Lessons for e-learning from people

This is the last section from the People component of chapter 2 of my thesis. It is an attempt to derive some lessons from the previous sections that are relevant to the practice of e-learning.

This leaves me with two components of the Ps Framework to go and Chapter 2 is complete – at least to first draft stage. The two remaining are Product and Pedagogy. I believe both should be fairly quick ones to write, hopefully I’m right.

Lessons for e-learning from People

The previous sections have examined various aspects associated with the People involved with e-learning. This has included descriptions of the characteristics of the people (Students, Academic Staff, Leaders and Managers and Support Staff) involved with e-learning (Section 2.1.1); the chasm (Section 2.1.2) that exists between the visionaries and the pragmatists; and some notions of rationality (Section 2.1.3). This section draws on those descriptions to identify some potential lessons for the practice of e-learning within higher education.

People mean variety

The perceptions and beliefs around technology and learning and teaching play a significant role in the adoption and use of e-learning (Jones, Cranston et al. 2005; Stewart 2008). Different groups of people – academic staff, students, management and information technology practitioners – within the same institution will bring different and often conflicting views (Luck, Jones et al. 2004) or technological frames (Orlikowski and Gash 1994) to organizational information technology projects such as e-learning. Even within groups (e.g. students or academic staff) there is incredible variation in needs, requirements and tastes (McCormack and Jones 1997). In fact, increasing diversity within the student body is one of the defining trends in modern higher education. Additionally, changes in the context of higher education (see Place crossref) are increasing diversity between academics. More generally, individuals within an organisation will vary greately in their willingness to adopt an innovation like e-learning (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003).

An awareness and sensitivity to the increasingly diverse needs of students can improve their learning experience and outcomes (Semmar 2006). The variation in academics, students and disciplines combined with the absence of any unifying educational theory or practice suggests that there is no one correct method for implementing an online course (McCormack and Jones 1997). Approaches to the organisational implementation of e-learning that enable, support and encourage this diversity may be easily implemented, more readily adopted and potentially more innovative.

Academic staff aren’t prepared or rewarded for teaching

Academic staff are trained, selected and evaluated on the discipline expertise and their ability to perform quality research. The experience and training of academic staff not only focuses on discipline and research expertise it can, and often does, socialise aspiring academics towards a vision of academic work that emphasises these tasks (Austin 2002). While universities promote the importance of teaching the create ambiguous, even contradictory expectations by rewarding academic staff primarily for research (Zellweger 2005) and creating environments where spending more time teaching is a negative influence on academic pay (Fairweather 2005).

Most students, academic staff and people are conservative

Findings from neuro-science and psychology identify a strong tendency in people to gravitate toward the familiar and away from the unfamiliar (Bailey 2007). Social cognitive research suggests that an individual’s knowledge is cognitively structured through experience and interaction, which creates knowledge structures that focus attention on information consistent with existing structures (and past experience) while masking information inconsistent with those structures (Davidson 2002). Geoghegan’s (1994) use of Moore’s (2002) chasm suggests that the vast majority of potential adopters like gradual change and are risk averse (see Table 2.3).

Given this background, it is not all that surprising to find that new students, even those with a high level of competence and confidence with information technology, are conservative in their approach to study and learning approaches (Hardy, Haywood et al. 2008). Similarly, it is not at all surprising – especially when given the nature of rewards for academic staff – to find that most applications of e-learning within higher education can be characterised as horseless carriage applications. Where the attempt is made to develop new actions based on old adaptations to obsolete contexts (Anderson 2004). The work of Geoghegan (1994) suggests that the current limited adoption and limited quality of e-learning may arise from models of e-learning implementation that fail to effectively engage with this conservativism.

