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Challenging hierarchies: The impact of e-learning

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New developments in e-learning and increasinglysophisticated learning technologies arebeginning to make a major impact in U.K.universities. It is clear that universitiesneed to change to accommodate the impact oftechnology on learning. Communicationtechnologies that are free from time or placeconstraints provide new challenges touniversities on how they should be organised. The paper reflects on the university's strategicplanning process and outlines the developmentprocess of an e-learning initiative. Examplesof the emergent change agenda are identifiedand finally possibilities for futuredevelopment are explored. It isclear that the impact of e-learning willrequire universities to re-think fundamentallytheir thinking and therefore their strategiesin a whole range of areas. There hasbeen much focus on technological advancementbut much less on how technology impacts onstrategic planning. This paper addresses thisgap in the literature by examining oneuniversity's strategic responses to thischallenge of e-learning. The learning attachedto this case study could be used to help otheruniversities respond to the change agendabrought about by e-learning.
Higher Education 48: 379–395, 2004.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands. 379
Challenging hierarchies: The impact of e-learning
NORAH JONES& JOHN O’SHEA
The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Glamorgan, Treforest, CF37
1DL, South Wales, United Kingdom (author for correspondence,
E-mail: njones2@glam.ac.uk)
Abstract. New developments in e-learning and increasingly sophisticated learning technolo-
gies are beginning to make a major impact in U.K. universities. It is clear that universities need
to change to accommodate the impact of technology on learning. Communication technologies
that are free from time or place constraints provide new challenges to universities on how they
should be organised. The paper reflects on the university’s strategic planning process and
outlines the development process of an e-learning initiative. Examples of the emergent change
agenda are identified and finally possibilities for future development are explored. It is clear
that the impact of e-learning will require universities to re-think fundamentally their thinking
and therefore their strategies in a whole range of areas. There has been much focus on tech-
nological advancement but much less on how technology impacts on strategic planning. This
paper addresses this gap in the literature by examining one university’s strategic responses to
this challenge of e-learning. The learning attached to this case study could be used to help
other universities respond to the change agenda brought about by e-learning.
Introduction
Modern universities, UK and worldwide, are typically large and complex
organisations; many of them have turnovers in excess of £100M per annum
and are responsible for more than 2,000 staff and 20,000 students. The range
of courses offered, the diverse nature of their students and the continuing
change that characterises higher education compounds their complexity.
Additionally there is increasing pressure from central Government for univer-
sities to achieve ever-higher levels of performance and improve value for
money, as evidenced by the 2003 White Paper. Indeed governments across
the world are keen to explore ways in which they can reduce their contri-
bution to the funding of universities by encouraging commercial investment,
academic partnerships and economies of scale. At the same time they appre-
ciate the necessity of raising the skills and qualification attainment of their
populations. The higher education marketplace has become much more
competitive with students having an abundance of performance information
from which they can select their preferred university. Educational patterns
are also changing rapidly: there are many more part-time students, mature
students and students from more diverse backgrounds, often with lower levels
380 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
of qualification. Further there is little sign of these developments abating in
the future.
New developments in e-learning and increasingly sophisticated learning
technologies are beginning to make a major impact in UK universities, partly
in response to these trends. As Inglis et al. (2002, p. 33) emphasise, “The key
factor now driving change is technology”. Inglis et al. continue by noting
changes in education: “In both education and training there is a shift to
offering greater flexibility in relation to time, place, pace, entry and exit”
(p. 33). Advances in technology coalesce with the requirement for universities
to be more flexible. More universities in the USA and the UK are starting to
embrace the use of technology to deliver programmes. Education leaders in
the USA, e.g. Drucker (1993) and Oakley (1997), predict that, unless univer-
sities change radically, they will cease to exist in the twenty first century. As
far back as1967, McLuhan visioned ‘the global village’ and Hanna (2000,
p. 8) prophesises that “McLuhan’s concept of the global village is about
to come to life for every person on the planet”. E-learning and the Internet
are seen as the ideal medium to create a global village (Inglis et al. 2002;
Laurillard 2002; Evans and Nation 2000) and universities are expected to be
at the centre of the move towards the ‘global village’ Wilson (2000, p. 39)
highlights this:
... some of the biggest changes for universities will stem from further
advances in I.T. ... a capacity for interactive networking which will
connect any university to a global audience.
