Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Taking care of business - online technologies changing practice at universities?

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 and perhaps the universities themselves, 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. This paper explores education online as representing a new technoculture that mirrors larger changes in politics, the economy and society. The paper argues that to understand the significance of computers in teaching and learning, we should not concentrate on the 'wired' machines themselves, but the broader changes occurring in society and in higher education.
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Universities are in the process of significant change. Once the bastions of a traditional knowledge base, catering for a small number of young students, they now have to deal with large numbers of students of all ages with diversified needs, interests and abilities. Universities are no longer the main producers of knowledge. A new knowledge economy and an expanding and changing labour market is demanding universities provide appropriate education and training to suit the ever changing needs of society. Government expectations of university has changed. There is an increased role for universities to help solve problems in society and the economy. This increase in demand has come with no increase in funding. Growth of new knowledge, of new techniques requiring ever increasing specialties, stretches the range and scope of disciplines. Universities are pressured to change their curriculum, their discipline based structures, to modernise their increasingly expensive physical facilities, to go out and find alternative sources of funding and in general to do much more with much less.

Broad questions are asked of universities. For example, how can they cope with such complexity, such uncertainty, what should they do to adapt to ongoing demands for change? As one American university president noted, today's university has become 'overextended, underfocussed; overstressed, underfunded' (Vest, 1995).

Desire caught by its tail

The pressures within and outside universities to digitise, to computerise, to go online and to join the new technology revolution continue to increase in pace. At most universities across Australia, there have been major reviews of the institution's IT plans, IT infrastructure and IT support. Often based on external consultancy advice, extra millions of dollars are set aside to provide the university with the essential new techno-environment that is considered so vital as it enters the new millennium. Within each university, schools and departments and their teaching staff have been encouraged to use the web as an alternative or as a supplement to face to face teaching. Some universities proudly count the number of online courses they have available and the number of students who have web accounts. In some universities, academic promotion and tenure itself is linked to evidence of 'high tech' application in teaching and learning. Implicit in the moves towards breaking the grip of traditional face to face teaching and the use of older technologies is the notion that the use of new technology equates with good and transformed teaching and learning. To support this perception, there is an ever increasing volume of papers and reports, framed by a determinist paradigm which positions technology as a cause and change as an effect. These papers and reports are predominantly descriptive: they herald the benefits of the changes and the transformation technology has brought to bear on the quality of teaching and learning. At the same time there is a growth of papers describing sobering tales of the use of new technology in higher education (e.g. Noble, 1998; Kling, 1996).

The appeal of new technology

The desire to go online is not unique to education. Since the 1980s billions of dollars have been invested by industry in IT, primarily to transform white collar work practices, and despite a total absence of verifiable indicators of return on the IT investment, for example productivity, efficiency, dollar return on investment or increased NDP, investment in IT has continued (Landauer, 1997). 1999 saw huge jumps in the stock market value of Internet companies such as Netscape and Yahoo, yet neither have significant assets, but they are still valued in billions of dollars. It seems the conventional assets/profit ratio cannot be applied to the new technologies: they have their own set of rules and cannot be judged by the traditional ones.

Noble (1998) points to relatively hugh university investment in IT, with no clear or convincing case to show that digital pedagogy is superior to traditional forms of teaching and learning. If, for example, social constructivist peer teaching was proven to be a better more effective form of pedagogy across many disciplines, would the kind of investment that is going into IT go into helping teachers and students work through these models? Quite clearly, there is considerable appeal to invest in new technologies, whether in higher education or in society more generally.

An obvious problem with investing in more conventional forms of education is that funding is goes into an uncertain process, with little real control of outputs. In general, it's hard to commodify face to face teaching and the learning process. But within a web environment, it seems easier. We can count the number of students who are engaged in online courses, we can more centrally monitor course content and process, we can develop standards in online environments and require adherence. But what does this mean? Does it mean we have become a more efficient and effective organisation? Does it mean we now teach better than before and that our students are learning more in less time?

Techno-cultures and shifts in media

The notion of the media shift as an alternative perspective for looking at IT and educational change reflects an examination of complex and heterogeneous changed practices and pressures, as Luke describes:
the acts and artifacts used to reproduce collective understandings among specific social groups are changing profoundly: print discourses, face to face classes, paper documents are being displaced by digital discourses, online classes, electronic documents. The former will not entirely disappear, but so too can they not be counted upon to reign hegemonic (Luke, 1998, p.2).
Luke, a leading theorist and political science academic, describes collective understandings that reinforce entrenched ways of operating within universities: universities have a physical environment, halls, lecture theatres, a presence that reinforces certain routinised pedagogical practices, for example, face to face classes, the lecture, the tutorial, the seminar. In this environment, print technologies have influenced and organised subjects and disciplines and have produced a culture of the 'book' based education (Green, 1997). The book has been the central medium of knowledge production and contains and constrains pedagogy in various ways, standing between the learner and the 'real world.' Books are bounded, having a certain physical shape, printed text on paper, pages with edges, borders, margins, encouraging a certain kind of interaction and rationality (Tuman, 1992; Schriver, 1997; Green, 1997). The learner experiences of the 'world out there' has been dominated by reading printed text. Books encapsulate meanings and the task of the learner is to extract this meaning. The role of the teacher as a presumed authority in the central organising primal scene of the classroom (Idhe, 1992), stands in for the author and for the (experiential) world. Students complete assignments and exams in print, the university degree itself is based on assessing students writing. Luke argues that these conventional practices, 'tied to mechanism, print and corporal embodiment' is now challenged by a newer and wired electronic, coded and hypertextual telepresence' (1998, p.2) where the digital environment is a defining technology - requiring a new social imperative and form of life (Bolter, 1995; Bigum, 1997).

