Teaching Online: Challenge to a Reinterpretation of Traditional Instructional Models

Jacquie McDonald, Distance Education Centre, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. 4350. mcdonalj@usq.edu.au

Glen Postle, Distance Education Centre/Faculty of Education, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. 4350. postle@usq.edu.au


The aim of this paper is to investigate the consequences of an apparent shift in the pattern of teaching and learning in a higher education institution following the introduction of online teaching.  The theoretical framework for the study is derived from a paper by Imershein (1976) which analyses organisational change in terms of Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions (1970). This framework focuses attention on the notion that knowledge in institutional settings is ordered or coherent (paradigm-like in Kuhn’s terms) and it is this order and patterned activity which must be altered if change is to occur. The higher education sector is changing rapidly mainly as a consequence of its response to the various pressures associated with widening access, commercialism and developments in information and communication technologies. The adoption of the concept of flexible delivery has been a key initiative in many institutions although this concept has been interpreted in many ways. One interpretation has been to initiate web-based design and delivery of courses. Teaching online, a consequence of this, has accompanied the adoption of web-based courses but the models of teaching and learning being used to teach online are as yet unclear. There are some who would suggest a need for new models of teaching and learning (eg. challenging paradigm). There are others who suggest a reinterpretation of existing models (reigning paradigm). This paper will present the findings of a study at The University of Southern Queensland (USQ), Australia, aimed at gaining an understanding of how the adoption of web-based design and delivery of courses has influenced (if at all) the models of teaching and learning being used to teach online. The framework used for this study is derived from the Imershein framework.

The paper will describe how the introduction of a post graduate course, Graduate Certificate in Open and Distance Learning, that is offered exclusively on the Internet, challenges the existing paradigm.[HREF1]  The paper will analyse how the delivery of education using different delivery modes requires a fundamental shift in the way teaching and learning is designed and delivered.


The higher education sector is changing rapidly mainly as a consequence of its response to the various pressures associated with widening access, commercialism and developments in information and communication technologies. The adoption of the concept of flexible delivery has been a key initiative in many institutions although this concept has been interpreted in many ways. One interpretation has been to initiate web-based design and delivery of courses. A theoretical framework will be used to analyse how the changing delivery modes have (if at all) caused a paradigm shift from the traditional culture of tertiary education at USQ.


Theoretical framework

Imershein (1976) maintained that organisational change can be thought of in much the same way as Kuhn (1970) explained progress in science. Kuhn argued that allegiance to a paradigm in science implied adherence to particular ways of "doing" science, and advances in science occur because scientists as a group perceive a need for a paradigm shift. Similarly, Imershein argued that membership of organisations can be explained in much the same way, with organisational change requiring shifts in the "world views" of those involved in the change.

A central element in Imershein's ethnoepistemology is his thesis that exemplars provide group members with concrete models for their activities. Such models are based upon a shared knowledge of ways of undertaking organisational tasks and procedures as well as an understanding of roles appropriate to different group members involved in such tasks. In this paper it is argued that exemplars provide a useful way of identifying the teaching/learning paradigms which guide the ways academics at USQ design and teach courses, particularly in the context of flexible delivery initiatives.

The framework adopted suggests that paradigms are more easily identified where participants perceive anomalies and respond to these anomalies. This paper shows how USQ academics have attempted to resolve anomalous conditions precipitated by the institution's adoption of mixed mode and flexible delivery initiatives.


USQ - A Case Study of Changing Paradigms

USQ has moved through three distinct phases that might be loosely considered paradigm shifts. These phases demonstrate how the educational community has grappled with change brought about by significant influences, pressures and changed conditions. These phases (or paradigms) are defined by the two critical elements of Imershein's paradigm – understanding by members of the organisation of organisational tasks (teaching/learning tasks) and roles and responsibilities members enact in performing the tasks.

For convenience the first phase has been called "traditional tertiary teaching", the second phase "mixed-mode teaching" and the current phase "flexible delivery." These phases will be examined within the two key aspects of Imershein’s framework (1976), shared knowledge of the teaching/learning tasks, and the roles of academic staff, students and administrative staff. Within each phase the teaching/learning tasks will be examined under the following framework- one alone, one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many, by Harasim (1989) and further developed by Paulsen [HREF4].


