What is an LMS?

The following post is the next step in completing the Product component of chapter 2 of my thesis. An earlier post started off the Product component. This post is the first section in a broader section titled “University e-learning technology”. This post focuses on the learning management system (LMS).

The content of this first post is a rough first draft of a section of the thesis. Increasingly there are going to be insert crossref type measures reminding me to add cross references to other sections.

What is an LMS?

Learning management systems (LMS) are software systems that are specifically designed and marketed to educational institutions to support teaching and learning and that typically provide tools for communication, student assessment, presentation of study material and organisation of student activities (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). These systems are also referred to by a number of different terms including virtual learning environments (VLE), course management systems (CMS), learning support systems (LSS), and learning platforms (Mendoza, Perez et al. 2006). Currently widely use LMS include systems called: Blackboard, Angel, Moodle and Sakai. The speed with which the adoption of an LMS has spread through universities is surprising (West, Waddoups et al. 2006). A 2004 survey of universities found that 73% had adopted an institution-wide LMS, compared to 60% in 2002, with 90% expecting to make such a claim within five years (OECD 2005).

The core components of an LMS include tools for for synchronous and asynchronous communication, content storage and delivery, online quiz and survey tools, gradebooks, whiteboards, digital dropboxes, and email communications (Harrington, Gordon et al. 2004). There are more similarities than differences amongst LMS products, with most distinguishing themselves with micro-detailed features (Black, Beck et al. 2007). As mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) and illustrated in Figure ?? (crossref) the commonality of LMS features have led Malikowski, Thompson and Theis (2007) to develop a model that abstracts LMS features into five categories: transmitting content, creating class interactions, evaluating students, evaluating course and instructions and computer-based instruction. Most LMS do not specify a discipline or pedagogy (Katz 2003).

The development of early LMS started primarily with internal development within universities. For example, WebCT one of the early dominant commercial LMS arose out of work at the University of British Columbia (Goldberg, Salari et al. 1996). However, due to the difficulty and costs of in-house development, during the late 1990s and early 2000s the majority of institutions moved to the adoption of commercial, proprietary LMS with Blackboard and WebCT dominating. A move illustrative of the shift of the LMS from being based on the bottoms-up energy of a small cadre of inventive faculty to being the embodiment of a top-down institutional strategy (Katz 2003). This shift marked the start of the industrial e-learning paradigm identified in the Past Experience section (insert cross ref).

The next cycle in LMS adoption was the rise of open source LMS. By 2005 several major universities were releasing their in-house LMS under open source rather than commercial licences (Coates, James et al. 2005). By 2006 there were two key trends in e-learning within the UK: an on-going preference for commercial systems and an emerging trend towards open source systems (Browne, Jekins et al. 2006). The significant number of available LMS may be an illustration of the novelty and relative immaturity of such systems, but it may also correspond to an over-empahsis on the technological infrastructure when the real challenge lies in the innovative and effective use of these systems in learning and teaching (OECD 2005).

Regardless of being commercial or open source, a university’s LMS forms the academic system equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in terms of pedagogical impact and institutional resource consumption (Morgan 2003). Another similarity with that of an ERPis the common idea behind the LMS identified by Dalsgaard (2006) that different tools are integrated into the single system which offers all the necessary tools to run and manage and e-learning course. There is an assumption that all learning activities and materials in a course will be organised and managed by and within the system (Dalsgaard 2006).

This similarity with ERP systems may raise similar concerns. An enterprise system, by its very nature, will impose its own logic on a company’s strategy, structure and culture and will push a company towards generic processes even when customised processes may be a source of competitive advantage (Davenport 1998). LMS are not pedagogical neutral technology, through their design they influence and guide teaching and work to shape and even define teachers’ imaginations, expectations and behaviours (Coates, James et al. 2005). The implementation of enterprise systems often reflects a conscious or unconscious move towards standardization (Morgan 2003).

Universities typically select an LMS through a process of comparison which evaluates each LMS on the basis of its functionality and how well this matches the needs of the institutions (Jones 2004). This is despite suggestions that decisions about university teaching and learning should not be restricted to checklist evaluations of technical and organizational factors (Coates, James et al. 2005). In addition, it has been observed that there are few, if any, distinguishable technical applications of features that allow for product differentation within the LMS market (Black, Beck et al. 2007). One of the sources of technology and pedagogical distinctions identified by Holt and Seagrave (2003) is the pre-occupation of different parties with different aspects of the selection of any one system. Particularly troubling is the observations that the users of these systems are often not the people who select them, the motivations for their acquisition are often unstated or ambiguous, and that the expectations of the investments in these systems are unclear (Katz 2003). In reviewing a number of reviews of LMS, Siemens (2006) identifies the most prominent limitation of the review models as the limited focus on broarder organisational views of learning.

The implementation of a LMS within a university is a small first step in what is likely to become a significant reshaping and renewal of teaching and learning – one of higher education’s most cherished and important activities (Katz 2003). This reshaping means that the selection of an institutional LMS is a high risk decision which involves a great deal of technological and institutional forecasting (Coates, James et al. 2005). It is possible that the difficulty of this forecasting is responsible for the observation that universities are not especially loyal with the majority having changed LMS, planning to change LMS or operating additional LMS (Paulsen 2003). The full-fledged implementation of an LMS is an expensive and support-intensive enterprise (Warger 2003) and brings significant change-management implications (Katz 2003). For this and other reasons it appears sensible to focus efforts away from LMS selection and towards issues related to adoption and implementation (Black, Beck et al. 2007).


Black, E., D. Beck, et al. (2007). "The other side of the LMS: Considering implementation and use in the adoption of an LMS in online and blended learning environments." Tech Trends 51(2): 35-39.

Browne, T., M. Jekins, et al. (2006). "A longitudinal perspective regarding the use of VLEs by higher education institutions in the United Kingdom." Interactive Learning Environments 14(2): 177-192.

Coates, H., R. James, et al. (2005). "A Critical Examination of the Effects of Learning Management Systems on University Teaching and Learning." Tertiary Education and Management 11(1): 19-36.

Dalsgaard, C. (2006) "Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems." European Journal of Distance Education Volume,  DOI:

Davenport, T. (1998). "Putting the Enterprise into the Enterprise System." Harvard Business Review 76(4): 121-131.

Goldberg, M., S. Salari, et al. (1996). "World-Wide Web – Course Tool: An environment for building WWW-based courses." Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 28: 1219-1231.

Harrington, C., S. Gordon, et al. (2004). "Course Management System Utilization and Implications for Practice: A National Survey of Department Chairpersons." Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 7(4).

