IIMS 96 contents
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Implementing a technology strategy for a mega-university: The INSTILL project

Sir John Daniel
Vice-Chancellor, The Open University, UK


As the world pioneer in the large scale application of broadcast media and communications technology to higher education the UK Open University faces a major opportunity as computing, telecommunications and video converge to create a new generation of media. Unfortunately, the climate of enthusiasm for these developments generates unsubstantiated claims about their potential educational applications. The UKOU is eager to use new technologies where they have academic advantages. However, because its present multimedia distance teaching system is effective, popular and robust the University needs to be sure that any new application shares those qualities. With 150,000 students taking the University's degree credit courses in over 20 countries it would be irresponsible to innovate on a whim. A technology strategy must be part of a wider thrust to enhance competitive advantage.

In his comprehensive approach to competitive advantage, Porter (1985) states that limited progress can be achieved by reviewing an institution's activities in a holistic manner. The search for cost leadership and differentiation has to be carried out at a detailed level for the activities in the institution's value chain.

A review of the value chain of the UK Open University and a survey of the strategic priorities of ten large distance teaching universities (the mega-universities) (Daniel, 1995) indicated that using new teaching and learning technologies could enhance academic advantage and therefore competitive advantage. Already. in some of the mega-universities, the first generation of correspondence teaching had been succeeded by a second generation of multimedia distance education. This integrated the mass media and certain personal media into the teaching and learning process.

The linking of students through their home computers holds out the prospect of a third generation of supported open learning. The flexibility of asynchronous communication, that has been the great strength of the correspondence tradition, would be preserved. However, ease of communication between students and between students and the institution would be greatly enhanced, students would have access to a rich universe of learning resources, and it would be possible to hold synchronous events as needed.

The size of the UKOU and other mega-universities means that the implementation of any new teaching technology must be carefully planned. These institutions have a large investment in their existing systems for teaching, logistics and administration. Furthermore the effective use of new technologies depends on the acquisition of domestic equipment by students. We report how the UK Open University is tacking the implementation of a technology strategy for academic advantage.

The background to planning

The mega-universities will adopt the technologies of this third generation of distance education at different times and at different speeds. A crucial factor in their decisions will be the level of economic development of their country and, particularly, the evolution of the national telecommunications infrastructure. The UKOU projects that 95% of its students will have networked computers by 2004, which is within the time horizon of its current strategic plan. Given that the essential criterion for third generation open learning, namely student ownership of the equipment, seems likely to be met, the institution is planning its future on that basis.

Most of the mega-universities have had to plan and organise their own start ups in the last twenty years. Making the transition to the knowledge media will be very different for two main reasons. First, whereas institutions could take a 'big bang' approach to their start up, this will be a gradual transition. Courses using different technologies will run side by side and both must function effectively. Second, the process of developing courses that use the knowledge media does not lend itself to the centralised approach that worked well for the broadcast media. The decentralised nature of knowledge media production is both a strength, because it will give academics a greater sense of ownership, and a weakness because economies of scale and common standards will be harder to achieve.

This implies that the essential challenge is to achieve a good balance between bottom up and top down planning. In the document through which the UKOU Senate decided to develop a technology strategy in 1994, the term 'enabling framework' was used to describe the approach.

An enabling framework for technology development

Much of the Senate document (Open University, 1994) was aimed at creating a common framework for thinking about the role of technology in the UKOU's future. It reviewed the institution's past use of technology, explored the new opportunities available, reported on the expectations of students, examined costs and indicated the next steps to be taken. In some respects, although not presented as such, the paper listed key value activities in the UKOU value chain that could be improved by new approaches.

The Senate gave this paper a more enthusiastic welcome than its authors anticipated, indicating that the academic staff were less cautious about the adoption of new technologies than had been supposed. This support legitimised two practical initiatives. First, the UKOU Finance Committee agreed to make an investment of £10m ($US16m) over three years from reserves to give impetus to the adoption of new technology. Second, the tasks of the University's five pro-vice-chancellors were rearranged in order to create a post of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Technology Development).

