The web, knowledge management and Universities

Ian C. Reid , Flexible Learning Centre, University of South Australia, Holbrooks Road, Underdale, South Australia, 5032.


Online education, knowledge management, Higher Education


The business of universities is all about knowledge. Over the centuries, they have developed a knowledge culture around this business. The rapidly expanding use of technology in teaching and learning, and the transformed economic basis upon which universities are instituted, have caused universities to transform the ways in which knowledge is produced, stored, disseminated, and authorised. The use of internet technologies in particular impacts upon academic knowledge in fundamental ways, breaking traditional knowledge linkages, creating new knowledge management practices and creating new teaching and learning cultures. A strategic approach to knowledge management in universities – a shift in focus from means to ends – allows purposeful and integrated approaches. The degree to which these changes are informed by strategic reasoning is proposed as an indicator of success. This paper illustrates a case in point.

Traditionally, universities have been the sites of knowledge production, storage, dissemination, and authorisation. When information technologies are introduced in the context of the economic imperatives brought upon them, universities find themselves in a cultural dissonance between historical assumptions and practices and those of the emerging information society. Universities have embraced information technologies very rapidly, however commentators doubt whether this is always being done completely rationally. As Ehrmann (1999,p.1) [HREF1] quotes Steven W. Gilbert:

‘Many college presidents today worry that "we’ve passed the point of no return when it comes to spending money on technology, but we don’t know where we’re going…"’

This paper offers an analysis of the forces that are driving the changes in knowledge cultures in universities and then describes some of their effects and the conceptual challenges they offer. A strategy for navigating through this difficult and unknown terrain is proposed, using the steps taken at the University of South Australia as an illustration.

What are the primary forces driving the changes in knowledge management which universities are experiencing?

Nunan (1999a) has argued that higher education is undergoing transformations due to a range of external forces such as market competition, virtualisation and internationalisation, giving rise to new ways of understanding the role and function of the university. By detailing the nexus between education, information technologies and markets, Nunan foresees new ‘structures and territories’ being developed.

The competitive pressures universities are now experiencing, resulting from the reduction in government financial support and the consequent need for enterprising approaches to revenue generation, bring a commercial orientation to the provision of teaching and student services. This causes universities to measure their teaching programs, at least to some extent, as a market commodity which is aimed to meet the needs of the customer. Thus the ‘branding’ of courses with an institutional reputation can make the ‘product’ for ‘sale’ much more attractive in the marketplace. Dolfsma (1999) argues, using the methods of economic analysis, that the manifestation of this within internet marketplaces sees students being highly selective from their enhanced information base, resulting in them becoming dependent subcontractors to retailers, rather than consumers in the traditional sense. Universities’ markets are also changing due to new student demographics. Blustain, Goldstein, and Lozier (1999) detail the changing demands on universities by a market which increasingly comprises adults in work. These demands include flexible access, partnerships between universities and businesses, curricula customised to customers’ needs, and a high level of technology use (pp. 56 - 57).

Internet technologies allow the virtualisation of teaching and learning. This involves two levels of flexibility. Firstly virtualisation provides flexibility in delivery. Access to learning opportunities is unfettered by time, place and pace restrictions, as is possible by distance education methods, but with the provision of increased interaction provided by online technologies. Secondly, and more powerfully, it also refers to the ability for a university to provide services to the market which it has not itself produced. A number of models are possible for this second dimension of virtualisation, most notably brokering arrangements between universities, such as is done by the Open Learning Agency in Australia, and the Western Governors University in the US. In its broadest terms, virtualisation allows the ‘unbundling’ of educational services by universities (Duderstadt, 1999), whereby the need for vertical integration of student services (from information, enrolment, courses, curricula, conferring of degrees, etc.) disappears and the prospect of outsourcing and sharing of these across institutions is possible. The establishment of an online ‘call centre’ for a number of universities is an example. It could be argued that this allows a more student-centred rather than an institution-centred approach to higher education. It may be that universities will eventually become brokers and licensers of intellectual property, via the virtualisation made possible by internet knowledge management strategies.

To summarise, external forces may produce significant changes in the ways universities contract with learners to provide educational services. Central to this contract is the use of educational materials. It is to the effects of these forces on such materials that we now turn.

