Herding cats and losing weight: the vimeo video

This is in part a test of WordPress.com’s new support for Vimeo video. The video below is of a presentation I gave at CQU this year. The abstract is below. The slides are on slideshare.


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.

The video

Change the environment, not the culture

I’ve heard a number of folk at ASCILITE’09 claim that there needs to be a change in culture amongst academics around learning and teaching. To me this has always sounded a bit like a deficit model of teaching staff. It’s a model that I’ve heard again and again at ASCILITE’09 and in other literature around learning and teaching in higher education. You know the sort of thing e.g.

Staff spend years getting their PhD in Physics and are then automatically expected to be good teachers.
Most academic staff don’t have any qualifications in education…..

i.e. there are problems with the staff and this needs to be fixed by innovation X (e.g. LAMS, learning designs, PLEs…), practice Y (e.g. all staff must have an education qualification) etc. We need to herd these problematic cats into a more productive direction.

In this situation, culture is being used to describe the academics and what they do. It is ignoring the other component, which I’ll call the environment for the purposes of this post. My proposition is that it’s not the culture you want to change, it’s the environment. The environment is not conducive to the type of outcomes people want, and while the environment remains the same, no amount of changing the culture will have any effect at all.

(As you’ll see below, some/most literature tends to use culture to refer to what I’m calling the environment. Sorry for the confusion, but I’m trying to engage with what some folk have been saying.)

The following discussion may also connect with the cascading change symposium at ASCILITE and perhaps the idea that we need to focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change.

The environment

The university environment is not conducive to innovation, improvement or an emphasis on learning and teaching. Simply put, academics get rewarded for research. In terms of learning and teaching, they get words, but not action, about the importance of teaching for promotion and a collection of top down impositions and moves to standardisation. An environment conducive to compliance and corruption behaviour, not improvement in quality.

For example (Twining et al, 2006: p 72)

While the senior management team has an important role to play in fostering an ethos that supports change (see p77 Leadership), it is also clear that the wider educational context plays a vital role as well. At present the culture within education does not encourage people to take risks or innovate. Additionally, many educators in schools are still coming to terms with initiatives that they perceive have been imposed upon them. This can lead to ‘initiative blindness’ (Interview 26 – LA) which acts as a barrier to further change.

Reflective alignment

Academics are knowledge workers. Here’s a quote from Peter Drucker on knowledge workers

The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself towards performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness.

This quote is from the book “The effective executive” first published in 1967.

I would describe the approaches being taken at my institution, and many others, as leaning much more towards the controlling/directing of the academic, rather than the helping. The increasing corporatisation of university are leading to policies, processes and systems that require standardised approaches across units and institutions, that move towards the controlling/directing rather than the helping.

I’ve argued before that there are 3 observable levels of improving learning and teaching (re-purposing Biggs work on learning)

  1. What the teacher is.
    This is the old laissez faire approach to teaching in universities. There are some good teachers, there are some bad teachers. The institution isn’t really worried about this. Won’t try to do anything, except perhaps the really bad ones in out of the way courses.
  2. What the institution does.
    This is where most institutions are now. A university can’t have bad teachers. So to improve teaching and teachers the institution does lots of stuff. Institutional level policies, practices, studies, systems etc. Management take a big hand in developing and driving these things. They search for fads and fashions. Graduate attributes, LMS, e-portfolios, grad certs in L&T and any other centrally driven, institutional level approach tends (but not always) to fall into this category.

    Another symptom of this level of improving teaching is on-going restructures in the learning and teaching support groups (central and faculty). It’s indicative of senior managers arguing about who owns, controls and decides what the institution does. It’s indicative of who controls the agenda and attempts to control the academics and the culture that arises.

  3. What the teachers does.
    This is where we have to go (IMHO) and what I talk about below.

What the teacher does?

The simple argument (and yet very difficult to implement) is that the environment should encourage teaching staff to expend effective energy and effort on reflecting on their teaching and learning and acting on that teaching and learning. It should not focus on what the institution does. Some detail follows.

In terms of improving learning and teaching, I follow this perspective

Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve. (Common, 1989)

The reflection and struggle to improve has to be rewarded. This means that the vast majority, if not all, of the academics need to believe it will be rewarded and not just because senior management says it is.

The institutional environment has to help academics reflect and struggle to change. This has to happen in a contextualised way. An individualised way. A way that breaks down disciplinary boundaries and group think. Top down doesn’t work. An approach that focuses on creating connections between people with the appropriate knowledge and capabilities to help the reflection and the struggle to improve. Generic global analysts and project managers do not help. The network of people has to include people with the combination of knowledge of learning, teaching, technology, the literature and the context. The network of people have to be encouraged to interact in regular and unexpected ways.

The focus of the network has to be on helping the academic reflect and struggle to improve. Not on specifying de-contextualised best practice, but on helping reflection and improvement.

Focusing on 3rd order change

The cascading change symposium at ASCILITE was described in part as

This symposium brings together a diverse and international group of researchers to explore the problems and limitations of using social media as a leverage point for second-order change in higher education. It aims to engage contributors and the audience in theoretical and empirical reflection on possible directions for further conceptual and methodological development in that area.

I wondered whether we should focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change. Some definitions of “orders of change” – my re-phrasing of Bartunek et al (1987):

  • First order change – incremental changes which occur within an existing way of doing things or paradigm. i.e. you tweak at the edges without radically changing the context/culture/assumptions
  • Second order change – a fundamental change in the way of doing things, or the paradigm. i.e. you change the context/culture/assumptions to something entirely new.
  • Third order change – you develop the capacity of the system or the components of the system to change the context/culture/assumptions.

I believe that the above suggestion, a focus on what the teacher does and especially focusing the environment on helping the academic to reflect and struggle to improve is more likely to create 3rd order change. i.e. the aim isn’t to help them to undergo 2nd order change, as that assumes you/they have decided what they need to change to. The focus of reflective alignment is on enabling 3rd order change.

Small interventions, fundamental shifts

James Clay wrote a blog post about the cascading change symposium. He makes the following observation

My opinion is that these changes or interventions we make that we report at these conferences are always small and tiny and therefore can’t make a huge differences. We need to make major interventions at a institutional or even at a societal level if we are to effect fundamental change.

I agree. Most of the interventions at a conference like ASCILITE are amongst the innovative teachers or from the support staff people who help them. We can’t make the type of institutional level change that I believe is necessary to achieve the 3rd level of improving learning and teaching. We can’t change the environment. In his post, James identifies one of the reasons

People with the power to effect change do not (in the main) attend such conferences and therefore such changes do not happen at an institutional level.

Until the top level folk engage in this type of thinking and move away from the 2nd level of improving learning and teaching, which perhaps could be described as a focus on 2nd order change, I don’t think there will be any significant change.

Of course, one of the problems in getting management to engage is another aspect of the current environment. Short-term contracts for senior managers which contribute to them wishing to take charge, engage in large-scale projects of “2nd order change” (typically connected with the latest fad going through the community), move on and consequently trumpet the value of what they did before it becomes obvious there were no real change.

