Institutional e-learning strategies

The following contains the next section from chapter 2 of my thesis and the section on Processes. It follows on from the section on institutional learning and teaching strategies and seeks to talk a bit about institutional strategies for e-learning.

As with other posts of this type, this is a version 1 draft. It will have some/many rough edges.

Institutional e-learning strategies

By 2003 a survey of US university leaders found that most saw e-learning as a critical long-term strategy (Allen and Seaman 2003). The OECD (2005) found that most universities initially lacked a coordinated e-learning strategy and tend to rely on emergent faculty-led initiatives before finally adopting a more integrated institution-wide approach. A range of authors (c.f. Forsyth 2003) suggest that it is time to consider e-learning as an integral part of academic activity that needs to be routinely supported and consequently has become almost obligatory to add e-learning to mission statements and strategic plans. In large part because the rise of the industrial e-learning paradigm is creating a growing perception of the need for institutional strategies to guide the implementation of e-learning.

It is necessary for management to have a clear view of the purpose intended through the introduction of e-learning in order to determine the necessary work (Klink and Jochems 2003). Full exploitation of e-learning resources by universities could be made more effective through the development and implementation of a coherent and comprehensive e-learning strategy (Dearing 1997). The rapid evolution of information and communications technologies demand a process of strategic transformation in universities (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Any project aiming for large-scale usage of e-learning requires a holistic approach from the outset (Klink and Jochems 2003). If technology is to deliver what it promises then the onus is squarely on the institution to incorporate technology as part of a plan with specific, rather than vague, outcomes (Forsyth 2003). A number of studies have highlighted the lack of institutional e-learning strategies as a barrier to more widespread adoption of e-learning (Lisewski 2004). While not the only factor necessary for successful e-learning adoption, institutional policies are essential components of successful organisational change and act as an expression of senior leadership commitment (Czerniewicz and Brown 2009).

There are a number of approaches to developing e-learning strategies. For example Australian universities have been found to be developing either stand-along strategies or incorporating such strategies within other existing institutional strategies associated with learning and teaching or information technology (Inglis 2007). Salmon (2005) suggests that there are two approaches used to institutionalise e-learning: large scale centralisation and incremental staff-based change. Stiles and Nichols (2007) suggests that large-scale institutions are more likely to effectively diffuse e-learning through large-scale centralisation, while smaller ones will use incremental staff-based change. Klink and Jochems (2003) offer a list of issues that should be addressed by strategic plans including: objectives, deliverables, deadlines, appointment of a change manager, budgets and evaluation.

Informal examination and formal research indicates that institutions use one or a combination of three main approaches to the strategic introduction of e-learning (Stiles and Yorke 2006):

  • Funding projects by innovators/enthusiasts;
  • Top-down ‘revolutionary’ change driven by a directive central strategy; and
  • Make the technology available and promote take up.

Regardless of the approach adopted outcomes are essentially the same (White 2007) with only partial levels of success (Stiles and Yorke 2006). While the prevalence of institutional e-learning strategies is growing, there is evidence to suggest that such strategies are at an immature stage of development (Inglis 2007). Stiles and Yorke (2004) suggest that strategic approaches are typically characterised by:

  • Failure to address change management;
  • No consolidation of progress made;
  • Failure to learn from experience as an organisation;
  • Staff development for eLearning seen as a ‘one-off ’;
  • Lack of ‘follow through’; and
  • Little or no evaluation.

The factors identified as important to the effectiveness of e-learning are not those found to be most prevalent in institutional e-learning strategies (Inglis 2007). E-learning often arises in response to political and economic drivers that can result in strategies that underestimate required changes in organisational and professional practice (Stiles and Yorke 2006). E-learning strategies of Australian Universities have a greater emphasis on technical and administrative issues, including the implementation of a centrally managed learning management systems and planning associated with organisational processes associated with the central management of e-learning, than on pedagogical issues (Inglis 2007). By allowing strategies to be driven by technology institutions can find that business and educational processes have become constrained by their adopted technologies (Stiles 2004).

The problems with e-learning strategies move beyond low quality implementation of a teleological approach. The following seeks to suggests that it is the teleological nature of the strategic approach to e-learning that creates significant problems. The emphasis on large-scale centralization approach to the diffusion of e-learning used by larger institutions can frustrate meaningful incremental change (Nichols 2007). If it is to respond and adapt to the diverse and ever changing need of learning and teaching a technology strategy should, like a biological ecology, be open, complex, adaptive and have sufficient robustness and diversity (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). However, a strategically-oriented centralised approach (i.e. a teleological approach) doesn’t need to rule out localisation or further innovation (Nichols and Anderson 2005). Sharpe et al (2006) illustrate how e-learning strategy can employ both top-down and bottom-up approaches to enable and support localisation.

