Learning about e-learning: contribution to a context sensitive approach focused on actors’ interaction

Adrian Staii
GRESEC, University of Grenoble3, Adrian.Staii@iut2.upmf-grenoble.fr

Roxana Ologeanu-Taddei
GRESEC, University of Grenoble3, Roxana.Ologeanu@iutbeziers.univmontp2.fr ABSTRACT
E-learning has been given increasing attention during the last decade and it takes today an important place within many academic fields. Scholars often consider this issue through three dominant approaches focusing on the contents proposed to the user (the instructional design is for example a major framework), on the underlying technologies (e-learning platforms, global digital environments, etc.), or on the system evaluation and the user modelling. These three approaches certainly help improving our knowledge of the issue and guiding the design of effective systems. However, they also have an important limit, since they largely neglect the importance of the contextual logics at work during the production process of the e-learning systems. We have recently participated in a collective empirical study of six e-learning systems produced and used by French universities and/or other distance education institutions. One main conclusion of this study was that the final configuration of the system has been shaped by complex negotiation processes between a multitude of local (and often conflicting) logics at least as much as it was by the fundamental knowledge available and by the professional competences of the designers. Indeed, it appears that the organisational structures, the project management, the economic model underlying the development of the project have a deep impact on the material shape of the system. This global environment is naturally complex and difficult to control. But this difficulty is increased by the fact that any of the actors at work has neither the global view nor the power to impose a leading strategy to the other partners. A glimpse to some modern theories of socio-technical innovation can help us understand the dynamics of this process and it makes us believe that the interest of our approach is not strictly limited to our case panel.

KEYWORDS
E-learning, virtual campus, socio-technical innovation.

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IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH E-LEARNING?
E-learning has become a common topic in the advanced education systems. Its added value, real efficiency, implementation means, pedagogical implications and economic reliability have been long debated. Some consider e-learning to be already a major shift in the functioning and organizational fundamentals of the entire education system, from the pedagogy to the economics. Some others see it more like a rich potential that failed until now to produce deep changes. In this perspective, e-learning should be considered as a long-term evolution rather than a revolution, more likely to be difficult than smooth. These perspectives can certainly fluctuate from one country to another, mainly because of the particular organisation and functioning of each system, because of the traditions, the pedagogy and the professional culture at work and, not least, because of the history of the e-learning projects themselves. France is a particular case. French universities are public institutions organized in a system which is regulated by the Ministry of Education following two fundamental principles: equality and uniformity. According to these principles, the academic staffs are civil servants and they receive uniform salaries according to their class (a class can be founded on expertise level, age level, etc.). Officially “all universities are equal, there is no hierarchy of the diplomas based on the university which delivers it” (FRIEDBERG & MUSSELIN, 1993, p. 15). However, in practice, there is a visible gap mainly between institutions labelled as “Grandes Ecoles” and common universities with effects on the social and professional consideration of the diplomas delivered. In spite of these differences, the entire system is based on “the triad composed of the head administration, the academic staff and the institutions themselves” (FRIEDBERG & MUSSELIN, 1993, p. 6). In this configuration, the institutions appear to be the weak point (MUSSELIN, 2001); they are of course autonomous, but the two other poles of the triad considerably narrow their breathing space. In this context, the assessment of the major e-learning projects that have been conducted over the past ten years is ambivalent. The virtual campuses for instance, which have been one of the major priorities supported by the French Ministries, have faced real difficulties: the cost estimate and control have been major problems since most of the projects have not succeeded to adopt viable long-term economic models and most of them are still counting on specific public subventions to survive (GREVET, 2005); the professional and legal statutes of the academic staff have not integrated elearning tasks; e-learning projects require important organizational efforts and resources which are difficult to mobilize (setting up a project team and a specifications book, definition of the design and realization tasks, strategic choices concerning the contents to be produced, the pedagogic orientation and the tutorial services, choice and use of the informatics platforms, management of the relationship with distant e-learners, etc.) (ALBERO & THIBAULT, 2006). While the difficulties are obvious, the predicted gains can be still discussed. Many recent studies show that the pedagogic and professional practices of the academic staff