The changing role of educational materials in higher learning

McArthur and Lewis (1998, pp. xiii-xiv) argue that information technology affects both the process and products of learning. Whilst not ignoring the process dimension of this transformation, their identification of educational materials (the products of teaching and learning) for consideration provides a convincing demonstration of the type of transformations technology can effect in educational change:

‘Many parts make up the traditional pipeline for producing educational materials (and intellectual artifacts in general), but four are central: authors create documents; publishers mainly manufacture and market copies of these products; libraries primarily acquire, store and distribute copies to nearby community and readers consume them. These groups have played relatively stable roles in the publication process for decades, even centuries. However information technology is changing their roles; and, more important, it is transforming the copyright and intellectual-property-rights laws that underpin relationships among the groups.’

This focus on educational materials has the additional benefit of bringing within the scope of discussion traditional institutions and distance education approaches, relying as they do on self-instructional materials (Rowntree, 1990). This facilitates an analysis that is capable of encompassing the convergence of these two modes of university teaching, so drastically accelerated by the technologies in question. (Tait and Mills, 1999).

Taking the four parts of the ‘pipeline’ proposed by McArthur and Lewis, the impact of internet technologies upon them is now considered.

Authors – create documents. In the production of print documents, deadlines are of fundamental importance. Authors work to definite schedules for their work, and their documents are a ‘snapshot’ in time. Online documents, on the other hand, need not have fixed deadlines for their authorship and can remain dynamically changing, allowing the author to create documents immediately, providing the capacity to respond to changes rapidly. Indeed the whole notion of the author’s identity is brought into question in online documents. The capacity for the collaborative creation of a document by a number of people, with different levels of authority (eg students and teachers), geographically dispersed, is possible via internet technologies. The email list and the online discussion are examples of dynamic, evolving and collaborative methods for the creation of such materials. Hence it is possible for a university to recruit teachers internationally for document creation, creating the potential for ‘guest lectures’ from the world experts in a field, without them visiting the institution.

Publishers – manufacture and market documents. The publishing industry has historically fed from universities, in the form of textbooks, academic journals or more informal publications. The ceding of intellectual property rights from academic to commercial publisher has become a feature of print publishing. Publishing has been highly developed over the past centuries into a sophisticated industrial process. Thus publication dates, editions and reprints are de rigeur for the print publisher, printing the documents at a particular time and place and physically distributing them via costly transportation systems. This control over intellectual property has the potential to be loosened by online documentation methods, although commercial publishers are working hard to resist this potential (The Economist, 1999). The expanding use of the WWW as an information source and the creation of a range of virtual publications, including online journals (such as the IFETS journal, [HREF2] ), allows immediately and globally accessible documents that can be mounted on one or more servers with negligible distribution overhead. Hence the production ‘bottleneck’ in traditional publication can be overcome by devolving document creation to authors’ desktops and automating publication processes via online publishing. The dynamic nature of these documents can also be a danger – requiring attention to creation dates and an understanding that the content of a document is only fixed at each access, and can rapidly change.

Libraries – acquire, store and distribute documents. Online documents revolutionise the notion of the library. Accession policies, processing, cataloguing and lending of hardcopy documents are replaced by software licensing policies providing online access to databases of online referencing systems. Whereas print documents can be physically borrowed, photocopied or transported between libraries via interlibrary loans, online documents are provided via networked access with password authentication. The notion of the library as a physical meeting place of person and information is also unsettled by online document availability. As Luke (in press) notes, this unsettling goes to the heart of human relationships with knowledge:

‘...because of the rhizomatic character of knowledge and related power relations, the Internet is a medium that enables a great deal of agency and free play among its users. This agency entails both new capacities to juxtapose, to ignore, to elide, to silence, and, to critique information that doesn’t appear to be relevant or valuable or interesting – but as well new capacities to produce, change, alter, relocate and transform these messages.’

The potential exists for sharing of online access between libraries and information brokering services to the extent that the library user can request documents from an information source and materials may be downloaded to the user from any information provider on the internet. As McArthur and Lewis note, there are significant legal, copyright and institutional rigidities that can prevent this occurring.

