A prescriptive study of early trends in implementing e-learning in the UK Higher Education Sector

Nicos Souleles

Cumbria Institute of the Arts, Carlisle, UK


February, 2004


Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are widely implemented in the UK Higher Education (HE) sector and many institutions are engaged in implementing e-learning. The drivers for this rapid technological change consist of a combination of persistent external pressures and the enticing prospect of improvements. This paper examines whether the benefits of e-learning have materialised and how this relates to organisational change, policies and strategies. Post-Fordist models of management and prescriptive approaches to implementing technological change provide the theoretical framework. This qualitative investigation focuses on the significance in the implementation process of institutional policies, staff incentives for development, quality control processes, inter-departmental collaboration, the need to re-evaluate teaching methodologies, and the importance of feedback mechanisms.


The widespread implementation of VLEs and e-learning within Higher Education (HE) institutions in the UK came with enticing promises. These included improvements in quality, flexibility and effectiveness of teaching and learning, increased opportunities for lifelong learning, scope for reduced costs and participation in the global knowledge economy. 

This paper examines the current situation of e-learning through the perspective of new managerial approaches, and this inevitably addresses their relevance and applicability to the HE sector. The primary objective of the paper is to consider the relationship between institutional policies and strategies, and the management and implementation of online learning technologies in the English HE sector.

The first overriding question relates to the existence or not of global external pressures relentlessly impacting upon HE institutions. Are these global drivers for change real or perceived? Do they merit an appropriate response? If global pressures can impact on states, how insular can HE institutions remain? Some researchers argue that the role of education is increasingly tied up to the world of economics, and that new technologies facilitate organisational transformation and bring with them the enticing prospect of global markets, flexibility, innovation and cost-effectiveness. External pressures may trigger new opportunities, but to what extent have these opportunities materialised? Many HE institutions are taking up the challenge of technological change, but are the rewards forthcoming? If we accept that global pressures are impacting on HE, the follow-up question has to relate to the ability of institutions to adapt to the changing external environment. How are institutions addressing the challenge of organisational change associated with online learning? Are there organisational implications, and is there an ideal response? What are some effective institutional policies and strategies, and what are the characteristics of existing effective management models? Have VLEs improved the quality and flexibility of delivery? Does the current situation match original expectations and rhetoric? Is e-learning contributing to widening participation and enhanced learning?

The Dearing Report (1997) proclaimed that Information Technology (IT) would spearhead improvements in HE. The future envisaged by the report is one of increasingly active partnerships between academic and industry, and of expansion in global markets. In the aftermath of the Dearing Report there is a proliferation of VLEs and many HE institutions are pursuing e-learning. Yet, despite the large investments in online learning technologies expectations have not always materialised (Ryan et al, 2001), and the contribution towards learning outcomes is debatable (Holt, 2001, p.272). Laurillard (2002) suggests that pressures for change and the rapid implementation these technologies combined to hinder research into the theory and practice of online learning. There is now a plethora of both qualitative and quantitative information to be gathered, analysed and evaluated.

Early research on VLEs focused on the comparison of functionality between different packages, but not on the learning experience per se or the process of implementing and managing e-learning in HE. Recent research focuses on the significance of new managerial approaches, the need for organisational and cultural change, and the importance of grassroots support as some of the critical elements for the effective implementation of new learning technologies (Kenny, 2002). Equally, Uys (2002, p.58) states that there has been a clear and consistent call from prominent writers on management and organizational change that the functions of management are to be practised in an entirely new way in the context of the emerging global information and knowledge society. Another term often used in this context is the ‘learning organisation’. These organisational models of managing technological change share common characteristics.  This paper considers how HE institutions compare against these shared characteristics, and in this respect it is an analysis based on prescriptive principles which have been critiqued by a number of authors. Kezar et al. (2002) dismiss the suitability of broad managerial approaches to the HE sector. They consider these models as too general in nature with a common emphasis on strong leadership, collaborative processes and a system of rewards. Organisational changes are presented as broad and uniform. In a study conducted by the authors the literature of organisational change that relies on general prescriptive principles was challenged. The study highlighted the importance of recognising distinct organisational cultures within an organisation and their inter-play. Similarly, Alvesson (2002) dismisses management models that assume the existence of uniform cultures and enlightened management. He labels these models as ‘Managerially-led Unitary and Unique Cultures’. They are based more or less on a standardized script that is regurgitated; managers change from administrators to leaders, flat decision making hierarchies giving way to markets and entrepreneurial spirit. Alvesson argues that organisational change involves a complicated process of negotiation of meanings and symbols among divergent cultures within an organisation.

Carlson (2001, p.85) defines culture as the shared values, attitudes and norms on what is acceptable and unacceptable within groups of employees. These shared values are often taken for granted. Sub-cultures exist within HE institutions based on discipline, school or departmental affiliation. It is not unusual, he argues, for sub-cultures not to be congruent with the larger institutional culture, not to mention radical organisational change. This becomes evident when attempting institutional transformation that requires changes in underlying assumptions and prevailing values. The fit between existing culture and proposed change can inhibit or facilitate organizational change, and so it becomes critical to consider organizational culture prior to implementing change.  