Perhaps the ASCILITE conference organisers should actively invite a few institutional leaders to attend the conference – i.e. not do the welcome but sit in the sessions, engage in the discussions as yet another attendee.


Bartunek, J. and M. Moch (1987). “First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach.” The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science 23(4): 483-500.

Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

Twining, P., R. Broadie, et al. (2006). Educational change and ICT: an exploration of priorities 2 and 3 of the DfES e-strategy in schools and colleges, Becta ICT Research: 106.

The bureaucratic model and the grammar and future of universities

Last week I attended a presentation by a colleague at CQUniveristy titled The Bureaucratic Model of Adult Instructional Design. The stated purpose of the presentation was

present and explore the Bureaucratic Model as a narrative that we must understand if we are to influence the direction of adult education.

The talk resonated with me as much of my current struggles/work is trying to make folk aware of a range of unstated assumptions that guide their thinking about learning and teaching within a university context. As Jay says, we have to understand those assumptions before we can think of influencing the future of learning and teaching – and somewhere in that, universities.

Since Jay’s talk I’ve come across and/or been reminded of a range of related work. Please feel free to add more here.

A vision for the future

Tony Bates has recently posted the second of his blog posts title Using technology to improve the cost-effectiveness of the academy: Part 2 within which he gives his vision for the future of universities.

A number of his implications seek to remove many of the basic assumptions that underpin university operation (e.g. semesters, fixed exams). However, a number of them show connections with an existing orthodoxy (e.g. all PhD students will have 6 months training in L&T).

That’s one of the problems I have with visioning. Too often it excludes interesting possibilities because it is held back by the background, preferences, ideas and prejudices of the people doing the visioning. My preference would be to let it emerge through a institution/setting that is flexible, open and questioning. I think much more interesting things can emerge from that situation than can ever happen because of the visioning of experts.

That’s because, no matter who you are, you have unstated assumptions that define what you can think of. Often this is addressed by having lots of different people do the visioning, but too often such attempts use approaches that to quickly focus on a particular vision, closing out future possibilities.

The grammar of school

In this post I mentioned a 1995 article by Seymour Papert on Why school reform is impossible. In this article Papert draws on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) idea of the “grammar of school”

The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons. This phenomenon is related to “assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas. I would make the relation even closer by noting that when one is not paying careful attention, one often actually hear the deviant utterance as the “nearest” grammatical utterance a transformation that might bring drastic change in meaning.

This sounds very much like what is happening in Jay’s bureaucratic model.

The need for experiments

A lot of the current debate about the future of universities is built on the comparison with print media. i.e. look, newspapers are a long-running institution that are dieing. Look, Universities, they are a long-running institution, they must be dieing also.

Clay Shirkey has written a long blog post title “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”. A major point that he makes in his post, seems to apply directly to the future of universities and the limitations of attempts at visioning like those of Tony Bates. In particular, this

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

He then draws on the development of the printing press to talk about revolutions

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen

Dede’s metaphors of learning

Lastly, the following recording is of talk by Professor Chris Dede and some metaphors of learning. It is the current underlying assumption of consistency in delivery of learning that underpins much of what universities are currently doing which is my biggest bugbear. It’s what is contributing to university learning and teaching approaching what Dede describes as “the worst of fast food”.

Chris Dede: Human behaviours and metaphors for learning

Is there value in strategic plans for educational technology

Dave Cormier has recently published a blog post titled Dave’s wildly unscientific survey of technology use in Higher Education. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff there. I especially like Dave’s note on e-portfolios

eportfolios are a vast hidden overhead. They really only make sense if they are portable and accessible to the user. Transferring vast quantities of student held data out of the university every spring seems complicated. Better, maybe, to instruct students to use external services.

Mainly because it aligns with some of my views.

But that’s not the point of this post. This morning Dave tweeted for folk to respond to a comment on the post by Diego Leal on strategic plans for educational technology in universities.

Strategic plans in educational technology are a bugbear of mine. I’ve been writing and thinking about them a lot recently. So I’ve bitten.


My starting position is that I’m strongly against strategic plans for educational technology in organisations. However, I’m enough of a pragmatist to recognise that – for various reasons (mostly political) – organisations have to have them. If they must have them, they must be very light on specifics and focus on enabling learning and improvement.

My main reason for this is a belief that strategic plans generally embody an assumption about organisations and planning that simply doesn’t exist within universities, especially in the context of educational technology. This mismatch results in strategic plans generally creating or enabling problems.

Important: I don’t believe that the problems with strategic plans (for edtech in higher education) arise because they are implemented badly. I believe problems with strategic plans arise because they are completely inappropriate for edtech in higher education. Strategic plans might work for other purposes, but not this one.

This mismatch leads to the following (amongst others) common problems:

  • Model 1 behaviour (Argyris et al, 1985);
  • Fads, fashions and band wagons (Birnbaum, 2000; Swanson and Ramiller, 2004)
  • Purpose proxies (Introna, 1996);
    i.e. rather than measure good learning and teaching, an institution measures how many people are using the LMS or have a graduate certificate in learning and teaching.
  • Suboptimal stable equilibria (March, 1991)
  • Technology gravity (McDonald & Gibbons, 2009)


Introna (1996) identified three necessary conditions for the type of process embedded in a strategic plan to be possible. They are:

  • The behaviour of the system is relatively stable and predictable.
  • The planners are able to manipulate system behaviour.
  • The planners are able to accurately determine goals or criteria for success.

In a recent talk I argued that none of those conditions exist within the practice of learning and teaching in higher education. It’s a point I also argue in a section of my thesis

The alternative?

The talk includes some discussion of some principles of a different approach to the same problem. That alternative is based on the idea of ateleological design suggested by Introna (1996). An idea that is very similar to broader debates in various other areas of research. This section of my thesis describes the two ends of the process spectrum.

It is my position that educational technology in higher education – due to its diversity and rapid pace of change – has to be much further towards the ateleological, emergent, naturalistic or exploitation end of the spectrum.

Statement of biases

I’ve only ever worked at the one institution (for coming up to 20 years) and have been significantly influenced by that experience. Experience which has included spending 6 months developing a strategic plan for Information Technology in Learning and Teaching that was approved by the Academic Board of the institution, used by the IT Division to justify a range of budget claims, thrown out/forgotten, and now, about 5 years later, many of the recommendations are being actioned. The experience also includes spending 7 or so years developing an e-learning system from the bottom up, in spite of the organisational hierarchy.

So I am perhaps not the most objective voice.


Argyris, C., R. Putnam, et al. (1985). Action science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Introna, L. (1996). “Notes on ateleological information systems development.” Information Technology & People 9(4): 20-39.

March, J. (1991). “Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning.” Organization Science 2(1): 71-87.

McDonald, J. and A. Gibbons (2009). “Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology ” Educational Technology Research and Development 57(3): 377-392.

