Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The paradigms of e-learning

I’m currently working on chapter 2 of my thesis – the literature review. Mine is using the Ps Framework as the organising structure and also as part of the contribution of the thesis. I’m currently working on the “Past Experience” component of the Ps Framework. Recently, I posted the History of technology mediated learning section. It provides a brief overview of technology-mediated learning prior to e-learning – defined as using the Internet.

In writing that section it became readily apparent from the waves of different technology-mediated learning that nothing is ever forever, and yet many of the folk writing within a particular wave seem to think it will. At the same time, I’ve been reading and observing folk talking about the current wave of e-learning focusing on learning management systems (LMS) in the same way. The assumption that there is no other way to approach e-learning.

This strikes me as troubling and very short-sighted. So I’ve been tempted to include the following in the literature review to highlight that the current LMS approach to e-learning is just one of a collection of paradigms. That we will move onto something different and that a responsible and informed organisation would be aware of and planning for this paradigm change.

Not sure whether this will end up in the thesis. Still has some significant room for improvement. For example, connecting the increasing pressures towards the corporatisation of universities with the rise of the industrial paradigm. Or perhaps whether the Edupunk movement fits with post-industrial paradigm or whether it is a continuation of the lone ranger paradigm. Not to mention I haven’t given the text a thorough proof read.

Paradigms of e-learning

E-learning, as defined here, rose to widespread use during the 1990s with, as shown in the previous section, connections with a range of different and prior movements within the history of technology-mediated learning. This section identifies and seeks to understand a number of different paradigms, movements or discourses within the rise of e-learning. The aim is to illustrate that the models and perspectives underpinning and informing e-learning, like those of the various movements within technology-mediated learning, are changing and that with this change comes different perspectives about what is appropriate, what works and importantly how to best support e-learning. The six paradigms described here are meant as illustrative examples to achieve the purpose of recognising that different paradigms of e-learning have and will continue to exist and that understanding this offers insight for the design and support of e-learning. It is likely that it may be possible to identify additional paradigms and additional dimensions of these paradigms, but that is beyond the scope of this thesis.

A “paradigm” can be defined as the set of assumptions adopted by a professional community in order to allow its members to share perceptions and engage in commonly shared practices (Hirschheim and Klein 1989). The paradigm selects the ideas to accepted and rejected and grants privilege to certain logical operations to the deteriment of others (Morin 1999). Similarly, a discourse organises and constrains what can be said and done. Different discourses, like paradigms, may contain a distinctive set of rules and procedures which govern what counts as meaningful or senseless, true or false, normal or abnormal (Davis and Sumara 2006). Paradigms and discourses provide a particular framing for the problem and how it is understood. The common set of assumptions held by a community of a problem provide a vision of what the technology should and how progress should be measured (Allen 2000).

Not being aware of the existence and significant difference between paradigms can hinder evolution. Apart from embodying a particular way of understanding the world, the influence of a paradigm to e-learning also creates an inertia within organistions that can slow down moving from one paradigm to another. Allen (2000) makes the point that communities, such as organizations, make a social commitment through decisions to employ resources that are difficult to reverse and can explain how particular innovation paths are enabled, and others are constrained. For example, Bates (2008) suggests that universities with a history of operating within the paradigm of large scale autonomous distance education have been slower in adopting e-learning.

The following table provides a summary of the six paradigms that are described in more detail below. The time period for each paradigm provides a broad indication of when the particular paradigm was most dominant within e-learning. It is possible to find evidence of some paradigms, or aspects of some paradigms, throughout the history of e-learning. It is suggested that the “post-industrial” paradigm has not yet achieved, and may not achieve, a level of dominance.

Period Title Description
Late 1980s-late 1990s Text-based CMC Arising out of the CMC movement. Focus on using Internet for collaboration/communication by using the Internet to address issues with proprietary systems. Proprietary CMC systems ported to the Internet.
Early 1990s to mid-1990s Lone ranger Individual academics, generally not from a CMC paradigm, start using Internet tools as part of their teaching. Including pre and post Web.
Cottage industry mid-1990s-1999/2000 Lone ranger attempts leveraged by the construction of small-scale systems to support the use of e-learning. Often many systems per institution.
Industrial Late 1990s to TBA Inefficiency, duplication etc lead to adoption of single enterprise system.
TBA-?? Post-industrial Problems with monolithic, institutional focus of industrial lead to development of alternatives