Phase 1 – Traditional Tertiary Education

Teaching/Learning Tasks

Within the traditional tertiary teaching model, the typical activities of the "one alone" strategies included setting students tasks that can be undertaken individually through such activities as library research or laboratory work. "One to one" strategies include individual tutoring, counselling and pastoral care, while the "one to many" strategies are based upon the lecture format and the "many to many" strategies are typically tutorials, seminars and forums.


The roles of staff and students in the traditional tertiary teaching framework have been established over hundreds of years. The exemplars include the teacher as the source of authority and knowledge, students are usually taught in "face to face" classroom settings. Most students are school leavers who have achieved high academic results, and who enter undergraduate tertiary education to prepare for a professional career. They have role expectations that sit within the traditional teaching/learning model. Most students adopt the role of passive receivers of the wisdom dispensed by teachers, textbooks and other media. The role of the teacher is to deliver information and manage learning. Similar cohorts of students move through the system following blocks of preordained course material. Students are usually taught the same thing at the same time, then assessed on how much was learned about what was taught. This "transmission" model is a dominant teaching/learning model (Lin et al 1996, p.204).

The traditional academic culture has been labelled a "person" culture by Handy (1993) [HREF2], with an emphasis on individualism by both staff and students. Academics worked autonomously, with preparation of teaching materials very much an individual task, and the control of content a right. The only restriction in the way they worked under a traditional tertiary teaching framework was that administrative requirements restricted the use of time and space. Under this model the university calendar was dominated by enrolment, timetabling and assessment schedules.


Changed Conditions

As a College of Advanced Education, then a "new" regional university within the Australian higher education system, USQ presented itself as a viable alternative to traditional universities by offering distance education. Political and social pressure to make education available to all students led to an expansion of the distance education offer. USQ is now a recognised leader in the field of distance education, with over 14,000 distance students including over 3000 overseas students, and 5000 students studying on-campus

Phase 2 - Dual Mode Teaching

Teaching/Learning Tasks

USQ has delivered distance education while continuing with classroom based teaching, hence the "dual mode" label. USQ is one of about 30 out of 36 universities in Australia that offer dual mode delivery (Taylor & Swannell 1997) [HREF5]. It is argued in a recent UNESCO (1997) that this will become the predominant style of all future universities.

Using the Paulsen (1995) [HREF4] framework again, the "one alone" strategies continue as individual tasks through such activities as library research or laboratory work. "One to one" strategies are maintained on-campus through individual tutoring, but activities such as counselling and pastoral care continue on campus but are also available to distance students through a dedicated Outreach and regional support system. The "one to many" strategies with the lecture format continue on-campus, while packages of print based materials are prepared by lecturers and mailed to students enrolled in under and postgraduate courses. Media materials are prepared for some units to support print-based distance teaching. The "many to many" strategies continue with tutorials, seminars and forums while distance strategies include audio tutorials and the promotion of local "learning circles".


The introduction of distance teaching caused considerable tension between the "person" culture and the emerging "role" culture. The role culture of distance delivery requires that course material be delivered in print, so it is available for peer scrutiny, and usually prepared in a team environment. The team involves the academic from a particular faculty, an instructional designer, clerks, media personal, production and mailing staff. The Distance Education Centre (DEC) was established to facilitate design, production and delivery of material, creating what Laurillard & Margetson (1997, p. 3) [HREF3] call a "role culture" or industrial model of education. Distance teaching materials have to be developed well before date of on campus delivery, so academics need to prepare teaching/learning materials to meet timelines set by DEC to ensure timely delivery of quality materials to distance students. Print media requires sophisticated writing, editing, printing, storing and distribution services. Such a complex process of material production in turn requires tightly controlled, prescribed, and centralised planning (Laurillard & Margetson 1997, p. 3) [HREF3]. The academics no longer work in a "person" culture, however the tension between it and the "role" culture has not yet produced a perceived need to change accepted ways of operating, as discussed by Imershein (1976), as the transmission manner of teaching was maintained within the dual mode system. Teachers are still the experts, controlling and structuring the content. The student group is more diverse with traditional school leavers attending on-campus classes, while distance students may be mature age, overseas students and/or professionals seeking under/postgraduate qualifications.

Administrative systems remain largely unchanged as staff and students must still meet the demands of the administrative timetables and assessment systems. However the additional administrative requirements of dual mode delivery has meant staff have a larger, more varied cohort of students to service and track.


