Alternatives for the institutional implementation of e-learning: Lessons from 12 years of Webfuse

This is a submission to a conference later in the year. The conference has its own specific requirements for submissions, hence the structure of this post. In some cases I’ve left in quotes or italics the directions given by the conference as to the content of the submission. It’s still a work in progress. Submission is not due for a few days. More than keen to hear suggestions and criticisms.

The submission was accepted and will be presented at EDUCAUSE’09 on the 6th November, 2009. The slides should be here before the presentation.

Background

The topic of the submission is essentially a summary of the results of my PhD work. I’ve been working on this submission, in part, to prepare for a presentation on the PhD at ANU late next week that will cover some of the same content. The slides are included below, and an early version of the presentation is available as video on ustream

Abstract

50 word maximum

The practice of e-learning in universities suffers from a number of unquestioned perspectives that limit outcomes. This presentation describes a framework for understanding the full diversity of alternate perspectives and examines one successful set of perspectives arising out of 12+ years of designing, supporting and competing with the Webfuse system.

Slides

Presentation outline

Statement of the problem or issue: State specifically what problem or issue you will address during your session.

Even though the implementation of e-learning within institutions of higher education is no longer new, it remains difficult and somewhat less than successful. While participation and use of e-learning continues to increase (Allen and Seaman, 2008), most universities are struggling to engage a significant percentage of students and staff in e-learning (Salmon, 2005). There remain concerns about the quality of the learning and teaching and about the return on the investment in e-learning (Bates, 2009). Some have found linkages between the practice of e-learning within universities and the idea of management fads and fashions (Pratt, 2005). Technology has not yet transformed education.

That there remains a problem with e-learning is illustrated by it being ninth in the top-ten issues facing IT in the 2008 EDUCAUSE current issues survey (Allison, DeBlois, et al, 2008). There continues to be a need for a vision on the structures, processes and technology that can be drawn upon effectively to implement e-learning within universities (Alavi and Leidner, 2001). There is a need for work that develops theories and models of change related to human intervention and sustainability of e-learning within universities (Salmon, 2005).

The fundamental problem at the core of this work is the question

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

In attempting to develop answers to this question over 12+ years of designing, supporting and competing with the Webfuse e-learning system it has become obvious that many of the assumptions and perspectives underpinning current and accepted practice are of questionable and, in some cases, highly negative value. It has also become obvious that there are many different and contradictory perspectives of the highly complex, confusing and almost over-whelming issues associated with the e-learning within universities and that there is value in moving beyond the obvious and accepted views.

Description of activity, project or solution: This is the core of your proposed presentation and should include such things as historical background; who was involved with the project; examples of what it took to analyze and define problems and solutions; methods used to work toward solutions, and so on.

In 1996 the Department of Mathematics and Computing at Central Queensland University, like many other university departments of the time, embarked on the design (Jones and Buchanan, 1996) and development of a system called Webfuse to enable it to more effectively make use of e-learning. Since that time the system and associated processes have evolved through a number of phases in response to changes in the local institutional context and a growing insight into what works and what doesn’t. The phases include:

  • Initial design – 1996/1997.
    Performed by an individual academic given a term off teaching by the Department. The university’s central IT division was not directly involved.
  • Early, limited support – 1997-2000.
    First, as part of the Department of Maths and Computing and then as part of the Faculty of Informatics and Communication, Webfuse is supported by a small group of 1 full-time and 1 part-time positions. The central IT division is still not involved with the system. There is little development of Webfuse, mostly supporting staff using existing functionality.
  • Growth and development – 2000-2004.
    During this time support was provided by a group varying between 3 and 5 people. This included an academic position as lead designer. The group supported and developed Webfuse within the Faculty of Informatics and Communication. Still no direct involvement from central IT, though significant disagreements commence. These are largely due to increased usage of Webfuse services by academic staff from across the institution. Increased usage directly attributable to the development of a number of useful services.
  • Traditional systems development – 2005-2007.
    The academic lead developer of Webfuse returns to teaching and a group of 3 people continue to support Webfuse using more traditional governance and development models. The group is based within the Faculty of Informatics and Communication and then, after a restructure, within the Faculty of Business and Informatics. Still no direct involvement of the central IT division. Significant use of Webfuse services outside of the host faculty continues. Development of new services somewhat limited, but still going on.
  • Centralisation – 2007-now.
    The Webfuse staff move into the central information technology division and the group is eventually reduced to 1 and a bit positions. Usage across the institution of some Webfuse services decrease, while some increase. All development of new services is halted and it is likely that Webfuse will be phased out over the coming year or two.