The drivers for change

Marginson (2000, pp.24-25) cautions against the error of attributing too much to the term ‘globalisation’. ‘Triumphalists’ and ‘alarmists’ recognise, albeit from different perspectives, that global forces impact on social change. Uys (1998a) suggests that online technologies facilitate and naturally lead to the globalisation of education. The changes associated with the introduction of these technologies should be embraced, and the challenge for HE institutions is to establish global partnerships and educational niches in the international educational market. In contrast, Noble (1998) is alarmed by what he describes as ‘commodification of education’ driven by software companies and commercial interests. He warns against the camouflage of technological transformation which underneath hides the commercialization of higher education; it uses technology as a vehicle and a disarming disguise. Denying the trend towards globalisation, i.e. arguing that there is nothing distinctive in the character of contemporary global relationships is also an error. Marginson suggests that globalisation is a collection of powerful world systems situated outside the nation state and independent from it. These systems are working back towards the inner core of states, affecting our practices. He depicts these forces as ‘leaking’ through the daily activities of HE institutions. They are exposed to constant and relentless external pressures.

One of the external forces that impacts upon HE is change in the nature of manufacturing. There is consensus that the structure of work in advanced economies is shifting away from traditional manufacturing modes of production, towards the provision of services and the production, management and circulation of knowledge through information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Saunders, 2000, p.1006). This is compared to the change from the agricultural age to the industrial age (Uys, 2002, p.58). The terms ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘information society’ are often used in parallel to suggest a strong association. States are responding to growing requirements for trained citizens as economies increasingly depend upon knowledge-related skills and the ability to handle information. Education and training are perceived as instruments of economic policy. States who adopt an interventionist approach through education and training, as well as labour market policies, aim to facilitate the development of a high-wage, high skill post-Fordist economy (Dudley, 1998, p.23). The need for a more highly skilled workforce to service new industries and participate in the world knowledge economy is now a high priority for many countries. The emphasis on wider participation in HE is also known as the shift from elite to mass education. To this can be added the need for re-skilling and life-long learning. A person will need to retrain at least five times in a working lifetime and such retraining requires the equivalent of three months of full-time learning (Bates, 2000, p.10-13). The Dearing Report (1997) adopts an ‘alarmist’ rhetoric for the United Kingdom (UK): ‘Powerful forces – technological and political – are driving the economies of the world… competition is increasing from developing economies… the new economic order will place an increasing premium on knowledge which, in turn, makes national economies more dependent on HE’s development of people with high level skills… The UK will need to invest more in education and training to meet the international challenge.’

Sadlak (1998, p.101) defined two paradigms to encapsulate the nature of external pressures on HE institutions. The quantitative paradigm relates to the statistics on student populations. Increased efforts are being made on a global scale in expanding HE education. All societies, whether modern or modernizing, post-industrial or developing, are experiencing increased demand for access to HE. To keep student participation rates constant in the developing world, one sizeable new university has to open every week to meet the demands of the young and growing population (Sadlak, 1998, p.103). Bates (2000, p.8) argues that postsecondary education around the developed world has expanded during the last ten years, forcing both states and institutions to seek alternative means of funding the sector. Wide access to HE is more a rule than an exception. The argument for the continuation of expansion is based, among other things, on forecasts concerning the evolution of labour markets, which show that in the course of the next decade some 40% of all jobs in the industrialized countries will require sixteen years of schooling and training. The shift from elite to mass HE has forced institutions to re-evaluate their role. The central policy question has become how to deliver a high quality product to a greater population with diminishing resources.

The informational paradigm relates to a different set of numbers. In 1998 in the United States there were three hundred colleges and universities offering virtual degrees to over one million students. By the turn of the century the number of ‘cyber students’ will triple (Sadlak, 1998, pp.102-103). Students are accustomed to electronic communications and web-based retailing. They are also accustomed to independent choice, not simply in technology but in sources of information. The informational paradigm suggests that there is already a significant and un-stoppable momentum towards adopting and using learning technologies by both students and institutions. This momentum is supported by claims that ICTs will continue to evolve exponentially, contributing even further to rapid globalization. Computers are affordable and commonplace. National and international networks are becoming faster and cheaper to access.  Some ‘triumphalist’ predictions claim that in ten years most educational institutions in the United States will deliver some portion of their curricula online (Duderstadt, Atkins, & Houweling, 2002). Similarly, researchers attribute the rapid adoption of VLEs and e-learning in the UK to the increased demand for HE and lifelong learning. The widespread use of the Internet and email has almost certainly been a catalyst for these demands. Online learning technologies are perceived as the only way to efficiently address the huge increase in learning needs and numbers because of the distributed and flexible potential (Uys, 1998b). ‘There has been a paradigm shift to using the Web for teaching (Butland, Conole, Jones & Cook, 2000).

