Review of: Sangra, A. (2008) The Integration of Information and Communication Technologies in the University: Models, Problems and Challenges (La Integració de les TICs a la Universitat: Models, Problemes i Reptes) Unpublished Ph.D., Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain (Original in Catalan: for an extensive English summary click english_summary_final4).
The author and the context
Albert Sangra is a researcher and educational designer well known in European e-learning circles. He was one of the initial staff who helped design the pedagogical model for the fully online Open University of Catalonia, Spain, which was founded as early as 1996, and now has over 30,000 students. (This figure is somewhat remarkable. Nearly all courses are designed originally in Catalan, and there are no more than 12 million Catalan speakers worldwide.)
His thesis looks at the way universities are integrating information and communications technologies. The main thesis is written in Catalan, with an extensive (81 page) summary in English. I have drawn from both the full version in Catalan and the English summary in this review.
A preliminary study
The study is really in two parts. In 2003, Sangra did a preliminary study where he examined the strategic planning documents of 16 universities world wide. (Unfortunately, the discussion of this study is currently available only in the Catalan version.) The universities were selected by meeting each of three criteria: public availability of planning documents; representation from internationally prestigious universities; and representation of universities using technology in different ways for teaching and learning. The 16 universities selected included nine from North America, four from Spain, two from the U.K, and one from Australia. The sample included one open university, the rest being mainly well-known research universities.
Types of strategy
This study enabled Sangra to identify five main categories of strategy for ICTs which he used as the basis for his main study:
• accessibility to technology and infrastructure: making sure that all staff, faculty and sometimes students have access to the necessary technological resources (equipment and networks) they need within the university
• administrative services: use of ICTs to support student and financial record keeping, human resources, etc.
• communication: using ICTs for internal and external communication, such as e-mail, web portals, etc.
• academic research: facilitating academic research, particularly through allowing collaboration between researchers in different institutions and countries
• teaching and learning: Sangra divided this strategic area into four sub-categories:
– integration of ICTs within the curriculum: ensuring that the curriculum embeds technology to develop the skills needed in a knowledge-based society; this would include new course designs to exploit the use of ICTs
– access to digital resources: this would include access to open educational resources, digital libraries, etc.
– improving digital resources: this would include creating new digital resources, online courses, development of LMSs, etc.
– professional development or training for faculty: providing the development or training needed for professors to use technology in their teaching.
The research method
Using this as the analytical base for his study, he then did detailed case-studies of five European universities (four in Spain and one in Italy). Four were campus-based universities, and the fifth (the Open University of Catalonia) was a distance teaching university. He used three main research tools to collect data:
• analysis of documents such as general strategic plans, technology plans, departmental plans, curriculum plans, or specific ICT projects or programs, that indicated the institutions strategies or actions regarding the use of ICTs
• individual interviews with key decision-makers/policy-makers within the institution, such as vice-rectors or others with responsibilities for ICT strategy
• focus groups with key faculty, to identify the extent to which strategy was implemented, the reaction of faculty to ICT strategies, and some analysis of the perceived success or otherwise of the strategies.
Sangra wrote up the results for each of the five universities, resulting in a SWOT analysis of each (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) based on the data collected. These are all available in the English summary, and make interesting reading in their own right. However, I will focus here on the main general conclusions Sangra makes from the case-studies:
ICTs as a passport to the Knowledge Society
All of the institutions in the five case-studies identified what could be bluntly called ‘a technological imperative’: the wish to be seen as being modern and responding to vaguely expressed demands of the knowledge society. Sangra includes in this general motive the need to modernise or improve institutional administration, and to improve the quality of teaching and learning. However, Sangra comments that the notion that ICTs will improve quality in teaching and learning was never empirically supported in the communications of policy. He also noted that the use of ICTs was sometimes part of a larger and often hidden agenda to bring about greater cultural change in institutions.
Strategic planning as a process
Sangra is particularly scathing about the poor or even non-existent strategic planning for ICTs in universities. He is not arguing for a particular type of strategic planning and is aware of the importance of Minzberg’s concept of emergent planning. Sangra though believes that systematic and ongoing planning of ICTs is essential, because the technology is itself in a state of constant change, and is a key to responding to the equally dynamic changes happening outside the universities. His summary speaks for itself:
‘It has been difficult to find specific plans for ICT integration in the university. It was necessary to search and read diverse and often dispersed documentation in order to be able to identify the strategies a university has implemented to incorporate ICT. If they can be found, these strategies are often hardly defined and the actions correspond to a bundle of initiatives that are often part of smaller or larger projects but not necessarily related to a global strategy …that seeks the best ICT integration in the organization….One point that became very clear was the poor evaluation culture that exists regarding ICT integration. We could find hardly any instrument [used] to evaluate the impact of… policies or strategies or even actions carried out.’ (pp.462-463, or pp. 54-55 English version)
Wide variation in strategies and actions between the universities
Sangra makes several important conclusions here:
• campus-based universities tend to leave the evolution of strategy for ICTs to individual faculties and departments; the virtual university had a unified strategy
• change needs to be managed: change management strategies include the development of a well disseminated and shared vision and strong and capable leadership.
