Intermediaries and infrastructure as agents: interfacing
institutional policy, culture and elearning use
This chapter may be considered a response to the call for “a more measured and reflective
approach to elearning policy, the need to account for an organisational context and in particular to deal with the clash between different cultural perspectives” by Conole, Smith and
White (2006 p39).
The focus of the chapter is on institutions. There is a small literature about elearning policy at national level (Smith, 2005; Cross and Adam 2006, for example) and a substantial literature about institutional change, which generally incorporates culture, and use as expressed by elearning adoption. But there is less emphasis on institutional policy specifically in relation to culture and use. We are specifically interested in the relationship between institutional elearning policy and use; the differences in how the relationships play out in different institutional types; and the ways that organisational culture might mediate these relationships. We want to know what this means especially for change agents and learning technologists.
In this chapter, we review how these issues have been addressed in the literature and describe the framework we developed to investigate these issues in four South African universities. We describe the study undertaken and the findings of the research. We then discuss the implications of the findings in the light of the framework and the broader elearning change, culture and policy literature.
Framing the issues
There is acknowledgement in the literature that specific institutional contexts and cultures are central to a discussion about elearning adoption and institutional change. The challenge is how to talk about these contexts in generalisable ways, which do not become bogged down in specific local politics. This leads to a need for a taxonomy of institutions, not only in the field of elearning, but especially for higher education research. The literature and the bureaucracy in different countries provide the possibility of several classification systems, the most common being research-led and teaching-led institutions. This is a flawed dichotomy for several reasons not least of which is the existence of excellent internationally recognised research in teaching –led institutions, and the lack of evidence of distinct organisational cultures in each. In South Africa, the Higher Education Qualification Committee (HEQC) classifies universities as traditional or comprehensive, but these can be considered structural and strategic categorisations which do not refer to cultural contexts. Other classification types also tend to the structural rather than the cultural; these include distinguishing between mechanistic and organic organizations, with these forms representing the two extremes in organizational structure (Burns and Stalker, quoted in Clayton, 2008, p8) and Mintzberg‟s
technostructure matrix with complex/simple structure on one matrix and stable/dynamic environments on another (ibid, p10). Clayton et al also point to the possibilities of classifying and describing organisational cultures from a range of literatures including the social sciences; corporate commerce; change management; of management and leadership studies and diversity studies.
A study on policy and institutional culture in universities might draw on Bergquist's (1992) work on institutional culture. This was used effectively by Kezar and Eckal (2002) to describe the effect of institutional culture on change strategies. They explain Bergquist's four different academic cultural archetypes: collegial culture, managerial culture, developmental culture, and negotiating culture. While Bergquist archetypes are promising, they do not include a
specific policy dimension, which is of particular interest to the research we undertook, described later in this chapter.
The framework we developed was based on that developed by McNay (2005). This framework proposes four cultural types: collegium, bureaucracy, enterprise and corporation; along two axes both ranging from loose to tight. The axes are control of implementation and policy definition. The collegium type is characterised by loose institutional policy definition, informal networks and decision arenas, and innovation at the level of the individual or department. The organisational response could also be as considered “laissez faire” , as it has
few targeted policies or processes (Rossiter 2007). The bureaucratic type is characterised by loose policy but strong regulation, dominated by committees or administrative briefings. This high regulatory environment is not conducive to rapid change and can be “contaminated by political authority” (McNay, 1995, p107). The corporate type is characterised by tight policy definition, tight implementation, and a culture of strong top-down directives, implemented by institutional or senior management. The enterprise type has a well-defined policy framework with the students as client being the dominant criteria for decision making. Leadership is devolved and the market is a strong focus.
It must be noted here that because no institution falls neatly into one grouping, it is more useful to consider an institution having a dominant culture at a particular point in time. Also, the dominant cultures within institutions may well change classification over time.