Bates (2000, pp.16-20) identified the most frequent reasons that HE institutions adopt online learning technologies. The main motives are to improve the quality of learning, to provide learners with information technology skills needed for their professional development, to widen access to education, to respond to the ‘technological imperative’, and to reduce costs and improve cost-effectiveness. These correspond very closely with the reasons identified by Uys (2000), which are flexibility, links to the emerging culture of post-modernism, cost-effectiveness of delivery, improvements in the quality of learning, and addressing the increase in demand for HE. Within HE institutions these reasons exist in various degrees. The widespread use of ICTs and the large investments in VLEs indicate that institutions are to some extent enticed by the potential rewards. The position has shifted emphatically towards implementing VLEs. The external drivers and trends, real or perceived, are no more debated but taken for granted. This may partially explain the spread of VLEs among HE institutions, but inevitably raises questions of management and organisational change, particularly if original expectations are not fully met yet.

The prescriptive model

Prescriptive approaches to change argue that the effective implementation of technological change in HE requires significant organizational change. Uys (2002) states that there is a clear and consistent call from prominent writers on management and organisational design that the functions of management are to be practised in an entirely new way in the context of the knowledge society. The underlying theme in this literature is that historically evolved and determined hierarchical structures within HE institutions cannot embed effectively new learning technologies without major organisational change.  Online education is an alternative paradigm to traditional delivery, and as such it requires new management models, appropriate for the emerging information society. These models are informed by the ‘learning organisation’. 

A number of authors have put forward similar strategies and organisational/management models for technological change. These models embrace the language of post-Fordism and new-managerialism. According to Marginson (2000, p.29) it is not surprising to find business practices in universities, because social institutions exist in an age of business. Throughout their history universities have habitually taken in some of the features of the organisations outside them, reworking their academic mission in new hybrid forms. Farnes (1993) states that there is some debate on the extent that the development of educational systems proceeds independently from the economic system. Within broad time periods both employ similar methods and systems. It may be, he argues, that forces leading to the adoption of particular industrial methods may lead to similar methods applied to education. Also the requirements of economies have an influence on the nature of educational systems and vice versa.

Laurillard (2002, p.214) argues that the implementation of new technology methods cannot take place without the organization around it adjusting to the intrusion of the ‘new organism’. She defends the use of this biological metaphor to emphasise the single critical factor for HE institutions: their capacity to learn and generate new knowledge in response to the external environment and subsequent internal changes. HE institutions need more ‘robustly adaptive’ mechanisms so they can become ‘learning organizations’. This entails ‘adaptive learning’. Laurillard’s (2002, p.215) ‘Conversational Framework’ for designing an effective organisational structure involves a continual iteration process at all levels of the organisation; continuous action-research with results evaluated, refined and fed back into the process for even more evaluation. For Laurillard one of the significant elements in the process of continuous learning is the sharing of tacit knowledge through formal and informal gatherings. Equally, Kenny (2002)  argues that the ‘learning organisation’ needs to develop an effective means to capture and make known the learning occurring in the range of projects which are underway and to maximize the staff capacity to carry-on further research and development.

Uys (2000, pp.1-4) considers that the management of networked education is fundamentally different from conventional educational management because of the global environment, which requires new forms of private enterprise management, including management of the learning organisation. The functions of management are to be practised in an entirely new way in the context of the emerging global information or knowledge society. Institutions dedicated to the values and practice of ‘open learning’ need to have an ‘open management style’. Uys contrasts the mechanistic control process with an organic control process, and represents it as the tension between a centralised administrative approach and decentralised academic approach.

Likewise, Bates (2002, pp.36-42) dismisses the current organisational structure of most universities based on largely historical reasons as unsuitable to new forms of technological delivery. He accepts that there are very few examples of previously conventional HE institutions that have significantly restructured and made the successful transition to widespread use of technology-based distributed learning. Bates suggests that lessons can be drawn from organizations that are ‘fit for purpose’; they achieve their objectives in the most effective and economical manner. He compares and contrasts ‘Fordist’ and ‘Post-Fordist’ organizational structures to argue that the former with its emphasis on uniformity of products, economies of scale, high volume production, hierarchical management, strict division of labour and units, and standardization are not suitable for the knowledge-based global economy of the present time.  Newer forms of organization known as post-Fordist or post-industrial place emphasis on ICTs, provide for customised and tailored services, have decentralised workers directly networked to clients, are inspired by strong leadership characterised by a broad vision, and have senior management which integrates, co-ordinates and facilitates. Dudley (1998, pp.31-32) describes post-Fordism as high-value added, innovative, with market flexibility through multiskilling. For Dudley the role of education in the post-Fordist context is more strategic contributing to a highly skilled and flexible workforce, fostering innovation and market leadership, and creating consensus-based objectives. The organisation is leaner with emphasis on functional flexibility.

