Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: August 2009 Page 1 of 3

Two calves

Product models – LMS, BoB and alternatives

The following completes the “alternate models” section of the Product component started in a previous post. It’s a bit rough and ready, but hopefully good enough.

Product models

The ERP market was one of the fastest growing and most profitable areas of the software industry during the last three years of the 1990s (Sprott 2000) and has tended to dominate the IT field (Light, Holland et al. 2001). It was at this same time – the late 1990s – that the availability of commercial LMS and their use within universities became increasingly prevalent. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that in terms of the underlying product model an LMS appears to be very close to that of a single-vendor Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. In both cases, all the required functionality is provided in one, integrated package sourced from a single provider. In comparing the literature it is possible to see significant commonality between the advantages and disadvantages of an LMS and that of ERP system. The aim of this section is not to repeat the advantages and disadvantages of LMS – covered somewhat in the “LMS characteristics and limitations” section in Section 2.1.2 – or ERPs – covered in more detail in the relevant literature (Kallinikos 2004; Light 2005). It is instead to establish the existence of other potential product models and compare these with the ERP model. In addition, towards the end of this section the additional complicating and recent factor of user-owned technology is raised.

There are two approaches to the design of an LMS (Weller, Pegler et al. 2005):

  1. monolithic or integrated approach; and
    All common tools are provided by the one software package provided and supported by the one vendor. The predominant approach.
  2. best of breed approach.
    An alternative approach also termed a component or hybrid architecture. Aims to provide the same level of integration but the ability to select components that best suit the local context.

The same two approaches can be identified in the broader provision of enterprise information systems. It is possible to identify a reasonable spread of literature (Dewan, Seidmann et al. 1995; Geishecker 1999; Light, Holland et al. 2001; Hyvonen 2003; MacKinnon, Grant et al. 2008; Burke, Yu et al. 2009) examining various questions arising out of the difference between a monolithic ERP product model and the best of breed (BoB) model. This may not be all that surprising as such discussions have been billed as the “long-running debate” with the pendulum swinging from one view to the other and back again (Geishecker 1999). It is a debate that is encompassed be an even longer standing debate over the centralisation of decentralisation of computing, its focus on efficiency versus effectiveness and the supposed rational attempts at optimising the trade-off (King 1983). A debate that appears unresolvable due to the actual driving issues in the debate being the politics of organisation and resources and especially the apparently central issue of control (King 1983).

ERP adoption involves a centralised organisation of processes and a tendency to reduce autonomy and increase rigidity (Lowe and Locke 2008). Centralisation of control preserves top management prerogatives in most decisions, whereas decentralisation allows lower level managers discretion in choosing among options (King 1983). A BoB approach allows each department to select its own solution (Dewan, Seidmann et al. 1995). Light, Holland and Wills (2001) perform a comparative analysis of the ERP (monolithic or integrated) and best of breed (BoB) approaches to enterprise information systems and is summarised in Table 2.3.

Table 2.3 – Comparison of major differences between ERP and BoB (adapted from Light, Holland et al. 2001)
Best of breed Single vendor ERP
Organisation requirements and accommodations determine functionality The vendor of the ERP system determines functionality

A context sympathetic approach to BPR is taken A clean slate approach to BPR is taken
Good flexibility in process re-design due to a variety in component availability Limited flexibility in process re-design, as only one business process map is available as a starting point
Reliance on numerous vendors distributes risk as provision is made to accommodate change Reliance on one vendor may increase risk
The IT department may require multiple skills sets due to the presence of applications, and possibly platforms, from different sources A single skills set is required by the IT department as applications and platforms are common
Detrimental impact of IT on competitiveness can be dealt with, as individualism is possible through the use of unique combinations of packages and custom components Single vendor approaches are common and result in common business process maps throughout industries. Distinctive capabilities may be impacted on
The need for flexibility and competitiveness is acknowledged at the beginning of the implementation. Best in class applications aim to ensure quality Flexibility and competitiveness may be constrained due to the absence or tardiness of upgrades and the quality of these when they arrive
Integration of applications is time consuming and needs to be managed when changes are made to components Integration of applications is pre-coded into the system and is maintained via upgrades

Even in 1983, over twenty-five years ago, it was recognized that the terrain in which to decide between centralized and decentralized computing was continually changing (King 1983). This change is driven in no small part by the changing nature of technology from main-frames to personal computers to managed operating environments. Similarly, the smaller discussion between ERP and BoB has also been influenced by changes in technology. In the early to mid-1980s, the mainframe-dominant market automatically defaulted to an integrated ERP approach (Geishecker 1999). Most recently integration technologies like web services and service-oriented architectures (SOA) are seen to be enabling the adoption of BoB approaches (Chen, Chen et al. 2003). Such approaches are having an impact within the LMS field with attempts at implement a BoB LMS being enabled by the development of service-oriented architectures such as that be JISC (Weller, Pegler et al. 2005). Such an approach may allow a more post-industrial approach to the LMS allowing the taking of parts that are needed, when they are needed and granting control where it is needed (Dron 2006). Bailetti et al (2005) report on an early system that uses web services to implement a BoB approach.

In general, however, discussion about and comparison between ERP and BoB approaches to enterpise systems suffer the same limitation as the discussion of procurement strategies in the previous section. They are still based on the assumption that it is the responsibility of the institution, and its information technology department, to select, own and maintain all of the information systems required by users. Web 2.0, e-learning 2.0 (Downes 2005) and the rise of social software requires that organization of e-learning moves beyond centralized and integrated LMS and towards a variety of separate tools which are used and managed by the students in relation to their self-governed work. (Dalsgaard 2006). Stiles (2007) argues that in the future organizational needs will be best met by a BoB approach, however student initiated processes will be done using their choice of tools and services. An approach that provides students with a tool-box of loosely joined small pieces (Ryberg 2008).


Bailetti, T., M. Weiss, et al. (2005). An open platform for customized learning environments. International Conference on Management of Technology (IAMOT).

Burke, D., F. Yu, et al. (2009). "Best of Breed Strategies: Hospital characteristics associated with organizational HIT strategy." Journal of Healthcare Information Management 23(2): 46-51.

Chen, M., A. Chen, et al. (2003). "The implications and impacts of web services to electronic commerce research and practices." Journal of Electronic Commerce Reseaerch 4(4): 128-139.

Dalsgaard, C. (2006) "Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems." European Journal of Distance Education Volume,  DOI:

Dewan, R., A. Seidmann, et al. (1995). Strategic choices in IS infrastructure: Corporate standards versus "Best of Breed" Systems. ICIS’1995.

Downes, S. (2005). "E-learning 2.0." eLearn 2005(10).

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.

Geishecker, L. (1999). "ERP vs. best-of-breed." Strategic Finance 80(9): 62-67.

Hyvonen, T. (2003). "Management accounting and information systems: ERP versus BoB." European Accounting Review 12(1): 155-173.

Kallinikos, J. (2004). "Deconstructing information packages: Organizational and behavioural implications of ERP systems." Information Technology & People 17(1): 8-30.

King, J. L. (1983). "Centalized versus decentralized computing: organizational considerations and management options." ACM Computing Surveys 15(4): 319-349.

Light, B. (2005). "Potential pitfalls in packaged software adoption." Communications of the ACM 48(5): 119-121.

Light, B., C. Holland, et al. (2001). "ERP and best of breed: a comparative analysis." Business Process Management Journal 7(3): 216-224.

Lowe, A. and J. Locke (2008). "Enterprise resource planning and the post bureaucratic organization." Information Technology & People 21(4): 375-400.

MacKinnon, W., G. Grant, et al. (2008). Enterprise information systems and strategic flexibility. 41st Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Waikoloa, Hawaii.

Ryberg, T. (2008). Challenges and potentials for institutional and technological infrastructures in adopting social media. 6th International Confernece on Networked Learning, Halkidiki, Greece.

Sprott, D. (2000). "Componentizing the enterprise application packages." Communications of the ACM 43(4): 63-69.

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

Weller, M., C. Pegler, et al. (2005). "Students’ experience of component versus integrated virtual learning environments." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 21(4): 253-259.

Procurement and software: alternate models for e-learning

And here’s the next bit of the Products component for chapter 2 of my thesis. The aim of this section is basically two argue that the LMS approach to e-learning embodies one view of how to procure software and one software model. I eventually aim to argue that both of these predominant models are essentially bad matches for the nature of e-learning within a university. The following is intended more to identify that there are alternatives than argue for the inappropriateness. That’s for later. But I doubt I’ve stopped it coming through.

This section focuses on procurement, I hope to have the product section up later today.

Procurement and software: alternate models for e-learning

As has been noted previously, within higher education the selection and purchase of an LMS has become the almost ubiquitous and unquestioned technical solution to the provision of e-learning. This singular approach can be said to embody a single approach to the procurement of software – “buy” – and a standard software model – the integrated, enterprise system. This section is based on the assumption that there are alternatives to both these models. There are different approaches to software procurement and different software product models that may be more appropriate for e-learning within universities, especially in light of recent changes within the broader information technology market place.

Procurement strategies for information systems

There is recognition that the choice of IS procurement strategy is critical for company operations and that different kinds of systems, require different kinds of resources and consequently different procurement strategies are applicable (Hallikainen and Chen 2005). Alignment between information technology and business is seen by scholars as an important principle for the success of IT deployment and implementation (Beukers, Versendaal et al. 2006). Saarinen and Vepsalainen (1994) propose the Procurement Principle as a prescriptive model for information systems investments. The principle is based on the assumption that optimal decisions about procurement are made when there is alignment between three choices: what type of system, what procurement strategy, and what type of organisational requirements (Wild and Sobernig 2007).

The Procurement Principle is based on transaction cost economics and draws on two inherent factors – specificity of system design and uncertainty of requirements – to develop three generic types of organisational requirements (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994):

  1. routine;
    Common to many or most organizations with stable requirements and low uncertainty.
  2. standard; and
    Common to a group of organizations, possibly within a given domain (Wild and Sobernig 2007), with some variety and uncertainty in requirements.
  3. speculative.
    Highly specific to one company and involve high uncertainty in terms of functionality, user interfaces and the competitiveness of the organisation.

In terms of the two inherent factors – specificity of design and requirements uncertainty – the above generic types represent systems on the diagonal. Saarinen and Vesalainen (1994) recognise other types of systems exist, suggest that they may be difficult to deal with and recommend solutions that modify requirements to fit with the three identified types or postponed.

Saarinen and Vesalainen (1994) identify generic types of developers that fit with these procurement strategies. The three types are:

  1. implementers;
    Employed by an external software development company these developers of high levels of product specific knowledge but only limited, common knowledge about the user organisation.
  2. analysts; and
    Commissioned by the client these staff are responsible for specifying user requirements and improving system solutions by drawing on their abilitiy to solve generic problems and specify complex integrated systems.
  3. innovators.
    Usually employed by the user organisation these developers have specialised knowledge about the user organisation, its users and information systems. They can communicate easily with the users and can specify and create new innovative solutions.

