Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Integrating hard and soft technologies in HE: The new learning environment at Thames Valley University

Ray Webster
Department of Educational Research
Lancaster University, UK
    New technologies, hard and soft, are being combined to provide the basis for much reorganisation in the provision of higher education. These technologies can fundamentally alter the social and educational processes we design and use. They can also cause us to move towards different organisational forms. The organisational form most suited is still a subject for debate, as are methodologies for integrating the new technologies and related systems into current and proposed university structures. There can be enormous problems associated with the identification of suitable organisation forms and methodologies. These themes are explored from an information systems perspective via the use of a case study of Thames Valley University's adoption of it's "New Learning Environment" as a suitable organisational form for a technologically driven university. Interviews with academics, senior management and information systems personnel are used to provide the basis of an analysis of the resultant impact on the provision of teaching and learning resources.
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The New Learning Environment (NLE) came online at Thames Valley University in September 1997. Just over a year later, in November 1998, Vice-Chancellor Mike Fitzgerald resigned in the face of a Quality Assurance Agency report (QAA, 1998) which heavily criticised " some significant management failures - in judgement, in the implementation of policies and in the management of staff". The QAA report considered that despite significant achievements in terms of TVU's mission of broadening access "the context of these and other substantial achievements is one of continual change" (QAA, 1998). A central consideration was that there were three major reorganisations at the Polytechnic of West London (the brief forerunner of TVU) and TVU in the six years leading up to and including the introduction of the NLE.

The description of a contrasting experience was provided in early October 1999 by the Times Higher Education Supplement. It ran an article commenting that it was then four years since Kim Clarke had become dean of Harvard Business School (HBS). In the weeks and months that followed his appointment, Clarke undertook to revolutionise the way the HBS delivered its courses. The project was hugely successful and by the end of 1996 Clark's vision of having the entire HBS online had been accomplished (MacColl, 1999). However, Fitzgerald's vision for the technology driven delivery of higher education was very similar to that of Clarke's, even though the elite and mass environments of the respective institutions were very different. Fitzgerald also had many years experience at the Open University, a leading exponent of this type of delivery, to draw on. The New Learning Environment represented Fitzgerald's vision of a new organisational structure enabling the delivery of a technologically driven mass higher education system. Two years previously, when discussing technology driven organisational change, Fitzgerald had stated:

What I am trying to do is to marry the Open University style in terms of commitment to mass (HE) with that notion of student responsibility and assignment/assessment driven ways of handling material. You have a whole panoply of resources which is a consequence of electronic (developments) to create a new model of HE...(and that require).. a different organisational structure. (Webster, 1997).
Why then did Thames Valley University and Fitzgerald fail over a period of seven years (1991-1998) where Clark succeeded in less than twelve months? Even given the enormous distance between the two institutions in philosophy, resources and size, there is much that can be learned from Thames Valley University's experience. It is suggested that a failure by senior management to pay particular attention to the role of the administrative information and communication systems of the university played a central part in the developments and outcomes at the university.

The New Learning Environment and organisational change

The key elements of the NLE at Thames Valley University included: The whole environment was based upon a series of Learning Resource Centres and associated academic and administrative processes which depended on stable and well developed information systems.

To achieve this type of organisational change, it is important for managers to have in mind not only a "strategic route" but also ways by which the organisation might traverse that route (Eccles 1994). Fitzgerald, when discussing organisational change and strategy, commented on his perception that new organisational forms are not dynamic enough. He suggested that when change occurs, the new form immediately:

...freezes the staff in a moment of time and then hangs on to it ... each time you freeze it, you create centres of power which resist change. Therefore, the only way you can end up doing it is by unpacking that and sending it back. What I've come to realise is that we've got to find ways of having more transitory arrangements internally, and hoping we can have more fluid structures (Webster, 1997).
It is possible that this approach may well have influenced Fitzgerald's attitude to the development and implementation of his main policy tool at TVU - the New Learning Environment. This in turn may have caused him to pay more attention to the political aspects of the process while assuming that more mundane elements, such as the administrative processes and information systems, would develop in an untroubled way.

