Society – an aspect of Place impacting on e-learning

The following, finally, is a first draft of the sector section of the “Place” component of the Ps Framework. This is all meant to be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.

The “Place” section has, and continues to have, a too-long and troubled history. I’ve spent too much time figuring out how to briefly summarise perspectives and factors within the broader society that impact upon the implementation of e-learning within universities. There have been a number of false starts and I still don’t think this is very good, but it’s time to “release early”, move on, and hope that it’s “good enough”.

This is a first draft, I think most of the major grammatical errors have been removed, but I’m sure some still remain. My apologies.

What’s the aim of all this? Well I’m trying to establish that the context within which e-learning takes place is characteristed by on-going change and uncertainty about the outcomes of those changes. I will eventually make the argument that the current practices associated with e-learning within universities are fundamentally inappropriate for such a context.


With origins stretching back to the twelfth century and the emergence of the Universities of Paris, Bologna and Oxford (Katz 2003), the concept of a university has seen and shaped a number of significant changes in broader society. In the introduction to Haskins (2002) Lionel Lewis writes that, as is the case with all institutions, universities have developed to meet social needs. Is the idea of a university a product of or shaper of society? In terms of the origins of the idea of a university it has been suggested that answers depend not just on the progress of research, but also on the existing societal context and the state of discussions (de Ridder-Symoens and Ruegg 2003). A full coverage of the historical perspectives, impacts and role of universities and society is beyond the scope of this section and this thesis.

This section seeks to provide an overview of important changes and features of society over recent years that, as well as impacting on the broader society, have significant implications for universities and the practice of e-learning. The changing relationships and tensions with external actors is an important way to understand the environment in which universities operate (Martin and Etzkowitz 2000). These changes are important as there is doubt about whether or not there remains any clarity about the place of the University within society or about the nature of that society (Readings 1996). The next section (section 2.1.2 – Sector) aims to illustrate how the changes expressed here, directly impact upon the higher education sector.

While there is broad recognition that societal change is taking place, it is more difficult to identify agreement on the causes, impacts and even definitions of these changes. There remains a lack of agreement amongst social theorists on definitions and implications (Deem 2001). For example, Brenan (2008) and Kwiek (2005) identify globalization and the knowledge society as two related but separate concepts while Vaira (2004) suggests globalization includes the idea of the knowledge society. This section does not seek to be exhaustive in its coverage, instead it aims to provide one, somewhat brief, perspective of the changes occurring within society. This is done by examining views of globalisation, as a concept that encompasses many of the major changes currently facing society.

Globalisation is a term used to describe a recent change in the nature of industrial societies, a change that has fundamental implications for the shape and role of higher education (Brenan 2008). Debates around globalisation assume a widening, deepening and speeding of world wide interconnectedness (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). It is making visible new levels of global interdependency embedded through new trades, especially in knowledge and skills, services and the emergence of global electronic commerce (Cutler 2001). The discourse around globalisation has affected higher education through the new social, political and economic demands made of such institutions, and in terms of the impact upon the policy-making, governance, organisation and academic work and identity aspects of institutions (Vaira 2004). University policy makers and institutions are eager to show the importance of higher education in a globalised world where knowledge has become core to survival and success (Brenan 2008).

While some shared views have emerged, there remain contested perspectives of globalisation and it has ambiguous implications for the future of higher education (Brenan 2008). To further discuss the changes in society arising from globalisation this section draws on Vaira’s (2004) description of globalisation through three core features: a minimalist state, entrepreneurialization and managerialization, and the knowledge society. Kwiek (2005) identifies a range of other changes within society including: changing demographics, ageing of societies, post-patriarchal family patterns. These changes are not considered in detail in this section.

Minimalist state

The changing and reducing role of the state is achieved through processes that increase decentralisation, shrink public expenditure and entail a shift from regulation towards evaluation of performance and outcomes in combination with a wider confidence in market-like capabilities (Vaira 2004). Governments across the world are keen to reduce their contribution to the funding of universities, while at the same time seeing the importance of raising the skills and qualification attainment of their populations (Jones and O’Shea 2004). As the welfare state gradually erodes, universities are encouraged to source funding from actors other than governments and consequently be more visibly useful for society, more efficient and effective (Brenan 2008). While the neo-liberal state appears concerned with deregulating higher education, in reality it continues to closely control universities through devolved mechanisms including accountability-based and performance-oriented funding strategies and standardised data collections (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005).

