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Leading from the front or pushing from behind? Supporting institutional change for flexible learning

Professor Sue Johnston
University of New England


Those of us who have been in universities for a while will identity only too readily with the rapid and widespread changes that the higher education sector across the world is experiencing. The theme of this conference reflects only one of the many imperatives which seem to be thrusting change on to the higher education sector. Flexible learning is a term which has gained currency over the past five or so years. Our individual and collective responses to this imperative will be the focus of our discussions over the next three days. The attraction which has brought so many people to this conference is the possibility of discussing various opportunities and threats of working toward more flexible approaches to teaching and learning.

In this paper, I am less interested in flexible learning itself than in the processes of change associated with its implementation. Like most issues, the perspective you have on any change depends on your role and responsibilities - who you are. Many of you are teachers who are interested in approaches to flexible learning within your own discipline. Others have the job of supporting these changes. I have the job of both providing support and also facilitating these changes at the institutional level, so my paper will reflect this perspective.

I find that the literature on change and innovation falls into two broad categories. One category deals with change from an individual or local perspective. Case studies of the development and implementation of innovative approaches to flexible learning in specific subject areas fall into this category (for example, McNaught 1997). The second category deals with change at the institutional level and this includes discussions of how to develop learning organisations (for example, Meade 1995) and other change models (for example, Curry 1992) which often seem to provide very neat lists of steps to be followed to effect change across an organisation. These two categories are like two parallel streams of thought about change and I find few points of intersection or ways of bringing the two streams together to solve the practicalities of needing change at both the institutional and individual level. My paper will explore some of these issues further and I will come back to these points at the end.

I will be using my experience at the University of New England as a case study but will also draw on my own experiences elsewhere as well as the experiences of others who have attempted similar tasks. I will be drawing heavily on UNE because it is illustrative of work-in-progress and I am sure many of you will be only too familiar with the issues we are facing there. My reason for doing this is that I want to illustrate the issues I raise with practical examples. I find discussions of change in the abstract can border on the meaningless. It is far too easy to wax lyrically about change when it is not tied to the realities of actually having to do it - a problem inherent in much of the literature on institutional change.

I should make it clear at the outset that I am not suggesting that UNE has exclusive rights to any of the initiatives and strategies I will describe - indeed as in all processes of change, we learn from others who have travelled the road before us. Similarly, I am not claiming that UNE is as far progressed in the field of flexible learning as many of the institutions that are represented in this room. These caveats are important because it is somewhat daunting to be giving a paper to an audience which is so learned and experienced in the topics you are about to address. I am acknowledging this collective wisdom and hope it will lead to some fruitful discussion in the hours and days following this paper.

The particular change focus of this paper is the introduction of online teaching as a form of flexible learning. That is, I am seeing online teaching as a subset of the wider conference theme of flexible learning. I am not going to spend any time justifying why online teaching is, at least at this stage of developments in the use of information technology for flexible learning, both inevitable and important, particularly at UNE. That is another paper and indeed the focus of a number of papers at this conference.


Before looking at institutional strategies for introducing any change process, it is first necessary to place this into a wider context. The wider context of higher education is both interesting and depressing these days. These are times of significant pressures on universities and on academics as well as other staff in universities. Coaldrake and Stedman (1999) synthesise these pressures very nicely. They write about the changing higher education landscape and the pressures on universities arising from: They also highlight the increasing pressures on individual academics with respect to workload, time and morale. Issues such as the growing complexity of academic work and the blurring of boundaries between academic and other roles in universities are mentioned. These issues have a significant impact on processes to facilitate and support change in a university. They portray universities as somewhat embattled and undernourished - an image with which I am sure many here will identify. We are only too familiar with our own feelings and those of our colleagues who seem to be reeling under the seemingly never-ending pressures to change and do more with less.

It is ironic that we live in times when the higher education context has never before been so characterised by the need to change. At this same time, the working environments for individuals in universities have never been less supportive of change. I am seeing increasing hostility, alienation, burnout, cynicism and disillusionment in our universities. Such an environment makes it very difficult for those working to facilitate change.