As David Seymour, President of Qsystems, claims: “We are kidding ourselves
if we believe that educating people for the year 2000 is essentially the same
as educating them for the year 1975. Everything has changed – technology,
lifestyles, cultures. Our educational systems must change as well” (Buck
1997, p. 19). Communication technologies that are free from time or place
constraints provide new challenges to universities on how they should be
organised. The Higginson Report on the use of new technologies in further
education concluded that:
colleges are looking to new technologies and their applications to learning
to help them improve productivity, to manage planned growth, to help
reconstruct the curriculum in modular and unitary forms, and to keep
track of an increasingly heterogeneous student population (Helm 1997,
p. 41).
It is clear that universities need to change to accommodate the impact of
technology on learning. And hence coping with and controlling change in
modern universities represents a very formidable management challenge for
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 381
vice-chancellors, their management teams and governors – even when judged
against many other public or private sector organisations. Universities have
been encouraged by Government to undertake strategic planning in order
to be more effective in managing such change. Indeed by 2000 Higher
Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were reporting that
The importance of good strategic planning is recognised throughout
higher education. Good progress has been made over a long period to
improve the rigour of strategic planning (p. 2).
Although there are different examples of strategic planning models in
operation in UK universities (Jarzabkowski 2001), the models not unexpect-
edly depict strategic planning as a rational deliberate process, namely direc-
tion setting, resource allocation, monitoring and control. Mintzberg (1989,
p. 29) comments “Virtually everything that has been written about strategy-
making depicts it as a deliberate process. First we think, then we act. We
formulate then we implement”. He challenges the deliberate strategy process
stressing that it “precludes learning once the strategy is formulated: emergent
strategy fosters it” (Mintzberg 1989, p. 32). Mintzberg however advocates
both deliberate strategy and emergent strategy, thus combining control from
deliberate strategy and learning from emergent strategy. These approaches
could be viewed as end points on a continuum. This paper explores the impact
of an e-learning project on the strategic planning process in one university.
The aim of the paper is to explore how the existing practices and
hierarchies in the case study university have been challenged and, in some
instances, changed as a result of the introduction of e-learning. The paper
examines and discusses the adoption of e-learning at the University of
Glamorgan over the last two years and in particular the impact of e-learning
on the university’s strategic planning process, both deliberate and emer-
gent strategy will be analysed. The paper first discusses the University
of Glamorgan’s new strategic planning process. Examples of the emergent
change agenda are identified and strategic challenges are extrapolated and
finally possibilities for future development are explored. As other univer-
sities approach similar adoption processes this topic is important and of wide
interest to those managing the transition to e-learning.
The strategic planning process
The University of Glamorgan is a new university. It became a university in
1993 having been a Polytechnic, College of Technology and School of Mines
previously. This heritage has influenced the development of the University as
its focus has been firmly on vocational courses, teaching rather than research,
382 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
serving disadvantaged post-industrial communities and a network of partner
colleges taking higher education to similar communities across Wales. During
the Autumn Term of the 1998–1999 session the University of Glamorgan
undertook a fundamental review of its strategic planning processes, with the
assistance of an external consultant. The outcome of this exercise was docu-
mented in a Guide to Strategic Planning and Management that was agreed in
January 1999. The implementation of the new processes was geared towards
the development of a new style of strategic plan for 2000–2001 onwards.