The INSTILL investment

The general purpose of the investment from reserves, known as the INSTILL project (Integrating New Systems and Technologies into Lifelong Learning) (Open University, 1995a) was twofold. First, it gave greater reality, tangibility and legitimacy to the technology strategy. Second it provided some resources to support activities. The INSTILL investment was never intended as the main source of funds for the introduction of new technology. Indeed, the UKOU spends £10m every year on information technology alone. However, given the decentralised nature of the activities it was intended to promote, it was important to have resources on which projects could draw.

Under the INSTILL scheme funds were allocated under seven general headings with considerable flexibility for spending within each heading. We list below the amounts and the seven areas along with a note on their status at October 1995 (Open University, 1995c):

  1. £1.5m to help create a new unit, the Knowledge Media Institute, whose aim is to be at the forefront of understanding and applying knowledge media to teaching and learning.

    Status: Unit established with three sub-groups (Knowledge Systems Group, Multimedia Enabling Technologies Group, Electronic Media Research Group) and a staff of 34. It is holding discussions with leading telecoms, computing service and solutions providers. In October 1995 it conducted KMI Stadium, an experiment in very large scale telepresence using audio on the Internet. A bimonthly newsletter can be viewed at:

    [ See http://kmi.open.ac.uk/news/planetarchive.html ]

  2. £3.5m for a new technology recruitment initiative. These funds were intended to allow the UKOU to appoint 33 new academic staff who combined high potential in their disciplines with substantial experience in the use of new technologies in teaching and learning.

    Status: 41 additional staff have been appointed, the additional eight being funded by units from their own resources. Seven appointees joined the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) the rest joined other academic units. All will work closely with KMI in the application of new technology to teaching, learning and student support.

  3. £0.8m to support satellite and other broadcast projects.

    Status: The funding is being used to support some experimental activities in India and opportunities in North America are being investigated.

  4. £0.8m for technological innovation in course materials, especially the development of CD-ROMs.

    Status: This built on 17 multimedia seedcorn projects funded in 1994. Ten of these projects, after being assessed on the criteria of innovative multimedia design, pedagogical value and potential student use, have been funded at the demonstrator stage. Further funds will help move successful demonstrator projects to the implementation stage.

  5. £1.4m to harness the Internet and electronic communication for academic purposes.

    Status: Activity is underway in three areas: electronic tutoring, OU presence on the net and network coordination.

    Electronic tutoring involves tutor training, subsidies for equipment acquisition by tutors, and experiments on the online submission and return of assignments. OU presence on the net involves the development of comprehensive linkages to the home page and the offering of two courses with Internet tutorial support. One of these courses will go to the pilot stage (300 students) in 1996. Network coordination involves gearing up to serve 13,000 students on networked services plus another 7000 students who may opt in to some services. The network is being enhanced to handle a threefold increase in the number of simultaneous users.

  6. £1.0m towards the space requirements of the Knowledge Media Institute.

    Status: A permanent building that will include space for the KMI is in the design stage.

  7. £1.0m to support schemes for loaning computing equipment to students at subsidised rates.

    Status: Three categories of students will be eligible for a subsidised computer rental fee: students in receipt of financial assistance (free loan); students with special needs and students taking their first level 1 course within the personal computing policy.

The INSTILL investment was approved early in 1995 and appears to be achieving its objectives. The recruitment initiative came at a good time after years of tight budgets. UKOU officers believe that by advertising the posts together, with an explicit focus on new technology, the competition attracted a more able field of candidates than if each post had been announced separately. The UKOU has high expectations that these new staff will play a key role in the institution's migration to new technologies. Each will have an association with the Knowledge Media Institute as well as with their own academic unit.

A much fuller account of the developing use of telecommunications and multimedia at the UKOU is being given by my colleague Robin Mason at this conference (Mason, 1996)

Supporting functions

Although the INSTILL project has had the greater visibility within the UKOU academic community, two other developments of a more immediately practical nature are of equal importance.