Figure 1: Organisational cultural types (McNay 1995)
Collegiumor Bureaucracy“laissez faire ”
Control of implementationTight
An attraction of McNay‟s framework is that it has been used by others in the field interested in elearning adoption and institutional cultures, and change. This framework has been used to discuss the changing roles of universities due to digital technologies (Mackintosh, 2005); to analyse elearning implementation (McNaught and Vogel, 2006); to frame discussions of the impact of elearning on organisational roles (Conole, White and Oliver 2007); to discuss e-learning and organisational management (White 2007) ; and in very interesting ways to demonstrate how the introduction of digital technologies can generate pressures for more corporate institutional forms which may effectively change institutional culture (Cornford 2002). The fact that this framework underpins research in different countries (UK, Hong Kong and Southern Africa are represented above) also suggests that it offers a generalisable way of describing university cultures in ways that can be shared.
1As others have done, when developing an analytical tool, we extended McNay‟s framework for our particular purposes. We needed to take into account the descriptors of institutions which account for the existence (or non-existence) of specific elearning formal policy documents, structures and systems. While it can be assumed that UK universities will all have such elements in place, the same cannot be said of the South African context, nor indeed of other countries in the world. It is of note, for example, that a report of a developed country, Holland, noted as recently as 2005 that only one of 36 Dutch institutes for higher education had a written elearning policy in place (Simons, 2005).
2We understand policy to refer to the allocation of goals, values and resources and to be
manifest in overt support, structures, and systems. We divided institutions into two policy types: Structured and Unstructured as illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1: Institutional elearning policy types
Structured elearning policy* Unstructured elearning policy
Policy document No policy document Senior-level formal
Centralised support unit No formal support unit (possible Elearning structures
fragmentary or ad hoc support)
Institutionally supported online No (or ad hoc) online learning Institution-wide
learning management system (LMS) management system (LMS) systems**
* In order to consider an institution as “Structured”, elearning policy had to be present at all three levels.
** The institution is assumed to be the university as a whole, although it is possible that sections of a university exist formally as separate institutional entities.
There is no indication in the literature that specific structural locality is relevant, thus for our purposes structures simply had to exist, whether as distinctive units or subsumed within related departments (see Nichols, 2008). Likewise, there is no evidence one way or the other for a need for elearning policies to be distinctive or integrated into related policy documents (Inglis 2007). What is more important is that for an institution to be defined as Structured does not imply a centralised approach change, nor a lack of on-the-ground innovation, as policies can develop in response to micro level change, which scales up across institutions (Rossiter 2007).
Research indicates that elearning policy is not the only factor necessary for successful elearning institutional adoption. “Bottom up” change driven by e-learning champions or
innovators and early adopters is also shown to be important (Cook et al. 2007; Holt & Challis 2007 ) and pedagogical strategies which create a climate of collaboration can also drive organisational change . However, several studies have found that institutional policies are essential for successful organisational change. As the expression of senior leadership commitment, policy statements articulate the top management commitment and strategic ownership needed at the highest level for the uptake and rapid diffusion of elearning in institutions across the world (Boezerooij et al. 2007; Nichols 2008). In the South African context, research has shown that staff consider themselves explicitly constrained in their ICT use by lack of institutional support and vision (Czerniewicz & Brown 2009).
Of course, other factors beyond elearning policy are relevant to ICT take-up, including institutional champions and students as drivers (Weeden et al, 2004, Czerniewicz & Brown
1 Kezar and Eckel, for example, combined Bergquist‟s archetypes with Tierney‟s 1991 individual
institutional culture framework 2 The definition is adapted from Codd (1988p 235) who said, “Policy is taken here to be any course of
action (or inaction) relating to the selection of goals, the definition of values or the allocation of resources”.
2005), and individual staff innovators. Indeed, the argument is accepted that a system-wide approach is fundamental to successful integration of elearning (Rossiter & Crock 2006). In order for it to be truly embedded within an organisation, the institutional “acceptance, sanctioning and legitimisation” of elearning (ibid p286) must be accepted at the individual
level. We are also mindful of the crucial difference between policy statements and meaningful practices; as well as the distinction between usage (as reported in quantitative terms in this study) and internalisation of the importance of elearning, which would be captured by more qualitative research processes.
