Book cover

Ehlers, U-D. and Schneckenberg, D. (eds. ) Changing Cultures in Higher Education: Moving Ahead to Future Learning Heidelberg/London/New York: Springer, 610 pp, US$129.00

What the book is about

The fundamental premise behind this book is that universities need radical change, and the authors contributing to the book offer analysis and strategies to bring about that change. The editors argue in the opening chapter that there will be ‘a … shift toward a new paradigm of organizational and individual learning’, and that ‘such a strategic shift requires a more strategic approach to institutional change.’ They argue that ‘changing cultures require the liberation of creative resources that are currently bound in often too large and inflexible institutional hierarchies. Universities have to push for a change of long-standing values, habits, beliefs, at both management and faculty level.’ In particular, the book examines the impact of technology on the university and aims to be a handbook for strategic innovation in higher education to enable universities to better meet future challenges.

The contributors

The editors have brought together over 50 contributors, the majority of whom are European, although there are also authors from the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Brief bios are provided for each of the contributors.

The content

The book is organized into four main sections:

  1. Setting the Scene
  2. New strategies for a culture of change and innovation in universities
  3. e-Competence and faculty engagement for e-learning
  4. Innovation and quality through e-learning in universities.

Within each section there are one or two ‘case studies’ called ‘Stories of Change’ which provide examples of how universities are changing.

Setting the Scene

There are five chapters in this section, including the introductory chapter by the editors, and chapters from Tony Bates, Gilly Salmon, Jay Cross and Roberto Carneiro.

The editors in their introductory chapter identify seven areas where ‘deep changes’ are taking place in universities (learners, learning outcomes geared towards competence and innovation, the role of faculty, diverse teaching methods, strategic directions, leadership and management, and external relations), and identify a further eight ‘cornerstones of change’, such as lifelong learning, use of technology, ubiquitous learning, affordable education, collaborative learning, diversity, internationalization, and new forms and patterns of educational delivery.

I provide a chapter on why universities must change, setting out both the pressures for and the barriers to change, and suggest three key strategies for change: increased incentives for institutional change from funding agencies; compulsory training of all instructors in modern methods of teaching; and better training for senior managers/administrators.

Gilly Salmon, drawing on the University of Leicester’s learning innovation strategy, focuses on the changing needs of learners and the opportunities that are available to meet such needs, and on pragmatic ways to innovate, both incrementally and radically.

With the neat title of ‘They Had People Called Professors’, Jay Cross argues that universities have to pay much more attention to supporting informal as well as formal learning, and provides an excellent analysis and discussion of informal learning at a higher education level.

Roberto Carneiro draws on management and organizational theory to propose a theory of change for the transformation of modern universities.

I found this section particularly useful in addressing both the reasons for change, and key strategies for bringing about change, in universities.

New strategies for a culture of change and innovation in universities

This section, which contains 12 relatively short chapters from different authors, presents a range of strategic approaches to support sustainable innovation in today’s universities. The section begins with a case study of innovation at a large European research university, the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and also includes another case study of change, the National University of Ireland.

Other chapters cover:

  • defining and shaping learning cultures,
  • the role of faculty development in changing learning cultures,
  • using wikis and blogs for developing more informal and self-directed learning
  • an overview of open educational resources and a blueprint for adoption,
  • an analysis of drivers of change and the role of leadership and strategic planning for change implementation,
  • making user-generated content approaches work,
  • strategic issues in information management in universities,
  • developing leadership capacity and skills,
  • the use of Appreciative Inquiry for supporting a change to e-learning,
  • the implementation of e-learning at four different institutions in the UK using different approaches and a comparison of results.

This section covers a wide variety of approaches to innovation, most of which are embedded in actual examples.

e-Competence and Faculty Engagement for e-Learning

This section outlines the main components of the concept of e-Competence, which is defines as ‘the ability of faculty and students to adequately use technologies for teaching, learning and research in higher education’.

This section contains 11 chapters, this time with three case studies, one from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, one from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and one from the Finnish Virtual University. The other chapters cover:

  • a conceptual framework for the concept of e-Competence
  • learning in communities
  • the use of online conferencing to build professional communities in Africa
  • the difference between conveying informational knowledge and the development of competences
  • a case-study comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of e-learning and face-to-face teaching
  • the competences of the network generation (Homo Zappiens)
  • an educational ICT competency framework for university teachers: roles and domains
  • building e-learning teaching competences through collaborative learning.

This section covers the issue of faculty development and training in e-learning in several different but complementary ways, again with many examples of ‘best practice’.

Innovation and quality through e-learning in Universities

In this section, the editors argue that ‘there is a strong need for a common concept of quality improvement that is theoretically sound and at the same time meets the expectations of stakeholders…This [section] outlines, on the basis of a comprehensive analysis of established quality management strategies, the challenges for an innovative approach to quality development in universities.’