Changed Conditions

During the last few years higher education in Australia has been faced with a number of significant changes and influences. These include a greater emphasis on lifelong learning and economic rationalism leading to a reduction in government funding, (which has in turn required universities to enter the commercial arena). Changing student cohorts also make greater demands on universities for greater flexibility in the way they access programs and services of providing institutions, and lastly the huge influence of new technologies, particularly the Internet.

The University of Southern Queensland has responded positively to these influences and has made some substantial changes to the way it offers its programs and services. The university is actively positioning itself to adopt what could be called the flexible delivery paradigm - as indicated by the USQ vice chancellor's comments that the Internet is the greatest revolutionary thing that’s happened in our lifetimes, or is likely to happen, as best as we can see. It will change our attitudes, and will change, inevitably, the way we educate people. USQ aims to deliver what people want, where people want it, when they want it. Delivering to people in their style, in their place, in their time (Swannell 1999) [HREF7].

While it could not be said that USQ has embraced this flexible delivery paradigm totally, there are indications that some aspects of this model are having an effect on the way the university offers its programs. The effects of the flexible delivery initiative will be examined using the same framework as has been used previously, that is, the two elements of the Imershein (1976) paradigm. The nature of the shared understanding of teaching-learning tasks and the roles and responsibilities of those involved in tasks associated with teaching and learning.


Phase 3 Flexible Delivery

Teaching/Learning Tasks

As far as the teaching and learning tasks are concerned, a flexible delivery paradigm can be characterised in a quite different manner to the previous two paradigms or phases as we call them. (While this section discusses flexible delivery it must be noted that mixed mode delivery has continued, with some further inclusion of technology to enhance teaching and learning). With the teaching and learning tasks, the one-alone activities can be characterised by students accessing information from online databases, online journals, and software libraries. One-to-one activities would typically be carried out by e-mail and the teaching and learning tasks would be mentoring, answering students' questions and counselling students.

One-to-many activities could be described as the teacher or instructor facilitating student progress through study materials and readings that have been placed on the web site so the teacher is seen not as the 'sage on the stage' but the 'guide on the side'.

Many-to-many activities are what is known as discussion groups where electronic conference sites are established and students can contact one another and share information and collaborate on particular projects. Computer mediated communication (CMC) through discussion groups is a key method of this approach.


There are some quite significant changes in the way the members of the community perform the tasks required to develop and implement flexible teaching/learning programs and services. The flexible delivery paradigm requires the academic community to embrace a role culture, that is, the members of the community need to work in teams because there is no one person who can design and deliver the sorts of teaching-learning programs that are epitomised by flexible delivery. This requires a consequential shift from the person culture typified by the academic freedom and lecturer autonomy, to a role culture where staff work in teams, with a focus on pedagogical issues and contained within a tightly structured processes of production.

Another change needed is that instead of the administrative rationale driving the educational program, the educational programs need to be supported by administrative policies, procedures and services. If the students demand a flexible approach as far as enrolment or assessment is concerned, then the administrative policies and procedures need to be designed in such a way to support such flexibility. It is not being suggested here that the University of Southern Queensland has adopted this flexible delivery paradigm but as has been indicated, certain elements of the paradigm are beginning to emerge in sections of the university. At this stage it is certainly not a shared understanding across the academic community or the community in general.


Paradigm Shift or Preservation of the Status Quo?

The University of Southern Queensland has recognised that if the whole community is to make the shift and adopt a flexible delivery paradigm in Imershein's terms, what is needed are a number of exemplars that the community can embrace to guide the way they work. If these exemplars are not provided, people may use the new technology, but continue teaching in the traditional manner when that may not be the most effective application of the technology. Hall (1996 p.29) notes that most universities are using the technology simply to complement their conventional teaching. Most recognise the promise of learning technologies, but what is missing is an overarching sense of purpose along with any practical sense of what the shape and consequences of successful innovations might look like.

The experience of delivering a completely Internet based course has identified a number of key concepts around which the flexible delivery paradigm may be developed. For the teaching and learning tasks these key concepts include interactivity, social presence, cognitive strategies and collaborative learning. Pedagogy has begun to focus more on a constructivist framework. The teaching/learning environment is created to enable students to actively participate in the construction of their own understanding, rather than have teachers interpret and transmit knowledge (Jonassen, Myers & McKillop 1996, p.95).