Kenny (2002) offers a different rationale for re-organization, which is not driven by market language and global imperatives, but rather analyses the unique complexity of managing the implementation of e-learning. Traditional project management does not make much distinction between the characteristics of different projects. Surveys indicate that projects associated with the introduction of new technologies have a higher level of uncertainty. The management process used in these projects became progressively more open as the levels of uncertainty in the projects increased. To illustrate the difference the author contrasts as low technological uncertainty the manufacturing of a single stand-alone component, versus the high technological uncertainty associated with the Apollo moon-landing project, which required a widely dispersed collaboration of experts and units. The underlying theme for Kenny is that incorporating ICTs in HE institutions is a high risk task which requires continuous improvement through modification of plans, looser project management approaches, and the action research process of the reflective practitioner at all institutional levels. The more complex the project is, the more flexible the management style becomes.

The Dearing Report (1997) recommended that all HE institutions in the UK have in place ‘overarching communications and information strategies’ by 1999-2000. The implication is that an institute-wide approach is necessary to achieve change. It is important that an appropriate policy framework should inform the institute-wide approach. Prominent on the list of common themes about the learning organisation and HE is the importance of suitable policies and strategies emanating from the senior management level. Such policies address the need for a collaborative and consultative approach. This can engage diverse departments and staff. The policy framework covers strategies to reward innovation. Research undertaken by Radloff (2001) identified a number of challenges for institutional leaders and academic staff when introducing learning technologies. Senior management need to develop a vision of what the enterprise of HE should be. The vision should be championed and communicated to all stakeholders. It should include a realistic agenda for change. It should not attempt to quantify every activity on a micro level (Kenny, 2002, p.331). Institutional leaders should manage the change in an environment of empathy, with skill and understanding, taking risks and ‘going out on a limb’. Uys (2002, p.67) considers the creation of a shared vision as the most important function of institutional leadership. He suggests that it should involve wide consultation and have a clear educational purpose.

Holt et al. (2001) examined environmental imperatives and stakeholder needs when implementing IT in HE. The authors compared and contrasted the interests of the various stakeholders, and concluded that between total centralisation and extreme decentralisation, a balancing act is needed. This requires the participation of all stakeholders, and a respect for different views and rationales. Educational objectives should be at the foreground of the process. There are recognisable themes and similarities with Laurillard’s ‘Conversational Framework’. The learning organisation has an organic quality and is consultative while embracing technological change at all levels. There is discursive quality in the policies and strategies that rest underneath the overall institution-wide vision. The strategies include collaboration, sharing of best practice and effective means of incorporating formative and summative feedback on the implementation process. Academic staff will need to reflect on their approach to teaching and learning. This should be underpinned by pedagogy and not technology. Teaching innovation will require new skills and ways of working, including being ‘brave and bold’.

The engagement of faculty and teaching staff is another critical factor for the effective implementation of e-learning. Faculty development seems to work best when supported by a range of strategies (Bates, 2000, pp.95-121). This includes staff incentives and staff support and professional development. There is some evidence that support required for staff to adapt can be under-estimated and under-resourced (Kenny, 2001). As Laurillard (2001, p.4) argues, innovation in course design is conditional on staff development and upskilling; new kinds of pedagogy require new knowledge. The existence of a range of strategies to promote staff development and reward engagement is viewed as another significant characteristic in the post-Fordist literature on technological change.

From a pedagogical perspective the advantage of incorporating e-learning in the curricula is compared to traditional delivery methods. The later places the educator at the centre of the teaching and learning experience. The learners are passive recipients. Pedagogical support for e-learning is based on the potential to promote active and collaborative learning; the educator becomes the facilitator of the learning process and the learner is an active participant. The physical location of the campus is no more a critical factor. IT and network-based advances have eroded the importance of the physical location. Distributed learning is now possible. This however pre-supposes that online instructional material is pedagogically sound. The current proliferation of VLEs does not in itself entail this. Bennett et al. (1999) elaborate further on the kind of staff development required to develop appropriate online delivery. Staff development should raise awareness, empower academics to participate in discussions about online learning, and enable them to understand how the technology can be applied to their own context. Staff opportunities to discuss online learning can contribute to dissemination of best practice. Similarly, Bates, (2000, p.102) argues that showing how the technology works is not sufficient. Staff need to know why [italics by the author] it is important to use the technology in teaching. The paradigmatic shift from tutor-centered to a learner-centered system of delivery will not happen overnight and must be accompanied by institutional commitment to incorporate research findings into professional development activities (Van Dusen, 1997).

HE institutions and their organisational structures are often based on historicity and a transformation is unlikely to occur overnight. It will require some more time to determine which model of organisational change is indeed appropriate for the effective implementation of e-learning, and even then it is likely that a number of models will emerge. Hybrid and transitional forms of management are likely to emerge.  Some common characteristics drawn from post-Fordist approaches and new-managerialism models, emphasise the significance of central vision, with delegation, collaboration, flexibility, engagement and adaptive learning at all levels, and as core practices. Over-arching institutional policies are significant and the vision should be communicated to all stakeholders. Using VLEs and implementing e-learning effectively implies new pedagogies, and this emphasises the importance of having a comprehensive program of staff development and incentives.

