Organisational and Cultural implications of Changes in Teaching and Learning

Professor Stephen Brown

Head of Media and IT, De Montfort University, UK


De Montfort University is one of the largest universities in the UK with over 29,000 students and 10 campuses in all distributed between Leicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Lincoln. The farthest campuses are separated by 160 Km. De Montfort has therefore a real and critical need to find ways of making learning and support opportunities equally accessible to large numbers of often widely separated students. This is, inevitably, encouraging the development and utilisation of resource based learning as a teaching strategy and exploitation of IT networks to provide delivery and support vehicles for that activity. This paper will describe the organisational challenge of the distributed university: the impact on staff and student expectations, their changing roles and strategies for change.


Pressures are now growing which serve to undermine the traditional structure of learning provision in Higher Education. Relative to other competing nations, Western countries (the UK and U.S.A. in particular) exhibit low levels of attainment in schools, low levels of participation in HE, and underskilled and inflexible work forces, with shortages of key skills apparent even in times of recession. There is an increasingly urgent need for cost effective, rapid retraining of the European workforce. Factors contributing to this need include; general competitive pressures to cut costs; the need to cope with a different work patterns (encompassing job sharing, part time working, teleworking and career breaks); a skilled labour shortage due to the decline in birth rate and under-utilisation of women and minority workers; rapid changes and advances in technology; rising unemployment and the consequent increased competition for jobs; decentralisation and globalisation of corporate resources; and increased labour mobility within the EC.

Within Higher Education itself, there has been massive expansion of student numbers. Between 1989/90 and 1994/5 the total numbers of students in full and part time higher education in the UK nearly doubled, from 761,000 to 1,270,000 (Fender 1996). This expansion has been achieved within an overall expenditure growth of only 4% in real terms over the same period, resulting in an overall decline in the spending per student which is planned to decrease further still, from £6858 in 1989/90 to £4365 in 1998/9 (CVCP 1996). The decline in the unit resource for teaching has in turn increased pressures for changes in the way teaching and learning is organised and carried out.

At the same time there have been rapid technological developments in the fields of telecommunications, computing and video. Increases in bandwidth, the development of compression techniques for digital audio and video and international standards for digital multimedia allow the delivery and support of high quality, interactive multimedia learning materials over digital computer networks, cable and satellite networks and, increasingly, via the public switched telephone network. The most phenomenal change has been the explosive growth of the Internet, and in particular the graphical Internet interface known as the World Wide Web. These technologies appear to offer educationalists the potential of new vehicles for opening up access to education for large numbers of new students experiences at low unit costs.

Organisational challenge

The increasingly rapid rate of change in the external and internal environment of Higher Education has created uncertainty and turbulence within the planning process, rendering traditional approaches ineffective. According to Emery and Trist (1969), turbulence is a characteristic of technological societies as a result of faster and more complex interlinking. For example political, defence, monetary and trading systems have become larger, more complex and increasingly interdependent on a global scale. One reaction to this situation has been to increase international co-operation through organisations such as the United Nations, the European Community, the International Monetary Fund, etc. The common objective of such organisations is to increase co-operation among their members and to reduce the disruptive effects arising from competitive acts. We can see evidence of this kind of response in contemporary UK Higher Education.

For example, there has been a tendency for educational organisations to band together in increasingly larger units or to seek to work collaboratively. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s formal mergers or collaborative agreements between HE and FE institutions have become common. Other obvious examples of national and international co-operation are initiatives such as the UK Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, CTI centres and EC 4th framework research and development programmes. At the same time there have been many smaller scale, local attempts to improve the quality, flexibility and cost effectiveness of teaching and learning through technology based innovations. These have been facilitated by the rapidly increasing power and falling costs of computing and telecommunications and courseware authoring tools. In the last two years the rapid emergence of the World Wide Web has fuelled further the urge to develop and publish learning resources.

However, it is important to recognise that teaching innovations cannot be simply an add-on to an otherwise unchanged learning environment. The introduction of new methods brings with it shifts in roles and responsibilities which fundamentally challenge the values and self images of the key participants: teachers and learners (Laurillard 1993).