Holt, D. and S. Segrave (2003). Creating and sustaining quality e-learning environments of enduring value for teachers and learners. 20th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Adelaide.

Jones, D. (2004). "The conceptualisation of e-learning: Lessons and implications." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(1): 47-55.

Katz, R. (2003). "Balancing Technology and Tradition: The Example of Course Management Systems." EDUCAUSE Review: 48-59.

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.

Malikowski, S., M. Thompson, et al. (2007). "A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory." Journal of Educational Computing Research 36(2): 149-173.

Mendoza, L., M. Perez, et al. (2006). "Tailoring RUP for LMS Selection: A Case Study." CLEI Electronic Journal 9(1).

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

OECD (2005). E-Learning in Tertiary Education: Where do we stand? Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Paulsen, M. F. (2003). "Experiences with Learning Management Systems in 113 European Institutions." Educational Technology & Society 6(4): 134-148.

Siemens, G. (2006). "Learning or Management System? A Review of Learning Management System Reviews." from http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2006/10/learning-ormanagement-system-with-reference-list.doc.

Warger, T. (2003, July 2003). "Calling All Course Management Systems." University Business  Retrieved 30 December, 2006, from http://universitybusiness.ccsct.com/page.cfm?p=315.

West, R., G. Waddoups, et al. (2006). "Understanding the experience of instructors as they adopt a course management system." Educational Technology Research and Development.

PhD Update #21 – End in sight for chapter 2

A bit of progress made on chapter 2 this week, sufficient to suggest that the end is nigh – at least for the first draft. That progress is in spite of only having limited time this week to work on the thesis because of work on Monday and having to baby sit the two boys on Wednesday.

What I’ve done this week

In the last update I said I’d complete the People component and get going on either pedagogy or product. I chose product.

In the last week I’ve

  • Completed the People, cognition, rationality and e-learning section of the People component.
  • Completed the Lessons for e-learning from People section which is the last section of the People component.
  • Completed the introduction and conceptions of technology section from the Product component.
  • Worked out the structure and re-organised most of the literature for the remaining sections of the Product component.
    The current planned structure is a little different than that outlined in the introduction. The current structure is
    • Conceptions of technology – DONE
      Broad discussion of how technology is perceived.
    • University e-learning technology – describe the technologies currently used
      • What is an LMS?
      • LMS limitations.
      • Other systems.
    • Other product models – the LMS is an integrated “ES”. There are other alternatives. Briefly mention these and the relative merits as opposed to the ES model.
    • Lessons for e-learning from Product.

What I’ll do next week

The aim is to complete the Product component and make significant progress on the Pedagogy component. If at all possible I’d like to complete both, but I’ve got a couple of other tasks to do at work next week which may prevent this from happening.

BIM#5: Getting a prototype BIM going

In the last bit of work I did on BIM, I got to the stage of having some initial working code for BIM module that allow someone to create a BIM activity and have that data saved to the database. The activity wouldn’t do anything, but it’s a start.

The aim today is to try and make some progress on getting a prototype up and going. i.e. some working Moodle code that academic staff can interact with and get some idea of how BIM will work. I’m still uncertain how far I will go with this. I have two main options:

  1. hard coded HTML; or
    Have the code return hard-coded HTML, don’t read any database. Just give the same information.

    This would be the simplest approach in terms of database tables and code. However, given that Moodle uses a forms library, I won’t be able to do the simplest thing – copy the HTML from BAM into BIM. I’ll have to do some translation. It may turn out to be simpler to do the next bit.

  2. generate HTML from a pre-populated database.
    Take/manipulate some data from the existing BAM database to create a BIM database in Moodle. Write code in BIM that will generate HTML based on that data, but not allow modification of the data.

    Some increased complexity, but also like to be a temptation to write the whole code which will slow down the production of the prototype.

Based on that bit of reflection, I think I’ll start with a hard-coded HTML approach and see what happens.

What to show

First step, I should probably ask if <a href="http://www.cqu.edu.au/CQU has a theme for its Moodle implementation. If I apply it to my dev box, I can make the initial prototype experiments look like the live system. Have to ask.

Okay, with the current status of BIM, if I “view” the activity, it doesn’t produce any HTML. The plan here is that different users will see different information when the view the activity. The different views are:

  • Student
    • If they haven’t registered their blog, see the information about how to create and register their blog.
    • If they have registered their blog, they should see
      • Details about their blog, including an interface to change their registered blog (if so configured by the coordinator).
      • Details about their posts/answers.
        This is where they see which posts to their blog BAM has recognised as an answer to a required question. It will also show whether the answer has been marked and also any comments from the marker.
  • Staff – the following draws on screen shots of the existing system. The appearance will change to fit Moodle and also possibly to improve the interface.
    • By default the “student blog details” screen (see below)
      BAM show student blog details
    • Link to the “answers page”
      BAM show all student posts page
    • Which in turn links to the marking page
      BAM mark post page

To find out

This means that I need to find out how to do the following in Moodle:

  • Perform different operations for different types of users.
  • Ensure only the authorised users can perform those operations.

Different operations

Viewing an activity is done via the view.php file in the module. At this stage it looks like this PHP code should check various parameters as well as course and user details and decide what to do as a result.

It seems that view.php follows a fairly set structure (not suprisingly).

  • Parameter check
    Check each of the parameters exist and are valid – including checking that there is an instance of the activity (e.g. bim) that matches the id that’s come in. Crash and burn if these checks don’t pass.
  • Security check
    Get the login details/objects of the user, perform security/capability checks.
  • Log some activity
    add_to_log($course->id, "bim", "view", "view.php?id=$cm->id", "$bim->id");
  • Display the HTML
    Which often involves a fair bit of calculation and then some use of standard header/footers.

The quiz module appears to use the idea of pagelib.php – which appears to implement/extend a factory class. i.e. a class that determines which type of quiz is being displayed and how to display it. There’s a global Moodle pagelib.php which seems to define the base classes for these. There’s a number of them – quiz uses page_generic_activity.

The LAMS module in the contrib collection appears to take the simple if approach i.e.

if (has_capability('mod/lams:manage', $context)){
}else if(has_capability('mod/lams:participate', $context)){
if ($lams->introduction) {

In the long run this will have to be thought through. The if/else option isn’t a technically nice and neat solution. I’m happy for a hard-coded prototype to use it though.

Authorised users, capabilities etc.

The question now is how to determine between different types of users. How to know the difference between students and staff.

According to the intro to moodle course docs there’s a roles and capabilities system that has replaced fixed roles. That sounds like, and based on the modules I’ve looked at, the way to go. More documentation here.

