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Organisational change using an online distributed learning support system

Ian Robertson and Damon Cartledge
Box Hill Institute of TAFE
This paper outlines and discusses the application of diffusion theory to organisational change in the development and implementation of a computer based learning support system for a metropolitan institute of Technical And Further Education (TAFE). The paper introduces the Distributed Learning Support System (DLSS) and the challenges encountered in its development as a learning system per se. Diffusion theory is discussed as a means of reflective interpretation about the progress of the project to date. Theory is drawn from Surry's (1997) conference paper Diffusion Theory and Instructional Technology, as presented to the United State's Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). It is the inception of the DLSS, a system developed by Box Hill Institute in 1999, which is the focus of this paper.

Development and features of the DLSS

Box Hill Institute (BHI) is a TAFE Institute in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. BHI catered to more than 30,000 students enrolled in the VET sector in 2001.

Currently, BHI maintains a web site (, intranet site and a suite of online teaching and learning programs. These teaching and learning programs are developed and maintained on various software platforms including the DLSS.

Discussions that resulted in the development of the DLSS commenced in 1998/1999, these were a response to increased demand for the use of online technologies (OLTs) and limited resources. In 1999, a technology forum was conducted, this activity asked the question - What would BHI look like in 2004? The purpose of the forum was to prompt discussion on the impact of technology on program delivery and program profile at BHI. This activity successfully raised the profile of the discussion amongst managers across the institute.

Later in 1999, a discussion paper was presented to senior management. The paper proposed the development of a Distributed Learning Environment (DLE) and arguably reflects the thinking of the institute at that time.

Learning will take place in fundamentally more flexible, student centred environments where students use a wider range of learning support systems to enhance both their learning experience and increase their control over their learning.

This is not a proposal to convert all existing courses to be delivered totally online. There are few instances where this is either viable or practical - or more importantly actually wanted by clients. (Sweeney and Robertson, 1999, p.4 and p.6)

Concurrent with the 1999 discussion paper, presentations were made to the broader management group, professional development activities were conducted to raise awareness about the potential of OLTs and the idea of distributed learning. This group worked with models or the use of technologies from organisational, curriculum and pedagogic perspectives. They were exposed to the ways in which other institutions were using online technologies and given exposure to experiences as an 'online learner'. These activities resulted in agreement, by the senior management team, to the following recommendations:
  1. A pilot program be established in one teaching Division during the remainder of 1999 to trial and develop effective models of a DLE.
  2. The remaining Teaching Divisions identify a 0.5 EFT position during second semester to research, explore and report on DLE options for their Division.
  3. A steering group be established to set the specifications for student enrolment and reporting procedures consistent with the DLE concept. (Sweeney and Robertson, 1999, p.2)
The use of OLTs to support teaching and learning was clearly on the management agenda and a whole of organisation approach began to develop. A small budget was allocated and a brief developed for a 'proof of concept' for a system that would: The principles underpinning the development of what is now known as the DLSS are represented in citations from Robertson and Sweeney (2000).
Rather than working from a focus that asks 'How can we deliver programs online?', this paper engages in a more fundamental discussion by asking 'How can online technologies be used as a tool in the provision of vocational education and training?' (Robertson and Sweeney 2000, p.604)
the development of technology based systems must:
In 2000, limited trials were conducted with six teaching centres - these trials resulted in technical modifications and raised confidence in the software system such that in 2001 a full scale rollout was possible. To support rollout targets, the input of teaching and assessment resources onto the DLSS were included in the BHI strategic plan. All teaching centres were required to use the DLSS to support a minimum of 160 nominal hours of delivery by the end of 2001.

Other activities to support the 2001 rollout were:

Currently, the DLSS has interfaces for (see Figure 1):
Figure 1

Figure 1: Current state of the DLSS (as at Feb 2002)

In its current form, the Student interface (Student World) of the DLSS provides students with a personalised portal based on password protected access linked to student records. The student has access to learning and assessment resources, timetables, student records, library facilities, messaging system, chat and forum facilities.

The Administration interface provides high level functions to managers. Within this interface, managers are able to control access rights to individual staff members who use the teacher interface.

