Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: July 2009 Page 2 of 3

BAM into Moodle #5 – Coding a block?

Up to Unit 7 of the introduction to Moodle programming course, this one is titled “Replicating a moodle block”. So the programming begins.

Creating a simple block

Looks like we’ll be doing most of the standard stuff, adding tables, using forms CRUD…Staring with this tutorial from the Moodle site. THe process

  • Create a single file in a single directory
    ~/blocks/lowercase name of block is the directory and block_lowercase name of block.php is the file.
  • File format:
    • first line is block class definition – fixed naming convention
    • class must have an init() method – initially to set to class member variables title and version
    • get_content – required before it will display something on screen

Bugger, laptop migration didn’t work 100% with permissions – XAMPP is playing silly buggers, and now so is Moodle. Ahh, CVS wasn’t brought across in the migration either. Bugger, Apple developer CDs – long time to download to get CVS…..

Okay, back to it.

Misc other stuff

  • instance_allow_config method returns true to allow instance configuration
  • config_instance.html – used to specify HTML/PHP/Moodle functions to implement form to allow configuration
  • can’t use config variables in init section of blocks
  • specialization method is automatically called after init – used to apply config i.e. to specialize the block
  • instance_allow_multiple method allows multiple instances of the block for a single course – if it returns true
  • has_config – indicates global configuration exists if it returns true – i.e. allows application of config to all instances in all courses.
  • config_global.html – specify HTML form for global configuration

Skip to Unit 9 – requirements documents

While that’s downloading, time to move on. Will need to think about a requirements document some time soon to keep the organisational hierarchy happy and it will probably not require any code. Onto unit 9 – requirements documents.

Ahh, believes a requirements document will reduce feature creep – philosophically I disagree with this. It allows the developer to ignore the user’s growing knowledge of what they’d like to do with the application. It closes off possibilities – or at least that is how it is used.

It’s all fairly standard requirements document guff, little specific to Moodle. Most of it is just really limited in being of any use in a real situation.

This section of the Moodle developer docs seems to be a bit more useful and talks about creating a specification in Moodle docs. This one is used as the example.

. Some other alternatives include: specification of Workshop 2.0, blog improvements.

This will have to come later.

What’s next?

Looks like the reinstall of Moodle is going to take a while. Running out of time today. Not all that productive – but that’s what you get for changing laptops.

At this stage, it looks like it will be time to move onto the planning and documentation. Which also implies doing a presentation at CQU to generate more requirements. The interesting part of this will be working out which of the types of plugins (or how many of them) BAM will required.

For example, for students, registering their blog and checking marking progress could be thought of as activities. Configuring BAM for a course could, as it stands, be for an assignment. However, I’m not sure I want to limit use of BAM only for assessment. Why not use it as a basis for a course blog – aggregate – oops, is this feature creep?

BAM into Moodle Step #4 – Learning more about Moodle

In the previous step I got to know a bit more about the Moodle code base, libraries and idioms. Even got to modify a bit of code – nothing much more complex than hello world. Time to continue that journey.

Roles and capabilities

Continuing my journey through Unit 6 of the Moodle Programming Unit. This time with roles and capabilities.

Apparently before v1.7 there were fixed roles. Gee, I learnt that in Webfuse in 1996 – sorry, writing historical chapters of the thesis, revisiting old ground and getting pissy about it all.

Main terms are:

  • Contexts – hierarchical “spaces” in which “permissions” apply
    • Permissions not set within a context are inherited from a more general context.
    • Capacilities – a specific Moodle action that can be executed by a user
      • e.g. ‘moodle/course:update’ – updating course settings
      • e.g. ‘moodle/course:viewhiddencourses’ – guess?
    • Roles – a named set of all the capabilities with associated permissions (which ain’t a great explanation)
      • e.g. student, forum moderator etc.
    • Permissions – describes the ability of a role to perform a certain capability (Que?)
      • permissions for a capbility are set within a context – e.g. course.
      • Four permissions available to be set for a capability of a role within a context:
        • CAP_INHERIT – inherit permission from more general context
        • CAP_ALLOW – guess
        • CAP_PREVENT – deny the capability in the current context and more specific contexts, unless over-ridden
        • CAP_PROHIBIT – deny a capability and don’t allow it to be over-ridden.

      Functions for roles and capabilities

      • require_login – require user to be logged in and perform some other checks
      • get_context – returns a context instance object containing a context level and an instance id – e.g. CONTEXT_COURSE and a course id. This is needed to do the next step.
      • require_capability
      • has_capability


      PHPDoc used for code documentation – another thing to learn.

Improving CEQ Outcomes

As part of my new position I’m meant to identify opportunities, trends etc around learning and teaching and inform the local institutional community of them. The following is the first of those reports. I’ve attempted to keep the explanation as short as possible as I’m uncertain the type of folk I’m writing this for are likely to read long essays.

It could be interpreted as a fairly questionable approach. However, I have a few theoretically perspectives on how to create sustainable improvement in L&T within a University that suggests that this is a good way to do it. It’s meant to be only the first step.


CQU’s 2009-2012 strategic plan has identified improved outcomes on the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) as a key point in the quality assurance section of the learning and teaching component. This document suggests one approach to achieving that aim. It suggests that CQU improve CEQ outcomes by ensuring that the next cohort of CQU students to complete the CEQ enjoys a positive last learning experience at CQU.

The suggestion is that this be achieved by:

  • Identifying which courses contain the majority of CQU students who will next be completing the CEQ.
  • Resource and work with the course development and delivery teams of the identified courses to make modifications to these courses that:
    • do not require significant change in conceptions of teaching held by academics; and
    • maximise fit with what is known about student expectations of university learning.

The rest of this document details the rationale and assumptions, student expectations, example approaches and risk associated with this suggestion.

Rationale and assumptions

Assumptions underpinning this suggestion include:

  • CQUni has limited resources but a significant interest in improving learning and teaching as measured by the CEQ
  • Large-scale re-design of courses is expensive and likely to fail.
    It is widely established that the conceptions of teaching and learning held by teaching staff are a significant limiting factor in the types of teaching approaches adopted (Samuelowicz and Bain 2001; Gonzalez 2009). Large-scale course re-design typically relies on changes in the conception of teaching and learning held by academics. This is difficult, time-consuming and likely to fail.
  • Recent experience will over-shadow earlier experience on the CEQ.
    As an example of a “level 1” evaluation the CEQ has known limitations. Including the tendency for recent experience to over-shadow earlier experience. Consequently, a significantly positive final experience may/should have an impact on CEQ responses.
  • At least anecdotally, there have been reports of other institutions adopting strategies designed to maximise CEQ results that have worked.
    For example, it has been suggested that at least one NSW-based institution adopted wording in course profiles that match that used in the CEQ around graduate attributes and encouraged widespread use of that terminology. The implication is that a significant proportion of students completing the CEQ are not familiar with graduate attributes and the associated language. The reported institution was ranked at the top of one of the LTPF rankings.
  • Students are fairly conservative in terms of learning approaches.
    For example Hardy et al (2008) report that even students with self-perceived high levels of competence and confidence with information technology remain conservative in their approach to study and prefer traditional face-to-face approaches with online approaches used as on-demand supplements.
  • It is widely known what students want from a learning experience.
    The conservative nature of students combined with a number of reports summarised in the following section provide strongly indicative pointers of what students want from a university learning experience. See the following section.
  • There are a number of matches between what students want and the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (7PGPUE) (Chickering and Gamson 1987).
    Table 1 frames results from various reports on student expectations using the 7PGPUE. It offers one way of “ranking” the 7PGPUE on the basis of student expectations.
  • There are approaches already adopted at CQUni that can meet these desires and observations without significant change.
    See the “Example approaches” section.