The appropriate matching of the type of requirements and the types of developer is now used to identify three efficient and generic procurement strategies. In large projects, the above three generic strategies will have to be combined and redefined in practice (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994). The three generic strategies are (Saarinen and Vepsalainen 1994):

  1. Routine systems can be best implemented by acquiring software packages from implementers.
  2. Standard applications require software contracting by analysts and possibly other outside resources for implementation.
  3. Speculative investments are best left for internal development by innovators.

These three generic strategies correspond to the three major approaches to information systems development: software product purchase, contractual customized development with outside vendors, and in-house development (Heiskanen, Newman et al. 2000). The selection and implementation of an LMS within a university represents software product purchase with some limited integration work. There is increasingly an absence of institutions adopting other approaches, either individually or in combination.

The over-emphasis on the software product purchase approach contributes to an increased in a techno-centric view. Due to the cost involved in modifying a complex software package most commercial systems require the institution to modify its practices to accommodate the system (Dodds 2007). So, rather than using IT to foster a culture of innovation by taking the point of view of the individual (Dodds 2007), or even the organisation, the focus is on the technology and its capabilities. As early as 1982 an alternate evolutionary approach, which appears much closer to in-house development, was recommended by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) for computer-mediated communication and found to be common with interactive systems which provide cognitive support. Kerr and Hiltz (1982) suggested that because the technology was so new, the possibilities for alternative functions and capabilities so numerous, and that users could not adequately understand what they might do with a new technology until they had an opportunity to experience it that an approach of feedback, evaluation and incremental implementation of new features was desirable.

The reasons identified by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) seem to fit two (requirements identity and requirements volatility) of the three categories of risks associated with requirements development identified by Tuunanen et al (2007) and shown in Table 2.2. If this observation remains appropriate for current practices around e-learning it would appear to question the alignment between the LMS procurement approach and the types of requirements that would make that approach the most efficient as identified by the Procurement Principle.

Table 2.2 – Requirements development risks (adapted from Tuunanen, Rossi et al. 2007)
Risks Definition
Requirements identity The availability of requirements; high identity risk indicates requirements are unknown or indistinguishable
Requirements volatility The stability of requirements; high volatility risk indicates requirements easily change as a result of environmental dynamics or individual learning
Requirements complexity The understandability of requirements; high complexity risk indicates requirements are difficult to understand, specify, and communicate

In addition, both the nature of the LMS and the procurement model assume that it is necessary that for the organisation to provide all of the components of the information system. In recent years the functionality and usability of technology available ot individuals has been outstripping that of technology provided centrally by institutions (Johnson and Liber 2008). Increasingly, university students and staff are using a collection of tools and systems they choose, rather than tools and systems selected, owned and maintained by the university (Jones 2008).


Beukers, M., J. Versendaal, et al. (2006). "The procurement alignment framework construction and application." Wirtschaftsinformatik 48(5): 323-330.

Hallikainen, P. and L. Chen (2005). "A holistic framework on information systems evaluation with a case analysis." The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation 9(2): 57-64.

Johnson, M. and O. Liber (2008). "The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition: from theory to teaching practice." Interactive Learning Environments 16(1): 3-15.

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

Saarinen, T. and A. Vepsalainen (1994). "Procurement strategies for information systems." Journal of Management Information Systems 11(2): 187-208.

Wild, F. and S. Sobernig (2007). Learning tools in higher education: Products, characteristics, procurement. Second Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning. Crete, Greece.

Learning Tools in Higher Education: Products, Characteristics, Procurement

Back to the PhD today, probably will do a couple of summaries of papers I’m reading. The focus is on the product models and procurement strategies used by Universities to solve the technical problem of e-learning. I start with a paper with the title “Learning Tools in Higher Education: Products, Characteristics, Procurement” (Wild and Sobernig, 2007)


Uses interviews of 100 European universities from 27 countries to identify the tools they use to facilitate learning, how intensively they are used and what procurement strategies are used.

Gives some rough figures of types of systems used. Gives a longitudinal feel to some previous studies.

Seems to indicate that European institutions seem to find it “very important to have an institutional platform run by the institutions them-
selves, however, with strong connections to the open-source world”.

I wonder if the results would be the same in the US or Australia where commercial LMS adoption has been more predominant – though changing somewhat.

The reporting of the findings are, to me at least, somewhat confusing.

The greatest value for me is pointing me to the literature (Saarinen et al, 1994; Heiskanen et al, 2000) that proposes an optimal relationship between types of requirements, types of system and types of procurement strategy. I’ll be using this in the PhD and potentially some papers.


Most unis using some sort of LMS. 250 commercial software providers,40 open source products – large and heterogenous products. Some evidence (Pituch and Lee, 2006) that functionality and interactivity drive usage.

What tools are being used today?

Products in the market

Participants report

  • 182 distinct tools occurred 290 times: LMS, content management, collaboration tools
  • Moodle most used – 44 instances, but only 15 of these not running in parallell with others.
  • WebCT – 14 installations.
  • 15 pure content management systems in 20 installations
  • 18 pure admin information systems – 19x.
  • 22 different authoring tols
  • 14 learning object repositories
  • 10 different assessment tools
  • 32 different collaboration tools with 51 installations
  • Most heavily used systems identified by highest active number of users – WebCT (twice), .LRN (once), CampusNet (once), Blackoard (once) and eLSe (once).

References a couple of other similar investigations of tools

Since one – five systems have vanished.

Portfolio characteristics

What activities did the tools support:

  • text-based communication – 87 (out of 100)
  • Assessments – 81
  • Quality assurance and evaluation – 53
  • Collaborative publishing – 52
  • Individual publishing – 44
  • social networking – 34
  • Authoring learning designs – 31
  • Audio/video conferencing – 31
  • Audio/video broadcasting – 25
  • User portfolio management – 23
  • simulations/online labs – 21

Text-oriented predominant. Multimedia lacking support

Following table compares reports of courses sites from two previous studies and this one – some issues in comparison.

Categories Paulsen (1999) Paulsen (2003) Wild and Sobernig (2007)
Up to 15 courses 68% 38% 22%
More than 15 25% 50% 56%

This study also found – 36% more than 100. 5% more than 1000.

Tool usage: 49/100 delivery and 54/100 course management.

Report on problems with calculating number of users because of varios difficulties.

Procurement strategies

Procurement decisions based on 3 types of requirements

  1. Speculative requirements – organisationaly unique or involve uncertainty.
  2. Standard requirements – common to organisations of a particular domain.
  3. Routine requirements – invariant across domain boundaries.

Literature suggest that in optimal cases, organisational choices are driven by these requirements. Suggests this choice represents a combination of

  • Software type – custom developed, packaged and off-the-shelf
  • Procurement strategy – in-house development (internal procurement), contracting and acquisition (both external procurement).

Same literature suggests an alignment between requirement types and organisational choices:

  • Predominantly speculative – internal development of custom software.
  • Standard requirements – customised, packaged software where customisation external contracted.
  • Routine requirements – off-the shelf software.

At this stage, the explanation of the findings from the survey are really hard to follow – at least for me. I would’ve though this should be easy. Keep that in mind when you read the following.

  • 40% follow procurement configurations considered optimal
  • 44% reported mixed configurations of requirements and procurement strategy
  • 5% report external procurement from external contractors
  • External procurement, when it does occur, predominantly with speculative requirements.
  • Internal development equally distributed across requirements – 21% speculative, 19% mixed, 18% standard
  • There are other percentages reported, but I can’t follow it and/or make sense of it with the ones I’ve summarised above


Heiskanen, A., M. Newman, et al. (2000). “The social dynamics of software development.” Accounting, Management & Information Technology 10(1): 1-32.

Paulsen, M. F.: Online Education. An International Analysis of Web-based Education and Strategic Recommendations for Decision Makers. NKI Forlaget, Bekkestua, Norway (2000)

Paulsen, M. F. (2003). “Experiences with Learning Management Systems in 113 European Institutions.” Educational Technology & Society 6(4): 134-148.

Pituch, K., and Lee, Y.: The influence of system characteristics on e-learning use. Computers & Education. 47(2) (2006) 222–244

Saarinen, T. and A. Vepsalainen (1994). “Procurement strategies for information systems.” Journal of Management Information Systems 11(2): 187-208.

Wild, F. and S. Sobernig (2007). Learning tools in higher education: Products, characteristics, procurement. Second Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning. Crete, Greece.

Comparisons between LMS – the need for system independence

Some colleagues and I are putting the finishing touches on a paper that has arisen out of the indicators project. The paper is an exploratory paper, seeking to find interesting patterns that might indicate good or bad things about the use of LMS (learning management systems, aka course management systems, virtual learning environments etc) that might help improve decision-making by all participants (students through management). I hope to post the paper in coming days.

This post is about one aspect of the paper. The section where we compare feature adoption between two different LMS that have been used side-by-side at our institution: Blackboard and Webfuse. (Important: I don’t believe Webfuse is an LMS and will argue that in my PhD (Webfuse is the topic of my thesis). But it’s easier to go with the flow). This is one of the apparent holes in the literature, we haven’t found any publications analysing and comparing system logs from different LMS, especially within the one institution over the same long time frame. In our case we went from 2005 through the first half of 2009.

The aim of this post is to identify the need and argue for the benefits in developing a LMS independent means of analysing and comparing the usage logs of different LMS at different institutions.

Anyone interested?

The following gives a bit of the background, reports on some initial findings and out of that identifies the need for additional work.

Our first step

Blackboard and Webfuse have a number of significant differences. All LMS have somewhat different assumptions, designs and names. Webfuse is significantly different, but that’s another story. The differences make comparisons between LMS more difficult. How do you compare apples with apples?

The only published approach we’re aware of that attempts to make a first step towards a solution to this problem is the paper by Malikowski, Thompson and Theis (2007) for which the abstract makes the following claims

…This article recommends a model for CMS research that equally considers technical features and research about how people learn…..This model should also ease the process of synthesizing research in CMSs created by different vendors, which contain similar features but label them differently.

I’ve talked about and used the model previously (first, second and other places). For the purposes of the paper we produced a different representation of the Malikowski et al (2007) model.

Reworked Malikowski model

From my perspective there are three contributions the model makes

  1. Provides an argument for 5 categories of features and LMS might have, gives them a common title and specifies which common features fit where.
  2. Draws on existing literature give some initial benchmarks for the level of adoption (specified by the percentage of courses with a feature) to be expected grouped into three levels.
    I must admit that Malikowski et al don’t specify the percentages directly, these are taken from the examples they list in tables.
  3. Suggests a model where features are adopted sequentially over time as academics become more comfortable with existing features.

Blackboard versus Webfuse – 2005 to 2009

The benefit the model has provided us is the ability to group the different features of Webfuse and Blackboard into the five categories and then compare the levels of feature adoption between the two systems and with the benchmarks identified in the Malikowksi et al (2007) paper. The following summarises what we found.

