Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: May 2009

Lessons from place

The following is the last part of the Place section of chatper 2 of my thesis. It’s not that good, but enough has been done to get it out and await feedback.

Lessons from place

The Place component of the Ps Framework aims to understand the context within which e-learning within universities operates. Organisational and societal characteristics play a role in defining the context in which tertiary education operates and frames the parameters of potential individual and organisational responses (White 2006). Previous sections within the Place component (Section 2.1) have examined the characteristics of broader society (Section 2.1.1), the higher education sector (Section 2.1.2) and the nature of individual institutions of higher education (Section 2.1.3). This section identifies, and describes in more detail below, four main lessons from this examination of Place and how it applies to e-learning within universities. Those four lessons are:

  1. Change for universities is traditional, inherent and necessary in its Place.
  2. Inconsistency is a feature of universities and their place.
  3. Universities and their place are complex adaptive systems.
  4. There is a mismatch between the place of universities and its current processes.

Change is traditional, inherent and necessary

It is not difficult to find authors commenting on the centrality of change to the modern university. The environment in which universities operate is one of intense change (McNaught 2003). Higher education continues to undergo massive change (Newton 2003). Higher education is beset by grotesque turbulence (Webb 1994). A distinctive feature of the modern world is not change per se but its character, intensity and felt impact (Barnett 2004). Within this environment the rate of change required of universities will almost certainly be more rapid than in earlier centuries refer?. Academic institutions must remain flexible enough to response to emerging social demands, technological change and economic realignments (Scott 2006). Insitutions that cannot continually change to keep up with the needs of the transforming economy will become irrelevant (Klor de Alva 2000).

It is equally easy to find evidence of universities being somewhat less than accepting of change. There is a clear strand of research that addresses higher education’s capacity for resistance, if not downright subversion, of external pressures and requirements (Brennan and Teichler 2008). Universities are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of a university remains the traditional combination of teaching and research suggested by Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). There is also the suggestion that teaching is one of the few human activities that does not demonstrate improvement from one generation to the next (Bok 1992).

As mentioned previously, there are alternate perspectives of the university as having a proven ability to evolve in a changing environment (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000) and fill any purpose society sets for them (Kogan 2000). The view that universities are static institutions resisting change is perhaps an artifact of analysts looking for change from the top down, rather than the bottom up (Birnbaum 2000). Change in professional bureaucracies – like Universities – does not occur from the top-down via management, administrators and major reforms, instead it sweeps in through the slow process of changing the professionals that form the operating core (Mintzberg 1979). This type of change is not highly visible as it is not introduced through master plans, ministerial bulletins or on a global scale (Clark 1983).

The uncritical acceptance of claims of crisis, stagnation and the existence of turblence of a different order of magnitiude than previously seen makes institutions more receptive to management innovation, especially those that claim to be able to predict or control the environment (Birnbaum 2000). An emphasis on ‘new practices for a new age’ contributes to a misunderstanding of the past and an ignorance of what is really important in organizations (Eccles, Nohria et al. 2003). Rather than suggest change is permanent, Berg et al (2003) suggest that it is the basic condition of life. Change is traditional, inherent and necessary to universities, it is nothing new, all who work with in them must continue to deal with the ‘complex interaction between the planned and the serendipitous’ (Webb 1994).

Inconsistent requirements, tensions and paradox

The types of changes or pressures arising from place with which universities must deal are, as mentioned previously, creating inconsistent needs and outcomes. Findlow (2008) notes the significant tension that arises between place-based pressure for accountability, that creates a need for measurement and risk-reduction, and similar pressure for innovation, the nature of which often defeats measurement and requires risk taking. Webb (1994) discusses the tension arising from demands for greater coporateness and executive management with funding policies that encourage university departments to see financial rewards and expansion as ‘theirs’. Webb (1994) also highlights the tension between increasing demands to serve local communities and rewards associated with research and teaching excellence. Marginson (2007) comments on how university ranking systems, which tend to norm institutions as a single global market of essentially similar comprehensive research universities in order for comparison to be sensible, tend to work against national and institutional desires for diversity, specialist missions and strategies of innovation within higher education.

Attempts to make sense of a world that is increasingly ambiguous and ever-changing frequently leads to a simplification of reality into polarised either/or distinctions that conceal complex interrelationships (Lewis 2000). Rather than compromise between the distinctions, vibrant organizations change by simultaneously holding the two inconsistent states – a paradox – to create, not a bland halfway point, but instead an edge of chaos (Eisenhardt 2000). Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt (2005) argue that “the rationale underlying decision processes in universities is inherently paradoxical and hence change management in universities is the management of paradoxes under turbulent circumstances”.

It is complex

Higher education’s characteristic continuing change, combined with diverse nature of its students and the range of courses offered compound the complexity inherent in higher education (Jones and O’Shea 2004). The higher the social complexity, defined as the number and diversity of participants, the more difficult a design project becomes (Conklin 2005). The multifaceted disposition of the university as an organization stretched among diverse sub sub-systems of the society, causes paradoxical effects that make change in universities complex (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005) There is a need to see universities as complex and occasionally contradictory entities whose developmental trajectories are shaped by multiple historical, political and cultural characteristics (Tuunainen 2005). The higher education sector is a complex domain with many different kinds of institutions fulfilling very different roles (Berg, Csikszenthmihalyi et al. 2003).

Complexity describes a feature of systems where the interactions between elements are unclear, uncertain and unpredictable (Barnett 2004). This is more than the interconnections between elements are so complex as to be indeterminable; it suggests that the connections are so interwoven that any attempt to engage with on e strand will have repercussive and unforeseeable impacts on many, if not all, of the other strands (Barnett 2004). Under such a view organizations can be seen as systems whose goals, the necessary resources, and the interrelationships between components must all be continuously redefined (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). In a complex context there are no right answers to discover ahead of time due to unpredictability and flux (Snowden and Boone 2007).


It appears that the current emphasis on increasing corporatisation and executive management within universities is creating a mismatch between organisational practices and the society, sector and institutions within which higher education takes place. Such a circumstance can result in ‘organisational schizophrenia’ manifesting itself as a mismatch between organisational goals and achievable practice on the ground (Lisewski 2004). A situation where success depends on adopting strategies that overcome a fundamental mismatch between context and objectives (Findlow 2008). Attempts to reduce the complexities inherent in corporatising the processes of universities creates a gap in organisational knowledge that can lead to oversights and artificial simplifications (Churchman 2006). More fundamentally, the on-going emphasis on overly rationalised accounts or organisational life (Adams 1994) and the fundamental assumption of a certain level of predictability and order (Snowden and Boone 2007) contributes to this mismatch. Achieving outcomes in a time of increasing uncertainty requires a deep understanding of place, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox and a willingness to flexibly change styles (Snowden and Boone 2007).


Adams, G. (1994). "Blindsided by the Elephant." Public Administration Review 54(1): 77-83.

Barnett, R. (2004). "Learning for an unknown future." Higher Education Research & Development 23(3): 247-260.

Berg, G., M. Csikszenthmihalyi, et al. (2003). "Mission possible? Enabling good work in higher education." Change 35(5): 40-47.

Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Bok, D. (1992). "Reclaiming the public trust." Change 24(4): 13-19.

Brennan, J. and U. Teichler (2008). "The future of higher education and of higher education research: Higher education looking forward: an introduction." Higher Education 56(3): 259-264.

Churchman, D. (2006). "Institutional Commitments, Individual Compromises: Identity-related responses to compromise in an Australian university." Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 28(1): 3-15.

Clark, B. (1983). The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-National Perspective. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems, Wiley.

Eccles, R., N. Nohria, et al. (2003). Beyond the Hype: Rediscovering the Essence of Management, Beard Books.

Eisenhardt, K. (2000). "Paradox, sprials, ambivalence: The new language of change and pluralism." Academic of Management Review 25(4): 703-705.

Findlow, S. (2008). "Accountability and innovation in higher education: a disabling tension?" Studies in Higher Education 33(3): 313-329.

Jones, N. and J. O’Shea (2004). "Challenging hierarchies: The impact of e-learning." Higher Education 48(3): 379-395.

Kerr, C. (1994). Higher Education Cannot Escape History. New York, SUNY Press.

Klor de Alva, J. (2000). "Remaking the Academy – 21st Century Challenges to Higher Education in the Age of Information." EDUCAUSE Review: 32-40.

Kogan, M. (2000). "Higher Education Communities and Academic Integrity." Higher Education Quarterly 54(3): 207-216.

Lewis, M. (2000). "Exploring Paradox: Toward a more comprehensive guide." Academic of Management Review 25(4): 760-776.

Lisewski, B. (2004). "Implementing a learning technology strategy: top-down strategy meets bottom-up culture." ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 12(2): 175-188.

Marginson, S. (2007). "University mission and identity for a post-public era." Higher Education Research & Development 26(1): 117-131.

Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). "The origin and evolution of the university species." Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

McNaught, C. (2003). "Supporting the global e-teacher." International Journal of Training and Development 7(4): 287-302.

Meister-Scheytt, C. and T. Scheytt (2005). "The complexity of change in universities." Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 76-99.

Mintzberg, H. (1979). The Structuring of Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall.

Newton, J. (2003). "Implementing an institution-wide learning and teaching strategy: lessons in managing change." Studies in Higher Education 28(4): 427-441.

Scott, J. (2006). "The mission of the University: Medieval to postmodern transformations." The Journal of Higher Education 77(1): 1-39.

Snowden, D. and M. Boone (2007). "A leader’s framework for decision making." Harvard Business Review 85(11): 68-76.

Tsichritzis, D. (1999). "Reengineering the University." Communications of the ACM 42(6): 93-100.

Tuunainen, J. (2005). "Hybrid practices? Contributions to the debate on the mutation of science and university." Higher Education 40(2): 275-298.

Webb, A. (1994). Two Tales from a Reluctant Manager. Introducting Change from the Top in Universities and Colleges: 10 personal accounts. S. Weil. London, Kogan Page: 41-56.

White, N. (2006). "Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective." Higher Education Research & Development 25(3): 231-246.

Phd Update #11 – very short week

Well, this week was a very short week. All up 4 days were lost with illness, work and a burst pipe at childcare requiring some additional babysitting duties. That said, I’m feeling pretty happy about the thesis mostly because on major hurdle is out of the way and it went fairly quickly. Hopefully this can continue – the progress, not the short weeks.

What I’ve done

Last week I suggested I would aim to:

  • Have completed and posted the section on “Place”.
  • Be close to doing the same thing for “Purpose”.
  • Perhaps make some headway for another component of the Ps Framework – perhaps either People or Pedagogy.

I haven’t really looked at “Purpose” or any other component of the Ps Framework. I’ve only been able to work on Place. On last week’s summary I outlined the following as sections required to complete “place”:

  • InstitutionDONE
  • Types of systems – DONE
    No post for this section, I’ve worked it into the institution section in a much reduced form.
  • Lessons from place – not done
    I have much of the structure of what I want to say.

In terms of PhD related blog posts in the last week, I’ve posted:

  • What don’t we (e-)learn relating my introduction to Argyris and Schon’s notions of Model 1 and Model 2 behaviours and defensive routines.
  • Everything old is new again – sparked by one of the texts I used in the Institution section. It examines how much of the concern shown today about universities, has been going on for sometime.

What will I do for next week?

