PhD Update #7 – a fortnight in review

It’s now been 2 weeks since my last “weekly” PhD update. The public holidays, minor surgery and a general malaise contributed to by on-going issues at work have meant that work hasn’t progressed as quickly as I’d hoped and it would have been pretty pointless to post an update last week.

Of course, all that is going to change from now on.

Yea, right. At the last I’ll be out at work tomorrow (saturday) doing more PhD stuff. Perhaps I might even make some progress.

What I’ve done

Last week, I said (not very clearly), that I would aim to have one blog post for each of the following

  • “History of technology-mediated learning”
    Done but took a lot long than I hoped.
  • “History of e-learning”
    This section has changed to become the “Paradigms of e-learning”. Much of the structure and initial content is in place, but not ready to be posted. Real soon now, have been working on it.
  • “Quantitative use of industrial e-learning”
    I’m suggesting that the current, predominant paradigm of e-learning is “industrial e-learning”. i.e. use of single “enterprise” systems i.e. LMSes. I’ve got a huge collection of quantitative stats about this paradigm. But nothing I’ve put together for posting. Haven’t worked on it.

In addition to the above, I’ve also gathered a fair bit more literature (would be nice if Endnote had a “view references ordered by date” feature) and incorporated some real nice quotes from some of that literature into various other sections of the thesis. Ready for culling and re-organisation.

In terms of blog posts, over the last couple of weeks I’ve contributed the following posts out into the blogosphere

  • Fad cycle in L&T – historical view
    A key result of the history section of the thesis and some associated reading is the recognition that there is a clear cycle at work with the application of technology to learning and teaching. This post started to express some of these ideas. The cycle will be one of the “lessons” arising from the “Past Experience” section of Chapter 2.
  • Measuring the design process
    While not directly related to the PhD in content, the intent is. The “People” section of chapter 2 will make a similar point to this post. i.e. that the common understanding/practice of IT professionals and “corporate” management are inappropriate for something like e-learning.
  • Snowden quotes connected with e-learning
    Picks up a couple of quotes from Dave Snowden that connect with two of my views – one each from Product and People sections of the Ps Framework – about the mismatch between what university-based e-learning needs and what it actually gets.
  • Fad cycles
    Follows on from a post above about cycles in higher education. Talks in some detail about Birnbaum’s fad cycle and the Gartner technology hype cycle.
  • Blame the student
    Picks up on a quote from 1912 – early days of educational technology – that embodies the “blame the student” or “can’t trust the student” approaches to teaching.
  • Edupunk rules
    A post that combines some insights from McDonald and Gibbons (nd) with the Edupunk movement. Both fit with the fundamental perspective from my design theory.
  • Disruption and the mythic technologies of education
    Combines insights from Shirky, Papert, Postman and Campbell to talk about the nature of e-learning (in transition), the nature of universities and how to move forward.
  • Theory and practice quote
    Picks up on a good quote that I’m planning to use as a lead in for Chapter 1.

What I’ll do for next week

The plan is to have completed and posted to the blog material on:

  • The paradigms of e-learning.
  • The use of industrial e-learning: quantity and quality.
  • Lessons for e-learning from past experience.

If I achieve that, I will have completed the Past Experience section. Perhaps only 4 weeks or so after I thought I might first complete it. I hope these sections start getting finished faster.

A history of technology-mediated learning

The following is a section from my PhD thesis. It is part of the “Past Experience” section of the Ps Framework. It aims to give a potted history of technology-mediated learning and show how it connects with e-learning. Since these terms are somewhat overused, it starts with some definitions. The plan is that this history will be used to identify lessons from history, which e-learning (generally) hasn’t learned.

I’ve been working on this for at least a month. I have been doing other work on the thesis, but the fact that this has take soooo long is not all the heartening. I think perhaps may sights are set a little high. The alternatives are that I’m either a crap writer or I’m currently not in the mood to write. We’ll see where we go from here.

The following has not been proof-read thoroughly. I’m leaving that for a later task. If you have any suggestions for improvement, fire away.

A major area of improvement could be in coverage. This is meant to be a minor part of one chapter of my thesis. It’s already probably longer than it should have been. Almost certainly in the search for some brevity there will have been contributions that were missed or others that were over-emphasised. Not much I can do about that, but if it’s important….

For more detail on this see Reiser (2001) or even more detail Saettler (2000). The Saettler book is in Google Books, so you can get a preview – sorry to tired of this to add in the link.


There already exists some debate and uncertainty about terms and definitions used to describe e-learning, technology-mediated learning (Alavi and Leidner 2001), networked learning, online learning, telematics, Internet-based learning, computer conferencing, computer-mediated communications (Romiszowski and Mason 2004), web-based education (McCormack and Jones 1997), asynchronous learning networks (Spencer and Hiltz 2003) and many others. The description of a history stretching back over more than 100 years only tends increase these problems. Different eras have had similar problems with an explosion of competing terms. For example, in the 1980s the use of computers in education might be referred to as computer-based learning (CBL), computer-based education (CBE), computer-aided (or assisted) instruction (CAI), computer-managed learning (CML) or computer-managed instruction (CMI) (Friesen 1991). Adding to the chance of confusion is the likelihood that in the past, modern terms have been used for different purposes and some terms had definitions that have unexpected nuance not immediately clear through the prism of history.

Rather than engage with an arguably necessary and interesting debate about appropriate terms and their definition, this section takes the pragmatic approach of defining a small set of terms that it will seek to use consistently. These terms are chosen to fit with the focus of the thesis and its topic. The concern of those who prefer precise and nuanced understanding of terms and their implications is acknowledged, but beyond the scope of this thesis. It is recognized that each of the selected terms, from certain perspectives, have weaknesses. However, both are deemed sufficiently useful to serve the requirements of this thesis. Anohina (2005) provides an analysis of terms used to describe the use of technology in learning.

The two terms to be used are:

  1. technology-mediated learning, and
    Technology-mediated learning is used as the broader term to encompass the use of any form of technology is used to mediate learning interaction or materials. As described in the next section, this will used primarily to describe the use of technologies from the 1900s onwards.
  2. e-learning.
    E-learning is used specifically to encompass the use of digital computers and the Internet to support learning and teaching. Generally, this is primarily from the early 1990s onwards.