Transmitting content

Malikowski et al (2007) define this to include announcements, uploaded files and the use of the gradebook to share grades (but not assignment submission etc.). The following graph shows the percentage of course sites in both Blackboard (black continuous line), Webfuse (black dashed lines) and the “benchmark region” identified in Malikowski et al. In the case of transmitting content the “benchmark region” is between 50 and 100%.

Feature adoption - Transmit Content - Wf vs Bb

This shows that both Blackboard and Webfuse are in the “benchmark region”. Not surprising given the pre-dominant use of LMSs for content transmission. What may be surprising is that Webfuse only averages around 60-75%. This is due to one of those differences in LMS. Webfuse is designed to automatically create default course sites that contain a range of content. Also, it’s quite common for the announcements facility in a Webfuse course site to be used by faculty management to disseminate administrative announcements to students.

So, in reality 100% of Webfuse courses transmit content. The percentage show those courses where the academics have uploaded additional content or made announcements themselves.

Class interactions

Class interactions covers chat rooms, email, discussion forums, mailing lists etc. Anything that get folk in a course talking.

Feature adoption - Class Interaction- Wf vs Bb

Both Blackboard and Webfuse are, to varying extents, outside of the “benchmark area”. Webfuse quite considerably reaching levels near 100% in recent years. Blackboard has only just crept over. This creeping over of Bb may be an indicator that the “benchmark area” is out of date. It was created drawing on 2004 and earlier literature. If feature adoption increases over time, the “benchmark area” has probably moved up.

Evaluating students

Online assignment submission, quizzes and use of other tools to assess/evaluate students.

Feature adoption - Evaluating Students - Bb vs Wf

Over recent years Webfuse has seen double the adoption of these features than Blackboard. It’s grown outside the “benchmark area”. Most of this is online assignment submission, in fact some of the courses using the Webfuse online assignment submission system are actually Blackboard courses.

Evaluating course/instructor

The last category we covered was evaluating the course/instruction through survey tools etc. We didn’t cover computer-based instruction as very few Blackboard courses use it and Webfuse doesn’t provide the facility.

Which raises an interesting question. I clearly remember a non-Webfuse person being quite critical that Webfuse did not offer the computer-based instruction funtionality – we could have added it but no-one ever asked. What is better, paying for features few people ever use or not having features that a few people will use?

Feature adoption: evaluating Courses Bb versus Wf

First, it should be pointed out that for “rarely used” features like course evaluation there is an absence of percentages in Malikowski et al (2007). I’ve specified 20% as the upper limit for this “benchmark area” because “moderately used” was 20% or higher. So it’s probably unfair to describe the Blackboard adoption level as being at the bottom of the range. On the hand, Webfuse is streets ahead. Near 100% dropping to just less than 40%. More on this below.

Work to do

Generating the above has identified a need or value in the following future work:

  • Do an up to date literature review and establish a new “benchmark area”.
    Malikowski et al (2007) rely on literature from 2004 and before. Levels of adoption have probably gone up since then.
  • Refine the list of features per category through the same literature review.
    In recent years LMS have added blogs, wikis, social networking etc. Where do they fit?
  • Refine the definition of “adoption”.
    Malikowski and his co-authors have used at least two very different definitions of adoption. There is apparently no work to check that the papers used to illustrate the model in Malikoswki et al (2007) use a common definition of adoption.
  • Develop feature specific LMS independent usage descriptions.
    In their first paper Malikowski et al (2006) count adoption as the presence of a feature, regardless of how broadly it is used. This causes problems, for example, the course evaluation figure for Webfuse is near 100% because for a number of years a course barometer (Jones, 2002) was a standard part of a Webfuse default site. i.e. everyone course had one. Just doing a quick check, only 23% of Webfuse courses in 2006 had a barometer in which a student made a comment.

    Malikowski (2008) adopted a new measure for adoption. Course use of a particular feature had to be above the 25th percentile of use for that feature in order to be counted. I don’t find this a good measure. Just 1 student comment on a barometer could be a potentially essential use of the feature.

    There appears to be a need for being able to judge the level of use of a feature in a way that is sensitive to the feature. 1 entry in a gradebook for a course for 500 students is probably an error can be ignored. 1 comment on a barometer for that same course that points out an important issue probably shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Attempt to automate comparison between LMS.
    In order to enable broader and quicker comparison between different LMS, whether between institutions or within institutions, there appears a need to automate the process. To make it quicker and more staight forward.

    One approach might be to design a LMS independent database scheme for the extended Malikowski et al (2007) model. Such a scheme would enable people to write “conversion scripts” that take usage logs from Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT or whatever LMS and automatically insert them into the schema. Once someone has written the conversion script of an LMS, no-one else would have to. The LMS independent schema could than be analysed and used to compare and contrast different systems and different institutions without the apples and oranges problem.


Jones, D. (2002). Student Feedback, Anonymity, Observable Change and Course Barometers. World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Denver, Colorado, AACE.

Malikowski, S., M. Thompson, et al. (2006). “External factors associated with adopting a CMS in resident college courses.” Internet and Higher Education 9(3): 163-174.

Malikowski, S., M. Thompson, et al. (2007). “A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory.” Journal of Educational Computing Research 36(2): 149-173.

PhD Update #22 – one day active, but some movement

The last week has seen only one day spent on the PhD. Mainly due to working on a conference paper. The good news is that the paper is connected to the PhD. It looks at mining LMS usage logs to generate indicators of patterns which may be interesting. The paper includes a comparison of LMS feature adoption between Blackboard (CQU’s existing institutional LMS) and Webfuse – the topic of the PhD. Webfuse comes out favourably from a couple of perspectives. More on this later.

What I did

The intent expressed in the last PhD update was to complete the Product section and make a good start on the pedagogy section.

In the one day and a bit days I spent on the thesis I

So, one and a bit sections left to complete Product

What I’ll do next week

The plan is to complete product and hopefully complete pedagogy.

At this stage, I should have a fair number of days to work on the PhD, so I might get somewhere close.

E-Learning 2.0 and reliability of external services

BAM is a little project of mine playing at the edges of post-industrial e-learning. Since 2006 it’s been relying on students creating and using blogs provided by external service provides – mostly

This reliance on external service providers has been one of the “problems” raised by folk who don’t like the idea. They fear that because the university doesn’t own the technology or have a contract with the service provider there is no certainty about the quality of service. That the students and the staff will be left high and dry as the service is yanked in the middle of term.

Those fears are not unfounded. There have been stories of Web 2.0 services disappearing in the middle of a course. However, my argument has always been that if you pick the right service providers and design systems to allow safe failure you can achieve generally better outcomes (for a cheaper price) than the mandate and purchase approach traditionally taken by institutions.

This post shares a recent experience that supports this argument and ruminates on some alternate explanations for why this approach might be better.

The story

Yesterday I received an email from one of the teaching staff involved in a course that is using BAM. The course has 170+ students spread across 5+ campuses using BAM with their posts being tracked and marked by 10 staff. Three of the students for this teacher are reporting that they can’t access their blogs.

While BAM allows students to create and use a blog on any service provider we have found it useful to suggest providers whom we find reliable. Originally this was blogger and, in the last year or so we’ve recommended only. i.e. based on our experience, we found more usable and reliable. I should point out though, that the institution I work for does not have a formal agreement with The students create free blogs on like any of the other of thousands of folks who do each week. I’ll pick up on this later.

After looking at the reported problem it was apparent that the blogs for the three students had been suspended because they apparently had contravened the terms of service (ToS). This mean that the students couldn’t post to their blog and no-one could see any of the content posted to their blog. While it seemed unlikely that the students would have done anything to deserve this, it’s amazing what can happen. So the question was what had they done?

A key part of BAM is that it is designed to enable safe failure. If, as in this case, the student’s blog has disappeared – for whatever reason – it doesn’t matter. BAM keeps a mirror of the blog’s RSS/Atom feed on a university server. So while I couldn’t see the blogs posts on, I could see the content on BAM. Nothing there looked like it would contravene the ToS.

So the only way forward was to ask why they did this. This is where the fear of failure arises. I’ve seen any number of examples of technical support being horrible. Including instances where the institution has paid companies significant amounts of money for support only to receive slow responses that do little more than avoid the question or report “it looks alright from here”. If you get this sort of “service” from supplier you pay, what sort of response am I going to get from

Remember, these blogs are not my blogs. The blogs belong to students who attend the university I work for. A university is not likely to know anything about. A university they certainly don’t have any relationship with. In fact, it’s a university that appears to favour a competitor. Both IT division and our Vice-Chancellor have blogs hosted by blogger.

For these reasons, I was somewhat pessimistic about the response I would get. I was fearful that this experience would provide support for the nay sayers. How wrong I was.

12 hours after I contacted about this issue. I received an email response which basically said “Oops, sorry it looked like the profiles matched spammers. Our mistake. The blogs are back.”.

12 hours might seem like a long time if you’re picky. But I’m more than happy with that. It’s streets ahead of the response times I’ve seen from vendors who are being paid big money. It’s orders of magnitude better in terms of effectiveness.

Do one thing and do it well

It’s my proposition that if you choose a good Web 2.0 service provider, rather than being more risky than purchasing, installing and owning your own institutional version of the service, it is actually less risky, less expensive and results in better quality on a number of fronts. This is because a good Web 2.0 service provider has scale and is doing one thing and doing it well.

Unlike an integrated system (e.g. an LMS) only has to concentrate on blog engines. So it’s blog service is always going to be streets ahead of that provided by the LMS. Even if the LMS is open source.

A commercial LMS vendor is going to have to weight the requirements of huge numbers of very different clients, wanting different things and consequently won’t be able to provide exactly the service the institution needs. Not to mention that they will be spread really thin to cover all the clients.

An open source LMS generally has really good support. But the institution needs to have smart people who know about the system in order to properly engage with that support and be flexible with the system.

There’s more to draw out here, but I don’t have time. Have a paper to write.

Learning requires willingness to suffer injury to one's self-esteem

Over recent weeks I have ignored Twitter, it was consuming too much time and I have to focus on writing the PhD. There is a cost involved to doing this, you miss out on some good insights.

Aside: The quality of the insights you gather from twitter are directly correlated with the quality of the people you follow. Listening to this podcast yesterday I heard the following description of the difference between Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is for the people you already know, Twitter is for those you don’t.

This morning I gave in and started up Nambu and have come across the following, very fitting quote

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.” — Thomas Szasz, 1973

I plan to use this quote to argue that current approaches within universities – or at least those I’m familiar with – prevent learning.


I came across this quote via a tweet by Gardner Campbell pointing to the first lecture by Michael Wesch. The quote is the lead in to the lecture.

Thomas Szasz is a somewhat controversial figure, so perhaps not the perfect source for a quote. But the quote does capture what I see as a key aspect of learning – and one that I personally struggle with.