The research process

The research process was based on the development and circulation of a questionnaire with the aim of recording and analysing responses on the current state of VLEs and e-learning in HE institutions. This is a retrospective investigation of implementation cases, and as such it has all the qualities, as well as weaknesses and strengths, of the ex post facto research methodology (Cohen et al, 2002, pp.205-210). There was no rigorous experimental approach. The evidence gathered does not test a hypothesis, but attempts to represent and reflect on the current situation in ten HE institutions. Causal links may be established in particular cases, as well as relationships, associations and their meanings, but it is also possible that causes may not be identified or that there are different causes for different contexts. These weaknesses of the ‘causal’ study, or ‘co-relational’ study can be considered against its strengths. Causal studies provide a degree of association; they are exploratory and suggestive in character, and useful as sources for hypotheses to be tested (Cohen et al, 2002, pp.205-208). In this respect, this paper respresent a ‘scoping study’, designed to bring key issues into the spotlight and identify issues and trends.

Proponents of quantitative methods have often critiqued the notion of validity in qualitative research mostly on the basis that the later lacks explicit controls and standard means of measurement that would allow for the formal testing of prior hypothesis. Qualitative researchers generally respond that certain categories of validity for example, concurrent validity, convergent validity and criterion-related validity are relevant to quantitative research but have little or no relevance to qualitative research (Maxwell, 1992, pp.279-280). There is also the ‘widely shared view that (generalizability in qualitative research) … is unimportant, unachievable, or both… Many researchers actively reject generalizability as a goal’ (Schofield, 2002). Maxwell (2002, p.281) suggests that understanding is more fundamental to qualitative research than validity, and validity is relative because understanding is relative. However, if understanding is relative then Hammersley’s definition of validity as ‘the truth’ (as cited in Silverman, 2000, p.175) is debatable, for in qualitative research the process can be influenced by a number of factors including the individual perspective of the researcher. This inherent weakness is a characteristic of qualitative research (exposure to a degree of bias), and supports the position that validity is a matter of degree, not an absolute (Maxwell, 1992, p.284). As Cohen et al. (2002, p.105) stated, “…at best we strive to minimize invalidity and maximize validity…”

It is possible to identify a number of common themes in the prescriptive literature on implementing new technologies in HE institutions. These include the importance of developing an overall policy at institutional level, the significance of staff incentives and training, the inclusion of quality control processes in the implementation process, the importance of inter-departmental collaboration, the need to re-evaluate teaching methodologies, and the necessity of having feedback mechanisms. These common themes formed the ‘building blocks’ for the development of the questionnaire. This process of ‘sampling from a domain of content’ (Smith, 1975, p. 76) or simply ‘domain sampling’ (Cohen et al, 2002, p.131) provides for a degree of content validity, i.e. that the questionnaire examines the issues under investigation. There can be no claim for absolute content validity. 

To provide for a degree of internal validity, i.e. that there is a level of credibility and authenticity in the information gathered, the questionnaire starts by identifying the role of the interviewees in relation to the implementation process. There is the explicit recognition that the respondents are active participants in the implementation process. They have ‘first hand’ experience albeit in different roles. The respondents used different terms to identify their job titles, such as ‘Learning Technology Development Officer’, ‘Learning Technology Manager’, ‘Director of Learning Technologies’, ‘Director of Information Services’, ‘VLE Supervisor’ and ‘Lecturer’. The different and, in some cases, overlapping roles include contribution to policy making, supervision of implementation, staff training, technical support, pedagogical input, and research. The majority of respondents identified their roles as members of units which implement e-learning. The questionnaire does not identify and compare the functions and roles of these units but recognises that they are diverse and cater for localised needs within specific contexts. Future research can address how these units are embedded in the overall structure of institutions; do they interpret or simply implement policies? Is there a relationship between the internal constitution of the different units, the implementation process and the outcomes?

The respondents represent ten very diverse HE institutions in terms of the size of the student population, the disciplines covered, and geographical location. Schofield (2002, pp.100-101) argues that findings based on the study of multiple heterogeneous sites are ‘more robust’ and ‘more likely to be useful’ compared to findings based on the study of very similar sites; the study of heterogeneous sites can increase the generalizability of qualitative research, i.e. the extent to which the results can apply to a wider number of cases.

The data gathered by the questionnaire is a ‘snapshot’ of the current situation. There is constant transformation and change to what is under investigation. There are different stages and models of implementation at the various institutions. There are also constant technical advancements and the development of new instructional approaches influenced by ‘flexible delivery’ and ‘innovation’. Online learning technologies are evolving and this raises the issue of reliability; at different times similar research is likely to reveal changing patterns and new trends. The respondents reveal that all institutions have some form of VLE and e-learning in place but the timescale of implementation differs from two months to six years. There are also significant differences in the number of staff and students accessing them. For example one of the institutions has seven thousand students and two hundred staff engaging with online learning technologies. Another institution is currently in the third month of implementation with ten staff and sixty students using a VLE. It would seem that the size of the institution determines the number of staff and students accessing online technologies; rates of participation are context specific. This investigation does not address how much time are staff and students engaging with VLEs and e-learning, and what exactly are they doing with them.