Student expectations

There is a range of reports and reviews that report upon the expectations students have of their university learning experience. These include reports from CQUni on the expectations of distance education students (Purnell, Cuskelly et al. 1996; Jones 2007), a report on what students say on the CEQ (Scott 2005), a study on student expectations from the United Kingdom (Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) 2007).
Key findings from this work include:

  • Students are conservative, they do not like approaches to learning that do not meet their expectations of a university education.
    For example, though separated by 11 years the two attempts (Purnell, Cuskelly et al. 1996; Jones 2007) to discover what CQU distance education students want found agreement. In 1996, students request greater use of audio and video-tapes to provide them with access to on-campus lectures. In 2007, the request was for increased use of online lectures.
  • The seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (7PGPUE) (Chickering and Gamson 1987) provide a good framework for understanding what features students most like.
    Table 1 uses the 7PGPUE to frame the outcomes from the above reports on student expectations and identify potential opportunities for maximum return on investment.
Table 1 – 7PGPUE mapping of student expectations
(A rough and ready analysis)
7PGPUE Scott (2005) Jones (2007)
Student/faculty contact Presence of staff who are capable, accessible and responsive Online lectures, discussion boards
Cooperation among students   Discussion boards
Encourages active learning Designs that use interactive, practice-oriented and problem-based learning methods  
Gives prompt feedback Staff are responsive, even to the extent of improving course design during implementation Quick, effective, polite responses from staff, Online assignment submission, provision of exam results and breakdowns
Emphasizes time on task Course design that is sound and clear. Effective and responsive systems Print documents, Materials that are ready and consistent
Communicates high expectations    
Respects diverse talents and ways of learning Course designs that are flexible  

Example approaches

The following is a brief list of approaches that have been successfully used at CQU. Most are were used with distance education students. Most do not require any significant changes in the conceptions of learning and teaching held by academics. Some do require significant resources, others do not. They are included here as indicative examples and include:

  • eMail merge emails to all students at important times during the term.
    eMail merge is a tool that enables bulk email to be sent to large numbers of people in a way that makes the message seem to be private. This facility can be used to send email messages to all students at the beginning of term welcoming the student, in the lead up to assignment due dates checking to see if any assistance is required, after assignment due dates to students who have yet submitted and after results have been finalised providing essentially a coordinator’s report to students.
  • Offering a pre-submission check and feedback on assignments.
    Distance education students have been offered a chance to submit draft versions of assignments a week ahead of the due date in order to receive feedback. The feedback includes some specific feedback but also is closely tied with the assignment rubrics. The deadline of a week before the due date rules out most students as they don’t have a draft ready. However, even if they don’t make use of it, the existence of the offer is appreciated and remembered.
  • Assignments returned within 3 working days.
    Marking is designed, organised and resourced to ensure rapid turnaround using effective feedback.

Apart from these somewhat different approaches there are approaches that are normally expected, including:

  • Ensuring that study material is consistent and complete before the start of term.
  • That the marking rubric is available, easy to understand and referred to continuously.
  • All lectures are available in a variety of accessible online formats. Often before the start of term.


The following are some initial risks that may be associated with this suggestion.

Compliance and task corruption

The primary success factor for this suggestion, and any approach to improving learning and teaching, is the level of engagement and commitment on the part of the academic teaching staff. Academic staff who do not engage voluntarily in this project are more than likely to undertake forms of compliance or task corruption. There are also aspects of CQU’s current environment that may increase the risk of compliance behaviours.

Limited engagement on the part of academic staff would limit any chance of positive outcomes.

Changing conceptions

While the suggestion here is to actively avoid challenging established conceptions of learning and teaching held by academics, it is likely that any change will involve an aspect of challenge to existing models. This includes both conceptions held by academics and models embedded in CQU policies and processes. Such change will be difficult.

For example, the current practices around assignment marking at the AICs would be significantly challenged by the above example of returning assignments within 3 working days.

Diversity of students and support structures

CQU has three broadly different groups of students

  1. On-campus students based at a Central Queensland campus.
  2. On-campus students based at an AIC.
  3. Distance education students.

Each of these groups of students may have significant differences in their expectations of university learning. Such differences would impact upon the minor modifications that might be most appropriate.

Identifying appropriate modifications to courses will also need to consider the differences in the support structures and management processes used for each group of students. In particular those used at the AICs.

There may also be significant differences in the percentage of each student group that actually complete the CEQ.

Perceptions of opportunism

The CEQ statement in the strategic plan is located within the section titled “how will we know that we are doing it well?”. This suggestion could be perceived as a form of organisational task corruption. i.e. CQU is opportunistically attempting to directly influence the measure, rather than address underlying systems and practices around learning and teaching.

Responses to that view might include:

  • Other institutions are reportedly doing the same thing.
    Not a strong or perhaps “moral” defense, but a related observation.
  • CEQ itself is a less than appropriate or effective measure of the quality of learning and teaching. It has several significant flaws.
    Perhaps seen as shooting the messenger and not likely to win friends and influence people amongst a higher education sector that broadly, at least in public, accepts the CEQ.
  • The 7PGPUE has formed the basis for CQU’s management plan for learning and teaching for a number of years. This is a logical extension and use of those principles informed by research.
  • It can be argued that this is approach could provide concrete examples of improving learning and teaching which is seen as an important component for encouraging change.
    Cavallo (2004) outlines a successful approach to encouraging large scale change and growth that includes the importance of concrete exemplars. If successful, this suggestion would provide exemplars where significant improvements in student satisfaction and engagement are provided through minimal resource implications.


Cavallo, D. (2004). "Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments." BT Technology Journal 22(4): 96-112.

Chickering, A. W. and Z. F. Gamson (1987). "Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education." AAHE Bulletin 39(7): 3-7.

Gonzalez, C. (2009). "Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: a study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses." Higher Education 57(3): 299-314.

Hardy, J., D. Haywood, et al. (2008). Expectations and reality: Exploring the use of learning technologies across the disciplines. 6th Networked Learning Conference. Halkidiki, Greece, Lancaster University.

Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) (2007). Student expectations study. London, Author.

Jones, D. (2007). "Summary of FLEX student feedback."   Retrieved 24 June, 2009, from

Purnell, K., E. Cuskelly, et al. (1996). "Improving distance education for University students: Issues and experiences of students in cities and rural areas." Journal of Distance Education 11(2).

Samuelowicz, K. and J. Bain (2001). "Revisiting academics’ beliefs about teaching and learning." Higher Education 41(3): 299-325.

Scott, G. (2005). Accessing the student voice: Using CEQuery to identify what retains students and promotes engagement in productive learning in Australian higher education, DEST.

BAM into Moodle – Step #3 – some initial development?

Okay, so Moodle is installed, configured and working. The next step, I believe, will be playing a bit with Moodle development and trying to get my head around how it works, what the abstractions are and anything else I need to know in order to actually start the design and development of “Moodle BAM”.

So this means back to the Introduction to Moodle Programming course and picking things up from Unit 4 – configuring moodle for development.


Two are introduced

  1. Roles – a role contains permissions within a context, within a context a user can be assigned the role. Roles are inherited down the context hierarchy.

    Apparently a Systems Administrator can create additional roles. Users can have multiple assigned roles.

    1. Administrator
    2. Course creator
    3. Teacher
    4. Non-editing teacher
    5. Student
    6. Guest
  2. Contexts – there’s no definition of context, but we’ll assume a standard one. Essentially a hierarchical set of containers
    • System (no parent)
    • Site (parent = system) – Moodle 1.8 onwards
    • Course category (parent = system)
    • Course (parent = category or system)
    • Module (parent = course or system/site(1.8 onwards))
    • Block (parent = course or system/site(1.8 onwards))
    • User (parent = system)

Plugins it appears this is a phrase that’s used interchangeable with “blocks”. Different terms, same meaning – great way to make it easy to use. Guessing this might be a historical hang over. A little later on I’m looking at the contrib source code, seems plugin is the name of a directory that is used to hold all manner of things, not just blocks. Is this a mistake in the course docs?

Creating a course and some users

Have to create a course for testing, also some users. Ahh, won’t let me use the same email address for different users. Will start with two users – david (staff member) and student (guess?). Will revert to numbers for the remaining. The restoring a course example worked seamlessly as well. Perhaps I spoke too soon. heading3 html elements in each topic seem to have been screwed up. The zip file was for 1.9.3, wonder if that was the problem – will ignore this for now.

Contributed code

There’s a separate “contrib” directory/project in source control. Holds a number of contributed blocks, modules etc. However, it appears to use them in an instance, you need to copy them into the Moodle directory hierarchy – in a specific place: blocks for blocks, mod for modules etc.

So, essentially its download, copy into Moodle hierarchy, visit notifications via admin block on site.

Visiting the Moodle admin page after copying a new module across, runs the config/setup for that module – appears to anyway.

The intro to moodle programming course is suffering from the age old problem of docs for software – it’s getting out of date.

