PhD Thesis

After starting in 2001 and suffering many delays along the way, my PhD thesis titled – “An Information Systems Design Theory for E-Learning” – was finally submitted to and accepted by ANU. The abstract is included below and a PDF copy (5Mb) of the thesis can be downloaded.

A copy is also available on the ANU Digital Theses Collection.


This thesis seeks to offer an answer to the problem of how to design, implement and support information systems that effectively and efficiently support e-learning within universities. This problem is increasingly prevalent and important to the operation of universities. It is also a problem where existing solutions are limited in terms of variety, quality and explicit theoretical guidance. This thesis formulates a specific Information Systems Design Theory (ISDT) – An Information Systems Design Theory for Emergent University E-learning Systems – as one answer to this problem.

The ISDT is formulated using an iterative action research cycle that encompasses the design, support and evolution of the Webfuse information system at Central Queensland University (CQU) from 1996 through 2009. The Webfuse system was used by tens of thousands of staff and students. It is the knowledge gained through this experience that, in two separate stages, is used to formulate design theory.

The final ISDT recognises that diversity and rapid on-going change are for a number of reasons, the key characteristics of e-learning within universities. Consequently, the ISDT specifies both process and product models that aim to enable the e-learning information systems to be emergent. In particular the ISDT proposes that emergent e-learning information systems will encourage and enable greater levels of e-learning adoption in terms of quantity, quality and diversity; as well as providing a level of differentiation and competitive advantage for the institution.

This thesis makes two additional contributions. First, the Ps Framework is developed and used to analyse the current, dominant practice of providing e-learning information systems within universities. The resulting analysis reveals a significant mismatch between the requirements of e-learning within universities and the characteristics of the product and process models used by the dominant approach to supporting e-learning within universities. It is this mismatch that the ISDT seeks to address. Second, is the formulation of an alternate method for specifying the components of an ISDT. This alternate specification arose from difficulties faced with using existing ISDT specifications.


The origins of the thesis are in work at CQUniversity in the design, development and support of Webfuse a system to support e-learning. The early design thinking behind Webfuse is outlined in a 1996 ASCILITE paper The design of an integrated, online learning environment

A more recent presentation gives a summary of what I think is wrong with existing e-learning practice within higher education and the suggestions that have arisen from my research. The presentation page has a range of resources including video. It is wrapped around with a brief experiment with technology for presentations, ignore that.


At the moment, it looks like the thesis will claim that the implementation of e-learning within universities is currently constrained by an orthodoxy. Using the Ps Framework the thesis will illustrate that the orthodoxy significantly constrains effectiveness, innovation and perhaps efficiency by adopting conceptualisations of the Product (e-learning = a Learning Management System), Process (teleological design), People (that we’re rational), Place (very much informed by simplistic versions of “business”), amongst others.

Based on this premise, ideas from the literature and the experience of designing, developing and supporting Webfuse over 10+years the thesis proposes an Information Systems Design Theory (Gregor and Jones, 2007) that offers an alternate approach. This alternate approach is based around an ateleological design process and a “product” that focuses “fusing” together best of breed technologies into the specifics of the institutional context (“Place”). It is suggested, that such an approach is more likely to increase innovation, increase adoption of effective pedagogies and, in the long term, be more efficient than current practices.

Now all I have to do is write the thesis and justify all of that.

Other resources, that expand on the above include:


This thesis aims to be a demonstration of the ability identified by Alavi and Leidner (2001) in that it seeks to offer a vision on the structures, processes and technology that can be drawn upon to effectively implement technology-mediated learning within universities. The specific aim of this thesis is to provide one answer to the following research problem.

How do you design, implement and support an information system that effectively and efficiently supports e-learning within an institution of higher education?

One approach to this problem has been generated through the application of an iterative, action-research process to the implementation and support of an information system to support e-learning within an existing HEI. The resulting real-world information systems has been used by thousands of staff and students and has informed the formulation of three generations of an Information Systems Design Theory (Gregor and Jones, 2007; Walls, Widmeyer, & El Sawy, 2004; Walls et al., 1992).

The intent is that the resulting ISDT provides guidance that is “better” than much of the existing practice.


The major outputs of the thesis includes:

  • Webfuse – an information system still being used at CQUniversity.
    A system that, at last count (late 2005), had been used by 12000+ students, and 400+ staff.
  • Publications describing Webfuse and its design
  • Publications around e-learning and the use of IT in tertiary education.
    The distinction between publications in this category and the previous category is somewhat blurred.
  • Publications contributing to the practice of design research within information systems.

My publications page contains pointers to the papers.

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