The purpose of the new style of strategic planning was to provide a top-
level plan to achieve the University’s vision and mission, together with a
strategic framework for departmental plans. It was intended that the new
approach would generate a focus around which the University’s staff could
work towards achieving the vision and mission. Key to success would be
the ability to be seen to address the key strategic issues that were relevant
to the future of the University. The new strategic framework would estab-
lish the business objectives that would form the basis of managers’ personal
objectives so that their objectives were explicitly tied to the achievement of
the University’s strategic objectives. Finally the new style would provide the
means of assessing the strategic performance of the University both against
its own objectives and its competitors.
The introduction of the new processes was progressed as a management of
change programme with staff involved throughout in order to obtain commit-
ment to the new processes. The University elected to follow a continuous
improvement cycle approach. This started with an analysis of strategic issues
and the setting of the University’s overall direction. Staff were then mobilised
and their commitment secured to the University’s direction. The strategies
were implemented and finally performance was to be measured and overall
direction changed if necessary.
The starting point for setting strategic direction was the vision,orwhere
the Governors and the Directorate were aiming to position the University
within ten years. The mission was to comprise the fundamental purpose
of the University, its top-level direction and its values. Thus in 2000
the University adopted a new vision and mission which were translated
into SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timed) strategic
goals. The University’s performance against each strategic goal was to be
measured at regular intervals. These measurements were to provide a good
indication of the University’s overall performance, highlight any areas of
under-performance and provide the stimulus for the University to improve
continuously its performance. The new style strategic plan started with a
summary of the University’s core business in the higher education market-
place. It placed particular emphasis on the range of academic subjects that
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 383
the University intended to concentrate on in the short and longer term. It then
covered, briefly, the other core business functions. The plan also set out how
the University intended to deal with the unique aspects of its higher education
responsibilities, such as serving the local community. For the University of
Glamorgan this articulation of twin aspirations of regional impact and quality
academic provision was a step-change in focus. Finally the plan set out the
University’s values. They were an important statement of the University’s
beliefs and behaviour or, in other words, its culture.
It is worth noting that, although the University had stated that it would
serve local and regional communities, its Teaching and Learning Strategy at
that point did not explicitly show how that engagement was to be delivered.
The new Strategic Plan stated that the University had moved forward vigor-
ously with its new Teaching and Learning Strategy which was geared
towards promoting greater flexibility in learning styles and strategies, and
supporting them through staff development programmes. The Teaching and
Learning Strategy provided the framework within which academic schools
and support departments could work together to achieve those aims, including
continued investment in ICT infrastructure and learning resources. There was
no mention of the potential of e-learning, let alone delivery via e-learning.
Despite engaging in strategic change processes the University had not identi-
fied at this stage either the implication of technological change or the means
by which it would take forward that part of its vision concerned with serving
local and regional communities.
Thus, by 2000 the Strategic Plan had started to place strategic emphasis
on alternative teaching and learning methods. With the start of the developed
strategic planning process, it had been agreed that it was timely to review the
present position on initiatives in teaching and learning innovation, and to co-
ordinate and disseminate good and active practice. The University then iden-
tified that it would be necessary to invest in appropriate technology to meet
the future needs and expectations of students and other stakeholders, and to
deploy the energies of the academic staff more efficiently in student support.
At grass roots level lecturers in many departments were beginning to
explore the area of computer-assisted learning as a way of meeting the
aspirations of new students many of whom increasingly had experienced
computer-assisted learning before coming to University. Many lecturers also
believed that computer-assisted learning might offer the potential to address
the learning needs of students coming to University with less formal qualifi-
cations and educational experience, as well as the ability to reach students
who were unable to travel to study. Nonetheless many bemoaned the lack of
direction or support for developments in this area.
384 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
There was a sea change, however, as a result of a successful Objective
One bid to the European Union for the development of an E-College across
Wales. The University is in an Objective One area of the European Union,
which means that it is able to apply for significant match funding for activities
to bring about economic, social or cultural re-generation. The successful bid
made it possible to undertake a large scale investment programme to recruit
additional and expert staff, buy software and hardware for the University and
partners, and laptops and on-line network connections for students. This was
a collaboration in business and management education with the University’s
partner colleges across Wales, delivered through flexible, shared learning.