This section contains nine chapters, one of which, The Ruhr University of Bochum, is a case study in quality management. The other chapters cover:

  • moving from control to culture in quality management
  • quality for global knowledge-intensive organizations
  • quality development for e-Learning 2.0
  • new ways to measure the quality of Web 2.0 learning
  • a theoretically sound concept of quality criteria: the EFMD-CEL model
  • changing e-learning practice: the MedidaPrix Award
  • the UNIQUe accreditation model; supporting innovation and quality in e-learning
  • the organizational impact of open educational resources.

The section provides a number of different approaches to quality development and management, and the relationship between e-learning, quality and innovation are explored in some depth.


First, a declaration of interest and a note of caution. I wrote both the forward and a chapter for this book, and I already had a great respect for the work of the editors of this book before reading it. I have not had the time yet (if I ever will) to read all the chapters in depth, so this is a first impression of a very large book.

The good

Nevertheless, it is clear to me that this is an extremely important book which goes to the heart of the current condition of universities in economically developed countries. The editors have collected together an impressive range of authors, cases and ideas within a single volume. The structure of the book works well, with coherence within and between the sections. The editors have pulled together many of the leading thinkers about and practitioners in e-learning in European universities and from elsewhere, and the book gives an excellent overview of current innovations in European universities. Despite the wide range of authors and the large number of chapters, there is relatively little duplication or redundancy in the book. Indeed, there are really no weak or unconvincing chapters.

The book provides senior managers in universities with both a conceptual analysis of the way that university teaching and learning is changing, and how it needs to change further, and a raft of ideas and strategies for supporting such changes, while maintaining and indeed improving quality. It should be essential reading for every university administrator and manager, as well as faculty.

Although this is a field in which I claim some expertise, I was continually surprised and delighted to find new ideas and approaches that seemed to be a good fit for the challenges universities are facing. Different readers will have different preferences, but I particularly enjoyed all the other chapters (besides mine) in setting the scene, because they establish very clearly why universities need to change, and to change more quickly than they are doing at the moment. (This perhaps should not be given too much attention, as we all like to hear from people whose views we agree with!).

I also particularly liked Chapter 17 , which described the implementation of e-learning at four different institutions in the UK using different approaches and a comparison of results. I liked this chapter because in the four institutions an evidence-based approach to innovation was used, and the chapter provided a list of ten practical tips for cross-institutional collaboration in institutional change management.

I also was impressed by John Erpenbeck’s Chapter 22 on conspiracies and competences, which compares what actually happens in university classrooms to what is claimed to happen. Another chapter that was very revealing is J.A. Boon’s Chapter 23, which looks at the strengths and weaknesses both of face-to-face and online learning. We need many more studies that try to identify the unique roles of each in different contexts.

Despite my inherent antipathy to quality assurance measures as generally practiced in higher education, I also enjoyed Ulf-Daniel Ehler’s Chapter 30, which argues the case for developing a culture of quality, rather than a set of controls, and particularly the last chapter in the book, Nial Sclater’s, on the organizational implications of open educational resources, a critical element that I have rarely seen discussed. However, it is, as they say, invidious to pick on some chapter and not others. I just wanted to give a reflection though of the range and quality of the chapters.

The bad

It’s too long. At over 600 pages in length, what busy university president or vice-chancellor is going to read it thoroughly? A thorough read is really necessary, because the book is about changing people’s behaviour, and this does not come easily. The value of the book is its detailed approach to institutional change management. It says much about university management today that it is almost impossible to sit down a university president and get 20 minutes uninterrupted time, but that’s the way it is. This book requires a three month vacation – and I have other ideas about what to do when on holiday. It would have been better to have produced three or four shorter books within a series. This would have kept the length down, reduced the price, and made the work much more accessible.

Second, despite its length, in some ways the book’s focus is too narrow. It focuses particularly on e-learning, but really the challenge is to university teaching and learning as a whole. There is a danger in just focusing on the technological aspects. I will discuss in another blog the need to engage other stakeholders, such as government, parents and students, in university reform. In the meantime, see Innovate or Die, an earlier post that discusses the need for institutions to innovate and change.

I also felt that what was lacking were alternative views from the more traditional university teachers. There are many good things about the ‘old’ model of teaching which should not be ignored. How can these be carried over and strengthened in the ‘new’ university? Lastly, some of the chapters were highly rhetorical or speculative. Nothing wrong with that, but they do lay themselves open to the charge: ‘Where’s the evidence’? I felt this particularly about Veen and van Staalduinen’s Chapter 24 on Homo Zappiens.


Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent book, with pragmatic suggestions for reforming and improving university teaching. I just fear that it will be preaching to the converted, though. The best strategy is to get the library to order the book, give it to the Vice Chancellor as he goes on holiday, and insist he pays the fine when he is late returning it to the library.


  1. Great review, Tony. A review like this helps me cut to the meat. Changing Cultures in Higher Ed is a meter from me as I write this. I read it two days ago. And your review brings its issues back into focus.

  2. Excellent review Tony and it looks like a really interesting read. I am very rarely motivated to buy a book on this subject as there simply isn’t enough time to read them all. However, I would be prepare to make an exception with this one. The problem is it’s £90!!!!! Are you kidding me! No one will buy it at this price. It’s a shame that such an insightful document will be unnoticed.


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