Capabilities etc are defined in the db/access.php file for the module which looks a bit like this

$mod_lams_capabilities = array(

    'mod/lams:participate' => array(

        'captype' => 'write',
        'contextlevel' => CONTEXT_MODULE,
        'legacy' => array(
            'student' => CAP_ALLOW

    'mod/lams:manage' => array(

        'captype' => 'write',
        'contextlevel' => CONTEXT_MODULE,
        'legacy' => array(
            'teacher' => CAP_ALLOW,
            'editingteacher' => CAP_ALLOW,
            'admin' => CAP_ALLOW

Should be able to add a couple of dummy ones and use that to add in some if/else to display different HTML based on the type of user.

First problem is that it appears changes to db/access.php only get recognised if you increment the version and/or reinstall

Next problem is that the little test I’m doing isn’t working. I thought I’d set a capability only for a student – but the code is being executed for the admin user. Either I’ve done it wrong or the admin user has some additional “powers”.

Looks like the latter. Need to create another user and assign as a teacher. Yep, that works.

Now, rather than simply “else not student” let’s add a capability the identifies teachers and maybe another one that identifies admin. Okay, the administrator version is working. But not the teacher one.

At this stage, I’d like to know if there’s anyway, in the code, to spit out information about the available capabilities. Would that be in the context variable? Nope, it’s fairly simple….doesn’t seem to be any reasonably straight forward code.

need to move on. I’m stuck at the moment with two of the capabilities working, but not the one with the student. Guess, I’ll have to go with a default.

Put in the student details page

While this is fairly straight forward. The other unlooked for complication is the need to grasp the use of weblib.php and its functions. So far, the introduction to weblib is not straight forward.

It looks like it will require a dive into weblib.php and some trial and error. Can’t seem to find anything in terms of decent overview documentation – apart from that generated automatically from the code.

Again, it’s another one of those frustrating jobs, not difficult, just painful.

Looks like it is time to go.


Have made some progress on the prototype. But really identified some additional reading and understanding that’s required to do this in “proper” Moodle-ese.

eLearning and Innovation Specialist report #1: 4-20 August

One of the problems within universities with the types of role I’ve been performing in the last couple of years is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind, problem. As a L&T “support” person the folk in the faculties, especially those in senior management, aren’t always aware of exactly what it is you’re doing. At the same time, they are aware of all sorts of problems they are seeing with L&T, have specific ideas how those should be addressed and don’t see folk like me implementing those ideas. Consequently, they don’t see any value in what we do.

There are some aspects of that problem that you can’t do anything about. This post is the first in a new tradition and is intended to address one part of the problem. It is questionable as to how well this approach will address the problem, but better to do something than nothing. The idea is that I’ll report on this blog what I’ve been doing for the last little bit in the position. In part, this will be used to inform my supervisor and over time I’ll promote these posts as way people can track what I’m doing. In part, this type of work fits with a number of my position’s accountabilities.

More importantly, I’ll point out that it is a way for people to critique and make suggestions. It will also prompt me to reflect a bit on what I’ve done and what I might’ve done.

Summary of work

From the 4th to 20th of August, the major tasks I’ve been involved with include:

  • Working on BIM.
  • Talking with Psychology folk about curriculum mapping.
  • Talking with Quality folk about projects etc.
  • Supporting others in research.
  • Preparing for a presentation.
  • Working on the PhD.

Some of the issues, barriers or hurdles around this work have included:

  • On-going uncertainty about the nature of this role and how it fits within the broader CQUniversity policy and process structures.
  • Disquiet about the role and what it is doing from sections of the CQUniversity community, as identified in the PRPD process.
  • Sickness of both myself and family members.

Working on BIM

This is currently the major task in my current work role. BIM stands for BAM Into Moodle and is taking an existing research project/tool from CQU’s existing LMS into its new one (Moodle). I’ve spent the best part of 3 or 4 days on this project in the current time period. The work during this period on BIM is summarised in a series of 4 posts: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The current status on BIM is that it is now much clearer how this will work within the Moodle model and the first steps have been made in implementation.

Curriculum mapping

A few weeks ago I was approached by folk from CQUni’s Psychology school with a need around curriculum mapping. The aim was how to improve the availability and use of curriculum mapping information around the Psychology program. Originally an L&T grant was envisioned, but increasingly this appears to be something better addressed at an organisational level.

Some additional explanation, examination of some related factors and one suggested way forward is outlined on this blog post.

Quality folk

I’ve met with someone from the Quality division to talk about various related projects and sketch a way forward. There is certainly some overlap and space for collaboration, though it is not immediately possible.

Supporting research

I’ve discussed potential and existing research projects with a number of CDDU staff. Have given feedback on an ASCILITE paper for one member of CQU staff outside of CDDU and feedback on another ASCILITE paper to a member of CDDU.


I have been working on a presentation to be given under the auspices of the L&T research centre at CQU. Initial thinking about the presentation is outlined in a number of blog posts, including this one.

The presentation will aim to give some theoretical underpinnings to how I approach my current role and identify potential ways forward for CQU in terms of improving L&T.

Working on the PhD

Progress on the PhD is regularly updated on the blog – the most recent is here

Work to be done

Over the coming couple of weeks the work focus will be on:

  • Progress BIM.
    I hope to have a prototype to show people within a couple of weeks. A month at most.
  • Help out on a paper for the indicators project.
    A late request, this will be a focus for the next week.
  • Progress the curriculum mapping project/requirement.
    This is a complex issue, in particular how best to progress it through the necessary CQU processes in order to achieve a decent outcome. I will aim to have developed a report on this opportunity within the next couple of weeks.
  • Complete the presentation.
    This will be given in mid to late September.
  • Make progress on the PhD.

The product component of the Ps Framework

This post contains the start of the Product component of the Ps Framework that forms a section out of chapter 2 of my thesis.


Technology is a tool and like all tools it should fit your hand when you pick it up, you shouldn’t have to bio-re-engineer your hand to fit the tool. – Dave Snowden

E-learning, as used in this thesis, draws on the definition provided by the OECD (2005) where e-learning is defined as “the use of information and communications technology to enhance and/or support learning in tertiary education”. The purpose of the Product component of the Ps Framework and this section is to examine the nature of the information and communications technology – the product – used to implement e-learning within universities. Due to its pre-dominance within university e-learning, the emphasis will be on the class of integrated enterprise system known alternatively as the Course Management System (CMS), Learning Management System (LMS) or the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

This section first briefly examines some literature from information systems and more broadly about conceptions of technology and the information technology artifact (Section 2.1.1). It will then more onto to examine more closely the nature and characteristics of the technology currently used to support e-learning within universities (Section 2.1.2), before examining in detail some of the limitations of that technology (Section 2.1.3) and examining some alternatives (Section 2.1.4). Lastly, it seeks to draw some lessons for e-learning from this discussion of the Product component of the Ps Framework (Section 2.1.5).

