Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: Reading

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

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

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

Blindsided by the elephant

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

'Blind monks examining an elephant' by Itcho Hanabusa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organisational defenses

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

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

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

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

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

Application to e-learning

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

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

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


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

Implementing an institution-wide learning and teaching strategy: lessons in managing change

The following is a summary and possibly some reflection on Newton (2003). I’m still trying to decide if, as I read literature associated with the PhD, if I should take the time to produce these summaries. I wonder if, instead, I should concentrate on writing the thesis….

Essentially illustrates that academics have different perspectives of strategy than management – SNAFU principle perhaps. Suggests need for better understanding of change and policy implementation. Reinforces much of what I think, some nice references, but doesn’t necessarily indicate an appreciation of or if ateleological approaches might be more appropriate.


Examines an attempt to implement a “learning and teaching strategy” within the UK HE context. Describes the background through the 90s – very corporate, quality based. Is an institutional case study into how strategy and policy are “responded to” by academic managers, academic staff and students. Identifies a range of factors that can undermine successful policy implementation. Offers lessons which can inform management, in particular management of change.

Of course, there appears to be an immediate assumption that top-down/strategic change is appropriate. Given my previous post, I’d suggest the possibility that prescribing something may not be the best way to go.


This is a follow on to a previous article (Newton, 1999) around the same institution. The earlier article as more detail on setting, approach etc. The method/approach is described as a “systematic experiment in reflective practice taking the form of an extended conversation with a developing organisational situation”. A “range of methods and sources has been used to provide a basis for stabilizing the views of key order and groups, including the results of a questionnaire survey and data from a series of typed, semi-structured interviews”.

Does mention following the precepts of an ‘appreciated’ approach (Matza, 1969) – is this linked with appreciated inquiry of which I have a sense of disquiet and of which Dave Snowden is quite scathing?

Pressures on higher education institutions

Launching into the, by now, fairly traditional setting of the higher education sector – massive change, competition for students, impact of ICTs forcing change in the delivery of education, low funding, demands for efficiency gains…

Some nice quotes/references

What hasn’t changed is the perception that higher education is beset by what one Vice-Chancellor described as ‘grotesque turbulence’ (Webb, 1994, p. 43). All who work in higher education today continue to have to deal with the ‘complex interaction between the planned and the serendipitous’ (Webb, 1994, p. 43).


The growth of external and internal regulation and monitoring became associated with academic deprofessionalisation. This increased accountability, expressed in various areas of policy and strategy, has been characterised by the rise of ‘audit culture’ (Power, 1994), and by what Shore and Wright (2000, p. 57) have termed the ‘rapid and relentless spread of coercive technologies into higher education’.

Not to mention the rise of problems associated with this sort prescription

By the end ofthe 1990s, many academics had grown resistant to the ‘intrusion’ associated with the growth of the ‘quality industry’ in UK higher education.

Positions the hole for this research in that in the era post-Dearing in the UK there is some caution amongst institutions. Suggests that the profound impact/transformation of academics and teaching has one under-researched and under-theorised.

Development of a L&T strategy – institutional case study

Sets out the context for this case study,

Institution: a “non-elite” institution, teaching-led, rather than research led, expanded during the 90s, underfunded, experienced organisational turbulence and change, leading to unresolved tensions that undermine attempts at improvement, yet to resolve challenges raised by external changes

External regulatory context. Calls for L&T strategies only arose in the 97 with Dearing report. Resulting in two agencies – Institute for Learning and Teaching and Quality Assurance Agency. References and descriptions for this “new managerialism. Wales funding agency pushes for strategies. Most institutions had underdeveloped strategies – few the product of extensive or open consultation.

Institutional policy context. Management saw the need for L&T strategy before the external requirement. Implement version 1.0 by 1997. Implementation issues and version 2.0 developed during 99/2000.

version 1.0 – perspectives of stakeholders

Version 1.0 included a wide-ranging general policy document with specific recommendations, targets and a costed implementation schedule.

Senior management. Raised profile of L&T and assessment issues, generated debate and critical comment. Investment in staff development sessions – with high levels of invovlement. Production of web-based materials only small number of staff. But overall quality improved and measurable extension of teaching packs and directed learning materials.

Staff. Front line academics covered later. Academic managers thought success not easily visible. Implementation patchy. Some deadlines/targets not met, subsequent decrease in perceived value. Some saw aims as idealistic, some to techno-centric, no defintiion of “good teaching and learning”. Most innovators were enthusiasts, who may have innovated regardless of the strategy. In sufficient ownership and a lack of bottom-up commitement.

Students student focus groups not included. Some conclusions about the “thin veneer of student-centredness”.

Academics and implementation of strategy

Front-line academic and policy process. Above suggested it is contested. Coal-face adapt and shape policy. Various references about this.

Policy reception – factors influence implementation. From quantitative data and observation – arise 5 concepts or barriers to implementation

  1. Loss of ‘front-line’ academics’ autonomy.
    Corporotisation increasing institutional requirements/impingement on teaching. The need to demonstrate compliance taking away emphasis on teaching and innovation.
  2. Policy and strategy overload.
    This one certainly resonates with my local context at the moment. The shifting, growing nature of policy and requirements – “the goalposts keep moving”. Uncertainty over expectation.
  3. Bureaucratisation of teaching.
    The rise of “task corruption”. More important to fill in the forms and plans, than actually be a good teacher. Some good quotes here.
  4. Local practices and local culture.
    Seen both negatively and as a source of information. Negatively through “game playing”. Positively illustrating weaknesses of top down policy.
  5. The ‘shift from teaching to learning’.
    This forms part of the prescription embedded within the strategy. Quotes from staff about students wanting to be taught. Disconnect from reality, limited impact on staff.

Lessons learned

  • Centralised consultation processes lead to a lack of ownership and effort required to support implementation.

    Indeed, as has been argued earlier, strategies do not implement themselves or lead automatically to improvement—even where there may be consensus amongst academic managers and front-line academics regarding the ‘desirability’ of a strategy. Even where general principles are agreed, ‘implementation has to be localised and quality enhancement planned for. As Gibbs argues, ‘implementing learning and teaching strategies requires more than a statement of policy’ (HEFCE, 1999b, p. 4).

  • Implementation must engage with the tensions that arise.
    Implementation reveals tensions as things change, knowledge increases etc. These need to be responded.
  • There is no blue print for an L&T strategy.
  • There is a need for a greater degree of sophisticiation in institutional thinking in strategic planning and policy implementation.


Suggests the ethnographic approach is useful in highlighting certain perspectives – agree. But there’s also the issue of the single person doing the interpretation.

Strategy driven mostly be external needs, is less likely to succeed.

The nature of universities – characterised by turbulence and uncertainty – require better understanding of change. Wariness of planned change perspectives. need to be more sensitive to the diverse views and practices of the academic community. Policy needs constant evaluation……


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

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