Swanson, E. B. and N. C. Ramiller (2004). “Innovating mindfully with information technology.” MIS Quarterly 28(4): 553-583.

Thoughts on “Insidious pedagogy”

The following is a reflection on and response to a paper by Lisa Lane (2009) in First Monday titled “Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching”. I’ve been struggling with keeping up with reading, but this topics is closely connected to my thesis and the presentation I’ll be giving soon.

The post starts with my thoughts and reactions to the paper and has a summary of the paper at the end.

My Thoughts

In summary, the paper basically seems to be based on

  • observing a problem; and
    In summary, the problem is that because most academics are not expert online technology users they seek to use course management systems (CMS) at a basic level by using system defaults. They system defaults in some CMS (e.g. Blackboard) are seen to encourage limited use and also to encourage academic staff to continue as novices. These novice staff produce learning environments that are less than appropriate, but they are also happy with the CMS.
  • proposing two bits of a solution.
    The two solutions are:
    • start novices with pedagogy;
      When introducing a CMS to technically novice acacdemic staff, don’t start by examining the technical features of the CMS. This encourages them to stick with those features without considering pedagogy. Instead, start with pedagogy and work to the tools.
    • have the CMS use opt-in, rather than opt-out.
      The default setting for an opt-out CMS is that all of the options are there, in the face of the academic. This can be confronting and lead novices to taking more pragmatic approaches. An opt-in approach has fewer defaults which encourages/requires the academic to think more holistically.

I like the paper, especially in its description of the problem. This is an important problem that is often over-looked. However, while there is some value in the solutions – the distinction between opt-in and opt-out is especially interesting – I wonder about the practicality of the “start with pedagogy” solution. Also, not surpisingly given such a complex problem, think there are other factors to be considered.

Practicality of “start with pedagogy”

My current institution is currently in the midst of adopting Moodle. The institution has implemented the organisationally rational approach of having compulsory training sessions in Moodle being run by both IT trainers and curriculum designers. For various reasons, a number of the staff attending these sessions have asked a common question: “What’s the minimum I need to know?”. Such staff aren’t that interested in starting with pedagogy.

This raises an interesting point that I haven’t thought of for the first time. Given our institutional context, I believe that the number of true novices (i.e. those that have never used a CMS) amongst academic staff is very low. Many of these staff may well have very limited conceptions of e-learning from a pedagogical perspective, however, they have started to develop “their way” of teaching online. They are comfortable with that and all they want to know is how to replicate it in the new system.

In addition to this, most of the staff I know don’t start with pedagogy when they are designing their teaching. This can be due to not knowing about pedagogy or also for vary pragmatic reasons. For example, if you are a casual, part-time being employed to teach an existing course, you are going to stick with what has been done before. You’re not being paid to do something different and any problems that arise because of “difference” will not be treated well.

Other solutions

There are many other potential solutions, I will be talking about the main ones in a couple of weeks. Some other misc ones before I get back to work:

  • Engage web novice academics in the use of the Internet – especially social media – that further their career.
    e.g. Using social media to connect with other researchers, using blogs to become a “public intellectual”. This provides them with experience to be aware of different possibilities.
  • Modify the context of most universities to appropriately encourage a focus on improving learning and teaching.
    Are instructors motivated to spend more time on improving their teaching? What if they believe the following (Fairweather, 2005)

    More time teaching is a negative influence on academic pay….The trend is worsening most rapidly in institutions whose central mission focuses on teaching and learning

    Until universities truly value learning and teaching and treat it as such…….

  • Adopt a best of breed approach for the CMS.

Other thoughts

Other thoughts/responses include

Is Moodle really different?

Lane (2008) writes (emphasis added)

This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT), but is also a factor in some of the newer, more constructivist systems (Moodle).

This seems to accept the view that Moodle, being designed on social constructivst principles, is somehow different and better than Blackboard, WebCT etc. I’m sorry to say that if I haven’t seen anything significant while using Moodle that strongly shows those social constructivist principles.

I think there’s a really interesting research project around investigating this claim, how/if it is visible in the design of Moodle and how that claimed strength influences use of Moodle.

Today’s CMS can be customized

There’s a quote in the paper (Lane, 2008)

Today’s CMSs can be customized, changed and adapted

I question this a little. I think the point of the quote in the paper is from the perspective of the academic. i.e. that when designing your course there is choice, an ability to customize your course in a variety of ways by the breadth of additional functionality that CMS vendors have provided.

I agree with that to some extent, however, this customization has some limits:

  • don’t break the model;
    All systems have an in-built model. You can only customize to the extent that you fit within the model. We had an experience in one course where we couldn’t create enough discussion forums in the right places for one pedagogical design. This was entirely due to the assumptions built into the CMS about how discussion forums would work. It broke the model, so we couldn’t do it.
  • your installation allows it.
    There is an important distinction to be made between what the CMS allows you to customize and what the particular installation of the CMS you are using allows you to customize. The decisions made by specific institutions can further constrain the level of customization. The simplest example is the choice at the institutional level not to install “module X”. But in some CMS there are also installation level configuration decisions that constrain customization.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the basic model of a CMS is based on that of an integrated, enterprise system – a product model well known to be inflexible. In fact, best practice information systems literature suggests that for such systems you must “implement vanilla” to minimise costs.

Designed to focus on instructor effeciency?

The paper (Lane, 2008) includes the following claim about the design of CMSs

Today’s enterprise–scale systems were created to manage traditional teaching tasks as if they were business processes. They were originally designed to focus on instructor efficiency for administrative functions such as grade posting, test creation, and enrollment management.

My position is that most of them were very badly designed to do this, if they were at all designed to do this. I’ve heard lots of folk explain that if you have a class for 30 or 40, then the commercial CMSs work fine, but if you have 800, you are buggered.

The first version of WebCT installed at my institution had an internal limit on the number of students that could be managed within the gradebook – 999. If you had more than 1000 students in a class, you were stuffed. My institution had classes that big.

The nature of my current institution – courses having upwards of 20 different teaching staff spread across the eastern coast of Australia – means that online assignment submission and management is an important task. Experience of staff here is that the assignment submission system in Blackboard is really bad in terms of efficiency. Early indications are that the default Moodle system is just as bad. A locally produced system is significantly more efficient.

All of this seems to bring into question the “efficiency” aspect of CMS. They don’t even do that well. We should write something on this.

Paper summary

The following is a quick summary of the paper


Nice quote from Thoreau which I might have to steal

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

Draws on historian’s view to argue that technologies tend to have a purpose/objective that can limit or even determine its use.

Course Management Systems (CMS) also do this, through the defaults in those systems. Other literature tends to not to focus on this. The paper suggests that

A closer look at how course management systems work, combined with an understanding of how novices use technology, provides a clearer view of the manner in which a CMS may not only influence, but control, instructional approaches.