I’m going to keep the same aims as for last week:

  • Have completed and posted the section on “Place”.
  • Be close to doing the same thing for “Purpose”.
  • Perhaps make some headway for another component of the Ps Framework – perhaps either People or Pedagogy.

Institution – another part of place

For longer than I care to remember, I’ve been working on the Place component of the Ps Framework for chapter 2 of my thesis. This post brings the penultimate section for the Ps component – institution. The last section will be the “lessons from place” section that attempts to draw some lessons from the Place component for the practice of e-learning. Who knows when that will arrive.

As with previous parts of the thesis, this is a first draft with only a modicum of re-reading. There are likely to be mistakes. More in-depth editing will wait for a later time.


The previous sections have focused on the nature of changes to the society (2.1.1 – Society) and the impact of these changes on the higher education sector (2.1.2 – Sector). This section moves toward examining the factors associated with individual institutions that can enable, hinder and inform the implementation of e-learning. The institutional context plays a dominant role in shaping the content and process of user participation and change management in systems development (Butler and Fitzgerald 2001). An understanding of the driving and restraining forces within an individual academic context is important to determining whether a broad-scale e-learning strategy is feasible (Parchoma 2006). In terms of the adoption of e-learning, institutional context is all important (Nichols 2007).

This section examines institutional factors through three parts. First, it examines the differences that are visible between different approaches to understanding universities and organizations more broadly. Finally, the nature and features of the culture and sub-cultures within higher education are examined. The next section (2.1.4 – Lessons from Place) seeks to draw on the information presented as part of the Place component of the Ps Framework to identify some lessons for e-learning implementation within universities.

Types of institution – points of difference

New ideas in business, many of which become fads, are often presented as universally applicable quick-fix solutions (Birnbaum 2000). Ideas that have universal applicability (Snowden 2005), which regardless of obvious differences between sectors and organizations assume, at some level, that there is sufficient similarity so as to not negatively impact the migration of the idea and its success from one context to another. As observed in the previous section there is a trend towards the standardisation of universities to enable interoperability, comparison and ranking that increasingly illustrates this assumption of similarity. At the same time there is an on-going and long standing push to perceive and manage universities in ways very similar to other commercial organizations. Birnbaum (2000) provides examples of attempts to treat universities as commercial businesses throughout the 20th century.

However, writing in the preface to Cooke (1910) Henry Pritchett suggests “college is partly a business, and partly something very different from a business”. This is suggestive that there are differences and one of the main aims of this section to illustrate those differences. The assumption is that these differences suggest that migration of ideas between different organizations may be more problematic than apparently accepted in some of the literature. The particular differences highlighted here include differences: in abstractions for understanding organizations; in types of organizations; and between universities.

Differences in abstractions for understanding organizations. It has been suggested that, at least theoretically and anecdotally, there is evidence to suggest that organisational science has a conceptual bias at the level of their key object of research and practice, the organisation (Adams and Ingersoll 1985). There is an over-emphasis on organisational metaphors that seek to structure and understand organizations as rational, stable and purpose driven entities (Behrens 2007). This fits with the current age and culture which is one of technical rationality with a pre-disposition to the use of scientific-analytic lenses that provide overly rationalised accounts of organisational life and keep much of the nature of organizations invisible (Adams 1994). Organisational science has been criticised for an over emphasis on metaphors that view organizations as machines or organisms in a preference to the culture metaphor (Behrens 2007).

Even with the over-emphasis on the purpose-driven, the literature does contain a number of examples where organisational diversity is shown. Handy (2005) identifies four different types of organizational culture – role, achievement, power and support. Mintzberg (1993) grouped organizational structures into five clusters (see Table 2.3) based on the prime coordinating mechanism, the key level within the organisation and the type of decentralization. Maister (1993) suggests that professional firms differ from other business enterprises in that they provide highly customized services in highly personalized ways. Differences that mean many of the management principles such as standarisation, routinisation, and supervision difficult to apply (Maister 1993). In addition, it is not structure, culture or systems alone that determine outcomes, human agency means that individuals and groups within the organisation have a choice about how they act and respond (Knight and Trowler 2000).

Table 2.3 – Mintzberg’s structural configuration of organizations (adapted from Unger, Macq et al. 2000)
Structural Configuration Prime coordinating mechanism Key part of organisation Type of decentralization
Simple structure Direct supervision Strategic apex Vertical and horizontal centralisation
Machine bureaucracy Standardisation of work processes Technostructure Limited horizontal decentralisation
Professional bureaucracy Standisation of skills Operating core Vertical and horizontal decentralisation
Adhocracy Mutual adjustment Selective decentralisation

The ability of human systems to shape their perception and consequently to co-evolve concept and practice in order to create a new reality is one of the insights that arise from social complexity (Snowden and Stanbridge 2004) and is one of the factors that leads Snowden and others to develop a landscape of management (Figure 2.1) and the Cynefin framework (Snowden and Stanbridge 2004; Snowden 2005; Snowden and Boone 2007). Snowden and Stanbridge (2004) suggest that the dominant ideology of management – discussed above as the over emphasis on technical rationality – arises from a focus on a single-ontology approach to sense making that assumes that through proper investigation things are known or knowable and that once cause and effect relationships are discovered, they repeat. This view is not seen as incorrect or denied, but it is, however, seen as only appropriate in certain bounded circumstances (Snowden 2005).

Landscape of management
Figure 2.1 – Landscape of Management (adapted from Snowden and Stanbridge 2004)

The reliance on this single-ontology perspective and it’s overgeneralization has subsequently led to an absence of understanding of different perspectives that may be more appropriate for different circumstances. As an alternative Snowden and others develop models (Figure 2.1 and Figure 2.2) based on a multi-ontology sense-making model of decision-making. Within these models there is a space for traditional business oriented approaches that assume ordered systems that have clearly identifiable cause and effect relationships that enable prediction of future events (Snowden 2005). However, there is also recognition of different types of system that demonstrate un-order. Un-ordered systems do not demonstrate a lack of order, but instead demonstrate an “emergent” order that is understandable in retrospect, but cannot be predicted (Snowden and Stanbridge 2004). Within the landscape of management (Figure 2.1) order and un-order are seen as disjoint domains, whereas epistemology is presented as a continuum from very specific rules through to heuristics, guiding principles or implicit rules of thumbs with high levels of ambiguity (Snowden and Stanbridge 2004).

Cynefin domains
Figure 2.2 – Cynefin Domains (adapted from Kurtz and Snowden 2003)

The Cynefin framework establishes five different domains (Figure 2.2). The four named domains in Figure 2.2 require diagnosis and action in contextually appropriate ways, while the fifth – disorder – implies that it is not know which of the four other contexts is predominant (Snowden and Boone 2007). The major benefit underpinning both the landscape of management and the Cynefin Framework is that it draws attention to the possibility of different ontologies or contexts (e.g. types of organizations) and the consequences of applying an ill-matched epistemology (e.g. decision-making or other process).

Difference in types of organizations. There is a long history of government and business seeking to apply management insights and practices from the broader business community to universities. An early example of this is Cooke (1910) that aims to offer insight into the operation of universities from “those who conduct industrial enterprises”. There exist a number of problems with this practice. Not the least of which is that the adequacy of such techniques has been challenged in business (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). Such an approach also assumes that there is sufficient similarity to enable the successful transference of practices between different organizations.

One example of the differences between business and higher education is the question of success and measurement. Success in conventional businesses is more easily defined with objective performance criteria, predicted outcomes and clearer causal performance relationships than in universities where the definition of success is open to interpretation and identity-related attributes (Churchman 2006). While approaches from business should not be regarded as false in principle, they appear to be insufficient when examined against the model of universities as knowledge-intensive organizations (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). Unlike private enterprises which relate primarily to one societal subsystem – the economy (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005) – a university is a meta-institution which interacts and is intertwined with the professions, governments, social movements, business, ethics and morality, education, culture, science, art (Agre 1999; Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). Universities can be characterized by distributed decision making, a high degree of local autonomy and distributed resource allocation (Dodds 2007). Kezar (2001) describe a non-exhaustive list of thirteen features that are distinctive to universities and suggests that mistakes in analysis and strategy may result if these factors are overlooked and that concepts foreign to the academic will fail to engage those who must bring about change.

Differences between universities. In terms of university species, Martin and Etzkowitz (2000) identify four: the classical university, the technical university, the regional university, the teaching university and a number of hybrids. Based on the extent to which policy is defined and operations controlled, McNay (1995) identify four distinct types of university – collegiate, bureaucracy, corporate and enterprise – all four of which co-exist, with different balances between them, in most universities. Danaher et al (2008) discuss two types of institutions: survivalist – which perceive higher education as a competition resulting in the survival of the fittest, and; remedialist – oriented to a more inclusive culture. Valimaa and Hoffman (2008) distinguish between older, established universities and other types of institutions in terms of their ability to resist, even generate change. Even between universities, there are differences.


The practice of e-learning is enterprise-wide and involves many different departments and sub-units within an organization. Consequently it involves many parties which magnifies traditional problems of politics, management expectations, hidden agendas, disruption to the balance of power, technical concerns and differences in cultural values (Gregor, Jones et al. 1999). The structure of an organisation – which in human systems includes how decisions are made, the operating policies, norms, and actions – influences behavior (Senge 1994). Adoption of an innovation, like e-learning, can be hindered if it does not fit within the structure of the social system or challenges the system’s established behaviour patterns and beliefs (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003). Implementation of e-learning will require organisational realignments (Hitt and Hartman 2002).

Fragmentation is a common characteristic of university structures with institutions typically composed of nearly autonomous schools and faculties and individual academics within these that decide what to teach and how (Green 1997). As a result central support units are faced with a need to facilitate new practices within a context with a wide heterogeneity of needs and potentialities (Zellweger 2005). These central units are growing in importance as influential gatekeepers between the university and its external stakeholders; and also acting as a bridge between management and academic staff (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008). Provision of adequate support for educational technology involves many support units including information technology, libraries and faculty development between which it is possible to observe latent cultural conflicts (Zellweger 2005).

As a response to this conflict and also to external forces discussed above the structure of some instiutions have seen a move towards accountability, corporatisation and centralized control. Stiles and Yorke (2006) argue that centralised control and associated moves create challenges for innovation and also create conflict with the traditional structure of universities. Centralisation is a key feature of tightly coupled organizations that are also non-differentiated, highly coordinated and have a strict division of labour (Kezar 2001).

Traditionally, universities have been seen as fitting within Mintzberg’s (1993) idea of a ‘professional bureaucracy’. This traditional structure is also seen as a barrier to innovation (Stiles and Yorke 2006). Traditionally, universities are loosely coupled (Weick 1976) in that they illustrate a lack of central coordination, have greater differentiation amongst components, higher degress of specialization amongst workers and lower predictability of future action (Kezar 2001). If change occurs it is flexible, improvisational and focused on self-design with major change being less necessary as continuous change is more likely (Weick 1976). Within loosely coupled systems the diffusion of major change is difficult to achieve as diffusion, imitation and social comparison is not as are prevalent (Morgan 2006).