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have not been radically improved by e-learning tools (BRODIN, 2004 ; FICHEZ, 2006 ; FICHEZ, 2007 ; GURI-ROSENBLIT, 2006). Other studies indicate that even the promoters and the leading actors of the systems being used have noticed limited and fluctuating effects (BRODIN, 2004). These considerations raise a two-step question. The first step concerns the systems themselves: are they representative of the technical solutions and of the scientific knowledge available today? A quick overview of the applied scientific work conducted over the past decades in different fields related to elearning makes us conclude to a real gap between these advances and the systems available. Thus, the real question here seems to be why are these systems behind expectations? And, if we push further this argument, could things be different? The second step concerns the social insertion of these systems: how is this process conducted? Is the present organizational and professional environment favourable enough to e-learning projects? How does this environment influence the production of the device and what are its real effects on the final shape of the e-learning system? These are the major questions we shall address in this paper. Our thesis is, on the one hand, that e-learning systems are produced in complex environments and that the organisational structures, the project management, the economic model underlying the development of the project have a deep impact over the material shape of the system available to the users. We shall exploit the results of an empirical study of six e-learning systems produced by French universities and other distance education institutions to argue that e-learning projects are difficult to conduct and that they imply important compromises for all the actors involved. One the other hand, we also argue that the historical approaches to e-learning neglect the importance of these contextual factors and focus on methods, techniques and working procedures proven to be efficient on small experimental scales but difficult to apply in real projects where the consensus is hard to reach.

DIFFERENT WAYS TO CONSIDER E-LEARNING Following the logical chain of our arguments, we shall reverse the order of these questions and we shall start with this last point. A rapid and certainly incomplete overview of the major directions of e-learning studies could point out three historical approaches.
The first important approach focuses on the design of the contents to be mediatized. The main objective of these studies is to propose concepts and methods to develop new selection techniques and new ways to elaborate and structure pedagogical contents accordingly to the potential of the digital technologies. As a major framework, the instructional design (GAGNE, 1992), (CLARK & FELDON, 2002) develops techniques, which are intended to optimize learning gains in knowledge and performance from precisely engineered (and designed) contents. The essential questions of how to teach and what to teach (MURRAY, 1999), (DESSUS, 2006) are

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directly connected to efficiency goals through a rational and optimal use of the processes and resources. The main characteristic of the second major approach is the attention shown to the development of the technology itself. In many e-learning projects, the technology is the unifying element and the booster of the entire project. The (informatics) technology is certainly designed for educational purposes, but often the main goal is to experiment new architectures and functionalities (TCHOUNIKINE, 2002). Many studies and projects conducted within the fields of engineering and computer science take this choice both due to the specific competences of these disciplines and to the financial stakes implied. The third important approach focuses on the evaluation of the system and on the emergence of primary uses. Many studies evaluate the ergonomics, or, globally, the utilisability of the system; some of them use local modeling of learning situations and human-machine interactions to make recommendations for the designers (SQUIRES & PREECE, 1999; KWAHK & HAN, 2002; TRICOT et al., 2003). Other works try to model uses scenarios and to anticipate the effective use of the system by exploiting available data about the cognitive types of the students, their personal preferences for a particular media or their learning strategies (SADLER-SMITH & SMITH, 2004). Although we have separated here these three approaches, they are sometimes difficult to distinguish in practice. Nevertheless, a closer look can reveal behind each approach the influence of major scientific disciplines, which impose inevitably a particular look, their own traditional frameworks and historical positions with regard to the complex relationship between education and technology. A new attitude has emerged in the recent years: it pleads for a stronger collaboration both between different scientific fields for the elaboration of new projects and between the different partners involved in the production process, including users (TCHOUNIKINE et al., 2004), (CAELEN, 2004; CAELEN et al., 2005]. This new framework could avoid some of the biases shared by the three major approaches identified above. Indeed, the historical approaches to e-learning aim, through different means, at improving the design of the e-learning systems by providing a conceptual framework, models and techniques, procedures and working methods, or even experimental protocols and validation methodologies. However, it appears that the efficiency and pertinence of these tools are often limited; paradoxically, the very fundamental choices from which derives their prescriptive strength also limit their real efficiency. All these approaches try to improve in sine different sides of the e-learning system and they pay little attention to the contextual mutations that are inevitably imposed by the production environment. And yet, these elements considerably contribute to define the final shape of the system; as shown in many works conducted within the field of communication studies (MOEGLIN, 2005; MIEGE, 2004) and sociotechnical innovation (FLICHY, 2003; ALTER, 1999) it would be a mistake to believe that the final object corresponds exactly to the one initially designed. Unfortunately, this point of view largely spread in other research fields of social sciences has not been yet integrated with the major approaches to e-learning. The next sections of this paper try to defend the pertinence and the scientific interest of such an approach to the e-learning systems, which takes into account the