Reflections on Moodle design for BAM

Currently, from a student’s perspective, the main BAM activities that they would perform in Moodle are:

  • Register your blog
    This is where they give Moodle the URL for their blog.
  • Check your progress
    Where they see what the markers have had to say about their contributions. This is different from reading comments on the blog.

It would appear that these would have to be activities that could be added into the topics within a course. Register might be included at the start.

During the process of adding such an activity the Moodle abstraction seems to be this is where a lot of the configuration information goes. Including messages etc. This would be where the default “instructions” for BAM would go, probably .

Academic staff would require a link to the BAM Manage interface. Not sure where this would fit at the moment.

Moodle’s directory structure

Getting into Unit 5, some summary of directories covered

  • /admin
    • Implementation of Site Administration block
    • docs list 635 files as of Nov 2007 (1.8.3) – 1.9.5 has 962.
    • admin/cron.php is how it runs regular tasks
    • modules get stuff run by cron.php by defining a _cron function This is where the BAM mirror process will go
    • /blocks
      • the course offers a description of blocks again here. Would have been more useful earlier for me.
      • Each block has a directory in /blocks
    • /lang – language files for the help button content
    • /lib
      • Looks like it contains the “support” libraries for the rest of the stuff. Specifies three of the more important ones
      • moodlelib.php – main Moodle library. Contains general purpose functions.
      • weblib.php – functions that produce web output. Actually, it looks like more than web output, but that could be just misinterpreting the names.
      • datalib.php – how to access the database. And just to confuse things, also contains role capability related functions.
    • /mod – contains the key Moodle modules. Is this where contrib modules go? Yep, it’s where they said to put facetoface.

    Global variables

    Interesting, says you shouldn’t generally use globals in PHP and that you should never directly access the small number of Moodle global variables that break this rule. Instead you should access via the API.

    Most of the variables seem to use a type of OO approach. The variables are, and most server standard purposes

    • $CFG – configuration directives – many, not all.
    • $USER – guess?
    • $COURSE
    • $SITE

    A small exercise at the bottom of this section has me updating my first bit of Moodle code – yippee?. Essentially using Dumper() to show content of a global. Interesting, I didn’t think the directions provided enough information for a newbie to establish exactly how to do this. Perhaps I’m skimming too much.

    Moodle libraries

    Contains more information about the libraries. Pointer to XREF site for browsing the code and finding out more.

    Looks at some additional libraries

    • lib/dmlib.php – putting records etc into the database. Low level. Not system abstractions like datalib.php
    • lib/ddlib.php – manipulating database schema.
    • lib/accesslib.php – context/roles/permissions functions
    • lib/blocklib.php – everything to use blocks on a course page
    • lib/formslib.php – how to create forms

    Including library files

    • as little as possible.
    • almost always use require_once
    • config.php is the most common — first from scratch PHP file written in Moodle
    • This will be where I’ll have to start coming to grips with the differences between the Perl idioms which are essentially second nature and the approaches that should be used in PHP and then also Moodle. I’m sure that will be fun.

      More on coding guidelines

      Input validation – lib/moodlelib.php

      • required_param( $parameter, PARAM_TYPE ) – name and type of parameter that is required. NOt easy to find out what appropriate PARAM_TYPE values there are. — Ahh, TYPE has to be replaced with various values INT INTEGER NUMBER ALPHA. The course document actually defines them down below – but after covering other stuff. This will stop if the parameter is missing
      • option_param( $parameter, $default, PARAM_TYPE )
      • clean_param( $variable, PARAM_TYPE )

      It seems the use of $variables in the above is wrong – it’s the actual name as the first parameter and the return value should be set $course = required_param( “course”, PARAM_TEXT );

      Output functions defined here

      Private tokens – sesskey and confirm_sesskey can be used to ensure private token sent in forms.

      What’s next

      Haven’t finished unit 6 – up to the stuff on roles and capabilities. Will start again from here on Thursday

BAM into Moodle – Step #2: configuration and questions

It’s Tuesday, so must be time to take the next step in getting BAM into Moodle. Last time I got up to having Moodle checked out from CVS and PHP/Apache and MySQL all working nicely together.

This step will need to focus on:

  • Answering the question, “Should I be using Moodle 1.9.X or 2.0.X to do this development?”
  • Getting Moodle configured and working.

Which Moodle version?

Apparently Moodle 2.0 is coming out soon. My institution is running version 1.9.5. I’m told that there are some changes between the two code-bases. Potentially these changes could mean that I will have to waste time once 2.0 comes out. Have to spend some time to put some bones on these impressions.

What is Moodle 2.0 coming out?

BAM into Moodle has to be completed and operational for T1, 2010 – i.e. Feb 2010. In order for my current institution to move to Moodle 2.0, I would imagine that it would have to be released before the end of 2009….a question to ask.

The Google planning spreadsheet for Moodle 2.0 is listing another 600 days of work to go. Discussion on the developer forums suggest early 2010 as a guess.

At the moment, given this information, I can’t see CQU implementing Moodle 2.0 for Feb 2010.

Moodle Roadmap

Let’s try the Moodle Roadmap that should probably have something to say on the issue, or perhaps at least a pointer. From my quick skim of the roadmap there doesn’t seem to be anything that indicates a radical change in how modules/blocks are intergrated or written. Theoretically, this suggests a module developed in 1.9.x should work reasonably well with 2.0. However, some of the APIs that a module might use are changing. This has implications.

Go with 1.9.X

Based on the above, I’m sticking with 1.9.x. I have, however, asked for some indication from the CQU IT division if they have any insights to share.

Configuring Moodle

Back to the Intro to Moodle programming course which in turn points to the Moodle installation page.

Have to do some playing around with paths etc to get to XAMPP

It would be interesting for someone with no background in UNIX/source control/Web dev to be installing Moodle. The docs aren’t always really useful, but sufficient if you have the necessary knowledge.

Actually, that’s gone surprisingly easy. All set up. Need to create a course and a few other bits. But it’s time to pick up the new laptop.

PhD update #17 – You know you're losing your way when….

It’s been a fortnight since the last PhD update due to last weekend’s personal, celebratory trip to Adelaide. The time away was useful and has resulted in an insight that’s going to change focus for a bit.

What I’ve done

In the last update I said I would

  • Make as much progress as possible on the People component.

Consequently, I completed two more sections of the people component

It was at this stage that the insight struck.

The insight

You know you’ve lost your way with a thesis when the literature review, bit more than half completed, weighs in at 151 pages (40 of which are references). The last month or so I’ve been feeling somewhat disconnected from the work on the Ps Framework and questioning the value of the material and the depth to which I was sinking. Consequently, on Friday, I decided to stick all the separate sections into a single Word document – 151 pages. That’s with about 4.5 of the 7 components of the Ps Framework complete in a rough draft form. Just a bit too big.

The new plan – what I’ll do next week

As a result of the insight, I’ve decided to:

  • Bundle up chapter 2, send it to the supervisor and await some independent feedback. DONE
    At this stage, I’m wondering if I need to gut most of the content and focus on the “lessons” sections from each Ps component. We’ll see.
  • Aim to complete a first draft of chapter 4.
    This is the first of the two chapters reporting on one of the iterations of the design theory formulation. The intent is to get feedback on this.
  • Complete first draft of chapter 6.
    I doubt I’ll get to this, this week. But after chapter 4, in the absence of other feedback, it will be time to get onto the final chapter.

Leaders and managers – the next bit of People

After a bit of an absence, time to get back to the thesis. The following continues the recent work on the People component of the Ps Framework. So far, I’ve done students and teaching/academic staff. This post looks at leaders and managers (badly). I’m working on a section or two on technical and instructional design staff.

It doesn’t end strongly, but care factor is low.

Leaders and managers

The leaders and managers within a university context impact upon the practice of e-learning in a number of ways. In the main because it is they who often regulate and sometimes mandate the use of technology (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). No matter how enlightened these individuals are the constraints they exert on the system inevitably shape what is done with it, possibly in ways that may be less than ideal for local needs (Dron 2006). The conditions under which e-learning is introduced or operates is shaped by agendas of those in management positions (Clegg, Hudson et al. 2003). Rather than being of itself liberating or empowering technology serves whichever goals motivate the people guiding its design and use (Lian 2000). The directions taken by management, due to the structure and operation of some institutions, need not be consistent across the institution. Policy choices by school or departmental leaders can result in significant diversity across the many schools or departments (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004).