The research reported on here forms part of a larger study of use of ICTs for academic ipurposes in South African universities. For this case study, we analysed four institutions
representing a variety of policy and organisational types and for which we had captured both staff and student perspectives. There were 2039 usable student responses to the survey used for the research, a realised response rate of 27% and 216 usable staff responses, a realised response rate of 16%. According to our framework (based on McNay as discussed above), we were able to report on examples of three institutional types: Structured Corporate (named here as A-S-Corp, B-S-Corp), Unstructured Collegium (C-U-Coll), and Unstructured Bureaucracy (D-U-Bur). We report on two Structured Corporates because of the interesting differences which exist between them.
Neither of the Structured Corporates had a separate elearning policy. In both cases elearning was embedded in broader teaching and learning policies; we are reminded by related research that this is not a problem in itself. Both institutions appeared to have used a top down approach to the adoption of elearning; however in one case there was a sense of ownership on the ground and in the other there was a sense of uneasy compliance. Staff at A-S-Corp felt enabled by the overall institutional approach, and reported a sense of senior level buy-in and commitment, whereas for staff at B-S-Corp there was a sense of being compelled to use ICTs and combined with perceptions of lack of management support. Both Structured Corporate institutions reported very positively with regards adequacy of computers for their needs.
The two Unstructured institutions had no policy, of course, and with regard to the necessary resources, reported less than adequate access to computers and the Internet. In particular staff from Unstructured Institutions said that lack of infrastructure made teaching with ICTs very difficult indeed. The Unstructured Collegium was better off than the Unstructured Bureaucracy where lack of fundamental campus-wide infrastructure in the form of functional computers and stable Internet access seriously inhibited desired use.
More students from Structured Corporate institutions reported that their courses used ICTs compared to the other two institution types. This was highest in B-S-Corp, followed by A-S-Corp and lowest in the Unstructured Bureaucratic institution. It is of note that the two Corporates report more use of ICTs for learning. This suggests a relationship between policy (including structures and resources) and use. At the same time, the use reported is not necessarily varied; overall the most common reported ICT uses were information seeking activities (from the Internet to course notes/information). Of course, these mainstream applications have value in varied ways, for example they may free staff time and may lead to more innovative activities and should not be scorned. It is of note that the lowest frequency of use is reported in the Unstructured Bureaucracy indicating that the organisational cultural climate is a further restraining factor. In the Unstructured Collegium , networks exist and implicit practices are shared even when policies do not formally exist; in Bureaucratic types red tape and regulations can be seriously constraining.
There is an interesting anomaly in the frequency of individual use. On the one hand student use is more frequent in Structured institutional types where two thirds of students have an
above-average use, indeed 20% higher, than students from the Unstructured collegium type. Yet staff use is in fact more frequent in the Unstructured Collegium type, where 71% of staff report above-average use, compared to 40-45% of staff in the Structured Corporate types. One explanation is the likelihood that staff respondents may have been more likely to be those with an existing interest in ICTs, unlike students.
In terms of frequency of individual use, while student use is more frequent in Structured institutional types, staff use is in fact more frequent in the Unstructured Collegium type. While it is likely that the staff respondents may have been more likely to be those with an existing interest in ICTs, this as an intriguing anomaly as overall use in this institution is not widespread, and may still be at the autonomous and exploratory stage described by researchers (see Rossiter 2007). It also points to the possibility of the culture of the institution being more enabling for staff. The findings about variation of use are especially noteworthy, as staff from the Unstructured Collegium institution exhibited more variation of use, as manifest in the number of different types of ICT-enabled learning activities they asked their students to engage in. There was less variety of use reported by staff in the Structured Corporate institutions and lower still reported by the Unstructured Bureaucratic institution‟s staff.
Variation of use is a very important indicator given that is argued in academic settings that variation of learning and teaching activities and variation of ICT use related to those activities is essential to the gaining of knowledge and mastery of specific subjects (Laurillard 2000).
It is interesting that amongst students more variation is reported in the two Structured institutions, whilst some variation is evident in the Unstructured Collegium institution and very little is reported by the Unstructured Bureaucratic institution. This implies that policy (in its broadest sense) is perhaps more enabling for students than staff.
The differences in frequency and variety and use, and the differences reported by students and staff raise a number of questions which are considered below. They also provide interesting directions for future research.
The findings from the South African study, and from the literature, suggest key issues which are relevant to both institutional policy making and organisational responses. These issues involve the process of organisational change management with regard to elearning, and impact on the work of learning technologists within universities.