The questionnaire consists of a number of dichotomous and open-ended questions grouped in categories. The first category relates to factual and background information. Respondents were asked to briefly describe their role and position in relation to e-learning in their institution, and to provide information on the length of time VLEs have been in place, as well as the number of staff and students accessing them. The second group of questions addresses the importance of institutional policies and decision-making. Does the institution have an information management policy, an ICT policy, or an e-learning strategy? How important is it to have a policy document? The third group of questions relates to the management of process. At what level of the institution are decisions made on implementing VLEs and e-learning? Was rollout incremental of campus wide? Is collaboration between different departments and faculties important? How is staff development handled and what support is in place? Is staff development optional and are there any incentives? Knowledge sharing, dissemination and feedback mechanisms are grouped in the next category. What staff and student feedback mechanisms are in place, and how is this incorporated in the implementation process? Is best practice shared and how? How well is the support unit resourced? The final group of questions addresses the comparison between original expectations and current outcomes. What are the main reasons for using VLEs and e-learning? Has teaching methodology changed? Is flexible delivery practised? Has the implementation increased the number of geographically diverse students? What outcomes determine if the implementation of e-learning is effective, and have original expectations and targets been met?

Analysis of data

All ten institutions that responded to the questionnaire have a VLE in place and half have augmented it with additional online facilities to deliver some form of e-learning. There is significant variation between them on how long the VLEs are in place and how developed e-learning is. The shortest period of implementation is one year and the longest seven. The average across all ten institutions is two and a half years. This is important in terms of how long it takes to implement organisational change and to benefit from it. Long-term studies indicate that there is a delay of some years between the time of adapting new technologies and the point where this becomes meaningful and beneficial to an organisation (Carlson, 2001). Considering that this investigation provides a snapshot of the current situation, and that the average time of implementation is relatively short, only possible trends can be identified in terms of management of process, institutional policies and outcomes.

As expected the data indicates that there is variation in the number of teaching staff using VLEs  and the number of students accessing them for their learning. The highest number of staff is one thousand and the lowest is twenty. This corresponds to the number of students these institutions have, which range from ten thousand to just below five hundred. High numbers of engagement suggest that the institution has policies and support in place, but of what kind? Indeed, six institutions have an ICT and/or an e-learning strategy in place. These policies cater for specific objectives at the meso (faculty) and micro levels (staff and students) of the organisation, but does an institution-wide framework inform them? Only two institutions have a campus-wide information management policy in place and none has a knowledge management document. To the question how important is a strategy document in order to have an effective e-learning programme, the majority of respondents ranked the importance of having institutional strategies from very important and useful, to quite important and of value. A minority considers them ‘no guarantee to success’ and ‘not critical’. The data suggest that ICT and e-learning strategies flourish but institution-wide policies are lacking. The implication is that VLEs and e-learning are embedded in existing organisational structures, and this is likely to result in a misalignment between expectations and outcomes.

A significant majority of respondents (nine) stated that decisions on implementing technological change are made at senior management level, with one quoting the ‘highest’ level and another the ‘executive’ level. Responsibility is firmly based at the top, but how effective have the varied approaches been? In terms of rollout the institutions are evenly split with half adapting a campus-wide approach and the remaining an incremental approach to implementing e-learning. This may be indicative of context specific challenges, such as availability of resources and funding, or may be a deliberate strategy with the objective of gradually increasing participation. Collaboration between faculties, departments and units even at small-scale implementations is a positive step. To the question is collaboration between departments and faculties important, only five respondents provided a positive answer, an additional four claimed ‘no’, and one suggested that ‘it is helpful but not essential’. There is no data to indicate whether this division correlates to the size of the institution, the number of staff and students involved, and the number of units or departments available, or any other factors such as organizational culture.

The data on staff development and incentives shows a clear pattern. All respondents stated that staff development and training is optional. One said it is ‘patchy’, and another that it is mostly ignored. When asked to describe the support and development available answers included free training, days off and workshops. Only one institution provides no support. There is no data on staff participation rates. This could indicate if incentives can affect participation rates or if there are other contributing factors such as professional development. The incentives available are varied. They include job progression conditional on the use of VLEs, ten days per year allocated time for development, time off, and the development of competitive learning grants. Four respondents indicated that there are no incentives for staff development in their institutions. Five indicated that there was ‘cultural resistance’ in the early stages of implementation. Here the term ‘cultural resistance’ refers to – on its simplest level – beliefs and a set of shared values among some staff that online learning seeks to replace traditional face-to-face delivery, and new technologies have little to offer in improving teaching and learning. The most quoted method to address such resistance was the sharing of best practice. The remaining five attribute the lack of cultural resistance to the optional nature of the strategies in place. Optional opportunities for staff development do not imply radical transformation challenging existing organizational culture. Resistance can be perceived as an indicator that organizational change is significant. It is not known how strong the organizational cultures are and how amenable they are to technological change. The lack of comprehensive staff development programmes and incentives in most of the institutions with the exception of job progression conditional on the use of VLEs, indicates a weak connection between staff take-up and institutional policies.