Difficulties inherent in the change itself

The literature on change tells us that one of the factors influencing the uptake of new practices is the nature of the practice itself - for example, its complexity, scope, perceived need and clarity (Fullan 1993). As well as the difficulties I have just outlined, the nature of online teaching itself presents some specific difficulties to the change process. These include:
  1. The vocabulary associated with online teaching is often confusing. I know what I am talking about when I use the term online teaching, but I also know that there will be a whole variety of interpretations around this room. Is it just material available on the Web? Is the use of interactive tools such as chat rooms and bulletin boards? Does it refer to subjects which have no other forms of support than those available online? Or is it all of the above and more? Like many of the terms associated with flexible learning and the use of IT, there are wide variations in local interpretations and use which can be confusing and disconcerting, particularly to the newcomers. At UNE we are trying to talk about online teaching at three levels depending on their degree of 'online-ness' and this has helped to clarify our discussions. We are gradually refining the descriptors of those three levels so they will be even more useful.

  2. The fact that online teaching relies on IT can in itself create difficulties for staff who are not confident users of Web-based technologies. One does not have to be a Luddite to feel quickly out of depth in initiatives which depend on IT. Not only is it new and alienating technology for some, it is all changing so rapidly and the threat of feeling de-skilled always seems to be with us. Many academics find it difficult to work in an environment of uncertainty where everyone is learning as they go.

  3. Online teaching, as with other forms of teaching supported by IT, creates a situation in which an academic is often highly dependent on the expertise of others. Classroom teaching in universities has traditionally been a very private activity in which an academic relies on their own disciplinary expertise. Online teaching brings with it the need for a new range of educational and technical considerations about which the academic is now forced to rely on and interact with others. While some academics thrive on this team approach, there is no doubt that others find it threatening.

  4. One of the issues highlighted by some academics has been the lack of ownership they perceive with online teaching. For some, there is a sense that they are forced into a particular format and approach over which they have less ownership than the highly individualised and diverse approaches they may use in face-to-face contexts.

  5. Associated with the previous point, is the lack of privacy that online teaching brings. Materials available online are, in a sense, open to all to see. They can be scrutinised by a range of people which has an advantage for quality control but does bring about a loss of privacy that characterises classroom teaching.

  6. One of the terms currently associated with the use of IT in teaching is 'unbundling'. Online teaching has the potential to bring about unbundling of the teaching role. In traditional classroom teaching, the academic is most often responsible for every aspect of the teaching, curriculum development, resource preparation and assessment. With online teaching, there is potential to unbundle these responsibilities and assign them to different people, some of whom need not be academics. While some argue for the efficiencies that unbundling can bring, others are more mindful of the negative impacts with respect to loss of ownership by academics. There is even a potential threat of removing the academic altogether from the teaching process (Young 1997).

  7. The drivers for the introduction of online teaching are sometimes contradictory and depend of who is mounting the argument. Bates (1997a) lists four reasons for introducing educational technology - to improve access to education and training; to improve the quality of learning; to reduce costs of education; and to improve the cost-effectiveness of education. For academics at UNE, the most powerful case for online teaching comes from the enhanced opportunities it provides for students who study at a distance. Our distance students have relied mainly on print-based materials in the past and there is no doubt that the communication tools of online approaches open up a new world of interaction among students and between students and lecturer. On the other hand, the reason why online teaching has been embraced by UNE as one its strategic priorities is more to do with competitive advantage, portraying an up-to-date image and marketing. At some universities, it is supported because it is seen as a cost saver, but the realities are clearly demonstrating the flaw of this argument. Taylor et al. (1996) highlight the different perspectives on educational technology that are important and persuasive to various groups within a university. The reasons why a certain approach might be important to and supported by the university managers may not be the same as the reason why academics are willing to commit to the new approach. This is an important consideration for those who have to manage politics and motivations across various groups.