The role of institutional policy
The case study reported on in this chapter confirms to some extent those studies in the literature which state that policy is enabling. The study shows that having a policy is a „Good
Thing‟, in that more happens where there is a policy (or that polices emerge when there is more happening). Policy is associated with frequency of use, and indeed policy is associated with critical mass as is evident from these findings where the Structured institutional types report more courses online, a higher frequency of individual use, better support and more resources available. However, while critical mass is largely about numbers, it does not tell us about the quality of use, nor about the extent of genuine integration, nor the extent to which usage is truly embedded. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged as the first dimension of widespread adoption or use of elearning; it has, however, been observed that critical mass becomes integration when it is widely used and widely valued without any sense of coercion (Rossiter & Crock 2006).
As others have noted, however, the use of policy can be “a double edged sword”, (Stiles and
York, 2006, p264). While policy can be effective in creating critical mass, it can potentially
create barriers to the facilitation of pedagogical exploration and the sustainability of innovation. It is therefore important that policy is not seen as a directive, but rather that it provides what Clayton et al call “organisational glue”. Top-level policies should not be
conflated with a top-down management style, as polices which are perceived to be instructions may lead to a kind of passive compliance as suggested in the South African case study. It is illuminating that at A-S-Corp, where there was evidence of more buy-in and ownership, there also seemed to be more specific and seemingly appropriate use.
Clearly, then, policies are not an automatic good; their efficacy depends on how they are mediated through institutional cultures. Policies indeed can be meaningless when they are generic, universal or merely compliant to government requirements (a tendency likely to occur in “policy-weary” contexts such as “the new South Africa”). Institutional policies may
even have negative effects when they are “knee jerk responses”, as noted by Conole, Smith
and White, who have expressed concern about the fundamental, radical and artificial effects that policies, especially those which come with funding, can have on practice. The implication in this case is that it is dangerous for the cause of long-term sustainability when funding tied to policies become narrowly specific drivers rather than enablers of improved, creative and responsive practice on the ground.
Our study shows that policy is desirable, but its mediation by institutional culture is also crucial.
Infrastructure as agent
Prescriptive polices are problematic and the top-down strategies often employed by corporate institutions are likely to lead to breadth of use; but depth remains a problem. Rather than telling academics what to do, and worse still telling them how to do it, policy principles would be more usefully manifest in an enabling infrastructure and systems which encourage and reward exploration. Certainly the South African case study highlights how important adequate resource allocation is in facilitating e-learning. This is not merely a matter of having facilities and resources available, but pertains to the management and maintenance of those resources. The imperative for resource allocation exemplified in centralised structures (Marshall & Mitchell 2005) and institutional systems (Marshall & Mitchell 2005; Nichols 2008) is confirmed in the literature. In addition, research indicates that student ICT use is undeniably enabled by institutional on-campus infrastructure (Czerniewicz & Brown 2009).
For South Africa, this means rethinking the notion of infrastructure, support and enabling systems, casting them as agents rather than simply as scaffolds. It means the provision of hardware and software which is customisable to local conditions, in specific classrooms and disciplines and which is easily responsive to specific teaching and learning problems. The form of adequate, sufficient and equitable material resources (infrastructure including hardware, software, facilities and support) would differ in different contexts. At the level of facilities this might mean easy access to data projectors and vodcasters in every teaching space, at others it might mean flexible learning environments which can be supported in multiple configurations.
A similar observation has been made by fellow commentators in Australia in relation to support, which is often portrayed as a reactive force underpinning university administration and the teachers at the chalkface. These researchers make the case that “support” or
infrastructure can play a proactive rather than a passive role, driving change from the middle and facilitating a connection between “central vision” and chalkface practice” (Cummings et
al 2005, p6).
All this suggests an important tension which arises from findings from the South African case study: the need for institutional control or centralising to ensure equity and standardisation
versus the need for a material environment with maximum flexibility and decentralisation, which facilitates innovation.
Tensions between standardisation and flexibility
The findings of the study reported in this chapter suggest that a collegial culture is best suited to innovation and a variety of elearning use. As McNay describes it, a collegial culture has “ a relative lack of co-ordination, a relative lack of regulations, a lack of structure between structure and activity, …infrequent inspections and the invisibility of much that happens”
(1995 p. 105). Such a culture works well for ad hoc, unsystematic activities undertaken by individuals responding to very specific local problems.