Text-based CMC

The computer-mediated communications (CMC) movement outlined in the previous section (Section Error! Reference source not found.) support communication through the use of large time-shared computers to which all participants would log on to via terminals of phone lines. By the early 1990s there were over 900,000 hosts on the Internet and the number was growing by over 1000 per day and accelerating (Press 1992). The rise of the Internet, its availability to universities and a growing range of text-based communication tools such as Usenet news and Internet email enabled the CMC based learning practices to move to the Internet and address some perceived problems such as cost and support (Atkinson and Castro 1991; Gregor and Cuskelly 1994). The Internet offered alternatives to the three main services of CMC identified by Kaye (1989): electronic mail through Internet-based email; Computer conferencing through Usenet news and mailing lists; and information banks through a combination of these and services such as FTP. Arising out of the origins of the CMC movement, the emphasis in this phase was on the use of the Internet to enable communication and collaboration.

By no means was the use of the Internet for CMC within universities widespread. By 1994, using the Internet for any purpose was limited to a fraction of academics at US universities with significant differences in usage between academic disciplines (Goodman, Press et al. 1994). As late as 1993 the Internet still did not play a central role in consideration of the future of CMC. In an article (Holden and Wedman 1993) examining the future issues associated with CMC the Internet is mentioned a handful of times and is positioned as one of three widespread networks enabling CMC. Moving from existing CMC system to the use of the Internet as a medium for CMC was, to some extent, a paradigm shift for those institutions already heavily invested in non-Internet CMC.

Lone ranger

Many, if not most, innovations around learning and teaching are created by “lone rangers” (Jones, Stewart et al. 1999). The “lone ranger” approach is by far the most common model of e-learning course development (Bates 2004). The lone rangers are individual academics who are energetic and early adopters of innovation motivated by a desire to improve the accessibility and quality of their teaching (Taylor 1998). At its best the lone ranger approach lays a foundation for new teaching methods based on technology, however, it often happens in spite of institutional interest, tends to produce pockets of isolated activity and often fails to have any impact or recognition at the institutional level (Taylor 1998).

The invention of the World-Wide Web and its capabilities to present multimedia made online education increasingly accessible and expanded the range of disciplines that could be offered online (Harasim 2000). The rise of the web made it clear that e-learning that used the Web as the primary interface were becoming the most successful (Stiles 2007). The relative ease of web-publishing encouraged lone-ranging academics from a range of disciplines to experiment with the new interface in a variety of ways. This contributed to the development of the second of the models for online courses identified by Harasim (2000), and perhaps the current primary model, based around information publishing.

Cottage industry

A limitation of the lone ranger approach is that quality teaching with technology requires expertise in a range of tasks, not just learning design and it is difficult for teachers to gain this breadth of knowledge without workload or quality impacts (Bates 2004). There is a gap between the lone rangers and the majority of academic staff that is unlikely to be bridged without assistance (Jones, Stewart et al. 1999). The mid to late 1990s saw widespread recognition that the majority of academic staff simply did not have the skills or time to individually design their use of Internet technologies (Goldberg, Salari et al. 1996; Jones and Buchanan 1996).

To address this gap, the mid to late 1990s saw the development of a diverse collection of intranet-based systems, home-built virtual learning environments, off-the-shelf products and customized groupware solutions by different schools, faculties or research initiatives (Dron 2006). At their best these systems were tailored to the needs of the learners and teachers in their original context. At their worst they were often unreliable, poorly maintained and each academic grouping having their own system contributed to issues around duplication, scalability and consistency. The de-centralised origins of many of these systems meant that few integrated with central management systems which led to duplication of user databases and often led to inconsistencies and disparities (Dron 2006).


As use of e-learning increases institutional management start to identify concerns around quality, duplication, lack of standards, and costs; and consequently start the process of setting priorities, establishing technical standards, providing support and controlling budget and workload (Bates 2007). A number of institutions questioned whether they needed to be in the business of building e-learning systems. The need for management to address these issues, the arrival of commercial Learning Management Systems (LMS – further explanation of the LMS in the Product section insert cross ref) vendors and the rise of enterprise software contributed to the adoption of the LMS as an enterprise system. The LMS shifted from being based on the bottom-up work of the loan rangers into the very embodiment of a top-down institutional strategy, to a dominant element of higher education’s information technology capability (Katz 2003).