  8. It is very easy for online approaches to be implemented as an add-on to existing approaches. While the rhetoric of flexible learning implies that students should have a range of learning approaches from which to choose, those of us who are concerned about resources and workloads know that we cannot just keep adding to services we provide.

  9. Online teaching has the potential to change the ways in which academic work is organised and distributed. As with some other flexible approaches, online teaching means that the regular cycles of academic work are changed. This has been particularly evident at UNE where academics who had little regular contact with distance students are now engaging in online discussions on a weekly basis. While we are working with them to employ strategies to manage this change, it has had quite an impact on the normal ebb and flow of academic work (Lawrence 1994).

  10. Online teaching impacts on every aspect of the university and any change mechanism has to take this into account. Those of you who have been involved with introducing online teaching on anything other than a small scale have soon realised the very delicate negotiations that are needed to involve IT services, libraries, student administration areas, administrative systems, marketing and many more. Furthermore, some of the issues raised by online teaching are complex and take a long time to resolve. There is a long lag time between the problem surfacing and the implementation of strategies to resolve the problem. A good example is the impact on the relationship between IT service areas and teaching support areas of the university and the need for these two groups to work closely together to support teaching.

  11. Associated with the previous point is the host of new roles and responsibilities that university-wide implementation of online teaching brings. At UNE, we seem to spend a lot of time determining to which area of responsibility new roles and tasks belong and how these new responsibilities will be resourced. Online developments have the potential to blur and sometimes threaten existing boundaries and territorial rights. Re-negotiation of ownership and territory always has the potential for serious conflict.

Traditional models of teaching innovation

If much of the earlier discussion has appeared somewhat pessimistic, it is worth remembering that there have always been and there will continue to be innovators, whatever the context. In fact, I am always amazed at some of the wonderful, innovative work that is done in what looks like difficult and even oppressive work contexts. It is reassuring to know that there are academics in our universities who will strive to improve their teaching and experiment with new approaches almost in spite of their working conditions. These are the grassroots innovators, the enthusiasts who have good ideas and run with them, often carrying others along with their enthusiasm. They are innovators who will introduce new ways of teaching, even though there may be limited or no support for what they are doing. They will push boundaries and have strong views about what should be. Taylor (1998) refers to them as the 'lone rangers' and other writers have referred to them as 'early adopters' (Morrish 1976).

Much of the literature on educational change has placed these grassroots innovators as the key to more widespread institutional change, suggesting a model of diffusion whereby the early adopters influence the practice of others and innovations spread by word of mouth and by demonstration. The individual teaching development grants awarded by CAUT and CUTSD were based on this assumption, with much of the effort of these two committees directed towards dissemination of the work of early adopters.

Even though those of who work in the area of academic development usually uphold these innovators as the role model for all academics, there are many problems with this model of educational change. First and foremost, the diffusion model is slow and relies on an almost serendipitous coming together of an innovator who has a good idea with someone who is interested and able to take on the good idea or adapt it to their own context. Sometimes, some of the work of early adopters can be marginal and almost ad hoc. In other words, they might not 'fit' neatly into university-wide priorities and directions. They are usually willing to put a large amount of time and effort into what they are doing and do not necessarily recognise that others are either unwilling or unable to do the same. To replicate their efforts often would result in an increase in costs and workload which would be unsustainable on a large scale. Because of the individual focus of their work, quality control is sometimes absent. I am sure many of you will have seen the results of amateurish enthusiasm. I think of this as similar to moving from a 'cottage industry' approach to large scale production.

The early adopters quickly find that there is insufficient institutional support to sustain their passion and there are few examples of their practices becoming institutionalised. The evaluation of CAUT projects by Alexander and Mackenzie (1998) highlighted this problem of very few innovative projects impacting beyond those people directly involved in their development. Elmore (1996) has referred to the limited scale of innovation developed by early adopters and by the pockets of innovation that result, instead of more widespread and coordinated implementation.