Throughout the history of Webfuse the author has taken on a number of different roles including:

  • the academic teaching staff member charged with the initial design of Webfuse (1996-1997);
  • lead designer in a team of between 2 and 5 staff (2000-2004);
  • an academic member of staff using the system in his own teaching (1996-2000 and 2004-2006);
  • manager of a unit responsible for providing staff and student support in the use of Blackboard, the institutions official and competing e-learning system (2007-2008);
  • a researcher publishing the principles underlying the design and the use of Webfuse (1996-now); and
  • an information systems PhD student developing an information systems design theory based on the design and support of Webfuse (2000-2008).

Throughout its lifespan Webfuse has been developed with a range of different methods ranging from naive design and “cowboy” coding, agile and participative development through to more traditional heavyweight software development and governance methods. It has predominantly made use of open source software and the Perl scripting language with an object-oriented, patterns-based architecture with an emphasis on small pieces, loosely joined.

The development of the perspectives expressed in this presentation and other publications has been based on an interative, action-research process underpinning the design, re-design and use of Webfuse for e-learning. A process that has led to a number of peer-reviewed publications (Jones, 1996; Jones, 1999; Jones, Jameson and Clark, 2001; Jones and Behrens, 2001), the formulation of the Ps Framework (Jones, Vallack and Fitzgerald-Hood, 2008) and an information systems design theory (ISDT) for e-learning implementation within Universities (Jones and Gregor, 2004).

Outcome: Here you should talk about your outcomes and achievements. Did you accomplish what you set out to do? In addition to anecdotal evidence, include quantitative examples of how your project resolved a problem or issue. It’s important to talk about the successes and failures, especially in respect to what you learned from either.

There are three main outcomes arising out of the design and support of Webfuse:

  1. The Ps framework (Jones, Vallack and Fitzgerald-Hood, 2008);
    The Ps Framework is a descriptive theory that helps reduce the complexity associated with making decisions about the implementation of e-learning within universities. It helps identify the diverse perspectives that exist of the components of e-learning. The framework can be used to guide discussion and evaluation of the perspectives most appropriate for a given context.

    In this presentation the Ps Framework will be used to compare and contrast a diverse set of perspectives of how to go about the impelementation of e-learning. This will include examination of the many different perspectives of success and failure associated with Webfuse over its 12+ years. It will also be used to illustrate the existence and potential limitations of existing standard practice.

  2. An information systems design theory for e-learning (Jones and Gregor, 2004).
    Information system design theories (ISDTs) are prescriptive theories formulated to provide guidance on how to solve specialised classes of information systems design problems. ISDTs increase the likelihood of successful development by providing principles that limit the range of system features and development processes to a more manageable set.

    In this presentation the Webfuse ISDT will be used to explain the foundations and describe one set of alternate perspectives around the implementation of e-learning that may be an improvement of existing standard practice.

  3. A successful instantiation (Webfuse) and related experience.
    The 12 years of designing and supporting Webfuse has seen both failures and success with both contributing to the development of the ISDT and the Ps Framework. The failures have provided the opportunity to learn lessons that have led in turn to improvements that have enabled the successes.

    In this presentation stories and statistics will be used to illustrate the different possible perspectives on aspects of e-learning implementation and provide supporting evidence for the ISDT.

Some of the positive outcomes arising from this work include:

  • Recognition by leadership of the importance of Webfuse.
    The annual teaching and learning report for the Faculty of Informatics and Communication for 2003 (Central Queensland University, 2004, p. 21 of 50) included the following comment.

    the best thing about teaching and learning in this faculty in 2003 would be the development of technologically progressive academic information systems that provide better service to our students and staff and make our teaching more effective. Webfuse and MyInfocom development has greatly assisted staff to cope with the complexities of delivering courses across a large multi-site operation.

