Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The protean nature of modern technology – another limitation of most views of e-learning

A part of my thinking around the Ps Framework I suggest that there are a number of dominant assumptions that underpin the current implementation of e-learning within institutions of higher education. I believe these dominant assumptions limit the quality, efficiency, effectiveness and innovativness of e-learning at Universities. In this post I am trying to identify one of the dominant assumptions associated with the “Product” component of the Ps Framework and its implications.

The dominant assumption I’d like to explore here is that people forget that modern technology is protean. Worse than that, how most universities implement e-learning significantly limits the ability to take full advantage of this protean nature and subsequently limits the quality and innovation possible within e-learning.


This though has arisen through a combination of work I’ve observed at CQUni over the last year or so and some resources I looked at for the course analysis and design sessions I ran last week.

The resource that got it all started was the keynote presentation given by Mat Koehler and Punya Mishra at the SITE’2008 conference. I originally used the presentation for the first part where they talked about teaching as a wicked design problem. The fact that most people treat teaching as a tame design problem is another one of the major assumptions that negatively impact on e-learning, but that’s a story for another post.

Late last night, as I was putting together the resources used in the course analysis and design sessions I did a Google search for the SITE’2008 keynote. Doing so I came across this blog post from Wesley Fryer. The post provides a summary of the keynote and includes the following snippet

Difference between traditional technologies (pencil, microscope, blackboard) are specific – new technologies are PROTEAN

What does protean mean?

Wikipedia offers this description

with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”: “Protean” has positive connotations of flexibility, versatility and adaptability.

The source of this adjective is Proteus, a sea-god from Greek mythology who can tell the future but will change his shape so he can escape doing so.

Mishra and Koehler draw on the work of a number of folk in describing the digital computer as protean in nature – inherently flexible. For example Kay (1984) describing computers as a meta-medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium (including non-physical media) and his suggestion that we have barely begun to investigate this freedom for representation and expression. A computer is a tool to manipulate symbol systems be they visual, acoustic, textual or numeric.

They also point out that digital computer systems can also mean different things to different people. That different people given the same computer will achieve radically different things with it because of its protean nature.

Indications of the current limitation

I can see indications of ignorance of the protean nature in current organisational practice of e-learning in two main forms.

  1. Almost universal use of processes for the selection and support of information systems that treat information systems as “non-protean”.
  2. Unspoken and unquestioned acceptance of information systems serving only a narrow purpose of its original design.

“Non-protean” processes

Look at how most organisations implement computer systems, including those associated with e-learning. Almost without exception (please let me know if you can point out some exceptions) they follow the traditional teleological systems development life cycle

  1. Identify all requirements.
  2. Examine/build a software system that meets those requirements.
  3. Have a long period of system use where it does not change in order to recoup the costs of the first two stages (or simply minimise costs).
  4. Eventually, when the disconnect between the features of the system and the requirements of the organisation become so great, return to step #1.

Truex, Baskerville and Klein (1998) go into more detail about this traditional approach and why it’s inappropriate.

This approach ignores the protean nature of software in that during the long period of use the system is not to be changed and/or changes are kept to a minimum. The only people who are allowed to change them are the central IT folk and anyone who even thinks about changing or working around these systems is sought out and “dealt with”. Hence the negative conatations of shadow systems.

Traditional organisational approaches to the implementation of e-learning within universities do not leverage one of the greatest strengths of modern computers – its protean nature.

In this paper (Danaher, Luck et al, 2004) my colleagues and I make the following points

Software based systems, such as course management systems, represent a set of cultural patterns frozen for now into a reproducible and constraining form (Clear, 2002). Application areas that have low volatility in requirements make it possible for stable, precisely designed systems – the outcome of traditional development methodologies – to operate satisfactorily with minimal changes for long periods (Truex, Baskerville and Klein, 1999). The criterion for this proposition is the capability of the course management system and the supporting organisation to adapt itself and themselves in response to an ongoing process of shared requirements negotiated within the local institution.

That is, we argued that it was important that organisational implementation of e-learning actively enable and encourage the harnessing of the protean nature of information systems in order to

to support and enhance ongoing and shared constructions of innovation, rather than enact a pragmatic set of existing practices or follow a single conceptualization of what is innovative

In fact, when it comes to enterprise systems standard “best practice” from the research and practitioner literature is to implement a vanilla system. i.e. don’t make any adaptations to the enterprise system as it is too expensive to maintain those changes as the enterprise system evolves.