Learning means being wrong

Szasz suggests you have to be willing to suffer through injury to your self-esteem to learn. To get it wrong. This connects with many of the other insights, quotes and perspectives on learning that I’ve seen and discussed on the blog. I’m sure there are many more.

Additional support for this idea comes from confirmation bias, the Tolstoy syndrome and pattern entrainment and not to mention the Golden Hammer law and status quo adherence. All summed up nicely by a quote from Tolstoy

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

In order to learn something new you have to be prepared to think anew, critically examine what you currently take for granted and hold it up to the light of new insights to see if it is found wanting. While learning something new, you will make mistakes. In fact, there are any number of quotes around innovation that posit the importance of failure

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


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


Success is on the far side of failure. — Thomas Watson Sr

Fear of failure is embedded in academia

Jon Udell has argued that academia is heavily focused on not being seen to make mistakes. Researchers only release ideas that are fully baked, half-baked ideas are discouraged

As Gardner Campbell observes in this article

For an academic, “failure” is often synonymous with “looking stupid in front of someone.” For many faculty, and maybe for me back in the 1980s, computers mean the possibility of “pulling a Charlie Gordon,” as the narrator poignantly terms it in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon.

Fear of failure is made worse by managerialism

For quite some time I have been arguing that teleological approaches to online learning – and I know expand that to broader styles of management – within higher education is ill-suited to the challenge (Jons, Luck, McConachie and Daner, 2005; Jones and Muldoon, 2007). Approaches to leadership and management that are driven by current over-emphasis on efficiency and accountability are based heavily on teleological assumptions and because of the mismatch end up damaging universities.

But worse, at least from the perspective of learning, such approaches to leadership – at least as often practiced – are hugely fearful of failure. They seek to avoid it as much as possible. The SNAFU principle is a humourous explanation of this tendency for authoritarian hierarchies to screw up.

Of course there is also much written in the management and organisational research about this tendency. This post covers a small sample of it and includes the following quote from Argyris and Schon (1978, p116)

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


Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

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.

Identifying file distribution on Webfuse course sites

As part of the thesis I’ve been engaging with some of the literature around LMS feature usage to evaluate usage of Webfuse. A good first stab of this was reported in an earlier post. There were a number of limitations of that work, it’s time to expand a bit on it. To some extent for the PhD and to some extent because of a paper.

As with some of the other posts this one is essentially a journal or a log of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. A permanent record of my thinking so I can come back later, if needed.

There’s even an unexpected connection with power law distributions towards the end.

Content distribution

In that previous post I did not include a graph/any figures around the use of Webfuse course sites to distribute content or files. This is because Webfuse had a concept of a default course site. i.e. every course would have the same basic default site created automatically. Since about 2001 this meant that every course site performed some aspect of information distribution including: the course synopsis on the home page, details about the course assessment, details about course resources including textbook details and a link to the course profile, and details about the teaching staff.

Beyond this staff were able to upload files and other content as they desired. i.e. moving beyond the default course site was optional and left entirely up to the teaching staff. Some of us, perhaps went overboard. Other staff may have been more minimal. The aim here is to develop metrics that illustrate that variability.

Malikowski et al (2007) have a category of LMS usage called Transmitting Content. The LMS features they include in this category include:

  • Files uploaded into the LMS.
  • Announcements posted to the course site.

So, in keeping with the idea of building on existing literature. I’ll aim to generate data around those figures. Translating those into Webfuse should be fairly straight forward, thinking includes:

  • Files uploaded into the LMS.
    Malikowski et al (2007) include both HTML files and other file types. For Webfuse and its default course sites I believe I’ll need to treat these a little differently:
    • HTML files.
      The default course sites produce HTML. I’ll need to exclude these standard HTML files.
    • Other files.
      Should be able to simply count them.
    • Real course sites.
      Webfuse also had the idea of a real course site. i.e. an empty directory into which the course coordinator could upload their own course website. This was usually used by academics teaching multimedia, but also some others, who knew what they wanted to do and didn’t like the limitations of Webfuse.
  • Announcements.
    The default course site has an RSS based announcements facility. However, some of the announcements are made be “management”. i.e. not the academics teaching the course but the middle managers responsible for a group of courses. These announcements are more administrative and apply to all students (so they get repeated in every course). In some courses they may be the only updates. These announcements are usually posted by the “webmaster”, so I’ll need to exclude those.


I’ll treat each of these as somewhat separate.

  • Calculate # non-HTML files.
  • Calculate # of announcements – both webmaster and not.
  • Calculate # HTML files beyond default course site (I’ll postpone doing this one until later)

Calculate # non-HTML files.

Webfuse created/managed websites. So all of the files uploaded by staff exist within a traditional file system. Not in a database. With a bit of UNIX command line magic it’s easy to exact name of every file within a course site and remove those that aren’t of interest. The resulting list of files is the main data source that can then be manipulated.

The command to generate the main data source goes like this

find T1 T2 T3 -type f | get all the files for the given terms
grep -v ‘.htm$’ | grep -v ‘.html$’ | remove the HTML files
grep -v ‘CONTENT$’ | remove the Webfuse data files
grep -v .htaccess | remove Apache access restriction file
grep -v ‘updates.rss$’ | remove the RSS file used for announcements
grep -v ‘.ctb$’| grep -v ‘.ttl$’ | grep -v ‘/Boards/[^/]*$’ | grep -v ‘/Members/[^/]*$’ | grep -v ‘/Messages/[^/]*$’ | grep -v ‘/Variables/[^/]*$’ | grep -v ‘’ | remove files created by discussion forum
sed -e ‘1,$s/.gz$//’

The sed command at the end removes the gzip extension that has been placed on all the files in old course sites that have been archived – compressed.

The output of this command is the following


The next aim is to generate a file that contains the number of files for each course offering. From there the number of courses with 0 files can be identified, as can some other information. The command to do this is

sed -e ‘1,$s/^(T./………/).*$/1/’ all.Course.Files | sort | uniq -c | sort -r -n > count.Course.Files

After deleting a few entries for backup or temp directories. We have our list. Time to manipulate the data, turn it into a CSV file and into Excel. Graph below, fairly significant disparity in number of files – the type of curve looks very familiar though.

Number of uploaded files per Webfuse course site for 2005

In total, for 2005 there were 178 course sites that had files. That’s out of 299 – so 59.5%. This compares to the 50% that Col found for the Blackboard course sites in the same year.

Calculate # of Announcements

The UNIX command line alone will not solve this problem. Actually, think again, it might. What I have to do is:

  • For each updates.rss
    • count the number of posts by webmaster
    • count the number of posts by non-webmaster
    • output – courseOffering,#webmaster,#non-webmaster

Yep, a simple shell script will do it

echo COURSE,ALL,webmaster
for name in `find T1 -name updates.rss`
  all=`grep '' $name | wc -l`
  webmaster=`grep 'webmaster' $name | wc -l`
  echo "$name,$all,$webmaster"

Let’s have a look at the 2005 data. Remove some dummy data, remove extra whitespace. 100% of the courses had updates. 166 (55%) had no updates from the teaching staff, 133 (45%) did. That compares to 77% in Blackboard. Wonder if the Blackboard updates also included “webmaster” type updates?

In terms of the number of announcements contributed by the teaching staff. The following graph shows the distribution. The largest number for a single offering was 34. Based on a 12 week CQU teaching term, that’s almost, on average, 3 announcements a week

Number of coordinator announcements - Webfuse 2005

Power laws and LMS usage?

The two graphs above look very much like a power law distribution. Clay Shirky has been writing and talking about power law distributions for some time. Given that there appears to be a power law distribution going on here with usage of these two LMS features, and potentially that the same power law distribution might exist with other LMS features, what can Shirky and other theoretical writings around power law distributions tell us about LMS usage?


Malikowski, S., Thompson, M., & Theis, J. (2007). A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 36(2), 149-173.

Other information systems in higher education

The following is the next short, and still somewhat questionable, section of the Product component. A previous post discussesd the limitations of an LMS, this section talks briefly about the other types of systems necessary for learning and teaching. The next section will talk about more abstract alternatives to those most commonly associated with the LMS.

Other systems

A university makes use of a large number of software applications partly because creating a single application to run a business as higher education is virtually impossible (Jones 2004). Universities have multiple constituencies – including parents, students, government, industry and alumni – and a need to maintain relationships with individuals that are now lifelong (Lightfoot and Ihrig 2002). Paulsen (2002) perceives e-learning to consist of a chain of four systems: content creation tools, learning management systems, student management systems, and accounting systems. The implication being that the LMS is only component of the information systems ecosystem of a university. Institutions now have applications for financial management, human resources, admissions, recruitment, payments, procurement, research databases, course management, online library reserves, classroom scheduling, patient records, grant and contracts management and email (Lightfoot and Ihrig 2002). Over recent times many institutions have moved to enterprise systems that integrate students, financial and human resource systems (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).

It has been suggested that contemporary learning environments should integrate academic and administrative support services directly into the students’ environment (Segrave and Holt 2003). All too often the systems are not interconnected and present the user with a fragmented view of the institution (Lightfoot and Ihrig 2002). There is a general lack of integration amongst these systems (Paulsen 2002). The development of robust, institutional, technical infrastructure has become a major area of activity (Conole 2002). Large scale enterprise systems, while useful to the administrative side of the university, can work at odds with the academic activities and force teaching and research to conform to business IT systems (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Some attempts to increase the level of integration between academic and administrative systems has been done under the label of a managed learning environment (MLE).

While there remains some difficulty in defining the MLE as a concept there is agreement that the MLE involves a whole institution approach that links systems and facilities that are already provided across the institution (Holyfield 2003). A managed learning environment (MLE) will include administrative information about courses, resources, support and guidance, collaborative information, assessment and feedback – essentially linking up to back-end office systems and databases (Conole 2002). Beyond integration with administrative systems, to fully reap the benefits of an LMS, it has been suggested that institutions must integrate them with other systems including: identity directories, internal and external web sites, portals, library catalogs, multimedia and learning objects repositories, e-portfolios, email, calendar, instant messaging, wikis, blogs, web conferencencing, and other collaboration tools. (Molina and Ganjalizadeh 2006). It is hypothesized that institutions implementing integrated systems will improve their chances of becoming successful, large-scale e-learning providers (Paulsen 2002).

Discussion of the benefits of integration bring us back to some of the limitations of the LMS discussed above. Integration through the use of monolithic solutions like ERP systems increase complexity, offer limited flexibility and are not designed to collaborate with other autonomous applications (Irani 2002). Based on this view, the very nature of most LMS – as an example of a monolithic enterprise system – would appear somewhat less than well suited to integration within a MLE. The difficulty of integration and how alternative product models may provide different capabilities is part of the focus of the next section.


Conole, G. (2002). "The evolving landscape of learning technology." ALT-J 10(3): 4-18.

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.

Holyfield, S. (2003). Developing a shared understanding of the Managed Learning Environment – the role of diagramming and requirements gathering, JISC.