  • Higher levels of adoption by students and staff.
    In 2005 91% of students and 87% of staff (including a large number of casual staff) made use of Webfuse. This is in comparison to reports (Sausner, 2005) from institutions held up as examples of best practice reporting no greater than 55% of staff adopting institutional e-learning systems.
  • Positive reactions from academic staff
    The following quotes from Webfuse users are indicative of academic staff reactions to the system and its processes and the subsequent level of trust that was created.
    ..the precedent of other IT systems made available in Infocom suggests that it would be extremely user friendly for people with very limited computer competence/confidence

    my positive experience with other Infocom systems gives me confidence that OASIS would be no different. The systems team have a very good track record that inspires confidence

  • Greater flexibility and innovation.
    The architecture of Webfuse and the development processes as outlined in the ISDT are specifically designed to be flexible and to enable innovation. Some of the many examples of flexibility and innovation within Webfuse include:
    • Earlier and better adoption of online assignment submission and management.
      The online submission and management (OASM) of student assignments has been a feature of Webfuse since 1996. By 2000 the system had evolved into a system (Jones and Behrens, 2003) that is perceived to be significantly easier and more useful than both traditional methods and those in other learning management systems. A concrete example of this is that in 2008 the university recommended that staff make use of the Webfuse OASM system rather than that provided by Blackboard, the institution’s official learning management systems. This recommendation was due to the significant inefficiency, lack of integration into institutional processes and lack of features of the Blackboard OASM system.
    • Early and innovative use of new technology.
      For example, Webfuse has used RSS in various ways since 2000 and blogs were first used in 2002 through the inclusion into Webfuse of the Movable Type blog engine. In 2006, the Blog Aggregation Management (BAM) system was added to Webfuse. BAM is discussed in the ELI Guide to Blogging (Coghlan, Crawford et al, 2007), which observed
      One of the most compelling aspects of the project was the simple way it married Web 2.0 applications with institutional systems. This approach has the potential to give institutional teaching and learning systems greater efficacy and agility by making use of the many free or inexpensive – but useful – tools like blogs proliferating on the Internet and to liberate institutional computing staff and resources for other efforts.

  • Greater integration with the organisational context.
    The architecture and development process underpinning Webfuse places an emphasis on responding to the local context. Consequently, many of the services provided by Webfuse are not typically found in traditional e-learning systems and have made a significant difference to adoption. Examples of the unusual services offered by Webfuse include: a system to request informal review of grades, uploading of end of term results, a gallery of student photos, an email merge facility, a system to track incidents of academic misconduct, an online timetable generator, a web-based interface to student records, the automatic creation and population of default course sites and many others. It is these services specific to the local context, that have been adopted across the entire institution.

Importance or relevance to other institutions: Please extract and describe the overarching principals or lessons learned that attendees can focus on during your presentation so that they can better understand the importance and relevance of your findings to their institutions.

The Ps Framework identifies the following components associated with the institutional implementation of e-learning (Jones, Vallack and Fitzgerald-Hood, 2008):

  1. Purpose.
    What is the purpose or reason for the organization in adopting e-learning or changing how it currently implements e-learning? What does the organization hope to achieve? How does the organization conceptualise its future and how e-learning fits within it? What is the purpose of the organisation?
  2. Place.
    What is the nature of the organization in which e-learning will be implemented? What is the social and political context within which it operates? How is the nature of the system in which e-learning will be implemented understood?
  3. People.
    What type of people and roles exist within the organization? What are their beliefs, biases and cultures? How do people make decisions?
  4. Pedagogy.
    What are the conceptualisations about learning and teaching that people within the place bring to e-learning? What practices are being used? What practices might people like to adopt? What practices are most appropriate?
  5. Past experience.
    What has gone on before with e-learning, both within and outside of this particular place? What worked and what didn’t? What other aspects of previous experience at this particular institution will impact upon e-learning?
  6. Product.
    What type of “systems” or products are being considered? What is the nature of these products? What are their features? What are their affordances and limitations?
  7. Process.
    What are the characteristics of the process used to choose how or what will be implemented? What process will be used to implement the chosen approach?