The CIRCE project is a £10m redesign of the UKOU's logistical support systems. One of the challenges in building such a system is to anticipate the sorts of new requirements that might result from the use of the knowledge media in teaching, such as the electronic submission of assignments. The UKOU is counting heavily on CIRCE to support better service to students and customers at lower unit cost.

Equally crucial, in view of the UKOU's ambitious plans to increase computer use and networking amongst students, is the careful planning necessary to make this a good experience for students. The section headings in a progress report (Open University, 1995b) on student computing for 1996 indicate the variety of issues that have to be addressed:

This list illustrates rather well the difference between the preparations that a mega-university has to make when putting its students online and the more limited challenges facing conventional universities and distance education courses with small enrolments.

Setting objectives for technology development

Initiative fatigue among the staff is a danger in a time of rapid change. In order to ensure that the technology strategy is not seen on this light the UKOU's Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Technology Development) has linked her objectives for the year firmly to the nine rank ordered priorities in the institution's strategic plan, Plans for Change. We conclude with a summary of these linkages in Table 1. Such an approach helps to ensure a review of the implications of technology for all significant value activities in the institution's value chain.

Table 1: 1995 objectives of the UKOU Office of Technology Development
matched to priorities in the Strategic Plan.

PriorityTechnology developments
Quality of
Increase contact between students, tutors and course teams with telecommunications.
Increase 'guided independent resource based learning'.
Use interactive multimedia to improve understanding of core topics.
Students to emulate professional use of computer applications.
More courses through cheaper course development/delivery.
and retention
H/w and s/w to improve access for students with disabilities.
Use cable, satellite, networking to widen student range.
Improve advice to students on course choice.
Improve retention and pass rates with better advice systems and enhanced quality of learning.
Expansion Recruit from new groups though improved access and better learning experience.
See whether new technology attracts academically demotivated students.
EfficiencyUse shells, templates, shared resources to increase productivity of technology based courseware.
Use computer based assessment to improve staff productivity.
Exploit desktop publishing to turnaround materials faster.
Create synergy between academic and administrative systems with respect to use of new technology.
Use externally/ collaboratively developed resources for core skills materials.
Better technological infrastructure to give better staff productivity.
More streamlined management systems.
Forward planning of staff resources for materials production.
Better advice to students about their technology purchases.
Resilience Expand publishing/marketing of OU materials using new technology.
Increase provision of work based learning courses.
Maintain cost analyses of production and delivery systems.
Forward planning models for materials/methods development.
Staff development program for new technologies.
Databases for staff of existing materials and expertise.
Online communication between course teams and students.
Document how students learn through technology.
Disseminate research and evaluation.
See that funding for new technology promotes good practice.
Research Maintain OU in forefront of research on IT in education.
Encourage research on teaching of subject.
Exploit new technology for scholarship and research.
and national
Use new delivery/support systems for students overseas.
Use networks for collaborative course development with scholars overseas.
Make OU central focus for development of new technology for open and distance learning in UK.
Promote legitimacy of research on teaching innovation in every discipline.


Daniel, J. S. (1995). The Mega-universities and the Knowledge Media: implications of new technologies for large distance teaching universities. MA Thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

Mason, R. (1996). Large scale distance teaching and the convergence of telecommunications and multimedia. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 260-266. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/lp/mason.html

Open University (1994). Technology Strategy for Academic Advantage. Senate Paper, Open University, Milton Keynes.

Open University (1995a). The INSTILL Project. Finance Committee Paper, Open University, Milton Keynes, 37pp.

Open University (1995b). Update on INSTILL. Senate Paper, Open University, Milton Keynes

Open University (1995c). Plans for 1996 Student Computing: Progress Report as at July 1995, Open University, Milton Keynes, 10pp.

Porter, M. E. (1985). Competitive Advantage: Creating and sustaining superior performance. Free Press, New York, 557pp.

Please cite as: Daniel, J. S. (1996). Implementing a technology strategy for a mega-university: The INSTILL project. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 95-98. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ad/daniel2.html

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