This was made possible by the established network of partners the Univer-
sity has with the further education network in Wales; this was to represent a
significant step change in Welsh higher education. The E-College initiative
was launched on March 1st 2001 in Brussels. E-College provides on-line a
BA in Enterprise, an MA in Professional Development , a Foundation Degree
in Business Administration and finance modules. To date there are over 600
students enrolled on these programmes and the demand continues to grow.
The E-College project has made an important impact on the strategic plan-
ning of the University. Although the formal strategic plan had identified the
need to explore more flexible models of teaching and learning, the strategies
for the adoption of e-learning emerged and continue to emerge through the
E-College project. This is a good example of Mintzberg’s (1989) emergent
strategy,
Strategies can form as well as be formulated. A realized strategy can
emerge in response to an evolving situation, or it can be brought about
deliberately, through a process of formulation followed by implementa-
tion (p. 30).
Senge (1990) argued very strongly that learning organisations require all
employees to be involved in change processes and it should not just be senior
managers driving top-down change. Martin (1999) and Wright (2003) explore
university change based on Senge’s work; Martin’s study reveals from a
sample of 161 university staff there was an assumption that strategy would
be passed down the hierarchy. In addition Martin’s study (1999) revealed
a break down of communication between leaders and staff and the result
was staff felt powerless victims of change. Wright (2003) although focussing
on the enhancement of quality of teaching in universities argues convinc-
ingly for organisational democracy rather than coercive managerialism.
The E-College initiative reveals how one university undertook this transi-
tion of combining top-down deliberate strategy with bottom-up emergent
strategy.
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 385
Very early in the E-College project it became apparent that e-delivery
offered exciting opportunities for delivering to the ever more diverse
backgrounds of students which the University recruits in response to the
Government’s aim of extending participation to 50%. The challenge for
the University would therefore be to mainstream the managed learning
environment with all of its attendant questions of funding streams and HR
issues.
Toffler (1985) suggests that significant organisational change only occurs
when three conditions are met:
First, there must be enormous external pressures. Second, there must be
people inside who are strongly dissatisfied with the existing order. And
third, there must be a coherent alternative embodied in a plan, a model, or
a vision (p. 14).
The first condition for change identified by Toffler was met easily as a
result of enormous external pressures on universities not only from govern-
ments and stakeholders but also from global competitors. The second condi-
tion for change, insiders dissatisfied with the existing order, is being driven
both by changes in the external environment such as funding opportunities
and also by internal debates on the nature of learning and teaching and
the development of life-long learning. The E-College project provided the
impetus for the third condition for change identified by Toffler (1985), namely
the creation of a plan or vision for change.
The emergence of new demands highlighted through the E-College project
placed significant pressure on the University to adapt and undergo significant
change. Mintzberg (1989) highlights that a move from a stable but complex
environment to a dynamic one requires organisational structures to adjust and
become for more responsive to change. Examples from the change agenda are
provided in the next section of the paper.
The change agenda and strategic challenges
The issues that have emerged in the move from traditional assumptions and
values to those assumptions and values associated with e-learning and the
strategic challenges, which emerge, are discussed next.
Hierarchical challenges
It became clear at the start of the project that a range of staff, academic,
technical, administrative and staff with new composite skills from different
departments across the University and across the Welsh further education
386 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
network needed to work together. Existing administrative structures were
problematic and hindered interdisciplinary arrangements. There were very
few examples of staff from so many different areas of the University working
together in one group, the boundaries between academic departments and
support departments were well protected by tradition and culture; this now
needed to change.
The development of an e-learning environment led to the creation of
multi-disciplinary teams, including staff from Academic Registry, Learning
Resources Centre, Human Resource Development, Marketing, Student Infor-
mation Systems, Information Systems, Student Services, the partner colleges
and the academic schools. It is clear that the success of the project rested
upon an integrated team involving all the University’s support departments
working alongside the Business School from the beginning, as in an e-
learning environment the support is required at the start and is immediately
transparent to the e-learner when they log on-line (Salmon 2002). Nunan et
al. (2000) highlight the importance of integration,
Information technologies are bringing structural change to serve areas,
causing a convergence of roles and functions between registry, library,
corporate services, production and teaching support and student services
(p. 72).