The distributed University

De Montfort University is one example of expansion through mergers and increased collaboration with other organisations. Since 1984, Leicester Polytechnic, as it then was, itself an amalgam of separate colleges, has merged with 4 other HE and FE institutions. In addition it has formed a network of alliances with Associate and Franchise colleges and primary and secondary schools. Student numbers have grown from 8,000 in 1984 to around 29,000 in 1995/6. The policy to become a distributed university has resulted in an institution with 10 campuses spread over central, eastern England, over 100 miles (160km) between its farthest points. The intention behind the distributed university model is to offer, as far as possible, equality of learning opportunities across and between different campuses. This creates special challenges for the organisation in terms of learning delivery and support. Widespread bussing of staff or students to different campuses is not a viable option economically, even if it were educationally. Alternative ways have to be found to provide students with comprehensive, consistent and quality learning experiences regardless of their locus of study.

The main campuses of De Montfort are linked electronically through a wide area network that carries speech and data and connected to the Internet via SuperJANET. The university has an innovative approach to the use of information technology. It has a formal IT in Teaching and Learning policy as part of its overall Information Strategy and it was one of the first UK higher education institutions to decentralise its computing facilities. Schools manage and support their own computer facilities which are tailored to meet specific requirements of their own programmes of study. The range is extensive, including Apple multimedia platforms (e.g. School of Applied Arts and Design, School of Design and Manufacture), Silicon Graphics virtual reality workstations (e.g. Image Research Centre), Sun CAD stations (e.g. School of Engineering and manufacture), Amiga multimedia (e.g. School of Education) as well as IBM standard PCs in most Schools.

In anticipation of the future importance of Telematics in education, De Montfort has already invested significantly in a number of separate, but related, pilot experiments in network based learning delivery and support systems. Individually these projects explore different aspects of the virtual or mixed mode university. Collectively they can be seen to add up to a large scale experiment in culture change.

1. Distributed study groups

As members of the European Open University Network consortium, De Montfort established a telematics based Eurostudy Centre to explore the possibility of reaching widely distributed audiences of learners. The Eurostudy centre is one of 40 across 15 countries and has attracted 150 students across Europe. The centres support courses developed jointly by consortium members and delivered by a combination of face to face tuition, live satellite broadcast, interactive multipoint video conferencing, e-mail, computer conferencing and printed workbooks. The primary medium of instruction is print, but the main communication channels between students and their tutors are e-mail and computer conferencing, via a proprietary closed system called 'First Class'. This allows for messages to be sent, questions to be asked, feedback to be given, etc., at any time, whenever it suits the individual. Students are encouraged to use the facilities of First Class to communicate with each other, to form self help groups and to collaborate. Local face to face support is available but videoconferencing provides opportunities for staff and students on the whole course to meet with each other in real time to discuss issues. Live satellite transmissions from a single centre have been used to enhance the quality of the video signal and to provide a simultaneous visual link to multiple sites. De Montfort has been the most active of all the UK centres and the results so far have been encouraging, demonstrating that it is technically possible to run courses telematically which overcome the problems of loneliness and isolation traditionally experienced by distance learning students. Further European Union funding has been obtained to extend the research project via dial up ISDN access.

2. Learning Resources on the World Wide Web

STILE (Students and Teachers' Integrated Learning Environment) is one of over seventy Teaching and Learning Technology Programme projects funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils (Zhao and Patel 1995).

The main purpose of STILE is to make it easier for non technical authors to create Web based pages of learning resources without having to learn detailed skills of programming in HTML. While HTML authoring is not inherently difficult, antipathy towards computers is one of the major barriers to acceptance of computer based teaching among established teachers and trainers (Brown and Kirkwood 1995). The aim here therefore was to make the authoring process as natural and transparent as possible. A simplified tool set or 'trivial mark-up language' (TML) was created to allow authors to convert existing data from conventional electronic text or database form. In addition, supplementary editing tools allow users to modify their own materials.

The essence of STILE is the concept of a network of interlinked topics which can be rapidly defined and then readily navigated by others. Within each topic there are pieces of information (i.e. text, images, etc.) known as 'nuggets' which help to define the topic and there are pointers to the resources which make up that topic. Resources may be digitised materials directly accessible from the topic, or they may equally be information about the location and content other media entities which have to be accessed separately (e.g. books, video, slides, etc.). Topics can be grouped together to create clusters which form coherent systems of resources with strong and frequent internal links and cross references.