Irani, Z. (2002). "Critical evaluation and integration of information systems." Business Process Management Journal 8(4): 314-317.

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.

Lightfoot, E. and W. Ihrig (2002). "Next-Generation Infrastructure." EDUCAUSE Review: 52-61.

Molina, P. and S. Ganjalizadeh. (2006). "Open Source Learning Management Systems."   Retrieved 28 December, 2006, from

Paulsen, M. F. (2002). "Online education systems in Scandinavian and Australian Universities: A Comparative Study." International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Segrave, S. and D. Holt (2003). "Contemporary learning environments: Designing e-Learning for education in the professions." Distance Education 24(1): 7-24.

LMS characteristics and limitations

This post follows on from previous posts and contributes the next bit of the Product component of my thesis.

Having given an overview of what an learning management system (LMS) is in the last post, this post looks at some of the characteristics and limitations of the LMS model. It’s not complete, but it’s a start.

LMS characteristics and limitations

The introduction of the LMS has started a new round in the struggle between the propensities of technology to define their own paths and academic’s appropriate desires to subordinate the technologies to the values and traditions of the academy (Katz 2003). As with any technology, LMS are not value neutral transmitters of facts but instead carry the values and priorities of their producers (Dutton and Loader 2002). While agreeing with the emergent perspective described by Markus and Robey (1988), the perspective that sees the uses and consequences of information technology emerge unpredictably from complex social interactions, that technology does not unambiguously determine outcomes. This section illustrated agreement with the view expressed by Kallinikos (2004) that systems can have profound effects on the structuring of work and the forms of human action they enable or constrain. This suggests that there exists some value in examining the characteristics and limitations of technical systems. Subsequently, this section draws on the literature around LMS to identify that characteristics and limitations of the LMS, and how those may enable or constrain learning and teaching.

Adoption of an enterprise LMS will require some standardisation of teaching and learning as all available functionality is provided by the system (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). An LMS, by its nature, is structured and has little capability for customisation (Morgan 2003). Current LMS are not customizable for instruction aimed at a specific audience with specific content. (Black, Beck et al. 2007). As two of the most highly personalised sets of processes within institutions of higher education, any attempt at standardising teaching and learning is likely to be radical, painful and problematic (Morgan 2003). The standardization inherent in an LMS exacerbates the pain of adoption by being standardized products designed to support a non-standard base of university academics with different disciplines, teaching philosophies and instructional styles (Black, Beck et al. 2007).

There is, however, value in the standardisation inherent within an LMS as it reduces institutional pain during the selection process (Black, Beck et al. 2007). The same standardisation built into an LMS helps organizations deal with support and training as there is a fixed set of functionality. The design of an LMS is more concerned with providing the organisation with the ability to produce and disseminate information by centralising and controlling services (Siemens 2006). The standardisation embedded in the design of an LMS can create a number of operational conditions that push teaching and learning in a particular direction (Luck, Jones et al. 2004), at the very least limiting possibilities to those supported by the LMS. Managerialism may be the easiest and most natural path for a centrally managed LMS to take (Dron 2006).

The LMS model with its nature as an integrated, enterprise system fits the long-term culture of institutional information technology and its primary concern with centralizing and controlling information technology services with a view to reducing costs (Beer and Jones 2008). An approach that increases tensions created by a long-term cultural divide within universities between the culture of administration – that values efficiency, principles of scientific management and standardized business processes – and the academic culture – more focused on tradition, erudition and innovation (Fernandez 2008). Management perceive information technology as a cost to be minimized while academics see it as a service to be customized for their idiosyncratic requirements (Jones 2004).

The design of an LMS embeds particular world views, for example, the Blackboard LMS – with its origins in the American higher education sector – embodies a a particularly American view with “course” as the standard organisational unit within the system (Dron 2006). Rather than a minor irritation, the inability to modify this assumption requires institutional practice to align with the system, rather than vice versa (Dron 2006). In addition, the course focus on most LMS make it difficult to support communities of students outside of the course structure or to involve non-course participants in online courses (Beer and Jones 2008).

In terms of support for pedagogy, there are views that LMS, in general, does not dictate either a discipline or a pedagogy (Katz 2003). However, there have been some designed with a pedagogical emphasis, generally constructivist, (Stiles 2007), though none have entered the mainstream. Many LMS embed traditional teaching paradigms into them through name, metaphor and user interface (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004; Stiles 2007). Examples include the use of common terms such as blackboard and gradebook and the use of university buildings to structure the user interface (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004; Dron 2006; Stiles 2007). While the use of familiar concepts make for a more intuitive interface (Stiles 2007), they can also lead to built-in constrains on the use of LMS (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). The very design of the LMS can encourage horseless carriage approaches to e-learning. Giving support for the observation that technology will most likely reinforce the old systems rather than the new paths (Lian 2000).

The values embedded in many common LMS reveal a residue that is clearly transmissive and adds to the banality, confusion and disapointment in the learning and teaching experiences (Sullivan and Czigler 2002; deFreitas and Oliver 2005; Salmon 2005). The tendency towards behaviourist approaches to learning – with an emphasis on parcelling up knowledge into bite-sized chunks – is one of the great weaknesses of the contemporary LMS (Weigel 2005). LMS are largely based on training-type models based on an overly simplistic understanding of the relationship between teachers, knowledge and student learning (Coates, James et al. 2005). A social constructivist approach to learning – with an emphasis on self-governed and problem-based activities – are not very well support by LMS (Dalsgaard 2006). The LMS assumption of a self-paced learner results in most LMS having limited interaction or collaboration tools such as simple chat rooms and discussion forums (Bonk 2002).

Most LMS support more or less the same pedagogy (Robson 1999). The nature of an integrated, enterprise system and its requirement for standardization means it is unlikely that a single LMS will support more than one instructional theory, if that. This would appear problematic given the significant diversity in instructional theories adopted within a single university – whether implicitly or explicitly acknowledged (West, Waddoups et al. 2006). LMS need to become more flexible and customizable in form and allow students and faculty to choose among pedagogies in their structure (Katz 2003) in enable adaptation of the tool to fit each unique situation (West, Waddoups et al. 2006).

The standard and pre-established boundary to learning within an LMS is a course (Weigel 2005). Access to the resources, activities and people associated with learning – and subsequently the learning itself – is restricted to those individuals associated with a particular offering of the course and further to the period when the course is offered (Beer and Jones 2008). Learners contribute to discussions that are closed and removed at the end of the course (Cameron and Anderson 2006). The model of many LMS implementations is equivalent to having students come on-campus blind-folded, taking them directly to their course-related activities, and not allowing them to see or speak to anyone not in their own course (Wise and Quealy 2006). Learning within an LMS is like “walled garden”, outside of the context of the learner’s everyday life, environment and informal learning (Mentis 2008). The focus on the course by LMS also places limits on management. For example, LMS provide only very limited functionality associated with reporting and usage monitoring at an institutional level across multiple courses (Morgan 2003).

The closed nature of many LMS go beyond restrictions on learning. Embracing a new LMS has high entry costs because there are few efficient migration tools (Molina and Ganjalizadeh 2006). Restrictions on migration of content, technical and financial factors can make it difficult for institutions to migrate between different systems (Coates, James et al. 2005). An on-going challenge to management is that observation that e-learning technologies are undergoing a continual process of change (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003) and that any frozen definition of “best” technology is likely to be temporary (Haywood 2002). The high cost of changing systems can contribute to lock-in (Davis, Little et al. 2008).

LMS vendors are trying to position their systems as the center-point for e-learning (Siemens 2004). The assumption of an enterprise system is that it provides all of the necessary services in one integrated whole. There are, however, increasing perceptions that the LMS may be less significant within the an organisational online learning system (Davis, Little et al. 2008). The LMS may not, on its own, be sufficiently conducive to supporting the design, development and operations required within contemporary learning environments (Segrave and Holt 2003). This is a point expanded upon in the next section.


Beer, C. and D. Jones (2008). Learning networks: harnessing the power of online communities for discipline and lifelong learning. Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton, Central Queensland University Press.

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.

Bonk, C. (2002). Collaborative tools for e-learning. Chief Learning Officer: 22-24, 26-27.

Cameron, D. and T. Anderson (2006). "Comparing Weblogs to Threaded Discussion Tools in Online Educational Contexts." International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(11).

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.

Dalsgaard, C. (2006) "Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems." European Journal of Distance Education Volume,  DOI:

Davis, A., P. Little, et al. (2008). Developing an infrastructure for online learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. T. Anderson. Athabasca, Canada, AU Press: 121-142.

deFreitas, S. and M. Oliver (2005). "Does e-learning policy drive change in higher education? A case study relating models of organisational change to e-learning implementation." Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 27(1): 81-95.

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.

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.

Dutton, W. and B. Loader (2002). Introduction. Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning. W. Dutton and B. Loader. London, Routledge: 1-32.

Fernandez, L. (2008). "An antidote for the Faculty-IT divide." EDCAUSE Quarterly 31(1): 7-9.

Haywood, T. (2002). Defining moments: Tension between richness and reach. Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning. W. Dutton and B. Loader. London, Routledge: 39-49.

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

Jones, D. (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.

Kallinikos, J. (2004). "Deconstructing information packages: Organizational and behavioural implications of ERP systems." Information Technology & People 17(1): 8-30.

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

Lian, A. (2000). "Knowledge transfer and technology in education: Toward a complete learning environment." Educational Technology & Society 3(3): 13-26.

Luck, J., D. Jones, et al. (2004). "Challenging Enterprises and Subcultures: Interrogating ‘Best Practice’ in Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(2): 19-31.

Markus, M. L. and D. Robey (1988). "Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research." Management Science 34(5): 583-598.

Mentis, M. (2008). "Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context." Electronic Journal of e-Learning 6(3): 217-226.

Molina, P. and S. Ganjalizadeh. (2006). "Open Source Learning Management Systems."   Retrieved 28 December, 2006, from

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

Robson, R. (1999). WWW-based course-support systems: The first generation. WWW-Based Course-Support Systems Seminar, Seattle, Washington.

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.

Segrave, S. and D. Holt (2003). "Contemporary learning environments: Designing e-Learning for education in the professions." Distance Education 24(1): 7-24.

Siemens, G. (2004). "Learning Management Systems: The wrong place to start learning."   Retrieved January 12, 2007, from

Siemens, G. (2006). "Learning or Management System? A Review of Learning Management System Reviews." from

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

Sullivan, K. and P. Czigler (2002). "Maximising the educational affordances of a technology supported learning environment for introductory undergraduate phonetics." British Journal of Educational Technology 33(3): 333-343.

Weigel, V. (2005). "Course Management to Curricular Capabilities: A Capabilties Apporach for the Next-Generation Course Management System." EDUCAUSE Review 40(3): 54-67.

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

Wise, L. and J. Quealy. (2006, May, 2006). "LMS Governance Project Report." from

What is an LMS?