By 2006, Browne et al (2006) to see two key trends in e-learning in the UK higher education system: the first is the on-going preference of institutions to use commercial systems; and an emerging trend towards open source systems. Eventually the market for LMS matured with a range of mergers and takeovers resulting in the overwhelming domination of the market by two products: a commercial product in Blackboard and an open source product in Moodle (Stiles 2007). It will be argued within the Product section (insert crossref) that an open source LMS does not represent a paradigm shift, but instead simply allows a university to continue the existing industrial paradigm by using ERP-based methodologies to maintain the LMS.

Browne et al (2006) suggest that the on-going preference by institutions for commercial systems could be “interepreted as inertia due to expensive ‘lock in'”. Landon et al (2006) suggest that user dependency on these systems signals an end to the “exuberant exploration of competing systems” and suggests a future focused on meeting user demand and making systems ever more efficient to use. Wilson et al (2006) suggest that the focus in recent years on the improvement of the technology of the LMS has lead to the marginalization of software and techniques that do not fit within the LMS patter. The industrial VLE model represents a hegemony in which the institution controls the environment (Stiles and Yorke 2006).


The limitations of industrial e-learning, the subsequent negative experiences of students and academic staff and the development of alternate technologies has contributed to the evolution of e-learning practice into e-learning 2.0 (Downes 2005). An evolution that can be seen as a change in paradigm or discourse around e-learning as it questions the assumptions of the industrial paradigm of e-learning (Jones 2008). Apart from the limitations of the industrial model, Stiles and Yorke (2006) identify three developments that are helping create the post-industrial challenge to industrial e-learning. These are the growth of:

  1. service-oriented architectures and cloud computing;
    These technologies enable a post-industrial approach to e-learning systems where parts can be included as and when needed and control can also be granted when and where needed (Dron 2006).
  2. systems, such as ePortfolios, where the question of information ownership is less than clear; and
    The ePortfolio is a personal place that belongs to the student to create and showcase their work (Downes 2005). Increasingly ePortfolios, like other applications, exist outside of the institution’s LMS.
  3. Web 2.0 and social software.
    The evolution of the Web into Web 2.0, has resulted in a Web that is no more open, personalised, participative and social (Ravenscroft 2009). Social software and informal instant communication technologies can help spread control move evenly through the learning system (Dron 2006).

These developments challenge the institutional approach in terms of ownership of processes, systems and information and create uncertainties around institutional strategy and policy (Stiles and Yorke 2006). These changes represent a major challenge to the hegemony of the LMS (Stiles 2007). It is clear that social software is part of an evolving paradigm that has contributed to a new and important family of technology-mediated learning practices that require conceptualised and investigated (Ravenscroft 2009). There is a need to consider how learning can be reformulated to address the tension between a highly structured and authority driven view of learning and the more collaborative and volatile nature of the social web (Ravenscroft 2009). In order to be ready for the changes ahead, there is a need for institutions to be reconsidering their strategies and policies now (Stiles 2007). However, it is still early days and it is arguably time to focus on projects that stimulate reflection and asking of questions, rather than jumping prematurely to specific solutions (Ravenscroft 2009).


Allen, J. (2000). "Information systems as technological innovation." Information Technology & People 13(3): 210-221.

Atkinson, R. and A. Castro (1991). The ADEnet project: Improving computer communications for distance education students. Quality in Distance Education: ASPESA Forum 91, Bathurst, NSW: Australia, Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association.

Bates, T. (2004). The promise and myths of e-learning in post-secondary education. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective. M. Castells. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar: 271-292.

Bates, T. (2007). Strategic Planning for E-Learning in a Polytechnic. Making the Transition to e-Learning. M. Bullen and D. Janes. Hershey, PA, Idea Group Inc: 47-65.

Bates, T. (2008). Transforming distance education through new technologies. The International Handbook of Distance Education. T. Evans, M. Haughey and D. Murphy. Bingley, UK, Emerald Press: 217-235.

Browne, T., M. Jekins, et al. (2006). "A longitudinal perspective regarding the use of VLEs by higher education institutions in the United Kingdom." Interactive Learning Environments 14(2): 177-192.

Davis, B. and D. Sumara (2006). Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Downes, S. (2005) "E-learning 2.0." eLearn Volume,  DOI:

Dron, J. (2006). Any color you like, as long as it’s Blackboard. World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare and Higher Education, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, AACE.

Goldberg, M., S. Salari, et al. (1996). "World-Wide Web – Course Tool: An environment for building WWW-based courses." Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 28: 1219-1231.

Goodman, S., L. Press, et al. (1994). "The global diffusion of the Internet: patterns and problems." Communications of the ACM 37(8): 27-31.