Readers – consume documents. Finally, what of the reader of the documents in universities? Readers’ prime frustration with print documentation is the difficulty in duplication. If the library has only one copy of a book and it is on loan, or lost, the reader cannot access it. In addition, while an online catalogue allows the reader to find out where a document is, and even to request it to be sent to a particular location, its print format necessitates its transportation to a particular physical location for retrieval. Online documents require access to a network rather than a physical location, providing more choices in the location from which documents can be retrieved. Whether a library is a better place with or without readers is perhaps an open question! The creation of virtual library spaces within which readers can browse documents and interact with other readers thus becomes possible, although there seems little imperative for libraries to do this when their resources are stretched to provide simple document access, and information has traditionally been seen as a free resource. Another question to consider is the ‘latest is best’ fetish. While in many fields of study the latest information, as can be provided by online documents, is preferred, there is also a benefit in being able to compare how a document has evolved over the years in its progression through editions. Such archival material is often difficult to get online, whereas print documentation is ideal for this purpose. It might also be added that documents from the pre-web era may in the future provide valuable insights into the nature of knowledge prior to the transforming influence the web is currently effecting, in the same way that illuminated tablets tell us much about the pre-Gutenberg era.

Internet technologies transform the creation, publication, storage and consumption of knowledge, and hence the educational materials upon which teaching and learning are reliant. The above discussion of the characteristics of print and online materials is summarised in table 1.

  Traditional print Online
Time Place Time Place
  • Fixed deadline
  • Out of date easily
  • Can be dispersed, but has to come together for publishing
  • No deadline
  • Dynamic
  • Ability to keep up to date
  • Usually dispersed
  • Anyone can be an author
  • Publication dates
  • Editions
  • Reprints
  • One printing location
  • Must be distributed at extra cost
  • Creation dates
  • Needs to be ‘refreshed’ to get latest changes
  • Mounted on one or more servers
  • Immediately globally accessible
  • Accession policy
  • Processing
  • Cataloguing
  • Lags
  • Inter-library loans
  • Photocopies
  • Licensing policies
  • Immediate availability
  • Networked access
  • Authentication protocols
  • Print form – single copies
  • Availability (‘it’s on loan’)
  • Waiting
  • Wastage of old copies
  • Need to travel to physical library
  • Physical environment
  • Materials never ‘loaned out’
  • Multiple copies always available
  • No waiting for updates
  • Loss of historical material
  • Need access to network
  • More choices re physical environment – virtual environments

Table 1: Comparison of print and online documents

If online learning environments can be characterised as the creation of ‘online documents’ by ‘distributed authors’ accessed by readers via networks from ‘knowledge servers’ , then to what extent can this characterisation be used to describe university teaching and learning that is mediated by internet technologies? In order to address this question, the role of knowledge management in universities is now explored.

Knowledge management

Universities have always managed knowledge. They have employed researchers and teachers to create and disseminate knowledge, sponsored libraries to store and codify knowledge, and enculturated students into the ways of knowing valued by disciplines. This has in the past been carried out by disciplines with separate conventions and measures of value, moderated by peer review processes.

Why then should universities bother with knowledge management? There are a number of reasons. Firstly the nature of the knowledge with which they deal has changed, as has been described. The development of technology-based methods for the creation, storage and distribution of knowledge, coupled with the increasing emphasis in universities on business strategy, drive the creation of new knowledge management systems within them:

‘The management of intellectual capital has become a central theme in today’s business literature and a commonly cited source of competitive advantage’ March (1997, p. 55)

Secondly and consequently, the nature of this competitive economic environment in which universities find themselves, the ‘knowledge economy’, requires graduates with information literacy skills. These graduates can act upon knowledge itself as the outcome of their intellectual endeavour in addition to having mastery of the knowledge within a particular disciplinary domain (Business / Higher Education Round Table News, 1999).

