Lessons from process for university e-learning

I told myself that I would get this section completed today before I went home and I have achieved that goal. Perhaps, however, I have engaged in a bit of “task corruption”. A couple of days ago I was listening to a podcast about how the United States education system might be improved. One of the panelists suggested that one of the strategies employed by various school sectors to improve graduation was to make it easier to graduate. Just perhaps, in order to get this posted, I’ve relaxed my standards more than normal. Time will tell if it is too far.

In case you haven’t been following along, this is the last section of a part of chapter two of my thesis. Chapter 2 is meant to be a “review” of the literature around e-learning in an attempt to demonstrate my understanding of the field and to identify what I think might be some holes in current knowledge. Holes that my brilliant thesis will fill through one potential approach. I’m using the idea of the Ps Framework to structure my Chapter 2. This is the last component of the Process part of the Ps Framework.

As I’m finishing sections of the thesis I’m posting them to this blog. Mostly to provide a sense of achievement and/or completion (associated with that is to produce visible outputs for my supervisor who resides a few thousand kilometers away). But also in the hope/belief that making this stuff available might provide some level of help to others or perhaps to me.

Consequently, these are version 0 drafts. The need improvement. Feel free to comment.

Lessons from process

The previous sections examining process have established the existence the teleological and ateleological approaches to processes, both within the realm of universities and e-learning and more broadly in organizations and other endeavours. The above and else where in this chapter it has been established that there is a growing move towards the adoption of teleological approaches within universities and e-learning. This section seeks to describe the following lessons associated with process for the practice of e-learning within universities:

  • The assumptions of teleological processes appear not to hold.
  • Process must be aware of and match the context.
  • Revolutionary change through teleological processes may not be necessary.
  • There appears to be a need for both teleological and ateleological.

Taken as a whole these lessons would appear to suggest that an over-reliance on solely teleological processes for the implementation of e-learning within universities is destined to result in less that positive outcomes.

The assumptions of teleological processes appear not to hold

Introna (1996) identifies three assumptions that must be met in order for teleological design processes to be possible: stable and predictable behaviour, designers able to manipulate system behaviour and the ability to accurately determine goals. As demonstrated in the section titled Weaknesses of teleological design there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that these three assumptions do not hold in many modern organizations. It would appear, due to the nature of universities and their main participants, to be less likely to exist within universities and their practice of e-learning. It would appear possible that many of the perceived limitations and problems with e-learning within universities (cross reference to Lessons from Past Experience) may arise from the adoption of processes approaches based on non-existent assumptions. It has been suggested that despite its prevalence and its status as the dominant discourse, the teleological approach seems not to have provided the returns required by organisations seeking to maximise value from information and communication technologies (McConachie, Danaher et al. 2005).

Process must be aware of and match the context

The Institution section (insert cross reference) of this chapter sought to show the differences that exist within universities as an institution working on the assumption, illustrated through perspectives from a number of authors (Butler and Fitzgerald 2001; Parchoma 2006; Nichols 2007), that such an understanding was important for successful implementation of e-learning. The examination of process in the preceding sections reinforces the importance of context in two important ways: the inappropriateness of teleological processes to the university context and the importance of responding to the specific, local context.

There is limited support from research to support teleological models as effective for facilitating change within universities (Kezar 2001). Contributing factors to the poor results of teleological models include: the inability to clearly state missions and goals, lack of centralised decision-making, short-term orientation of teleological models and the inertia of long-standing structures (Birnbaum 2000). These findings are suggestive that, as per the previous section, the assumptions necessary for teleological approaches to operate, do not hold within universities.

Whether or not e-learning becomes an effective intervention depends on how it is used and the context in which it is used (Cradler 2003). The importance of context, especially to the institutional implementation, was emphasised in the above by a number of authors (Oliver and Dempster 2003; Stiles 2004; Sharpe, Benfield et al. 2006). While teleological processes can and should pay significant attention to the context while setting the purpose, the broader characteristics of such processes end up limiting the capability of the process to be aware of and respond to contextual changes and requirements. The effectiveness of e-learning is hampered by artifical boundaries created by teleological processes, boundaries that fail to engage with the complexity, flexibility and fluidity of university learning and teaching (Jones, Luck et al. 2005).