The following post is the next step in completing the Product component of chapter 2 of my thesis. An earlier post started off the Product component. This post is the first section in a broader section titled “University e-learning technology”. This post focuses on the learning management system (LMS).

The content of this first post is a rough first draft of a section of the thesis. Increasingly there are going to be insert crossref type measures reminding me to add cross references to other sections.

What is an LMS?

Learning management systems (LMS) are software systems that are specifically designed and marketed to educational institutions to support teaching and learning and that typically provide tools for communication, student assessment, presentation of study material and organisation of student activities (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). These systems are also referred to by a number of different terms including virtual learning environments (VLE), course management systems (CMS), learning support systems (LSS), and learning platforms (Mendoza, Perez et al. 2006). Currently widely use LMS include systems called: Blackboard, Angel, Moodle and Sakai. The speed with which the adoption of an LMS has spread through universities is surprising (West, Waddoups et al. 2006). A 2004 survey of universities found that 73% had adopted an institution-wide LMS, compared to 60% in 2002, with 90% expecting to make such a claim within five years (OECD 2005).

The core components of an LMS include tools for for synchronous and asynchronous communication, content storage and delivery, online quiz and survey tools, gradebooks, whiteboards, digital dropboxes, and email communications (Harrington, Gordon et al. 2004). There are more similarities than differences amongst LMS products, with most distinguishing themselves with micro-detailed features (Black, Beck et al. 2007). As mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) and illustrated in Figure ?? (crossref) the commonality of LMS features have led Malikowski, Thompson and Theis (2007) to develop a model that abstracts LMS features into five categories: transmitting content, creating class interactions, evaluating students, evaluating course and instructions and computer-based instruction. Most LMS do not specify a discipline or pedagogy (Katz 2003).

The development of early LMS started primarily with internal development within universities. For example, WebCT one of the early dominant commercial LMS arose out of work at the University of British Columbia (Goldberg, Salari et al. 1996). However, due to the difficulty and costs of in-house development, during the late 1990s and early 2000s the majority of institutions moved to the adoption of commercial, proprietary LMS with Blackboard and WebCT dominating. A move illustrative of the shift of the LMS from being based on the bottoms-up energy of a small cadre of inventive faculty to being the embodiment of a top-down institutional strategy (Katz 2003). This shift marked the start of the industrial e-learning paradigm identified in the Past Experience section (insert cross ref).

The next cycle in LMS adoption was the rise of open source LMS. By 2005 several major universities were releasing their in-house LMS under open source rather than commercial licences (Coates, James et al. 2005). By 2006 there were two key trends in e-learning within the UK: an on-going preference for commercial systems and an emerging trend towards open source systems (Browne, Jekins et al. 2006). The significant number of available LMS may be an illustration of the novelty and relative immaturity of such systems, but it may also correspond to an over-empahsis on the technological infrastructure when the real challenge lies in the innovative and effective use of these systems in learning and teaching (OECD 2005).

Regardless of being commercial or open source, a university’s LMS forms the academic system equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in terms of pedagogical impact and institutional resource consumption (Morgan 2003). Another similarity with that of an ERPis the common idea behind the LMS identified by Dalsgaard (2006) that different tools are integrated into the single system which offers all the necessary tools to run and manage and e-learning course. There is an assumption that all learning activities and materials in a course will be organised and managed by and within the system (Dalsgaard 2006).

This similarity with ERP systems may raise similar concerns. An enterprise system, by its very nature, will impose its own logic on a company’s strategy, structure and culture and will push a company towards generic processes even when customised processes may be a source of competitive advantage (Davenport 1998). LMS are not pedagogical neutral technology, through their design they influence and guide teaching and work to shape and even define teachers’ imaginations, expectations and behaviours (Coates, James et al. 2005). The implementation of enterprise systems often reflects a conscious or unconscious move towards standardization (Morgan 2003).

Universities typically select an LMS through a process of comparison which evaluates each LMS on the basis of its functionality and how well this matches the needs of the institutions (Jones 2004). This is despite suggestions that decisions about university teaching and learning should not be restricted to checklist evaluations of technical and organizational factors (Coates, James et al. 2005). In addition, it has been observed that there are few, if any, distinguishable technical applications of features that allow for product differentation within the LMS market (Black, Beck et al. 2007). One of the sources of technology and pedagogical distinctions identified by Holt and Seagrave (2003) is the pre-occupation of different parties with different aspects of the selection of any one system. Particularly troubling is the observations that the users of these systems are often not the people who select them, the motivations for their acquisition are often unstated or ambiguous, and that the expectations of the investments in these systems are unclear (Katz 2003). In reviewing a number of reviews of LMS, Siemens (2006) identifies the most prominent limitation of the review models as the limited focus on broarder organisational views of learning.

The implementation of a LMS within a university is a small first step in what is likely to become a significant reshaping and renewal of teaching and learning – one of higher education’s most cherished and important activities (Katz 2003). This reshaping means that the selection of an institutional LMS is a high risk decision which involves a great deal of technological and institutional forecasting (Coates, James et al. 2005). It is possible that the difficulty of this forecasting is responsible for the observation that universities are not especially loyal with the majority having changed LMS, planning to change LMS or operating additional LMS (Paulsen 2003). The full-fledged implementation of an LMS is an expensive and support-intensive enterprise (Warger 2003) and brings significant change-management implications (Katz 2003). For this and other reasons it appears sensible to focus efforts away from LMS selection and towards issues related to adoption and implementation (Black, Beck et al. 2007).


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.

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

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.

Dalsgaard, C. (2006) "Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems." European Journal of Distance Education Volume,  DOI:

Davenport, T. (1998). "Putting the Enterprise into the Enterprise System." Harvard Business Review 76(4): 121-131.

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

Harrington, C., S. Gordon, et al. (2004). "Course Management System Utilization and Implications for Practice: A National Survey of Department Chairpersons." Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 7(4).

Holt, D. and S. Segrave (2003). Creating and sustaining quality e-learning environments of enduring value for teachers and learners. 20th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Adelaide.

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.

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

Luck, J., D. Jones, et al. (2004). "Challenging Enterprises and Subcultures: Interrogating ‘Best Practice’ in Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(2): 19-31.

Malikowski, S., M. Thompson, et al. (2007). "A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory." Journal of Educational Computing Research 36(2): 149-173.

Mendoza, L., M. Perez, et al. (2006). "Tailoring RUP for LMS Selection: A Case Study." CLEI Electronic Journal 9(1).

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

OECD (2005). E-Learning in Tertiary Education: Where do we stand? Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Paulsen, M. F. (2003). "Experiences with Learning Management Systems in 113 European Institutions." Educational Technology & Society 6(4): 134-148.

Siemens, G. (2006). "Learning or Management System? A Review of Learning Management System Reviews." from

Warger, T. (2003, July 2003). "Calling All Course Management Systems." University Business  Retrieved 30 December, 2006, from

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

PhD Update #21 – End in sight for chapter 2

A bit of progress made on chapter 2 this week, sufficient to suggest that the end is nigh – at least for the first draft. That progress is in spite of only having limited time this week to work on the thesis because of work on Monday and having to baby sit the two boys on Wednesday.

What I’ve done this week

In the last update I said I’d complete the People component and get going on either pedagogy or product. I chose product.

In the last week I’ve

  • Completed the People, cognition, rationality and e-learning section of the People component.
  • Completed the Lessons for e-learning from People section which is the last section of the People component.
  • Completed the introduction and conceptions of technology section from the Product component.
  • Worked out the structure and re-organised most of the literature for the remaining sections of the Product component.
    The current planned structure is a little different than that outlined in the introduction. The current structure is
    • Conceptions of technology – DONE
      Broad discussion of how technology is perceived.
    • University e-learning technology – describe the technologies currently used
      • What is an LMS?
      • LMS limitations.
      • Other systems.
    • Other product models – the LMS is an integrated “ES”. There are other alternatives. Briefly mention these and the relative merits as opposed to the ES model.
    • Lessons for e-learning from Product.

What I’ll do next week

The aim is to complete the Product component and make significant progress on the Pedagogy component. If at all possible I’d like to complete both, but I’ve got a couple of other tasks to do at work next week which may prevent this from happening.

BIM#5: Getting a prototype BIM going

In the last bit of work I did on BIM, I got to the stage of having some initial working code for BIM module that allow someone to create a BIM activity and have that data saved to the database. The activity wouldn’t do anything, but it’s a start.

The aim today is to try and make some progress on getting a prototype up and going. i.e. some working Moodle code that academic staff can interact with and get some idea of how BIM will work. I’m still uncertain how far I will go with this. I have two main options:

  1. hard coded HTML; or
    Have the code return hard-coded HTML, don’t read any database. Just give the same information.

    This would be the simplest approach in terms of database tables and code. However, given that Moodle uses a forms library, I won’t be able to do the simplest thing – copy the HTML from BAM into BIM. I’ll have to do some translation. It may turn out to be simpler to do the next bit.

  2. generate HTML from a pre-populated database.
    Take/manipulate some data from the existing BAM database to create a BIM database in Moodle. Write code in BIM that will generate HTML based on that data, but not allow modification of the data.

    Some increased complexity, but also like to be a temptation to write the whole code which will slow down the production of the prototype.

Based on that bit of reflection, I think I’ll start with a hard-coded HTML approach and see what happens.

What to show

First step, I should probably ask if <a href=" has a theme for its Moodle implementation. If I apply it to my dev box, I can make the initial prototype experiments look like the live system. Have to ask.

Okay, with the current status of BIM, if I “view” the activity, it doesn’t produce any HTML. The plan here is that different users will see different information when the view the activity. The different views are:

  • Student
    • If they haven’t registered their blog, see the information about how to create and register their blog.
    • If they have registered their blog, they should see
      • Details about their blog, including an interface to change their registered blog (if so configured by the coordinator).
      • Details about their posts/answers.
        This is where they see which posts to their blog BAM has recognised as an answer to a required question. It will also show whether the answer has been marked and also any comments from the marker.
  • Staff – the following draws on screen shots of the existing system. The appearance will change to fit Moodle and also possibly to improve the interface.
    • By default the “student blog details” screen (see below)
      BAM show student blog details
    • Link to the “answers page”
      BAM show all student posts page
    • Which in turn links to the marking page
      BAM mark post page

To find out

This means that I need to find out how to do the following in Moodle:

  • Perform different operations for different types of users.
  • Ensure only the authorised users can perform those operations.

Different operations

Viewing an activity is done via the view.php file in the module. At this stage it looks like this PHP code should check various parameters as well as course and user details and decide what to do as a result.

It seems that view.php follows a fairly set structure (not suprisingly).

  • Parameter check
    Check each of the parameters exist and are valid – including checking that there is an instance of the activity (e.g. bim) that matches the id that’s come in. Crash and burn if these checks don’t pass.
  • Security check
    Get the login details/objects of the user, perform security/capability checks.
  • Log some activity
    add_to_log($course->id, "bim", "view", "view.php?id=$cm->id", "$bim->id");
  • Display the HTML
    Which often involves a fair bit of calculation and then some use of standard header/footers.