History of technology-mediated learning

If the definition of technology is expanded to its most inclusive the use of paper and books are early examples of technology-mediated learning. In fact, some argue that every form of instructional delivery is in someway mediated with some form of technology (Reiser 2001). Bates (2008) suggests that technology has always been a defining feature of distance education. In terms of print-based distance education, Holmberg (2005) identifies early examples of correspondence study, entirely by the postal service, in 1728 and 1833. Saettler (2000) cites educational technology antecedents going back to the fifth century B.C and beyond.

Most descriptions of the history of technology-mediated learning, however, categorise the three main technologies of pre-20th Century instruction – the teacher, chalkboard and textbook – separately from other technologies (Reiser 2001). Following this practice, this section starts provides a brief history of technology-mediated learning through 20th century until the rise of internet-based learning. Subsequent sections attempt to draw some lessons for the practice of e-learning from this history.

It is possible to observe two separate streams of technology-mediated learning that arise during the early 1900s: the audiovisual instruction movement and teaching machines. Both these streams continue to have much the same emphasis throughout the century, but continue to evolve in line with increasing theoretical understandings and changes in the available technology. The presence and impact of both streams continues to be in evidence in many of the practices associated with e-learning. Though it is suggested that this on-going evidence does not include a complete and nuanced understanding of the findings from the earlier work. The following seeks to describe these two streams, how they have evolved and where they can be seen within e-learning.

Audio-visual instruction

Early, in 1909, a short story by E.M. Forster called “The Machine Stops” describes the use of a type of video-conferencing network to deliver a lecture. By this time the audiovisual instruction movement has taken its first steps through the use of silent visual media such as stereographs, charts and photographs housed in school museums (Hew 2004). Over the next 20 years the movement grows significantly through the availability of and an interest in the application of a range of related technologies including motion pictures, radio and television (Reiser 2001). The rise of Internet-based e-learning sees a continuation of this work through net-based audio and video, and currently services such as YouTube.

Much of the work around audio-visual instruction has emphasized the value of audio-visual material in their ability to present concepts in a concrete manner, as opposed to more abstract descriptions possible with media such as a lecture and book (Reiser 2001). From the start the theoretical rationale for audio-visual instruction was as an antidote for verbalism (Saettler 2000). The research tradition of the audio-visual instruction movement was largely confined to comparison studies of the effectiveness of the audio-visual media against other methods (Saettler 2000). A key finding arising from these studies is that given a paucity of significant differences there is a need to change the focus of research (Reiser 2001). Saetler (2000) identifies a disconnect between the audio-visual instruction movement and the rest of the educational technology discipline, which is illustrated the absence of any connection for four decades between audio-visual instruction movement and that of teaching machines.

Teaching machines

The second stream, teaching machines also known as programmed instruction, has a foundation in the industrial revolution, automation and the possibility for the application of machinery to solve problems. Thorndike (1912) expresses one of the early problems that underpin the rise of the teaching machine.

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

From 1900 through 1920s there were a number of attempts to develop machines to automate the application of multiple-choice tests (Petrina 2004). Pressey (1926) develops a mechanical machine that provides drill and practice items for students. Skinner (1958) suggests that Pressy appears to have been the first to propose a system that placed importance on immediate feedback, allowed students to self-pace and the required the student to play an active role in learning. It is on this basis that Skinner (1958) criticises the audiovisual instruction movement as aiding in presentation of material but contributing little towards student/teacher interaction. Skinner (1958) suggests that and widespread use of such material creates the potential problem of the student becoming little more than a “mere passive receiver of instruction”.

It is Skinner’s work during the 1950s that contributes to the rise and establishment of the programmed instruction movement. The key goals of this work included individualized and self-paced learning, application of a science of behaviour to teaching and learning through the principles of reinforcement of learning, and the construction of carefully programmed sequences of learning that lead to pre-determined learning goals (Galloway 1976). Skinner (1958) describes a number of mechanical teaching machines.


By the late 1950s early computers were available and promised to offer a better platform than mechanical devices for teaching machines, however, it was the 1980s before there was widespread interest in the computer as an instructional tool (Reiser 2001). Many early applications of computers to education were demonstrations to show the potential of computers in education (Molnar 1990). The first adaptive teaching system to enter commercial production was the Self-Adaptive Keyboard Instructor (SAKI), developed by Gordon Pask and Robin McKinnon-Wood in 1956 (Patel, Scott et al. 2001). The Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) projected commenced at the University of Illinois in 1959 (Molnar 1990).

Early interest in the application of computers to education is based on the dual beliefs that instruction adapted to the needs of the learner is good and that the computers makes this individualization of instruction easier as it can store and use each student’s own performance as a basis for selection the new problems or concepts for the student (Suppes 1966). Researchers extended Skinner’s work and used sophisticated mathematical models of student learning to help design instructional materials and strategies to achieve the a level of individualization (Molnar 1990). By the late 1960s, the PLATO system was using time-sharing computers to allow large numbers of people interact with lesson modules created by the TUTOR programming language (Molnar 1990).

Programmed instruction arises from perspectives influenced by behaviourism and cognitive science, which tend to reject or downplay the role of conscious will as a dominant element of human behaviour (Bates 1995). Such approaches limits response to within pre-defined boundaries and constrains the ability to personalize the learning or to create knowledge unanticipated in the design of the teaching material (Bates 1995). By 1973 the instructional uses of computers were listed as drill, skills practice, programmed and dialog tutorials, testing and diagnosis, simulation, gaming, and various forms of information processing, storage, management and display (Zinn 1973). Computers were not being used to enable communication between people.

Computer-mediated communication

The use of technology to enable human-to-human dialogue, commonly referred to as computer-mediated communication (CMC) during the 80s, was one approach to address this limitation. In the late 1960s the Office of Emergency Preparedness in the USA introduced systems that led to the first generation of CMC systems such as EIES (Zorkoczy 1989). By 1974 an online community began to emerge on the PLATO system through the availability of a number of online tools equivalent to email, chat rooms, groupware and instant messaging (Woolley 1994). CMC encompassed three types of online services, which were generally seen as discrete elements serving different types of clientele: electronic mail, computer conferencing and online databases and information banks (Kaye 1989). As early as 1982 researchers in computer-mediated communication had developed and published knowledge about CMC including: important considerations in designing or choosing CMC systems; factors influencing success; impacts of CMC systems on individuals, groups and organizations; and appropriate evaluation strategies (Kerr and Hiltz 1982).