Green has argued that we are seeing a profound shift from, and a decisive movement of a very complex kind: a transition between the Age of Print and the Age of Digital Electronics (1997). He argues that we are in the midst of a shift from print to digital electronics - 'from the print apparatus as the organising context and resource for educational and social practice to the digital electronic apparatus' (Green, 1997, p. 2). This shift in the 'apparatus of culture is changing ... not only in technology but in institutional practices and the ideology of the subject as well' (Ulmer, 1989, p. xii).

Dale Spender in Campus Review (March, 1999) argues that digital technology and especially online technology is changing cultures in education and placing new pressures on learning outside the control of teachers. She adds that the twenty-first century education will centre on the business of learning and questions what role universities and lecturers will play in the future. 'Unless academics acquire the mind set and the competencies to be leaders in the learning business, the prospects could be all gloom and doom.' Spender suggests a likely scenario in the future for academics is as 'learning managers' that aim not to be the best in the world but who know how and where to go in the world to access the best through online technologies (Elson-Green, 1999).

A glimpse to future possibilities for online learning in higher education can be explored, Luke (1998) suggests, by examining the consortium of seventeen western states, the Western Governors Association creation of a 'virtual university.' In February, 1996 the Western Governors University (WGU) was formed to offer degree programs to 'enhance the marketplace for demonstrated competence through certification that is widely accepted by employers and traditional institutions of higher learning' (Western Governors Association, 1997). The WGU was established as a broker of knowledge between outsourced content providers and individual learners. WGU courses are accompanied by 'an explicit statement of the competencies that should be achieved upon completion, as well as an indication of the assessment methods that will be employed to certify these competencies' (Western Governors Association, 1997). The WGU offices are small and relatively inexpensive to run, providing administrative support, which sets quality control standards, develop rules and policies and organises 'franchises' of instructional inputs.

By undercutting the average annual student costs of $9,000 at a typical state university, the WGU aims to serve non-traditional older students, traditional college students needing extra courses, employees seeking various sorts of training, and lifelong learners in the personal enrichment market. Competency assessment, and not degrees, is to be the main measure of student success, but the WGU now offers a multi-track Associate of Arts degree (Luke, 1998, p.8).
WGU uses 'technologically delivered educational programming' to offer degree and nondegree awarding competency based courses which are competitive, cost effective, flexible, client centred and market oriented, in a non-traditional university form (Western Governors University, 1997). WGU breaks 'down the barriers of regulations, bureaucracies, tradition and turf' (Western Governors University) which Luke points out is the main innovation of WGU: not WGUs use of online technologies but the institutional changes embedded 'behind its operations and structures' (Luke, 1998, p.9). As Governor Leavitt points out, WGU operates as:
a kind of New York Stock Exchange of technology delivered courses. He envisions a catalogue with listings from hundreds of institutions, corporations, and publishers, giving students ready access to thousands of educational opportunities (Blumenstyk, 1998).
Online technology makes the operation and structure of WGU possible, providing a very different model of higher education to the traditional universities, which Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, a founding member of WGU, describes as bastions of a 'feudal system' designed to award outmoded guild privileges (Blumenstyk, 1998). One outcome predicted is a financial shift from state university systems:
to systems of individual choice, giving students vouchers to spend where the marketplace and competency regime show the best education can be had. ...The real innovation of the WGU is this new symbolic economy of academic achievement, moral economy of personal choice, and public economy of lower costs (Luke, 1998, p.10).
The new technologies is seen as bringing education to the students rather than forcing students to subsidize fancy campuses and feather bedding faculties (Gubernick and Ebeling, June 19, 1997, p.3). This image of higher education has gained a degree of favour in Australia, as exemplified in the recommendations of the West Report (1998).

The pressure on tertiary institutions from the world outside to incorporate (online) technologies will 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. Indeed, many disciplines in certain institutions may not be competitive in three to five 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 (Holt & Thompson, 1995; Yetton, 1997; DeLong, 1997).

Online technologies have been the largest area of growth in new technology application in higher education for the last three years (Green, 1997, 1998 & 1999; Geoghegan, 1996) and it is for this reason that we need to investigate online learning environments and their use in tertiary institutions.

Two plus two equals twelve

In time of change and uncertainty, we can rely on a few inalienable truths: we will continue to spend higher proportions of funding and resources in new technologies; using the new technologies in our teaching will change the way we do things. New technologies will not allow us to do the same things we used to, only more easily or effectively, rather it will change what we do, our work practices and relations, our jobs and our futures. It will also change what and how students learn.


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Please cite as: Fox, R. (2000). Taking care of business - online technologies changing practice at universities? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fox.html

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