The blurring of traditional departmental boundaries has been particularly
evident in the development of modules on-line and represents an important
change within universities. This however is posing challenges, especially to
heads of department who may see this blurring as a threat to their power. The
new paradigm has also created new relationships between further education
partners and between further education and higher education. Further educa-
tion staff, and colleges, are assuming new roles which will necessitate new
agreements, funding models and quality controls. These changed roles will
also threaten the prevailing hierarchies and pre-conceptions about the status
of further education vis a vis higher education.
The collegial nature of academic life is also challenged by the funda-
mental change in the learning paradigm that both strategic planning and
e-learning bring. Berlant (1998) explores the academic’s introduction to
strategic planning:
The strangeness of negotiating the odd intimacy of institutional associ-
ation with colleagues we know well but barely know; the hierarchies of
professorship that mediate, though it’s never clear how, the personal rela-
tionship among faculty members; the interpersonal effort involved in the
daily grind of professorship; the strain of optimistic institution building
in this difficult context (pp. 107–108).
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 387
This “strangeness” of dealing with colleagues from outside the security of
shared disciplinary assumptions – colleagues without an academic tradition
even – exposes the academic to new and different concepts and approaches.
E-learning then challenges the pedagogic base of their professional activity.
It is clear that the University needs to reduce the rigidity of boundaries
between departments and in particular between academic schools and support
departments. This need to re-cast boundaries on a more flexible basis than
before is an inevitable result of technological change. Beardwell and Holden
(2001) note that one consequence of greater flexibility is
... the attendant delayering of managerial hierarchies and the attempted
breakdown in the typical pyramid structure of organisations ... (p. 155).
Organisational change
As stated earlier, universities are inherently resistant to change: thus in order
for significant change to occur it is essential that there is support from the top
of the university. Muilenburg and Berge (2001) stress
Without a shared vision ... a strategic plan and key players within the
organization who are knowledgeable and supportive of distance learning,
implementing a distance learning programme is a slow and difficult
process (p. 8).
This does not contradict Mintzberg’s (1989) thesis as he advocates strategy
emerging in response to a changing situation or brought about deliberately
through a process of formulation. The University is already engaged in
strategic change processes and quality enhancement processes. As a result
of e-learning fundamental changes are happening – not just a shift in norms,
structures, processes but also an essential alteration of views, perspectives and
understanding of the organisation, these will be explored later in the paper.
As Hanna (2000, p. 28) emphasises
the success of these change processes depends both on the organisation’s
ability to undergo a significant shift in values, vision and direction and on
the ability of stakeholders to understand and accept a new conceptualism
of the organisation.
Technical expertise
Firstly it should be noted that earlier attempts by the Business School to intro-
duce e-teaching had failed because staff lacked the knowledge and skills to
develop a course on-line and no funding stream was available to support this
388 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
sort of development. The success of the E-College project was due in large
part to European funding which allowed the hiring of instructional designers
and multi-media experts to support the academic staff. This very important
barrier was overcome as a result of the input of technical support staff as a
result of the creation of a central technological facility.
It is a common experience with ICT that it brings many advantages for as
long as it works. However when it stops working it is a source of consid-
erable frustration. Many new e-learners (and e-moderators) will come to
e-learning with that in-built prejudice. It is therefore imperative that the tech-
nology works all the time. E-learning uses a variety of software packages,
Internet technologies and hardware platforms. Many of these are maintained
by external organisations outside of the direct control of the University.