Such a culture can be matched by the flexibilities of social software and cloud computing which put technological choices more readily into the hands of users. This is especially pertinent when it comes to users who are confronted with inadequate computing resources. Yet these users will still expect that the flexibility they enjoy – and the non-standard
fragmentation thereby engendered – will at some point be supported by organisational
systems. Indeed, in the unstructured collegial institution in the South African case study, lack of these systems was considered seriously constraining for academics, who, as they innovated, also bore the brunt of what they saw as poor institutional planning and support. In other words, they personally subsidized their own innovative and creative strategies, making the efforts ultimately less sustainable and especially challenging to scale up.
Ironically, the effective use of new kinds of tools is likely to require tightening up across institutional systems, as Collis (2005, p221) illustrates using one potentially valuable educational tool. She notes “for example, for the use of electronic portfolios to make an
impact in education, standards and procedures for integrating these as assessed processes and products within courses and accreditation procedures are needed and must be applied in a consistent way for marking and grading.” However, within a Collegial Unstructured
institution this may have other consequences as academics feel that by centralising and streamlining, their institution is decreasing their independence of choice.
This is the crux of the challenge: an infrastructure which enables sustainable flexibility must by its very nature be constructed with standard, formal tools. Indeed, Cornford demonstrates the irony of the introduction of elearning systems which may well have the very opposite effect from that intended, leading to the tightening up of roles, procedures and policies that will not only apply locally but across the whole university - in effect shaping a more corporate institution. He notes that “the price that the university may have to pay for the flexibility
which information brings is a newer and harsher environment for some of those values around which it has traditionally cohered” (Cornford 2002, p312).
The central challenge is to manage what seem to be competing imperatives: the creation of consistency, the maintenance of standards, formal explicit processes and procedures on the one hand, with ad hoc, flexible on-the-ground activities on the other hand. Taken together, our case study and the wider literature argue persuasively that top-down policies, understood as coercive in corporate cultures, are least effective for varied responsive pedagogical change. At the same time, fragmented, on-the-ground activities cannot be scaled up to larger success without systemic support. This leads to the crucial role of the middle layer in universities, to what has been termed „middle out‟ approaches.
The “middle out”
Top level policy statements are useful as formulations of intent, as underlying principles and ideally as organisational glue. They are important but can produce problems when represented as coercive directives, when there is no associated resourcing attached, and when allied funding rigidly prescribes specific activities. An adequate efficient (yet flexible) infrastructure
is fundamental to sustained diverse and response ICT-enabled pedagogical activities. How is this to happen across large and complex institutions?
We have seen the challenges of complexity in the case study presented in this chapter that is the Unstructured Collegium Type where a high variety of use is reported. This, we have emphasised, is an essential element of good pedagogic practice. This is the culture characterised by informal networks and innovation taking place at the level of the individual or department, one which is more conducive to bottom-up change processes, and pockets of excellence. But this culture can also shelter pockets of chronic inactivity. Interacting in such a “laissez faire” atmosphere, as a national document notes, can create problems of unrealistic expectations and unsustainable costs (Depts of Communication and Education, 2001 p.6).
In addition, in the South African context, where many current institutions are the recent result of mergers, there is the danger that pockets of innovation are growing predominantly in those departments and centres arising from previously advanced structures ( in advantaged 3 Thus, without some kind of institutional oversight there is also the danger of universities).
the inequalities expressed in the different parts of the pre-merger institutions remaining in place. A necessary redress and redistribution function could be ensured in these situations both by the provision and development of equitable infrastructures and the oversight provided by middle management.
In our study, it is perhaps not a co-incidence that the Unstructured Collegium Type is at an early stage of using ICTs for teaching and learning, and indeed it is possible that the variety of use being explored is being undertaken by the institution‟s early adopters and innovators.
Thus, while the organisational culture and early stages of the process makes such innovation possible, there is as yet no evidence of critical mass being achieved. At this early stage, the institution also does not seem to have the requirements for scalability in place.