Computer-managed learning

During the 1980s The rise of the powerful personal computers and local area networks encouraged rapid growth in computer-managed instruction systems (Friesen 1991). By 1983 40% of elementary schools and 75% of all secondary schools in the United States were using computers for instructional purposes (Reiser 2001). Much of this interest was in the use of computer-managed instruction (CMI) an approach that has origins in teaching machines and programmed instruction. During the 80s there was growing interest and use of Computer-Managed Learning (CML) systems, which manage both the learning sequence and related educational and administrative functions (Friesen 1991). These systems ranged from software design to “teach” a particular topic through to more general CML systems such as Plato.

Connections with e-learning

Kaye (1989) talking from a focus on computer-mediated communications suggested

In the future, it is likely that there will be much more convergence of CMC for interpersonal communication with database access and with local, stand-alone, elements (e.g. CAL, hypertext, audio, video etc.) to form components of a new generation of interactive multimedia and hypermedia systems which will have powerful educational applications

Currently, the most common institutional response to e-learning is the adoption of a Learning Management System (LMS) (Jones 2004). Such systems do provide an integration of the features identified by Kaye, and that have a direct connection with the history of technology-mediated learning. The ability to provide access to audio and video via the Web connects with audio-visual instruction. The provision of features such as quizzes and adaptive release, provide a primitive connection to programmed instruction and CAL. In fact, some authors (Sheridan, Gardner et al. 2002; Szabo and Flesher 2002) suggest that LMSes are simply the next generation of CML systems. Finally, access to information via the Web and the provision of email, discussion forums and other communication means offer a connection to computer-mediated communications.

This section has offered a brief history of technology-mediated learning and identified connections between this history and the current practice of e-learning. Section Error! Reference source not found. – Error! Reference source not found. draws upon this history to identify a number of lessons for the implementation of e-learning. First, the next section seeks to identify and understand in more detail the different paradigms of e-learning.


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.

Anohina, A. (2005). "Analysis of the terminology used in the field of virtual learning." Educational Technology & Society 8(3): 91-102.

Bates, T. (1995). Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education. London, Routledge.

Bates, T. (2008). Transforming distance education through new technologies. The International Handbook of Distance Education. T. Evans, M. Haughey and D. Murphy. Bingley, UK, Emerald Press: 217-235.

Friesen, V. (1991). A critique of computer-managed instruction in the light of key principles of adult education, Simon Fraser University. M.A.

Galloway, C. (1976). Psychology for learning and teaching. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Hew, K. F. (2004). Past Technologies, Practice and Applications: A Discussion on How the Major Developments in Instructional Technology in the 20th Century Affect the Following Qualities ? Access, Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Humaneness. 27th Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Chicago, AETC.

Holmberg, B. (2005). The Evolution, Principles and Practices of Distance Education. Oldenburg, Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universitat Oldenburg.

Jones, D. (2004). "The conceptualisation of e-learning: Lessons and implications." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges. Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(1): 47-55.

Kaye, A. (1989). Computer-mediated communication and distance education. Mindweave: Communication, computers and distance education. R. Mason and A. Kaye. Oxford, UK, Pergamon Press: 3-21.

Kerr, E. and S. R. Hiltz (1982). Computer-Mediated Communication Systems: Status and Evaluation. New York, Academic Press.

McCormack, C. and D. Jones (1997). Building a Web-Based Education System. New York, John Wiley & Sons.

Molnar, A. (1990). "Computers in education: a historical perspective of the unfinished task." Technological Horizons in Education 18(4): 80-83.

Patel, A., B. Scott, et al. (2001). "Intelligent tutoring: from SAKI to Byzantium." Kybernetes 30(5/6): 806-819.

Petrina, S. (2004). "Sidney Pressey and the Automation of Education, 1924-1934." Technology and Culture 45(2): 305-330.

Pressey, S. (1926). "A simple apparatus which gives tests and scores – and teaches." School and Society 23(586): 373-376.

Reiser, R. (2001). "A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part 1: A History of Instructional Media." Educational Technology Research and Development 49(1): 1042-1629.

Romiszowski, A. and R. Mason (2004). Computer-Mediated Communication. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. D. Jonassen, Lawrence Erlbaum: 397-432.

Saettler, P. (2000). The evolution of American educational technology, Information Age Publishing.

Sheridan, D., L. Gardner, et al. (2002). Cecil: The First Web-based LMS. ASCILITE’2002, Auckland, NZ.

Skinner, B. F. (1958). "Teaching Machines." Science 128: 969-977.

Spencer, D. and S. R. Hiltz (2003). A field study of use of synchronous chat in online courses. HICSS’35, Hawaii.

Suppes, P. (1966). The Uses of Computers in Education. Scientific American: 207-220.

Szabo, M. and K. Flesher (2002). CMI Theory and Practice: Historical Roots of Learning Managment Systems. World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare and Higher Education, Montreal, Canada, AACE.

Thorndike, E. (1912). Education: A First Book. New York, Macmillan.

Woolley, D. (1994). "PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community." Retrieved 17 April, 2009, from

Zinn, K. (1973). Contributions of Computing to College Teaching and Learning Activities at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan University: 33.

Zorkoczy, P. (1989). CMC in distance education and training: The border context. Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. R. Mason and A. Kaye. Oxford, UK, Pergamon Press: 259-262.

Theory and practice – quote and connection with e-learning?

Given my pre-occupation with the thesis, which involves the formulation of a design theory for e-learning. It’s of little surprise that I have an interest in the theory, practice and e-learning. Came across the following quote this morning in checking some literature, and I like it – new quote for a thesis chapter.

Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism. – Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 4

Currently this quote speaks to me because I observe the practice of e-learning within universities being performed with zero philosophical reflection.