Sivan (1999) argues that before an organisation can adopt a knowledge management strategy, it must develop a knowledge management culture. Sivan constructs culture as consisting of beliefs and practices. With respect to the first of these dimensions, belief, it can be assumed that members of a university community have a belief in knowledge, although these beliefs clearly differ across discipline boundaries, and are contested within them (Becher, 1989). This leaves cultural practices to be considered. Within the culture of the university, knowledge is considered to be a cultural artefact around which cultural norms such as dress, language and rituals are emblematic (Sivan, 1999). These norms are the ways in which academic culture is presented to the world and around which contestation takes place within the academic disciplines.

Knowledge culture: dress. Online knowledge conceived as ‘dress’ is hardware decorated with software. The institution may mandate a particular ‘uniform’, such as particular hardware and software to be used by staff and students (Reid, 1999). This occurs where a standard platform is mandated in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. There may also be the potential for ‘fashion statements’ in high-flying online courses such as in MBA programs, where the funding provided by the market can support specialist software and hardware producing high quality multimedia. These require high levels of human input and expensive equipment to create and read documents, in the name of quality and market advantage. Finally there are always the ‘alternative dressers’ who, valuing their academic and technical independence, want to run their creation of online documents from their private ‘box on the desk’. These independent thinkers find esoteric software and hardware combinations that are highly valued by small groups as being technically or ideologically superior. These are often found in the computer science and multimedia discipline areas. Hence the way knowledge is ‘dressed’ is fundamentally changed in online learning.

Knowledge culture: language. Online technologies bring with them an entire vocabulary of new technical terms which are rapidly becoming commonplace. The term ‘URL’ has now become as standard as ‘bookshelf’ to many participants in the university culture. Email addresses are a more reliable tool for determining location than room numbers. In addition the discourse of the knowledge culture is transformed by the distributed methods of interaction which allow asynchronous, international and text-based rather oral communication. The morning coffee room is being replaced, or at least supplemented by, the online discussion list, lectures and seminars replaced by websites, institution-based groupings being replaced by international virtual communities. Academic language conventions and the methods of intellectual contestation via academic journals and seminars are also modified when placed within the online arena. Online language tends to be less formal and succinct, and does not require an entire argument to be presented when the author knows that the reader can pursue ‘links’ to background and corroborative evidence. ‘Just-in-time’ communication, whether an abstract to a conference committee, or the submission of a student assignment to its marker, has become highly valued. Online journals and seminars can be more accessible to a wider audience, and take less time to create and receive peer feedback. In these and other ways, the online environment develops new language conventions.

Knowledge culture: rituals. The ways in which knowledge is created, shared and contributed to are changed in online rituals. Knowledge initiation, by research, when carried out by online methods creates different products and processes, and the harvesting and storing knowledge through online courseware creates new rituals for teacher and student. Participants ‘log on’ rather than ‘read the book on the train’. The sharing of knowledge through large group lectures and smaller tutorials are replaced by distributed web sites and asynchronous discussion groups. The ability for a wider range of participants to contribute to knowledge is also enhanced with online methods. The discovery of online resources pertaining to a particular topic of investigation is as accessible to an undergraduate student as to the professor, and the ‘guest lecturer’ can come from an international pool of primary sources, rather than relying on local expertise, or secondary sources, such as text books. So the knowledge rituals in online learning environments are indications of new cultural practices.

By considering the effects of new approaches to knowledge management on university learning, it is clear that internet technologies impact upon academic knowledge in fundamental ways, breaking traditional knowledge linkages and creating new knowledge cultures. This raises a number of questions. Two important ones are:

These questions are now considered in turn.

How can universities develop the necessary shifts to a knowledge management culture?

The uncertainties and dynamism of the foregoing analysis presents critical issues for universities in their quest for progress in a competitive marketplace. The plethora of technological choices, all of them costly, none of which provide certain solutions, require careful analysis. The technologies must not be allowed to drive the development of the cultural shifts, but rather human needs must be at the centre of such transformations (Davenport, 1994). One way of addressing these uncertainties is to refocus attention on the fundamental outcomes that a university education aims to achieve in its students. Privateer (1999) recommends that universities create:

‘...a set of common, multidisciplinary learning outcomes for students at a given institution [which] can spearhead a strategically guided approach to technology-mediated instruction.’ (p.65)

This development of graduate attribute statements and strategies to embed them within teaching and learning arrangements has the advantage of fixing goals in the midst of relentless change and in addition allows the university to demonstrate in clear ways how it is meeting the demand of the market. Nunan (1999b) provides a powerful justification for such a set of statements within the competitive contexts described above. Other approaches to the same idea internationally are described by Nunan (1999c).