Conceptions of technology

Bringing to the surface the common assumptions can be particularly useful in the design and implementation of a system – like e-learning within a university – in order to identify where stakeholder frames may be incongruent and internally inconsistent (Orlikowski and Gash 1994). In the past, and especially within the implementation of e-learning within universities, information technology has been taken for granted or assumed to be unproblematic. Such techno-rational conceptions illustrate a quite narrow perspective of what technology is, how it has effects and how and why it is implicated in social change (Orlikowski and Iacono 2001). Conceptions of technology within the practice of e-learning at universities appears particularly limited when it is observed that the almost universal university approach to e-learning has been the adoption of a particular type of system (Salmon 2005; Feldstein 2006; Jones and Muldoon 2007). This section seeks to briefly examine the variety of conceptions of technology found in the literature.

Gana and Fuentes (2006) identify two different ways of understanding technology and its management within society:

  1. technology as neutral; and
    The development of technology follows a linear process and oriented towards efficiency and economic yield through the application of technical rationality that can only be understood and applied by experts with adequate specialised understanding.
  2. technology as a social activity.
    Decisions about technology cannot be based exclusively on specialised technology knowledge but is instead a shared activity attempting to made sense of a complex array of forces arising from development being intrinsically woven together with society and social actors.

In examining conceptions of causal agency in the literature on information technology and organisational change, Markus and Robey (1988) identify three conceptions:

  1. the technological imperative;
    Technology is seen as an exogenous force which determines or at least strongly constrains the behaviour of individuals and organizations. Information technology is seen as shaping organizations, its processes and jobs. Empirical research has generated contradictor findings and it has been proposed that contingencies affect the relationship between information technology and structural change.
  2. the organisational imperative; and
    Assumes that organizations and the people within them have almost unlimited choice over technological options and almost unlimited control over the consequences. This perspective assumes that human actors rationally design information systems to satisfy organisational requirements. It assumes that system designers and management are able to manage the impacts of systems by paying attention to both technical and social concerns. Empirical support is limited and most studies fail to assess designers’ intentions and are consequently not complete tests of this imperative.
  3. the emergent perspective.
    Holds that the uses and consequences of information technology emerge unpredictably from complex social interactions. Central to this perspective are the role of computing infrastructure, the interplay of conflicting objectives and preferences, and the operation of non-rational objectives and choice processes. This perspective refuses to acknowledge a dominant cause of change, instead prediction requires detailed understanding of dynamic organisational processes, the intentions of actors and features of information technology.

Sproull and Kiesler (1991) draw on the history of prior technology to develop four points useful in thinking about the potential consequences of new communication technologies. These points are:

  1. Full possibilities of new technology are hard to foresee;
    Inventors and early adopters tend to emphasise the planned uses and under-estimate second-level effects.
  2. Unanticipated consequences arise from interactions;
    Efficiency effects have less to do with developing unanticipated consequences of technology than the changing of interpersonal interactions, social organisation, work procedures and ideas about what is important.
  3. Second-level effects often emerge slowly; and
    Such effects tend to arise only after people begin over time to understand, reflect and renegotiate changed patterns of behaviour and thinking.
  4. Second-level effects are not determined by technology.
    Rather than arising from autonomous technologies operating on a passive organisation or society, second-level effects are construct as technology interacts with, shapes, and is shaped by the social and policy environment.

In examining the information systems research literature – in the form of the 1888 articles published within the journal Information Systems Review from 1990 through 1999 – with the intent of discovering what IS researchers had done with the alternative conceptualisations of technology given in the 1980s – such as that given by Markus and Robey (1988) – Orlikowski and Iacono (2001) identified 14 specific conceptualisations of information technology. They clustered these into five broad meta-categories:

  1. tool view of technology;
    Representing the common and received understanding of technology as the engineered artifact, expected to do what was intended by its designers. A focus largely on technical issues independent of social or organisational arrangements within which it is developed and used.
  2. proxy view of technology;
    Attempts to capture critical aspects of information technology through the use of a surrogate and usually quantitative measure such as individual perceptions, diffusion rates or dollars spent.
  3. ensemble view of technology;
    Technology is seen as only one element of a package or web of components that are necessary in order to apply technology to some socio-economic activity. All variants of this view focus on the dynamic interactions between people and technology at various stages of its construction, implementation and use.
  4. computational view of technology;
    A view that focuses on the capabilities of technology represent, manipulate, store, retrieve and transmit information in support of processing, modelling or simulating aspects of the world. Typically focusing on the development of algorithms or models.
  5. nominal view of technology: technology as absent.
    Where technology is incidental or act as background information. The focus is on topics of interest to the IS field but with not specific connection with technology.

An initial change in technology can set the direction of a deviation-amplifying spiral, however, humans can affect technology design and policy and therefore influence second-level effects (Sproull and Kiesler 1991). Management, those responsible for creating the environment in which an organization operates, tends to concentrate on efficiency effects (Sproull and Kiesler 1991; Lacity and Hirschheim 1993). Such a focus can limit the level of disruption caused by information technology and its second-level effects contributing to the maintenance of the status quo. It is not uncommon for adoption of new technological opportunities which significantly deviate from the established socio-technical profile of a sector to be slow (Dolata 2009). Table 3.1 summarises perspectives about information technology, its purpose and the likelilood of sustaining or disruptive innovation (Christensen 1997).

Table 3.1 – Sustaining and disruptive perspectives of information technology
Source Sustaining Disruption
Strategic information systems (Clark 1994) For automation and office support As a source of strategic advantage
Communications technologies, networked organisation (Sproull and Kiesler 1991) Emphasizing efficiency effects Enabler of previously impossible practices
Web-based teaching and learning (Hannafin and Kim 2003) Harnessed to improve existing practices Enabling significant transformation by embracing different world views
Technology, innovation and firms (Christensen 1997) Sustaining – helping institutions improve existing products Disruptive – change the standard, a different set of benefits at lower costs

As shown in Table 3.1, in particular the Hannafin and Kim (2003) reference, various conceptions of information technology can be found within the literature associated with e-learning, some additional examples follow. It is most likely that technology will reinforce the old systems rather than the new paths (Lian 2000). Educators are likely to use the technology to do things the way they have always been done, but with new and more expensive equipment (Dutton and Loader 2002). Technology is not, of itself, liberating or empowering but serves the goals of those who guide its design and use (Lian 2000). The tools themselves are never value-neutral but are replete with values and potentialities which may cause unexpected responses (Westera 2004). The forms new media take are not technologically given, instead they are historically emergent and best understood by examining how social relations are inscribed in the technology and how the technology is shaped to provide specific functions (Adam 1998). The impact of new technologies depends crucially on the social context (Clegg, Hudson et al. 2003). While a e-learning system can be purported to support various aspects of learning, the reality is more complex, involving the context within which these systems are used and how they are adapted to specific student needs (Conole 2002).

