” Educational Technology 44(5): 33-40.

Mishra, P. and M. Koehler (2006). “Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge.” Teachers College Record 108(6): 1017-1054.

OECD. (2005, 17 January 2006). “Policy Brief: E-learning in Tertiary Education.” Retrieved 5 December, 2006, from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/55/25/35961132.pdf.

Walls, J., G. Widmeyer, et al. (1992). “Building an Information System Design Theory for Vigilant EIS.” Information Systems Research 3(1): 36-58.

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