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Learning about e-learning: contribution to a context sensitive

approach focused on actors’ interaction

Adrian Staii

GRESEC, University of Grenoble3,

Roxana Ologeanu-Taddei

GRESEC, University of Grenoble3, Roxana.Ologeanu@iutbeziers.univ-

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.

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

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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 e-
learning 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.)

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 e-
learning 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.


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 socio-
technical 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.


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
The research focused on 6 major e-learning systems selected following diversity-
orientated 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

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,

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.


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.

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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 socio-
technical 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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