The above brief examination of different conceptions of technology suggests that views of technology as neutral or deterministic are somewhat limited in the explanatory power. Instead, of quality e-learning arising simply out of the technology is unlikely. Instead the outcomes of e-learning are likely to arise in unpredictable and emergent ways out of the complex interplay between the technology, the organisation and the individuals. It also indicates that it is through this emergence that many unexpected effects arise and open up new possibilities.


Adam, A. (1998). Artificial knowing: gender and the thinking machine. London, Routledge.

Christensen, C. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Harvard Business Press.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.

Clark, R. (1994, 14 July 1994). "The Path of Development of Strategic Information Systems Theory." 2003, from http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/SOS/StratISTh.html.

Clegg, S., A. Hudson, et al. (2003). "The Emperor’s new clothes: globalisation and e-learning in higher education." British Journal of Sociology of Education 24(1): 39-53.

Conole, G. (2002). "The evolving landscape of learning technology." ALT-J 10(3): 4-18.

Dolata, U. (2009). "Technological innovations and sectoral change. Transformative capacity, adaptability, patterns of change: An analytical framework." Research Policy 38(6): 1066-1076.

Dutton, W. and B. Loader (2002). Introduction. Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning. W. Dutton and B. Loader. London, Routledge: 1-32.

Feldstein, M. (2006). Unbolting the chairs: Making learning management systems more flexible. eLearn Magazine. 2006.

Gana, M. T. S. G. and L. A. T. Fuentes (2006). "Technology as ‘a human practice with social meaning’ – a new scenery for engineering education." European Journal of Engineering Education 31(4): 437-447.

Hannafin, M. and M. Kim (2003). "In search of a future: A critical analysis of research on web-based teaching and learning." Instructional Science 31: 347-351.

Jones, D. and N. Muldoon (2007). The teleological reason why ICTs limit choice for university learners and learning. ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, Singapore.

Lacity, M. and R. Hirschheim (1993). Information systems outsourcing: myths, metaphors and realities. Chichester,, John Wiley & Sons.

Lian, A. (2000). "Knowledge Transfer and Technology in Education: Toward a complete learning environment." Educational Technology & Society 3(3).

Lian, A. (2000). "Knowledge transfer and technology in education: Toward a complete learning environment." Educational Technology & Society 3(3): 13-26.

Markus, M. L. and D. Robey (1988). "Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research." Management Science 34(5): 583-598.

OECD. (2005, 17 January 2006). "Policy Brief: E-learning in Tertiary Education."   Retrieved 5 December, 2006, from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/55/25/35961132.pdf.

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

Orlikowski, W. and C. S. Iacono (2001). "Research commentary: desperately seeking the IT in IT research a call to theorizing the IT artifact." Information Systems Research 12(2): 121-134.

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.

Sproull, L. and S. Kiesler (1991). Connections: new ways of working in the networked organization. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Westera, W. (2004). "On strategies of educational innovation: between substitution and transformation." Higher Education 47(4): 501-517.

Nudging as paternalism

This is a story about serendipitous connectability connecting both the online and offline worlds and making me aware of a growing narrative or theory. Which makes me question whether or not nudging or nudge theory is libertarian paternalism

The connections

At lunch today I was reading the Australian newspaper and came across this article – “No nudging, please”. In which the author refers to something called “nudge theory” as a recent bandwagon and boils nudge theory down to being libertarian paternalism.

While I wasn’t aware of the phrase nudge theory, the descriptions of nudge theory did ring some bells

nudge theory finds individuals often behave in ways that do not conform to the conventional view of the rational economic man

This connects with some of my long term thoughts, recent reading and recent writings.

This morning, before lunch and before I read the paper, I posted the first public thoughts on a presentation I’m working on that seems to connect here. The presentation is going to argue that most approaches to improving L&T at universities assume techno-rational approaches (herding cats) – or at the least assume that people are rational – and this is why they continue to fail. I was going to argue that better approaches would be based on an environment that encourages small, on-going improvements in practice (weight loss). An approach informed by complex adaptive systems and the observation that people aren’t rational (it’s still a work in progress.

The idea that this approach could be interpreted as paternalism is somewhat troubling.

Then this afternoon, I’m trying to find some more mp3 recordings of presentations to listen to while walking (part of my personal weight loss program applying similar principles) I came across a post on choice architecture and education by Gardner Campbell

Aside: I came to Gardner’s post via a Stephen Downes’ post reporting on Gardner’s talk at OpenEd’09. Anyone have an mp3 of the video? Perhaps I should learn how/if ustream videos can be converted into mp3s.

Garnder’s post reports on his initial thoughts of the book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Reading the Amazon page suggests that the book and the theory very much brings together the ideas I’ve been thinking about. But I still find the question of paternalism somewhat troubling.

It’s a point that Gardner picks up on in his post

Although their advocacy of “libertarian paternalism” probably won’t please either the rigid high-stakes testers or the unschoolers, it does (so far) offer in my view a very interesting model for education that takes into account the need for expert understanding and guidance of the developing learner

Does my initial concern make me a rigid high-stakes tester or a unschooler?

Why am I troubled? Should I be troubled?

One of contentions is that much of the current attempts at improving learning and teaching within universities and how they are implemented are very paternalistic. I phrase it as level 2 approaches to learning and teaching. It is my belief that these approaches get in the way and actively reduce the chance of improving learning and teaching.

This is a flaw I’m seeking to address. So any chance that I’m also be paternalistic, strikes a nerve.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the Australian newspaper article was moderated somewhat when I saw the byline of the author

Julie Novak is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs bills itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank” and has a tag line “free people, free society”. So they probably fit in Gardner’s “unschooler” category.

Also, I believe that Professor Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures for 2009 titled “A new politics of the common good” do a pretty good job – from my perspective – of arguing that the application of only free market principles to education has some flaws. In fact, I’m pretty happy that this perspective provides a reasonable arguent against the “unschoolers”.