In the case of online teaching, such lone ranger activities can be confusing to students who may find a totally different approach in every unit they study. Because of these variations, there is also not likely to be the infrastructure support for students who run into problems. Although these lone rangers will be mounting a strong case for the institution as a whole to support them and their efforts, perhaps even adopt their approach on a wider basis, efforts to support them are easily dissipated because of the lack of uniformity in policies and procedures.

University-wide change

I have painted a somewhat negative picture of lone rangers which is not entirely fair, as much of their work is truly innovative and groundbreaking. The point I wish to make here is that, although lone ranger innovators or early adopters play an important role in educational change, I do not believe that they are the key to large scale, institutional change. They are necessary but not sufficient. Their role is in the first stages of experimenting with new approaches to teaching, but other strategies are then needed to move on to more widespread adoption. They are very useful to trial ideas, present exemplars and identify problems, but there is a limit to the impact of their ideas. Diffusion can go so far and no further, particularly when we are talking about the introduction of online teaching which requires such fundamental change to structures and practices across the entire university.

University-wide change requires the innovation to become a mainstream activity, an initiative of the entire university. Geoghegan (1995) distinguishes between the characteristics of the early adopters and the mainstream majority of academics and suggests that early adopters are not the best people to advise and support wider introduction of new practices to the mainstream majority.

Geoghegan (1995) characterises early adopters of information technology in their teaching as:

In contrast, the mainstream majority who are slower to take on such new teaching approaches are characterised as: Implied value judgements about each group are unintended. In any discussion about innovation, it appears difficult not use terminology which suggests taking sides with one group or another. Some of the earlier literature on educational change was far more remiss in this respect and labelled Geoghegan's mainstream majority as "resisters" or "laggards" (Morrish 1976).

Geoghegan (1995) argues that, while recognising the importance of the early adopters and needing to capitalise on their expertise and enthusiasm, we must not use them as a benchmark of what is possible or desirable for all staff. Quite different strategies and approaches are needed to bring the mainstream majority on board.

Taylor (1998) approaches the issue more from the point of view of numbers and makes the point that early adopters and/or lone rangers do not make up a critical mass needed for institutional change. Although, as academic developers, we find the early adopters very easy to work with, our strategies need to extend beyond this. Taylor suggests "appropriation" as a possible strategy - that is, taking the work of the early adopters and implementing already developed practices and approaches on a wider scale. He then suggests that once staff are comfortable with the approach and have evaluated it in their own context, they might then adapt or re-develop the approach. When the approach is adopted by a critical mass, it is then up to institutional managers to mainstream or sustain the approach.

Taylor (1998) certainly goes much further than most in acknowledging the need for some interaction between individually focussed and institutional strategies to facilitate change on a large scale. However, he does not give many clues as to how this process of appropriation might be facilitated and encouraged. Further, the 'not invented here' syndrome needs to be overcome for this process to work.

I would argue that the move from supporting individualised change at the grassroots level to introducing the change as a mainstream activity requires conscious progression into a second stage of strategic activity. This second stage must be fully supported as an institutional priority.

Although Bates (1997b) proffers a list of steps needed to institutionalise IT in teaching, I prefer to distinguish between the strategies which tend to characterise stages one and two as I have described. In stage one, when there is support for grassroots innovation, I suggest the following strategies are most often used:

These might be referred to as the "fertilise the plants" approach.

When a decision is made to move the innovation to the mainstream, a new set of strategies is needed to overlay and complement those already in place. In the case of mainstreaming online teaching, these new strategies include the following:

These strategies constitute what might be referred to as "a landscape make-over" approach.

This second list contains strategies which are top-down or designed to put in place policies, procedures and directions for a changed institutional culture. At the same time, there is a need to continue with strategies to encourage and support a bottom-up approach and encourage initiative and development from the grassroots level. The two approaches are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. To continue the analogy begun above, a landscape make-over will not have any long-term impact unless the plants are well cared for and fertilised at the same time.