Studies on scalability suggest that truly embedding ICTs into a university‟s core business has
four dimensions: critical mass in terms of adoption, integration into organisational values, legitimisation, and sustainability (Rossiter & Crock 2006). We understand integration to include a sense of ownership, and legitimatisation to include supportive equitable procedures and processes, and fair resource allocations. Our argument is that middle institutional managers play this role: the heads and staff of libraries, ICT services, learning centres, educational development units and the like. Even where policy exists in the form of clearly articulated principles, a mediation role between policy intentions and practice is needed. It is
usually middle managers who are the key change agents, and the most likely to effectively interface between standardised institutional wide infrastructures and systems, and the needs of academics in classrooms. Middle managers have a vital role to play in ensuring smooth allocation, management and maintenance of e-learning resources and infrastructure, an important component of the overall policy framework. Indeed, in the South African case study the differences in adequacy of support, and the role of middle managers, made a real difference to the academics and their sense of ownership. It has been noted that policy being
made in practice may lead to policy formation at the highest levels of the university, and indeed “middle managers became leaders and, through a combination of personal inspiration and policy based on emergent practice, have changed the university environment sufficiently to force both high level policy change and change in practice among teaching staff”
Terming the approach, “the middle out,” Cummings et al explain that such approaches are
characterised by “problem solving, problem-oriented, best fit, facilitation, operational,
3 T. Barnes, N. Baijnath and K. Sattar, eds. The Restructuring of South African Higher Education:
Rocky Roads from Policy Formulation to Practice, 2002-2004 (Pretoria: Unisa Press, forthcoming
collaboration, opportunistic, negotiated, functional and operational, low level funding,
project management and professional development” (Cummings et al 2005, p14). While this
approach is useful for reinterpreting the role of implementers, it is also valuable for opening up the possibilities in instances where there is limited top level vision (or where other strategic issues are given priority), insufficient resources, or empty policy documents. In
answering questions about how policy intentions can be thoroughly integrated into institutions, where foresight might arise, and where organisational involvement should be, we suggest that focus should be placed on the central role of the middle manager, who is most likely to be at
the fulcrum of this complex balancing act. The imagination shown at this intermediary interface may even be a form of innovation.
The case study and review in this chapter suggests that the use of McNay‟s taxonomy,
together with the Structured/Unstructured categorisation, indeed provides a useful framework for analysing the relationship between policy, culture and the use of ICTs.
In South Africa, as elsewhere, the ultimate goal for all involved in ICTs in education is the successful integration of elearning into the warp and weft of institutional life. Our study has contributed to and confirmed some central tenets emerging from the broader literature on elearning and institutional change: the importance of institutional leadership in providing the “glue” that holds institutions together culturally; the ambiguous role of central policy in
encouraging innovation without stifling it; the crucial role of middle management as mediators, interpreters and change agents, and the need for state support and equitable resource allocation. We have also argued for a reconceptualisation of institutional infrastructure, which claims its space as an agent of change.
There is, however, a further aspect to our findings. If the taxonomy we have used is analytically useful, it means that there is a great deal of diversity of institutional culture between national institutions (there is also, of course, diversity within those institutions). Thus, in the discussion of the South African context above, we have shown that the strength of a Corporate Structured Institution is that it obtains critical mass of policy adoption. However, since this cultural type is less likely to enable innovation and variety of use, additional strategies would need to focus attention and resources on incentivising and rewarding local mould-breaking practices. Conversely, the many institutions which are likely to self-define as Structured Collegial types can feel encouraged, as their looser and more informal networks and practices encourage innovation. For these institutions, though, take-up, critical mass and across-the-board technical support are the long-term challenges. Perhaps the resolution of these tensions will reflect what McNay describes as an enterprise culture, both responsive and technically enabling; perhaps the resolution of these tensions will create a new kind of institutional culture which does not yet quite exist.
These layers of diversity and differentiation imply that policies that are designed to engender change and the institution-wide adoption of elearning must not be conceptualized in narrow, cookie-cutter ways. A “one size fits all” set of policy provisions will be inadequate to the task.
The integration of elearning into the dynamic and complex cultural ecology of higher
education institutions demands structured elasticities in policy and implementation processes that echo the flexibility of ICTs themselves.
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