Adding information technology into universities changes structures, it makes existing connections closer and more complex and creates new connections to vendors and standards bodies who control IT standards (Agre 1999). Expanding the use of information technology within learning and teaching requires and creates changes to connections, especially in the form of policies. While some aspects of institutional policies can be seen as positive influences, others are seen as less helpful (Gonzalez 2009). Dutton and Loader (2002) identify institutional incentive structures and copyright and intellectual property policies. The systems and policies associated with teaching evaluation can discourage risk taking in the classroom (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). Parchoma (2006) identify eight potential restraining forces from the policies around e-learning, including: tinancial risk, pervasive fiscal challenges, existing residency requirements, imbalanced research and teaching reward systems, problematic intellectual property policies, inadequate levels of application of research-based distributed learning strategies, and potentially misaligned organizational structures and functions.


Though others have suggested that we still cannot define culture (Lewis 1998), Schein (1991) offers the following formal definition, culture is:

  1. a pattern of shared basic assumptions,
  2. invented, discovered, or developed by a given group,
  3. as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and interal integration,
  4. that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore,
  5. is to be taught to new members of the group as the
  6. correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Green (1997) suggests that academic values such as unfettered inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the quest for freedom from external interference and others contribute to the notion of a universal academic culture. However, considerable evidence exists to suggest that different academic disciplines have their own culture, language and practices which influence their learning and teaching and hence, the kind of support required for the enhancement of learning and teaching (Harpe and Radloff 2006). Indeed, it has been pointed out that the disciplines themselves may also have a fragmented nature (Knight and Trowler 2000). Notions of a universal academic culture may be obsolete within an environment in which the academic role is becoming more obsolete (Churchman 2006).

In terms of constraining innovation, the expectations and values of students can be as much of a constraint as the expectations and values of top administrators (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). Radical change, change that challenges existing communities, can provoke partisan reactions that create significant management problems (Stiles and Yorke 2006). In large-scale technology innovations, such as university-wide e-learning, it is likely that adoption will require an increase in dependence on other individuals or organizational units. Allen (2000) found that perceptions of the other units, rather than perceptions of the innovation, played a larger role in adoption decisions. Similarly, Ayers (2004) observes that academic and information technology cultures, two of the main sub-cultures involved with e-learning within universities, do not mix together well. The differing viewpoints and subsequently the varying and competing priorities of the different sub-cultures within an organisation can lead to considerable internal tension (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). Consequently, it is not uncommon for conflict to exist between the management, academic, technical and administrative cultures (Luck, Jones et al. 2004).

Traditionally, teaching has been a solo act with primary responsibility laying with an individual academic (Coates, James et al. 2005; Folkers 2005). However, e-learning requires a high level of expertise from a number of different fields including: content matter, technology, management, and instructional design (Jones, Stewart et al. 1999). Faculty developers, instructional designers and IT workers speak different languages, represent different values and are assigned tasks that bear a number of inherent conflicts (Zellweger 2005). While this can be empowering for staff it does raise questions about the role of academics (Folkers 2005).

Academics have considerable autonomy and often can and do resist the imposition of new technology and changes to routine (Jones, Gregor et al. 2003). Mesiter-Scheytt and Scheytt (2005) make the related point that universities are ‘knowing organisations’ and academics are experts in argument. Consequently, it is not surprising to see a variety of defensive routines (Argyris 1990) employed within universities (Tagg 2007). The professional bureaucracy emphasises authority of a professional nature – the power of the academic’s expertise – and consequently the strategies of such an organisation are largely those of the individual professionals who will resist changes that remove autonomy or drive the organisational structure to a machine bureaucratic form (Mintzberg 1993).

Existing group norms, standards, values and perceptions are potentially restraining forces in the adoption of e-learning (Parchoma 2006). The many parties involved magnify traditional problems of politics, management expectations, hidden agendas, disruption to the balance of power, technical concerns and differences in cultural values (Gregor, Jones et al. 1999). There has been inadequate recognition of the inherent differences in organisational cultures, academic cultures, education and training philosophies, and teaching and learning values and traditions within different cultural groups (Calder 2000). Even though it is the organisational culture and environment, rather than the technology, that determines the learning experience (Saunders 1998) studies of e-learning within universities have displayed unsophisticated perspectives of the nature of culture and how to achieve effective cultural change (Lisewski 2004). A critical strategy for effective e-learning is to recognise the different cultures of learning among and within organizations (Lea 2003). Accepting the view described by Trowler and Knight (1999) – that organizations can be understood by the multiple discursive practices arising from the interplay of not-necessarily compatible cultures and sub-cultures – results in the nature of the organisation being seen as political and contested.

This perspective, shared by many, suggests that managerialism is not as settled within universities as is assumed and that resistance in its many manifestation is often underplayed (Barry, Chandler et al. 2001). Consequently it has been suggested that rather than establish success factors, policy makers should focus on whether or not change is contextualised appropriately within a correct characterisation of the organisational culture (Lisewski 2004). Given the ambiguity, uncertainty and conflicts inherent within academic organizations it may be more appropriate to accept these values and focus less on rational decision-making and more on sense making and practical reasoning (Askling and Stensaker 2002).


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Some initial thoughts on e-learning and innovation

Theoretically, I’m in the process of starting a new job that is focused on encouraging e-learning and innovation within a university context. The following post is an early attempt to try and make sense of this job, what it might do and how it might do it. It’s probably of little value to others, but I’m trying to be open about this.

This is still early days and the understanding will continue to grow and change. Due to the nature of human beings as pattern matching intelligences this exploration will necessarily, as arising out of my own attempts to make sense of this job, illustrate my past experiences and patterns of action. Feel free to disagree and suggest alternative perspectives.

The model

The following started out as a 2×2 framework but has evolved as I’ve been writing this post. The attempt of the model is to represent the process and two of the decisions that have to be answered went attempting a change or innovation within an organisation. In summary, the idea is that:

  • Some spark creates the need for the change or innovation.
  • This makes it necessary to decide what to do in order to respond to the spark.
  • Once what is decided it is necessary to decide how to do it.
  • How things are done can also contribute to the next or different sparks.

I’ve purposely not included numbers in the above list. Cycles can start in any of these stages and there isn’t always a cycle. In fact, some might argue a significant flaw in many organisations is a failure to draw knowledge from how things were done in order to inform the next spark. Alternatively, it may not always be possible to connect the causal cycle until after the fact.

A Change Cycle

The spark

There is generally a spark, some event, thing, or knowledge that makes it necessary to make some change or undertake some action. It might be to solve a problem or achieve a goal. The spark may not be identified prior to the change, only after. The model suggests that such a spark can arise from a spectrum with two extreme dimensions:

  1. Idealistic; and
    In this context, something at the idealistic end would generally be something created by an expert, management or government. For example last night the Australian Federal Government released it’s budget for the next year and it includes a number of projects and changes that will require strategic responses from Australian Universities. Alternatively, it might be something internal to an organisation such as the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor.
  2. Naturalistic.
    In this context, this is understood to be something that arises from the “coal-face” of the organisation. An extreme example might be an individual academic faced with a group students not understanding a particular concept.

This is meant to be a spectrum, an example from the middle might be an institution (not a single academic) identifying long turnaround times on assignment feedback.

What to do

Given a spark, it is necessary to identify what to do. What can be done to respond to the spark? Of all the different projects that might work, how does an institution or individual identify what to do?

The model represents two extreme ends of a spectrum:

  1. Fad; and
    This is where a project is chosen simply because someone else has done it. e.g. “boys with toys” represents a lone-ranger academic adopting the use of Twitter because he saw the Oprah show on Twitter.
  2. Knowledge.
    The chosen project is identified based on some theoretical knowledge – be it organisational, learning, technical etc – and its application to the local context. For example, the adoption of constructive alignment based on the ideas of Biggs.

How to do it

Having decided what to do, it is now necessary to plan how to do it. This spectrum draws on a distinction made by Kurtz and Snowden (2007) and is one I’ve used before. The following table compares the two approaches.

Idealistic Naturalistic
Achieve ideal state Understand a sufficiency of the present in order to stimulate evolution
Privilege expert knowledge, analysis and interpretation Favour enabling emergent meaning at the ground level
Separate diagnosis from intervention Diagnosis and intervention to be intertwined with practice

Snowden’s point – and I agree – is that idealistic approaches only work in contexts in which there is a clear connection between cause and effect. i.e. you can predict that if you do X, then Y will happen. Snowden points out in his Cynefin framework and associated writing that there are other contexts, that require different approaches.

Cynefin domains

Putting the model in context

The rest of the post attempts to use the above model to begin understanding the context within which the new job takes place. The aim is to help me formulate plans for the position that I need to raise with the hierarchy to get approval. It covers

  • the spark; and
    An attempt to identify factors, both naturalistic and idealistic, that are creating a need for change or innovation within the institution.
  • a list of projects.
    Based on combination of “what to do” and “how to do it” and knowledge/prejudices around the local context identify an initial list of potential projects.

Some of the thinking that follows does (or will/should) include a range of existing projects and processes within the organisation. While the new position may not be directly connected with these projects and processes it is necessary for the position to be aware of an work with those projects and processes.

This is only an initial list – it will grow and change as time goes by.

The spark

The following aims to provide an initial list of potential sparks that might be important for the new position to either do something about or at least work with or inform. I’ve attempted to group them in some initial rough categories as a way to help brainstorm:

  • From the position description.
  • Organisational strategic plans.
  • Organisational factors.
  • Government policies and other external factors.

From the position description

The new position comes with a list of accountabilities by which the incumbent will be judged. Not surprisingly, this focuses the attention. The following are drawn from those accountabilities.

Organisational strategic plans

Like most institutions mine has developed a strategic plan, but it also has a range of other organisational goals, understandings and cultures that also have to be considered. I need to better understand these.

First, focus on the strategic plan which is divided up into 8 main sections. Many of the components of these aims are the responsibility of existing organisational units. I’ll focus on the ones that appear to connect with the new job, but leave the others in but struck through. Each component is further divided into: what we need to do; how we will do it; how will we know that we are doing it well.