Information systems failure

In all types of organisations, both public and private, there are numerous examples of information systems (IS) project failures (Whittaker, 1999). The reasons are usually not technical. In reviewing an earlier study, Whittaker stated:
A 1995 study in the USA found that 31 per cent of software projects will be cancelled before completion, and more than half the projects will cost an average of 189 per cent of their original estimates. With the $250 billion spent in the USA on IT application development, we see that the cost of failures and overruns is staggering. (Whittaker, 1999).
There is no reason to suggest that the experiences of the universities, old and new, in this area is different from that illustrated above. In view of this it is necessary for universities and companies to look more closely at why these projects continue to fail. The reasons are usually social, political and cultural rather than technical (Mumford & Hendricks, 1997; Horton, 1995). A massive amount of change brought about by both government policies and the advent of new technologies has swept through the world of higher education. However, many of the underlying processes and structures remain those inherited from the elite higher education system defined by Trow (1973). One major problem with regard to information systems is that many personnel, including senior managers, often continue to regard them as simply technical systems that can be swiftly and easily implemented to solve complex organisational problems. They are in fact, complex social systems, the implementation of which requires much forethought and planning. Bob De Witt, the university's then newly appointed Director of IT commented:
TVU believes that it can get on to significant administrative changes via technology. It tends to think of the technology as helping to define the way that the administration needs to work.....rather than the other way round. (Webster, 1997).
This was to prove an astute observation as the organisational changes impacted severely on the administrative information systems and technology alone did not provide the answer.

Academic planning and organisational design

When considering the experience of several leading universities in the United States, David Dill suggests that the planning process of any university should be seen as a strategic choice process (Dill, 1996). In order for this to happen, that planning process must be "designed as a primary means of organisational integration ...and colaboration". To help achieve these aims, Dill provides five categories of design elements which should be present. These are listed below with accompanying extracts and comments from the Quality Assurance Agency report and interviewees in an attempt to discern how the NLE implementation problems emerged.
  1. Design elements promoting norms essential to planning. "essential norms must be articulated verbally and manifested visibly in the design of the planning process." (Dill, 1996).

    Dill considers these norms to include those of "trust, fairness and openness". The QAA report commented that they were "particularly struck by the lack of confidence in the University's management which speaker after speaker expressed" in open meetings (QAA, 1998, 69). This situation had developed over a period of years after the initial optimism and goodwill following the Vice-Chancellor's appointment and seriously hindered the implementation process. Dills norms were certainly absent for many of the staff of TVU in the run up to the implementation of the NLE.

  2. Design elements for designating and grouping units. "In complex universities with many different academic programmes, the design of a planning process can either lessen or increase differentiation, conflict, and organisational efficiency." (Dill, 1996)

    Part of the design process for the New Learning Environment was a new organisational structure which was centred around four colleges. The QAA report found this structure "unusual" especially with respect to the College of Undergraduate Studies (which contained the eleven schools concerned with undergraduate teaching and was the focus of the report). This was because the colleges were actually small management groups rather than colleges in the traditional sense. The College of Undergraduate Studies, as shown by the internal telephone directory, had "a total of six people, including support staff" (QAA, 1998, 28). This was despite the fact that the college was actually responsible for most of the undergraduate programmes, including their commissioning and delivery. Some of the senior academic managers interviewed considered this new organisational structure to be unnecessary for achieving the aims of the NLE with one commenting:

    "It's about power,... you've got power divided very effectively. You've got students and programmes in one place. You've got staff in another. It's about having power houses within the organisational structures. It's nothing to do with whether we were four colleges". (Webster, 1997)
  3. Design elements promoting reciprocal (down-up) communication. "One predictable reaction to scarce resources and strategic uncertainty is the centralisation of authority and the one-way (i.e., top-down) flow of information." (Dill, 1996).

    In the period before the introduction of the New Learning Environment, there were several developments which tended to reinforce this process. The constant changes in management and senior staff noted by the QAA (1998, 26) contributed greatly to the disruption of normal reciprocal communication channels and a situation whereby several of the interviewees suggested that decisions were made with little consultation. An example of this from a former faculty dean was the comment that the lack of communication "comes from the top ... decisions were made without any consultation". (Webster, 1997). At the level of the academic staff, one example was the perception that the university newspaper, formerly a robust and useful forum for communication, had become little more than a managerial mouthpiece after the replacement of the previous, independent, editor.

  4. Design elements promoting planning in strategic units. "The academic strategies of these diverse programmes cannot be established centrally. Instead, each programme must develop its own strategic choice making process. Encouraging the development of this capacity for planning should be a major objective of a well designed, comprehensive planning process." (Dill, 1996).

    The constant and large turnover of senior staff, their movement to new posts at each major change made it very difficult for any of the schools to plan as strategic units. This situation was then exacerbated by the decision making structure of the College of Undergraduate studies and its schools. The power effectively lay with the former which proved to be a very ineffective body. The QAA report commented "we nonetheless remain unconvinced that the university has a well-developed process for planning its future academic activities on a systematic basis and communicating the outcomes effectively." (QAA, 1998, 47).

  5. Design elements promoting direct communication and the sharing of information. "Given the fluid nature of participation in the academic community, and the high degree of differentiation that is essential to academic organisations, forms of socialisation and communication that rely primarily on the organisational, hierarchy are ineffective in promoting commitment and continuity." (Dill, 1996).