Moreover many are new and liable to rapid change. The credibility of the
University’s e-learning will be dependent upon using the newest technologies
and techniques – and using them successfully. This poses real strategic, finan-
cial and managerial challenges. The early stages of e-learning implementation
saw an understandable wish to assert maximum control by centralised opera-
tion. However increasing confidence and maturity is likely to bring about a
move away from centralisation to more devolved and flexible technological
provision. The challenge will be to respond to this without sacrificing control,
accountability or consistency.
Psychological problems
Technology potentially poses problems at many levels including some staff in
the University feeling threatened and insecure as a result of the introduction
of e-learning. It is apparent that some staff feel their jobs are being threatened
by technology and others who feel unable to cope with the technological
changes and are as a result feeling insecure. The responses have ranged from
those who lament the growth of technology and foresee a loss of human
interaction to those who see the changes as control mechanisms brought in by
management and reducing their power and autonomy. There is clearly a major
staff development agenda associated with a change of this magnitude. Those
threatened by lack of technical expertise may be assisted easily and quickly
with training but those with negative attitudes, who feel their power base or
core values are being threatened will be more difficult to change. Prendergast
(2001) noted a number of concerns affecting educators including the issue of
‘technofear’ especially amongst traditional older teachers. He reported that
‘it is hard to change the mentality of some teachers’ (p. 2).
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 389
Staff development
The University agreed that human resources strategy and practice would be
central to the successful delivery of the strategic programme. This was to
include a programme of staff development to enhance the traditional teaching
and learning function and to take advantage of the opportunities of the twenty-
first century, especially e-learning. It was also to include an active programme
of recruitment of staff with the expertise(s) necessary to deliver via a high
quality managed learning environment. Right from the start of the project
staff development was identified as a crucial element without which the
project could not succeed. The very different nature of the students’ learning
experiences would mean that it would be essential for there to be a structured
staff development programme for all kinds of staff who were to be involved,
followed up with rigorous evaluation and reflection.
Prendergast (2001) highlighted the importance of this and notes that
many organizations failed to plan for realistic staff training, when intro-
ducing this medium. This often resulted in people with little or no
understanding of the medium being expected to undertake tasks of which
they had insufficient knowledge. The hardest part of introducing CSCL
was to motivate and train the educators and trainers (p. 2).
Legal issues
Issues surrounding copyright, data protection and intellectual property rights
are at an early stage of understanding. We underestimated the problems
of obtaining copyright clearance, the lack of knowledge of academic staff
regarding rights regulations and the debates on intellectual property rights
continue. The pace of technological change is such that the legal implications
are yet to be tested in court. Nevertheless although development must still
proceed even if the legal situation remains unclear institutions will find that
consideration of the legal issues may slow development, this certainly has
been our experience. Similarly as statute and case law evolve institutions
must be prepared to revise their practices in the light of emerging law. The
impact of legal considerations is exacerbated because one of the fundamental
advantages of e-learning is the facility to operate beyond national borders –
but this opens institutions up to the requirement to be aware of international
law and the national laws of all participating countries. As yet we have only
operated E-College within Wales but we are now moving into global markets
and these additional factors will need to be considered.
390 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
Role of academics and staff contracts
The pedagogy and the finances of e-learning have implications for academic
staff contracts. The academic’s engagement with development, delivery and
assessment of learning materials is fundamentally different to the traditional
model – and a greater variety of staff are involved in those areas. However
there is little direct experience of the time it takes to e-moderate which means
that issues such as staff compensation, incentives and timetables all have to be
addressed. The financial model sees a considerable investment of academic
time in the development phase. The economies of scale that e-learning facili-
tates creates large student populations. This has caused us to reflect on the
need to find new categories of staff to support the students’ academic progress
at a price that the market will bear and which ensures that academics are free
to pursue their role of extending learning methods, research and scholarship.
These HR issues need to be explored as e-learning projects are scaled up
to accommodate large numbers of learners across the world. Thus the skills
required of academics might be less those of teacher/performer and more on
innovation, research and development.
