Governance, e-learning and learning design

One of the challenges facing CQU and in particular “my group” is the question of governance around e-learning (the use of ICTs to support/enhance learning and teaching) and learning design. The essential problem, from my perspective, is that there are limited resources how and who makes the decisions about how those resources are used.

While we’re struggling with e-learning and learning design “governance” CQU’s Information Technology Division is also seeking to recast its governance structures.

The aim of this post is to force me to reflect on what I think and generate some perspectives and ideas. I think it’s turned into a disconnected diatribe against the current dominant model – not sure that’s all that useful.

What is governance?

Previously I’ve drawn on the Wikipedia definition. Which includes statements such as

Governance (in business) is the action of developing and managing consistent, cohesive policies, processes and decision rights for a given area of responsibility.

and defines the aims of corporate governance as

  • align the actions of the individual parts of an organisation toward aggregate mutual benefit
  • provide the means by which each individual part of the organisation can trust that the other parts each make their contribution to the mutual benefit of the organisation and that none gain unfairly at the expense of others
  • provide a means by which information can quickly flow between the various stakeholders to ensure that the changing nature of both the stakeholder needs and desires and the environment in which the organisation operates get effectively factored into decision processes

Looking a bit further the Wikipedia entry on Information Technology Governance quotes the Australian Standard for Corporate Governance of ICT which defines IT governance as

The system by which the current and future use of ICT is directed and controlled. It involves evaluating and directing the plans for the use of ICT to support the organisation and monitoring this use to achieve plans. It includes the strategy and policies for using ICT within an organisation.

My main problem with traditional governance

My main problem is that traditional governance as practiced by most organisations is at the extreme teleological end of the spectrum. It is plan driven. It is based on the assumption that a small group of people can go away and analyse the situation and develop plans and goals for the rest of the organisation.

Introna (1996) posits that there are three necessary conditions that must hold in order for this approach to work

  1. The system’s behaviour must be relatively stable and predictable.
  2. The designer(s) is/are able to manipulate the system’s behaviour directly.
  3. The designer(s) is/are able to determine accurately the goals or criteria for success.

I challenge anyone to claim that these three conditions apply in universities, particularly those in the Australian context. I challenge anyone to claim that these three conditions apply to e-learning – helping academics (Can you successfully manipulate their behaviour?) use ICTs (Are ICTs stable and predictable? Is how ICTs are used in learning and teaching stable and predictable?).

Kezar (2001) says

The unique characteristics of higher education are in conflict with the assumptions of teleological models, which assume a clear vision, unambiguous plans, a decision-making chain of command, clear delegation of responsibility, decisions based on facts and rationality.

Does somebody know of any university that has those features?

If not, it begs the question why universities, and more importantly, governments and their “functionaries” require the adoption of teleological approaches to governance, strategic planning, quality etc.

The alternatives

It’s not as if I have some brilliant insight that no-one else knows about. A lot of people have been talking about this issue and providing alternatives to traditional teleological approach. This includes, but I’m betting is not limited to,

  • The information systems research literature in the 90s (Baskerville et al, 1992; Introna, 1996)
  • The consulting companies in the late 90s and early 2000s (Voloudakis, 2005)
    It is interesting that Voloudakis (2005), after banging on about the need for the ateleological “adaptive organisation” then proceeds to trumpet his consulting group’s 6 domains to take an adaptive approach to strategy which, at least to me, appear to be fairly standard components of any teleological approach to governance. Much of the later recommendations in the article appear to be minor tweaks to traditional governance approaches rather than a recognition that there is a need for a major paradigm shift. There’s a whole other post about how wrong this article goes once the author stops quoting other folk.
  • Universities and e-learning (Kezar, 2001; Voloudakis, 2005; Wise and Quealy, 2006a; Wise and Quealy, 2006b)
  • Land (2001) provides an overview of numerous different conceptualisations of universities which demonstrates that the traditional teleological (Land uses the term Managerial) approach is only one of numerous approaches.

After her review of literature around change management at universities Kezar (2001) identifies these research-based principles for change

  • Promote organisational self-discovery
  • Focus on adaptability
  • Construct opportunities for interaction
  • Strive to create homeostasis
  • Combine teleological with social-cognition, cultural and political strategies

Voloudakis (2005) offers a range of quotes from other folk and his own comments about the nature of alternate approaches

Whatever it is called, the essential message is that organizations need to rethink how they plan for the future. They need to focus on their strengths and build capabilities to rapidly adapt to changes in customer demand, market dynamics, shifting technology, and other unforeseen events.

Becoming an adaptive enterprise means abandoning our management habits of prediction and control and developing instead the capacity to respond to change.

A sense-and-respond organization does not attempt to predict future demand for its offerings. Instead, it identifies changing customer needs and new business challenges as they happen, responding to them quickly and appropriately.

Daniel J. Forno, Vice President, IBM Global Services, who described this change as “Sense and Respond vs. Plan, Make, and Sell.”9 Forno noted that in this model, effective tactics in essence become the strategy. Organizations focus their strategic thinking on how to most effectively respond to anything the market throws their way, rather than planning for one or more specific scenarios.

Lord John Browne, Group Chief Executive of BP, offers yet another perspective: “Giving up the illusion that you can predict the future is a very liberating moment. All you can do is give yourself the capacity to respond . . . the creation of that capacity is the purpose of strategy.”