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characteristics of the production context, the strategies of the actors involved and their effects on the final configuration of the device. WHY SOME SYSTEMS ARE NOT EXACTLY WHAT THEY WERE MEANT TO BE In order to give a concrete background to our arguments, we shall refer to the results of a research program we have participated in from December 2004 to October 2006. A team composed of 9 researchers from several French universities conducted this study under the direction of the GRESEC Laboratory at the University of Grenoble31 (BENCHENNA et al., 2006). The main objectives were to study the production conditions of different e-learning systems produced and used by French universities in order to understand how the actors designed and conducted the projects, what were their initial objectives and what are the characteristics of the systems offered to the final users. The research focused on 6 major e-learning systems selected following diversityorientated criteria: complexity and size of the system, divers formation levels and user profiles, various academic disciplines represented. One major characteristic shared by all these 6 projects is that, due to their important size, they involve a considerable number of actors (and, in most cases, several universities). Most of these projects are virtual campuses. The methodology adopted by the research team has combined the analysis of the strategies developed by the actors involved in the production of the systems (CROZIER & FRIEDBERG, 1992; LATOUR, 2005) – this analysis was based on individual interviews - with the study of the systems themselves (online use of services provided, analysis of interfaces and functionalities). Data issued from these two sources were synthesized using a complex guide which included, among others: characterization of the producer and the production conditions of the system, objectives officially declared, technical characteristics, didactic characteristics, contents structure and learning scenarios, visual and ergonomic features identified on the screen. The analysis of the empirical data collected shows that there is an important gap between the initial project and the system initially designed and the product offered to the users. This gap can be noticed at several levels. Concerning the junction between these systems and the classical formation opportunities, we have noticed that the e-learning programs were sometimes contradictory with the global education offer of the universities concerned. Regarding the immediate pedagogic objectives, data collected showed that the systems failed to
1

Groupe de Recherche et d’Etude sur les Enjeux de la Communication – Research and Studies Group in Communication Issues.

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assure all the services necessary (mainly those meant to support the learning relationship with the students and the tutorial activities). Finally, it appears that the systems do not exploit the entire technical potential of the informatics environments and of the multimedia formats chosen. The contents and the learning scenarios have not always been designed according to these formats; in some cases the contents are simple online digitalized versions of classical course materials. We stress upon the fact that these effects are not the signs of simply failing projects. Indeed, it would be mistaken to say that the effects noticed were produced exclusively by a bad design, a failing management or a lack of appropriate competence. All the projects have benefited from the support of structures specialized in e-learning and they have mobilized teams with specific resources. Some effects have been certainly caused by local difficulties, but these have not been powerful enough to explain the gap. Our point is to consider this gap as partly inevitable since it results from the institutionalization process of the e-learning. When we have analyzed the production processes of these systems, we have noticed that the actors involved did not (and could not, given their number and diversity) have the same view of the project. Each actor has a personal and limited approach to the stakes involved and cannot propose a global strategy focused on objective pedagogic efficiency; and supposing that this would be possible if the projects were initiated and led by a single major actor (which is not the case of our examples), it would be still difficult for this particular actor to impose its strategy to all the partners (different services involved in the design and realization process of the system, academic staff, industrial partners, etc.). All these factors explain why the projects cannot follow a predefined and fully controlled development and why all the components suffer inevitable and sometimes important adjustments. The production of the e-learning systems is biased by multiple contextual logics, which are often contradictory. The system itself materializes “soft compromises” (FLICHY, 2003) and “institutional arrangements” (GREVET, 2005); it is an aggregate of divers socio-technical elements which have often an independent history (this is true for the organizational structures and staff involved in the project but also for the technical elements and the contents items which are often “imported” from and “exchanged” with other projects, without regard to the implications of these “trades” for the coherence of the entire system). The results of these contextual negotiations, which take away the project from its initial tracks, are often visible “on the screen”. The development of the projects seems to follow tactics rather than strategies and to adopt the dynamics of bricolage (DE CERTEAU, 1980). Michel de Certeau used these concepts to describe the activity of common users and consumers who cope with the rules and constraints imposed by the productive system and who finally succeed to express personal and original interpretations through their actions and behaviours. We use the same concepts here to stress upon the fact that similar processes take place