People mean agency

At most, new technologies and systems enable rather than dictate change (John and La Velle 2004). When a technical innovation threatens to disrupt established methods, teachers, administrators, students and technology staff will resist, assimilate, subvert or otherwise appropriate what is being proposed or imposed (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). Academic staff, as knowledge workers, have considerable autonomy about how they perform tasks and often can and do resist the imposition of changes to routine (Jones, Gregor et al. 2003). Attempts to impose changes tend to induce camouflage, conformance (Snowden 2002) or task corruption (White 2006). It appears unlikely that students and academic staff will objectively observe and evaluate the perceived advantages of e-learning and adopt imposed changes to practice. Instead, it appears more likely that the use of e-learning will emerge unpredictably through the interplay between the agency of the people involved, the implementation context and the material property of the supporting technologies. Failure to effectively engage with this unpredictable emergence may result in less than favourable outcomes.

People are central

The main point of this entire section is that the quality of e-learning within universities arises from the quality of the people within universities and their ability to harness and not be unduly constrained by the technology or the organisational processes and structures. It has been observed that most universities are still struggling to engage a significant percentage of students and staff in e-learning (Salmon 2005) and that the quality of what engagement there is, is limited. Given these observations, it is suggested that techno-rational approaches that fail to engage with people and the experiences are unlikely to create significant, sustainable improvements. It is possible, that current limitations around the organizational implementation of e-learning arise due to organizational approaches and practices that are not yet effectively engaging with the needs and characteristics of the people involved in e-learning.

References

Anderson, T. (2004). Toward a theory of online learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. T. Anderson and F. Elloumi. Athabasca, Canada, Athabasca University: 33-60.

Austin, A. E. (2002). "Preparing the next generation of faculty: Graduate school as socialization to the academic career." The Journal of Higher Education 73(1): 94-122.

Bailey, C. (2007). "Cognitive accuracy and intelligent executive function in the brain and in business." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1118: 122-141.

Davidson, E. (2002). "Technology frames and framing: A socio-cognitive investigation of requirements determination." MIS Quarterly 26(4): 329-358.

Dutton, W., P. Cheong, et al. (2004). "An ecology of constraints on e-learning in higher education: The case of a virtual learning environment." Prometheus 22(2): 131-149.

Fairweather, J. (2005). "Beyond the rhetoric: Trends in the relative value of teaching and research in faculty salaries." Journal of Higher Education 76(4): 401-422.

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Hardy, J., D. Haywood, et al. (2008). Expectations and reality: Exploring the use of learning technologies across the disciplines. 6th Networked Learning Conference. Halkidiki, Greece, Lancaster University.

John, P. D. and L. B. La Velle (2004). "Devices and Desires: subject subcultures, pedagogical identity and the challenge of information and communications technology." Technology, Pedagogy and Education 13(3): 307-326.

Jones, D., M. Cranston, et al. (2005). What makes ICT implementation successful: A case study of online assignment submission. ODLAA’2005, Adelaide.

Jones, D., S. Gregor, et al. (2003). An information systems design theory for web-based education. IASTED International Symposium on Web-based Education, Rhodes, Greece, IASTED.

Jones, D., K. Jamieson, et al. (2003). A model for evaluating potential Web-based education innovations. 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, IEEE.

Luck, J., D. Jones, et al. (2004). "Challenging Enterprises and Subcultures: Interrogating ‘Best Practice’ in Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(2): 19-31.

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

Moore, G. A. (2002). Crossing the Chasm. New York, Harper Collins.

Orlikowski, W. and D. Gash (1994). "Technological frames: Making sense of information technology in organizations." ACM Transactions on Information Systems 12(2): 174-207.

Salmon, G. (2005). "Flying not flapping: a strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions." ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 13(3): 201-218.

Semmar, Y. (2006). "Distance learners and academic achievement: The roles of self-efficacy, self-regulation and motivation." Journal of Adult and Continuing Education 12(2): 244-256.

Snowden, D. (2002). "Complex Acts of Knowing." Journal of Knowledge Management 6(2): 100-111.

Stewart, D. P. (2008). "Technology as a management tool in the Community College classroom: Challenges and Benefits." Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4(4).

White, N. (2006). "Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective." Higher Education Research & Development 25(3): 231-246.

Zellweger, F. (2005). Strategic Management of Educational Technology: The Importance of Leadership and Management. 27th Annual EAIR Forum. Riga, Latvia.

One thought on “Lessons for e-learning from people

  1. Pingback: Loosing weight, nudging and changing the L&T environment – early foundations of my work « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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