  1. Learning and Teaching
    • What we need to do
      • Provide a multimodal educational platform supported by appropriate technology.
      • Ensure that programs meet future industry and community needs.
      • Provide multiple pathways and a seamless fit for articulating students.
      • Improve student retention and progression rates.
      • Support collaboration within and across campus and administrative structures to ensure successful student learning.
      • Develop and reward staff capability in innovative curriculum design, teaching and assessment, and the scholarship of learning and teaching
    • How we will do it
      • Progress the implementation of the Student Learning Journey.
      • Benchmark programs against relevant industry and labour market needs.
      • Review graduate attributes and improve integration into programs.
      • Provide formal and informal mentoring for new academic and casual teaching staff.
      • Identify, develop and support learning and teaching leaders.
      • Support staff to engage in the scholarship of learning and teaching and develop innovative practices.
    • Doing it well?
      • Improved Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and Graduate Destination Survey (GDS) outcomes against benchmarked universities.
      • Improved Learning and Teaching Performance Fund outcomes.
      • Increase in the quality of Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) awards and grants applications and maintenance of success in an increasingly competitive arena.
      • Improved student engagement as measured by the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement.
      • Improved Student Evaluations of Teaching and an increase in the number of students participating.
  2. Research and innovation
    • What we need to do
      • Support research excellence in the University’s priorities for research that contribute to the Resource Industries; Community Health and Social Viability; and Intercultural Education and that this research meets the needs of the communities we serve.
      • Develop and support a vibrant research culture and intellectual environment.
      • Enhance the quality and dissemination of research outcomes.
      • Support quality research programs to enable staff and students to achieve success and realise their full potential.
      • Provide quality, relevant services and support to research stakeholders.
      • Increase the University’s research performance.
    • How we will do it
      • Increase external research income through effective policies, training and processes and focus investment for growth in the Research Institutes.
      • Provide training, staff development, networking and mentoring for staff involved in research and reward excellence and encourage exploration and innovation.
      • Research and university leaders will work strategically with industry, community, government and other stakeholders to align research priorities with industry needs.
      • Foster an environment of active enquiry, innovative development and effective dissemination
    • Doing it well?
      • External research income to increase by 50% in the next 2 years and to be benchmarked against other institutions.
        There is an interesting split between “innovation”/L&T funding and research funding.
      • Receipt of external research investments other than research project income.
      • Improvement in the quantum of quality publication outputs registered each year by category and compared with other institutions.
      • Improvement in the University ranking for external research performance funds relative to the sector.
      • Increase in the number of research active staff by 5% per annum.
      • Increase in the number of Research Higher Degree enrolments and increase in the number of Research Higher Degree students completing on time or earlier
  3. Community engagement
  4. Domestic engagement
    • What we need to do
      • Address the shortfall in domestic student enrolments as a matter of urgency through a range of strategies to build demand, attract students to CQUniversity and improve retention.
      • Develop appropriate contemporary programs and courses to meet the needs of domestic students, increasing participation, access, retention and success of students.
      • Develop new ways to attract students to CQUniversity including building on marketing initiatives, the re-branding exercise and redressing reputational issues.
      • Develop new ways to engage with industry, business and the community via new learning initiatives.
      • Develop new educational models for the future that are aligned with our broad mission “to be what you want to be”.
      • Explore ways to increase distance education offerings and enhance our reputation as a renowned distance education provider
    • How we will do it
      • Continue the development of new suites of contemporary programs in areas of demonstrated demand.
      • Implement the new brand.
      • Improve customer service led by Navigate CQUniversity.
      • Implement Alternative Pathways in 2008.
    • Doing it well?
        By achieving our student enrolment targets (not necessarily DEEWR targets).

      • Increase in domestic student retention rates by 1% per annum.
      • 5% increase per annum in number of students entering bridging programs and progressing to award studies.
      • Increase in access and participation rates for equity students.
      • Increase the access and participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  5. International engagement
    • What we need to do
    • How we will do it
      • Build staff capability in learning and teaching related to international students, especially curriculum design and culturally inclusive teaching practices which meets the needs and expectations of international students.
      • Establish priorities and encourage engagement in research through IERI (Intercultural Education Research Institute) that informs international education in areas of policy, systems, planning, pedagogy and others.
      • Develop and implement the new CQUniversity/CMS interface and maximise the benefits resulting from 100% ownership of CMS by expanding the range of academic programs at the Australian International Campuses.
      • Explore low risk delivery mechanisms and pathway linkages.
      • Increase student and staff mobility through improved Study Abroad and Exchange programs.
    • Doing it well?
  6. People and performance
    • What we need to do
      • Fully integrate the human resource strategy with the organisational strategy, via the implementation of the Management Plan – Human Resources.
      • Invest in the development of staff to ensure that they have the requisite skills and abilities to support the attainment of the University’s strategic objectives.
      • Develop whole of University strategies in support of improved staff morale.
      • Facilitate opportunities for collaborative projects across organisational boundaries. – this is interesting
      • Provide a safe workplace for staff and students and meet all Workplace Health & Safety legislative requirements.
    • How we will do it
      • Complete the organisational restructure process by end 2008.
      • Implement revised PRPD processes.
      • Develop workforce planning and succession planning tools.
      • Develop recruitment strategies to attract and recruit high performing staff.
      • Provide management and leadership training for all managers and supervisors.
      • Negotiate a new Union Collective Agreement prior to the nominal expiry date of the current agreement.
      • Encourage active staff involvement in professional bodies.
      • Conduct focus groups with staff on ways to improve staff morale.
      • Facilitate greater opportunities for meaningful communication between staff and University managers at all levels across the University.
      • Develop Service Level Agreements for the delivery of human resources services across the University.
      • Reduce the number of staff and student injuries on University property through a range of strategies.
    • Doing it well?
  7. Resources, systems and infrastructure
    • What we need to do
      • Increase revenue and decrease costs.
      • Ensure an appropriate linkage between the planning and budget functions of the organisation.
      • Ensure management has access to the appropriate and timely information and reporting tools.
      • Ensure the University has a Strategic Asset Management Plan to support our strategic initiatives.
      • Ensure the University has an ICT Management Plan which supports our strategic initiatives.
      • Ensure campus development plans are in place to support the future operational and strategic needs of the university.
      • Ensure the University has a Financial Management Plan which supports the strategic direction of the University.
      • Work towards sustainable resource management and leadership in environmental outcomes from our operations
    • How we will do it
    • Doing it well?
  8. Governance and quality

Need to find out which parts of the organisation are responsible for the above and what they are doing.

Organisational factors

Perhaps the most open to debate, given lack of agreement amongst stakeholders and some of the points about Model 1 behaviour, but just as important. Some of the following connect with strategic plans.

  • Evaluation of learning and teaching – beyond just course based and other limitations.
  • Flexibility and quality of learning platforms and technologies.
  • Actual quality of learning and teaching, administration, e-learning.
  • An emphasis on fad and idealistic dimensions.

Government strategies

  • Teaching funding linked to performance outcomes on quality, particiaption and completion rates.
  • Student centred funding.

List of projects

An early version of the model in this post was a traditional 2×2 model (with slightly different labels). While I’ve moved on from there and think the two dimensions are spectrums the 2×2 model offers some help in understanding what could be done. The following table summarises.

Sector Description What can be done
Idealistic-fads The pre-dominant mode within organisations. This position will probably have little influence on these projects as they are driven by senior management. The best that can be hoped is to provide evidence and insight to those making decisions. Focused on nature of the organisation and the experience of students and staff. Helping increase the quality and quantity of the feedback to these folk. Make them aware of the limitations of the chosen approaches. Make sure that the knowledge generated from these projects is available and used to inform subsequent projects. Be aware of the fads/trends that are rising and become familiar with them. Perhaps attempt.
Idealistic-knowledge Generally limited use at the organisational level, some use in isolated areas The insights from the projects are likely to be useful. Ensure that the knowledge is disseminated and informs subsequent projects. Be aware of the types of knowledge that can help inform proejcts and their implementation.

This is probably where traditional university “innovation” grants sit. Probably have to engage with these but the cartoon below stikes me as saying a few things about these grants and there’s also the work of Findlow.

Naturalistic-fads A common approach – often seen in lone rangers No point, ability or benefit in stopping these. Better to help inform their implementation and learn their lessons. How to do this effectively is another question. There are some connections here or perhaps in the next sector with incremental, cumulative improvement arising out of the work of the Teaching, Learning, Technology group.
Naturalistic-knowledge Rarely used and the sector I feel most appropriate for innovation around learning and teaching. Have talked previously about the idea of reflective alignment. Something I’d like to try. Perhaps there are others.

Innovation in Corporate America

Quotes about innovation and creativity

Theoretically, I’m in the process of starting a new job that is focused on encouraging e-learning and innovation within a university context. I’m still reading some of the different literature but the following quotes resonate with me around this position and how it is likely to evolve.

The purpose and place of “idea” departments

McLuhan and how innovation roles/departments are isolation wards

In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses.

This is a real danger for the new position as it sits outside the organisational structures in which the vast majority of learning and teaching occurs. Especially when this presents barriers to the following.

Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before. — Margaret Wheatley

New: The following quote mirrors, to some extent, the McLuhan quote. It’s taken from a Clay Shirky post on the future of newspapers

Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.

The importance of failure

Woody Allen on failure

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

Edwin Land

The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail.

Thomas Watson Sr

Success is on the far side of failure.

Innovation ain’t logical

Einstein on the connection between innovation and logic

Innovation is not the product of logical thought, although the result is tied to logical structure.

Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried. — Frank Tyger

That so few now dare to eccentric marks the chief danger of our time — John Stuart Mill

Solutions look for problems

And one I find particularly appropriate for e-learning.

We are surrounded by engineers’ folleys: too many technical solutions still looking for problems to solve.

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions. — Anthony Jay

Pattern entrainment

As pattern matching intelligences human beings decision making is based on a first-fit pattern match with past experience. One of the reasons horseless carriage innovations.

The importance of creativity and what it is

Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted. — George Kneller

Along similar lines

It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date. — Roger von Oech

Of course, management is always important.

It isn’t the incompetent who destroy an organisation. The incompetent never get in a position to destroy it. It is those who achieved something and want to rest upon their achievements who are forever clogging things up. — F. M. Young

Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future. — James Bertrand

Open and closed

A quote from John Cleese on open and close modes, I see some connections with the Model 1 and Model 2 behaviours observed by Argyris.

We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned. Most people, unfortunately spend most of their time in the closed mode. Not that the closed mode cannot be helpful. If you are leaping a ravine, the moment of takeoff is a bad time for considering alternative strategies. When you charge the enemy machine-gun post, don’t waste energy trying to see the funny side of it. Do it in the “closed” mode. But the moment the action is over, try to return to the “open” mode—to open your mind again to all the feedback from our action that enables us to tell whether the action has been successful, or whether further action is need to improve on what we have done. In other words, we must return to the open mode, because in that mode we are the most aware, most receptive, most creative, and therefore at our most intelligent.

Argyris identifies attempts to “maximise winning and minimise losing” and “minimise generating or expressing negative feelings” as being key governing variables in Model 1 behaviour – the dominant model used in most organisations.

The things we fear most in organizations—fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances—re the primary sources of creativity. — Margaret Wheatley

The achievement of excellence can only occur if the organization promotes a culture of creative dissatisfaction. — Lawrence Miller

Difficulties of innovation

Also an aspect of pattern entrainment.

And of course, Machiavelli’s quote

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Everything old is new again – universities should be more business like

In a previous post I mentioned the current raft of “the university will die” discussions going on online and soon in print. Many of these, and especially this one, embody some sort of argument along the lines of “those silly, impractical academics will only be helped if they become more like business”. This is not a new perspective.

Cover of Academic and Industrial Efficiency

The book cover to the left is from Cooke (1910), the full text of which is available on the Internet archive. I’m aware of it because of Birnbaum (2000). Cooke (1910) illustrates that there have been “huge problems” for universities and that they will be saved by those wonderful business men (and yes, I’d say that in 1910 they were mostly men) has a long history.

Some quotes, origins

The reason for such a study as is set forth in the present bulletin is found partly in the existence in the college of new and large problems and partly in the criticisms of American colleges and universities made during the past few years by business men.

Universities are expanding, growing and dealing with change

it will be generally admitted that in a few decades our colleges and universities have expanded enormously, and that they have undertaken, under new and hitherto unknown conditions, operations of far greater complexity than they dealt with during the previous quarter century.

Recognition that there are some differences

The college is partly a business, and partly something very different from a business. Mr Cooke is concerned only with the former aspect. It will be interesting for those to whom the latter viewpoint is more natural to consider how far his observations have suggestive significance.

The above quotes are by Henry Pritchett in the preface to the report.

Findings of Cooke

As a result of this inquiry, the writer is convinced that there are very few, if any, of the broader principles of management which obtain generally in the industrial and commercial world which are not, more or less, applicable in the college field, and as far as we discovered, no one of them is now generally observed.

