Most universities in Australia are using a Learning Management System (LMS) (Byrnes et al. 2004) and most of these Universities are using Blackboard ™. This has lead to a situation where most Australian universities are using an LMS from a single vendor even though they have variences in their LMS requirements. For example the University of Queensland has mostly on campus students while Central Queensland University has a large proportion of distance and international students yet they both use the same LMS (Blackboard). According to Siemans (2004), “LMS’ offer their greatest value to the organization by providing a means to sequence content and create a manageable structure for instructors and administration staff”. It could be said we have the situation where most Australian universities are using the same LMS and have chosen this LMS for reasons of utility to the organization. Add to this that university IT departments are often concerned with centralization and control and it could also be said that this situation has limited the scope of innovation and experimentation around eLearning by limiting the diversity of eLearning options available to instructors. This is not to say that IT departments are necessarily wrong as they often centralize for valid reasons such as:
1. Avoiding duplication of effort.
2. Improved security.
3. Standardize operations.
4. Allow for more specialization.
5. Cut costs
However it could be said that a single-vendor solution in a locked down environment, can be stifling for innovation and experimentation as IT departments typically stamp out non-standard installations and shadow systems via strict, and often blind, policy enforcement. Walter S. Mossberg (2007), a personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, describes information-technology departments as the most regressive and poisonous force in technology today. He goes on to say IT departments make decisions on keeping technology centralized and although lesser known software may be better, technology departments are likely to use big-name products for their own convenience. Another flow-on effect of centralization is that often to perform a ‘technical task’ requires one to be a member of the IT department and outsiders are not permitted to engage in such an activity regardless of the requirement.
In the context of eLearning, experimentation and the resulting innovations are critical as the technologies available to the average web user are evolving at a phenomenal rate. So the question remains that in a centralized, locked-down, single-vendor environment that seems typical in Australian universities, how can the organizations promote experimentation and innovation?
Stefan Thomke (2003) outlines six principles organizations can follow to unlock their innovative potential.
1. Anticipate and Exploit Early Information Through ‘Front-Loaded’ Innovation Processes
2. Experiment Frequently but Do Not Overload Your Organization.
3. Integrate New and Traditional Technologies to Unlock Performance.
4. Organize for Rapid Experimentation.
5. Fail Early and Often but Avoid ‘Mistakes’.
6. Manage Projects as Experiments.
Unfortunately the strict IT environments typically encountered in a university don’t tend to allow the liberties required to apply these principles in any meaningful way. However many people are still circumventing IT department boundaries through the use of shadow systems which can be an indicator effectiveness of official IT systems. If more and more people are using shadow systems it could indicate a ‘coal face’ issue with the official system and perhaps IT departments would do better by at least considering the rationale for the existence these systems rather than removing unofficial systems out of hand.
The big question is how can we promote experimentation and innovation in a typical university environment with a typical university IT ecosystem?
“Large IT Shops Branded “Regressive” and “Poisonous” | Advice and Opinion.” http://advice.cio.com/gary_beach/large_it_shops_branded_regressive_and_poisonous (Accessed May 1, 2008).
“The importance of innovation.” http://www.stufbangkok.net/index.php?id=1109 (Accessed May 1, 2008).
Byrnes, Ron. n.d. “The Distribution And Features Of Learning Management Systems In Australian Universities And Their Role In Student Assessment.” http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw04/papers/refereed/byrnes/paper.html (Accessed May 2, 2008).
Hiner, Jason. n.d. “Sanity check: Five reasons to centralize your IT department | Tech Sanity Check | TechRepublic.com.” http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/hiner/?p=631 (Accessed May 2, 2008).
Siemans, George. 2004. “elearnspace. Learning Management Systems: The wrong place to start elearning.” Learning management systems. The wrong place to start learning. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/lms.htm (Accessed May 2, 2008).
Thomke, Steffan. 2003. Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. . Harvard Business School Press. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation.