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.
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