Separation of what and how

Traditionally IT governance structures seek to firmly define the separation of responsibility for answering the following two questions

  1. What needs to be done?
    In the old model this question must be answered by the business, and in particular senior management.
  2. How should it be done?
    The aim of IT governance is to ensure that it is only the central IT division that makes this decision. i.e. what technology should be used to achieve the “what”?

That made sense “back in the day” when technologies were inflexible, complicated and expensive. In those days it required specialist skills to achieve outcomes with technology. Skills a normal person simply didn’t have. A bit like the role of scribes in the very early days of writing.

Increasingly information technology, most recently in the form of Web 2.0/social software is becoming incredibly more simple to use and more powerful. It means that you don’t need the same skill level as previously required. In some cases you don’t need to be an IT person to construct something useful.

In this environment, the separation of what and how becomes a barrier that slows down response. It is slower because the people who have the need have to climb the governance ladder, at each stage attempting to explain why their “how” is important enough for the people who can decide the “what” to take an interest. Climbing that ladder takes time.

Even you climb the ladder you have the Chinese whispers problem where the original intent is lost due to errors that accumulate as the description moves further and further away from the original source of the need for the “what”.

How teleological limits innovation

Again from Voloudakis (2005)

“Most institutions use IT planning as an exercise in developing infrastructure to accomplish simple extrapolations of current practices. Rather than enabling a new future, they extrapolate more efficient versions of current practices into the future, five years at a time.

The rationality of the people involved in planning is influenced by the past experience and knowledge. In traditional governance structures it’s senior executive and the IT division. Senior executive are traditionally a long way from existing practice in learning and teaching at universities and generally struggle to handle their own email inbox without outside assistance (though that is reducing).

The IT division folk, who tend to get continually crucified about how much IT is costing the organisation, bring a continual focus on being cheaper in terms of their bottom line budget cost. The negative impact that the IT divisions cost savings may have on the overall bottom line of the organisation is never captured by current financial practices.


Baskerville, R. J. Travis, D. Truex. (1992). Systems without method: the impact of new technologies on information systems development projects. The Impact of Computer Supported Technologies on Information Systems Development. K. E. Kendall. Amsterdam, North-Holland: 241-251

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

Kezar, A. (2001). “Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptulizations.” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 28(4).

Land, R. (2001). “Agency, context and change in academic development.” The International Journal for Academic Development. 6(1): 4-20

Voloudakis, J. (2005). “Hitting a moving target: IT strategy in a real-time world.” EDUCAUSE Review 40(2): 44-55

Wise, L. and J. Quealy. (2006). “LMS Governance Project Report

Wise, L. and J. Quealy. (2006). “At the limits of social constructivism: Moving beyond LMS to re-integrate scholarship“. Proceedings of the 23rd Annual ASCILITE Conference

3 thoughts on “Governance, e-learning and learning design

  1. Kathleen Gray

    Hi David – I’ve been travelling, en route to EDMEDIA in Vancouver, but have had a chance to reflect on one of your posts so far. Here are some thoughts that your essay on governance has raised for me…

    I would say that governance needs to be as focussed as possible on the high -level work of keeping the organisation operating within legal and ethical bounds – the relevant acts and regulations governing HE specifically and governing organisations generally (OHS, privacy, HREO, etc.), partnership and multilateral agreements to which universities may be signatory, triple bottom line reporting, and so on. Governance includes showing organisational leadership in operating thus (e.g. if the law needs reform, or the system is morally reprehensible), and it includes monitoring and reporting internally and externally on these aspects of operations.

    I agree with the points you make about university governance tending to overreach itself and to confuse governance with management. Realistically, many university staff who find themselves with governance responsibilities (many staff in all sorts of organisations, in fact) have not had prior experience or induction to equip them well to make this distinction. I think the third element of the Wikipedia definition you quote gets it wrong, too: effectiveness is a managerial, or in your preferred term, teleological aim, but it is not the purpose of governance. Strategy, or scenario-building and planning for change given the uncertainties of future operating contexts, is also not governance.

    It follows for me that much of what passes for IT governance work is actually IT planning and management, sometimes inappropriately top-down or outside-in or just plain disconnected from the core activities of the university. Yes, there are large sums of money involved, and thus a lot of internal and external scrutiny of governance, but the management model more often is the key to things going well or going awry.

    If we scrutinised the more taken-for-granted aspects of university operations as rigorously, i.e. staff time and physical facilities, the spotlight might not glare so much on IT. But these aspects are older and more iconic (think about university library operations) than IT services / systems, so the culture of universities has not changed (not so much yet anyway) towards regarding them as it regards IT; many IT management staff on the other hand, coming out of industry, do not have the background to understand the work of teaching and research as insightfully as would be desirable.

    But the issue of teleology limiting innovation is a little different again. For me, innovation carries with it a nuance of ‘it’s new, so let’s do it / have it’ – and there is a bit of this in e-learning, let’s agree – whereas the change management principles of Kezar, say, would suggest that what we are after is more strategically selective adaptations to the *external* environment (in choices of technology implementations, e.g.) to keep us evolving as socially relevant organisations, and off the road to extinction.

    Lots of scope for non-traditional and 360-degree academic development here … Cheers!

  2. G’day Kathleen,

    EdMedia in Vancouver would be an interesting experience. Vancouver is on my list of places to visit.

    Thanks for the detailed response, I haven’t had time to process it yet and it is liable to be a couple of weeks before I can.

    Start of term is coming fast and our group has a lot of activities and work to complete in the lead up to our launch. So no comments this week, maybe next week. Should be fine after that.


  3. Pingback: The dissonance between the constructivist paradigm and institutional e-learning « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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