The quote is the lead in to an article that is talked about here and more recently here


Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. (1980). Philosophical foundations of adult
education. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger

Disruption and the “mythic” technologies of education

I told myself I wouldn’t blog anything more not directly related to the PhD – I’m breaking that promise because a few things I’ve read over this weekend resonate strongly with the problems that are frustrating me the most with the current practice of higher education and its management.

The blog post connects ideas from a presentation titled “Disruption and Transformation” by Gardner Campbell (I wish the other talks in the session were available online – should look), an article titled “Why School Reform is Impossible (Pappert, 1995) by Seymour Papert, Postman’s 5th of 5 things to know about technology change – technology becomes mythic, and my own views about the roles played by consistency (bad) and diversity (good).

Gardner’s observations

In his presentation Gardner makes a number of observations around the practice of learning and teaching within universities in the context of disruption and transformation. These include:

  • LMSes suck at personalisation which is important for learning, ownership and community.
    The complete lack of any support for personalisation offered by existing learning management systems, especially when compare to social network sites such as Facebook. He mentions Blackboard, but I would suggest Moodle has just the same flaws – being open source doesn’t solve the problem, at least not yet.
  • Course synopsis/profiles suck.
    An illustration of how the common views of course synopsis/profiles can be seen very negatively. How they help set exactly the wrong type of environment for learning to occur and are a particularly bad way to start a course.
  • Pre-defined learning objectives suck.
    The idea that you can pre-determine the learning that will take place for each student is questioned. Jocene, I think you’ll like that bit.

He closes the presentation by showing video of Chris Dede comparing education with sleeping, eating and bonding. Where university education tries to treat learning as more like sleeping then bonding. This post by Derek Wenmouth talks more about the video. I find particularly relevant the bit about Dede’s last comment

he points out that the major issue is with breaking down the social and political barriers – pointing out that technology will only ever take us part of the way towards the personalised learning dream

More on this below.

Consistency has become “mythic”

In Postman’s 5 things to know about technological change”, number 5 is

Technology becomes mythic, it becomes seen as part of the natural order of things.

For me the question of “consistency”, Dede’s treating learning as sleeping, has become mythic within the Australian Higher Education system. The “course profile as contract” perspective has become unquestioned, it is part of the natural order of things. Anyone who questions the importance of the contract is seen as weird. Universities spend huge amounts of time ensuring the contract is developed on-time. I know of governing councils of institutions that have taken time to discuss the fact that x% of these contracts were not ready in time. The fact that the content of the vast majority of these contracts is questionable and that the learning experience students have under the confines of those contracts is far from good, is never considered (it’s too hard).

National auditing bodies set up by the government put tremendous value on all students receiving a consistent learning experience. The idea that learning is more like bonding than sleeping is considered woolly thinking and inappropriate.

Don’t believe me, this is what the auditing body said about my current institution in it’s report

As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

This irrational emphasis on consistency increases the reliance and acceptance of the learning management system. The idea seems to be that if only we can make all the course websites look the same and have the same structure and content, then the student learning experience will be okay. The LMS appears to help management achieve this goal.

Of course the fact that most LMSes are based on a model that makes it very difficult to standardise is something they don’t seem to get. The LMS model is based on individual academics creating course sites manually, which creates diversity, and then copying them across each term. It leads to organisations expending effort on kludges to automate the consistent creation of course sites.

I continue to like Oscar Wilde’s take on consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative

Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments

Gardner draws upon this blog post by Clay Shirkey. I’ve heard a bit about this post in the blogosphere, but hadn’t read it. I’ve fixed that flaw, you should too. It’s important.

Personally, this particular quote resonated very strongly with my current predicament

Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.

Currently, in terms of e-learning at universities, I see myself as one of the realists being shunted aside by the fabulists who are peddling all sorts of unlikely visions of the future.

My take on Shirky’s article, as applied to e-learning (yes, I know that the phrase e-learning has questionable value and I should probably just use learning) within universities, goes something like this:

  • We’re living through 1500.
    How to do e-learning within universities and the how the impact of changes within society, especially the Internet, remain unanswered questions. The answers we have today are just like the failed business models used by newspapers to leverage the Internet, they are interim measures destined to fail.
  • There’s no telling what will work.
    No-one can say what model will work in the future. It’s a nature of revolution, it’s too complex to predict. We’ll only know after the fact – retrospective coherence.
  • Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.
    Since we don’t know what will work, we need to try lots of things to find out what might.

Gardner makes the point that universities, as the supposed homes of research and learning, of knowledge generation, production and dissemination should be at the forefront of this experimentation – but we aren’t.

For me, this is because consistency has become has become mythic. The importance of sameness has become unquestioned and this gets in the way of experimentation. Experimentation means the possibility of failure and failure is to be feared and avoided. Much better to be safe and same.

Can this be done within universities

Seymour Papert in a 1995 article outlines a perspective about change in education. A perspective which I believe has some connections with the above.

In terms of “technology” becoming mythic, Papert draws on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) idea of the “grammar of school” and links it to assimilation blindness.

The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons. This phenomenon is related to “assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas. I would make the relation even closer by noting that when one is not paying careful attention, one often actually hear the deviant utterance as the “nearest” grammatical utterance a transformation that might bring drastic change in meaning.

Papert links these ideas back to the introduction of computers into schools and how the “deviant utterance” gets heard/transformed into the “nearest grammatical utterance”. i.e. it gets transformed into something that fits within the grammar of school. I believe Shirky makes this point in connection with how newspapers tried to deal with the Internet and I believe you can see this happening within Universities (e.g. the walled gardens of the LMS and the connection with the walls of the lecture theatre).

Papert describes the components he sees that make up schools and how they match

I see School as a system in which major components have developed harmonious and mutually supportive — mutually matched forms. There is a match of curriculum content, of epistemological framework, of organizational structure, and — here comes the trickiest point for Tyack and Cuban — of knowledge technology.

He equates a failed education reform as being similar to tweaking one of these components and then observing, like any well-equilibrated dynamic system, “when you let go it is pulled back by all the other components”.

Papert argues that reform as centralised social engineering will go wrong. He argues that

Complex systems are not made. They evolve.

and suggests that effective fostering of radical change means

rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out.

Sounds like “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments” to me. Which brings me back to a previous post and the concept of safe-fail design from Dave Snowden.