The quiz module appears to use the idea of pagelib.php – which appears to implement/extend a factory class. i.e. a class that determines which type of quiz is being displayed and how to display it. There’s a global Moodle pagelib.php which seems to define the base classes for these. There’s a number of them – quiz uses page_generic_activity.

The LAMS module in the contrib collection appears to take the simple if approach i.e.

if (has_capability('mod/lams:manage', $context)){
}else if(has_capability('mod/lams:participate', $context)){
if ($lams->introduction) {

In the long run this will have to be thought through. The if/else option isn’t a technically nice and neat solution. I’m happy for a hard-coded prototype to use it though.

Authorised users, capabilities etc.

The question now is how to determine between different types of users. How to know the difference between students and staff.

According to the intro to moodle course docs there’s a roles and capabilities system that has replaced fixed roles. That sounds like, and based on the modules I’ve looked at, the way to go. More documentation here.

Capabilities etc are defined in the db/access.php file for the module which looks a bit like this

$mod_lams_capabilities = array(

    'mod/lams:participate' => array(

        'captype' => 'write',
        'contextlevel' => CONTEXT_MODULE,
        'legacy' => array(
            'student' => CAP_ALLOW

    'mod/lams:manage' => array(

        'captype' => 'write',
        'contextlevel' => CONTEXT_MODULE,
        'legacy' => array(
            'teacher' => CAP_ALLOW,
            'editingteacher' => CAP_ALLOW,
            'admin' => CAP_ALLOW

Should be able to add a couple of dummy ones and use that to add in some if/else to display different HTML based on the type of user.

First problem is that it appears changes to db/access.php only get recognised if you increment the version and/or reinstall

Next problem is that the little test I’m doing isn’t working. I thought I’d set a capability only for a student – but the code is being executed for the admin user. Either I’ve done it wrong or the admin user has some additional “powers”.

Looks like the latter. Need to create another user and assign as a teacher. Yep, that works.

Now, rather than simply “else not student” let’s add a capability the identifies teachers and maybe another one that identifies admin. Okay, the administrator version is working. But not the teacher one.

At this stage, I’d like to know if there’s anyway, in the code, to spit out information about the available capabilities. Would that be in the context variable? Nope, it’s fairly simple….doesn’t seem to be any reasonably straight forward code.

need to move on. I’m stuck at the moment with two of the capabilities working, but not the one with the student. Guess, I’ll have to go with a default.

Put in the student details page

While this is fairly straight forward. The other unlooked for complication is the need to grasp the use of weblib.php and its functions. So far, the introduction to weblib is not straight forward.

It looks like it will require a dive into weblib.php and some trial and error. Can’t seem to find anything in terms of decent overview documentation – apart from that generated automatically from the code.

Again, it’s another one of those frustrating jobs, not difficult, just painful.

Looks like it is time to go.


Have made some progress on the prototype. But really identified some additional reading and understanding that’s required to do this in “proper” Moodle-ese.

eLearning and Innovation Specialist report #1: 4-20 August

One of the problems within universities with the types of role I’ve been performing in the last couple of years is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind, problem. As a L&T “support” person the folk in the faculties, especially those in senior management, aren’t always aware of exactly what it is you’re doing. At the same time, they are aware of all sorts of problems they are seeing with L&T, have specific ideas how those should be addressed and don’t see folk like me implementing those ideas. Consequently, they don’t see any value in what we do.

There are some aspects of that problem that you can’t do anything about. This post is the first in a new tradition and is intended to address one part of the problem. It is questionable as to how well this approach will address the problem, but better to do something than nothing. The idea is that I’ll report on this blog what I’ve been doing for the last little bit in the position. In part, this will be used to inform my supervisor and over time I’ll promote these posts as way people can track what I’m doing. In part, this type of work fits with a number of my position’s accountabilities.

More importantly, I’ll point out that it is a way for people to critique and make suggestions. It will also prompt me to reflect a bit on what I’ve done and what I might’ve done.

Summary of work

From the 4th to 20th of August, the major tasks I’ve been involved with include:

  • Working on BIM.
  • Talking with Psychology folk about curriculum mapping.
  • Talking with Quality folk about projects etc.
  • Supporting others in research.
  • Preparing for a presentation.
  • Working on the PhD.

Some of the issues, barriers or hurdles around this work have included:

  • On-going uncertainty about the nature of this role and how it fits within the broader CQUniversity policy and process structures.
  • Disquiet about the role and what it is doing from sections of the CQUniversity community, as identified in the PRPD process.
  • Sickness of both myself and family members.

Working on BIM

This is currently the major task in my current work role. BIM stands for BAM Into Moodle and is taking an existing research project/tool from CQU’s existing LMS into its new one (Moodle). I’ve spent the best part of 3 or 4 days on this project in the current time period. The work during this period on BIM is summarised in a series of 4 posts: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The current status on BIM is that it is now much clearer how this will work within the Moodle model and the first steps have been made in implementation.

Curriculum mapping

A few weeks ago I was approached by folk from CQUni’s Psychology school with a need around curriculum mapping. The aim was how to improve the availability and use of curriculum mapping information around the Psychology program. Originally an L&T grant was envisioned, but increasingly this appears to be something better addressed at an organisational level.

Some additional explanation, examination of some related factors and one suggested way forward is outlined on this blog post.

Quality folk

I’ve met with someone from the Quality division to talk about various related projects and sketch a way forward. There is certainly some overlap and space for collaboration, though it is not immediately possible.

Supporting research

I’ve discussed potential and existing research projects with a number of CDDU staff. Have given feedback on an ASCILITE paper for one member of CQU staff outside of CDDU and feedback on another ASCILITE paper to a member of CDDU.


I have been working on a presentation to be given under the auspices of the L&T research centre at CQU. Initial thinking about the presentation is outlined in a number of blog posts, including this one.

The presentation will aim to give some theoretical underpinnings to how I approach my current role and identify potential ways forward for CQU in terms of improving L&T.

Working on the PhD

Progress on the PhD is regularly updated on the blog – the most recent is here

Work to be done

Over the coming couple of weeks the work focus will be on:

  • Progress BIM.
    I hope to have a prototype to show people within a couple of weeks. A month at most.
  • Help out on a paper for the indicators project.
    A late request, this will be a focus for the next week.
  • Progress the curriculum mapping project/requirement.
    This is a complex issue, in particular how best to progress it through the necessary CQU processes in order to achieve a decent outcome. I will aim to have developed a report on this opportunity within the next couple of weeks.
  • Complete the presentation.
    This will be given in mid to late September.
  • Make progress on the PhD.

The product component of the Ps Framework

This post contains the start of the Product component of the Ps Framework that forms a section out of chapter 2 of my thesis.


Technology is a tool and like all tools it should fit your hand when you pick it up, you shouldn’t have to bio-re-engineer your hand to fit the tool. – Dave Snowden

E-learning, as used in this thesis, draws on the definition provided by the OECD (2005) where e-learning is defined as “the use of information and communications technology to enhance and/or support learning in tertiary education”. The purpose of the Product component of the Ps Framework and this section is to examine the nature of the information and communications technology – the product – used to implement e-learning within universities. Due to its pre-dominance within university e-learning, the emphasis will be on the class of integrated enterprise system known alternatively as the Course Management System (CMS), Learning Management System (LMS) or the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

This section first briefly examines some literature from information systems and more broadly about conceptions of technology and the information technology artifact (Section 2.1.1). It will then more onto to examine more closely the nature and characteristics of the technology currently used to support e-learning within universities (Section 2.1.2), before examining in detail some of the limitations of that technology (Section 2.1.3) and examining some alternatives (Section 2.1.4). Lastly, it seeks to draw some lessons for e-learning from this discussion of the Product component of the Ps Framework (Section 2.1.5).

Conceptions of technology

Bringing to the surface the common assumptions can be particularly useful in the design and implementation of a system – like e-learning within a university – in order to identify where stakeholder frames may be incongruent and internally inconsistent (Orlikowski and Gash 1994). In the past, and especially within the implementation of e-learning within universities, information technology has been taken for granted or assumed to be unproblematic. Such techno-rational conceptions illustrate a quite narrow perspective of what technology is, how it has effects and how and why it is implicated in social change (Orlikowski and Iacono 2001). Conceptions of technology within the practice of e-learning at universities appears particularly limited when it is observed that the almost universal university approach to e-learning has been the adoption of a particular type of system (Salmon 2005; Feldstein 2006; Jones and Muldoon 2007). This section seeks to briefly examine the variety of conceptions of technology found in the literature.

Gana and Fuentes (2006) identify two different ways of understanding technology and its management within society:

  1. technology as neutral; and
    The development of technology follows a linear process and oriented towards efficiency and economic yield through the application of technical rationality that can only be understood and applied by experts with adequate specialised understanding.
  2. technology as a social activity.
    Decisions about technology cannot be based exclusively on specialised technology knowledge but is instead a shared activity attempting to made sense of a complex array of forces arising from development being intrinsically woven together with society and social actors.

In examining conceptions of causal agency in the literature on information technology and organisational change, Markus and Robey (1988) identify three conceptions:

  1. the technological imperative;
    Technology is seen as an exogenous force which determines or at least strongly constrains the behaviour of individuals and organizations. Information technology is seen as shaping organizations, its processes and jobs. Empirical research has generated contradictor findings and it has been proposed that contingencies affect the relationship between information technology and structural change.
  2. the organisational imperative; and
    Assumes that organizations and the people within them have almost unlimited choice over technological options and almost unlimited control over the consequences. This perspective assumes that human actors rationally design information systems to satisfy organisational requirements. It assumes that system designers and management are able to manage the impacts of systems by paying attention to both technical and social concerns. Empirical support is limited and most studies fail to assess designers’ intentions and are consequently not complete tests of this imperative.
  3. the emergent perspective.
    Holds that the uses and consequences of information technology emerge unpredictably from complex social interactions. Central to this perspective are the role of computing infrastructure, the interplay of conflicting objectives and preferences, and the operation of non-rational objectives and choice processes. This perspective refuses to acknowledge a dominant cause of change, instead prediction requires detailed understanding of dynamic organisational processes, the intentions of actors and features of information technology.

Sproull and Kiesler (1991) draw on the history of prior technology to develop four points useful in thinking about the potential consequences of new communication technologies. These points are:

  1. Full possibilities of new technology are hard to foresee;
    Inventors and early adopters tend to emphasise the planned uses and under-estimate second-level effects.
  2. Unanticipated consequences arise from interactions;
    Efficiency effects have less to do with developing unanticipated consequences of technology than the changing of interpersonal interactions, social organisation, work procedures and ideas about what is important.
  3. Second-level effects often emerge slowly; and
    Such effects tend to arise only after people begin over time to understand, reflect and renegotiate changed patterns of behaviour and thinking.
  4. Second-level effects are not determined by technology.
    Rather than arising from autonomous technologies operating on a passive organisation or society, second-level effects are construct as technology interacts with, shapes, and is shaped by the social and policy environment.