At the other end of the spectrum – “the rigid high-stakes tester” – in my context equates to the top-down managerialists and the the technologists alliance. The folk who think there is a single idea (or maybe a few) that will radically improve L&T and that if only we can get those silly academics to adopt this approach, then everything will be alright. Just about anyone from a systems background (Senge etc) fit into this group as well. As long as we all have the same values, we’ll be okay.

To me this people are strong paternalists. They’ve come up with the solution. We will do as we’re told. Only we don’t. We’re irrational, we’re different and we have agency. We will fight back. So the whole thing disolves into tension and conflict.

While the underpinnings of the nascent approach I’m trying to develop and communicate draw on aspects of nudge theory (I have to read more to find out just exactly how much) it’s not the core. The core of the idea is that the environment that support L&T at a university has to have appropriate features that continue and enable academics to reflect and change their practice. And that this approach should be based on what we know about human cognition and rationality, i.e. that we’re not.

So, rather than applying “nudge theory” to encourage academics to adopt “good approaches to L&T” that I, or anyone else, has identified. The aim is to apply aspects of nudge theory to encourage academics to reflect and support them in identifying improvements to L&T that work for them in a sustainable way.

But then, when is all said and done, organisations always have limited resources there will, at some stage, need to be decisions made. Is this where management steps in? Novak makes the following point in her Australian article

The notion that the state should nudge individuals to make better decisions overlooks the fact politicians and government officials are also afflicted by behavioural biases.

. It is important that when management do end up making decisions, that they also be aware of their limitations. That they are also nudged in the right direction.

More thinking to be done.

Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching

The purpose of this post is to work out some initial ideas for a presentation I’ll be giving at CQUniversity in the next month or so. The title of the presentation is probably going to be “Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching”. The talk is related to my current position and is the first step in making the position better known within the organisation.

I’m hoping that this post will help me formulate some of the ideas that have been floating around about this presentation. The main purpose I hope to achieve is sufficient understanding of what I’m trying to do to come up with an abstract.

If you have an comments on the following please contribute. I’m particularly interested in references that might support or argue against any of the views below.


The talk will draw on many of the perspectives I’ve recently read and shared on this blog. The basic argument is that most of what Universities, at least those of my experience, have been doing to improve learning and teaching (quality, implementation of learning management systems, L&T innovation grants, graduate certificates in learning and teaching, curriculum design, over emphasis on discipline based teaching etc.) can be characterised as attempting to herd cats. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it’s best summarised in an old EDS commercial (YouTube video included below).

The problem

It’s my belief, that at best these approaches help the innovators – the small percentage of university academic staff that are inherently interested in improving their learning and teaching. That’s it, that’s the only positive I see of these approaches.

The negatives include:

I think I’ll argue that such approaches are symptomatic of an increasingly techno-rational approaches to universities and learning and teaching. An increase driven in part by the change nature of the context within which higher education must operate. i.e. decreasing funds, increasing calls for accountability etc. Approaches which are based on the assumption of ordered systems.

I’ll argue that the assumptions of ordered systems and techno-rational approaches are increasingly unquestioned. In fact, I’ll suggest that the nature of these assumptions and their mismatch with the context leads to defensive routines and that these assumptions become undiscussable. Actions which further restrict the ability of an organisation to improve learning and teaching.

The solution

First, I’ll try and use the idea of losing weight as a metaphor for the individual decisions around trying to improve learning and teaching. It will suggest that achieving both goals in a sustainable way, requires a change in the day to day practice of the individual. Not something that can be achieved by outside direction.

This metaphor/analogy will be used to make connections between the nature and outcomes of fad diets and fads in learning and teaching. It will also be used to highlight what we know about individuals, cognition and rationality. In particular, this will talk about the tendency for past experience to directly influence and limit how we will act in the future and how this influences both teachers and the managers that direct teachers.

Importantly, around about here it is important to connect with some of the “lessons from people” I’ve developed for the thesis.

At this stage, I’m getting a bit more fuzzy as to content and direction. The standard approach for me at this stage would be to talk about complex systems and the work of Dave Snowden. In particular the various principles he has. I may translate this into specific examples of things that can be done and connect it back to examples at CQU. In particular the limitations of teleological approaches to the support of e-learning systems.

More work to be done here, but I think the point has to be to bring all this abstract stuff back to real examples, suggestions or principles that can be applied in this context.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching. Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.

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.


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.

Moodle, curriculum mapping, task fit and task corruption

I’m involved in some early discussions with some folk from the Psychology department here at CQUniversity about a project looking at curriculum mapping. If I’ve got any idea of their problem, it’s associated with the need to show their students, themselves and the accrediting bodies how the activities, resources and assessments of the courses within they degree meet the outcomes for the courses and the program.

I have a meeting with them tomorrow. The following is an edited copy of a post I’ve just made to a discussion about curriculum mapping on the Moodle general developer forum. It’s an attempt to identify one potential way forward.

Before moving forward – a definition of some terms as I’ll use them in the following:

  • Course – the smallest unit of study a student can enrol in. Usually goes over 12 weeks or so. A bachelor’s degree consists of 24 courses.
  • Program – a collection of courses that contribute to a degree (e.g. the psychology program).
  • Curriculum mapping – an attempt to generate a representation of the alignment (or lack thereof) between stated outcomes for programs and courses and the activities, resources and tasks provided to students.

Top-down versus bottom-up

In the discussion around curriculum mapping on the Moodle general developer’s forum, Ger Tielemans makes the following point

The point is that Moodle works – by design – bottom-up while most curriculum tools work top-down.

  • In the top-down approach you have first to fill a cascade of questions before you can enter one single resource or activity (teachers hate this!)
  • In Moodle you start on course level and even there it is a free form design, teachers become “bricoleurs” (French for handyman).

Teachers like this approach, but it is killing your curriculum wish.

Is it possible to combine these approaches, still with simplicity in mind?

This point was the inspiration for the following suggestion/idea. It really strikes a chord with my experience helping academic staff with their teaching and also as an academic staff member trying to teach.

The rest of this post includes some additional background why I think engaging with the bottom up practice of most academics is the better solution than forcing them to work top-down; and an initial description of a potential solution that might achieve this.

Reasons why changing to top-down is hard

The basic assumption is that trying to change academics from a bottom-up to a top-down approach is almost certainly going to fail, or at least be really, really difficult and expensive. Instead, it is a better idea to try and achieve the same goal while allowing academics to retain their bottom up approach. This section outlines a few reasons for that.