Gunawardena and Zittle (1995) define interactivity as both an instructional interactivity and an attribute of contemporary instructional delivery systems and point out that when distance educators discuss interaction, often their focus is on the attributes and outcomes of real time, two-way exchange of information. For educators at USQ, while adopting a concept similar to the real time, two way exchange of information, it has been noticed that time delayed interaction, or what is known as asynchronous communication offers a lot in promoting instructional interaction. For example, a number of web based units contain discussion groups with a number of conference sites with such titles as Café Chat, Content Chat, Reflections. These discussion groups have been extremely successful in promoting interactivity or quality interaction between teacher-student and student-student. The concept of instructional interaction has been taken even further to include learner content interaction, where the designers of the web based units have used such techniques as Graphic Organisers and Concept Maps to provide opportunities for the student to interact with the content, and not just cover the content. It has also been acknowledged that the use of high technology communications systems requires an additional type of interaction, that is the learner interface, and educators at USQ are in the process of designing a course that will be available for students whose computer literacy and experience with the technology is inadequate and could limit the potential that they may be able to experience from the course.

Work has also begun on redefining the concept of social presence in web based delivery. Gunawardena and Zittle (1995) define social presence as the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships. They go on to say that this means the degree to which a person is perceived as a real person in mediated communication. The work that has been done with some discussion groups, particularly those that use such conference sites as Café Chat, would seem to indicate that even though the CMC has low social context cues, such as visual cues, students are finding the medium interesting and stimulating. They certainly are getting to know one another as well as or better than they would if they were in a face to face situation. One student commented "I am already in awe of the group I am in with. It is amazing where you all come from and what you do. I don’t think one could possible meet such an interesting mix of people in an ordinary face to face class."

Work has also been done on the development of a third principle, that is, in the area of cognitive strategies. It has already been pointed out that the use of Graphic Organisers and Content Maps have been designed to assist students in developing relationships between key ideas and in building hierarchies of knowledge structures. What is being attempted is to try to use cognitive strategies to construct meaning and knowledge from the text by organising the text in a way that shows the students relationships between particular types of knowledge. These teaching/learning strategies are modelled in the units, while being taught directly in one unit. Students reflected on these strategies in their discussion groups. An example of a student reflection (1998) focusing on this follows:


Taylor's (1994) [HREF6] Novex Analysis is especially interesting as a means of identifying and organising content in a Web Based environment. Web Based materials are presented using hypertext, a medium with the potential to organise information in a format which parallels human cognition. Hypertext enables the author to organise information in a series of nodes connected through associative links (balasubramanian). One of the greatest challenges in using hypertext is making the links intelligible to the reader (Barnes, 1994). A Novex based graphic organiser could provide an excellent map for the author and student to follow.

Collaborative learning has also been identified as another principle around which exemplars can be provided in order to demonstrate to the academic community the types of teaching-learning tasks that typify a flexible delivery approach. Some of these exemplars include the use of Reflections in the Discussion Groups where students are required to read the material, relate this to their own experience or context and post a Reflection in the public domain. Other students can then ask questions, interrogate one another and share information. One unit "Creating Interactive Multimedia" has also set up learning experiences where students work in groups. The learners design, develop and market multimedia products in a simulated company environment. Students design and develop the products using software available on the Web and work collaboratively organising product design and development. This has been undertaken using a/synchronous communication (Internet Relay Chat) and real audio.


Some of the exemplars being created by members of the community include the development of teams to undertake the development of web based units. For example, procedures and processes are being developed that draw upon the expertise of the faculty academic or content person, instructional designer, the technical expert, graphic artist and so on. There have also been changes in course delivery, with a greater client focus, eg. courses are now being offered right throughout the year, ie. three semesters. Administrative systems are being designed to put this in place. Students have also been provided with opportunities to extend or shorten the time taken to complete particular units of work. In particular it has been acknowledged that some students, because of work or family commitments, may be having difficulty in keeping to a tight schedule. It is now possible for students to extend their courses and join other cohorts in different semesters to complete their programs. Administrative systems are being put in place to cope with this flexibility.


Corporate Initiatives

Finally, a number of exemplars have been created in order to provide a more corporate focus for the entire university. USQ has set up a wholly owned company called Indelta Pty Ltd for the purpose of investing in an international company created by USQ and others, called eEducation Ltd. It is established in Hong Kong for a range of administrative and financial reasons, and is operationally based in Toowoomba. ‘eEducation’ recognises the significance of effective delivery. It is designed as a total system, that provides a student with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week access, and a download time, in our case, of not greater than about 8 seconds for any page of instructional materials (Swannell 1999) [AHREF7].