There have been a number of calls for stronger leaders within universities whom can lead to a higher level of contribution and renew public trust (Middlehurst 2008). However, the nature of academic leadership is contested and there is a wider leadership problem in higher education being shaped by responses to the changing purposes and values of higher education (Smith and Adams 2008). As pointed out by Bolden (Bolden 2004) there is no widely accepted definition of leadership, no consensus on how best to develop leaders and leadership, and little evidence of the impact of leadership on performance and productivity. There is not enough known about what makes for an effective leader within a university and consequently what can make them ineffective (Bryman 2007). However, findings from numerous studies illustrate that university leadership theory and practice needs to understand and respond to the specific institutional and societal context within which the leader is located (Middlehurst 2008).

University managers and leaders, like the rest of the institution, are having to cope with rapid changes within the broader society (insert cross reference to society section) that have fundamental implications for the shape and role of higher education. Within contexts shaped by government and industry university administrators are struggling to find sustainable competitive advantage in a system of mass higher education and declining public investment (Goodyear and Ellis 2008). University leadership are facing the problems that arise from two competing and even contradictory needs: public accountability, and institutional autonomy and diversity (Smith and Adams 2008). The need to address public accountability, occasionally or often at the expense of academic values, creates a distance between academic staff – focusing on academic values – and leadership – focusing on compliance and accountability (Radloff 2008). There is an inevitable tension between leadership aligned with creativity, and management aligned with constrained resources and accountability requirements (Middlehurst 2008).

In response to these conditions of rapid change university management has resorted to managerialism, the application of highly modernist practices in which efficiency is the bottom line (Blackmore and Sachs 2000). It has been observed that just as management theorists were pointing to universities as possible prototypes for the organizations of the future, many universities were adopting a management model rooted in an earlier age and a different organizational setting (Middlehurst 2008). The increasing complexity and specialization of functions within universities has expanded the role of administrators and blurred the boundary between policy-making and policy implementation, tasks that should remain separate (Middlehurst 2008).

Further complicating the task of leadership is the observation that trust in senior management by academics is crumbling (Radloff 2008; Smith and Adams 2008). There are high levels of cynicism toward management’s religious fervour for the tools of managerialism – such as strategic planning, visionary leadership and quality assurance – and yet academics are expected to adhere to these as loyal corporate citizens (Blackmore and Sachs 2000). Central to the tension between these cultures is the distinct forms and divergent understandings of the same forms of language that reflect and promote different perceptions of reality and value (Findlow 2008). This is increasingly problematic as trust in senior management is a predictor of staff commitment to the university (Winefield, Boyd et al. 2008) and therefore of their willingness to engage within institutional priorities such as improving the quality of learning and teaching (Radloff 2008). A survey of UK academic staff found significantly lower commitment levels, with staff particularly concerned by the lack of value and trust they perceived from the organizations (Tytherleigh, Webb et al. 2005).

When it comes to e-learning university administrators find their own users for e-learning that are largely unencumbered by evidence of pedagogical benefit or even by concerns for improvements in the quality of educational outcomes (Goodyear and Ellis 2008). Senior management often perceive infrastructure and information technology as costs to be minimised (Jones 2004). Information technology is seen by university management as a branding tool, as providing a high-tech veneer onto low-tech practices, and as a means to reach hitherto physically inaccessible but potentially lucrative student markets (Selwyn 2007). Few administrative staff adequately understand the nature and implications of digital technology and university leaders feel uncomfortable dealing with related issues (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Perhaps not the best foundation for a group that will inevitably shape the institutional implementation of e-learning.


Blackmore, J. and J. Sachs (2000). "Paradoxes of leadership and management in higher education in times of change: some Australian reflections." International Journal of Leadership in Education 3(1): 1-16.

Bolden, R. (2004). What is leadership? Exeter, University of Exeter and SW of England Regional Development Agency.

Bryman, A. (2007). Effective Leaderhip in Higher Education: Summary of findings, Leadership Foundation for HIgher Education.

Clegg, S., A. Hudson, et al. (2003). "The Emperor’s new clothes: globalisation and e-learning in higher education." British Journal of Sociology of Education 24(1): 39-53.

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.

Dutton, W., P. Cheong, et al. (2004). "The social shaping of a virtual learning environment: The case of a University-wide course management system." Electronic Journal of e-Learning 2(1): 69-80.

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

Goodyear, P. and R. A. Ellis (2008). "University students’ approaches to learning: rethinking the place of technology." Distance Education 29(2): 141-152.

Jones, D. (2004). "The conceptualisation of e-learning: Lessons and implications." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(1): 47-55.

Lian, A. (2000). Knowledge transfer and technology in education: Toward a complete learning environment. Educational Technology & Society. 3.

Middlehurst, R. (2008). "Not enough science or not enough learning? Exploring the gaps between leadership theory and practice." Higher Education Quarterly 62(4): 322-339.

Radloff, A. (2008). Engaging staff in quality learning and teaching: What’s a Pro Vice Chancellor to do? HERDSA’2008.

Selwyn, N. (2007). "The use of computer technology in university teaching and learning: a critical perspective." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 23(2): 83-94.

Smith, D. and J. Adams (2008). "Academics or executives? Continuity and change in the roles of pro-vice-chancellors." Higher Education Quarterly 62(4): 340-357.

Tytherleigh, M. Y., C. Webb, et al. (2005). "Occupational stress in UK higher education institutions: a comparative study of all staff categories." Higher Education Research & Development 24(1): 41-61.

Winefield, A., C. Boyd, et al. (2008). Job stress in university staff: An Australian research study. Bowen Hills, Australia, Australian Academic Press.

Occupational stress in Australian University Staff

Currently reading Winefield et al (2003) as part of writing my thesis, thought I’d share some of the points and reflections here.

University well-being and staff well-being

The paper abstract ends with the following

At the aggregate level, self-report measures of psychological well-being were highly correlated with objective measures of university well-being (investment income, student–staff ratios, and recent cuts in staffing levels and in government operating grants).

A finding that is particularly relavent/worrying given recent events at my current institution.

Stress and control

Quotes a “demand-control theory of job stress” that suggests jobs with high levels of control/autonomy should not be stressful, even if jobs are demanding. Stressful jobs are those with low control.

The rise of minimum course website standards, fixed and external deadlines and many other impacts of managerialisation seem to be taking a traditionally high control job back to low control.

In fact that seems to the question the paper is looking at, it appears academics are losing control, which means that levels of stress should be rising. Ahh, this paper reports results from the first survey – not yet longitudinal. However, the work seems to have made it into book form.


Apparently paper-based surveys with general demographic information, code identifier (to allow longitudinal comparison), psychological strain (using 12 item General Health Questionnaire) and job satisfaction (15 items from Warr, Cook and Wall (1979))

17 universities participated, response rate of 25% for a total of 8732 noncasual employees – general and academic.


  • Groups showing highest level of psychological strain were academic teaching and research staff and academic teaching only staff.
  • No difference between men and women.
  • % of people who might be possible cases of psychological disorders
    • Australian population – 12%.
    • Academic staff – 43%
    • General staf – 37%
  • Groups with lowest job satisfaction – teaching only, followed by teaching and research group.
  • Men had lower satisfaction than women.


The research method was based on fairly standard survey measures. I believe that the context at my host institution is only decreasing the level of autonomy for individual teaching staff. So an application of this survey to current staff should reveal some interesting results. Particularly, if it is done across the board for all staff, including those at campuses which are employed as casual staff. i.e. those that have even less control.

Such information, if gathered appropriately might provide some ammunition to support arguments to the hierarchy for changes in actions.


Winefield, A. H., N. Gillespie, et al. (2003). “Occupational stress in Australian university staff: Results from a national survey.” International Journal of Stress Management 10(1): 51-63.

When senior management lose the plot

I’m currently working on the “Leaders and managers” part of the People component of the Ps Framework for my thesis. As part of the reading for that section I came across the following quote. It turns out I won’t use it directly in the thesis and I need to save it for future work/reference. I’m also taking the opportunity to track down and record a bit more information about it.

To me, it summarises the key problem and point about university leadership. Over the years I’ve been an observer of too much “eating of the seed-corn”.

The quote

I came across the quote in Radloff (2008), it is

New-style university managements are, actually, counter-productive. If you piss off your teachers and researchers you are eating the seed-corn, selling the family silver, sapping the life blood…Managerial cynicism is rampant in higher education as never before. They (THEY) don’t care about the poor bloody infantry…People are fed up, they are glad to give up and retire; they are going into internal exile, clock-watching, minimalising their effort.