To the question what staff and student feedback mechanisms are in place, the responses include an online questionnaire for students, an annual survey of staff, a course review system (offline), regular focus groups with students, and regular staff meetings. Negative responses included ‘no formal mechanism for staff’, ‘no formalized feedback’, and ‘online feedback not used to support e-learning’. How feedback is gathered and evaluated reflects the ability of the organisation to learn from practice. It is not clear from this list how feedback can be incorporated in the process of revision and refinement. An annual survey of staff and a course review are unlikely to yield quick results. The online questionnaire if appropriately structured and if used widely enough may provide some useful information. Action research models require the long-term study of learners using online technologies, with extensive user testing and setting up of pilot projects. There did not seem to be any comprehensive and well-structured feedback mechanism in place for the ten institutions in this research. The answers to the next question on how staff and student feedback was incorporated in the early stages of implementation, indicate a similar trend. Two responded that it was not incorporated, one that individual responses were sought, most provided no answer and only one listed ‘formal feedback, interviewing and monitoring’.

Although feedback mechanisms did not rate well in this survey, the sharing of best practice among staff reveals a number of varied approaches and communities of practice. Respondents listed the following methods of sharing knowledge: an internal university newsletter, an ‘in-house’ publication, a series of seminars to share experiences, a mailing list (offline), inviting champions to share their experience, ‘show and tell’ sessions, symposiums twice a year, and word of mouth. It would seem from the data that staff are using numerous formal and informal means to share knowledge despite the lack of comprehensive institutional feedback mechanisms. In terms of knowledge management this is a significant loss to the institutions, for a large proportion of the knowledge developed and shared by staff is likely to be tacit knowledge developed in the context of unique conditions and situations. This pool of information can provide information for a wide range of issues, such as staff development programmes, developing new instructional methods and improving student retention and engagement.

There does not seem to be any prevailing reason why the HE institutions in this investigation are implementing VLEs and e-learning. Three respondents identified distance education as the main reason, while another three identified widening access and participation, and three more stated enhancing teaching practices and improving student learning. One response listed ‘experimentation’. This strengthens the argument that to some extent the current spread of VLEs is mimetic in character and not backed by institutional objectives to compete in global markets. VLEs have not attracted students to online courses.  Only three institutions have an increase in the number of geographically diverse students, which can be attributed to VLEs and e-learning, but seven do not, yet all ten institutions are practising some form of flexible delivery. The forms of flexible delivery described, do not indicate any significant change in the teaching methodology. To the question how has teaching methodology changed, answers included ‘some replacement of face to face teaching but not a lot’, ‘notes, assignments and briefs available online all the time’, ‘some asynchronous communication’, and ‘too early to say’, ‘not yet clear’ and ‘could not answer’. Once again the issue of staff development relates to this point. Are staff only trained to use the tools available within a VLE, or are they aware of the educational potential and how best to embed e-learning in teaching and learning?  The evidence suggests that the former is a possibility.

There is no data on the varied objectives and targets set by the different institutions in this investigation. These are likely to be varied in scale and scope, and perhaps even context specific. When asked if targets were met, six respondents indicated that original targets were met, and four that they were not. When asked to identify outcomes which determine if the implementation of e-learning is successful, two identified student recruitment and retention, another two student learning, one the number of student and staff using them, and one the number of new students the institution attracts. Student recruitment and retention was not identified in the literature on technological change as one of the primary reasons HE institutions may want to implement e-learning, but this finding should not be surprising. The informational paradigm suggests that an increasing number of students will choose institutions that have in place some form of e-learning. The perception that an HE institution is online ‘savvy’ can possibly drive the adoption of a VLE.  Enhancing the learning experience remains at the foreground of objectives, but as suggested above there is no evidence that teaching methodologies have changed significantly as a result of using VLEs. Cost-effectiveness was not identified as one of the strategic objectives. This may mean that it is not a priority at the level of the respondent but cannot be excluded as a long-term objective of any wide-scale implementation of e-learning.

Finally, the data indicates that half of the support units are either ‘well-resourced’ to ‘reasonably well-resourced’. The remaining range from ‘poorly resourced’ to ‘not well resourced’. This closely correlates to the size of the institution, with the largest in numbers of staff and students having better resources, while the smaller institutions are under-resourced. This raises issues on the emergence of a ‘digital divide’ between HE institutions.

A summary overview of the data suggests that most institutions are at very early stages of implementation, with varied numbers of staff and students engaging with VLEs and e-learning. Decisions rest with senior management. Half the institutions consider inter-departmental collaboration as significant to the process. Staff incentives and development are weak. There are few comprehensive feedback mechanisms in place but staff engage in communities of practice. Teaching methodologies have not changed significantly with the introduction of VLEs, and flexible delivery and e-learning are practised at elementary levels. Institutional assistance for support units can depend on the size of the organisation. There are numerous strategies at the meso level with very few institutions having institute-wide policies. Overall, there is a misalignment between having the required technology and not having the appropriate policies in place to enable effective technological change. The main reasons for developing e-learning are not clear, but an emerging trend is student demand for access to these technologies.  