The adoption of learning management systems as the primary component of e-learning strategies (Inglis 2007) suggests an almost “faddish” approach to decision making (Jones and Muldoon 2007). In conditions of uncertainty about technologies organizations may rely on imitation to guide decision-making (Pratt 2005). Imitation is a component of management fashions, fads and bandwagons where a relatively transitory collection of beliefs can legitimize the exercise of mindlessness with respect to innovation with information technology (Swanson and Ramiller 2004). Pratt (2005) suggests that the Australian university sector’s adoption of e-learning during the 1990s is an example of “fashionable” adoption of technology. Joining a list of fads adopted by higher education (Birnbaum 2000).

In relation to institutional strategies for learning and teaching it was suggested that the search for a single blueprint was flawed, even naïve (Newton 2003). Similarly, there is no ready model or single clearly successful path for institutional e-learning strategies that will ensure e-learning is embedded (Oliver and Dempster 2003). E-learning, for a variety of reasons, is characterised by high levels of variability, change and uncertainty (Jones, Gregor et al. 2003). More broadly technological innovation is said to be underdetermined in that there is no single “best solution” (Allen 2000). With those who support a social shaping perspective suggest that e-learning in universities can follow many paths (Dutton and Loader 2002). Information technology is one of a number of components of an emergent process of change where the outcomes are indeterminate because they are situationally and dynamically contingent (Markus and Robey 1988). Ongoing change is not solely “technology led” or solely “organisational/agency driven”, instead change arises from a complex interaction among technology, people and the organization (Marshall and Gregor 2002).

In identifying what might lead to successful embedding of e-learning Oliver and Dempster (2003) suggestion that the operational context is crucial to the choice of approach. A clear and honest analysis of the starting context is as important as understanding the purpose of a strategy (Stiles 2004). Sharpe et al (2006) echo the requirements of a teleological processes when they agree that consideration of the context is essentially to planning any institution-wide change program. This perspective places less emphasis on context than the ateleological approach. With an ateleological process the attention paid to the context moves from consideration given during the planning stage to the primary consideration during the entire process. Dron (2006) provides one example of how teleological processes limit contextual knowledge when he observes that the greatest control within large scale e-learning implementation is supplied by administrators and that this limits the part played by learners and teachers and results in outcomes that “may be less than ideal for local needs”.

Macpherson et al (1997) identified very early on in the adoption of e-learning that few existing staff have the necessary knowledge to completely assess the implications of e-learning and subsequently determine its usefulness and possible future applications. An observation that raises questions about the validity of teleological processes that identify an up-front goal at the start and, once underway, actively exclude consideration of alternatives. Particularly troubling when decision-making about the selection and implementation of e-learning technologies is complex and contentious given limited funding and differences in technology development. (Danaher, Luck et al. 2005)

The reliance of teleological approaches on top-down decomposition and the subsequent lose of the whole can also be seen in institutional approaches to e-learning. Jones (2008) describes how divisions between different areas of the Open University contribute to the lack of any one list of institutional requirements and the resulting contention between minimising cost and developing functionality. The differing outlooks of these separate divisions were not just divergent, they were contradictory (Jones 2008). Danaher et al (2005) found similar divergence in assumptions about ideal and actual forms of decision-making around information technology and more broadly about the most effective means of enacting and evaluating organizational change intended to enhance the provision of teaching and learning.

The turbulent and dynamic nature of both the internal, as illustrated by the divergent perspectives highlighted above, and external environment (e.g. crossref to Place) calls for the management of e-learning to be highly adaptive (Uys 2002). In order to respond and adapt to the diverse and ever-changing needs of academic programs, e-learning strategy should, like a biological ecology, be open, complex and adaptive (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). A key limitation of the boundaries that arise due to the separation of e-learning work via top-down decomposition creates boundaries that fail or make it difficult to engage with the complexity, flexibility and fluidity of e-learning (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). Teghe and Knight (2004) suggest that the concern for efficiency, a key characteristic of teleological processes, tends to be limited to economic efficiency and consequently universities become focused on developing systems only to the extent that they “piggyback” on existing systems.


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One thought on “Institutional e-learning strategies

  1. Pingback: What can history tell us about e-learning and its future? « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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