The source of my frustration

It also brings me back to the perspective that corporate approaches to management (i.e. the top manager and/or a small group of experts/analysts make the decisions) has become “mythic” within universities. A focus on creating the conditions, letting go and seeing what happens is something they just can’t understand or appreciate.

This summarises the main source of my frustrations over the last 15 years of trying to do innovative things around learning. It’s not something I see changing anytime soon.

How do you change this social and political barrier?


Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 6(4): 417-427.

Tyack, D. and L. Cuban (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

WordPress eating posts

This is not good. It seems that is starting to eat posts.

Earlier today I added a post about a photo of mine from Flickr, licensed under creative commons that has been picked up and used by an online mapping service. I link that with the 80/20 rule and a Ted talk by Clay Shirky

The post no long lives on the WordPress blog. However, there were a few visits to the post, so it exists (somewhat) in the stats. Even though it now points to another, much older, blog post. The post also exists in Google as originally intended.

This is not a good sign for reliance on a 3rd party.

I can hear all the SaaS, cloud computing skeptics in IT divisions across the world working up to….”I told you so”.

Edupunk rules: Technology I, II and 3 – understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology

The following is a summary and perhaps a bit of a reflection on McDonald and Gibbons (nd). This is a journal article that has been accepted, but not yet officially published. It appears to be based on the PhD thesis of McDonald.

The paper uses the criteria of technology I, II and III to examine differences between researchers description of a theory and how practitioners implement it. This identifies 3 reasons for technological gravity and 3 approaches to avoid it.

As I’ve read the paper and connected that with stuff I’m talking about and reading at the moment, this has evolved into something that makes connections between Technology III and the Edupunk movement. Somewhat off topic, but it looks like a connection.

My take on the paper

This paper resonates a lot with me and my experience. It offers a useful insight and some significant literature that I can draw on both now and into the future. It also raises a range of questions and observations about the practice of improving learning and teaching within universities.

Connections with Edupunk

For me, the ideas of Technology I, II and III definitely connects or might form part of the Edupunk movement. This quote from Jim Groom really illustrates a connection with Technology I (my emphasis added)

This passage brings into sharp focus a scary reality that often gets overlooked (or is it intentionally downplayed?) in educational technology, namely that the Utopian, blue sky ideas of technology as a singular harbinger of possibility and liberation

This “Technology I” view is what the corporates are pushing. It’s a major part of what I see Edupunk rebelling against. What is Edupunk? “Edupunk is student-centered, resourceful, teacher- or community-created” from Leslie Brooks. The student-centered aspect ties directly to Technology III. Learner control is a core component of Technology III.

But wait, there’s more

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem. (McDonald and Gibbons)

A key part of this emphasis on the local situation is the idea that any technique, from anywhere can be useful. The following quote, from an earlier developer of the Technology III idea, illustrates this and seems even more directly connected to the image of a Edupunk. The Technology III practitioner

Is not one who follows all of the known rules, not even one who follows all of the known rules well. . . . [but is someone who] breaks known rules and creates new rules, thus enabling [a type of instructional technology] not possible through the application of known, status quo, systematic rules. (Beckwith 1988, p. 16)


Technology I and II directly connects with my thoughts about the almost universal acceptance of fads and fashions in higher education, especially around e-learning.

Task corruption

Task corruption, work-arounds and “gaming the system” have been a topic I’ve been thinking about recently. Much of what I see in L&T at universities is about gaming the system. Being seen to do the right thing, even though you’re not.

The points made in this article about Technology I and II and how technological gravity sucks people down to that level connects directly with the ideas of task corruption and workarounds.

But it also points to broader possibilities about who is “working around” things:

  • The poor teacher – sure coal-face academics workaround things to get by in the world. This is well known.
  • The educational technologists/learning designer etc.
    One of the toughest and most uncertain, in terms of position and future, jobs at universities is that of learning designer or educational technologist. Given the difficulty and uncertainty, is it any surprise that these folk will be tempted to simplify and routinise what they do? Even if they do understand completely “Technology III” technological gravity will suck them down to technology I or II.
  • Educational researchers.
    Developing a new learning theory, process or technology is hard, especially one that will make a significant difference to learning. However, academics and researchers are evaluated on how well they achieve this, arguably, impossible goal. Is it any surprise that they seek to corrupt their task? Make it a bit easier to achieve?

    For example, design and test a theory that works well for my classes, but not so well in real life or for others. Take on research that avoids the difficulties and complexities of real life?

Examples of Technology I and II

I’m struggling to think of any recent, long-term examples of Technology III in my experience. Almost all of them, at least to me, appear to be examples of Technology I and II. Some of the examples:

  • LMS/e-portfolio/insert technology here will save the world.
    I’ve written about this one before. The new technology will save us!!!
  • PBL/constructive alignment/insert process here will save the world.
    I’ve seen this regularly. Someone reads a body of research around process X, thinks that’s great. Then begins to trumpet how process X, when applied to every course at the university, will radically improve the quality of L&T.
  • Bastardisation of process and technology.
    I’ve seen this one again and again. Even if you accept a certain technology or process as being an example of Technology III, the principles associated with it soon become bastardised beyond all appropriateness. For example, a committee focusing on ensuring that the verbs and phrasing of learning objectives is approriate but without any idea of assessment of teaching practice are appropriate to supporting those.

There are more, but time to get onto the summary


Makes the point that instructional designers/researchers develop detailed plans and specifications for creating “high-quality instruction”. Yet, when implemented, practitioners are unable to keep it going

Essential principles of an instructional approach sometimes seem to be lost as it is translated from the original theory into practice, and it instead becomes a formulaic technique for imitating common instructional structures that do not meet the goals expressed by either the practitioner or the theorist

Suggests that this may be one reason for the fad/fashion cycle in instructional ideas.

Suggests one reason for this may be the assumptions instructional technologists hold about the their field and its practice. References some literature suggesting unexamined assumptions about a discpline can negatively influence its theory and practice as they lmit peoples’ understanding to what is familiar. Assumptions that can lead to a reductive or even inaccurate view about what is involved in effective learning.

