Embedding e-learning in universities : analysis and conceptualisation of change processes

Rossiter, Darien Elizabeth (2006) Embedding e-learning in universities : analysis and conceptualisation of change processes. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


E-learning has acquired the status of a "radical innovation" in higher education over the past decade. This claim is contestable, but certainly as the latest educational innovation, it can be attributed with introducing significant disruption into many facets of university life, reaching well beyond the traditional activities associated with the classroom pedagogies. In Australian universities, there are many now who simply take e-learning for granted as accepted teaching and learning practice (Oliver, 2004). Conversely, there are others who forecast its demise, claiming that, like previous educational technological innovations, it is another passing fad (Noble, 1998b). This thesis does not primarily engage this debate. Instead the purpose of this thesis is to gain insight into how universities can realise sustained benefits from the considerable investments to date that have been made in educational technological innovations. The inquiry seeks to understand better change within contemporary universities, in particular the process of embedding the e-learning innovation effectively. The intention is to produce an analysis useful to university executives, managers, teachers and researchers, as well as to make a more general contribution to knowledge about innovations in organisations.

The research literature on change and innovation in organisations is relevant but is reviewed and assessed as of limited value to the enquiry. This is because:

  • the literature mainly focuses on the objective characteristics of an innovative product which cannot encompass the socially constructed value of e-learning

  • it fails to differentiate between the concept of "embedding" and other change phases and constructs, mostly examining the precursory and innovation-producing processes

  • the context of research into innovation has been primarily industrial, not university-based

  • its variable analytic paradigm fails to produce holistic analyses which can be appreciated and enacted on by decision makers and practising managers.

For these reasons and because suitable research on innovation in universities is lacking, an introductory investigation based on grounded theory building was undertaken. To this end, four qualitative, descriptive case studies of contrasting Australian universities embedding e-learning were compiled. The four case universities (their identities protected through use of pseudonyms) assessed were:

  • Gamma University - a multi-campus institution, geographically spread across urban and regional locations

  • Lambda University - an established university, with the majority of students located at a single urban campus

  • Epsilon University - a younger, multi-campus amalgamated university with a strong reputation for distance education

  • Delta University - a relatively young multi-campus, urban university, although its parent bodies provide a longer history.

The cases were based on interviews and focus group sessions with 74 participants, and electronic resource and document analyses over two phases; the first conducted in 1998-1999 and the second in 2002-2003. These analyses provided holistic pragmatic accounts that encapsulate a number of issues. One issue was about the importance of creativity in the innovating process. A second set of issues centred on the theme of complexity and the multifarious nature of the e-learning innovation. Other themes included the significance of the innovation context, partnerships and collaborations, and the emerging polarisation of issues such as standardisation versus diversification. These issues provoked three major propositions about the process of embedding and prompted the development of two systems-based analytical frameworks; one focusing on the nature of system relationships and interactions and the second providing a longitudinal perspective of system change. The propositions are:

  • the ability of a university to negotiate system intersections and transitions influences the degree to which e-learning can be embedded in that university

  • complexity is an integral part of an innovation, therefore cannot be ignored or eliminated without destroying the kernel of the innovation itself, and its longterm viability

  • the efficacy of the innovation is related, in some measure, to the ability to sustain partnerships and collaborations.

The analysis suggested that there are number of key influences which affect the embedding process and the ability of an organisation, such as a university, to manage the processes associated with the e-learning innovation. The key system influences which affect embedding include:

  • the nature of the interactions and transactions occurring within the system, at the boundaries and between the phases of transition

  • the importance of organisational context (cultural, technological, strategic, geographic)

  • the pervasive impact of complexity on all dimensions of the research problem (the e-learning innovation, the change process and the university environment)

  • the necessity for collaboration.

The implications of this study for university executives, managers and beyond are far reaching, and in some respects contradict accepted contemporary management practice. They include: seeking ways to maximise organisational tensions to achieve positive outcomes; enhancing decision making by allowing more flexibility and personal judgement into the process; developing greater tolerance for system fuzziness and uncertainty; and encouraging better utilisation of previous knowledge gained about innovation practices and processes.

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ID Code: 16223
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Hearn, Gregory & Ryan, Yoni
Keywords: e-learning, higher education, university, educational technological innovation, Australia, HERN
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Department: Faculty of Creative Industries
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Darien Elizabeth Rossiter
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 03:58
Last Modified: 25 Jun 2017 14:39

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