The inherent pedagogies of CMSs

CMS designed mostly for administrative purposes. Built-in pedagogy is essentially based on presentation and assessment. The design of these systems make it simple to perform presentation and assessment tasks.

That said, CMSs have been expanded to include other features and this is expanding. Suggests that CMSs can be customized, changed and adapted. But why aren’t faculty tinkering the CMS to make their individual pedagogies work online?

Novice web users and the CMS

Most academics are not web-heads. Most are drafted to teach online. It’s based on top-down directives. Lots more references to explain that they aren’t savvy with technology. At the same time, most have established successful learnig approaches over time.

Interesting points about how much academics use the same research methods they learned in graduate school. Can expand here.

Experts and novices are different.

The fault of the defaults

Basically argues that the defaults of the CMS aren’t designed to make it easy for or fit with the expectations/experience of academics. As they spend more time with the system, they become comfortable with the defaults.

Important: makes the point about the difference of perspective between educational technologists and academics, especially how they view the CMS.

Novices are happier with CMS because – to put it bluntly – they don’t know better. It’s the folk pushing the boundaries that are less satisfied with CMS.

Solutions to CMS dominance

Treat novices, differently from advanced instructors. With novices emphasis pedagogy first. Argues that starting with technology features focuses on the novice instructor’s weakness (technological literarcy) at the expense of their main strength (expertise in discipline and their teaching).

Also suggests that “opt-out” systems – systems that show all the tools and features and expect users to choose which they don’t want – are too overwhelming for novices. Suggests that opt-in systems – like Moodle – are better. Especially in the way they give similar emphasis to discussions and content transmission


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.

Lane, L. (2009). “Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching.” First Monday 14(10).

Lessons from Pedagogy for e-learning

Two thesis related posts in a day, I must be on a roll. This post actually marks a milestone, the following rough bit of material is the last bit of original writing I’ll need to do for chapter 2. What remains will be tidying up, fixing typos/spelling/grammar, “concludings” and some major cutting. Sadly chapter 2 currently stands at 200+ pages and will need some major cutting I think to be a reasonable size. That’s a job for another day.

The following is meant to abstract some lessons for e-learning based on the literature around pedagogy reviewed in early sections (e.g. the one from earlier today. It continues my focus on diversity and change being key characteristics of e-learning, an observation that highlights a mismatch with the standard product and process being used for e-learning.

As I near the end there are an increasing number of cross references from this material to earlier material. Sorry, haven’t gotten around to linking them on the blog. This is likely to be only somewhat less annoying than the poor grammar and dyslexic typing.

Lessons from Pedagogy for e-learning

The above brief overview of the Pedagogy component of the Ps Framework forms the basis for the identification of four lessons for e-learning within universities from the literature on pedagogy. The first of these is that learning is an inherently diverse human activity. The second is that e-learning is only a relatively new human activity and is still changing and adding to the diversity of learning. The third lesson, and one based on this observation of increasing diversity, is that there is no silver bullet, no one universal approach to learning or to e-learning and that instead e-learning should perhaps be focusing on its ability to support this diversity. The final lesson is that any change in learning and teaching at university is reliant on changing the conceptions of the academics.

Learning is inherently diverse

Dede (2008) raises the question of whether or not there is just one pre-eminent way of learning/teaching for every student, for every subject, for all legitimate purposes of schooling? Like everything else in education, a balance is needed – one size does not fit all – even in online settings (Cuthrell and Lyon 2007). Different learners bring to the learning experience: different learning objectives; different prior knowledge and past experience; and, different cognitive preferences (Dagger, Conlan et al. 2005). The diversification and massification of the student body has led universities to shift their education rhetoric from a notion of “one size fits all” to a concept of tailored, flexible learning (Lewis, Marginson et al. 2005). Learning should not be one size fits all and can be customised to meet local requirements and this deviation from a standard model should now be seen as a strength (Cavallo 2004). A “one size fits all” approach ignores the importance of disciplinary culture (Jones 2009). There is no one best way of developing instruction (Davies 1991). Dede’s (2008) answer to his question is that given the spectrum of learning theories, it would appear that “learning is a human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person”. He goes onto suggest that the field of instructional design can only progress if it recognises that learning is a human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person and even from day to day (Dede 2008).

E-learning is new and changing

While, to some extent, Bates (2004) statement that e-learning does not change the fundamental process of learning in that students still need to read, observe, think, discuss, practice and receive feedback. However, e-learning is creating a new environment within which learning and teaching operates and is contributing to the creation of and need for new knowledge about learning and teaching. There is little understanding of the affordances of different technologies and how these might be exploited in particular learning and teaching contexts (Conole and Dyke 2004). There is a need to engage with the affordances and constraints of particular technologies to understand how new technologies can meet specific pedagogical goals of specific content areas (Mishra and Koehler 2006). The rise of e-learning is calling for and generating more than knowledge simply to inform instructional design theories. With the example of connectivism, it is possible to see new knowledge, enabled or required to some extent by the rise of technology, being generated at the other three levels of learning theories identified in Section 2.1.2.

E-learning, diversity and silver bullets

The diversity inherent in learning is not matched by the theories and philosophies around the use of information and communication technologies to support learning. Such approaches treat learning as a simple activity that is relatively invariant across people, subject areas and educational objectives; and, so most widely used instructional technology applications have less variety in approach than a low-end fast-food restaurant (Dede 2008). The apparent high costs of developing educational materials means, that at least for for-profit organizations, a “one size fits all” approach produces economies of scale that is likely to prevail over the potential of online technologies to support customisation for the needs of individual learners (Cunningham, Ryan et al. 2000). This tendency towards one size fits all is contributed to by successive generations of pundits espousing ‘magical’ media, the single best medium for learning or the universally optimal way of learning (Dede 2008).

The difference and diversity inherent in learning challenges managerialism – a rising trend within higher education as shown in Society in Place (cross reference) – which generally seeks to elide ambiguities and to standardise individuals and experiences (Danaher, Luck et al. 2004). The managerialist approach to standardisation is well served by the monolithic or integrated product model on which learning management systems are based (cross reference to procurement and software section in Product). Innovation and diversity are served less well by such a product model. Dede (2008) argues that

from an instrumental perspective, the history of tool making shows that the best strategy is to have simultaneously available a variety of specialized tools, rather than a single device that attempts to accomplish everything.

Improvement comes through changing teacher conceptions

Even with the diversity in learning and the change created by the introduction of e-learning, the practice of learning and teaching in universities remains much the same. While e-learning has provided a new medium, must teaching remains old wine in new bottles (Bates 2004). As shown in section 2.1.4 (e-learning usage from past experience) the majority of academic staff still rely on old, familiar pedagogies rather than actively engaging with the new affordances offered by technology. This is something that is only going to change when the university context encourages, enables and perhaps even requires, changes in the conceptions of learning and teaching held by academic staff. The on-going introduction of new technologies is unlikely to ever bring about such change.