The Staff interface also provides staff with a personalised interface based on access privileges allocated by management. Program Coordinators have 'tutor management' access, primarily for teacher allocations to individual units. Teachers can perform a range of functions including adding, editing and deleting resources, and the use of messaging, chat and forum facilities.

The Web Site interface, provides the opportunity for development of web sites based on templates using the DLSS as a backend.

The DLSS has developed to its current state in a period of less than two years, it is characterised by a focus on:

Having provided a brief description of the development of the DLSS and its major features, we can now turn to discussion of underpinning theory.


For the purposes of this discussion we will primarily draw on diffusion theory as a means to describe and review the development and implementation of the DLSS.

In defining 'diffusion' as the process by which an innovation is adopted and gains acceptance by members of a community, Surry (1997) suggests that diffusion theory is not a single well defined and comprehensive theory. He describes two opposing philosophical views of technology; determinism and instrumentalism. Surry (1997) presents these two views through four operational definitions, viz.

Technological determinists - are united in their belief that technology is an autonomous and revolutionary force but often differ in their opinion of the morality of technology.

Utopian determinists - view technology as an inevitable, autonomous force that leads to prosperity and the salvation of humankind.

Dystopian determinists - believe that technology is inherently evil leading to moral intellectual or physical destruction of humankind.

Technological instrumentalists - view technology as a tool that can be used for good or evil depending on the intentions of the person employing the tool.

At a macro level (systemic change), determinists focus on the structure and establishment of an effective organisational framework. At a micro (product utilisation) level, determinists focus of the process of designing, developing and evaluating effective instructional products. The determinist relies on 'developer based theories' in instructional technology assuming that the best way to bring about educational change is to create a system that is significantly superior to existing products or systems, and, the system will be adopted on the basis of its superiority.

This approach can be characterised as a systems engineering approach with a top down implementation model. However we argue that adopting an innovation occurs within a social system and adopting innovation may defy simple logic.

By comparison, instrumentalists focus on the social, political, and professional environment. At a micro level instrumentalists focus on the needs and opinions of potential adopters and characteristics of the adoption site. The instrumentalist relies on 'adopter based theories' seeking to understand the social context in which the innovation will be used, viewing the end user as the primary force of change.

Citing Burkman (1987), Surry (1997) describes 5 steps in a user oriented instructional development approach.

  1. Identify the potential adopter,
  2. Measure relevant potential adopter perceptions,
  3. Design and develop a user friendly product,
  4. Inform the potential adopter (of the products user friendliness), and
  5. Provide post adoption support.
In applying these ideas we argue that the development and implementation of the DLSS demonstrates the characteristics of developer based theories associated with macro- and micro-determinist approaches, and adopter based theories associated with the instrumentalist approach. This is evidenced by an attempt to develop an effective organisational framework (macro-determinist), endeavours to design, develop and evaluate an instructional product (micro-determinist), and, a focus on the needs and opinions of the potential adopters along with the characteristics of the adoption site (instrumentalist). The determinist (developer based) approach has dominated the development of the DLSS with the instrumentalist (adopter based) approach emerging as a feature in the implementation phase. This transition from determinism to instrumentalism is to a degree pragmatic in that successful implementation was not possible without the support of users.

To this degree, the development and implementation of the DLSS is consistent with Surry (1997) who concludes that

... while a less deterministic philosophy would be beneficial to instructional technology, a totally instrumental philosophy would be disastrous. Turning out technically inferior and pedagogically weak products that people want to use is not the answer. Every technologist is inherently determinist. There is no danger in being driven to improve society by improving instructional technology. The danger is to ignore the society we are attempting to improve. [DNC1] (Surry 1997, p.10)
The DLSS is an initiative that was driven by a strategic imperative to develop a 'whole of organisation' approach to the development and implementation of a system to support teaching and learning. This approach is not unique to BHI. Other examples of projects to implement technology based systems used by the majority of staff and that support the majority of students, are readily identifiable in Australia and overseas. Examples that show similarities to the development and implementation of the DLSS include the University of Western Sydney (Hansen & Salter, 2000), RMIT University (Weiss & Kennedy, 2001), and De Montford University (UK) (Brown, 2000). Interestingly, TAFE frontiers is currently developing the publication Organisational Support Services for Flexible Delivery which promotes a whole of organisational approach to flexible delivery.