    In addition to the communications problems mentioned above, there were other factors which disrupted rather than promoted direct communication and the sharing of information. The removal of majority of the academic staff concerned with undergraduate programmes to a leased building a distance from the main teaching buildings in 93/94 was one of these. This impacted severely on the day to day formal and informal communications systems of the university. In the reorganisation of academic related administration which preceded the NLE, all administrative staff were nominated as managers, team leaders or workers. They could then be moved at will to perform any general administrative task. The actual result was a loss of much of the process knowledge on which the university depended and further disruption of communication and information sharing at all levels.


When considering change in organisations, Mumford & Hendricks (1997), pointed out that radical transformations differ from the normal process of change. The normal process at TVU might have involved taking the staff and students along and recognising that the working values and culture were important and needed addressing. However, the NLE represented radical change. In this respect, the authors suggested that:
If, however, the company wants to make a radical transformation then this requires a change of culture. In practice, this is very hard to achieve without the replacement of senior executives, major changes in work procedures and new demands on the labour force. (Mumford & Hendricks, 1997)
The 1993/4 reorganisation was one of the ways whereby the radical transformation which was the New Learning Environment, was enabled. Each of the factors listed by Mumford and Hendricks - the replacement of senior executives; major changes in work practices; new demands on the labour force - was successfully achieved. However, due in part to the absence of Dill's 'planning process designed as a means of organisational integration and collaboration', the reorganisation was not a success. The cost to the university in terms of the day-to-day running of it's administrative information systems and thus the university itself, was severe. A major outcome of the reorganisation of academic related administration in 1996/97 was that of losing the enormous "systems knowledge" that individual administrative staff members had about all elements of TVU - especially its academic processes and programmes. The result was that the organisation lost large elements of its important informal information systems structure. This supporting structure of the formal information systems of the organisation derives its power and sophistication from the embedded knowledge of the very administration personnel who were reclassified and shifted around at will.

It was this scenario which contributed to the severe administrative systems problems that TVU experienced throughout 1996 and 1997 and resulted in the critical Quality Assurance Agency report of November 1998. A first report by the QAA, invited in by the Vice-Chancellor because of widely reported problems, had cleared TVU of press allegations of lowering academic standards in response to a failure of examinations related administrative systems in 1997. While the QAA found no evidence of this, they were disturbed enough at what they saw of the seriously disrupted administrative systems to invite themselves back for a full review, with the results outlined above. While it is unlikely that other universities will find themselves confronted with the complete set of problems that challenged TVU, the experience suggests a need for university managers to not only be aware of Dill's categories but also to ensure the stability of an institution's supporting information systems. In the current climate of continual change this is especially so. Political manoeuvring to enable cultural change is a normality of organisational dynamics and the management of change. However, the cost of disrupting information and communications systems can be high. If the support structure is disrupted then it can be the provision of facilities for teaching and learning that eventually suffers most.


Carvel, J. (1999). Sacrificial Lamb. Guardian Higher, 20/7/99.

Dill, D. D. (1996). Academic Planning and Organisational Change: Lessons from Leading American Universities. Higher Education Quarterly, 50(1), 35-53.

Eccles, A. (1994). Succeeding with Change: Implementing Action-Driven Strategies. McGraw-Hill.

Fitzgerald, M. (1995a). The New Learning Environment (Paper to Academic Board). Bulletin, 1, 33, TVU London.

Fitzgerald, M. (1995b). Towards a New Learning Environment: Developing the Educational Strategy of TVU. Bulletin, 1, 23, TVU London.

Horton, F.W. (Ed) (1995). Towards the Global Information Superhighway: A non-technical primer for policy makers. FID.

MacColl J (1999). Platform on a pedestal. Times Higher Education Supplement, 1/10/99, p15.

Mumford E. & Hendricks, R. (1997). Re-engineering Rhetoric and Reality: The rise and fall of a management fashion. ESRC Business Process Resources Centre. http://bprc.warwick.ac.uk/rc-repb-6.html [accessed 18 Jan 2000]

QAA (1998). Special Review of Thames Valley University. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 9/11/1998.

Trow, M. (1973). Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education. Proceedings of the Conference on Future Structures of Post-Secondary Education. OECD, Paris.

Webster, W. R. (1997). ECHE to NLE: Government Policy, Educational Change and Organisational Development at Thames Valley University. Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University.

Whittaker, B. (1999). What went wrong? Unsuccessful information technology projects. Information Management & Computer Security, 7(1), 23-29.

Please cite as: Webster, R. (2000). Integrating hard and soft technologies in HE: The new learning environment at Thames Valley University. 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/webster.html

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