Adapting a model offered by Yetton et al. (1997), the diagrammatic representation for the two stages is outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Two stage model

Unfortunately, the model fails to show the dynamic nature of the approach which is needed. What is missing is the need for both these types of strategies to occur simultaneously. What is also missing is some representation of the timing and of the need for the constant re-cycling through strategies. All strategies need constant reinforcement and reiteration. Too much emphasis on institutional level strategies at the expense of grassroots support (or vice versa) means the whole process gets out of kilter and progress becomes hampered. The model also does little to demonstrate the slowness of changes of this type and the delicate balance required to maintain momentum.


Although the comments I have made might suggest a very systematic and step-by-step approach to the introduction of online teaching at UNE, this has not been the case. Although, on reflection, it is possible to identify crucial steps which seem to have had an important impact, they were not necessarily planned that way. A more honest description would be that, although there has been an evolving overall aim, the specific strategies have been responsive to problems that become evident along the way. If I were even more honest, I might even describe it as lurching from crisis to crisis, although that is probably a bit too harsh. I am cheered very much by Fullan's (1993) description of educational change as a journey not a blueprint. He maintains that change is non-linear, loaded with uncertainty and excitement and is sometimes perverse.

In closing, it is important to highlight that the journey is not over at UNE. We have not achieved all that we set out to do. In many respects, we are just at the beginning and the route we wish to take is still evolving. The number of people who are taking the journey is rapidly increasing, and although this puts a strain on the vehicle we are using to ferry everyone along, we are still making progress.

I have used the term 'we' many times in this paper and I cannot close without acknowledging the work of Lynne Chapman as the Manager of our Online Teaching Initiative and all of my colleagues who have played an important part in our progress.


Alexander, S. & McKenzie, J. (1998). An Evaluation of Information Technology Projects for University Learning. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Bates, A. (1997a). The impact of technological change on open and distance learning. Distance Education, 18 (1), pp. 93-109.

Bates, A. (1997b). Restructuring the University for Technological Change. Paper presented at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Conference What Kind of University? London, 18-20 June.

Coaldrake, P. & Stedman, L. (1999). Academic Work in the Twenty-First Century: Changing roles and policies. Occasional Paper Series, Canberra: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Curry, B. (1992). Instituting Enduring Innovation: Achieving Continuity of Change in Higher Education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 7 Washington D.C.: The George Washington University.

Elmore, R. (1996). Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice. Harvard Educational Review, 66, pp. 1-26.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform. New York: Falmer Press.

Geoghegan, W. (1995). Stuck at the Barricades: Can Information Technology Really Enter the Mainstream of Teaching and Learning? Change, 27 (2), pp. 22-30.

Lawrence, J. (1994). Campus Culture and Faculty Perceptions of Time. New Directions for Institutional Research, 83, pp. 25-38.

McNaught, C. (1997). Teaching with Technology at La Trobe. Melbourne: La Trobe University.

Meade, P. (1995). Utilising the University as a Learning Organisation to Facilitate Quality Improvement. Quality in Higher Education, 1 (2), pp. 111-121.

Morrish, I. (1976). Aspects of Educational Change. London: Allen & Unwin.

Taylor, P. (1998). Institutional Change in Uncertain Times: Lone ranging is not enough. Studies in Higher Education, 23 (3), pp. 269-279.

Taylor, P., Lopez, L. & Quadrelli, C. (1996). Flexibility, Technology and Academics' Practices: Tantalising Tales and Muddy Maps. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Yetton, P. & Associates (1997). Managing the Introduction of Technology in the Delivery and Administration of Higher Education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Young, J. (1997). Rethinking the Role of the Professor in an Age of High-Tech Tools. The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, p. A26.

Author: Professor Sue Johnston
Teaching and Learning Centre, University of New England
Phone (02) 6773 2224 Fax (02) 6773 3151

Please cite as: Johnston, S. (2001). Leading from the front or pushing from behind? Supporting institutional change for flexible learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 1-9. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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