E-learning and technical change in universities: a comparative case study of Japanese and Scottish higher education
Universities are in a process of transformation. Globalisation has heightened the competitive pressures on them and Information Communications Technologies (ICTs) seem to be important elements of their ability to respond to these circumstances. The current rhetoric of e-learning within universities reflects these pressures and conveys a sense that this represents a necessary and inevitable future for higher education. However, `e-learning' is a highly ambiguous term which encompasses a range of activities and technological forms. Globalisation is also generating new conditions which universities have to address. This thesis seeks to explore the implications of these changes for universities. It examines whether technological change and globalisation are leading to convergence or some uniformity in developments, as many writers have suggested. Alternatively, are the outcomes and the response of universities contingent on the specific social, cultural context and history of individual universities in their different sectoral and national settings? Theoretically, the thesis draws on `the social shaping of technology' which sees technology as the product of social, political and cultural negotiations among various social groups such as innovators, policy makers, academics and other relevant parties, and this approach takes into account the agency of local actors in the context of wider structural forces. Empirically the focus is on the processes of development and deployment of ICTs within universities, particularly in relation to teaching and learning in the globalising information age and it seeks to examine a number of questions: " What kinds of roles do ICTs play in the development of e-learning? Are they the determinant factors or contingent? "What choices in relation to e-learning are open to universities in the context of globalising capitalism?" "How do national and institutional cultures influence ways of developing e-learning within universities?" "What kinds of outcomes do top-down and bottom-up approaches towards e-learning bring about?" The study aims to understand how universities operate as a key social institution in the emerging context of the knowledge society. In order to address the above questions, a comparative case study approach was adopted. It examines the micro-processes of change in four universities - two in Scotland and two in Japan. The four universities have been selected because they can provide us with the inter-national and intra-sectoral comparison, and can highlight differences as well as similarities amongst them. In Japan there is one `private' university and the other is `state' controlled. In Scotland the selection is of an `old' university and the other a `new' university. Together they offer very different institutional and cultural contexts for studying the influences that shape the role of ICTs in higher education. The fieldwork for this thesis took place between 2001 and 2004 and the material gathered reflects processes occurring in this time period. The findings support the argument that institutional histories, cultures and aspirations of academic units and individuals also play a role in shaping the pattern of development and deployment of ICTs. It is the case that the broader context of globalisation is having a distinctive influence on the scope for choice universities are making, however, it has not made such choices irrelevant or impossible. Cultural values and pedagogic interests cannot be ignored in the process of developing and deploying ICTs since they have a significant impact. Also national cultural characteristics determine what kind of approaches towards e-learning institutions develop. The thesis claims that seemingly uniform conditions are, in fact, leading towards sharply contrasting outcomes. In this process ICTs play a distinctive role by facilitating universities to operate nationally as well as globally. However, it is more important to note that their actual deployments are shaped by the agency of academics within the micro-processes of change particular to the context in which they work.