If the goal is to enable curriculum mapping, I would suggest not changing academic practice from bottom-up to top-down. If you believe there are other benefits in changing academic practice to top-down, that’s another argument. I’m focusing here on the pragmatic question of how best to generate a curriculum map of a program/set of courses.

Change and task corruption

When it comes to change in teaching practice with university academics, it’s very hard. Most (there is a minority of innovators that are an exception) tend not to change their practice.

When the push for this change is from the top-down (i.e. management), it is even less likely that academics will change teaching practice. If pushed the end result is, at best compliance, and at worst task corruption. This tends to defeat the purpose of any change in the first place.

The need for curriculum mapping is mostly top-down. It’s needed for accreditation and accountability reasons – mostly concerns for management. My fear is that any requirement for academics to produce/contribute to curriculum maps is likely to be seen as an additional impost and either they won’t participate or they will be seen to comply.

Other work

It appears that there is some work (more detail on Moodle forum) being done at the University of Virginia School of Nursing on developing a more traditional top-down approach to curriculum mapping for Moodle. It’s also a lot more than that.

There’s a vaguely related set of work being done around syllabus builders that might perform some of the same roles. At least from the perspective of entering course outcomes and possibly mapping.

For the reasons I outline below (and probably some more) I don’t think these approaches would be as effective in my context (I make no claims about other contexts). A comparison between the different approaches might be interesting.

Task fit and familiarity

There’s a theory/model called Task Technology Fit (TTF) from the information systems discipline, which basically says an IT system is more likely to have a positive impact on individual performance if the system matches the tasks the user must perform. i.e. it’s pretty hard to use a hammer to cut wood. Related to this is the idea is that people like familiarity and avoid the unfamiliar.

At least in my context, within the next year or so academics will be familiar with Moodle. As all our courses will be expected to have a Moodle presence. The use of Moodle will become a standard part of the task they are expected to perform – running a course (I use that title rather than “create a learning experience/environment” because I believe that’s how many interpret their task).

Design versus copying across

In my context, it is my perception that there are very few courses that are designed from scratch (i.e. designed from the top-down). Mostly people re-use documents, resources and course sites from previous terms and make slight modifications. Few people have the time or inclination and design a course from scratch. The exceptions are obviously those folk who are creating new courses, but I believe they are in the minority.

For me, this means that approaches that focus on creating curriculum maps through the course design process are also not likely to fit.

In addition, at my institution the “syllabus builder” that we use is a locally developed system. While it serves a purpose, it has some limitations and enhancing it to fulfill the role of curriculum mapping would be difficult. Rather than waste that investment in a proprietary system, it would seem to make more sense to put this functionality into a open system like Moodle.

Especially when Moodle is the system the academics will be using throughout the term for most of the learning and teaching. Why make them use another system?

Evaluating potential innovations

Back in 2003, some colleagues and I proposed a model, drawing heavily on Rogers (1995), for evaluating potential web-based innovations (Jones, Jamieson and Clark, 2003). The claim was

innovations are largely promoted on the basis of a collection of supposedly objective benefits. The implementation of these innovations often ignores contextual issues that can cause problems with adoption of the innovations. This paper has proposed the use of a model from diffusion theory through which educators can increase their awareness of potential implementation issues, estimate the likelihood of reinvention, and predict the amount and type of effort required to achieve successful implementation of specific WBE innovations.

Based on my interpretation of the model I would see any top-down approach to curriculum mapping as having significant implementation issues, a high probability of reinvention and is likely to require a great deal of complicated and expensive “social engineering” to achieve meaningful outcomes. A bottom-up approach is likely to be somewhat easier, though potentially still not incredibly straight forward depending on the context.

For example, given that the psychology folk are fairly motivated about curriculum mapping, either approach is likely to be much simpler. However, another grouping of academics with a different set of motivations, are likely to be very different.

A solution?

Based on the above background and sparked by Ger’s observation of the difference between top-down and bottom-up, the following idea came to me overnight. It’s also informed by some recent experience I gathered while trying to become familiar with Moodle (which means I’m still new to Moodle so take the following with a grain of salt).

The basic idea is to modify the operation of Moodle so that everytime an academic edits or adds a resource or activity to a Moodle course they can easily select which of the course and program outcomes that resource or activity is associated with. This would provide a database with the information necessary to create a curriculum map.

My organisation already has the program and course outcomes in a database. We also know which courses belong to which programs. So this information could be fed in automatically. The academics wouldn’t have to enter it.

It is my understanding that the update form for most resources/activities in Moodle will include a “Common module settings” box like that shown in the following image. See the box near the bottom of the page with the title “Common module settings”

Simple moodle "update" form

So, given that (generally) when an academic is updating a resource/activity they are working within a particular course and that we’ve already entered into a database the course and program outcomes that are associated with the course. It shouldn’t be too hard to add a “Course/program outcomes” section to every update form. This section would include a list of all the relevant program and course outcomes.

So, every time an activity or resource is edited by an academic they can choose which of the program and course outcomes are associated with the activity or resource. This “mapping” is then stored in a database and is available for other services to use. Those other services might include:

  • A block that reminds/notifies the academic that some of the course outcomes aren’t yet covered by an assessment or activity.
  • A website that shows prospective and current students where and how each outcomes is met.
  • The necessary curriculum map for accreditation and management purposes.


The drawbacks I can think of include:

  • Doesn’t this require a mod to the Moodle core? That’s hard right?
  • Doesn’t selecting the program/course outcomes imply additional work for the academics?
  • What about activities/resources that aren’t online/in Moodle?

Mod to the Moodle core?

I believe this suggestion might require a change in the “core” of Moodle to enable the “Program/course outcomes” to be added as an option on all of the of update forms of activities/resources. This might not be straight forward – I don’t know enough to comment.

However, based on my ignorance, I think I could see how the modular structure of Moodle would allow this to be done in a way that might not require large changes….would need to look at this more. i.e. in the bit that produces the “common settings” add a function call to the program/course outcomes stuff – if it exists. (Does my ignorance show?)

Even if it were difficult, my argument has always been that with modern information systems it’s more important to make the users’ job easy, than the systems developers.

Isn’t it more work?

Doesn’t this still mean additional work for academics? Aren’t they just as likely to ignore it or “comply” with it?

Yes, but there’s always a limit to how far you can go. I think this is about as simple as you can. In addition, I think some of the visualiations/services that this data makes possible could be used to encourage academics.

For me, this remains that most challenging aspect, finding effective and appropriate ways to encourage academics to engage with this sort of thing.

What about off-line activities/resources?

Yep, this is a problem. No grand thoughts about this.


This is still an initial thought, a rough idea. It will have significant flaws. Any suggestions? Comments? Given the need to get comments from my local context, I’ll probably blog this as well.