Managerial issues
The University’s experience with E-College has mirrored that of Beer and
Eisenstat (2000) who found that:
Increasingly the implementation of strategy requires more managers at
lower levels who can lead teams that co-ordinate key strategic initia-
tives across functions, business units or geographic borders ... people
who had worked closely with the top team – a significant management-
development experience that changed their own perspective and the
perspective of the senior team about employee capabilities (p. 39).
The new roles taken on by staff with differing backgrounds and skills
included leadership and managerial responsibilities. A project team was set
up and instructional designers, technical support staff, Learning Resources
Centre staff and lecturing staff took on leadership and managerial responsibil-
ities. The traditional line of accountability and control became fuzzier. Those
in traditional managerial and leadership roles were less well equipped to
assume those roles with E-College because of the novelty of the development
and its technologies, the multi-disciplinary approach and the sheer speed of
development. Universities will increasingly want to train and enthuse staff to
take on these kinds of roles – and will then want to ensure that those skills
are exploited to the full once any project is completed.
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 391
Student-support
Provision of student support i.e. Learning Resources Centre, Student
Services, tutors and administrators is essential. The paradigm shift where
the learner, at the centre of her/his learning process, calls upon many expert
sources (Paquette 1998, p. 21), the move from teaching to learning, the move
from lecture centred to student centred requires a very robust system of
support. The University already had a student charter but this required change
to incorporate a learning service agreement in which the level of support to
the e-learner was set out. This e-learning environment required enhanced
levels of student support and higher expectations from students in an elec-
tronic environment in terms of speed of response. We have not yet moved to
24/7/52 but the message from e-learners, especially those in employment, is
that they require support outside of the normal working day. There may be a
need to redefine student support services as the nature of student support will
change not least because the nature of the students themselves has already
and will continue to change. Students in an e-learning environment are more
autonomous learners. They are geographically distant. They come from more
diverse backgrounds and are far more likely to see themselves as clients
as well as learners or students. Thus the nature of pastoral and educational
support will change with learning resources professionals, administrators and
IT staff all providing the kind of essential support to learners that has tradi-
tionally been the preserve of academics. This change must be managed with
the attendant stresses on resource allocation and professional expectations.
Funding
UK funding of higher education has been based upon students completing
recognised HE qualifications or parts thereof (credits). The move to e-learn-
ing opens up the need to find robust ways of funding learning rather than
end qualification, as already we are finding that, for the first time, students
are valuing learning as much as, if not more than, qualifications. Thus
this development has exposed a tension between the Government’s policy
objective to encourage lifelong learning and its funding methodologies. Simi-
larly the University’s own strategic planning poses questions of balancing
policy objectives (opening up higher education to new and different learners)
with financial prudence, ensuring that there is sufficient income to fund
both investment and recurrent activities. Until funding policy has caught up
with lifelong learning on the ground there is a real danger that growth and
development will be held back.
The University had now placed e-learning at the heart of its strategic
development.
392 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
The University will acquire the teaching and learning skills needed to
complete in the emerging UK and international e-learning markets, both
on and off campus, by investing heavily in the development of production
and support systems for e-learning (Strategic Plan 2001).
The roll out of e-learning across the University and its partners will require
a significant investment in staff, hardware, software and training and devel-
opment. The scale of this investment is such that no one British university
can be expected to be able to take this forward on its own. The strategic
challenge therefore will be to build alliances with other higher education
providers to share development costs and risks and commercial partners and
funders/investors so that the economies of scale can be acquired. At the same
time the University will have to make strategic choices of its own to allocate
resources away from traditional delivery. This is bound to have a dramatic
impact on the culture and ethos of the University.
Conclusions
The strategic challenges for the case study university and other universities
is clear but in order to seize the challenges we need to continue to evaluate
and learn from the E-College project. Mintzberg (1989) stresses that, “purely
deliberate strategy precludes learning once the strategy is formulated, emer-
gent strategy fosters it” (p. 32). In agreement with Mintzberg we believe
that universities need both types of strategy making. Indeed we believe that
our e-learning experience demonstrates that a dynamic and flexible interplay
between deliberate and emergent strategy assists with the management of
change – where reflection and evaluation (and consequent action) are essen-
tial components of change in new settings. The emergence of e-learning has
provided a good example of emergent strategy coupled with the University’s
deliberate strategy making processes. The learning attached to this emergent
strategy could be used to help other universities respond to the change agenda
brought about by e-learning.