Bates, T. (2004). The promise and myths of e-learning in post-secondary education. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective. M. Castells. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar: 271-292.

Cavallo, D. (2004). "Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments." BT Technology Journal 22(4): 96-112.

Conole, G. and M. Dyke (2004). "What are the affordances of information and communication technologies?" ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology 12(2): 113-124.

Cunningham, S., Y. Ryan, et al. (2000). The Business of Borderless Education. Canberra, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs: 328.

Cuthrell, K. and A. Lyon (2007). "Instructional strategies: What do online students prefer?" Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 3(4).

Dagger, D., O. Conlan, et al. (2005). Fundamental requirements of personalised eLearning development environments. World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2005, Vancouver, Canada, AACE.

Danaher, P. A., J. Luck, et al. (2004). Course management systems: Innovation versus managerialism. Research Proceedings of the 11th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C 2004), University of Exeter, Devon, England, Association for Learning Technology.

Davies, I. (1991). Instructional development as an art: One of the three faces of ID. Paradigms rgained: the uses of illuminative, semiotic, and post-modern criticism as modes of inquiry in educational technology: a book of readings. D. Hlynka and J. Belland, Educational Technology Publications: 93-106.

Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education. J. Voogt and G. Knezek. New York, Springer: 43-59.

Jones, A. (2009). "Redisciplining generic attributes: the disciplinary context in focus." Studies in Higher Education 34(1): 85-100.

Lewis, T., S. Marginson, et al. (2005). "The network university? Technology, culture and organisational complexity in contemporary higher education." Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 56-75.

Mishra, P. and M. Koehler (2006). "Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge." Teachers College Record 108(6): 1017-1054.

Learning theories and e-learning

It’s almost a month since the last post from the first draft of my thesis. So, after much time away here’s the next installment. It’s probably rougher than previous versions – which says something – I’m still getting back into the swing of things.

The following is meant to be a description of learning theory within the context of e-learning at universities. It’s not a complete or in-depth examination of learning theories. Instead, it tries to illustrate that what we know about learning theory (in the broadest possible definition) is hugely complicated, diverse and ever changing. The intent is to argue that this is in direct contrast to characteristics of the common approach taken by universities to support e-learning. That is, an approach that focuses on stability and inflexibility.

Learning theories

The previous section (Section 2.8.1) argued that the quality of student learning within a university context is heavily influenced by the thinking, planning and strategies adopted by the pedagogues responsible for individual courses. This section seeks to summarise the research, literature and theories that have arisen to guide the thinking of pedagogues around learning. The following section cannot do justice to complexity, diversity, breadth and depth of research into learning. Explanatory accounts of learning range across culture, biology and cognition providing a multitude of theoretical perspectives drawing on different methodological traditions and bringing different educational phenomena into focus (Bell 2004). The scientific literature on cognition, learning, development, culture and the brain are voluminous (Bransford, Brown et al. 2000). Education, like other branches of the social sciences, has no single, unifying mature theory, instead theories, ideas and approaches coexist in various states of cohesion and tension (Dillon and Ahlberg 2006). There are many schools of thought on learning, and no one school is used exclusively to design e-learning (Ally 2004).

Given the diversity of perspectives, methodologies and schools of research associated with a variety of perspectives of learning, it is beyond the scope of this thesis to give a complete accounting of the research around learning. Instead the aim of this section is to establish the diversity, complexity, uncertainty and contradictions inherent in this research as it applies to the practice of e-learning within universities. This starts with a description the four levels of learning “theory” before a brief discussion of technology and learning theory.

The four levels of learning “theory”

Given the diversity of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives related to learning even defining learning and learning theory can be difficult. Definitions of learning differ based on approach and intended purpose and often reveal more about the perspective from which the person offering the definition sees learning (Siemens 2006). Definitions of what a learning theory is will likely differ between psychologists, computer scientists, instructional designers and other disciplines. However, it is possible to extract from literature such as Ertmer and Newby (1993) four levels or perspectives on learning “theory” or research. These four levels are: epistemology, descriptive theories from science, learning theories, and instructional design theories. Each of these four levels is briefly examined below with particular emphasis on the diversity, complexity and ever-changing nature of views within each.

Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge and how we come to know things (Driscoll 1994), what does it mean to know (Siemens 2006). Ertmer and Newby (1993) in examining the connection between epistemology and learning theory identify two fundamental perspectives of epistemology: empiricism – the view that experience is the primary source of knowledge – and rationalism – the view that knowledge derives from reason without the aid of the senses. Performing a similar task, Driscoll (2000) adds a third epistemological perspectives of nativism – the belief that knowledge is innate or present at birth. Pallas (2001) identifies the proliferation of epistemologies as one of the most confusing developments in educational research over the past quarter-century and goes on to list a “welter of names” – positivism, naturalism, postpositivism, empiricism, relativism, feminist standpoint epistemology, foundationalism, and postmodernism.

Descriptive theories from science arise from disciplines including, but not limited to, the various branches of psychology, neuroscience, and biology that seek to understand how various aspects of human learning function. Seidel, Perencevich and Allyson (2005) argue that psychology can provide descriptive laws that describe how cognitive development, learning, meta-cognition and other elements of learning actually occur. Driscoll (1994) illustrates the influence of disciplinary perspectives by illustrating how behavioural, cognitive and social psychologists develop different views of learning. The contribution of theories arising from science is not limited to learning theory. Goldman (1986) argues that an understanding of the architecture of the human mind-brain is essential for primary epistemology. He continues to argue that epistemology, the history of which has shown strong currents against being interdisciplinary, should be a multidisciplinary affair (Goldman 1986).

Learning theories seek to provide insight into the act of learning (Siemens 2006). A learning theory comprises a set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is though to bring about those changes (Driscoll 1994). Discussions of different learning theories (e.g. Ertmer and Newby 1993; Driscoll 1994) tend to focus on three distinct viewpoints: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. These learning theories link closely to the three different perspectives of behavioural, cognitive and social psychologists mentioned in the previous paragraph. Historically it can be seen that, the cognitive perspective overthrew behaviourism in the 1950s and 1960s and also underwent a major shift in the 1980s and 1990s towards constructivism (Mayer 1996).

The on-going historical development of learning theories has not stopped. Mayer (1996) suggests that a fourth metaphor is likely with possibilities arising from either an assimilation and accommodation between the existing metaphors, or from an entirely new approach. One such entirely new approach may be provided by connectivism, a theory describing how learning happens in a digital age (Siemens 2005; Siemens 2006) based on the epistemological foundation of connective knowledge (Downes 2006). Table 2.3 provides a summary of the three existing broadly accepted learning theories and connectivism.