Revolutionary change and its relationship with teleological and ateleological design

The perceived need for revolutionary change within universities and their practice of learning and teaching seem to be, in part, driving the emphasis on teleological processes. The perception often is that such revolutionary change is only possible through large-scale change typical of teleological processes than the incremental change more typical of atelological processes. Phillips (2005) provides one example of this perspective:

For universities to adapt to the changing circumstances they find themselves in, radical, rather than incremental change is needed, and this requires all stakeholders to re-evaluate their paradigm of university education.

Such radical change is most often associated with teleological design processes driven by a visionary leader. However, the assumption of the teleological approach is that everyone agrees on this single vision and works in one direction with no disagreement (Bamford and Forrester 2003). As shown above, the inappropriateness of such an assumption can lead to a break down in teleological design. It will fail. Schien (1985) criticises teleological change models through their inability to incorporate radical change and its emphasis on isolated change. Traditional, teleological approaches to systems design and deployment have not produced desired results in situations requiring systematic change (Cavallo 2000). While Weick (2000) suggests that the talk of revolution, discontinuity and upheval included in the rhetoric of planned, transformational change presents a distorted view of how successful change works.

Returning to the importance of context, the diffusion of major change is difficult to achieve within loosely coupled systems (Morgan 2006). Universities are traditionally loosely coupled and in such organizations it is more common to find improvisational and on-going change which can lesson the need for major change (Weick 1976). Cavallo (2004) suggests that it is possible to achieve large-scale growth on the basis of a large number of little contributions. The simultaneous creation of small-scale continuous adjustments across organizational units can cumulate and create substantial change as long as these isolated innovations can travel and be seen as relevant to a wider range of purposes (Weick and Quinn 1999).

There appears to be a need for both teleological and ateleological

Generating knowledge that will underpin effective practice in change management may entail discarding established dichotomous concepts such as planned and emergent processes (Pettigrew 2000). Discussion of ateleological or emergent change is not an argument against teleological or planned change, it is instead a dispute with the increasingly unreflective manner of most organizational change initiatives (Bamford and Forrester 2003). A significant contributor to this is that teleological models are so ingrained that people often forget that these ideas have not always existed (Kezar 2001). In part, perhaps, because planned or teleological change has dominated the theory and practice of change management for the past fifty years (Bamford and Forrester 2003).

Returning to the notion of matching context. An important contributing factor to achieving successful change is to adopt the most appropriate type of change for the type of change being undertaken and the circumstances within which the change is being undertaken (Burnes 2004). This may mean that a synthesis of the most productive elements of both teleological and ateleological approaches is crucial to addressing the plethora of issues competing for the attention of university decision-makers (Jones, Luck et al. 2005). Jones and O’Shea (2004), in the context of e-learning within a university, agree with Mintzberg that a dynamic and flexible interplay between deliberate and emergent strategy assists with the management of change.


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Butler, T. and B. Fitzgerald (2001). "The relationship between user participation and management of change surrounding the development of information systems: A European perspective." Journal of End User Computing 13(1): 12-25.

Cavallo, D. (2000). "Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge." IBM Systems Journal 39(3&4): 768-781.

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Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

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Oliver, M. and J. Dempster (2003). Embedding e-learning practices. Towards strategic staff development in higher education. R. Blackwell and P. Blackmore. Milton Keynes: UK, Open University Press: 142-153.

Parchoma, G. (2006). "A Proposed e-Learning Policy Field for the Academy." International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 18(3): 230-240.

Phillips, R. (2005). "Challenging the primacy of lectures: The dissonance between theory and practice in university teaching." Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 2(1): 1-12.

Schein, E. H. (1985). Organisational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Sharpe, R., G. Benfield, et al. (2006). "Implementing a university e-learning strategy: levers for change within academic schools." ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 14(2): 135-151.

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Weick, K. (1976). "Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems." Administrative Science Quarterly 21(1).

Weick, K. (2000). Emergent change as a universal in organisations. Breaking the code of change. M. Beer and N. Nohria. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press: 223-242.

Weick, K. and R. Quinn (1999). "Organizational change and development." Annual Review of Psychology 50: 361-386.

One thought on “Lessons from process for university e-learning

  1. Pingback: PhD Update #15 – Some progress and an absence « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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