Ateleological development as a “better way” to develop university e-learning systems

Cole Camplese, in a blog post titled 69,000 reasons to pay attention, reflects on issues around innovation, especially with “web 2.0 like” tools, in e-learning within universities

I’m not at all saying it is time to bail on innovation — what I am saying is that we have a huge uphill battle in getting faculty to try the things we talk about, why create more issues by pushing multiple platforms at them? What I am now thinking about is how do I spend my time helping the conversation move forward.

The problem he is facing is that there are 69,725 students at his institution using Angel – the institutions enterprise LMS/CMS. With that large user base, is pushing web 2.0 tools worth the effort? Is there a better way?

I’m facing a similar issue here at CQU. CQU’s official LMS is Blackboard. Also offically, CQU “supports” Webfuse, a home grown e-learning system that grew out of one of our faculties. Though in reality, the learning side of Webfuse hasn’t changed much since 2001/2. Disclaimer: I’m the original designer of Webfuse. The Webfuse work forms part of my thesis. Though I haven’t been working on it for at least 3 years.

At the moment, CQU has underway a process that is looking at what we do in the future around our enterprise LMS. Up until recently my money was on the university throwing out both Blackboard and Webfuse and going with either Sakai or Moodle.

As of Feb 1 this year I started as the Head of E-Learning and Materials Development at CQU. Which means I have some role to play in supporting Blackboard, Webfuse and in selecting what is next.

Like Cole, I’m a fan of blogs, wikis and related Web 2.0 type ideas. I’ve even got a whole category on this blog titled Web 2.0 course sites. I could see how something around this could be really interesting, effective and innovative.

But, like Cole, I’ve been thinking about our faculty and students. Is the innovation really worth the effort required to change practice?

So what is the solution?

My rough ideas around a solution – ateleological development

This idea grew out of another post which in turn draws on ideas in a paper
that some colleagues and I wrote.

What we’re talking about here is a design problem. We have a problem, how do we design the solution.

Introna’s (1995) idea is that there are two extremes in design: teleological and ateleological. The following table is Intonra’s (1995) summary of the differences.

Attributes of the design process Teleological development Ateleological development
Ultimate purpose Goal/purpose Wholeness/harmony
Intermediate goals Effectiveness/efficiency Equilibrium/homeostasis
Design focus Ends/result Means/process
Designers Explicit designer Member/part
Design scope Part Whole
Design process Creative problem solving Local adaptation, reflection and learning
Design problems Complexity and conflict Time
Design management Centralized Decentralized
Design control Direct intervention in line with a master plan Indirect via rules and regulators

The majority of change in organisations is teleological.

The analogy we’ve used to explain this is to imagine you are taking a trip to China – all expense paid. You get to decide how you will do it. You get to design your trip. Do you follow a

  • Teleological design process.
    Find the best luxury travel company that has pre-planned tours of China. Design by an external person, not the person taking the trip. Designed to do it efficiently…

  • Ateleological design process.
    Pack your backpack. Buy a one-way ticket to China and make it up as you go along. Responding to new information and your own contextual feelings as you travel. Each time you have a choice to make you concentrate on what you feel like doing next.

Most enterprise systems implementation, like adoption of an LMS at a university is driven by a teleological design process. Some group makes the decision and then fights the political battles to get acceptance amongst the potential users. Decisions to replace an LMS are the same.

Teleological decisions like this follow the typical lifecycle model for information systems (see the following figure). Large up-front costs, typically in purchase and change management, followed by a long period of lower cost operation (where the ROI comes) and finally it has to be replaced.

Lifecycle model. Adapted from Truex et al (1999)

Truex et al (1999) make the argument that this type of approach only works in a stable environment. I believe that e-learning within universities is far from stable due to both external factors influencing universities (including technological change, globalisation…the usual suspects) and the internal nature of universities (not the most stable organisational form known to man).

The alternative is ateleological (Introna, 1995) or emergent development (Truex et al, 1995). Introna’s characterisation of ateleological development is shown above. Truex et al suggest that emergent development includes the following characteristics

  • Analysis is always occuring, just not big up front analysis
  • Requirements negotiation is dynamic
  • Redevelopment of the systems is continuous

Theoretically you end up with a cost/time graph with no big peaks and troughs. Thought it would, on average, be a bit higher than the traditional approach.

Kezar (2001), focused on change management in universities, and suggest the following as some research-based principles

  • Promote organisational self-discovery
  • Focus on adaptability
  • Construct opportunities for interaction
  • Strive to create homeostasis
  • Be open to a disorderly process
  • Facilitated shared governance and collective decision making
  • Connect the change process to individual and institutional identity

After that long side-tack, how do you solve this problem.

I think an ateleological design process is the way to go. Some rough ideas of its form include

  • Start with whatever the institution currently has
  • Interact heavily with the staff and students and try to determine what they think is important, what they want to do, what they need, what are their driving problems?
  • Tweak the current systems to provide some quick wins in terms of what staff and students want
  • Usually not with the existing LMS, look at intermediary information systems
    Most of the commercial LMSs I have seen are horribly inflexible and simply aren’t suitable as a long-term basis for e-learning using an ateleological approach. The infrastructure needs to be more flexible. An intermediary information system wraps around the LMS, provides the needed flexibility but still lets staff and students work with the current system.

    I think CQU needs to do this with Blackboard. Not sure about Angel.

  • Return to step 2

A lot of interaction and rapid response to those needs will, I believe, quickly allow something very interesting and different emerge. While at the same time not requiring huge leaps of change from staff and students.

Having I convinced myself? If so, how to operationalise this at CQU?


Lucas Introna. (1996) Notes on ateleological information systems development, Information Technology & People. 9(4): 20-39

Duanne Truex, Richard Baskerville, Heinz Klein. (1999). Growing systems in emergent organisations, Communications of the ACM, 42(8): 117-123

One thought on “Ateleological development as a “better way” to develop university e-learning systems

  1. Pingback: David's WebLog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s