The “perfect” version of business.

Management by experts suffers from the fact that too often in the past experts have not only held themselves aloof, but held their opinions to be above lay criticism or comment. Functional management seems to guard against this by providing that all standards shall be written out and thus clearly understood by everyone; that they shall be capable of scientific demonstration rather than the result of personal opinion; and that they shall be at all times subject to scientific re-examination and analysis. In thise way only can expert judgements be given the benefit of the corrective influence of lay minds.

Sounds very much like mode 1 behaviour


Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Cooke, M. (1910). Academic and Industrial efficiency. New York, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Why don't we (e-)learn – over emphasis on rationality and defensive routines

Work on the PhD thesis is currently going slow. There are many reasons for this, one of them is I keep following interesting streams of literature beyond the needs of the thesis. I can rationalise that most of these extra-thesis streams do connect with the work I may be doing into the future, though that doesn’t necessarily help feel good about the thesis. (aside: I continue to be amazed by the folk who haven’t learnt that the one question you do not ask someone in my position is, “How’s the thesis going?”).

Over the last month or so I’ve been focusing on historical perspectives around technology-mediated learning and the nature of organisations. This has become really depressing as it illustrates just how prone to reinventing the wheel we are in organisational practice – even in universities. This post talks about one of those streams of literature that strikes really close to home in terms of universities, e-learning, the limitations of current practice, and how we don’t learn from the past.

Blindsided by the elephant

What I’m reading at the moment is a book review by Guy Adams (1994) titled Blindsided by the Elephant (this link will let you see the first page). The title draws on the parable of the blind men and the elephant to make some points about organisations, management, organisational research and learning.

'Blind monks examining an elephant' by Itcho Hanabusa

Much of the first page tells the story about the Challenger space shuttle disaster and how engineers made management aware of the problem, but how management overrode the logic of the situation and disaster flowed from that apparently less than rational decision. This is connected to the “blind men and the elephant” parable by suggesting that researchers into organisations are the blind men and that the elephant is the organisation.

In particular, Adams takes issue with the over use of the assumption of rational behaviour

The modern age is an age of technical rationality, and our culture is therefore one that predisposes us to see human behaviour through scientific-analytic lenses that give us overly rationalised accounts of organisational life.

He then draws on work by Argyris and Schon (1978) where they identify a predominance of Model 1 behaviour in organisations. I’ve summarised the governing variables and matching action strategy in the following table.

Governing variables and matching action strategies of Model 1 behaviour (adapted from Adams (1994))
Variables Action strategy
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally
Maximise winning and minimise losing Own and control the task
Minimise generating or expressing negative feelings Unilaterally protect yourself
Be rational Unilaterally protect others from being hurt

The suggestion is that it is questionable that Model 1 behaviour works well in conditions of certainty. In situations characterised by uncertainty, Model 1 behaviours tend to prevent learning and become dysfunctional and self-sealing. The following quote is from Argyris and Schon (1978, p116) and is used in Adams (1994)

In a Model 1 behavioral world, the discovery of uncorrectable errors is a source of personal and organisational vulnerability. The response to vulnerability is unilateral self-protection, which can take several forms. Uncorrectable errors, and the processes that lead to them, can be hidden, disguised, or denied (all of which we call ‘camouflage’); and individuals and groups can protect themselves further by sealing themselves off from blame, should camouflage fail.

What’s worse is that these behaviours are their norms are undiscussable, invisible and cannot be talked about.

Organisational defenses

Adams (1994) is, in part, a review of Argyris (1990) – Overcoming Organisational Defenses: facilitating Organisational Learning (the reader comments on the Amazon page are interesting). Adams (1994) describes the organisational defensive routine as

  1. Craft messages that contain inconsistencies.
  2. Act as if the messages are not inconsistent.
  3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency in the message undiscussable.
  4. Make the undicussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.

This routine certainly reminds me of a number of example from my experience as does the following description from Argyris (1990) of what Adams (1994) describes as the fundamental flaw of rational and functional theories of organisations.

Because all functional disciplines have at their core a set of technical ideas and procedures to accomplish productive reasoning, the theory seems plausible. The problem is that the technical ideas an procedures are not self-implementable. Human beings do the implementing. Once people become involved, they bring with them their capacity for skilled incompetence and the organisational defenses, fancy footwork, and malaise that follow. But none of these are likely to be activated unless the correct implementation of the functional disciplines is embarrassing or threatening. At that point, the defenses will blunt the value-adding potential of the functional disciplines – ironically, at the very moment the organisation needs them most.

I’ve seen this within the field of project management, especially around information technology projects. Project management seems to make sense. However, the implementation of information technology within organisations, especially those as complex as universities and especially when around learning and teaching, raise also sorts of difficult and threatening problems. So, the seeming rational processes soon suffer from the organisational defensive routine described above.

Application to e-learning

It’s my belief that the practice, implementation and support of e-learning suffers from the same over emphasis on scientific-analytic lenses that Adams (1994) suggests that organisational research suffers. The very nature of research training in most disciplines leads to this emphasis, which then seems to infect most training given to professionals in those same disciplines. This predominance creates the same problem, there is a large component of e-learning that is invisible. Institutional implementation of e-learning, as with anything else, suffers also from the organisational defensive routine described by Argyris (1990).

The alternatives mentioned briefly in Adams (1994) and Argyris (1990) and his other work seem to offer some interesting insights and avenues for more research. This book by Noonan (it’s also on Google books) seems, at least according to the Amazon customer reviews, to offer a useful way to get started.

Any work arising out of this around e-learning would seem to enable us blind folk see more of the elephant.


Adams, G. (1994). “Blindsided by the Elephant.” Public Administration Review 54(1): 77-83.

PhD Update #10 – Dragging on

Well, I’ve reached double figures for these updates. The last week has been a slow one, or at least felt like it. The public holiday didn’t help, nor the day off to ponder the new position. Progress has been made, but it just seems slow, especially when compared to what I said I’d do. I’m becoming more used to accepting some progress, be it slow or otherwise, as long as it’s moving forward.

What I’ve done

Last week I suggested I’d try and

  • Have completed and posted the section on “Place” – only partially done.
    I have completed and posted three parts of this: the introduction, society, and sector.

    The remaining sections are:

    • Institution
      The structure is there as is the content. I’ve started turning it into prose.
    • Types of systems
      Some content and I know what I want to write – I think. Still needs structure and turned into prose.
    • Lessons from place
      Most of the content and structure is in place, need to turn it into prose.
  • Be close to doing the same thing for “Purpose”. – some minor progress.
  • Perhaps make some headway for another component of the Ps Framework – perhaps either People or Pedagogy. – only very minor changes.

The only other PhD associated blog post this week is related to the literature covered in the Place component and the question of whether or not universities are in crisis and might die. I’ve connected a perspective on that to the limitations of the LMS model.

What I’ll do for next week

I’m going to stick with last week’s aims:

  • Have completed and posted the section on “Place”.
  • Be close to doing the same thing for “Purpose”.
  • Perhaps make some headway for another component of the Ps Framework – perhaps either People or Pedagogy.

Limitations for next week will include the need to spend at least another 2 days thinking about the new position.

Sector – another part of Place

Looks like I’m on a bit of a roll with the “good enough” approach – soon to halt I’m sure. The following is the next section of the Place component of the Ps Framework section for chapter 2 of the thesis.

This section takes the previously identified societal changes and attempts to illustrate their effect on the higher education sector. Again, the basic aim is not to be exhaustive but to provide an indication that the sector is undergoing lots of change and that the outcomes are unpredictable.


The previous section (2.1.1 – Society) briefly described the societal factors that impact upon both higher education and other parts of society. This section seeks to expand upon the implications those broader societal factors have for the higher education sector. It suggests that the three features of globalisation outlined in the previous section – a minimalist state, entrepreneurialization and managerialization, and the knowledge society – are likely to result in significant and uncertain change in higher education and consequently drive on-going change in the nature and practice of e-learning within higher education. However, drawing on Vaira’s (2004) idea of mutual implication, it is suggested that the outcomes of those changes is somewhat uncertain and is likely to emerge from an on-going reflexive process. It argues that the capability to respond and engage in this process of change is perhaps the most important quality required of higher education.

Significant change

Table 2.3 provides one representation of the connections between the societal changes described in the previous section and on-going changes within higher education. Following the table is a discussion of the perspectives associated with these changes within the higher education sector. A connection between the changes in Table 2.3 and the discussion is illustrated through italics. As shown in Table 2.3 there is not a direct one-to-one mapping between societal change and changes in the higher education sector, nor are all of the changes in higher education consistent. For example, there is significant tension between accountability and innovation (Findlow 2008).

Table 2.3 – Connections between societal change and change within the higher education sector
Societal change Sector changes
Minimalist state Increased competition
Increased relationships
Reduced risk
Entrepreneurialisation and managerialisation Responsive
Increased relationships
Limits on improving learning and teaching
Students are customers
Knowledge society Changes in learning and teaching
Expansion of disciplines
Changing nature of work

From around the late 1980s there was a significant shift from the pure view of the university towards the instrumental (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). That is, it became important that universities be seen to make a direct contribution to society that in turn drove the need for accountability, innovation, massification and a number of the other changes outlined in Table 2.3. For example, the need to illustrate contribution contributed to competition and increased the importance of research rankings and university league tables. The growing importance of rankings has pushed universities into the same mould and order (Marginson 2007) in order to enable comparisons between competing universities. This drive to standardisation is also being driven by international political agreements that seek to harmonise higher education systems between nations (Vaira 2004), to make them interoperable and part of a global market. An aspect of internationalisation. At the same time, diversity – in terms of the variety of institutions within a national higher education system – is still seen as an important requirement within government policies (Huisman, Meek et al. 2007). The value of diversity is based on the assumption of increased student choice and consequently levels of participation (Birnbaum 1983) that enables massification.

The sector is becoming increasingly competitive with traditional universities being challenged by, or in some cases forming alliances with, non-traditional organizations (Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). Increasingly, universities are networking and collaborating, creating alliances between universities, for a variety of reasons including: commercial, increased lobbying power, and dealing with benchmarking and accreditation issues (Gallagher 2000). Higher education is developing an increasing number of alliances with local, regional, national and international partners (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

The ability to efficiently and effectively accommodate the demands of these alliances is becoming a prime criterion for universities to be considered as innovative and responsive (Brenan 2008). The institutions that are responsive, in terms of being able to adapt to changes in the environment while keeping the costs under control, will be successful (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003). Universities must remain flexible enough to be responsive to emerging social demands, technological change and economic realignments (Scott 2006). Alliances such as industry-university partnerships or commercialization are mechanisms that exploit knowledge capacity or maximize financial rewards so as to promote further innovation (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

With the knowledge society, the nature of higher education institutions as producers of innovation and new knowledge makes them crucially important to the competitive capacities of nation states (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Changes in higher education funding and management, and a requirement for universities to be innovative, have led to innovation being applied to ideas for change that consistent with institutional and, in places, national priorities (Findlow 2008). Innovation has become programmatised. This is part of a trend towards accountable governance where university are expected to act responsibly, deliver value for money and also work on the corporate social responsibility (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008). Audit – seen as a response to fear or reduction of risk – and audit-managerially governed innovation schemes require pre-determination of expected outcomes and costs, which is diametrically opposed to views of innovation as change via problematisation and risk (Findlow 2008). University accountability mechanisms have to develop new and complex forms in order to demonstrate quality, efficiency and effectiveness to national governments and an increasingly wider range of stakeholders (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

Moves to increased accountability, through the growth of external and internal regulation and monitoring – the rise of the “audit culture” – has become associated with academic deprofessionalisation, to changes in the nature of work (Newton 2003). In part, this means less freedom and autonomy for academics, and increases in structure, monitoring and management (Kolsaker 2008). The knowledge society and resulting expansion in knowledge creates is starting an expansion of academic disciplines and fields of research, which in turn create a demand for new professorships and chairs within universities (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008).