Table 2.3 – Learning theories (adapted from Siemens, 2006)
Property Behaviourism Cognitivism Constructivism Connectivism
How does learning occur? Black box—observable behaviour main focus Structured, computational Social, meaning created by each learner (personal) Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns
Influencing factors Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli Existing schema, previous experiences Engagement, participation, social, cultural Diversity of network
What is the role of memory? Memory is the hardwiring of repeated experiences—where reward and punishment are most influential Encoding, storage, retrieval Prior knowledge remixed to current context Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks
How does transfer occur? Stimulus, response Duplicating knowledge constructs of “knower” Socialization Connecting to (adding) nodes
Types of learning best explained Task-based learning Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving Social, vague (“ill defined”) Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources

Table 2.3 does not capture the full diversity of learning theories. Mayer (1996) describes the six versions of constructivism identified by Steffe and Gale (1995) as “social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic systems, and sociocultural approaches”. Further, when the three main theories are closely analysed it becomes apparent that there are many overlaps in the ideas and principles (Ally 2004). Classifications of learning theories and theorists are contradictory (Siemens 2006) and confusing due to the use of different labels for categories, the grouping of major models and theorists in different categories and the use of vague concepts. Identifying where within the basic learning paradigms a particular theorists fits can be confusing due to theorists and their ideas evolving over time and subsequent changes to their ideas (Sackney and Mergel 2007). Rather than three competing theories, these can be though of as a taxonomony of learning with behaviourism being used to teach the “what”, cognitivism the “how” and constructivism the “why” (Ertmer and Newby 1993).

Instructional design theories are prescriptive theories that offer explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop (Reigeluth 1999). The origins of formal instructional design procedures have been traced back to the development of military training materials during the Second World War (Reiser 2001). Interest grew strongly during the 1970s and 1980s with a large increase in the number of instructional design models (Reiser 2001). Perhaps forming the basis for Postman (1995) claiming that while educators were once famous for providing reasons for learning, they had now become famous for inventing a method. Leading to a situation where the initial impression of these theories is one of diversity, followed by being perplexed by so many theories being at odds with one another (Duchastel 1998).

As a source of further complication, Shulman (1986) introduces the idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) that argues that treating a pedagogue’s content knowledge and the pedagogue’s knowledge of pedagogy as mutually exclusive domains resulted in teacher education that emphasised one over the other. PCK is the blending of knowledge about content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular aspects of content knowledge are best organised, adapted and represented within instruction (Mishra and Koehler 2006). Treating this knowledge as separate is not sufficient for capturing the knowledge good teachers require (Shulman 1986). Numerous research studies such that no optimal pedagogy is effective regardless of the subject matter (Dede 2008).

The above has sought to illustrate that “learning theory” consists of theoretical perspectives from at least four different levels. Each of those levels is characterised by significant diversity and in some cases confusion. In addition, some of the levels impact upon other levels in unexpected ways. The next section briefly discusses what happens when technology is added to pedagogy.

Technology and learning theory

There exist many different conceptual frameworks for describing the relationships among learning theories, pedagogical strategies, instructional designs and information and communication technologies (Dede 2008). E-learning, in general, does not change the fundamental process of learning (Bates 2004). However, research into how people learn online is in its infancy and further research is needed to provide insight into how to develop engaging and effective online learning environments in higher education (Herrington, Reeves et al. 2005). Writing in 2004, Bates (2004) suggested that since the use of the web for learning and teaching is less than ten years old, its application of learning and teaching was still evolving.

What research had been done suggested that the three established learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism) all provide principles that can be used to design online instruction (Ally 2004). Any given pedagogical tool may incorporate perspectives from any of these three intellectual positions (Dede 2008). The actual applications of e-learning are highly dependent on the teacher’s epistemological preferences and their chosen pedagogy (Bates 2004).

In extending Shulman’s (1986) work on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) into the concept of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK), Mischa and Koehler (2006) argue that

there is no single technological solution that applies for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching”. Quality teaching requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy, and using this understanding to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representations. Productive technology integration in teaching needs to consider all three issues not in isolation, but rather within the complex relationships in the system defined by the three key elements.

Dede (2008) makes a similar point that no application of technology to learning and teaching is universally good. Instead the best approach is to analyse the nature of the curriculum, students, and teachers in order to select the appropriate tools, applications, media and environments (Dede 2008).


Ally, M. (2004). Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. T. Anderson and F. Elloumi. Athabasca, Canada, Athabasca University: 3-31.

Bates, T. (2004). The promise and myths of e-learning in post-secondary education. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective. M. Castells. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar: 271-292.

Bell, P. (2004). "On the theoretical breadth of design-based research in education." Educational Psychologist 39(4): 243-253.

Bransford, J., A. Brown, et al. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education. J. Voogt and G. Knezek. New York, Springer: 43-59.

Dillon, P. and M. Ahlberg (2006). "Integrativism as a theoretical and organisational framework for e-learning and practitioner research." Technology, Pedagogy and Education 15(1): 7-30.

Downes, S. (2006, 3rd October 2009). "Learning networks and connective knowledge." Instructional Technology Forum, from http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper92/paper92.html.

Driscoll, M. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon.

Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon.

Duchastel, P. (1998). "Prolegomena to a theory of instructional design."   Retrieved 4 October, 2009, from http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper27/paper27.html.

Ertmer, P. and T. Newby (1993). "Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective." Performance Improvement Quarterly 6(4): 50-72.

Goldman, A. (1986). Epistemology and cognition. Cambridge, MA, harvard University Press.

Herrington, J., T. Reeves, et al. (2005). "Online Learning as Information Delivery: Digital Myopia." Journal of Interactive Learning Research 16(4): 353-367.

Mayer, R. (1996). "Learners as information processors: Legacies and limitations of educational psychology’s second metaphor." Educational Psychologist 31(3/4): 151-162.

Mishra, P. and M. Koehler (2006). "Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge." Teachers College Record 108(6): 1017-1054.

Pallas, A. (2001). "Preparing education doctoral students for epistemological diversity." Educational Researcher 30(5): 6-11.

Postman, N. (1995). The end of education. New York, Vintage Books.

Reigeluth, C. (1999). Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory. Mahwah, NJ, USA, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reiser, R. (2001). "A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design." Educational Technology Research and Development 49(2): 57-67.

Sackney, L. and B. Mergel (2007). Contemporary learning theories, instructional design and leadership. Intelligent leadership: constructs for thinking education leaders. J. Burger, C. Webber and P. Klinck. New York, Springer: 67-98.

Seidel, R., K. Perencevich, et al. (2005). From principles of learning to strategies for instruction: empirically based ingredients to guide instructional development. New York, Springer.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). "Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching." Educational Researcher 15(2): 4-14.

Siemens, G. (2005). "Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age." International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1).

Siemens, G. (2006, November 12, 2006). "Connectivism: Learning theory or pasttime for the self-amused."   Retrieved 9 September, 2009, from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge, Lulu.com.

Steffe, L. and J. Gale (1995). Constructivism in education. Mawah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dede’s “sleeping, eating and bonding” metaphor and the diversity of learning and its impacts for e-learning

Earlier this year I posted on Disruption and the “mythic” technologies of education and my views about consistency and diversity when applied to learning, especially e-learning within universities.

