E-learning and information systems – a connection?

I currently work in e-learning for which I use the OECD definition – “the use of information and communication technologies to support and enhance learning and teaching”. My original discipline as an academic is the information systems discipline. To some extent, I believe this background provides some useful insights that help with the implementation of e-learning within a university context.

The following is an excerpt from my thesis which attempts to give my perceptions of the information systems discipline. It was written at least 3 or 4 years ago and is almost certainly going to have some limitations and will certainly provide enough for a range of folk to disagree.

Posting it here is in part to share with my work colleagues to provide them with some idea of why I think and act the way I do. My slant on IS does give some hints to my stance on certain research related questions. Also, it is partly to make me feel like I’m making some progress.

The connections I make

  • Both e-learning and IS are focused on learning how best to use IT within a social setting. You might even argue that e-learning is a particular type of information system, that e-learning is a sub-set of information systems.
  • That “otherware”, the people, processes etc, or e-learning are the most difficult problem to solved. There there is no consistency or rational, objective reason behind much of what otherware does.

The IS discipline

Any attempt to develop a description of the core of the information systems discipline is liable to displease someone. The information systems discipline is somewhat unique in the amount of on-going discussion and negotiation about what is the core of the discipline. This discussion is often referred to as an identity crisis in so far as IS has not carved out its own niche within the academy or industry (Benbasat & Zmud, 2003; Fitzgerald & Adam, 1996; Khazanchi & Munkvold, 2000). During 2003 and 2004 another round of discussion about the core of the information systems discipline flared up (Alter, 2003; Benbasat & Zmud, 2003; Iivari, 2003; Weber, 2003). Rather than be drawn into this important, difficult, and interesting debate this section seeks to provide one, reasonably widely accepted, description of the discipline.

At its core this work is about the development and maintenance of Information Technology (IT) within a specific type of social setting. IT is technology used to acquire and process information for human purposes and is typically instantiated as complex organisations of hardware, software, procedures, data and people (March & Smith, 1995). The study of the effective design, delivery, use and impact of IT in organisations and society is the main aim of research in Information Systems (Keen, 1987). Lee (2000) defines the Information Systems (IS) field as concerning itself with research and practice about the problems and solutions that emerge from the interactions at the interface between the technological and the behavioural.

du Plooy (2003) describes an information system as consisting of three subsystems: the hardware, software and “otherware” (Figure 3.1). It is the consideration of all three subsystems, and in particular the addition of “otherware”, which differentiates information systems from other related disciplines such as computer science and information technology. The inadequacy of computer science in addressing problems associated with the use of computers in organisational contexts has played a large part in the emergence of the IS discipline (Fitzgerald & Adam, 1996). “Otherware” is defined as including the system’s goals, the owner, users, operational procedures, and the tasks and responsibilities of the people involved.

Software and hardware are designed artefacts intended to be deterministic and reliable. Given certain inputs, that the output of a computing system is usually predictable (duPlooy, 2003). “Otherware” involves people, who may have agendas and goals that differ vastly from those of the organization (Markus, 1983). For this, and other reasons, “otherware” is non-deterministic (duPlooy, 2003). Inclusion of “otherware” brings with it added complexity, greater imprecision, the possibility of different interpretations of the same phenomena, and the need to take these issues into account when considering an appropriate research approach (Galliers & Land, 1987).

Information Systems
An information system (duPlooy, 2003, p. 111)

The goal within the field of information systems is to better understand how individuals, groups, organizations and society can use information systems more effectively and more efficiently (Weber, 1997). As such, information systems can be seen as an applied rather than a pure discipline (Adams & Courtney, 2004; Iivari, 2003; Moody & Buist, 1999; Nunamaker, Chen, & Purdin, 1991). Information systems researchers and practitioners attempt to understand the use of IT artefacts in order to be able to develop “better” ones (Iivari, 2003).


Adams, L., & Courtney, J. (2004). Achieving relevance in IS research via the DAGS framework. Paper presented at the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii.

Alter, S. (2003). SideStepping the IT Artifact, Scrapping the IS Silo and Laying Claim to “Systems in Organizations”. Communications of the AIS, 12(30), 494-526.

Benbasat, I., & Zmud, R. (2003). The Identity Crisis within the IS Discipline: Defining and Communicating the Discipline’s core properties. MIS Quarterly, 27(2), 183-194.

duPlooy, N. F. (2003). Information systems as social systems. In J. Cano (Ed.), Critical Reflections on Information Systems: A Systematic Approach. Hershey: IDEA Group Inc.

Fitzgerald, B., & Adam, F. (1996). The future of IS: Expansion or Extinction. Paper presented at the First Conference of the UK Academy of Information Systems, Cranfield Univeristy.

Galliers, R. D., & Land, F. F. (1987). Choosing appropriate information systems research methodologies. Communications of the ACM, 30(11), 900-902.

Iivari, J. (2003). The IS Core – VII: Towards Information Systems as a Science of Meta-Artifacts. Communications of the AIS, 12(37), 568-581.

Keen, P. G. W. (1987). MIS Research: Current Status, Trends and Needs. In R. A. Buckingham, R. A. Hirschheim, F. F. Land & C. J. Tully (Eds.), Information Systems Education: Recomendations and Implementation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khazanchi, D., & Munkvold, B. E. (2000). Is Information Systems a science? An inquiry into the nature of the Information Systems discipline. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems, 31(3), 24-42.

Lee, A. S. (2000). Irreducibly Sociological Dimensions in Research and Publishing. MIS Quarterly, 24(4), v-vii.

March, S. T., & Smith, G. F. (1995). Design and Natural Science Research on Information Technology. Decision Support Systems, 15, 251-266.

Markus, M. L. (1983). Power, politics and MIS implementation. Communications of the ACM, 26, 430-440.

Moody, D., & Buist, A. (1999). Improving Links Between Information Systems Research and Practice: Lessons from the Medical Professions. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 10th Australasian Conference on Information Systems.

Nunamaker, J. F., Chen, M., & Purdin, T. (1991). Systems development in information systems research. Journal of Management Information Systems, 7(3), 89-106.

Weber, R. (1997). Ontological foundations of information systems. Melbourne, Australia: Coopers and Lybrand Australia.

Weber, R. (2003). Still desperately seeking the IT artifact. MIS Quarterly, 27(2), iii-xi.

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