The shift from traditional manufacturing to the knowledge economy necessitates a re-definition of the role of HE. The issue is not the commodification of education but rather the commodification of information. The emphasis on wider access to HE is pursued on the premise of states participating in the global information society and benefiting from the knowledge economy. Consequently HE is increasingly becoming central to the economic policies of states. A high-skilled workforce requires continues training and life-long learning is prominent on the agenda of governments and HE institutions. ICTs are perceived as a contributing factor to the globalisation of education but they are also perceived as facilitating change, assisting with issues of access, quality, flexibility, and introducing cost-effectiveness. This investigation did confirm that distance education and widening access and participation are reasons that HE institutions implement VLEs and develop e-learning.

Post-Fordist approaches to implementing technological change argue that if organisational change is not transformative, the benefits are unlikely to materialise. The framework adopted by this paper draws from such approaches to implementing technological change. This may be problematic, for these largely prescriptive strategies can be too general to address the specifics of individual institutions and the significant role of organizational culture. However, as a general reference point post-Fordist approaches to implementing technological change may also provide some valuable insights and guidelines that can be modified and adapted for individual institutions and their specific contexts. The implication is that the successful implementation of e-learning requires some level of organisational change. The reason HE institutions are advised to become robustly adaptive and learning organisations  is not to follow a monolithic and prescriptive approach to the management of process, but rather to follow a process of continuous evaluation and adaptability. This is at the core of most post-Fordist approaches to technological change.

This investigation did not examine radical change, but did attempt to define a number of critical elements for organisational change and compare the current status of online learning against a set of criteria. These elements include the significance of having in place appropriate overarching communications and information policies, the ability of the institution to learn from the implementation process, comprehensive strategies for rewarding and training staff, effective inter-departmental collaboration, thorough mechanisms for feedback and dissemination, and improvements in teaching and learning.

The evidence suggests that there is already a significant and un-stoppable momentum towards adopting and using learning technologies by both students and institutions. The benefits have not been forthcoming in terms of widening access, flexible delivery, improvements in teaching and cost-effectiveness. There is an emerging recognition that student recruitment and retention may correlate to the implementation of VLEs and e-learning, and that an increasing number of HE applicants choose institutions which offer online facilities to support learning. The extent and state of an institution’s online facilities may affect enrolments. The existence of a small number of institute-wide policies indicates lack of central vision, and this reflects on the role and contribution of senior management. It raises question about whether institutions have appropriate policies and whether the vision has been communicated to staff. Approaches to the implementation of e-learning are varied ranging from campus-wide to incremental, and this may be attributed to a number of factors that are context specific, including the role of different cultures within institutions. A campus-wide approach is preferred for it entails the existence of participative strategies and a culture of inter-departmental collaboration, while an incremental approach may disguise some degree of cultural resistance.

This investigation highlighted the lack of comprehensive and well-structured feedback mechanisms, and the relatively low importance attached to inter-departmental collaboration. Post-Fordist approaches to organisational change view these as significant weaknesses. The circular and iterative process required in successfully implementing online learning is incomplete. The tacit knowledge generated by supportive staff is not evaluated beyond the communities of practices set up by the staff themselves. Low levels of inter-departmental collaboration imply weak conversation and learning across institutional boundaries. Additional weaknesses relate to the lack of comprehensive strategies for rewarding and training staff. Staff training will need to include use of online tools and how best to embed e-learning in the curricula, including the development of flexible delivery. The proliferation of VLEs does not in itself indicate that appropriate instructional approaches are developed and practised. The data shows that VLEs are mostly used in supporting traditional delivery, and instructional innovation facilitated by online technologies is non-existent.

Cost-effectiveness was not identified as one of the reasons institutions implement VLEs and e-learning. However it should not be excluded as a long-term consideration of any wide-scale implementation. Although the data suggests it is not of primary significance to the respondents, the rhetoric associated with online learning does contend that electronically produced material is less expensive to produce and virtual universities can save in terms of real estate and teaching costs. The possibility of such savings is normally disputed on the grounds that development expenses are under-estimated, and the introduction of new practices entails additional costs. Long-term studies may be required to quantify the level of cost-effectiveness e-learning can introduce if properly implemented. Studies reveal that the introduction of ICTs in the business sector has not resulted in any evidence that new technologies can raise profitability and productivity, mainly because they were poorly integrated in existing organisational patterns (Carlson, 2001).

The outcomes of this investigation represent only a ‘snapshot’ drawn from varied timelines and stages of implementation. The synthesis of the data is likely to reflect trends from the early stages of implementation rather than persistent trends over long periods of time. Thus the lack of significant gains as envisaged by the Dearing Report may be partially attributed to the relatively short period of implementation. The situation is an evolving one, and so are the models for technological change. The contribution of this survey is in identifying a number of trends and characteristics of the early stages of implementation.


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ITFORUM PAPER #78- A prescriptive study of early trends in implementing e-learning in the UK Higher Education Sector by Nicos Souleles . Posted on ITFORUM on January 31, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/