Academic journal article Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management

The Fashionable Adoption of Online Learning Technologies in Australian Universities

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management

The Fashionable Adoption of Online Learning Technologies in Australian Universities

Article excerpt


During the 1990s, many Australian universities adopted innovative new online learning technologies without critical examination of their merit to those institutions, leading in some cases to wasted resources, unfulfilled expectations, program and organisational failure. Given that limited theoretical and empirical explanations have addressed this important research problem, this paper discusses and applies a management fashion framework to this research problem and argues that online learning technologies could be conceptualised as a management fashion, following the empirical work of Abrahamson and Fairchild (1999). The major contributions of this paper are to identify an important yet under-researched area in higher education research, demonstrate the utility of a management fashion framework in this context, and propose a number of recommendations for policy makers, university managers and academics confronted with educational innovations.


In the 1990s, a number of alternative strategies for delivering higher education became more accessible to universities. These new approaches emerged at a time when universities viewed themselves in competition for student customers and faced real shortages of necessary resources (Marginson 1997). The pursuit of online learning, defined as courses in which units or subjects are delivered and interactions between staff and students are conducted via the internet (Bell, Bush, Nicholson, O'Brien & Tran 2002, p. ix), apparently came to be seen by executives as a panacea for "meeting the needs of the worker-student, providing 'more' educational opportunities to 'more' students at 'less' cost" (Tapsall & Ryan 1999, p. 149).

In March 2002, the first national attempt to assess the extent of online learning technology adoption in Australian universities was released (Bell et al. 2002). In this study, the authors found that there were 207 fully online courses offered by 23 (58 percent) out of 40 responding Australian universities, with all universities employing the web to some extent for teaching and learning purposes (Bell et al. 2002, p. ix-x). Of those fully online courses, 90 per cent were offered at a postgraduate level, with the largest number of courses from Management and Commerce (55 courses), Education (35) and Health (32) (Bell et al., 2002, p. ix). It was suggested that the majority of these students would be 'earner-learners' who would combine full-time work with their study.

In seeking to explain the pattern of adoption across Australian universities, Bell et al. sought to examine the influence of a range of factors on university adoption, including the type of institution (ATN, Group of 8, Metropolitan/Regional), parttime students and external students as a percentage of total students, and students older than 24 years as a proportion of total students. The authors concluded that:

Statistically, there is no particular type of university involved in online provision of education (Bell et al, 2002, p. 20).

Bell et al. noted that there was little information available at that time on the extent of online course delivery in other parts of the world, apart from Canada during 1999/2000 (Bell et al. 2002, p. 3). In Canada at that time, 57% of the 134 responding higher education institutions claimed that they had subjects that were delivered wholly online, not unlike Australia (Cuneo, Campbell, Bastedo & Foye 2000, p. 9). These authors also found that online learning was more likely to be offered in business, health and medicine and engineering programs. Online learning was also less likely to be offered in cooperative, work/study programs and applied programs that require face-to-face training and work experience (Cuneo et al. 2000, p. 10).

Since those reports, there has been new research published on adoption in USA. Alien and Seaman (2004) found that over 1.9 million students across 1,100 higher education institutions were studying online in 2003, with 24. …

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