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within the production system itself. Actors, who are supposed to impose strategies, to define rules and to control them, finally behave like simple tacticians: they have to cope with the rules others want to impose, to negotiate and to make compromises (FLICHY, 1997). This reality is even more complex when actors navigate in an innovative environment. Whether the project deliberately wants to innovate or not, e-learning is necessarily a matter of innovation, both socio-technical and institutional. This means, on the one hand, that the environment itself is not well settled: actors have to find by themselves the new rules that could structure it. On the other hand, this means that, concerning the project itself, the actors cannot organize and manage its development following strict predefined guidelines. Innovation is not a smooth, regular process; it cannot be rationalized and controlled as regular activities can be. “Innovation is difficult to program”, says Alter [ALTER 99, p. IV], actors move forward “blindly”. This constraint can also explain why the result is not always homogenous. The final shape of some elements (both technical and organizational) of the systems that we have analysed can thus be explained as a mark of unsuccessful innovative trials. TOWARDS A CONTEXT SENSITIVE APPROACH TO E-LEARNING With regard to these arguments and without taking them for granted, we could propose a better explanation of the final configuration of the e-learning systems that we have analysed. Up to a certain point, these projects follow the guidelines initially defined by the project consortium. Up to a certain point, the gap between the initial project and the final device can be explained by local difficulties and management errors. But, most of the characteristics of the final system cannot be explained by any of these two factors. They are first of all vivid signs of the complexity of the production process made of uncertainty, negotiation and compromise. This is the natural effect of a multiple chain of actors who cannot control the territory (DE CERTEAU, 1980) of their project and who do not share willingly the same set of objectives. These characteristics are shared by all the collective projects, but they are more visible in an innovative environment (where rules are not well settled) and they are even more acute within education institutions where the decision centres are often split at different levels - outside the institution (public Ministries, support institutions like CNED, CNAM, CERIMES2, etc., the project consortium which often implies several partners, etc.), and inside the institution (the
CNED: Centre National d’Enseignement à Distance (National Center for Distance Learning). The CNED is the largest operator in Europe and in the French-speaking world (350 000 students registered). It is a public institution depending on the Ministry of Youth Affairs, Education, and Research. CNAM – Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts). The Cnam is a public scientific, cultural and professional institution, classed as a grand établissement, among the top higher education establishments in France. CERIMES Centre de ressources et d'information sur les multimédias pour l'enseignement supérieur (Multimedia Information and Resource Center for Higher Education). The CERIMES is a public service institution, which aims at facilitating the access to audiovisual, and multimedia resources for the academic staff and students and at helping them use these resources in teaching and learning.
2