A part of the expansion in knowledge are the growing demands for: professional education as an element of lifelong learning; flexible delivery of learning at a time and place that suits learners; and increasing demands for training that is tailored to the needs of individual companies (Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). This demand brings into question existing assumptions of university learning and teaching. For example, the separation of formal (university) and informal (other) learning, that learning occurs within a single institution, the requirement on the institution to provide and support all technologies, and the nature of the distinction between teacher and student (Jones 2008). These trends and questions are a part of and a response to massification.

In the period from 1900 to 2000, attendance at university rose from a small fraction of one percent of the age cohort to roughly 20 percent, a rate of expansion considerably faster than that of primary and secondary schooling (Schofer and Meyer 2005). This massification, the demand for relevant education and a move towards life long learning all, in different ways, call for changes in learning and teaching (Elton 1999). The pressure to teach more students, more efficiently and to provide them with specific skills required of the knowledge society may have adverse consequences for research (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). The student-centered learning approach – assuming a self-managed, flexible, independent learner – and its rhetoric go hand in hand with the market-driven, enterprise model of the university (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

The combination of factors such as massification and the growth of the knowledge economy are increasing the potential substantial financial rewards from the commodification of knowledge and the commercialisation of academic work (Gallagher 2000). Shifts in society have resulted in a view where students are customers, teachers are “service providers”, and where the resulting student/teacher relationship is based on a passivity and dependence that is antithetical to learning (White 2006). Knight and Trowler (2000) identify several aspects arising out of moves towards managerialisation that limit attempts to improve learning and teaching including: intensification of work, hard managerialism, loss of collegiality, and aging, malaise and marginality.

The combination of ICTs and the commodification of knowledge lead to the idea of learning objects as an attempt to strip away context from content for financial reasons to the deteriment of quality, in-depth learning and reusability (Williams 2004; Gunn, Woodgate et al. 2005). ICTs are also restructuring the institutional fabric of universities through an influence on the work of academics and the changing nature of support functions performed by university administrative staff (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). The combination of the post-bureaucratic organisation and the networking capabilities of ICTs has changed the very nature of work itself (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005; Scott 2006). For example, the growth of easy, cheap and fast communication has enabled specialized researchers to effectively communicate within their subfield regardless of institution or county (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). Opportunities for rethinking pedagogical practice and reforming teaching and learning have also arisen out of the restructuring of universities and the spread of networked technology (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

What are the outcomes?

Table 2.3 and the discussion in the previous section outline a large and diverse set of changes within the higher education sector that are currently visible within the associated literature. It is largely acknowledged that globalization is having deep impacts upon higher education worldwide (Vaira 2004). However, there remain questions as to whether the knowledge society and its requirements strengthen or weaken the position of universities as knowledge institutions (Brenan 2008). What will the outcomes of these changes be? Will the outcome be, as suggested by Peter Drucker (Lenzer and Johnson 1997), that “universities won’t survive”?

Martin and Etzkowitz (2000) outline two views on the future of the university – the declinist thesis – where the future of the university is under threat – and optimistic thesis – where the university will become more powerful. Similarly, Vaira (2004) identifies two dichotomous streams of thought around globalisation:

  1. convergence; and
    Founded on a linear, top-down and occasionally deterministic explanation of causality this thesis places an emphasis on the progressive and inevitable homogenisation of the cultural, political and economic components of societies.
  2. Divergence.
    A bottom-up, non-linear, non-deterministic approach that gives prominence to processes of manipulation, localisation, resistance and interpretation that leads to a heterogeneity in the effects and outcomes of globalisation at the local level.

Vaira (2004) identifies a third stream of thought that sees globalisation as mutually implicative illustrated by diverse attempts to reconcile the two previous and opposed versions through the blending of global tendencies and local responses. Consequently universities are neither strictly homogeneous and isomorphic at a global level, nor highly differentiated and polymorphic at the local institutional level, but rather can be conceived as local variants of the same institutional archetype (Vaira 2004).

So, while globalisation has opened up competitive horizons that have influenced the policy goals of nation states, national and institutional traditions continue to have, to a greater or lesser extent, some influence (Brenan 2008). Universities continue to belong to different and contradictory societal systems and consequently must apply a diversity of effective means to regulation and control in order to cope with future challenges (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt 2005). There is no one single, global set of societal factors that apply. For example, Cunnigham et al (2000) identify a range of systemic differences between the Australian and the United States education systems that are summarized in Table 2.4.

Table 2.4 – Range of differences between US and Australian post-secondary education sectors (adapted from Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000)
United States Australia
Significantly larger in terms of demographic scale, economic size and diversity. More regulated in terms of use of the ‘university’ label and a more singular and coordinated quality assurance and accreditation systems.
Widespread employer-sponsored tuition subsidies. Greater experience with distance education and part-time higher education students.
Community college system that is more automonmous and general education oriented. Vocational education and training system is more industry oriented and has a greater competency basis.

Reactions to the use of ICTs, and in particular in education, provide another example of the rise of dichotomous perspectives rather than dialectic approaches. The public discourses around the educational use of ICTs has tended towards two dichotomous positions – either for or against – that provide little assistance in understanding the use of ICTs (De Vaney 1998). Education is a complex set of interrelationships, it is not a neutral backdrop instead it may help or hinder the task of embedding an innovation (Underwood and Dillon 2004). One of the 18 lessons identified by Collis and Moonen (2001) from 20 years experience with e-learning in universities is to acknowledge that change is iterative and unpredictable.

The observation that universities are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994) is often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997). There is an alternate view that the university is a very adaptable organism that has a proven ability to evolve in a changing environment and has been so successful that there are few instances of the ‘death’ of a university (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). Indeed, universities are a social artefact that can fill any purpose society sets for them without disastrous consequences (Kogan 2000).


Birnbaum, R. (1983). Maintaining diversity in higher education. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Brenan, J. (2008). "Higher Education and Social Change." Higher Education 56(3): 381-393.

Collis, B. and J. Moonen (2001). Flexible learning in a digital world: Experiences and expectations. London, Kogan Page.

Cunningham, S., Y. Ryan, et al. (2000). The Business of Borderless Education. Canberra, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs: 328.

De Vaney, A. (1998). "Will educators ever unmask the determiner, technology?" Educational Policy 12(5): 568-585.

Elton, L. (1999). "New way sof learning in higher education: Managing the change." Tertiary Education and Management 5(3): 207-225.

Findlow, S. (2008). "Accountability and innovation in higher education: a disabling tension?" Studies in Higher Education 33(3): 313-329.

Gallagher, M. (2000). The emergence of entrepreneurial public universities in Australia. IMHE General Conference of the OECD. Paris, Higher Education Division, Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs.

Green, M. and F. Hayward (1997). Forces for Change. Transforming Higher Education: Views from Leaders Around the World. M. Green. Phoenix, Arizona, The Oryx Press: 3-26.

Gunn, C., S. Woodgate, et al. (2005). "Repurposing learning objects: a sustainable alternative?" ALT-J 13(3): 189-200.

Huisman, J., L. Meek, et al. (2007). "Institutional diversity in higher education: a cross-national and longitudinal analysis." Higher Education Quarterly 61(4): 563-577.

Huynh, M., U. N. Umesh, et al. (2003). "E-Learning as an emerging entrepreneurial enterprise in universities and firms." Communications of the AIS 12: 48-68.

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.

Jongbloed, B., J. Enders, et al. (2008). "HIgher education and its communities: Interconnections, interdependencies and a research agenda." Higher Education 56(3): 303-324.

Kerr, C. (1994). Higher Education Cannot Escape History. New York, SUNY Press.

Knight, P. and P. Trowler (2000). "Department-level Cultures and the Improvement of Learning and Teaching." Studies in Higher Education 25(1): 69-83.

Kogan, M. (2000). "Higher Education Communities and Academic Integrity." Higher Education Quarterly 54(3): 207-216.

Kolsaker, A. (2008). "Academic profesionalism in the managerialist era: a study of English universities " Studies in Higher Education 33(5): 513-525.

Lenzer, R. and S. Johnson (1997). Seeing Things as They Really Are. Forbes.

Lewis, T., S. Marginson, et al. (2005). "The network university? Technology, culture and organisational complexity in contemporary higher education." Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 56-75.

Marginson, S. (2007). "University mission and identity for a post-public era." Higher Education Research & Development 26(1): 117-131.

Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). "The origin and evolution of the university species." Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

Meister-Scheytt, C. and T. Scheytt (2005). "The complexity of change in universities." Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 76-99.

Newton, J. (2003). "Implementing an institution-wide learning and teaching strategy: lessons in managing change." Studies in Higher Education 28(4): 427-441.

Schofer, E. and J. Meyer (2005). "The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century." American Sociological Review 70(6): 898-920.

Scott, J. (2006). "The mission of the University: Medieval to postmodern transformations." The Journal of Higher Education 77(1): 1-39.

Underwood, J. and G. Dillon (2004). "Capturing Complexity through Maturity Modelling." Technology, Pedagogy and Education 13(2): 213-225.

Vaira, M. (2004). "Globalization and higher education organizational change: A framework for anlysis." Higher Education 48(4): 483-510.

Valimaa, J. and D. Hoffman (2008). "Knowledge society discourse and higher education." Higher Education 56(3): 265-285.

White, N. (2006). "Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective." Higher Education Research & Development 25(3): 231-246.

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Society – an aspect of Place impacting on e-learning

The following, finally, is a first draft of the sector section of the “Place” component of the Ps Framework. This is all meant to be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.

The “Place” section has, and continues to have, a too-long and troubled history. I’ve spent too much time figuring out how to briefly summarise perspectives and factors within the broader society that impact upon the implementation of e-learning within universities. There have been a number of false starts and I still don’t think this is very good, but it’s time to “release early”, move on, and hope that it’s “good enough”.

This is a first draft, I think most of the major grammatical errors have been removed, but I’m sure some still remain. My apologies.

What’s the aim of all this? Well I’m trying to establish that the context within which e-learning takes place is characteristed by on-going change and uncertainty about the outcomes of those changes. I will eventually make the argument that the current practices associated with e-learning within universities are fundamentally inappropriate for such a context.


With origins stretching back to the twelfth century and the emergence of the Universities of Paris, Bologna and Oxford (Katz 2003), the concept of a university has seen and shaped a number of significant changes in broader society. In the introduction to Haskins (2002) Lionel Lewis writes that, as is the case with all institutions, universities have developed to meet social needs. Is the idea of a university a product of or shaper of society? In terms of the origins of the idea of a university it has been suggested that answers depend not just on the progress of research, but also on the existing societal context and the state of discussions (de Ridder-Symoens and Ruegg 2003). A full coverage of the historical perspectives, impacts and role of universities and society is beyond the scope of this section and this thesis.