The layout of STILE pages conforms to a standardised template containing spaces for two different kinds of information. The first kind, which is mandatory, lists the topic title, authors name, document creation date and a textual description of the topic. The second kind of data field is optional and it allows authors to include links to related topics in their own cluster, links to topics owned by other users and pointers to actual resources

At De Montfort, STILE has been adopted by tutors in design related areas and used to develop learning resources covering the following topics:

Preliminary findings are that although overall students are finding STILE useful and enjoyable to use, its usefulness is limited by:

3. Learning on the Internet for schools

The goal here was to connect seven UK primary and secondary schools to the Internet and to work with those schools to identify the opportunities and issues this raised. The project was established and managed by a consortium of computer and telecoms hardware and software suppliers working together with educational institutions to develop and test innovative applications of IT to teaching and learning. The idea, as implemented, was to invite various commercial suppliers to provide, free of charge, the necessary hardware, software, connections and technical support to establish and run local area networks in each of the selected schools. Because the technical infrastructure was being supplied by a variety of different suppliers, many of whom are in direct competition with each other, each school was provided with a different set of equipment and software. The schools themselves were linked, via ISDN to two local support centres: Tresham Institute of Further Education, Northants, serving 4 schools and De Montfort University, Leicester, serving 3 schools. De Montfort, in addition, provided all the users with a gateway to the Internet, via its JANET connection.

De Montfort was heavily involved in:

· Arranging delivery of hardware and software from participating suppliers to the schools.

· Arranging staff development events for schools.

All schools experienced problems in getting the equipment to function fully and these problems limited the kinds and level of use made of the systems installed. Only four out of the seven schools established Internet connectivity. Access was further restricted because only one school at a time could connect to the Internet via the shared ISDN link. Once on the net, teachers reported that the "biggest single problem" was the level of Internet traffic (Leask 1996). Because teachers did not have reliable connections to support the work of particular lessons, development of integrated class-based activities was difficult. Internet resources were used instead to provide:

However, despite technical problems, pupils responded enthusiastically and teachers reported use for a variety of purposes, both social and research to support learning, involving e-mail and data collection.

4. Multimedia student services

Project PILOT is an 18 month collaborative project involving De Montfort, the Open University and Humberside University to develop a prototype networks based multimedia student work placement and support service, funded by British Telecom. Many employers claim that a significant proportion of UK graduates lack essential core skills such as interpersonal skills and those graduates that do have such skills often gain them through periods of involvement in real work environments.. The problem is finding appropriate work based projects and placements for students. This project aims to develop a model for a network based database of candidates and vacancies to link UK businesses and universities and to make the information accessible via public access networks: ISDN, PSTN and using a range of technologies: fax (and fax-back), e-mail, World Wide Web multimedia.

The project objectives are to:

This project is in progress. Work completed so far includes definition of requirements and creation of data flow diagrams for systems development. Some pilot interface screens have been developed and published on the World Wide Web ( Preliminary findings indicate that while students and companies welcome the concept, University placement officers are less supportive. They tend to view it as potentially threatening to their own role rather than as a tool to assist them.

5. Telematics delivery

In October 1995 we launched a new course on Architecture and Urban Design in October 1995, using a combination of traditional teaching methods and telematics course delivery and support methods. Traditionally architecture courses have been resource hungry: needing large studios, model making facilities and heavily reliant on intensive tuition. The aim here was to move away from conventional studio and lecture based teaching to deliver and support teaching and learning through the use of media, in particular on-line multimedia resources and computer mediated communications. The model is particularly relevant in the context of expansion of part-time student numbers and the notion of life-long learning. This year our contribution to the course has been:

An assumed prerequisite for study on this course is an Apple Powerbook which students need to access key course components.

Initial staff and student response to the course has been very positive, but a major component of the strategy had to be omitted at the last minute because of cost constraints. The original intention was to cable the student halls of residence and so provide out of hours access via the University LAN to electronically stored course materials, e-mail and conference systems and wider Internet access. The costs of installation and ongoing support were regarded as unacceptable. Cost estimates for bedroom data/telephony alone were £500 per room (10% of total room cost). This was for initial cabling only, excluding system upgrades and student computing support implications. It was not possible for the University to bear this cost, nor was it regarded as acceptable to transfer the cost to students occupying the study bedrooms.