Refer to the Technology I, II and III work done by a range of folk to organise qualities of practice around three major assumptions that either limit practice or help encourage a rigorous and reflective practice. Describes each of these as:

  • Technology I – assumes media devices automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology II – assume design formulas/techniques automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology III – quality of instruction measured by consequences of instruction with students and within the larger system
    Actually, the above is the description in the journal paper. The abstract from the PhD thesis puts it this way

    Technology III was the belief that good instruction could consist of many different product or process technologies, but that technology use alone did not define good instruction. Rather, good instruction was the realization of improved systems in which learning could take place

The theorists behind this “framework” suggested that practitioners with a focus on I or II assumed they could find a technology or an instructional formula. This leads them to adopt uncritically that innovation regardless of whether or not it is compatible with any instructional principles, goals or context.

Authors suggest that their study reinforced the value of this framework. Also, it identified a “technological gravity” that pulls practitioners away from II towards I or II. They have developed strategies for mitigating the gravity. Evaluating the criteira of I, II and III can help. Doing so may help address the fundamental problems faced by the field.

Comment: The authors are using a strange mix of “practitioner” and “instructional technologists”. Hard to pick exactly who they are talking about. Front line acacdemics as practitioners. Or the instructional technologists helping them – or both?

Seems as the rest of the paper examines

  • More indepth look at I, II and III
  • Discussion of technology gravity
  • Avoiding technology gravity

Technology I

This is the “tools approach”. An approach I’ve argued against previously. If you adopt a technology, wonderful educational improvement will happen, all by itself.

This view is linked to the idea that teaching activities cause learning to take place. i.e. if the teacher is seen as a potter, moulding the students – then new tools for the potter improve the product.

The authors then connect this with the information transmission view of teaching. I’m not sure this is the only connection. Much of what I see from the eportfolio community, at least to me, strikes me as suffering the same problem and even I don’t think those folk see teaching as information transmission.

Authors now seek to describe how this view leads practitioners down the path of not maintaining the quality of innovative pedagogical approaches because “the essential principles of those approaches cannot be easily expressed using only technological tools”. The problems with and impacts of this view continue

  • quote – if you begin with a device, you develop the teaching program to fit the device.
  • learning and instructioanl problems defined in terms of latest innovation
  • instructional technology in danger of being defined by these devices.

They now raise the argument that this explains why instructors reuse old approaches with new technology. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive to me – or at least how I’ve interpreted the previous argument. At least at first. I think I see it now.

Technology II

This is the “methdological, rule-based” approach to improving instruction. Use the right design process/technique and you’re away. Assumes that design techniques/processes have an intrinsic ability to solve educational problems.

This fails because the principles of innovation teaching approaches cannot be expressed using only the known design processes and formulas.

It is important to note that Technology II is not an attack on the techniques or processes used to develop instruction, per se. Technology II criticizes a type of practice in which people view only certain methods as the legitimate way to develop instruction, and as a result overlook critical features of the instructional situation.

Bit of discussion about how the simplification of design processes/approaches lead to a translation of the process. The thing being used, isn’t exactly like what was proposed. Intenionally or not, the person implementing the process will emphasise some aspects over others.

Technology III

Ahh, this is the good (where good is purely defined as reinforcing what I believe – the authors are obviously very intelligent if they agree with me ;) )stuff.

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem.

These folk do not believe that good learning experiences can be reduced to, nor controlled by, any technology of process.

The authors include a full quote from one of the originators of the idea using chess as a metaphor

[Technology III is like] a chess game, in which players engage in an intellectual activity for which there is no one set of appropriate moves. . . . The order, and manner, in which [instructional systems are created] depends upon the character of the problem, and the aim in mind. There is no one best way, and no one way of proceeding. Neither is there one optimal solution. Everything depends upon the situation, and the skills available. (Davies 1978, pp. 22–23)

As part of this perspective, there is no one right solution. There are many suitable solutions. There is also a call to look for insight beyond the instructional technology field. A part of this view is a focus on the learners’ agency as an essential part of learning.

This broader, more open view is said to make such folk more flexible, free to change and respond to circumstances. They don’t follow the rules, the break known rules and create new ones.

Technology Gravity

Propose and explain technological gravity as

We believe our metaphor is apt because, just like physical gravity, our observation of technological gravity seems to show that invisible and perhaps near-irresistible forces act on instructional technologists to pull them towards a common point

Reference others that talk about “alluring and captivating” traps that folk fall into because they seem logical/offer security and comfort.

The authors believe that technological gravity can be avoided (a type of anti-gravity), not be developing another process for design and development, but on exposing and discussing the phenomenon to encourage reflection and examination of practices and beliefs.

They refer to the PhD thesis for more information on technological gravity

Using PBL to illustrate

I find this interesting, they use a study of PBL to examine technological gravity. The reasons given are

We chose PBL to illustrate technological gravity because of its promotion as a revolutionary development in instructional theory, its wide adoption among instructional technologists and teachers in general, and the complaints raised since its introduction that many examples of PBL practice do not implement the essential principles of the approach that originally led to its success

There method appears to have been take an original description of the PBL idea (Barrows 1986) and then look at published reports by PBL adopters. They’ve categorised Barrows principles into Technology I, II and III and found it to be clearly an example of technology III. They offer a few paragraphs explaining this claim. One of the important ones was that Barrows believed students could learn without the instructor, that in fact the best learning happened when they took control.

They chose 6, purposely sampled published reports which they characterised as:

  1. Barrows own implementation of PBL.
  2. A PBL exemplar implementation by another researcher.
  3. An implementation that was initial less than successful, but then went on to implement PBL effectively.
  4. An implementation that explicitly states that implementation was different from Barrow, but that they still expected to achieve the same outcomes.
  5. Two implementations with initial alignment with Barrows but which drifted away from those principles, eventually returning to traditional instruction.

They also performed another literature search, afterwards, to confirm their observations.

Three reasons for technological gravity

Use Beckwith (1988) for “status quo adherence” and the description that the three reasons

are presented as separate categories
to ensure comprehensiveness and to facilitate discussion. [They] are not intended to
be seen as mutually exclusive. Approach them as a set of interrelated and interdependent [influences]

Reason Definition Indicators
Distracted focus Rejecting Technology III in pursuit of other rewards Focusing on other interests; primary concern for financial rewards
Status quo adherence Searching for practices that are legitimate, professional, respectable, or traditional. Unsettling change or organizational stress; no urgent reason to change; personal identity that is threatened by Technology III.
Over-simplification Losing Technology III in the pursuit of routinization Unpredictability; overreaction to problems.