This section seeks to provide an overview of important changes and features of society over recent years that, as well as impacting on the broader society, have significant implications for universities and the practice of e-learning. The changing relationships and tensions with external actors is an important way to understand the environment in which universities operate (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). These changes are important as there is doubt about whether or not there remains any clarity about the place of the University within society or about the nature of that society (Readings 1996). The next section (section 2.1.2 – Sector) aims to illustrate how the changes expressed here, directly impact upon the higher education sector.

While there is broad recognition that societal change is taking place, it is more difficult to identify agreement on the causes, impacts and even definitions of these changes. There remains a lack of agreement amongst social theorists on definitions and implications (Deem 2001). For example, Brenan (2008) and Kwiek (2005) identify globalization and the knowledge society as two related but separate concepts while Vaira (2004) suggests globalization includes the idea of the knowledge society. This section does not seek to be exhaustive in its coverage, instead it aims to provide one, somewhat brief, perspective of the changes occurring within society. This is done by examining views of globalisation, as a concept that encompasses many of the major changes currently facing society.

Globalisation is a term used to describe a recent change in the nature of industrial societies, a change that has fundamental implications for the shape and role of higher education (Brenan 2008). Debates around globalisation assume a widening, deepening and speeding of world wide interconnectedness (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). It is making visible new levels of global interdependency embedded through new trades, especially in knowledge and skills, services and the emergence of global electronic commerce (Cutler 2001). The discourse around globalisation has affected higher education through the new social, political and economic demands made of such institutions, and in terms of the impact upon the policy-making, governance, organisation and academic work and identity aspects of institutions (Vaira 2004). University policy makers and institutions are eager to show the importance of higher education in a globalised world where knowledge has become core to survival and success (Brenan 2008).

While some shared views have emerged, there remain contested perspectives of globalisation and it has ambiguous implications for the future of higher education (Brenan 2008). To further discuss the changes in society arising from globalisation this section draws on Vaira’s (2004) description of globalisation through three core features: a minimalist state, entrepreneurialization and managerialization, and the knowledge society. Kwiek (2005) identifies a range of other changes within society including: changing demographics, ageing of societies, post-patriarchal family patterns. These changes are not considered in detail in this section.

Minimalist state

The changing and reducing role of the state is achieved through processes that increase decentralisation, shrink public expenditure and entail a shift from regulation towards evaluation of performance and outcomes in combination with a wider confidence in market-like capabilities (Vaira 2004). Governments across the world are keen to reduce their contribution to the funding of universities, while at the same time seeing the importance of raising the skills and qualification attainment of their populations (Jones and O’Shea 2004). As the welfare state gradually erodes, universities are encouraged to source funding from actors other than governments and consequently be more visibly useful for society, more efficient and effective (Brenan 2008). While the neo-liberal state appears concerned with deregulating higher education, in reality it continues to closely control universities through devolved mechanisms including accountability-based and performance-oriented funding strategies and standardised data collections (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

The shortfall in funding created by the reduction in public funding requires a push for external funding that reduces reliance on the single master of government, but also increases the complexity in the composition of external partners and arenas of action (Brenan 2008). As the role of the state reduces and that of the market increases, public institutions becomes more integrated into society and consequently the diversity of stakeholders, institutions and their missions increases (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008). A system that must respond to an increasing diversity of stakeholders must explore how to respond to increasing volatility and unpredictability in terms of demands and how to accommodate a more complex, fluid and varied environment (Brenan 2008).

Entrepreneurialization and managerialization

Directly linked with the minimalist state, is the trend toward a more entrepreneurial pattern of organisational change that shifts to a post-fordist regime including commodification, flexibility, innovation, quality, and precarization of work (Vaira 2004). New managerialism attempts to explain and describe new discourses of management taken from the for-profit sector and, with the encouragement of government, introduced into publicly funded institutions to help minimise state involvement (Deem 2001). Reducing public funding leads to the need for an increase in entrepreneurial activities amongst public sector institutions and encouraging greater risk-taking. The substitution of traditional higher education values with the incorporation of neo-liberal values and management practices is leading to universities becoming fertile ground for entrepreneurial activities (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Knowledge-intensive business services, the sector directly engaged in the production and sale of knowledge, are the most rapidly growing sector in most OECD countries (OECD 2000).

Managerialism encompasses ideology, discourses and techniques originating in the private sector and speaks of professional administrators, line managers and competitive bidding for resources (Kolsaker 2008). Managerialism seeks to set targets – in the form of vision and mission – for empowered employees to focus on core activities within a lean organisation – where peripheral tasks are out-sourced – and a new competitive environment (Barry, Chandler et al. 2001). From a normative perspective, managerialism is a discourse based upon values that assumes the right of one group to monitor and control the activities of others (Kolsaker 2008). Governments are insisting on stronger managerial systems and evaluation (Kogan 2000). This results in the introduction of targets and the monitoring of efficiency and effectiveness in the form of staff appraisal, overt measurement of employee performance and more subtly through self and peer-regulation (Deem 2001). Key to new managerialism are explicit attempts to change the culture of public organizations and the values of staff to more closely resemble those of the private sector (Deem 2001).

Knowledge society

The knowledge society is a concept that has created its own expectations and narratives (Marginson quoted in Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). It arises from a coupling of thirty years of technological development with the new rhetoric of competive advantage and the post-fordist society with a greater emphasis on knowledge production and information processing, wider and faster flow of communications, a shift in work from manual to flexible and education knowledge workers and the role of educational institutions to provide the human capital necessary for these developments (Vaira 2004). It is a situation where knowledge, information, and knowledge production are the defining features of relationships within and among societies and organizations (Brenan 2008).

The knowledge society encapsulates a number of related ideas including the learning society and the rise of information technologies (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Factors such as the knowledge society, learning society and the rise of information technology has given rise to a consensus that lifelong learning is not only a norm, but also a culture and attitude (Grace 2006). Originally the concept of a learning society was used to describe a new kind of society where the distinctions between formal and non-formal education were no long valid (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). However, as the historical context has changed, the meaning of lifelong learning has shifted in response (Luzeckyj 2006) and recently it has been guided by far narrower discourses (Atwell 2007). Lifelong learning is now seen as indispensable since learning how to learn is a crucial new skill required to enable workers to change workplaces, professions and update knowledge throughout a career (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008).

The technology of knowledge generation, information processing and symbol communication is see as the source of productivity in the knowledge society (Castells 1996). There are some suggestions that the Knowledge Society should instead be called the age of the network due to the possibilities of new forms of networking offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs) that will enable a change in the hierarchical organisation (OECD 2000). Impacts like this and other associated trends arising out of ICTs continue to develop and to become more pervasive in their impact (Cutler 2001). The state of perpetual innovation found in ICTs lead to the introduction of a level of complexity within organizations that has not previously been seen (Tapscott 1996). The ever-accelerating tempo of change with ICTs brings rapid obsolescence that disrupts conventional infrastructure and planning processes (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).


Atwell, G. (2007) "Personal learning environments – the future of eLearning?" eLearning Papers Volume,  DOI:

Barry, J., J. Chandler, et al. (2001). "Between the ivory tower and the academic assembly line." Journal of Management Studies 38(1): 87-101.

Brenan, J. (2008). "Higher Education and Social Change." Higher Education 56(3): 381-393.

Castells, M. (1996). The information age: Economy, society and culture. Volume 1: The rise of the network society. Oxford, Blackwell.

Cutler, T. (2001). Future directions – a corporate view. Online learning in a borderless market, Gold Coast, Australia, DETYA.

de Ridder-Symoens, H. and W. Ruegg (2003). A history of the university in Europe, Cambridge University Press.

Deem, R. (2001). "Globalisation, new managerialism, academic capitalism and entrepreneurialism in universities: Is the local dimension still important." Comparative Education 37(1): 7-20.

Duderstadt, J., D. Atkins, et al. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, Conn, Praeger Publishers.

Grace, A. (2006). Reflecting critically on lifelong learning in an era of neoliberal pragmatism: Instrumental, social and cultural perspectivs. Lifelong learning: partners, pathways, and pedagogies. Keynote and refereed papers from the 4th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Central Queensland University Press.

Haskins, C. (2002). The rise of universities. Edison, NJ, Transaction Books.

Jones, N. and J. O’Shea (2004). "Challenging hierarchies: The impact of e-learning." Higher Education 48(3): 379-395.

Jongbloed, B., J. Enders, et al. (2008). "HIgher education and its communities: Interconnections, interdependencies and a research agenda." Higher Education 56(3): 303-324.

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

Kogan, M. (2000). Higher Education Research in Europe. Knowledge Management in the Learning Society. Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD: 193-209.

Kolsaker, A. (2008). "Academic profesionalism in the managerialist era: a study of English universities " Studies in Higher Education 33(5): 513-525.

Kwiek, M. (2005). "The University and the State in a Global Age: Renegotiating the Traditional Social Contract." European Educational Research Journal 4(4): 324-342.

Lewis, T., S. Marginson, et al. (2005). "The network university? Technology, culture and organisational complexity in contemporary higher education." Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 56-75.

Luzeckyj, A. (2006). What is at the centre of the discourse about student-centred learning? Lifelong learning: partners, pathways, and pedagogies. Keynote and refereed papers from the 4th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Central Queensland University Press.

Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). "The origin and evolution of the university species." Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

OECD (2000). Knowledge Management in the Learning Society. Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD.

Readings, B. (1996). The university in ruins, Harvard University Press.

Tapscott, D. (1996). The digital economy: Promise and peril in the age of networked intelligence, McGraw-Hill.

Vaira, M. (2004). "Globalization and higher education organizational change: A framework for anlysis." Higher Education 48(4): 483-510.

Valimaa, J. and D. Hoffman (2008). "Knowledge society discourse and higher education." Higher Education 56(3): 265-285.

Pondering a new position – request for help

After a period of uncertainty, it appears likely that at some stage during May 2009 I may be starting a new position at my current institution. The position goes under the title – “eLearning and Innovation Specialist”. It is a academic position, I will retain my current appointment as a Level C Academic but rather than teaching will have to achieve the following position purpose

You are the person who consults effectively and broadly with key stakeholders and provides strategic advice and leadership in learning and teaching innovation, primarily in the area of e-learning. Your primary purpose is to promote strategic e-learning development, in conjunction with all major stakeholders, to ensure CQUniversity achieves it ongoing e-learning goals.

Some of the above and a list of the accountabilities for the position are available on the eLearning and innovation page on this blog. This page will serve as a central point for discussion this blog about the position.

Given the nature of the position, the organisation and recent history I intend to use this blog to reflect on the position. I believe strongly in the value of open and transparent discussion as a way to increase distributed cognition and consequently increase the spread and effectiveness of innovation around learning and teaching. So a major aim of the discussion of the job here is to engage in, or at least spark discussion on the position, what it does and how successful it is. In fact, I believe that using the blog in this way is a good way to fulfill some of the position accountabilities including: relationships, communicate and publish, continuous improvement and SoTL and the teaching/research nexus.

Current task

Next week I will be meeting with the position’s supervisor to engage in a planning process for what the role incumbent should be doing over the next year. My current task is to develop my ideas for what that should be a starting point for negotiation with my supervisor. Until those plans are discussed and signed off by the supervisor, they are simply potential ideas, not actual aims or projects.