That post was sparked by a presentation by Gardner Campbell. Of the many things I found striking was the video of Chris Dede using “eating, sleeping and bonding” as a framework to understand the diversity inherent in learning.

As it happens, I’m currently working on the “pedagogy” component of my thesis. In particular, I’m working on the section I’m calling “Learning theories, research and advice for pedagogues”. A key point I’m looking to make is that diversity is inherent in learning. Hence the connection to Dede’s metaphor/framework.

The main driver for this post is that I’ve found a publication (Dede, 2008) in which Dede writes about the metaphor/framework and expands beyond the bit I heard in the video. I know it has its issues, but you have to love Google Books, without it I would not have found this book chapter. Nor could I link you to the page on which the metaphor/framework is discussed (it starts under the heading “Reconceptualizing media as empowering diversity in learning”).

The following are some other quotes from the book chapter that I found useful for my purposes

from an instrumental perspective, the history of tool making shows that the best strategy is to have simultaneously available a variety of specialized tools, rather than a single device that attempts to accomplish everything…

No educational ICT is universally good; and the best way to invest in instructional technologies is an instrumental approach that analyzes the natures of the curriculum, students, and teachers to select the appropriate tools, applications, media and environments..

To progress, the field of instructional design must recognize that learning is a human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person, and even from day to day. The emphasis can then shift to developing pedagogical media that provide many alternative ways of teaching, which learners select as they engage in their educational experiences


Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education. J. Voogt and G. Knezek. New York, Springer: 43-59.

PhD Update #24: off to the crocodile form

Another early update today – off to the Crocodile Farm as an excursion with the boys so today’s a write off. However, progress has been good and the end is nigh for chapter 2 – at least in first draft.

What I’ve done

The aim for this week was to complete the pedagogy component. The component will have three sections: The centrality of the pedagogue (done); Learning theories, research and advice for pedagogues (about half done); and Lessons from Pedagogy for e-learning (most of the ideas in place – these are generally quick to get done).

What I’ll do in the next week

Two main aims for next week:

  1. Complete the pedagogy section and get Chapter 2 all together.
  2. Get started on chapter 5.

Pedagogy – the centrality of the pedagogue and what they believe

The following is the first part of the Pedagogy component of the Ps Framework with forms part of Chapter 2 of my thesis. As with previous thesis posts this is a rough first draft of the content, feedback welcome. This is the first of three parts to this component. The next will say something about “learning theory” and the final will draw some lessons.


This thesis draws on the definition of e-learning as “the use of information and communications technology to enhance and/or support learning in tertiary education” (OECD 2005). Other sections of this thesis have covered the “information and communications technology” (Product insert cross ref) and “tertiary education” (Place insert cross ref) components of this definition. This section pays attention to the “learning” component. Since the purpose of this thesis is to formulate an information systems design theory for e-learning within universities this precludes from consideration some aspects of individual or informal learning. It suggests that the practice of e-learning will almost certainly involve some input from a teacher, hence the use of Pedagogy (not to mention it fits within the naming scheme of the “Ps Framework).

The importance of learning is summarised by the point made by Alavi and Leidner (2001)

Most would agree that the objective of using technology in learning should be to positively influence learning in one way or another; that is, the student should either learn something that he/she would not have learned without the technology or learn it in a more efficient manner.

However, the approach taken here does not start with a focus on the learner, instead, – in line with the use of Pedagogy – it assumes that within a university context the teacher remains a significant, perhaps the most significant, direct influence on student learning. Consequently, this section starts by justifying this perspective and describing its implications in The centrality of the pedagogue (Section 2.1.1). It then moves more generally to examine Learning theories, research and advice for pedagogues (Section 2.1.2) before drawing some Lessons from Pedagogy for e-learning (Section 2.1.3).

The centrality of the pedagogue and what they believe

Alavi and Leidner (2001), in discussing technology-mediated learning, suggest that it is important to conceptualize technology features and attributes in a manner directly relevant to instructional and learning processes. For quite sometime there has been a growing recognition that student-centered approaches to learning are the most effective. The learning theories of greatest current influence suggest that learning occurs through student’s active construction of knowledge supported by various perspectives within meaningful contexts with social interactions playing a critical role (Oliver 2000). It is a view that suggests the highest levels of student learning occur when the focus is on what the student does (Biggs 2001). The question then is why start with and focus on the teacher, the pedagogue, and what they believe? This section seeks to answer that question and connect the pedagogue with the other aspects of the Ps Framework.

While agreeing that the main aim of university learning and teaching, and e-learning in particular, should be a focus on improving student learning it is the nature of university courses that they are designed by pedagogues within a particular context. Trigwell (2001) – in developing a model to evaluate good teaching – argues that rather than separating learning, teaching, context and other aspects associated with university learning, all these aspects must be considered together and, in order for learning to be judged effective, they must be aligned. Figure 2.1 is a representation of Trigwell’s (2001) model of university teaching, it is intended as a set of concentric spheres. At the centre is the student and their learning, however, that learning is directly impacted upon by the strategies adopted by the teacher, which are in turn influenced by the other factors.

Trigwell's model of teaching

Figure 2.1 – Trigwell’s (2001) model of university teaching

Trigwell (2001) suggests that focusing more holistically on the combination of elements – especially on the teachers’ conceptions of teaching and a focus on students – makes the differences between teaching qualities more discernible and judgements easier. A focus on the strategies and technologies used by a teacher ignores the influence that their conceptions can have on how such strategies and technologies are used. Approaches to staff development that focus on the provision of prescribed skills and teaching recipes result, in many cases, in participants querying the feasibility of presented methods, defending methods they are already using, using new methods mechanically, or modifying methods intended to facilitate student learning into didactic transmission modes (Gibbs 1995; Trigwell 1995). A focus on strategies also ignores the likelihood that contextual factors also influence the appropriateness and implementation of strategies and techniques. Even a teacher with a student-centred conception of learning will adopt alternate strategies if the context is not appropriate.

Based on this argument, there is little value in examining the relative worth of various educational theories and pedagogical strategies without first having examined the context and the pedagogue’s thinking and planning. Various other sections of this chapter and other components of the Ps Framework (e.g. Place, Process, People and Product insert cross reference) have dealt with various aspects of the teaching and learning context. This section briefly repeats and expands on what is known about the thinking and planning of pedagogues within universities that was initially mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference). The following section (Section 2.1.2) examines what is known about learning and teaching strategies.

As outlined in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) there is a significant body of literature that establishes the conceptions of learning and teaching held by academics and links those conceptions to the quality of student learning outcomes (Kember and Kwan 2000; Biggs 2001; Trigwell 2001; Norton, Richardson et al. 2005; Eley 2006; Gonzalez 2009). That literature generally places pedagogue conceptions into one of two main orientations: teacher-centered/content-oriented and student-centered/learning-oriented. Figure ?? shows a graphical representation of these orientations and five underlying conceptions identified by Kember (1997). As mentioned above, a student-centered/learning-oriented orientation is broadly agreed to contribute to better student learning outcomes.