Some expansion on the reasons:

  • Distracted focus.
    e.g. teachers pursuing research rather than ed tech.
  • status quo adherence
    The way we’ve always done things around here. Can be emphasized by local uncertainty – restructures etc. What we do at the moment is okay response. Identity threatened by new approaches.

    Mentions an example of task corruption

    Yet in some of the reports we studied, practitioners still applied
    the terminology of PBL to their more traditional and formula-driven behaviors, leading to what Chen et al. (1994) called the ‘‘jargon’’ approach to PBL practice, which did little more than ‘‘re-define existing educational approaches’’ (p. 9) in language that appeared to be more innovative or forward-thinking (see also Abrandt Dahlgren and Dahlgren 2002; Herreid 2003; Kovalik 1999)

  • Over-simplification
    Fear that practice of innovation can’t be sustained unless simplified and made routine.

Avoiding technological gravity

Method How it helps
Practice legitimate evaluation Legitimate evaluation helps practitioners continually align technology or technique use with the goals they have for their practice.
Adopt guiding principles about one’s practice Strong beliefs and values help practitioners make decisions, view constraints in creative ways, and solve problems without abandoning important goals they are trying to achieve.
Cultivate opinion leaders Good opinion leaders can help alter the culture of the field, leading to Technology III becoming a more accepted alternative.

The three approach arise from their study of PBL. In more detail:

  1. Practice legitimate evaluation.
    Arose out of seeing practitioners who continually and rigorously corrected their implementations. Legitimate is used to mean not collecting data to simply justify the course of action being taken. You have to ask difficult questions, you have to want to prove that your stuff is not working and obviously you also need to have the drive to change when it isn’t working. Gives example of how Barrows kept asking questions about a part of PBL.
  2. Guiding principles.
    As a barrier against losing focus or as a crutch to use when having to make difficult trade-offs. Principles help guide decisions and prevent “back sliding”. Though I imaging this might be difficult. It’s also about having principles that are appropriate for your local context that can be used to guide modifications to the approach being adopted.
  3. Opinion leaders.
    This is perhaps the weakest of the three and is drawn from Rogers’ work on innovation diffusion. It assumes that all innovation/change is good and can also be problematic. Still a consideration.


A basic summary of the paper


McDonald, J. and A. Gibbons (nd). “Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology” Educational Technology Research and Development.

Early indications of “blame the student” that continues today

Level 1 of Biggs knowledge of teaching is “blame the student”. i.e. there are good and bad students. One of the common complaints I hear from academics at universities go something like this

there is also a real difficulty, due to the fact that pupils cannot be trusted to follow directions

This is usually from academics who have tried to do the right thing and prepared nice learning materials, only to have the intent ruined by students who don’t do as they are told.

The most common example of this is the release of solutions to questions. Since students can’t be trusted to *really* try the exercises and questions first, before looking at the answers, the academics start releasing the solutions at specific times. For example, Week 1 solutions will be released at the start of week 2. Of course, this wouldn’t need to be done (emphasis in original)

if students would faithfully try as directed before reading ahead for the helps given.

A number of the courses at my current institution have large numbers of distance education students. Students who generally don’t study for fixed amounts of time each week. Often they’ll take a couple of weeks off work in the middle of term to complete the course – they do it all in a couple of weeks. The timed release of solutions each week for on-campus students, doesn’t help the distance education students.

Nothing is ever new

The quotes in the above are taken from Edward Thorndike (1912). That’s right 1912. You can get a copy here.

If you extrapolate these thoughts out a bit, it’s no surprise that Thorndike is often held up at the spark/initial though behind programmed instruction and automatic teaching machines. In particular, because of this quote

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

Blame the teacher

Most “modern”/”good” thinking teaching staff see the limitations of this blame the student approach. However, over the last few years I’ve often heard similar complaints about teaching staff from management and information technology folk.

Comments along the lines of “It would be good to allow them to set their own exams, but we can’t trust them to do the right thing.” or “They can’t be trusted to follow instructions on how to use the system.”


Thorndike, E. (1912). Education: A First Book. New York, Macmillan.

Birnbaum’s fad cycle in higher education

In a previous post I gave an early conceptualisation of a cycle I was seeing in the history of educational technology I’ve been working on as part of the “Past Experience” section of the Ps Framework – chapter 2 of my thesis. In this post I try and give an overview of a similar cycle already well established: Birnbaum’s (2000) Life Cycle of the Fads Process.

As I near the end of this post, I recognise the overlap/connection with Gartner’s Hype Cycle, so I’ve added some discussion of that. Since it appears to pre-date Birnbaum’s work.

Fads and Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum is both an academic researcher and writer about management of higher education and someone who has taken on various senior management roles within universities. His 2000 book Management fads in higher education: Where they come from, what they do, why they fail seeks to demonstrate and understand why universities and their management appear to have an on-going interest in the slavish and unquestioned drive towards adoption of the latest fad to come along.

It does this be examining 7 recent management fads in higher education: Program planning budgeting system, management by objectives, zero-base budgeting, strategic planning, benchmarking, Total Quality Management and Business Process Reengineering. After describing the development of each of these, the book develops a conceptual model of a fad life-cycle. A life-cycle that is used, in conjunction with other material, to understand why fads arise, what they do and how to work with them.

Birnbaum’s fad life-cycle

A version of the life-cycle’s graphical representation is shown in the following image. Birnbaum also uses the graphical representation to suggest that some institutions approach tends to be the on-going adoption of one fad after the other. i.e. the devolution and resolution of the previous fad, leads directly into the creation of the next. He also shows how fads move between sectors. In particular, how fads generally develop in the business/non-academic sector and then move into the higher education sector. He suggests that this movement between sectors usually comes after the end of the narrative evolution stage. i.e. the next sector adopts the fad once the wrinkles in the fad really start to show in the original sector.