My aim today is to reading literature around innovation, especially in learning and teaching, to inform that planning. My initial list of questions which I’d like to ask of the literature are:

  • What is innovation? Revolution, evolution, disruptive etc.?
  • How to measure successful innovation? What are the barriers and enablers towards innovation?
  • What models exist for encouraging innovation? Which work, which don’t?

Literature I know of

The following is a list of literature I’m aware of and currently intend to look at and/or revisit. Some of the literature is innovation oriented, some of it is specific to learning and teaching.

  • Innovate and integrate (Jasinski, 2007)
    Commisioned research from the Australian Flexible Learning Framework into the processes of embedding innovative practices.
  • Accountability and innovation in higher education: a disabling tension? (Findlow, 2008)
    A paper that empirically explores the tension between accountability and innovation within UK higher education (very closely related to the Australian context). The link above is to a previous post that draws on some of the ideas from the paper.
  • The work of Clayton Christensen – especially disruptive innovation
  • Perspectives on innovation from the complex adaptive systems literature (Carlisle and McMillan, 2006; Webb, Lettice & Lemon, 2006)
    I believe CAS and associated concepts provide a much more useful model for understanding of concepts such as universities and innovation. Consequently, I believe they provide a better foundation for acting.
  • Postman, Papert and others, particularly those examining why innovation in learning and teaching hasn’t been all that successful.
  • The current death of university meme should probably also be looked at.

Would seem obvious that, since I’m using a blog for this discussion, I should also list some associated blogs. I haven’t done that, yet, as it’s not yet 100% certain I’ll continue in the position.

What can you do to help?

I’d value any suggestions you have on the following questions, or just about anything else that is vaguely related to this. Please leave your comment here, or if you’d like your comments kept private email me (gmail has better spam protection, so I’m using it, not my institutional email account)

I’m particularly keen on hearing about:

  • Any additional questions I should consider about the nature of innovation and the role.
  • Any suggestions for additional literature that might be useful.
  • Pointers to people or units at other universities that have similar roles.
  • What are the prejudices or blindspots that exist in the above?


Carlisle, Y. and E. McMillan (2006). “Innovation in organisations from a complex adaptive systems perspective.” Emergence: Complexity and Organization 8(1): 2-9.

Findlow, S. (2008). “Accountability and innovation in higher education: a disabling tension?” Studies in Higher Education 33(3): 313-329.

Jasinski, M. (2007). Innovate and integrate: embedding innovative practices. Brisbane, Australian Flexible Learning Framework: 243.

Webb, C., F. Lettice, et al. (2006). “Facilitating learning and innovation in organisations using complexity science principles.” Emergence: Complexity and Organization 8(1): 30-41.

University – change or die: and another problem with the LMS model

The following arises out some current reading, writing and thinking for the Place component of the Ps Framework. In the following I ponder the idea (which I currently agree with) that universities are inherently adaptable, they aren’t likely to die anytime soon and that this adaptability is yet another reason why the LMS product model for e-learning is wrong – since it ain’t adaptable.

Death of universities

There’s been an increasing number of discussions online recently about the “death of the university”. Essentially most of the ideas are based around the idea that society has moved on, its requirements are different, there are fundamental and significant problems with universities in general and that this will contribute to the death of universities and their replacement with something (which might not be an institution/organisation, but instead something much more distributed) else.

Some of the recent “discussions” include:

A common quote used in these is one from Peter Drucker (Lenzer and Johnson, 1997)

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book

While I have a lot of time for Drucker and I should be careful about taking a quote out of context, this comment sounds a lot like the “growing revolution” type of quotes that have littered the history of educational technology. I summarise a few of these for different types of technology-mediated learning in this post (search for “growing revolution” and look for a series of tables).

Drucker hasn’t been alone in this view. New technologies are seen as a major force for change in higher education institutions that will potentially have a profound effect on the structure of higher education (Green and Hayward 1997). Some suggest that the rapidly evolving technology and emerging competition puts the very survival of the current form of the university at risk (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).

The need for revolution

Associated with the view that sees a need for a revolutionary change (i.e. death/replacement) in universities is one which sees the university as a unchanging ivory tower removed from the needs of society. Universities, however, are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of the University is still the traditional combination of teaching and academic research suggested by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). These observations are often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997).

Universities are adaptable, not resistant

Rather than see universities as recalcitrant organisations that resist change, there is an alternate view that universities have continued to be in existence because they are adaptable. The following is from Martin and Etzkowitz (2000)

In the light of this brief review of its history, it is clear that the university is a very adaptable organism. Throughout its history, it has proved able to evolve in a changing environment. Indeed, it is so adaptable that there have been very few instances of the ‘death’ of a university.11 Universities reproduce but they very rarely die. (Some might argue that this is a bad thing!)

Given this adaptability, we would expect the university to survive but perhaps to take on new or modified evolutionary forms – new species or hybrids. In short, there will be far greater variety across higher education institutions.

Similarly, Kolsaker (2008) describes Kogan’s view

universities can fill any purpose that society sets for them – they are social artefacts and can change and evolve over time, without disastrous consequences.

The LMS as an less than adaptable historical blip

The notion of an enterprise learning management system (LMS aka VLE) is inherently less than adaptable. Being open source doesn’t stop the characteristics of the LMS product model being less than adaptable, especially when it is implemented using traditional “vanilla” strategies inherent in current practice around enterprise systems.

The enterprise LMS model is based on the “one ring to rule them all” model. This one piece of software and the way it is structured, the assumptions built into its terminology, data structures and algorithms is intended to be usable and used by all learning institutions. Regardless of their variety or needs for adaptation.

Jon Dron’s (2006) paper title summed up nicely the lack of flexibility of the LMS model and how it is implemented within universities – “Any color you like, as long as it’s Blackboard” (even the spelling of the paper title indicates the point about lack of flexibility – especially if you’re from the British tradition of spelling).

Social and technological artifacts

Using Kogan’s words, the university might be a social artifact and consequently can change and evolve over time to serve any purpose. A technological artifact like an LMS cannot. Especially when, as it is at the moment, treated predominantly as a technology artifact. I would suggest that the design, structure and support of an LMS has to be done in such a way as to enable it to be more a social artifact than a technological one.


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.

Duderstadt, J., D. Atkins, et al. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, Conn, Praeger Publishers.

Green, M. and F. Hayward (1997). Forces for Change. Transforming Higher Education: Views from Leaders Around the World. M. Green. Phoenix, Arizona, The Oryx Press: 3-26.

Kerr, C. (1994). Higher Education Cannot Escape History. New York, SUNY Press.

Lenzer, R. and S. Johnson (1997). Seeing Things as They Really Are. Forbes.

Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). “The origin and evolution of the university species.” Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

Tsichritzis, D. (1999). “Reengineering the University.” Communications of the ACM 42(6): 93-100.

Place – component of the Ps Framework

The following is the introduction to a section of Chapter 2 of my thesis. It introduces the examination of the Place component of the Ps Framework. Hopefully, the remaining sections of the section will be posted over the coming day or so.

This isn’t much of a post on its own, but posting it does provide a small sense of achievement that is much needed in the frustration that has been the last week or so in trying to get this section completed.


The “Place” component of the Ps Framework seeks to understand the context within which university-based e-learning occurs. The assumption is that the practice of e-learning will be influenced by and needs to respond appropriately to factors arising from the context. Knight and Trowler (2000) report on the Rand Change Agent Study (1974-78) that identified mutual adaptation of the innovation and the context as an essential component of successful innovations. Gonzalez (2009), writing in the context of improving teaching, describes how factors arising form the context have proved to influence the characteristics of the approach finally adopted. Contextual factors shape the decision making process and may amplify, moderate or suppress certain factors (Jamieson, Hyland et al. 2007). In the modern, knowledge-based economy, how a university identifies, classifies and establishes relationships with its various constituencies, stakeholders or communities will have important implications for the institution’s chances for survival (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008).

This section examines the context within which e-learning occurs at three levels: society, sector and institutional. It recognises that the interactions between the factors within these levels is complex and that the space available here not sufficient to capture that complexity completely. The intent then is to provide an overview of those factors perhaps most directly related to the implementation of e-learning within universities. In particular, the aim is to illustrate just how complex and turbulent this environment is and suggest this must be a consideration into the design of e-learning.

First, the factors and changes observable from the fields of economics, technology, culture, government and other aspects of society (section 2.1.1) are covered. Next, the impact of these societal factors onto the higher education sector (section 2.1.2) and other related factors are examined. The next level down, the institution (section 2.1.3) then looks at the characteristics and nature of individual institutions of higher education and how that may impact e-learning. Section 2.1.4 – Types of systems – provides a brief overview of the different types of system abstractions that have been used and suggests that more recent abstractions from complex adaptive systems are a good match for universities and their context. Finally, Section 2.1.5 draws a number of lessons from the “Place” component of the Ps Framework for the practice of e-learning within universities.

PhD Update #9 – spluttering out of steam

It’s that time of week again, time to report on the progress of the PhD. This week has been one of those weeks where progress has not been as much as desired, but perhaps isn’t quite as bad. As often happens, last week’s optimistic claims of “speeding up” spluttered out a bit.

There has been some news on the work front which may remove some of the more troubling aspects of the last 6 months or so. So this may help speed things up. At the very least, it removes yet another excuse.

What I’ve done

Last week I said I would, by now, have

  • Post Lessons from Past Experience DONE
    This was almost finished last week. Got it posted on Saturday and have made a few minor changes since.
  • Nutted out a structure for “Place”. DONE
    The structure is
    • Society – broader nature and changes in society that are relevant to e-learning.
    • Sector – factors inherent to and impacts from society factors on the higher education sector that are relevant to e-learning.
    • Institutional – factors arising from individual organisations that impact e-learning.
    • Lessons from “Place”.
      Standard closing section for each of the components of the Ps Framework.
  • Posted a first draft for “Place”.
    This hasn’t been done. I’ve just about got the structure for each of the sections with the “Place” structure and have most of the content I want. I’m currently trying to get this into reasonable prose and reduce the size of it. At its largest this section was 50+ pages of quotes and references. It’s currently sitting at 25 pages and should get below 10.
  • Try and have the same done for “Purpose”
    This really didn’t happen. However, I did do some work on tidying up and structuring “Purpose”. “Tidying up” is something I feel can be done late at night when I’m tired, not something I can say for writing.

In terms of PhD related blog posts, only two, and that’s a bit of stretch.

  • Integration with professional lives of academics
    This arose out of a reference I collected and read as part of working on the “Place” component. It connected a few dots in my thinking about e-learning in general and some of the reasons why I believe Webfuse and its approach may have been more successful. It’s a question of how integrated the academic perceives the e-learning system to be to their everyday professional and personal life. Webfuse worked, to the extent it did, because it integrated with a lot of the administrative tasks as well as learning. LMSs work less well because, by their very nature they are limited to how well they can integrate with other aspects of an academics life.
  • The first BAM paper
    I spent at least a day this week updating a paper that tells the initial story of BAM. It’s linked to PhD because BAM is an extension of one of the ideals (i.e. the university doesn’t seek to supply all the software, but to integrate existing software) of Webfuse into the Web 2.0 arena.

What I’ll do next week

For next week, the aim is to

  • Have completed and posted the section on “Place”.
  • Be close to doing the same thing for “Purpose”.
  • Perhaps make some headway for another component of the Ps Framework – perhaps either People or Pedagogy.

At least one or two days next week will be spent pondering the new job and there’s another of those pesky public holidays. So the expectations are probably going to exceed reality.

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