This is important to e-learning because since early this century a university’s course management system forms the academic system equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in terms of pedagogical impact and institutional resource consumption (Morgan, 2003).

I know of one university that is currently in the process of adopting an open source course management system that is actively explaining how they will be implementing a vanilla system. At least that seems to be the narrative emerging from the information technology division.

Limited views on capabilities of technology

As with the monk in the Introducing the book sketch struggling to come to grips with the new fangled technology of the book. Less than experienced designers of e-learning often don’t grasp or see the full potentials of a new technology. Too often falling into the horseless carriage problem.

For example, it continues to be a trend that when universities or academics purchase some space in SecondLife the first building they construct is some form of auditorium in which they can give lectures.

Even if they are particularly innovative in terms of learning and teaching most folk using SecondLife still automatically think that any potential application of Second Life will require students to be able to get in world. Something that can be expensive, if not impossible for them because of bandwidth and hardware requirements.

Few folk make the connection that Second Life can also be a multimedia production platform. Similar to what folk I’ve worked with have done with machinimas (see example below) to support case studies in an Auditing course.

The use of Second Life to produce machinimas provided a cheap and effective way to produce “video” of authentic scenarios without requiring students to access Second Life and without the huge cost of a “real life” production. It’s also an example of the “protean” nature of Second Life that enables its use in new and interesting ways.

Making systems and processes more protean

One of the core aims behind the design of the Webfuse e-learning system (Jones and Buchanan, 1996) was “flexibility and the ability to adapt to change”. In that paper I wrote

The one unchanging characteristic of the Internet, and the computing field in general, is that it never stops changing. This characteristic makes flexibility and adaptability essential features for any online or computing system. Without these characteristics an organisation runs the risk of either retaining an out of date system because it is too expensive to replace, or having to throw away the investment in a system because it has not kept up with change. This risk is demonstrated by the problems faced by Universities that have only recently stopped (and some who haven’t stopped) using mid-80s style, text based computer mediated communications systems.

As the system and the knowledge used to design and support it improved over time there were two main approaches used to make Webfuse “more protean”

  1. The technical design of the system enables and supports modification and enhancement.
  2. The design and support processes place emphasis on close contact between the system developers and the system users.

The trend is towards more protean technology

Originally the design of Webfuse, in terms of “technical design” was enabled by the amount of open source software associated with the Web and Internet that was available in the late 1990s. At any other time it would not have been possible.

Webfuse’s flexibility was based on provide an institutional specific wrapper around this open source software. The wrapper provides a standard interface for users and does some translation from institutional specific abstractions into the abstractions used by the open source software.

With this design, if the discussion was no good. We could find another discussion forum and incorporate it. However, this model was still based on the “run everything on our server” model.

The rise of “web 2.0” and in particular mashable services helps remove the need for this model and significantly increases the protean possibilities of the Webfuse model. The first experiment with these possibilities was the Blog Aggregation (BAM) Project. The second was the “web 2.0 course site” idea.

Both extended the Webfuse model beyond open source software to making use of RSS to mash up services.

The development of immersive 3d applications/worlds like Second Life continue this trend towards more protean software. Not only in that it continues the ability to mash up (to some extent) it also provides an environment more like the real world.


This has been a quick mind dump about the nature of digital computer systems as being protean and the implications for e-learning within universities. The basic outcome is I believe most institutional e-learning actively negates the protean nature of information systems and that e-learning is the worse for this.

This is not to say that enabling and supporting the protean features of e-learning is a silver bullet without any problems. There are issues, mostly associated with how you operate under a completely different set of assumptions that question accepted practice.


Patrick Danaher, Jo Luck, David Jones, Jeanne McConachie, Course management systems: Innovation versus managerialism, Proceedings of 11th International Conference, ALT-C 2004, 14-16 September 2004, University of Exeter, Devon, England, 2004. pp 23-35.

Jones, D. and R. Buchanan (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. Proceedings of ASCILITE’96, Adelaide.

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

Truex, D., R. Baskerville, et al. (1999). “Growing systems in emergent organizations.” Communications of the ACM 42(8): 117-123.


On the silliness of "best practice" – or why you shouldn't (just) copy successful organisations


BAM – making e-learning technology more protean


  1. punyamishra

    David, it has been fun following your blog (found out about it through trackback) – hope to visit more often now that I have you on my blogroll. thanks ~ punya (

  2. G’day Punya, Hope I haven’t taken things to far out of context. Have been very interested in TPACK for quite some time and hope to have the chance to think and apply it more moving forward. It resonates strongly with me and my experiences/beliefs. David.

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