Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

What issues do we need to resolve to become competent users of online learning environments?

Robert Fox
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
Pressures on higher education from the world outside as well as the world inside to incorporate online technologies is likely to continue to grow. Society expects graduates to emerge from their university experience with appropriate digital technology skills and abilities irrespective of the level of importance of such technology within individual disciplines. Some Schools in Universities may not be competitive in a few years' time unless they have embraced online technologies, whether as an integral part of the curriculum or simply as another way to convey, retrieve and manipulate information. The issues raised in this session are based on an Outside Studies Program which examined the use of online technologies in teaching and learning contexts at Deakin University.


This dilemma session is based on a six month Outside Studies Program (OSP) at Deakin University in 1998. This paper does not offer a strategy for implementing online learning environments in universities as this has been aptly described by such writers as Bates (1997) and Geoghegan (1996). Instead, it focuses on issues concerning the use of online technology in educational contexts.

1. Pressures on academic staff time

One issue facing learners and lecturers is having to learn and teach more in less time (Fox &d Radloff, in press). Academic staff are involved in a continual three way tug-of-war for their time. The three forces relate to the two traditional demands on academic staff-time for research, teaching and supervisory activities and the third, recent and urgent claim which requires staff to engage in entrepreneurial activities in order to attract private money into universities in an effort to diversify the funding base of tertiary institutions. Among the myriad of demands thrown up by these entrepreneurial pursuits are the tendering of proposals and applications for research grants to tight deadlines all of which take their toll on already limited academic time.

It is important to acknowledge these pressures and be prepared to target projects across the University which are strategically significant, rather than attempting to encourage a blanket use of online learning environments across the entire University community. I also see a need to balance marketing desires which normally demand everything to be placed on the web, with a more considered educational focus on needs and a practical focus on what it is possible to do well given staffing and resource constraints.

2. Non-rationalisation of teaching modes

The three dominant modes of teaching at Deakin are the traditional mode of on campus teaching, the mainly print-based distance education mode and the recent internet-based teaching mode. While academic staff are struggling to integrate and rationalise these modes, the current tendency is to use them in an additive fashion, one on top of the other and without any real rationalisation.

Is this approach making the best use of the modes available and is it economically sustainable? A carefully considered balance between the use of online technology as a supplementary resource or one which replaces existing resources for teaching and learning is essential. This balance needs to be assessed across various levels within the University: Divisional, School, course and unit and supported by a strategically driven funding base.

3. Varying degrees of change

The degree of the importance of online technologies differs across the disciplines. Not every discipline considers online technologies to be central to their programs. Some, however would see online technology as central not only to the curriculum as an object of study, teaching and delivery, but to the research effort as a whole. Different disciplines and cultures have different views about the role of online technologies, and from my observation, prescribing particular uses of online technology would be less helpful than providing examples of how online technology can be used in varied educational setting. At the same time, Schools should be offered assistance in developing their own strategic planning in the use of online technologies.

4. Changing attitudes, changing practices in changing times

Staff may be slow to take up the opportunities new technologies offer. They may also be reluctant to change their work practices or move outside their comfort zones. Technologies tend to change ahead of any changes in staff attitudes and abilities in using them. For many staff I spoke to, the face-to-face mode of teaching is seen as inherently 'better' than any form of mediated teaching. Yet there were many instances at Deakin where the use of online technologies provided new opportunities for students and teachers to work which were more appropriate than those opportunities provided through face-to-face environments. (e.g. Thompson, 1996). Based on my observations at Deakin, I believe an effective strategy is to target areas where technology is a critical part of the curriculum and where projects have committed staff teams to ensure the project's success. The project outcomes, well documented and disseminated would provide exemplars of practice, leading others to follow suit.

5. Central role of staff development

Reports on TLTP projects in UK (Fraser, 1997) and IT based CAUT projects in Australia (Alexander & McKenzie, 1998) point to the limited success of integrating IT into the curriculum. In the Alexander and McKenzie study, less than one third of the nationally funded IT CAUT projects showed any sign of improving student learning. Reflecting on my own OSP experiences, two key staff development issues arise: a) all projects must be carefully co-ordinated and integrated into the curriculum with strategies in place to involve not only the project developers but other academics within the Faculty. These staff will need support and training in using the online resources and environments effectively and b) an ongoing rather than 'one-off 'staff development program is required to ensure that not only the innovators and early adopters but also the mainstream continue to use and adapt the resources and environments to suit their own needs and those of their students. The resources needed to provide such staff development support should also be built into the cost of the IT project.

6. Using technology appropriately

One Deakin strategy has been to examine unique ways of working with online technology not possible with other media. At the same time, print and digitised technologies are recognised as providing complementary educational purposes. Print, for example, is an excellent medium for those needing to learn a lot of sequentially developed material. Online technologies, on the other hand, provide opportunities for searching the text material very flexibly and selectively to solve particular problems. It is possible to go straight to the heart of the information required. The majority of the academics and students I encountered at Deakin maintain that print is still an excellent medium for sitting down and formally learning, in a measured way, a lot of conceptual material.