Using the Ps Framework it is possible to identify a growing orthodoxy around the organisational implementation of e-learning within Universities. This orthodoxy is characterised by a particular set of perspectives on the components of the Ps Framework. For example, the orthodoxy generally selects as the product one of a number of integrated, enterprise learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle). For process the orthodoxy will generally use selection and governance processes based on teleological design (Jones and Muldoon, 2007). This presentation will use the Ps Framework, the ISDT and the Webfuse instantiation to make the following points:

  1. There is an identifiable orthodox view on the organisational implementation of e-learning within universities.
  2. Parts of this orthodox view are not necessarily a good fit for the requirements of e-learning within universities and, in some cases, can directly contribute to the problems and limitations of existing practice.
  3. There are a wide array of alternate perpsectives that can be more appropriate and consequently improve the quality of outcomes.
  4. Webfuse and the associated ISDT illustrate one combination of these alternate perspectives that has worked well and may be useful in other contexts.
  5. There is value in investigating, discussing, comparing and expanding the combinations of these perspectives drawn upon to inform the organisational implementation of e-learning.

These points are important and relevant to other institutions because there are concerns that current decision making around the organisational implementation of e-learning is showing signs of succumbing to fads and fashions (Birnbaum, 2000; Pratt, 2005). It is suggested that a contributing factor to this tendency is a less than complete understanding of the diversity of alternate perspectives and their relative merit. This presentation aims specifically to broaden the awareness of these different perspectives.

Frameworks offer new ways of looking at phenomena and provide information on which to base sound, pragmatic decisions (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). This presentation will see to provide a basis for increasing the awareness of the full diversity of perspectives associated with e-learning. Greater awareness of different perspectives will help improve decision making, the implementation of e-learning and consequently the quality of outcomes.

References

Alavi, M. and D. E. Leidner (2001). “Research commentary: technology-mediated learning – a call for greater depth and breadth of research.” Information Systems Research 12(1): 1-10.

Allen, I. E. and J. Seaman (2008). Staying the course: Online education in the United States, 2008, Sloan Consortium.

Allison, D. and P. DeBlois (2008). “Top-Ten IT Issues, 2008.” EDUCAUSE Review 43(3): 36-61.

Bates, T. (2009). Technology should be used as integral part of teaching and learning activities. EQUIBELT Project Newsletter, No. 6. Z. Bekic.

Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Central Queensland University. (2004, September). Faculty teaching & learning report, Retrieved February 16, 2009, from: http://www.cqu.edu.au/academic_board/academicboard/2004/September/8.2.1-DVCAR-FacultyAnnualTLreport.doc, p. 21)

Coghlan, E., J. Crawford, et al. (2007). ELI Discovery Tool: Guide to Blogging, EDUCAUSE.

Jones, D. (1999). Webfuse: An integrated, eclectic web authoring tool. Proceedings of EdMedia’99, World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Seattle, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Jones, D. and S. Behrens (2003). Online Assignment Management: An Evolutionary Tale. 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, IEEE.

Jones, D. and R. Buchanan (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. Proceedings of ASCILITE’96, Adelaide.

Jones, D. and S. Gregor (2006). The formulation of an Information Systems Design Theory for E-Learning. First International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology, Claremont, CA.

Jones, D., K. Jamieson, et al. (2003). A model for evaluating potential Web-based education innovations. 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, IEEE.

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.

Jones, D., J. Vallack, et al. (2008). The Ps Framework: Mapping the landscape for the PLEs@CQUni project. Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? ASCILITE’2008, Melbourne.

Mishra, P. and M. Koehler (2006). “Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge.” Teachers College Record 108(6): 1017-1054.

Pratt, J. (2005). “The Fashionable Adoption of Online Learning Technologies in Australian Universities.” Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management 11(1): 57-73.

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.

Sausner, R. (2005). Course management: Ready for prime time? University Business.

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6 thoughts on “Alternatives for the institutional implementation of e-learning: Lessons from 12 years of Webfuse

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