I’m currently back from a holiday restarting work on my thesis and in particular on the process component of the Ps Framework. I’m currently working on the section that describes the two extremes, I’m using Introna’s (1996) distinction between teleological design and ateleological design.

The following arises out of re-reading Introna (1996) and picking up some new insights that resonate with some recent thoughts I’ve been having about e-learning and Learning Management Systems (LMSs/VLEs). The following is an attempt to make sense of Introna (1996) – which is not the easiest paper to follow – and integrate it with some of my thinking.

That is, this is a work in progress.

Basic argument

Introna suggests that the dominant metaphor within the design of information systems – like LMSs/VLEs – is that of the system. That the over-emphasis on the “system” has made systems development a one word language.

Can you imagine holding a conversation in a language with only one word? Not a great stretch of the imagination to see such a language as hugely limiting. Hence our current conversations about e-learning are also hugely limiting, as we’re making do with a one word language. Introna (1996) puts it this way

The use of a one word language will lead to the building of systems that are “dead” not alive and profoundly meaningful

The pre-dominance of the one word language in e-learning

The pre-dominance of the LMS or VLE within e-learning within a University context probably doesn’t need much of a background. While there are some growing movements away from the LMS (e.g. edupunk, e-learning 2.0 etc) I still believe the LMS is the dominant answer to the “how do we do e-learning?” question. As I wrote in (Jones and Muldoon, 2007)

The almost universal approach to the adoption of e-learning at universities has been the implementation of Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle or Sakai. If not already adopted, Salmon (2005) suggests that almost every university is planning to make use of an LMS. Indeed, the speed with which the LMS strategy has spread through universities is surprising (West, Waddoups, & Graham, 2006). Particularly more surprising is the almost universal adoption within the Australian higher education sector of just two commercial LMSs, which are now owned by the same company. Interestingly this sector has traditionally aimed for diversity and innovation (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005). Conversely, the mindset in recent times has focused on the adoption of the one-size-fits-all LMS (Feldstein, 2006).

This is even in the light of there being little difference between LMSs. Here’s what Black, Beck et al (2007) had to say

There are more similarities than differences among learning management system (LMS) software products. Most LMSs consist of fairly generic tools such as quiz/test options, forums, a scheduling tool, collaborative work space and grading mechanisms. In fact, the Edutools Web site lists 26 LMSs that have all of these features (2006). Many LMSs also have the means to hold synchronous meetings and some ability to use various templates for instruction. Beyond these standardized features, LMSs tend to distinguish themselves from one another with micro-detailed features such as the ability to record synchronous meetings or the ability to download forum postings to read offline.

In my recent experience, the LMS model has become so endemic that it is mythic and unquestioned. Many folk can’t even envision how you might do e-learning within a University without an LMS.

Even at its best, discussion about e-learning within universities seems to get dragged back to the LMS. The one word language.

What’s the problem with this

Introna (1996) believes that information systems development (I’m going to accept that e-learning information systems are a subset of this) very much involves a social system or three. The development of an information system for us by people is an inherently social process and communication is essential to such a process.

He connects this with authors in the social sciences who have investigated the connection between symbolism, communication and the construction of social reality. He tends to focus on Pondy (1991) but there are others. He includes the following quote from Pondy (1991)

The central hypothesis is that the use of metaphors in the organizational dialogue plays a necessary role in helping organization participants to infuse their organizational experiences with meaning and resolve apparent paradoxes and contradictions, and that this infusion of meaning or resolution of paradox is a form of organizing. In this sense, the use of metaphors help couple the organization, to tie its parts together into some kind of meaningful whole; that is, metaphors help to organize the objective facts of the situation in the minds of the participants. …That is, metaphors serve both as models of the situation and models for the situation

In looking for the pre-dominant metaphor used in information systems development he identifies the system. Developers perform “systems analysis”, they identify the entities that make up the system, the relationships between them etc.

The system no becomes a model of, and a model for, the symbols space that needs to be designed.

While accepting that the system metaphor has been beneficial he also suggests that it is over utilized and that there are benefits to be accrued from identifying different metaphors. For example, he suggests that the “systems” metaphor works well for the design of a transaction processing system but perhaps not so well for a website, an electronic meeting or a multimedia education application.

So what?

Most immediately for me is the potential avenue these thoughts might provide for the innovation role I’m meant to be taking on. I can currently see two immediately useful applications of this thinking:

  1. Using metaphor to map the current “grammar of school” at the host institution in order to identify what current conceptions are and evaluate whether they are limiting what is possible.
    I think it’s fairly obvious from what I’ve said on this blog that I think this is the case. It also helps, or perhaps increases my pattern entrainment, that there is a connection between this and with some work my wife is doing.
  2. Developing different metaphors to develop innovative approaches to e-learning.

More broadly, I think this is another way to show and explain just how limiting and negative an influence the LMS fad has been in e-learning. More broadly again, it highlights some of the disquiet I’ve felt about the direction of the teaching and practice of information systems/technology within organisations.

More to come

Introna (1996) goes onto talk about the role of narrative and myth may have to play in information systems development. I need to follow these up as through Dave Snowden and others I have a growing interest in applying these ideas to e-learning.

More on that later.


Black, E., D. Beck, et al. (2007). “The other side of the LMS: Considering implementation and use in the adoption of an LMS in online and blended learning environments.” Tech Trends 51(2): 35-39.

Coates, H., R. James, et al. (2005). “A Critical Examination of the Effects of Learning Management Systems on University Teaching and Learning.” Tertiary Education and Management 11(1): 19-36.

Introna, L. (1996). “Notes on ateleological information systems development.” Information Technology & People 9(4): 20-39.

Feldstein, M. (2006). Unbolting the chairs: Making learning management systems more flexible. eLearn Magazine. 2006.

Jones, D. and N. Muldoon (2007). The teleological reason why ICTs limit choice for university learners and learning. ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, Singapore.

Pondy, L.R. (1991), “The role of metaphor and myths in organization and in the facilitation of change”, in Pondy, L.R., Morgan, G., Frost, P. and Dandridge, T. (Eds), Organizational Symbolism, JAI Press, Greenwich, CT, pp. 157-66.

Salmon, G. (2005). “Flying not flapping: a strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions.” ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 13(3): 201-218.

West, R., G. Waddoups, et al. (2006). “Understanding the experience of instructors as they adopt a course management system.” Educational Technology Research and Development.