In examining the information systems research literature – in the form of the 1888 articles published within the journal Information Systems Review from 1990 through 1999 – with the intent of discovering what IS researchers had done with the alternative conceptualisations of technology given in the 1980s – such as that given by Markus and Robey (1988) – Orlikowski and Iacono (2001) identified 14 specific conceptualisations of information technology. They clustered these into five broad meta-categories:

  1. tool view of technology;
    Representing the common and received understanding of technology as the engineered artifact, expected to do what was intended by its designers. A focus largely on technical issues independent of social or organisational arrangements within which it is developed and used.
  2. proxy view of technology;
    Attempts to capture critical aspects of information technology through the use of a surrogate and usually quantitative measure such as individual perceptions, diffusion rates or dollars spent.
  3. ensemble view of technology;
    Technology is seen as only one element of a package or web of components that are necessary in order to apply technology to some socio-economic activity. All variants of this view focus on the dynamic interactions between people and technology at various stages of its construction, implementation and use.
  4. computational view of technology;
    A view that focuses on the capabilities of technology represent, manipulate, store, retrieve and transmit information in support of processing, modelling or simulating aspects of the world. Typically focusing on the development of algorithms or models.
  5. nominal view of technology: technology as absent.
    Where technology is incidental or act as background information. The focus is on topics of interest to the IS field but with not specific connection with technology.

An initial change in technology can set the direction of a deviation-amplifying spiral, however, humans can affect technology design and policy and therefore influence second-level effects (Sproull and Kiesler 1991). Management, those responsible for creating the environment in which an organization operates, tends to concentrate on efficiency effects (Sproull and Kiesler 1991; Lacity and Hirschheim 1993). Such a focus can limit the level of disruption caused by information technology and its second-level effects contributing to the maintenance of the status quo. It is not uncommon for adoption of new technological opportunities which significantly deviate from the established socio-technical profile of a sector to be slow (Dolata 2009). Table 3.1 summarises perspectives about information technology, its purpose and the likelilood of sustaining or disruptive innovation (Christensen 1997).

Table 3.1 – Sustaining and disruptive perspectives of information technology
Source Sustaining Disruption
Strategic information systems (Clark 1994) For automation and office support As a source of strategic advantage
Communications technologies, networked organisation (Sproull and Kiesler 1991) Emphasizing efficiency effects Enabler of previously impossible practices
Web-based teaching and learning (Hannafin and Kim 2003) Harnessed to improve existing practices Enabling significant transformation by embracing different world views
Technology, innovation and firms (Christensen 1997) Sustaining – helping institutions improve existing products Disruptive – change the standard, a different set of benefits at lower costs

As shown in Table 3.1, in particular the Hannafin and Kim (2003) reference, various conceptions of information technology can be found within the literature associated with e-learning, some additional examples follow. It is most likely that technology will reinforce the old systems rather than the new paths (Lian 2000). Educators are likely to use the technology to do things the way they have always been done, but with new and more expensive equipment (Dutton and Loader 2002). Technology is not, of itself, liberating or empowering but serves the goals of those who guide its design and use (Lian 2000). The tools themselves are never value-neutral but are replete with values and potentialities which may cause unexpected responses (Westera 2004). The forms new media take are not technologically given, instead they are historically emergent and best understood by examining how social relations are inscribed in the technology and how the technology is shaped to provide specific functions (Adam 1998). The impact of new technologies depends crucially on the social context (Clegg, Hudson et al. 2003). While a e-learning system can be purported to support various aspects of learning, the reality is more complex, involving the context within which these systems are used and how they are adapted to specific student needs (Conole 2002).

The above brief examination of different conceptions of technology suggests that views of technology as neutral or deterministic are somewhat limited in the explanatory power. Instead, of quality e-learning arising simply out of the technology is unlikely. Instead the outcomes of e-learning are likely to arise in unpredictable and emergent ways out of the complex interplay between the technology, the organisation and the individuals. It also indicates that it is through this emergence that many unexpected effects arise and open up new possibilities.


Adam, A. (1998). Artificial knowing: gender and the thinking machine. London, Routledge.

Christensen, C. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Harvard Business Press.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.

Clark, R. (1994, 14 July 1994). "The Path of Development of Strategic Information Systems Theory." 2003, from

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.

Conole, G. (2002). "The evolving landscape of learning technology." ALT-J 10(3): 4-18.

Dolata, U. (2009). "Technological innovations and sectoral change. Transformative capacity, adaptability, patterns of change: An analytical framework." Research Policy 38(6): 1066-1076.

Dutton, W. and B. Loader (2002). Introduction. Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning. W. Dutton and B. Loader. London, Routledge: 1-32.

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

Gana, M. T. S. G. and L. A. T. Fuentes (2006). "Technology as ‘a human practice with social meaning’ – a new scenery for engineering education." European Journal of Engineering Education 31(4): 437-447.

Hannafin, M. and M. Kim (2003). "In search of a future: A critical analysis of research on web-based teaching and learning." Instructional Science 31: 347-351.

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.

Lacity, M. and R. Hirschheim (1993). Information systems outsourcing: myths, metaphors and realities. Chichester,, John Wiley & Sons.

Lian, A. (2000). "Knowledge Transfer and Technology in Education: Toward a complete learning environment." Educational Technology & Society 3(3).

Lian, A. (2000). "Knowledge transfer and technology in education: Toward a complete learning environment." Educational Technology & Society 3(3): 13-26.

Markus, M. L. and D. Robey (1988). "Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research." Management Science 34(5): 583-598.

OECD. (2005, 17 January 2006). "Policy Brief: E-learning in Tertiary Education."   Retrieved 5 December, 2006, from

Orlikowski, W. and D. Gash (1994). "Technological frames: Making sense of information technology in organizations." ACM Transactions on Information Systems 12(2): 174-207.

Orlikowski, W. and C. S. Iacono (2001). "Research commentary: desperately seeking the IT in IT research a call to theorizing the IT artifact." Information Systems Research 12(2): 121-134.

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.

Sproull, L. and S. Kiesler (1991). Connections: new ways of working in the networked organization. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Westera, W. (2004). "On strategies of educational innovation: between substitution and transformation." Higher Education 47(4): 501-517.

Nudging as paternalism

This is a story about serendipitous connectability connecting both the online and offline worlds and making me aware of a growing narrative or theory. Which makes me question whether or not nudging or nudge theory is libertarian paternalism

The connections

At lunch today I was reading the Australian newspaper and came across this article – “No nudging, please”. In which the author refers to something called “nudge theory” as a recent bandwagon and boils nudge theory down to being libertarian paternalism.

While I wasn’t aware of the phrase nudge theory, the descriptions of nudge theory did ring some bells

nudge theory finds individuals often behave in ways that do not conform to the conventional view of the rational economic man

This connects with some of my long term thoughts, recent reading and recent writings.

This morning, before lunch and before I read the paper, I posted the first public thoughts on a presentation I’m working on that seems to connect here. The presentation is going to argue that most approaches to improving L&T at universities assume techno-rational approaches (herding cats) – or at the least assume that people are rational – and this is why they continue to fail. I was going to argue that better approaches would be based on an environment that encourages small, on-going improvements in practice (weight loss). An approach informed by complex adaptive systems and the observation that people aren’t rational (it’s still a work in progress.

The idea that this approach could be interpreted as paternalism is somewhat troubling.

Then this afternoon, I’m trying to find some more mp3 recordings of presentations to listen to while walking (part of my personal weight loss program applying similar principles) I came across a post on choice architecture and education by Gardner Campbell

Aside: I came to Gardner’s post via a Stephen Downes’ post reporting on Gardner’s talk at OpenEd’09. Anyone have an mp3 of the video? Perhaps I should learn how/if ustream videos can be converted into mp3s.

Garnder’s post reports on his initial thoughts of the book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Reading the Amazon page suggests that the book and the theory very much brings together the ideas I’ve been thinking about. But I still find the question of paternalism somewhat troubling.

It’s a point that Gardner picks up on in his post

Although their advocacy of “libertarian paternalism” probably won’t please either the rigid high-stakes testers or the unschoolers, it does (so far) offer in my view a very interesting model for education that takes into account the need for expert understanding and guidance of the developing learner

Does my initial concern make me a rigid high-stakes tester or a unschooler?

Why am I troubled? Should I be troubled?

One of contentions is that much of the current attempts at improving learning and teaching within universities and how they are implemented are very paternalistic. I phrase it as level 2 approaches to learning and teaching. It is my belief that these approaches get in the way and actively reduce the chance of improving learning and teaching.

This is a flaw I’m seeking to address. So any chance that I’m also be paternalistic, strikes a nerve.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the Australian newspaper article was moderated somewhat when I saw the byline of the author

Julie Novak is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs bills itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank” and has a tag line “free people, free society”. So they probably fit in Gardner’s “unschooler” category.

Also, I believe that Professor Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures for 2009 titled “A new politics of the common good” do a pretty good job – from my perspective – of arguing that the application of only free market principles to education has some flaws. In fact, I’m pretty happy that this perspective provides a reasonable arguent against the “unschoolers”.

At the other end of the spectrum – “the rigid high-stakes tester” – in my context equates to the top-down managerialists and the the technologists alliance. The folk who think there is a single idea (or maybe a few) that will radically improve L&T and that if only we can get those silly academics to adopt this approach, then everything will be alright. Just about anyone from a systems background (Senge etc) fit into this group as well. As long as we all have the same values, we’ll be okay.

To me this people are strong paternalists. They’ve come up with the solution. We will do as we’re told. Only we don’t. We’re irrational, we’re different and we have agency. We will fight back. So the whole thing disolves into tension and conflict.

While the underpinnings of the nascent approach I’m trying to develop and communicate draw on aspects of nudge theory (I have to read more to find out just exactly how much) it’s not the core. The core of the idea is that the environment that support L&T at a university has to have appropriate features that continue and enable academics to reflect and change their practice. And that this approach should be based on what we know about human cognition and rationality, i.e. that we’re not.

So, rather than applying “nudge theory” to encourage academics to adopt “good approaches to L&T” that I, or anyone else, has identified. The aim is to apply aspects of nudge theory to encourage academics to reflect and support them in identifying improvements to L&T that work for them in a sustainable way.

But then, when is all said and done, organisations always have limited resources there will, at some stage, need to be decisions made. Is this where management steps in? Novak makes the following point in her Australian article

The notion that the state should nudge individuals to make better decisions overlooks the fact politicians and government officials are also afflicted by behavioural biases.

. It is important that when management do end up making decisions, that they also be aware of their limitations. That they are also nudged in the right direction.

More thinking to be done.

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