• it is easier to manage changes in smaller universities (between 20,000-35,000)
• all the universities felt the need to establish a centralised, specialist support unit to facilitate the integration of ICTs for teaching and learning
Despite the variation between different institutions due to their different contexts, a number of problems were common to them all:
• problems of organization: lack of clear communication of intentions regarding ICT strategies; lack of commitment to strategy at the executive committee level of the university resulting in too many changes in direction and organization and no commitment to sustaining a particular strategy; a consequent lack of adequate time for faculty to prepare and implement ICTs in their teaching
• problems related to funding: because of constant change in technology, infrastructure is often underfunded and technical staff underpaid, resulting in a high turnover of technical staff
• problems related to culture: a high resistance to change from the front-line staff, in particular faculty, due to low levels of knowledge about both technology and pedagogy and lack of reward for innovation and change in teaching.
New teaching models based on the use of ICTs
There was a wide variety of ways in which ICTs were used in the five universities, ranging from minimal support of classroom teaching, through a supplementary or substitution model through to a fully virtual or online environment. There was no institutional evaluation though of which models were considered best for which purposes.
The thesis ends with a set of recommendations, which include a formal planning process that deliberately includes consideration of technology, organization and pedagogy in an integrated manner, but also takes into account emerging strategies throughout the organization. He also calls for greater use of appropriate organizational and management strategies from the business sector.
My response to the thesis
It is important to remember that this is based mainly on five universities in Southern Europe. It would be easy then to dismiss this as reflecting the backwardness in Spain and Italy of universities in their understanding of how to manage the integration of ICTs. There is always a concern with the use of qualitative data that core decision-makers were not included in the interviews, that essential documents were missed, or that the researcher imposed his own bias on the interpretation of data. Generalizing from five case-studies is always dangerous.
However, I would be cautious in dismissing the results of this thesis on those grounds. In my experience many universities and colleges in North America are facing similar challenges. For instance another recent study of a Canadian research university (Parchoma, 2008), came up with somewhat similar results. Bullen and Janes (2007) included two or three chapters on institutional strategies for e-learning that highlighted more constructive approaches to integrating ICTs, but even these did not report on how successful they had been. In short, there are so few studies that analyse exactly what is done in terms of planning and managing ICTs at an institutional level that that we really don’t know if there is a major problem with planning and integration of ICTs in universities in general, and if there is, how widespread the problem is. If any of you know of similar studies to Sangra’s, please let us know!
One thing that struck me about Sangra’s thesis is that many of the problems identified are as much about the general management of universities as they are about integrating ICTs. Is there a general management crisis in universities, or is it that ICTs are a particularly troublesome phenomenon for managers and decision-makers?
Lastly, and this is a point I will return to when we discuss the three assumptions in subsequent blogs, is there a misconception in thinking that institutions should have institutional strategies for integrating ICTs. Why not let 10,000 blossoms bloom? Won’t the ‘good’ uses of technology drive out the ‘bad’? Aren’t the end-users, such as faculty and administrative staff, the people who really know about technology and its usefulness for their work, rather than senior managers and decision-makers, who are far too removed from the front-line? Shouldn’t the front-line workers be making the decisions, and thus driving bottom-up, emerging strategies?
In fact, I think that this is the current management strategy for ICTs in many institutions. However, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. We don’t have systemic change, we don’t have evidence of better learning outcomes, we don’t have evidence of improved administrative effectiveness or cost-efficiencies as a result of massive investment in ICTs.
All this leaves me with deep gratitude to Albert Sangra for undertaking this study, for providing some actual evidence of what is really happening with regard to the integration of technology within universities. It is not a full picture nor even possibly a representative one, but it is a starting point, and let’s hope there will be many more studies of this kind, and even more importantly, lessons will be learned and acted on as a result.
Bullen, M. and Janes, D. (2007) Making the Transition to e-Learning: Strategies and Issues Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing
Mintzberg, H. (1994). The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Parchoma, G. (2008) Adoption of Technology Enhanced Learning in Higher Education: Influences of Institutional Policies and Practices Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller
Sangra, A. (2003) La integració de les TIC a la universitat: una aproximació estratègica. Treball de recerca per l’obtenació del DEA, no publicat. Tarragona: Universitat Rovira i Virgili