The following is yet another section from chapter two of my thesis. As with previous sections, this is an early first draft, it will change.

This section attempts to give a brief overview of the Purpose component of the Ps Framework.


The purpose or reason for an organisation adopting e-learning or changing how it currently implements e-learning is widely understood to be an essential starting place for any project. How do you measure achievement if you have no shared understanding of what you are aiming for? Transformational change through e-learning requires institutional leaders, amongst other things, to articulate a clear, bold vision and demonstrate a broad understanding and acceptance of that view (Hitt and Hartman 2002). The common features of successful implementations of Learning Management Systems include realistic operationalised objectives and defined project scope (Wise and Quealy 2006).

Many, if not most, universities follow, or at least profess to follow, a purpose driven approach to setting strategic directions (McConachie, Danaher et al. 2005). It has, however, been argued that a “fixed purpose” approach to e-learning within universities significantly limits flexibility and choice for learners and learning (Jones and Muldoon 2007). Problems with a “fixed purpose” approach are discussed in more detail in the Process (Insert cross ref) and Place (Insert cross ref) components of the Ps Framework. Rather than repeat these arguments, the aim of this section is to give a broad overview of the claimed purpose behind the adoption of e-learning within Universities. It does this by starting first at what is known about the broader purposes of universities (Section 2.1.1) and learning (Section 2.1.2) before examining e-learning (Section 2.1.3). Finally, it attempts to draw out some lessons for future implementation of e-learning from the Place component (Section 2.1.5).

Purpose of universities

Understandings of the purpose of a university are many and diverse. Rashdall (1895) concluded that the university embodied three educational values: the provision of professional training and the highest intellectual cultivation possible; a desire to conserve, transmit and advance knowledge; and the joining together of teachers of diverse subjects into a single harmonious institution. The idea of a Humboldtian university, a common perspective underpinning many modern universities, encapsulates an idea of freedom from external controls and academic autonomy (McNay 1995).

Martin and Etzkowitz (2000) identify two main conceptions held about the purpose of a university:

  1. the pure or ‘immaculate’ conception; and
    A view that sees the purpose of the university is education and knowledge for its own sake.
  2. the instrumental or utilitarian ethos.
    Where the role of the university is to create and disseminate knowledge and train students with skills, which are deemed useful to society.

It is perhaps timely to mention the discussion of the limitations of dichotomous views of such binary views, and the value of harnessing paradox mentioned in the section (insert cross ref) on Place.

Diversity in the purpose of universities arise from a large number of factors. Table 2.1 provides an overview and description of some of these factors. As a result of the factors shown in Table 2.1 and others, higher education’s purposes and mandates are multiple and under constant pressure to change to such an extent as its very definition becomes unclear (Kogan 2000). The existence of several competing visions of true purpose is the cause of much of the malaise within modern university communities (Kerr 2001). On the other hand, any attempt to enforce commitment to an all-embracing set of values would inhibit innovative thought or create tensions that fracture the institution (Marginson 2007). The contemporary university suffers from an acute case of mission confusion (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

Table 2.1 – Some of the factors increasing diversity in the purpose of universities
Factors Description
Individual or societal outcomes There are disagreements about whether universities should aim to promote individual or social outcomes (Bell 2004).
Competition leading to differentiation Increased national and international competition cause universities to search for a unique purpose in order to increase differentiation and attract students and academic staff (Waeraas and Solbakk 2009).
Freedom Freedom (to varying levels) granted to academic staff enable the pursuit of a broad range of objectives and agendas, with varying values and ethical regimes in order to fulfil the knowledge-forming role of universities (Marginson 2007).
Responsive In order to reflect the ever-changing philosophical ideals, educational policies and cultures of particular societies or institutions, university missiones are dynamic and fluid (Scott 2006).
Changing tasks Tasks expected of universities are so multifarious, subject to change, mutually contradictory and immediately pressing (de Ridder-Symoens and Ruegg 2003).

Purpose of learning

It can be argued that the purpose of learning, particularly within universities, can be seen through two conceptions very similar to those identified by Martin and Etzkowitz (2000) for the broader purpose of universities: the immaculate and utilitarian. The immaculate conceptions include a broad array of work from diverse authors, including but not limited to Illich (1972) and Friere (Freire 2000), while the utilitarian approach sees learning as making contributions to society. Illustrating these two conceptions, Thompson (quoted in Mayo 1999) suggests

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

While Illich (1972) suggests

A good education system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and finally furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Increasingly the purpose of universities with respect to learning is seen through a more utilitarian perspective. Mass access to tertiary education is seen as a major contributor to the fostering of knowledge societies (OECD 2005). The knowledge society becomes increasingly dependent upon the social institutions that create knowledge and educate people (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Consequently, the neo-liberal state continues to control universities through devolved mechanisms including accountability-based funding (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005). Increasingly higher education is expected from outside and increasingly intends to be a strategic actor that sets clear goals and establish forceful means of pursuing the implementation of strategies (Brenan 2008).