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head administration of the university, the services involved, the project team, the academic staff, etc.). Through various tactics and institutional arrangements, the actors finally come to adopt a common set of rules and make choices together (they chose the technical platform, the economic model, the tuition fee policy, the copyright and author rights policy, the specifications book for the production of the contents and the tutorial services, the multimedia formats and the pedagogic scenarios…). These choices structure the project, they organize the innovation process, they reduce the uncertainty (ALTER, 1999), and they “keep the actors together” (LATOUR, 1992). This is a complex process wherever it occurs, but it is even more difficult to control in academic institutions since there are here multiple decision centers, power conflicts and contradictory objectives (MARCH, 1991). Negotiation and compromise are here vital but dangerous; without them projects are “blocked”, with them, projects can get quickly bureaucratized. The right mix is difficult to find, since the rules to be shared have to be both “closed” to avoid heterogeneous objectives and actions, and “open” to allow original initiatives, competence based decisions and fluidity. Small projects have certainly limited means but they can sometimes function with fewer rules and give more flexibility to the actors to innovate. But in large-scale projects, the rules, once negotiated, are difficult to by-pass and innovation gets slightly bureaucratized (MILADI, 2006). One major challenge of e-learning projects is thus to prepare the best conditions for a smooth institutionalization. The major historical approaches to e-learning do not consider enough these issues. Our point here is not to criticize their pertinence and practical utility but to say that complementary approaches, mainly those inspired by the advances in the field of sociotechnical innovation, are needed in order to give a better understanding of the real processes through which e-learning systems get shaped and institutionalized.

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REFERENCES
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GREVET, P., 2005. L’expérience de Canége. Modèles socio-économiques et enjeux organisationnels des campus numériques. Research report available online: http://www.univlille1.fr/clerse/site_clerse/PDF/Grevet GURI-ROSENBLIT, S. , 2006. E-Learning and Higher Education, Distances et Savoirs, 4(2), pp.155-179. LATOUR, B. 2005. La science en action. Introduction à la sociologie des sciences, La Découverte/Poche: Paris. LATOUR, B., 1992. Aramis ou l’amour des techniques, Paris : La Découverte. MARCH, J., 1991. Décisions et organisations, Les Editions d’Organisation: Paris. MIEGE, B., 2004. Pour une approche communicationnelle de l’insertion des TIC dans le champ de l’éducation, L’information-communication – objet de connaissance, DeBoeck: Bruxelles, pp.160-172. MILADI, S., 2006. Les campus numériques : le paradoxe de l'innovation par les TIC, Distances et savoirs, 4(2), pp. 41-59. MŒGLIN, P., 2005. Outils et médias éducatifs. Une approche communicationnelle, Presses universitaires de Grenoble: Grenoble. MURRAY, T., 1999. Authoring Intelligent Tutoring Systems: An analysis of the state of the art, International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 10, International AIED Society: Univeristy of Glasgow, pp. 98-129. MUSSELIN, C, 2001. La Longue marche des universités françaises, PUF: Paris. SADLER-SMITH, E., SMITH, P., 2004. Strategies for accomodating individual's styles and preferences in flexible learning programmes, British Journal of Educational Technology, 4(35), Blackwell Publishing, pp. 395-412. SQUIRES, D., PREECE, J., 1999. Predicting quality in educational software: Evaluating For Learning, Usability and the Synergy between Them. Interacting with Computers, 5(11), Elsevier B. V.: Orlando (USA), pp. 467-483. TCHOUNIKINE, P, BAKER, M., BALACHEFF, N., BARON, M., DERYCKE, A., GUIN, D., NICAUD, J.-F., RABARDEL, P., 2004. Platon-1: quelques dimensions pour l'analyse des travaux de recherche en conception d'EIAH, Rapport d'Action Spécifique du CNRS: Paris.

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TCHOUNIKINE, P., 2002. Pour une ingénierie des Environnements Informatiques pour l'Apprentissage Humain, Revue I3, 2(1), IRIT/ LIP6/ IMAG/ Cépaduès Editions: Toulouse, pp. 59-95. TRICOT, A., PLEGAT-SOUTJIS, F., CAMPS, J.-F., AMIEL, A., LUTZ, G., MORCILLO, A., 2003. Utilité, utilisabilité, acceptabilité : interpréter les relations entre trois dimensions de l’évaluation des EIAH, DESMOULINS, C., MARQUET, P., BOUHINEAU, D. (Eds). Environnements informatiques pour l’apprentissage humain, ATIEF / INRP : Paris, pp. 391-402.

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