There has been only a small amount of research on conceptions of and approaches to e-learning that allows understanding of this phenomenon (Gonzalez 2009). However, the level of reported work is increasing (Roberts 2001; Smyth, Mainka et al. 2007; Gonzalez 2009). Gonzalez (2009) in the most recent work and attempting to build on the work of Roberts (2003) identified three conceptions of e-learning: web for individual access and assessment, web for learning related communication and web for networked learning. Pedagogues with the first conception were found to have a content-centered orientation to learning and teaching while pedagogues with the other two conceptions of e-learning had or were moving towards a learning-centered conception of learning and teaching. Table 2.1 summarises the conceptions of e-learning identified by Gonzalez (2009) and describes the associated dimensions. Table 2.2 provides a description of approaches to e-learning that fit within the conceptions from Table 2.1 along a number of dimensions.

Table 2.1 – Dimensions delimiting conceptions of online teaching (adapted from Gonzalez 2009)
The web for individual access to learning materials and information; and for individual assessment The web for learning related communication (asynchronous and/or synchronous) The web as a medium for networked learning
Teacher Provides structured information/directs students to selected web sites Set up spaces for discussion/facilitates dialogue Set up spaces for communication, discussion and knowledge building/facilitates-guides the process
Students Individually study materials provided Participate in online discussions Share and build knowledge
Content Provided by lectuerer Provided by the lecturerer but students can modify – extend it through online discussions Built by students using the space set up by the lecturer
Knowledge Owned by lecturer Discovered by students within lecturer’s framework Built by students

The literature is also in general agreement that pedagogues generally teach the way they were taught (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). It has been suggested that in the absence of formal teaching qualifications, many university pedagogues teach in the didactic way that they were taught (Phillips 2005). Conceptions of teaching that are at the content end of the orientation spectrum. What’s more this predilection shapes the outcomes from the introduction of e-learning as educators see the technology as a means for carrying on doing what they have done before with more expensive technologies (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). In an effort to survive the difficulties of coping with the new introduced technology pedagogues can focus on content rather than the process of educating the student (Herrington, Reeves et al. 2005). Increasingly, organisational priorities can also negatively impact upon how pedagogues approach their teaching responsibilities with the consequence that students can sense the pedagogue’s distance from teaching (White 2006).

Table 2.2 – Dimensions delimiting approaches to online teaching (adapted from Gonzalez 2009)
Informative/individual learning focuses Communicative/Networked learning focused
Intensity of use Small range on media and tools used to support learnign tasks and activities (mainly sources of information with small opportunities for interaction and communication) Wide range of media and tools used to support learning tasks and activities (with emphasis on interaction and communication)
Resources Web pages with information. Lecture notes. Links to websites. Web pages with information. Lecture notes. Links to web sites. Discussion boards. Chat. Blogs. Spaces for sharing. Animations. Videos. Still images.
Role of the learner Select and present information Design spaces for sharing and communication. Support the process.
Role of the students Study individually information provided Participate in a process of knowledge building

Changing conceptions of learning and teaching

The relationship between conceptions of learning and teaching has implications for educational change (Tutty, Sheard et al. 2008). Change towards more sophisticated forms of teaching is only possible if the pedagogue’s conception of teaching are addressed first (Ho, Watkins et al. 2001). There is little evidence to show that pedagogue’s conceptions of teaching will develop with increasing teaching experience or from formal training (Richardson 2005). Pedagogue’s approaches to teaching change slowly, with some change coming after a sustained training process (Postareff, Lindblom-Ylanne et al. 1997). Given that it appears most university pedagogues hold content-centred conceptions of learning and teaching and that the majority of e-learning appears focused on distributing content, there appears to be a need to change the conceptions held by pedagogues.

Changing pedagogues’ conceptions of teaching, however, are a necessary but not sufficient condition for improved student learning. While pedagogue’s are likely to adopt teaching approaches that are consistent with their conceptions of teaching there may be differences between espoused theories and theories in use (Leveson 2004). While pedagogues may hold higher-level view of teaching other contextual factors may prevent use of those conceptions (Leveson 2004). Environmental, institutional, or other issues may impel pedagogues to teach in a way that is against their preferred approach (Samuelowicz and Bain 2001). While conceptions of teaching influence approaches to teaching, other factors such as institutional influence and the nature of students, curriculum and discipline may also influence teaching approaches (Kember and Kwan 2000). Prosser and Trigwell (1997) found that pedagogue’s with a student-focused approach were more likely to report that their departments valued teaching, that their class sizes were not too large, and that they had control over what was taught and how it was taught. Other contextual factors that frustrate pedagogues’ intended approaches to teaching may include senior staff with traditional teacher-focused conceptions raising issues about standards and curriculum coverage and students who induce teachers to adopt a more didactic approach (Richardson 2005). In addition, teachers who experience different contexts may adopt different approaches to teaching in those different contexts (Lindblom-Ylanne, Trigwell et al. 2006).

Efforts to improve teaching have often failed because the complexity of teaching has been underestimated and such attempts should consider the integrated system of relationships that constitute the teaching experience as a whole (Leveson 2004). One such important complicating influence are differences that have found differences between discipline areas (Lindblom-Ylanne, Trigwell et al. 2006), which suggest a need to understand teaching from both a general and discipline-specific perspective (Leveson 2004). Beliefs about teaching vary markedly across different disciplines and these variations are related to the pedagogue’s beliefs about the naure of the discipline they are teaching (Richardson 2005).

There is a lack of empirical evidence that development in conceptions of teaching will result in prompt improvement in teaching practice (Ho, Watkins et al. 2001). There is at least one alternate model (Guskey 1986; Guskey 2002) of teacher change that suggest it is the experience of successful implementation that changes the attitudes and beliefs of pedagogues. Pedagogues believe change will work because they have seen it work and this experience is what changes their conceptions of teaching and learning (Guskey 2002). Existing research informs us of the static relationship between existing conceptions and teaching practice, but has limited findings in terms of the dynamics of the way changes in teaching conceptions are transferred to changes in teaching practice and at what rate (Ho, Watkins et al. 2001).

The way e-learning is adopted in tertiary education is most likely explained by the pedagogues’ approaches to teaching, in general, which are often the result of their conceptions about teaching and learning (Elgort 2005). As above, institutional factors play a mediating role. In examining conceptions of e-learning held by academic staff Gonzalez (2009) that institutional factors and the nature of the students were the most relevant contextual factors influencing teaching. Rhetorical claims espousing e-learning seek to appeal to a pedagogues’ vision with an emphasis on innovation at the expense of reflection on pedagogues’ thinking and practices (Convery 2009). The unrealistic expectations of e-learning inhibit pragmatic attempts by pedagogues to integrate technology into classroom contexts and contribute to pedagogues being blamed for the failure of technology to fulfill its promise (Convery 2009).


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