The wider regulatory context encourages the development of learning and teaching strategies that focus on students’ learning (Newton 2003). From a quality assurance perspective Biggs (2001) suggests the basic purpose is whether or not “our teaching programmes are producing the results we say we want in terms of student learning?”. From a utilitarian perspective the desired results are related to serving the needs of the society within which universities operate. A perspective in which education is a commodity and universities are enterprise institutions selling educational products (White 2006).

Purpose of e-learning within universities

The stated and apparent reasons behind the adoption of e-learning within universities exhibits many of the characteristics identified within the broader purpose of universities and learning. That is, it is possible to identify a significant diversity in the reasons behind the adoption of e-learning within universities that can be grouped within both the immaculate and utilitarian conceptions of purpose. There is, however, similar to the growth of utilitarian perspectives of learning within universities, an identifiable preponderance of utilitarian drivers for e-learning.

In discussing the influence of the learning management system (LMSs) Coates et al (2005) identify six drivers that have enhanced the attractiveness of LMSs to universities and have driven their rapid uptake. More broadly, these drivers can also be seen in the broader literature about e-learning.

Table 2.2 – Drivers behind the adoption of e-learning
Driver Description
Efficiency E-learning can reduce the administrative burden on teachers (Britain and Liber 2000).
Enriched student learning E-learning technologies are adopted to enhance the flexibility of traditional teaching (Nanayakkara and Whiddett 2005).
New student expectations Technology is necessary to meet the changing demands and entry-level skills of recent high school graduates (Duderstadt, Wulf et al. 2005).
Online education is increasingly common in tertiary education in response to the growing needs of the student population (Nanayakkara and Whiddett 2005).
Competitive pressure E-learning is a way to respond to a changing and more competitive marketplace (Xu and Meyer 2007).
Responding to massification E-learning overcomes access limitations caused by the lack of physical infrastructure (Coates, James et al. 2005).
Control LMSs appear to offer a means of regulating and packaging pedagogical activities, to create order (Coates, James et al. 2005).

There is a tendency to see technology as the “magic bullet” that will enable reforms to make university learning more accessible, more affordable and more effective (Van Dusen 1998). There does, however, remain significantly questions about this ability and about whether or not e-learning can actually fulfil the needs identified by the drivers described in Table 2.2 or whether or not fulfilling such requirements will have negative consequences. For example, Wise and Quealy (2006) suggest that there is no evidence that the selection of an LMS has any affect on the enrolment choice of students.

Lessons from purpose

The above has suggested that increasingly universities are being driven more by the utilitarian conception of their purpose rather than the immaculate. Universities and their learning and teaching are increasingly expected to be accountable and consequently managed through strategic, plan-driven approaches that tend to prefer a unity of purpose. At the least, e-learning within universities needs to demonstrate an appropriately pragmatic level of support for this the increasingly utilitarian and singular view or purpose. In addition, this section suggests two two additional lessons from this discussion of Purpose for the implementation of e-learning: problems with purpose proxies, and problems with a singular view of purpose.

Problems with purpose proxies

The rise of the minimalist state (see cross reference to society section) brings with it accountability-based and performance-oriented funding strategies on the part of government that require standardized data collections (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005). However, no ranking or quality assessment system has been able measure the value added during education and few comparisons focus on teaching and learning (Marginson 2007). A significant and related problem is that measurement and quantification distort the character of what is being measured (Shore 2008) and divert attention from the central purposes of higher education (Marginson 2007).

Instead of valid data, various proxies of teaching quality are used, even though empirical research suggests little correlation between those proxies and quality outcomes (Marginson 2007). In order to obtain meaningful measures for the audit process the meaning of teaching quality is being transformed into something that can be quantified and standardized (Shore and Wright 2000). It is becoming less important how well an academic teaches or whether or not students are inspired, it is more important that they have fulfilled the prescriptions outlined by externally driven policy (Johnson 1994).

Problems with a singular view of purpose

Goal ambiguity is a defining characteristic of higher education institutions (Hearn 1996). As argued above, broader agreement about purpose within a university may not only be impossible but undesirable (Marginson 2007). For example, the absence of a specific or single purpose can make individuals within an organisation more open to change (Kezar 2001). With e-learning the different campus cultures and lack of a single, unified vision for e-learning work against a single tool being considered best across the board (UF CMSAG 2003). Rather than expend resources attempting to develop, promulgate and deal with the resulting tension associated with enforcement of a singular view of purpose, it may be more appropriate to accept and harness the diversity inherent within universities.


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