In the case of University of Western Sydney (UWS), an adoption/diffusion model was used in developing the systems specification. The basic premise is that for staff, on mass, to adopt new practices and technologies, the technology must first address current perceived needs (Hansen & Salter, 2000). UWS identified the major concerns of staff and grouped them into the three main areas:

Major problems identified by UWS in their move to web based teaching delivery were developing and learning web technology, making use of existing materials and resources, and, technology and network issues.

The UWS concerns are primarily related to pragmatic staff based issues of 'work' as opposed to more conceptual issues of changes in 'learning'. Parallels with this experience are evident at BHI, where stakeholders concerns about the nature of work and working conditions often outweigh their concern for meeting the needs of learners through the use of OLTs.

In the case of UWS and BHI, we are struck by the apparent tension between the expectations of management in meeting strategic imperatives and the 'immediate' concerns of teaching staff, as these relate to the nature of their work. We are again mindful that the translation of strategic visions into operational realities is not simply achieved by mixing good ideas with generous resource allocations (Dunphy and Stace 1992) with an expectation that implementation of policy is a rational logical process. Investigation of such value laden issues, from 'within' an organisational culture, is not a simple task (Cartledge 2002).

In establishing an environment that optimises the chances of uptake of innovation, the importance of strategies that enhance confidence in embracing change cannot be overstated. One well recognised method to bridge the gap between the 'vision' and 'reality' is to consult key stakeholders to determine their needs and reservations (Dunphy and Stace 1992), this ethos is reflected in the adopter based theories described in diffusion theory. In facing issues of translating the vision of organisational leadership into realistic and achievable outcomes, these outcomes must have an intrinsic value to the operational staff (in this case teachers) before they will promote a proactive adoption of the systems and technologies being introduced. Ultimately, if staff can identify that their needs are recognised as an integral part of the change process they will develop confidence in the benefits of proactive use of the system.

In closing, any comprehensive analysis of the implementation of technology should demonstrate concern for social, cultural and historical features of the implementation context. At an instrumental level, this consideration is made so that the implementation process occurs as smoothly as possible. Where a more social-critical perspective is applied it is possible to explore the impact of technology on power relations; the cultures that the technology advantage or disadvantage (Bowers, 1998; Bromley and Apple, 1998). Further development of this argument is not possible within the scope of this paper.

We argue that the development and implementation of the DLSS is reasonably described by diffusion theory, it represents elements of a developer based approach in the development process and adopter based approach in its implementation. In our experience Surry's (1997) conclusion, that the answer lies in the balance of views to be considered, is well founded.

This paper presents the reflections of practitioners actively engaged with the implementation of a computer based learning support system. Surry's (1997) diffusion theory illuminates the importance of bridging the gap between management driven (developer based) and user driven (adopter based) models. Systems such as the DLSS present the difficult juxtaposition of technological change with organisational change. Whilst it is legitimate for management to set the strategic directions of an organisation, these will only be successful if those who are required to implement management directions are successfully engaged.


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Robertson, I. & Sweeney, D. (2000). If online learning is the answer - what was the question? In Richardson, L. & Lidstone, J. (Ed), Flexible learning for a flexible society. Refereed proceedings of the ASET-HERDSA 2000 Joint International Conference, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, pp.604-611.

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Surry, D. (1997, 20 February 1997). Diffusion theory and instructional technology, [Online]. Available: [viewed 6 Sep 2001, verified 20 Aug 2001]

Weiss, A. & Kennedy, P. (2001). From genesis to infinity or from 0 to 50,000 online students in 2 years. RMIT University. [viewed 23 Jan 2001, verified 20 Aug 2002 at]

Authors: Ian Robertson is Manager, Educational Product Services at Box Hill Institute. His research interests are in policy implementation, online technologies, and teachers' practice. Ian is a doctoral student (EdD) at Monash University researching the impact of online technologies on teachers' practice. Email:

Damon Cartledge is an Educational Designer at Box Hill Institute and Project Coordinator for the DLSS. In a former life he was a Training Development Officer with the Australian Army, retiring in 2001. Damon is a doctoral candidate (EdD) at RMIT University researching organisational change and the development of professional identity. Email:

Please cite as: (2002). Organisational change using an online distributed learning support system. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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