Gregor, S. and E. Cuskelly (1994). "Computer-mediated communication in distance education." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 10(3): 161-181.

Harasim, L. (2000). "Shift happens: online education as a new paradigm in learning." The Internet and Higher Education 3(1-2): 41-61.

Hirschheim, R. and H. Klein (1989). "Four paradigms of Information Systems Development." Communications of the ACM 32(10): 1199-1216.

Holden, M. and J. Wedman (1993). "Future issues of computer-mediated communication: The results of a delphi study." Educational Technology Research and Development 41(4): 5-24.

Jones, D. (2008). PLES: framing one future for lifelong learning, e-learning and universities. Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton, CQU Press.

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

Jones, D., S. Stewart, et al. (1999). Patterns: Using Proven Experience to Develop Online Learning. Proceedings of ASCILITE’99, Brisbane, QUT.

Katz, R. (2003). "Balancing Technology and Tradition: The Example of Course Management Systems." EDUCAUSE Review: 48-59.

Kaye, A. (1989). Computer-mediated communication and distance education. Mindweave: Communication, computers and distance education. R. Mason and A. Kaye. Oxford, UK, Pergamon Press: 3-21.

Landon, B., T. Henderson, et al. (2006). MIT Peer Comparison of Course/Learning Management Systems, Course Materials Life Cycle, and Related Costs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 90.

Morin, E. (1999). Seven complex lessons in education for the future. Paris, France, UNESCO Publication.

Press, L. (1992). "The Net: progress and opportunity." Communications of the ACM 35(12): 21-25.

Ravenscroft, A. (2009). "Social software, Web 2.0 and learning: status and implications of an evolving paradigm." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 25(1): 1-5.

Stiles, M. (2007). "Death of the VLE? A challenge to a new orthodoxy." Serials 20(1): 31-36.

Stiles, M. and J. Yorke (2006). "Technology supported learning – Tensions between innovation, and control and organisational and professional cultures." Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change 3(3): 251-267.

Taylor, P. (1998). "Institutional Change in Uncertain Times: Lone Ranging is Not Enough." Studies in Higher Education 23(3): 269-278.

Wilson, S., O. Liber, et al. (2006). Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems. 2nd International Workshop on Learner-Oriented Knowledge Management and Oriented Learning.


Performance degradation – impact of new LMS implementation


Pedagogy of the impressed – how teachers become victims of technology vision


  1. jonmott


    I love the notion of the LMS as but another “collection of paradigms,” bound to be replaced by the next, better, evolved collection of paradigms. While momentum is building around the PLE, I’m convinced that the next iteration of the online learning infrastructure will be something more like an “open learning network” that’s a hybrid between the LMS and the PLE. By bringing together the best of the LMS (SIS integration for course rosters and grade posting) and the PLE (dynamic flexibility, social networking) we could create something pretty remarkable. If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on this direction, I blog about it at http:/

    And thanks for sharing this great literature review!


    • G’day Jon,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I actually have your blog in my RSS feed – though as I near the end of writing up the thesis I have to admit to ignoring feeds in the interest of preventing procrastination when it comes to writing (a major problem of mine).

      I added your feed because of your work around loosely-coupled assessment and how it connects with some work I’m doing on a project called BAM/BIM

      Following up on the connection is on the list of post-thesis tasks. I look forward to it.


  2. drkelvinthompson


    I think this is interesting work that you’re doing, and I hope to read the whole thing after you defend.

    This is a rather piddly observation given the scope of the ideas you’re dealing with, but, in my mind at least, it bears attention.

    It seems to me that all the paradigms but one are categorized by how “production” occurs. However, arguably, the first paradigm is not about production at all. Computer-mediated communications is more about a pedagogical approach (or instructional model). Now, you may have operationally defined your use of CMC in the noted previous chapter and therefore rendered my observation moot, but I thought I’d point it out.

    It seems to me that CMC as an approach persists in the mental models of “online courses” *across* all the other production paradigms you’ve noted. (It is not the only one, but in my experience, it certainly seems to be the *dominant* one in higher education.)

    I’d love to see you address this somehow!

    All the best,


    • G’day Kelvin,

      Thanks for the comment. I see what you mean, but I need to reflect a bit more. I hope to blog about this in the coming weeks. I have a nascent idea or two but need to consider.

      If you really want to read the finished thesis, my plan is to stick it on the blog once done. Hopefully before the year is out…..


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