I’ve just found a more complete version of the quote here(McCaffery 2004, p2)

Bleakly observed, the local institution seems to have thrown in the towel. Degree-factory rhetoric is all we hear. New-style university managements, are, actually, counter-productive. If you piss off your teachers and researchers you are eating the seed-corn, selling the family silver, sapping the life-blood. You would think our institutions were suicidal, the way they treat us – with the bad pay they collude in, the abolition of tenure they have agreed to, the rash economisings by engineering early retirements of good people, with the weekly questionnaires and the constant abuse of our time and energy and their acceptance of piss-poor TQA-inspired formalisms and abomination of abominations, their utter short-termism (their kow-towing to the silly time-scales of the RAE bods, their iniquitous short-term contracts – you can have your job back at the end of the long vacation if you ask nicely). Managerial cynicism is rampant in higher education as never before. They (THEY) don’t care about the poor bloody infantry….People are fed up, they are glad to give up and retire; they are going into internal exile, clock-watching, minimalising their effort. The government-inspired way, the neo-managerial way, is a mess none of us can survive on.

Rambling thoughts

Even if this is seen as a diatribe by a POPO (Geoff Scott’s acronym for a “pissed-off and passed over” member of staff), I feel this is not the example of lone ranger. The feeling is quite widespread, depending on the institution. Even if it is only a perception, it’s an important perception that is going to limit what a university can do.

Any chance of improving learning and teaching in such a context does not have a high probability.

I feel that this perception arises because the new managerial approach focuses too much on level 2 of reflective alignment. It focuses too much on “what management does”. They pass policies, minimum standards etc and expect it to be adopted. Instead they are eating the seed-corn.

These folk need to stop doing things and start understanding and directly aiding “what academics do”. For me, that means institutional attention to institution wide projects like ERPs, LMSes, graduate attributes, minimum standards, eportfolios etc. are all destined to make things worse. As they all ignore the details of the context, of what the academics do in favour of an abstract, institutional level understanding that tends to focus on what management does.


Based on the context for the longer version of the quote it’s from an Oxford Professor of English and was published in the Times Higher Education supplement.

Apparently the Times Higher Education supplement’s archives are not in the Google archive. I had to go to the THE’s site to get the article link.


McCaffery, P. (2004). The higher education manager’s handbook, Routledge.

Radloff, A. (2008). Engaging staff in quality learning and teaching: What’s a Pro Vice Chancellor to do? HERDSA’2008.

Installing Moodle – first step in BAM/MoodleAM

Having received approval to port BAM into Moodle, the first step is to get a Moodle development environment installed on my laptop. I’m meant to be getting a new one this week, however, local IT hasn’t been forthcoming in when this is going to be available. Can’t wait, I only have two days a week to work on this, and today is the last one this week.

What’s the advice

So, what’s the advice from the Moodle community for getting started? I’m going to follow the process embedded in the Intro to Moodle Programming course. What follows is some ad hoc reflections as I’m working through the course.

Unit 1

Found the default text size on the information for “Getting started and General concepts” quite small. Must be getting old.

Okay, at least this has some description of the terminology and “structure” of Moodle, stuff I’ve been looking for for some time.

  • Divides Moodle into “system level” and “course level”.
  • The interface consists of
    • sections, and
      This is the stuff that goes down the middle of the interface and ends up with a Moodle page being one long list of stuff (bad IMHO). The content of these sections contain text or activities.
    • blocks.
      Created by programmers, installed at a system level and then can be chosen by teaching staff to be added to a course site, usually down the left/right hand side of the page.
  • Moodle modules provide the code to control instructional activities – a bit different from a block. The course focuses on block development.

Apparently Moodle is big on accessibility and there is a call for developers to pay attention to this. Not sure it’s quite as big on simplicity and design….

Seems to suggest that Moodle is OO, at least points folk to OOP descriptions.

Points to a couple of tutorials that I’ll need to review (mostly PHP):

The navigation interface to/back from this overview is not great. Using the breadcrumbs I’ve ended up in a different place than from where I started.

Unit 2 – creating and working in the dev environment

🙂 Vim is included in the Integrated development Environment diagram. At least some of the Moodle folk are real men!. There’s even guidlines for settting Vim up for Moodle development. Funny how small things make you feel better about a system.

Time to install a bunch of stuff – much of which shows how long it’s been since I was a “developer”:

  • Firebug
  • Selenium and Molybdenum – though I’m not sure how much I’ll use these.
    Not sure if I really want/need this. I already have versions running, perhaps this is time to move on, or at least keep Webfuse and Moodle totally separate. Yep, didn’t like that MySQL was already running – mysqladmin shutdown, shutdown Apache and all is good..

Misc information

  • Document root – /Applications/XAMPP/htdocs
  • http://localhost/phpmyadmin/

vim configured for Moodle/PHP – first hello Moodle script created. Time for lunch.

BAM into Moodle approved – starting the process

Received formal institutional approval yesterday to commence the process of porting BAM into Moodle. This has two implications that spring to mind:

  1. I get to learn a new development environment; and
    For the last 13-15 years I’ve been doing my development in Perl. In the last 10 years or so, nice OO perl within a framework of my own devising. Now I have take a step backwards to PHP, and from what little I hear fairly primitive procedural PHP.

    I remember having a Perl versus PHP argument through proxy with a “young” developer about 7 or so years ago. I thought PHP was a recipe for horrible code – procedural, mixing HTML and code….uggh. And guess what I’m doing now?

  2. There’s finally a fairly clear project/direction for the new position.

Three of the accountabilities for the new position include: relationships, communicate and public and continuous improvement. As part of fulfilling these accountabilities I plan to document the process of porting BAM into Moodle on this blog via the BAM category.

It is possible, that as I learn more about Moodle, that the notion of BAM will change significantly in terms of implementation. i.e. BAM may not become a stand alone module. If there are other tools/services within Moodle that can provide the functionality (and I become aware of them), I’ll lean towards using them.

The plan is to have this completed in time for it to be used from around mid-February 2010. Hopefully earlier.

Predictably irrational – implications for L&T at Universities

Over the last few days I’ve finished reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely a professor at Duke University in behavioural economics. What follows is a bit of a summary. In short, I enjoyed it and it’s reinforced an interest in questioning some of the assumptions that seem to underpin the current practice of L&T at Universities.

If you want more the Amazon page has reviews and more details. There is also a Wikipedia page. Lastly, the author has set up a site. There’s also a couple of online talks by the author including a TED talk and another on YouTube

What’s it about?

The title of the book summarises the book’s argument that human beings are not rational decision makers. In fact, we are irrational decision makers and we are even predictably irrational. i.e. the irrationality is systemic. The book draws on a range of experiments by the author and others to illustrate a number of aspects (or in the author’s words “forces”) of this predictable irrationality.

An important point to make is that we are all predictably irrational. It’s not just novice decision makers that are irrational, experts are as well.

The other major argument in the book is that traditional economics (and most of us in normal life) assume we are rational. This less than firm foundation is then used to derive guidelines, theories and rules of thumb by which to live our lives and make decisions. Guidelines that don’t work. Instead there is value in understanding and basing these guidelines and what is known about the predictable irrationality of human beings.

To a large extent, this is what the author’s field – behavioural economics – is about.

So what?

My current interest is in how to improve/innovation learning and teaching within a university (yea, somewhat sad as an interest, but that’s what they pay me for). For some time, I have believed that there has been a mismatch between the methods and approaches being used to improve L&T at a university and the nature of the individuals involved. This, admittedly populist, work gives me an overview of one field of research that is providing an empirical and theoretical foundation for this belief. It’s opening up further research and reading.

More importantly it provides a basis for an alternate approach for developing ideas about how to improve L&T that are different and hopefully more effective. An approach that believes

that people are susceptible to irrelevant influences from their immediate environment (which we call context effects), irrelevant emotions, shortsightedness, and other forms of irrationality

The book, like any book, isn’t without it’s flaws. For example, one of the reviews on Amazon complains about the experiments all mostly being done on students at top-flight American universities, rather than on a diversity of people. But none of the flaws are fatal.

Some examples from the book

The following are a few summaries of forces that effect rationality that are described within the book and that I feel may have some connection with the question of improving L&T at universities (actually, I’m only really currently interested in my current university).