Life Cycle Stages of the Fads Process

Stage 1 – Creation

Fads are created by the observation of some crisis for which the fad provides the solution. The fad is supported by advocates, generally folk whose livelihood depends on creating and disseminating the new fad. The fad is accompanied by unified stories of success by external champions and early organisational adopters. A new fad can be supported or driven by the availability of a new technology.

People or organisations who adopt the fad are demonstrated to be more successful than those who don’t. Resistance is described as reluctance and may lead to loss of status.

Stage 2 – Narrative Evolution

Stories about the fad continue to evolve, particularly those hailing the innovation and describing successful implementation. “Consultants, champions, purveyors of the technology and adopters” contribute these stories in various forums, internal and external to the organisation. These stories position the author and organisation as innovative and forward thinking and are often picked up by newspapers and other media and reported using a label, slogan or other simplistic descriptions.

The pressure increases on those who haven’t adopted. Lack of adoption is seen as recalcitrance, conservative, self-interested or resistant to change.

Stage 3 – Time lag

This is the period between the creation and dissemination of the fad and the wide availability of user reactions and independent analyses. Stories of success continue during this period and are usually written by organisational members with a vested interest in being associated with a success. This is the period when adoption of the innovation peaks.

Stage 4 – Narrative Devolution

The pendulum starts to swing back the other way. Initial optimistic stories are replaced by overly pessimiatic stories. Disenchantment sets in. Stories arise in various media about how this fad is just like all those that came before. Adoption by new institutions ceases, however, believers may continue or increase their commitment.

Stage 5 – Resolution of dissonance

Stages 4 and 5 overlap in time, but have different properties.

Adopters and uses of the fad attempt to account for the failure of the fad in ways that protect their status and credibility. Hence common forms of rationalisation occur:

  • Poor quality of leadership;
  • Intransigence of followers;
  • poor implementation;
  • insufficient resources;
  • choosing to implement a “bad” version of the fad;
    e.g. in terms of open source learning management systems – Implementing Moodle rather than Sakai (or vice versa).

Identifying failure as resulting from the weaknesses of specific individuals, unforeseeable external forces, or correctable flaws in implementation sets the stage for reinventing the innovation and recycling it with minor modifications and a major change of name (Rogers, 1995), or for proposing a better innovation (clearly labeled as “not a fad”).

This is where the cycle returns back to the creation stage and starts all over again, with a re-badged fad.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle

Gartner’s Hype Cycle is a graphic representation of the cycle that new technologies go through. It has five phases and is graphed as visibility over time.

Gartner Hype Cycle

The five phases are:

  1. Technology trigger – Something generates significant interest in the technology.
  2. Peak of inflated expectations – Over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations arise from a “frenzy of publicity”. Some successful stories arise, but there are typically more failures.
  3. Trough of disillusionment – Failure to meet expectations leads to technology losing its fashionable status and is abandoned by the press.
  4. Slope of enlightenment – Some businesses continue to use the technology and experiment to understand how it can be used effectively.
  5. Plateau of productivity – Benefits become widely demonstrated and accepted either broadly or within a niche.

Differences between Gartner and Birnbaum

Gartner’s view is inherently more positive than Birnbaum. As you might expect given that Gartner makes a living out of promoting technologies, while Birnbaum makes a living out of being cynical (to give the broadest and most simple characterisation). Gartner assumes that all technologies reach a plateau of productivity, they never die. Birnbaum’s assumes things die and get reinvented as something new and lessons aren’t learnt.

Aside: I wonder if this makes Birnbaum’s approach more a modern Battlestar Galatica approach? What does that make Gartner?

The following image is an attempt to connect the two in someway. There remains the question of whether or not this type of “joining” makes sense? Are they talking about the same thing? Hype and fads? I think there is a connection.

Gartner's Hype Cycle overlaid with Birnbaum's fad life cycle

The next step?

I believe it is possible to see evidence of these cycles, or at least something close to it – especially Birnbaum’s – in the history of technology-mediated learning. My interest in this arises from the section of the PhD I’m working on – Past Experience. In a previous post I proposed a much simpler/simplistic cycle:

  1. Recognition of the revolution.
  2. Creation of the technologists alliance.
  3. Evidence of limited impact.
  4. Blame the teacher.

As you can probably see, the other cycles are more complete. I’ll have to think about incorporating them into the thesis. However, I wonder about the “technologists alliance”, this is a point Birnbaum makes, have to re-read what he has to say. I increasingly think that the technologists alliance around e-learning is problematic.


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

Quotes from Snowden and the mismatch between what univeristy e-learning does and what it needs

For the PhD I’m essentially proposing that the current industrial model of e-learning adopted (almost without exception) by universities is a complete and utter mismatch with the nature of the problem. As a consequence of this mismatch e-learning will continue to have little impact, be of limited quality and continue to be characterised by 5 yearly projects to replace a software system rather than a focus on an on-going process of improving learning and teaching by using the appropriate and available tools.

Dave Snowden has recently described a recent keynote he gave and from that description/keynote I get the following two quotes which illustrate important components of my thesis and its design theory. I share them here.

Tools and fit

The technology in e-learning is a tool. A tool to achieve a certain goal. The trouble is that the Learning Management System/LMS (be it open source or not) model, as implemented within universities, typically sacrifices flexibility. It’s too hard to adapt the tool, so the people have to adapt. The following is a favourite quote of mine from Sturgess and Nouwens (2004). It’s from a member of the technical group evaluating learning management systems

“we should change people’s behaviour because information technology systems are difficult to change”

While I recognise that this actually may be the case with existing LMSes and the constraints that exist within universities about how they can be supported. I do not agree with this. I believe the tools should adapt with the needs of the people. That a lot more effort needs to be expended doing this, and if it does significant benefits flow.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that Dave’s quote about tools, resonates with me

Technology is a tool and like all tools it should fit your hand when you pick it up, you shouldn’t have to bio-re-engineer your hand to fit the tool.

Seneca the Younger and ateleological design

Dave closes his talk with the following quote from Seneca

The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.

For me this connects back to the fact that (almost) all implementation of e-learning within universities focus on using a plan-driven approach, a teleological design process. It assumes that they can know what is needed into the future, which given the context of universities and the rhetoric about “change being the only thing that is constant” is just a bit silly.

Teleological design causes problems, ateleological design is a better fit.