Thesis 1.2 – Background to the research

Advanced industrial societies are currently undergoing a fundamental transformation from capital- and labour-based economies into knowledge economies (Burton-Jones 2001). In such economies knowledge, education, people and their ideas, become the key strategic resource necessary for prosperity (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). This transition to a knowledge economy is characterised by factors including globalization, increasing competition, knowledge sharing and transfer, and an information technology revolution (Zhang and Nunamaker 2003). This transition raises a number of issues for education systems, in particular how best to adapt such systems to the changes in the socio-economic landscape and provide the best educational opportunities and outcomes (Knight, Knight et al. 2006).

Schools and universities will play increasingly important roles as society enters this new age of knowledge as society becomes increasingly dependent upon the social institutions that create knowledge and educate people (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Some believe that the university will be the central institution in post-industrial society (Bok 1990). A 2002 survey of 30 OECD countries indicated that more people than ever are completing tertiary education and that 1.9% of the combined GDP of these countries was devoted to higher education (OECD 2005). A report comparing education between the G8 countries show those countries spending between 1% and 2.7% of GDP on higher education during the year 2000 (Sen, Partelow et al. 2005).

The knowledge economy’s pervasive and ever-increasing demand for innovative delivery of education has led to dramatic changes in learning technology and organizations (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004). The new technological possibilities and the new learning environments they enable are contributing to an unavoidable pressure for change (Tsichritzis 1999). The advancement of computer and networking technologies are providing a diverse means to support learning in a more personalised, flexible, portable and on-demand manner (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004).

These new technologies have become a major force for change in higher education institutions that will potentially have a profound effect on the structure of higher education (Green and Hayward 1997). Some suggest that the rapidly evolving technology and emerging competition puts the very survival of the current form of the university at risk (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). For example, Peter Drucker suggests, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universitites won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book” (Lenzer and Johnson 1997). Unlike previous periods of technology-driven social change the impact of information technology affects the basic activities of a university, creating, preserving, integrating, transmitting and applying knowledge, and more fundamentally changing the relationship between people and knowledge (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).

Universities, however, are one of a very few institutions that have maintained their existence since the 1500s (Kerr 1994). The pre-dominant model of the University is still the traditional combination of teaching and academic research suggested by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century (Tsichritzis 1999). These observations are often attributed to the ability of universities to be resistant to change (Green and Hayward 1997). The nature of e-learning, to some extent, conflicts with the academic culture based on autonomy and a reward system based on research (OECD 2005). Yet, the growth of e-learning has been incremental and has not fundamentally challenged the face-to-face classroom (OECD 2005).

The emergence of the knowledge economy and the increasing influence of technology are not the only factors driving change within higher education. Indeed the last 30 years has seen a period of unprecedented change as higher education institutions across the world as they are being shaped by similar problems and forces (Green and Hayward 1997). These forces include: increased access and growth in participation, reduction in public funding, increased costs, increased calls for accountability in outcomes and subsequent arguments around autonomy, the changing nature and growth of knowledge and disciplines, industrialisation and industrial relations policy, and internationalisation (Green and Hayward 1997; Coaldrake and Stedman 1999; Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). The uncertainty about the future generated by these changes highlights the importance of building institutions that are responsive to change. (CRHEFP 1997). It is the institutions that are able to continually adapt to these changes that will be successful (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003) and survive (Klor de Alva 2000).

The use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in learning has a history going back at least 30 years and has been characterized by a variety of names including: computer-mediated communication (CMC), computer conferencing, computer-based training (CBT), computer-aided learning (CAL), computer-managed learning (CML), distributed learning, electronically enabled learning, online learning, web-based education, Internet-based learning, telematics and e-learning (McCormack and Jones 1997). The use of different terminologies and often different definitions for the same term makes it difficult to develop a generic definition (Ally 2004). From one perspective, e-learning is ” technology-based learning in which learning materials are delivered electronically to remote learners via a computer network” (Zhang, Zhao et al. 2004). There are four main problems with this perspective:

  1. A content delivery emphasis.
    Much of the action, discussion and technology around e-learning has a focus on the transmission of content rather than on the construction of learning. Oliver (1999) suggests three critical elements of technology-based learning: content, learning activities and learning supports. Other work has identified five basic tasks performed as part of e-learning (McCormack and Jones 1997; Frizell and Hubscher 2002; Avgeriou, Papasalouros et al. 2003): information distribution, communication, assessment, management/administration and design.
  2. Assumption of distance.
    By 2005 the dominant mode of e-learning to which higher education institutions (HEIs) aspire is the integration of online components into their traditional face-to-face approaches, often called blended learning (Salmon 2005). The majority of e-learning activity is as a supplement to on-campus delivery at undergraduate level (OECD 2005).
  3. Limitation to network technologies.
    E-learning, as defined by the OECD (2005) can range from the use of PCs for word processing of assignments through use of specialist disciplinary software, handheld devices, learning management systems and simulations. It is not limited simply to the use of Internet or Web technologies.
  4. An emphasis on learning.
    Teaching and learning requires administrative support and, furthermore, that contemporary learning environments should integrate academic and administrative support services directly into the students’ environment (Segrave and Holt 2003). It has been suggested that the impact of information technology on the back office will be more important than its impact on the student/teacher interface due to the potential for large savings and the pruning of internal bureaucracies (CRHEFP 1997).

This thesis, with its emphasis on implementing e-learning within higher education, adopts 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”. In this definition, e-learning is expanded to include support for any and all tasks required to encourage and support efficient and effective teaching and learning. (Jones and Gregor 2004)

The importance of e-learning in contemporary universities cannot be denied (deFreitas and Oliver 2005). Allen and Seaman (2004) report on estimates that by October, 2004 over 2.6 million students will be studying online courses at US-based universities and that over 50% of institutions agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. The questions about e-learning have moved from a focus on use versus non-use to how, why and with what outcomes (Hitt and Hartman 2002).

Many institutions are adopting Course Management Systems (CMSs) as the solution to the “how to implement e-learning” question. Course Management Systems (CMSs) are software systems that are specifically designed and marketed to educational institutions to support teaching and learning and that generally provide tools for communication, student assessment, presentation of study material and organisation of student activities (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). There is, however, evidence to suggest that this strategy is not particularly innovative, is limited in quality and ability to integrate with other systems (Alexander 2001; Paulsen 2002). Even the most advanced institutions report little more than 50% adoption by faculty (Sausner 2005). With some exceptions universities have not employed technology to the same degree or as effectively as the business community (Piccoli, Ahmad et al. 2000). Successful implementation of CMSs in an academic environment is rather rare (Sarker and Nicholson 2005).

Early adoption of e-learning by Australian universities during the 1990s was done without critical examination of the merits and led to cases of wasted resources, unfulfilled expectations, and program and organizational failure (Pratt 2005). This may be due to the highly complex, confusing and almost over-whelming nature of many of the issues that information technology raises in universities (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002)

The transformation promised, or threatened, by e-learning is in reality a very fundamental transformation process, driven by technology but involving people, organizations, and cultures that must be addressed both systemically and ecologically (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Scholars in Information Systems can offer vision on structures and processes to effectively implement technology-mediated learning initiatives (Alavi and Leidner 2001).

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