Expectations of success

One of the chapters talks about the power of price and describes a range of experiments in which groups of students are given a special drink before performing some quizzes. Students who are given the impression that the drink is expensive do better than those who believe it is cut price.

Of interest to education, at least for me, is the last experiment in this sequence. In this experiment both groups were shown a range of bogus quotes/references suggesting that the drink can improve mental functioning and result in improved performance on puzzles. The bogus quotes also suggested that there were over 50 scientific studies supporting these claims.

Reading these quotes improved the performance of both groups (full and cut price). The implication being that an expectation of success can breed success.

When I read this section I thought back to those academics I’ve seen begin their courses with the following

Everyone, take a look at the person you are sitting next to you. By the end of term, only one of you will pass the course.

The assumption is that this will motivate the students to do better. I’ve always though, and most have agreed, that it would more likely de-motivate them.

In the last few times I taught a course I turned this around and told the students that each and everyone of them could obtain the top mark, if that’s what they wanted to. I would tell them that I’m here to help you get that top mark, but you have to help.

This was driven by the “communicate high expectations” principle from Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. But this seems to give another bit of support.

In my current context, I see a lot of difficulty with the act of successfully designing and delivering a course. A difficulty which I believe is probably decreasing any expectations of success. Looking at how this can be addressed, would seem important.


Associated with expectations, are stereotypes

Research on stereotypes shows not only that we react differently when we have a stereotype of a certain group of people, but also that stereotyped people themselves react differently when they are aware of the label that they are forced to wear (in psychological parlance, they are “primed” with this label).(Ariely, 2008 p169)

I’ve seen staff develop and be guided by stereotypes of their students, I’ve even suffered from this. However, recently I’ve been observing a different group of people with stereotypes, or at least on their way to building stereotypes. The managers of academics and the professional support staff (e.g. information technology folk, quality assurance folk) telling war stories and jokes about useless academics getting things wrong or being willful.

Based on the research in this book, I fear how these stereotypes are influencing the decisions being made by these folk around L&T. I also know that most academics are aware of these stereotypes and I fear how this is impacting upon them and their practice of L&T.

Social and economic norms

One of the chapters talks about norms. It suggests that there are two sets of norms: social and economic. The case of love is used as an illustration. Within social norms you don’t pay for it and you expect it to be based on love. Within economic norms, payment is required and the question of love doesn’t arise. (a simple summary).

The argument is that

When social and market norms collide, trouble sets in. (Ariely, 2008, p69)

. The book describes a series of experiments in which it is found that participants will work harder when operating under non-monetary social norms than for money under economic norms.

The book also references some experiments around a day care centre in Israel to demonstrate that the introduction of economic norms has long-term effects. A quick summary of the case:

  • Day care centre had a problem with parent picking their kids up late.
  • A fine was introduced, if you were late you had to pay the fine.
  • The introduction of the fine increased the prevalence of late pickups.
  • Parent’s started to see the fine as a fee and consequently felt less guilty about late pickups. They were paying for a service. They no longer felt guilty about transgressing a social norm.
  • After removing the fine, late pickups increased a little more. The social norms had been left behind for the economic.

A lot has been written about how the university world is being invaded by economic norms. The old social norms are being replaced. It doesn’t take much to see a potential connection with the above, both for students and staff.

Arbritrary coherence and anchors

A chapter titled “The Fallacy of Supply and Demand” argues that most of our decisions are governed by arbitrary coherence and can be influenced by anchors.

The basic idea is that rather than making independent decisions, each time we make a decision there will be a coherence with previous decisions. In n example from economics, if we paid $X for a house in city Y, if we move to city Z, we’ll still want/expect to pay around $X for a house.

Our decisions are “anchored” by previous decisions and this can be achieved even by unrelated figures. This paper in the Journal of Surgical Education describes an experiment conducted with medical students.

For improving L&T this connects, at least for me, with the observation that most applications of technology to teaching are examples of either horseless carriages or old wine in new skins. Ariely suggests reflection on previous decisions as an important step to escape this

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps it’s time to inventory the imprints and anchors in our own life. Even if they once were completely reasonable, are they still reasonable? Once the old choices are reconsidered, we can open ourselves to new decisions – and the new opportunities of a new day. That seems to make sense. (Ariely, 2008, pp44-45)


One of the humorous suggestions from the book that most people will comment upon is this

What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming singles event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial eatures), but is slightly less attractive (-you). (Ariely, 2008, p15)

This is brought back to the observation that we compare things when trying to make decisions. We don’t judge things solely on their own merit, we compare them with other example. A new job in a new university with the current job in our current university.

Apart from this inability to avoid comparison, there’s another important point

we not only tend to compare things within one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable – and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily (Ariely, 2008 p 8)

i.e. if you go to a singles event with a slightly uglier version of yourself, you are much more likely to be selected by the other singles as it is easier for them to compare the two similar objects, than the others.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York, Harper Collins.

Chickering, A. W. and Z. F. Gamson (1987). “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.” AAHE Bulletin 39(7): 3-7.

BAM and the Chinese "firewall"

BAM (blog aggregation management) is a tool used by a number of CQU courses. It’s mainly used to help staff observe and mark individual student reflective journals. The journals are hosted on freely available blogs that the students set up and then register with BAM. Normally, we advise students to use for their blog, but there’s now a small problem. Any suggestions?

The problem is that one of the students in one of the courses is currently studying from China. China has restricted access to english blog websites as part of its regulation of Internet access. The student has asked if it’s ok to submit reflections directly.


An obvious solution would be to use a blog engine from within China and register it with BAM. This should, theoretically, work fine from a technical perspective. However, the language issue might be interesting.

The problem is helping the student find such an engine (only a minority of students are familiar enough with the net/blogs to be able to solve this problem themselves, with ease). So, does anyone know of any blog engines within China the student could use?

Stepping back a bit more, there is also the question about whether or not this is the best solution for the student. One of the assumptions about the design of BAM is that there is value in having the student’s blogs freely available for others to see. In this context, does that value remain?

I have no idea about what it is like to live within China under the current Internet regulation. However, given some of the struggles I’ve seen my academic colleagues in Australia have with being open in their blogging, I can see how a student within China might be somewhat reluctant.

Integrating BAM into Moodle – Can it be done?

Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) is a little project of mine that’s been going since 2006. It’s an example of, what I think, is a more appropriate product model for e-learning systems – essentially small pieces loosely joined/best of breed/PLE. Currently BAM is based on the infrastructure provided by Webfuse, another project of mine (which embodies and enables the better product model).

Trouble is that come 2010 Webfuse is history as my current institution cans Webfuse in favour of Moodle. There are about 5 or 6 courses at that institution that currently use BAM and many more that could probably use it. So, if there is to be a future for BAM it will have to be ported to Moodle. This is the first step in checking to see if this can be done. It will be subsequently be followed by whether or not it should be done and whether it will be done.

The following isn’t a real blog post. It’s more a unstructured collection of ad hoc, formative reflections as I confuse myself diving through the Moodle world as a ill-informed newbie.

How do you find out developing something for Moodle?

Each system embodies a way of looking at the world, a set of terms and concepts. Essentially I need to get some sort of insight into its structure, language and world view. From there I can make some vaguely informed decision as to whether the BAM worldview has any hope of living nicely with the Moodle world-view. I need some resources.

Well, the Moodle site has this pointer towards development resources. Of course, there’s also the constructivist approach recommended by Dan Poltawski. There’s a lot to be said for that approach, but it’s a little heavyweight for my current requirements.

What other stuff is there on the Moodle main site?

  • FAQS! There’s a FAQ for development.
    But most of that seems to be low level code related stuff. I’m looking for a bigger picture.
  • There are some pointers to information about creating new modules or plugins. – apparently there are 22 different types of plugins.
  • the manuals
  • The coding guide

The following list of resources is something I’ll probably have to come back to at a later date when/if coding commences.

Absence of definitions or an overview

I’m about 4 or 5 hours into my examination of Moodle and whether BAM might go into it. The biggest problem I have is that I haven’t been able to find an overview. Something that defines terms such as blocks, activity modules etc and shows how they all link together.

All of the developer docs like “how to develop a block” just leap straight into answering the question. None seem to offer a description or pointer to a description of what a block is and how it compares to other components.

This set of powerpoint slides (by Sam Marshall) on creating Moodle modules seems to be the best so far.