The shortfall in funding created by the reduction in public funding requires a push for external funding that reduces reliance on the single master of government, but also increases the complexity in the composition of external partners and arenas of action (Brenan 2008). As the role of the state reduces and that of the market increases, public institutions becomes more integrated into society and consequently the diversity of stakeholders, institutions and their missions increases (Jongbloed, Enders et al. 2008). A system that must respond to an increasing diversity of stakeholders must explore how to respond to increasing volatility and unpredictability in terms of demands and how to accommodate a more complex, fluid and varied environment (Brenan 2008).

Entrepreneurialization and managerialization

Directly linked with the minimalist state, is the trend toward a more entrepreneurial pattern of organisational change that shifts to a post-fordist regime including commodification, flexibility, innovation, quality, and precarization of work (Vaira 2004). New managerialism attempts to explain and describe new discourses of management taken from the for-profit sector and, with the encouragement of government, introduced into publicly funded institutions to help minimise state involvement (Deem 2001). Reducing public funding leads to the need for an increase in entrepreneurial activities amongst public sector institutions and encouraging greater risk-taking. The substitution of traditional higher education values with the incorporation of neo-liberal values and management practices is leading to universities becoming fertile ground for entrepreneurial activities (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Knowledge-intensive business services, the sector directly engaged in the production and sale of knowledge, are the most rapidly growing sector in most OECD countries (OECD 2000).

Managerialism encompasses ideology, discourses and techniques originating in the private sector and speaks of professional administrators, line managers and competitive bidding for resources (Kolsaker 2008). Managerialism seeks to set targets – in the form of vision and mission – for empowered employees to focus on core activities within a lean organisation – where peripheral tasks are out-sourced – and a new competitive environment (Barry, Chandler et al. 2001). From a normative perspective, managerialism is a discourse based upon values that assumes the right of one group to monitor and control the activities of others (Kolsaker 2008). Governments are insisting on stronger managerial systems and evaluation (Kogan 2000). This results in the introduction of targets and the monitoring of efficiency and effectiveness in the form of staff appraisal, overt measurement of employee performance and more subtly through self and peer-regulation (Deem 2001). Key to new managerialism are explicit attempts to change the culture of public organizations and the values of staff to more closely resemble those of the private sector (Deem 2001).

Knowledge society

The knowledge society is a concept that has created its own expectations and narratives (Marginson quoted in Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). It arises from a coupling of thirty years of technological development with the new rhetoric of competive advantage and the post-fordist society with a greater emphasis on knowledge production and information processing, wider and faster flow of communications, a shift in work from manual to flexible and education knowledge workers and the role of educational institutions to provide the human capital necessary for these developments (Vaira 2004). It is a situation where knowledge, information, and knowledge production are the defining features of relationships within and among societies and organizations (Brenan 2008).

The knowledge society encapsulates a number of related ideas including the learning society and the rise of information technologies (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Factors such as the knowledge society, learning society and the rise of information technology has given rise to a consensus that lifelong learning is not only a norm, but also a culture and attitude (Grace 2006). Originally the concept of a learning society was used to describe a new kind of society where the distinctions between formal and non-formal education were no long valid (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). However, as the historical context has changed, the meaning of lifelong learning has shifted in response (Luzeckyj 2006) and recently it has been guided by far narrower discourses (Atwell 2007). Lifelong learning is now seen as indispensable since learning how to learn is a crucial new skill required to enable workers to change workplaces, professions and update knowledge throughout a career (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008).

The technology of knowledge generation, information processing and symbol communication is see as the source of productivity in the knowledge society (Castells 1996). There are some suggestions that the Knowledge Society should instead be called the age of the network due to the possibilities of new forms of networking offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs) that will enable a change in the hierarchical organisation (OECD 2000). Impacts like this and other associated trends arising out of ICTs continue to develop and to become more pervasive in their impact (Cutler 2001). The state of perpetual innovation found in ICTs lead to the introduction of a level of complexity within organizations that has not previously been seen (Tapscott 1996). The ever-accelerating tempo of change with ICTs brings rapid obsolescence that disrupts conventional infrastructure and planning processes (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002).


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4 thoughts on “Society – an aspect of Place impacting on e-learning

  1. Pingback: Sector – another part of Place « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  2. Pingback: PhD Update #10 – Dragging on « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  3. Pingback: Institution – another part of place « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  4. Pingback: What are the conditions that are conducive to the creation of a variety of new ideas? « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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