To facilitate the implementation of Internet delivery the university has established such committees as an Online Marketing Committee, an Online Teaching Management Committee and an Online Systems Committee. These groups consist of representatives from across the university. Their brief is to coordinate the developments in the areas of flexible delivery right across the university.

Even though the university is slowly working towards the development of teaching/learning, role and administrative exemplars in order to move the entire community into what might be a new paradigm, there are still a number of issues which are of some concern and need further investigation. For example, the technology, while extremely useful in terms of providing opportunities such as interactivity and collaborative learning and social presence, it is still not transparent to staff and students. In order to capture the potential of the technology, it needs to be seamless or transparent in the delivery of teaching-learning programs. At this point in time, there is still a tendency for the technology to get in the way of teaching and learning. A second issue is the problem of access and inclusivity. Although costs and access to online technology is becoming easier, and is relatively inexpensive or comparable to other forms of production, the costs of delivering this type of education are still unknown. The teacher-student ratio has been described in a number of courses operating at the university as at around 1-30. The university is investigating strategies to see if the teacher-student ratio can be increased or if the use of tutors is viable and cost effective in courses that have large numbers.



This paper was based upon a theoretical framework derived from Imershein who developed it to study change in organisations. It has been used to explain changes in teaching and learning within USQ as it has responded to various influences and pressures over the last two decades, moving from traditional tertiary teaching to flexible delivery. Two elements were used to frame these changes - the shared understanding of the teaching-learning tasks themselves and the shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of those involved in teaching and learning.

It was argued that the university has passed through three distinct phases involving the nature of teaching and learning. However, very little change seems to have occurred in the way teaching and learning is conceptualised and the roles of those involved in teaching-learning activities, particularly in respect to the first two phases. While flexible delivery has not been fully embraced (or understood) by the academic community, USQ is really at the crossroads, for the adoption of flexible delivery seems to have the potential to change the way teaching and learning is conceptualised and managed. At this point in time the introduction of flexible delivery has been more of a change of degree than a change in kind.

Two possibilities are emerging - the traditional tertiary teaching model will be challenged and changed or the flexible delivery initiatives will be reinterpreted into current teaching-learning frameworks.

Imershein's framework, which is based upon Kuhn's classic study (Structure of Scientific Revolutions), indicates that the members of an organisation are guided by what they understand can be achieved, given their shared understanding (through common exemplars) of the nature of the tasks they perform and their shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of those involved in such tasks. They do not deliberately set out to sabotage a change or innovation. They will adopt new ways of doing things if they collectively perceive that the change offers better or improved ways of performing their tasks and the outcomes are superior. Such perceptions and understandings are promoted through the development of appropriate exemplars, which can guide teaching and learning.

Recent experiences at USQ seem to suggest that the adoption of "new" teaching-learning approaches consistent with flexible delivery initiatives may be possible if appropriate exemplars are developed which can promote a shared understanding of what flexible delivery is and can achieve. Some promising developments have been identified. Some academics and educational designers have begun to identify elements of "teaching-learning skills" which appear critical in web-based teaching and learning. These could be interpreted as "exemplars" as defined by Imershein. For example, with reference to the concept of "interactivity", it is being argued that electronic conference sites are established around particular functions (informal chat, reflections, etc.) which provide teachers and students with the capacity to engage in activities which promote collaboration, mentoring, social presence and a sense of community.

There has been some interesting work done on designing web-based units which promote the development and application of such cognitive skills as scaffolding, modelling, reflection and coaching. There has also been a start on the development of exemplars, which provide those involved in teaching and learning with insights into the advantages and benefits of adopting a "role culture". Some database management systems are being developed which push the bounds of flexibility without losing the necessary degree of regulation and control needed to manage the teaching and learning process.

It is still too difficult to predict which way the members of the organisation will go. If the exemplars are sufficiently robust to challenge the traditional teaching-learning framework then we could see huge changes in the design, delivery and management of teaching and learning in Higher Education.



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USQ home page [HREF8]

Hypertext References:



Jacquie McDonald and Glen Postle, © 1999. 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.

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AusWeb99, Fifth Australian World Wide Web Conference, Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore NSW 2480, Australia Email: "AusWeb99@scu.edu.au"