Perhaps this Moodle Programming course might help fill the hole.

Nature of modules

Each module has it’s own directory. Will include a list of files, directories for specific purposes.

Each module can specify capabilities – who can do what?

Existing work

As others have pointed out, Moodle already has blogs and there is also a project currently looking at improving the Moodle blog component. Actually, that’s a 2008 project. The project blog just seems to peter out – no final “it’s done” post. However, according to this it completed successfully and contributed code which is available as patches and may also be merged into Moodle 2.0

Looking into that project brings me to a thread on the Moodle site (you may have to login to see the thread) about the blog component. It starts off with a post from Martin Dougiamass explaining some of the initial rationale.

That post reinforces the point that there is a strong model underpinning Moodle and how it should work that drives the design decisions. At least on an initial read, the aim of Blogs in Moodle was to provide a blog like facility that fit within the Moodle model. The idea of integrating BAM into Moodle comes from a different perspective and there might be some interesting clashes of perspective/assumptions.

An assumption behind BAM is that you actually want the students to be posting their comments on the open web, to enable some of the serendipity related fun to happen. Moodle appears to be based on an assumption of a much tighter integration.

What type of plugin?

If implemented, I’m assuming BAM will be some kind of plugin and one of those listed here. In the following, I’m documenting my investigations about which type BAM might be.

From the initial list, without looking forward, I’m guessing that BAM might be or be related to one of the following:

  • Activity module
  • Assignment type
    This looks potentially interesting/related. BAM is mostly used at the moment as an assignment. So it’s inclusion here probably fits current operation. However, currently BAM is separated from the assignment stuff which allows a bit more flexibility….mmm. There are examples of non standard assignment types. Which are some sort of plugin to the existing assignment component.
  • Gradebook or Portfolio plugins

What’s next?

Well, I should perhaps follow the published guidelines. Completing the first step – make sure it’s a good idea – is first. I’ll need to

  • Check to see if the blog improvements offer something close to BAM.
  • Dig around a bit more in Moodle to see if BAM can be implemented.
  • Ask a question on the forums.

Academics – the next part of the People section

The following is the next part of the People section for chapter 2 of my thesis. The People section was started a week ago with this post. This one takes up the task of saying something about academic staff, subsequent and soon to be completed sections will look at management, academic staff developers and technology staff.

While I think some of the stuff in the following is important and overlooked, I just can’t help feeling that it is, not to put to fine a point on it, crap. But hopefully it is good enough for the thesis. Happy reading.

Academic staff

A common definition for the term ‘academic’ is not simple to arrive at as the characteristics that define an academic are increasingly problematic (Williams 2008). Defining what it is to be an academic is not a given, but is a matter of dynamic relationships between social and epistemological interests and structures (Barnett 2000). In addition, the nature academic work has changed with time. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the USA academic work included tasks associated with the supervision of dormitory accommodations and ministerial work in the community (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006). In spite of these problems this section seeks to provide an overview of some of what is known about academics, teaching, learning and e-learning.

While change in the tasks academics perform continues and there is increasing diversity between academics, there is a minimal, shared understanding that the occupational role of an academic involves two distinctive responsibilities within the context of a university: research or scholarship, and teaching (Williams 2008). It is through the performance of these tasks that academic faculty members can be said to be the essential production force of universities (Xu and Meyer 2007). While fairly common, the balance between these two tasks suffers from the same temporal change and increasing diversity as definitions of academics. In comparing the distribution of effort by academic staff between the early 1970s and late 1980s, Finkelstein, Seal and Schuster (1998) reveal a drop in the amount of time spent teaching – from 60-66% to 54% – and an increase in time researching – 14% to 20%. This in contrast to the increasing pressure within this new century to refocus academic attention on student learning (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006).

Calls to recognise the profession of teaching as the central role of the academic can be traced back to the arguments of many mid-19th century reformers at Oxford who saw such recognition as crucial for both the survival of the university and of academe as a career (Engel 1975). There have been questions about what profession an academic fulfils. Is an academic a discipline expert/researcher or a teacher or educator. Piper (1992) suggests academics are discipline experts. This conclusion is based on academics generally lacking any teacher training and the lack of status arising from them demonstrating teaching qualifications, knowledge and experience. In addition, when academics leave universities it is generally to return to discipline-based roles and not that of educators (Piper 1992). Taylor (1999) suggests that when it comes to teaching academics are craft workers who learn to teach largely through imitation. It is as researchers, as discipline experts, that academics display professional attributes, not as teachers (Taylor 1999). Similarly, academics are typically not trained as teachers or course designers, but as disciplinary experts (Ziegenfuss and Lawler 2008). Academics come to teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning (Weimer 2007).

Academics are discipline professionals, not teaching professionals. While there are growing trends towards short teacher training courses for academics, it is unreasonable on that basis alone to expect a comparable level of competence between research specialisations and teaching (Booth and Anderberg 2005). Graduate students – academics in training – traditionally do not receive instruction on how to teach (Folkers 2005). Where training in teaching is available, many advisors of these students actively discourage them from engaging in such training (Stice, Felder et al. 2000). The graduate student experience appears to socialize aspiring academics primarily to a vision of academic work that emphasises research and disciplinary expertise, in spite of rhetoric about the growing importance of student learning (Austin 2002). The majority of an academic’s knowledge of how to teach is gained while teaching through observation, imitation and trial and error (Passmore 2000).

Academic interest and focus on teaching is further impacted by exposure to ambiguous, even contradictory, role expectations. Academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger 2005). There is no question that funded research and publication of results in scholarly journals is the dominant criteria in universities world-wide and this is, at least a contributing, if not causal factor in this limitations of university learning and teaching (Knapper 2003). While a review of promotion criteria and weightings from UK universities found widespread adoption of formal parity between teaching and research for mid-range academics, it found that promotion to senior ranks were based almost exclusively on research excellence and did not allow applications based on teaching activities (Parker 2008). Fairweather (2005) found that spending more time teaching in the classroom remains a negative influence on academic pay and that the trend is worsening most rapidly in institutions whose central missions focuses on teaching.

Through their position as discipline experts, academics possess high levels of scientific capital and consequently have been difficult to manage (Kolsaker 2008). A difficulty increased by conceptions of academic freedom that see it as freedom for the academic to speak their minds, teach in accordance with their own interests and to enjoy security of tenure (Nixon, Beattie et al. 1998). Individual academics are, by definition, very autonomous individuals and there has generally been no tradition for tightly controlling the actions of faculty members within universities (Waeraas and Solbakk 2009). Academics are knowledge workers (Jones, Gregor et al. 2003). For knowledge work, the means of production is the knowledge held by knowledge workers and it is totally portable and an enormous capital asset (Drucker 2001). Consequently, academics have considerable autonomy about how they perform tasks, a fact that enables and encourages diversity. It would be difficult to find two academics who take identical approaches to teaching the same content (Mishra 2005). Academics recognize no boss and see themselves as individual entrepreneurs with little desire for collective action and little interest in the larger university (Dearlove 2002).

At the same time academics wield a relatively large amount of power, including the ability to set, or at least influence, organizational processes (Folkers 2005). It is unlikely that any reform within a university will succeed without the support of academics (White and Myers 2001). Since technology use continues to remain an individual choice, how faculty members perceive and use technologies is important (Xu and Meyer 2007). Teaching academic staff are at the heart of the on-going negotiation between teaching, learning and new technology (Goodson and Mangan 1995). They are key to the successful integration of educational technology in the teaching and learning process (Zellweger 2005).

New technologies at most enable rather than dictate change (John and La Velle 2004). While technology may be the stimulus, the essential matters are complex and will be the purview of academics (Oblinger, Barone et al. 2001). The success of e-learning is primarily a result of faculty buy in (Lynch 2002) and the extent to which faculty are supported as they develop innovative approaches to using technology in teaching. Addressing the concerns of faculty is an important factor (Nichols 2007). Improved integration of technology can be facilitated by understanding current faculty trends and issues and by adapting specific strategies suited to the needs and contexts of faculty within their individual institutions (Howell, Saba et al. 2004).