When the University started a more formal approach to strategic planning
it could have been expected that it would utilise the traditional model where
the long term goals were identified and resources and action plans were put
in place to deliver them. Whilst this is still a key feature of the Univer-
sity’s planning it has seen strategic planning move on so that Hofer’s (1973)
incrementalist view of planning and Mintzberg’s (1989) ideas on emergent
strategy are just as important – where strategy attempts to understand the
external opportunities and match these to the organisation’s capabilities and
learning is part of the strategic processes. Hofer expects more managers to
CHALLENGING HIERARCHIES 393
be involved in the delivery of plans – and the University has seen many more
staff at all levels taking responsibility for the change agenda. This is a major
feature of Senge’s et al. (1999) notion of sustaining momentum in a learning
organisation. It is clear that the impact of e-learning, and in the future mobile
learning, will require universities to re-think fundamentally their thinking,
and therefore their strategies, in a range of areas including human resources,
estates, pedagogy, quality assurance, funding, management and commercial
and educational partnerships. Inglis et al. (2002, p. 189) confirm our findings:
For most organizations, the transition to electronic delivery will represent
a significant shift. It will involve major changes to the organization:
changes in staffing, procedures, infrastructure, and most of all to the
culture of the organization.
Information and communications technologies (ICT) are forcing major
changes in the location, development, methodology, delivery, support, evalu-
ation and timing of education delivery. Although it provides real opportunities
it also poses threats that need to be addressed. Grasping the full poten-
tial of ICT will require a substantial shift in human resources policies
including recruitment, contracts, training and development and innovative
payment systems. Lecturers will become learning facilitators, co-ordinators
of learning experiences and this shift will have dramatic implications for
human resources strategies.
Staff roles and responsibilities and staff structures are in transition and this
paper offers an insight into the ways one university is leading the changes.
There is no doubt that e-learning offers an opportunity to challenge arrange-
ments in most sections of the University. This has explicitly questioned the
University’s organisational structures and therefore the University has to re-
consider both its academic and managerial arrangements. Laurillard (2002,
p. 241) argues that the delivery infrastructure should never be in the fore-
ground, rather it should be supporting the dialogue on learning. Whilst we
agree with the overall sentiment we argue that at present at the University, the
delivery infrastructure associated with e-learning is at the foreground but as a
result, there is a refocusing on the many processes of the University.
Whilst the authors recognise that one size does not fit all and the case study
university’s experiences of strategy will not suit all universities as Sloman
(2003, p. 1), in his analysis of the change agenda associated with e-learning,
observes,
A strategy and agenda can only be constructed within the context of the
particular circumstances found in each organisation. ... However, some
problems can be overcome by a better understanding of where others have
found appropriate solutions. This is not the time to reinvent the wheel.
394 NORAH JONES AND JOHN O’SHEA
The learning attached to our e-learning strategy will help other universities
respond to the change agenda associated with the introduction of e-learning.
Rosenberg (2001, p. 32) stresses “Many efforts often underestimate the
complexities of the interactions between e-learning and the organisation, with
so many stakeholders and business variables in the mix, a more strategic
approach is necessary to ensure that e-learning has the best possible chance
to succeed”.
In this paper we have shown how strategic processes associated with e-
learning not only address issues of technology and learning but also address
issues of change, culture, leadership and staff development. The University’s
expectations of strategic planning have changed in a relatively short period
since their introduction in 1999. Strategic planning in a period of turbulent
change such as that brought about by the introduction a new delivery mode
(e-learning in this case) is about organisational self-learning. It has become as
much a voyage of self discovery for staff at all levels, as it is about directing
the University’s destiny.
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