7. Breaking the grip of print

The printed-text plays a dominant role in teaching and learning in higher education. Having said this, it became apparent that in a University which is expanding the educational uses of online technology, there is a strong desire to 'break the grip of print' in favour of digital texts. An argument frequently used was 'the more we place on the web, the less we have to print.' Embedded in this assumption is that we will teach in exactly the same way as before, only now the paper-based materials will be in digital format. Another assumption is that the digital media is cheaper than print. But this argument does not take into account amongst other factors, learning styles and student and staff preferences. For example, a) people may prefer to read texts designed to be read off paper rather than off the screen (Schriver, 1997), b) the costs of printing from the screen to paper are then borne by the student (Fox, 1998), c) despite this exponential growth in the use of online learning environments at Deakin, Learning Resources Services reported an increase in print runs from 41 million page impressions to 100 million between 1997 and 1998.

Deakin is thinking laterally and creatively in seeking alternative solutions to this issue. Amongst the strategies I came across were:

8. Copyright

Copyright is one of the major constraints to providing study materials online. Copyright permission is not often given for making electronic copies of copyright held texts (ITEP, 1997). Ongoing legal battles and the outdated Copyright Act, 1968 is expected to limit the use of mainstreamed online environments as the sole form of study materials mediation. At Deakin, many online courses are accompanied by print-based Readers which contain copyright articles. These are sent out to students through the ordinary mail. However, there is a growing number of readings which are supplied as electronic references to online line journals etc.

9. Changing nature of work practices and innovation

As technologies are converging and staff roles are converging the distinctive roles staff once had have become increasingly blurred (Fox & Herrmann, 1997). This blurring of roles creates tensions amongst staff who may feel insecure and concerned that their professional expertise is no longer needed or that major shifts in their work practices are required. This seems to be the case for academic teaching staff and support staff alike. Indeed, I noticed an increased blurring of roles between teachers and instructional designers who had taken on teaching roles. During the OSP, I noticed considerable pressures for various individuals and groups to change their work practices and in many cases, despite threats of industrial action to prevent this change, staff have ultimately started to change.

10. Clear, coordinated development and mainstreaming

At the macro level within Deakin there is constant pressure to adopt online technologies for all kinds of reasons but policies and procedures for meeting these were not initially in place, often limiting the level of successful implementation.

It became clear that statements of policy and the development of a framework and procedures both need to be articulated so that staff can effectively implement and incorporate online learning environments into their teaching. Deakin is recognising this with the development of policy, with the establishment of a whole range of initiatives, cross divisional, cross faculty initiatives which are providing a sense of co-ordinated direction so that all of the players are developing a clearer idea of their roles and responsibilities.

11. Student access and costs

Fundamental to the decision to provide print or digital texts is the question of access. Despite an enormous increase in student access in the last few years to online facilities, there remains a significant proportion of students with little or no access. If only networked electronic resources are provided some/many students, particularly off campus students may suffer. The University, Divisions and Schools therefore need to decide whether students are required to own or have access to online facilities for particular courses. If no firm commitment is made, teaching modes in courses will multiply. (See Issue #2: Non-rationalisation of teaching modes).

Deakin continues to increase its reliance on electronic networks. For example, in a multi-campus university with six libraries, Deakin's University Librarian told me the Library has been forced to move towards an electronic solution because of the cost of multiple subscriptions. The Library intends to cancel multiple printed text subscriptions as they acquire networked licenses for texts. This decision, however, creates a new raft of issues that need to be considered such as student abilities in Information Literacy skills.


An outcome of the OSP was the development of issues that should be considered when adopting online strategies and environments in teaching and learning contexts. In general, I noted that successes encountered at Deakin depended on co-ordinated, well-integrated and strategically considered projects supported by documents and policies which were well disseminated to avoid lost opportunity and wasted energy.


Alexander, S., & McKenzie, J. (1998). An evaluation of information technology projects for university learning. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Bates, A. (1997). Restructuring the university for technological change. http://bates.cstudies.ubc.ca/carnegie/carnegie.html

Delong, S. E. (1997). The shroud of lecturing. First Monday. http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_5/delong

Fox, R. (1998). What are the shortcomings inherent in the non-problematic perception of new technologies? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 96-101. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/fox.html

Fox, R.,& Herrmann, A. (1997). Designing study materials in new times: changing distance education? In T. Evans, V. Jakupec, & D. Thompson (Eds.), Research in distance education, Vol. 4, pp. 34-44. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Fox, R., & Radloff, A. Unstuffing the curriculum to make room for lifelong learning skills. In E. Dunne (Ed.), Conceptualising a learning society: Core skills in higher education. Kogan Page. (forthcoming).

Fraser, M. (1997). Dearing & IT: some reflections. Computers and Texts, 15, 2-5. http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/publish/comtxt/ct15/fraser.html

Geoghegan, W. H. (1996). Instructional technology and the mainstream: The risks of success. The Maytum Distinguished Lecture. SUNY College, Fredonia. October 23, IBM North America Higher Education.

Holt, D. M. & Thompson, D. J. (1995). Responding to the technological imperative: the experience of an open and distance education institution. Distance Education, 16(1), 43-64.

Information Technology Enhancement Program (ITEP). Electronic course updater and reserve project. (1997). Project Report (October). Geelong: Deakin University.

Le Grew, D. (1997). A rationale for the continued development of a learner centred, technologically advanced flexible learning system at Deakin University. An internal report, August, 1997. Deakin University.

Schriver, K. (1997). Dynamics in document design. New York: John Wiley.

Thompson, D. (1996). Beyond the cutting edge? The reality of using desktop videoconferencing for distance education in the late 1990s. In S. Leong & D. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Different approaches: Theory and practice in higher education, Proceedings of the 1996 Annual Conference of Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), Perth.

Please cite as: Fox, R. (1999). What issues do we need to resolve to become competent users of online learning environments? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 124-128. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/fox.html

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