Technology is restructuring the fabric of higher education and influencing the work done by academics (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Teaching staff are often suspicious of any changes to traditional pedagogies and are often expected to adopt innovations whilst under significant workload (Jones 2008). E-learning can directly challenge traditional pedagogies and consequently are likely to generate resistance (Folkers 2005). Several writers have described how the lack of compatibility with existing pedagogies may cause academics to resist using technology in learning and teaching (Holden and Wedman 1993). Left to their own paradigms academics will generally use their university’s course management system as a supplement to their preferred teaching style (Ullman and Rabinowitz 2004). Academics only use e-learning tools if they are aligned with their beliefs about teaching and learning (Elgort 2005).

As mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) research into teaching within higher education has developed a rich body of knowledge that links the quality of student learning outcomes with the conceptions of learning and a link between the conceptions of teaching held by academics and their approaches to teaching (Kember and Kwan 2000; Norton, Richardson et al. 2005; Eley 2006; Gonzalez 2009). A relationship captured in Figure 2.1 adapted from Trigwell (2001). The conception of learning held by teachers has a major influence on the planning of courses, the development of teaching strategies and ultimately on the what and how students learn (Alexander 2001). In order to change the way teaching staff approach teaching, it is necessary, and very difficult, to change their conceptions of teaching and learning (Trigwell and Prosser 1996).

Trigwell's model of teaching

The predominant form of learning within universities remain the teacher-centred, classroom education (Piccoli, Ahmad et al. 2000). The majority of existing academics have not studied using a Learning Management System (LMS) nor have they seen how e-learning can be used in a range of teaching situations (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Consequently, their experiences and values are predominantly those of the face-to-face paradigm (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Universities are replete with resources in the form of intelligent individual who are rarely appropriately directed to pedagogical innovation nor are self-motivated to radically transform their teaching (Salmon 2005).

One result of this tendency has been for academics to be characterised as barriers to e-learning and labelled technology averse, luddites and digital immigrants (Xu and Meyer 2007). In opposition to this view are observations that find academics using computers in both their everyday lives and their research. Academics make extensive use of technology in research and scholarship, in many cases this use drives the evolution of the technology to meet their particular needs (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Xu and Meyer (2007) report on a 1998 survey that shows 70% of academics had a computer at home. Jones and Johnson-Yale (2005) report on a survey of over 2000 academics that finds that academics have long-term exposure to the Internet and computer use.

There are a number of explanations arising from the literature that offers possible reasons for the mismatch between academics’ general use of technology and their limited or non-existent use of technology for teaching. The effort required to master new technologies, contend with glitches, or to bend their teaching to fit technologies provided on campus hinders rather than helps their teaching (Jones and Johnson-Yale 2005). In terms of technology, McGill and Hobbs (2008) found that even when academics perceived high levels of institutional support for e-learning they were less than satisfied as they perceived that the learning management system did not support their teaching activities.

Barriers to instructor acceptance of e-learning has been categorized into: personal, attitudinal, and organizational (Pajo and Wallace 2001). The time required to learn about new technology has been suggested as an important, and in some cases, the most significant factor inhibiting use (Pajo and Wallace 2001; Newton 2003). Career-minded academics are skeptical of investing time in e-learning believing the effort to have low returns both financially and intellectually (Ruth 2006). This is, at least in part, due to universities marginalizing the importance of e-learning within the promotion and tenure process (Schell 2004). Green (2002) identifies a continuing irony of campus efforts to promote e-learning is the fact that few institutions provide formal recognition and reward for faculty efforts. Often, personal satisfaction may be the greatest, even only, reward for the adoption of new technologies (Jones and Johnson-Yale 2005). It remains that case that in the majority of institutions, recognition and promotion arises from research activity and not innovative teaching developments (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006).

Issues associated with academic staff adoption of e-learning can be correlated with the Rogers (1995) diffusion of innovations (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Where the rate of adoption is driven by a complex combination of factors including the nature of the institution and associated social systems, the efforts by organizational change agents, the type of communication channels used to share information, how e-learning is perceived by academics and the type of innovation decision they are allowed (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003). Perceptions are influenced by other factors including demographic and professional characteristics (Xu and Meyer 2007). Beyond this it is possible that two individuals could, and usually do, perceive the a given innovation differently (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003).

Spotts (1999) found that faculty decide to use technology if they perceive technology to provide a relative advantage in terms of improving student learning, enhancing instruction or making their job less demanding. However, for some staff e-learning is perceived to be of lower quality, perhaps due to subjective attitudes toward an approach with which they are uncomfortable, unfamiliar and which is perceived to threaten their job (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003). E-learning is also perceived to bring pain factors that minimise any relative advantage (Black, Beck et al. 2007) such as excessive preparation time, conflict over intellectual property rights, lack of recognition, and technical, operational and administrative difficulties.

Much of e-learning has been driven by early adopters who were technology champions, however, there is evidence to suggest that many academics are reluctant to adopt e-learning and yet may feel pressure from their institutions (McGill and Hobbs 2008). In the early 1990s, Geoghegan (1994) suggested that this second wave is slow in adopting technology not because of an aversion to technology, but due to an aversion to risk, inadequate support and the lack of a compelling reason to disrupt existing practice. The ways in which academics experience their work inhibit them adopting what the research consensus suggests are ways to be better teachers (Knight and Trowler 2000). There is a yearning for safety which underpins much of what an academic does in research – filling in the details of dominant research paradigms – and teaching – reliance on pedagogic methods that give both teacher and student an easy time (Barnett 2000). Amongst a list of factors limiting adoption of technology Stewart (2008) lists the following fears: technology taking away real learning, job loss, technophboia, and loss of autonomy through conformity.

Much of the e-learning literature contains an assumption that if the virtues of e-learning are demonstrated then academics will adopt it (Oslington 2005). Learning to teach in new ways requires more than applying new theoretical knowledge disseminated using formal modes, it requires a culture in which innovative teaching is expected and rewarded, where teams or departments replace isolated individuals as the unit of change, strategies which involve collaboration and reflection and support through encouragement, recognition and resources (Johnston 1996). Academics are not likely to simply adopt e-learning if its virtues are demonstrated, instead adoption is only likely if it is within their interest to do so (Oslington 2005). The limited quality and quantity of e-learning within higher education (insert cross reference to Past Experience) is often not due to a set of easily overcome deficiencies, barriers or misunderstandings, instead, it is a product of the wider game of higher education and the strategic interests of those who play it (Selwyn 2007).

It is then not surprising that faculty may be more willing to adopt e-learning if they are not forced to quickly abandon long-established practices (Howell, Saba et al. 2004). The invoking of an earlier pedagogic regime within a new environment is an attempt to give academics reassurances of stability and continuity (Cousin, Deepwell et al. 2004). The ability for academics to draw on their own pedagogic repertoires, practical wisdom and relative control to shape the ways innovation is implemented should limit reliance on over-deterministic accounts of global tendencies and focus attention to take account of local conditions and the range of possible responses to particular pressures (Clegg, Hudson et al. 2003). The interpersonal and cultural issues may well overshadow the, by comparison, simple issues of funding and technological infrastructure (Folkers 2005).

Self-identified change is a key component of successful implementation, while change that is perceived as imposed is not (Hersey and Blanchard 1988). A gentle and affirming change strategy, with an emphasis on interpersonal and social activity, can minimise the anxiety and uncertainty academics tend to associate with change and lead to effective diffusion (Nichols 2007). Rather than focus on the techniques and technologies associated with teaching, initiatives aimed at developing academic practice should focus on facilitating and supporting a more reflective approach to teaching (Ramsden 1998; Biggs 1999; Prosser and Trigwell 1999). When implementing e-learning within existing Universities staff engagement is the most complex and important success factor (Collis 1998).


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PhD Update #16 – return from a break

As mentioned a fortnight ago I’ve had much of the last two weeks doing non-PhD stuff including a road trip to Longreach. So this update is somewhat light on.

What I’ve done

Last update I said I would by now have:

  • Made some progress on the People component of the Ps Framework.

To some extent that’s been done. I have a structure and I have completed a draft of the first major section on Students. That draft includes an overview of what I think the structure for the People component will be.

I’ve spent today wondering the literature gathering perspectives on some of the other sections. I have sufficient information on this stuff, I need to write it up. That’s next week’s job.

What I’ll do next week

There’s a trend developing here with weekends. Next weekend I’ll be off celebrating a couple of anniversary related events in Adelaide. This means Friday through Tuesday will be lost to the PhD.

In this case, I aim to have another update on the Thursday before I leave. The main aim from now until then will be to:

  • Make as much progress as possible on the People component.

I’m hoping to have at least 2 or 3 days writing.

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