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

Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York, The Free Press.

BIM #4: Re-jigging how BIM works

The last post in this series saw me struggling – the long way around – to the realisation that the implementation model I had in my head wasn’t going to work. At least not with the constraints of the model adopted by Moodle.

This post is about me struggling to come up with a implementation model that will actually fit the Moodle model and hoepfully also the students and teaching staff that will use BIM.

Getting in the Moodle model more

Perhaps part of the problem, is that I’m not familiar enough with the Moodle model to feel how it works. So, let’s play with some of the standard modules and add activities.

  • Quiz
    • First page is the main configuration page, lots of options. But nowhere to specify the questions or question bank.
    • View the page (as the admin user) and you get to see the question bank editing/adding interface. Also see a range of other buttons.
    • A student view doesn’t include the whole question bank interface, just a message “no questions yet”
    • The update interface returns back to the original configuration page.
    • Once a question is answers, the student sees an “Attempt quiz now” button
    • Each of the different operations draw on different php script in the mod/quiz directory.

Quiz inspired BIM model

Based on the above, the BIM model might become:

  • A BIM activity is added to the course.
  • This brings up the BIM configure page.
    This covers everything need to set it up initially. Including the HTML/text to explain to the student the purpose of the assignment and how it works. i.e. not a URL

    This might also include an option to change the use of “blog”. i.e. if they want BIM to aggregate something other than a blog, just some RSS etc.

  • The configure page becomes what is shown for the “update”
    So this means that there is no need for a configure activity.
  • A student would then have the following options if they were to view the BIM activity
    • View background information i.e. what it’s all about.
    • Register their blog and/or see information about their blog.
    • View progress.
      This would include a list of the questions they are meant to answer and indications of which they have answered.
  • A staff member would see
    • Details – list of all students, who are registered, who is not etc.
    • Post summary – list of all matched answers for each student.
    • Questions – a list of all the questions
      The coordinator would be able to configure these. Normal teacher would just see the details. The code would be much the same as that for the view progress for the students.

That seems more doable, probably need the block at a later stage.

Get going

So, let’s not rest and do some design. Let’s get coding. Start with the configure/update/add option. This is essentially a modification and play with the dummy function provided by the NEWMODULE template. First step should be to identify what configuration data will be needed – at least at a minimum. Here’s the first list:

  • Name for the bim activity.
    This becomes the name displayed on the course page.
  • Instructions for students.
    This is the background/instructions for the students about the BIM activity.
  • Mirror
    Should the feed for students in this course be mirrored?
  • Register
    Can students register their feeds.
  • Change
    Can students change their feed.

That’s probably enough for now. Some of the obvious ideas for later would include:

  • Dates for when students can register.

Config form

So let’s get going on modifying this thing:

  • Uses the formslib stuff from Moodle.
    Various PHP functions to automate setting up the HTML form and having it play nicely with the Moodle checks etc.
  • Draws on the language files lang/*/bim.php to specify various strings that are used in the interface.
  • Seems to be a standard to start with “General” settings, then specific activity settings, then some more specific ones.
  • Mirror, Register and Change are all essentially booleans, they need to be checkboxes.
    Quiz uses these a lot. So might steal the examples. Probably not the best approach. How are the docs? Probably better to start with the more generic ones

    So the code goes something like

            $mform->addElement('advcheckbox', 'register', 
                        get_string('register', 'bim'), '' );
            $mform->addElement('advcheckbox', 'change', 
                        get_string('change', 'bim'), '' );
            $mform->addElement('advcheckbox', 'mirror', 
                        get_string('mirror', 'bim'), '' );

    Will need to do some additional checks as we go along, but that’s working in terms of display at the moment.

  • Add help links for the BIM settings.
    This makes use of the setHelpButton method of the form class. Need to create an appropriate HTML file within the lang/*/bim/help/bim directory that matches the string name used in lang/*/bim.php. Then various parameters make the link
    $mform->setHelpButton( 'register', array( 'register',
          get_string( 'register', 'bim' ), 'bim' ));
    $mform->setHelpButton( 'mirror', array( 'mirror', 
          get_string( 'mirror', 'bim' ), 'bim' ));
    $mform->setHelpButton( 'change', array( 'change', 
          get_string( 'change', 'bim' ), 'bim' ));
  • Get it stored in the database.
    Done the simple interface stuff, now to get it stored in the database. I’m assuming this is going to related to update_instance in lib.php

    The intro and other standard stuff in the form is handled by default in the mdl_bim table. And by some fairly simple code.

    And if I do a print_r( $bim ) in the function I can see that the form data is all passed in as expected. All nicely put into 1s and 0s for the checkboxes so it can be put straight into the mdl_bim_configure table I set up earlier. All I have to do now is to figure out how it works.

Working with the database

Most of the example modules I’m looking at seem to be accessing the global $DB, retrieving data from the form object, doing some checks/manipulationg and then calling various methods of $DB to stick it in the database. So, probably just means getting a grasp on $DB and its methods.

So this is one area where a move to Moodle 2.0 will need a change. The DML for pre-2.0 is different than for 2.0 onwards. Pre-2.0 docs

Tasks to do

  • Change the config of mdl_bim_configure to use bim id rather than course id.
    • Of course this is when I discover the “change” is a reserved name by XMLDBB. Have to change this and the other code.
    • In the end, rather than figure out how to upgrade, I just deleted the module and reinstalled – blowing away the old dbase
  • Modify add_instance to insert initial default values in mdl_bim_configure
    • Need to get the id for the entry in the mdl_bim table, used as field for the mdl_bim_configure table
      The insert_record function is meant to return the id.
    • Create a default record and then insert it into mdel_bim_configure.

    Well that works ok. Should I be putting error checking in? Maybe eventually. Still working on the prototype.

  • Modify the form so that it retrieves the information from bim_configure and shows it
    • I’m assuming this implies mod_form.php needs updating?
  • Wrong – much simpler way is to modify bim table to include what’s necessary. Much smarter and more Moodle approach.

Yes, well that works much better.


Have other things to do. Today’s seen some progress, mostly in terms of getting a better understanding of the Moodle model and figuring out how BIM might fit within that. The main measurable outcome of the day is that a BIM module exists and it can be used to add an activity to a Moodle course.

Of course, it won’t do anything, but all the other stuff is there.

At this stage, I think next Tuesday’s task will be to implement some hard-coded HTML to develop a prototype. However, that’s not likely to look too Moodle like. I might look at going a step further and having it be able to use an existing set of tables. Almost hard-coded but with some real data….