Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The life and death of Webfuse: lessons for learning and leading into the future

The following is an attempt to formulate and structure some ideas for a paper for ascilite’12 in Wellington. The aim is to convert my PhD thesis – especially “The information systems design theory for emergent university e-learning” – into something useful and interesting for the ascilite crowd. The following is an attempt to organise the mish-mash of content I currently have into something sensible.


Drawing on the 14-year life and death of an integrated online learning environment used by tens of thousands of people, this paper argues that many of the principles and practices underpinning industrial e-learning – the current dominant institutional model – are inappropriate. The paper illustrates how industrial e-learning has been a significant drag on the current practice of tertiary e-learning in terms of quantity and quality and argues that it will actively prevent universities from being able to respond to uncertainty and effectively create and explore the future of learning. The paper proposes one alternative set of successfully implemented principles and practices and argues that this alternative will better enable institutions to lead in a climate of change, rather than following along behind.

Paper structure

The introduction will briefly

  • re-connect this paper with the 1996 ascilite paper that outlined the initial design of Webfuse;
  • set that in the broader history of LMS (i.e. every institution had its own LMS) which then during the noughties got replaced by one of the big 2 or 3 enterprise LMS;
  • illustrate the problems and limited outcomes of industrial e-learning;
  • link this trend with the broader pushes toward strategic/top-down/rational management practices within universities;
  • explain how Webfuse lived through this phase and move further and further away from the industrial e-learning trend;
  • outline the structure of the paper
    • Research method
    • On the value of Webfuse
    • Product
    • People
    • Process
    • Conclusions and future work

The Research method section (in “proving” the academic credentials of this work) will talk about

  • the cycle of action research over 14 years;
  • the formulation of the Ps Framework and the ISDTs;
  • link this back to DBR.

The On the value of Webfuse will seek to argue that the system based on the principles outlined in the paper was a “success” on a number of fronts. In doing so

  • Talk about the complex nature of what “success” means in terms of Information Systems implementation.
  • draw on quotes from the literature showing the value of the system as percieved by others.
  • summarise the greater levels of adoption and use of this system as compared to other systems both within and outside the institution.
  • Talk about features of the system which were not present in other systems for years if not ever.

The next three sections – Product, People, Process – will follow the same basic structure but will focus on a different essential component of e-learning. The structure will go something like

  • Explain the nature of the component as implemented in industrial e-learning.
  • Illustrate the problems that arise because of those principles.
  • Present the alternative set of principles and practices.

The conclusions and future work will probably cover some of the following (this is perhaps the section most likely to evolve)

  • The principles here are not a perfect solution – as a wicked design problem there is no such thing – there are problems and limitations with this approach. Not the least of which is the familiarity gap. It rejects many of the taken for granted assumptions of existing practice. Perhaps list these. Perhaps the biggest message of this approach is that institutions need to have practices that engage with these challenges rather than seek to abstract them out of existence.
  • That said glimmers of these very different principles is increasingly visible in a range of movements within the host disciplines. e.g. agile management practices, agile development etc.
  • Perhaps talk about the limitations of the research – impartiality, discipline/rigor, context-dependency.
  • A call for more design work and design theory in this area to test/refine the principles here or develop entirely different alternatives.
  • That testing of this design theory is going to be extremely hard given the established nature of industrial e-learning within higher education organisations. In particular, the spread of senior management staff who have a sense of ownership. This tends to rule out the possibility of doing much to address the People and Process aspects, at least at an institutional level. It tends to leave the Product aspect. Where tinkering with open source LMSes may be a productive area for future work. Though at the same time providing its own sense of inertia. Some examples may be in exploring how distributed cognition can improve these systems, but also exploring technical workarounds to improve the adaptability of these systems.

Expanding out Product, People, Process

The following are an initial attempt to expand out the three main sections. Completing this has highlighted the need to think about how to present/structure the problems.

For product, this will include :

  • Current nature – is the LMS.(supporting blog posts one, two
    An enterprise system that has little or no capacity for change or customisation at the institutional or individual level (changing look and feel doesn’t count). Even open source LMS suffer problems here.
  • The problems include
    • Having to change the behaviour of people, because technology is hard to change (must include the Sturgess and Nouwens quote mentioned here
    • More broadly the need for institutions to engage in large scale change projects because of new versions of the software.
    • Separation of data and services into separate systems (e.g. student records etc.)
    • Software that is generic and not specific to the institutional needs, the lowest-common denominator.
    • e.g. assignment management functionality in most LMS in 2011/2012 that is behind what Webfuse had 10 years ago
    • A focus on one tool. e.g. one discussion forum.
  • The alternative

For process – will draw on a few prior publications (thesis-base process posts one and two, OODLA paper, prior ascilite paper, posts (procurement models, role of people in LMS selection)

  • Current nature – i.e. teleological, plan-driven
    Need to not limit this solely to strategic management or IT process selection. Need to engage with the learning design folk who adopt this model for the design of teaching and see if there’s an argument to make this better.
  • Limitations – drawn from the publications above.
    Also perhaps mention how it clashes with how people learn.
  • The alternative – ateleological.
    Draw on insights from the thesis, but also other work e.g. Laurillard and others’ calls for teachers to be action researchers and the need for the organisation to engage with this. Perhaps even bring in Bigg’s quality model.

    In particular, see if arguments/suggestions can be developed to enhance “course design” in ways that are more ateleological.

    Mention Cavallo and the idea that any sort of change is learning and needs to connect to how people learn.

For people the focus will likely be on the (techno-)rational model as it is applied to how people think/respond and also how they are organised. (A people blog post from the thesis)

  • Current situation – people are assumed to be rational and the application of logical decomposition that splits people up into sub-groups. Also an emphasis on cheapness in support rolls. There’s also the problem raised towards the end of this post where the innovative central staff are trying to get people to use what’s been provided. Perhaps linked to the chasm.
  • Problems.
    Politics caused by organisational structures. The frontline support tasks being taken on by roles that are amongst the lowest paid in the organisation and focused tightly on the products being used rather than broad skills. The chasm and how most approaches are targeting (intentionally or not) the early adopters. Chinese whispers. Starvation of requirements. Gaming of the system to fit the teleological constraints
  • Alternative.
    Cross-disciplinary, high-skilled, distributed teams close to the users..


Learning Analytics: engaging with and changing learning and teaching


Learning analytics and complexity


    • G’day Ian,

      Thanks for the pointers. I was aware of the 99 paper but not the follow up in 2008. Aspects of what I’ll suggest echo with the comprehensive strategy but take it a bit further.

      I will definitely be questioning the notion and practice of “strategic” management and traditional ICT project management and much of what flows from those practices.


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