Organisational issues

It is recognised in the University's strategic plan that its academic programme should move towards greater embedding of open and resource based learning, with particular emphasis on electronic networks. The potential benefits are easy to list:

· More effective, self-reliant learners.

· Release of academic staff from repetitive, routine presentation of information.

· Increase in student numbers without pro rata increases in staffing or decrease in quality of learning.

· Increase in off campus student numbers without increases in staffing and accommodation or decrease in quality of learning.

· Enhancement of the University's reputation as an innovative organisation.

However this cannot be achieved overnight. There are significant barriers to be overcome:

· Inadequate University IT infrastructure to support effective electronic delivery and assessment.

· Little spare academic time to invest in developing new teaching and learning approaches.

· Absence of 'champions' or 'change agents' at key points in the organisation to effect change.

· Need for front loaded investment in a diminishing resource environment.

Consequently, despite the considerable innovative effort outlined in the preceding sections the bulk of the teaching activity in the university remains largely unaffected by change. To realise its objectives the University has recognised the need to address the following interrelated requirements:

· Change of teaching and learning methods to make more use of media components and support systems, e.g. video lectures, self teach texts, computer based assessments, Internet based lectures and projects, etc.

· Development of alternative delivery and support infrastructures to support the above.

· Development of staff skills and attitudes in relation to use of media and resource based learning methods to exploit the above.

These requirements are not unique. The emphasis currently placed on dissemination of the results of the TLTP addresses similar issues to do with promulgation and embedding of best practice. Previous experience at De Montfort has been that, while small-scale local innovations can be introduced by enthusiastic individuals, for significant change to take place institutionally, infrastructural issues have to be addressed, a critical mass of activity has to be fostered and there has to be a real shift in the culture of the organization. Changes on any single dimension have knock on effects for and are hampered by lack of development within the other two.

Two major programmes of culture change are now underway to bring about these changes:

Both projects entail major programmes of staff development through awareness raising seminars, ideas and concept development workshops and staff skills development training. The aim in both cases is to bring about a change in culture on a sufficiently scale to become self sustaining. The first is concerned with identifying learning resource materials produced elsewhere which are relevant to our own courses (e.g. TLTP, OLF, OU, etc.) and working with staff to adopt and embed these materials where appropriate. The second is focused more on the infrastructure requirements of resource based learning, the mind sets and the skills need to develop effective approaches of this kind. The distinguishing characteristics of both projects are:

Enabling academic staff to take time out to evaluate learning resources produced elsewhere.

Enabling academic staff to publicise and explain innovations in their own teaching methods.

Creating a reward culture for effective teaching developments.

Targeting strategic developments and priming them with additional resource.

These last two projects are only just beginning, so it is too early to report in detail on findings as yet. Their very existence however shows that the university is reacting to turbulent change by beginning to attempt to co-ordinate teaching and learning innovations centrally rather than relying on independent localised initiatives. Systems theory predicts that this approach should prove more effective in the complex interactive environment of contemporary UK Higher Education.


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CVCP 1996 'Public Expenditure Needs of Universities' The Newsletter of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom Vol. 2, No. 14.

Emery, F.E. and Trist, E.L. 'The Causal Texture of Organisational Environments.' in Emery, F.E. (Ed.) Systems Thinking. Penguin.

Fender, B. 1996 'Higher Education's dependency on IT'. Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association management conference, March 27-29, Torquay, UK.

Laurillard, D. 1993 Rethinking University Teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge.

Leask, M. 1996 Project Connect Curriculum Development and Evaluation Group: Final Report. De Montfort University, Bedford, UK.

Zhao, Z. and Patel D. 1995 Zhao, Z. and Patel D. 1995 'An on-line resource based learning environment'. In Jonassen, D and McCalla, G. (eds.) Proceedings of ICCE 95: International Conference on Computers in Education, pp 315-323. December 5-8 1995, Singapore.

Contact details:

Professor Stephen Brown

Head of Media and IT

De Montfort University

The Gateway




Tel: +44 116 257 7173

Fax: +44 116 257 7170