To take an example of this approach, the Graduate Qualities statements at the University of South Australia can be seen to address these concerns. That institution aims to develop a graduate who:

It is clear that these outcome statements provide for the kind of cross-disciplinary focus on student outcomes that is needed when the valued forms of knowledge are in transition. The University of South Australia has established a thorough implementation process for the embedding of these outcomes in all aspects of its teaching and learning, conducted online or by traditional methods [HREF3] . This provides the ability for the institution to radically change its knowledge management processes while maintaining clear focus on the educational outcomes they will facilitate. Failure to concentrate on such outcomes allows teachers and students to engage in innovation for its own sake, rather than for strategic gain.

An additional advantage of such statements is that they provide the institution with clear directions which can bring into focus another crucial need if universities are to manage the impact of internet technologies, namely the need for staff development. Reid and Slay (1999) show how such statements facilitate the training of academic staff to make educationally defensible choices when using internet technologies in their teaching by demonstrating how student outcome statements can be used to guide the technological choices made by teachers.

How should university teaching and learning respond to the changes in knowledge management that internet technologies produce?

Returning to the question of how universities should approach the management of their knowledge, their key intellectual property, Reid (1999) demonstrates a strategic approach to such questions. Kirschner (1999) and Hansen (1999) [HREF4] provide similar approaches. All of these approaches focus on strategic reasoning to develop technical solutions to manage the knowledge base upon which higher learning depends. The key technology that is required is the web-enabled database. Such tools make it possible for a university to manage its knowledge resources in an efficient and interoperable way that allows both ready integration and also provides the potential for unbundling of services as is enabled by the effects of internet delivery mechanisms. The capacity for such systems to be scalable provides a university with the ability to be more agile in its response to dynamic conditions. Hence universities are able, by the use of such technologies, to employ business strategies that hitherto they have been unable to invoke. For example, a university that has a universal web-enabled knowledge management strategy in place, when presented with a business opportunity, can rapidly respond to it due to its ability to scale-up its delivery methods. Enroling large numbers of extra students in an online course is much easier than providing them face to face instruction. Thus educational materials can easily service a niche market anywhere on the globe.

An example of the implementation of a strategic knowledge management strategy is the technological developments at the University of South Australia. Key aspects of the knowledge management strategies employed include:

Reid (1999) provides technical detail and description of these approaches. By linking these technologies to the cultural changes brought about by the use of statements of graduate outcomes, supported by the strategic use of staff development, the University of South Australia has been able to develop online educational materials very rapidly at low cost (King, forthcoming). The agility of the strategy also allows for its rapid development and change, which is of fundamental importance if universities are to continue to prosper into the next century.

The implementation of online delivery across the University of South Australia in ways that ensure academic control over content, allow capacity for professional development while catering for developments that are totally scalable, has only been possible by implementing a devolved resource development strategy. This strategy provides control over intellectual property by its owners while capitalising on the convergence of modes of delivery that is the hallmark of web-based media. Such an approach enhances the range of delivery options - the learning opportunities provided to students - without trying to artificially recreate particular teaching environments via a computer screen.

In order to report on progress some quantitative measure should be provided, however the dynamic nature of the UniSAnet development does not make this feasible. The reader is invited to view the progress of the resource development from the UniSAnet statistics page [HREF5] .   Its current growth rate is so rapid that any statistic quoted here is bound to be out of date by the time of publication. Such a dynamic picture, built in this case on a centralised systematic approach yet devolving control over knowledge production, storage, dissemination, and authorisation to individual staff, is indeed a 'new territory' for universities.


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Hypertext References



Ian Reid, 2000. The author assigns to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web.

Proceedings ]

AusWeb2K, the Sixth Australian World Wide Web Conference, Rihga Colonial Club Resort, Cairns, 12-17 June 2000 Contact: Norsearch Conference Services +61 2 66 20 3932 (from outside Australia) (02) 6620 3932 (from inside Australia) Fax (02) 6622 1954