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Taming the Lone Ranger: The Creative Development of Elearning Technologies within UK and US Higher Education Institutions

Andrew Whitworth, University of Manchester
Angela Benson, University of Alabama

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This paper discusses how the creative use of elearning technology is both fostered and retarded by universities. It uses the organisational configurations developed by Mintzberg (1989) to characterise universities as professional organisations. Professional members of these organisations, in this case academics, retain considerable autonomy but the organisation as a whole finds it difficult to amalgamate and benefit from their creative energies. The result is what Bates (2000) has called a Lone Ranger approach to elearning.
     However, Mintzberg’s work also shows that universities as a whole find innovation difficult. These large, mature organisations cannot simply reinvent themselves as “innovative” organisations. This is one reason why Bates suggests the Lone Ranger model of elearning innovation will die out as individual universities, and the market as a whole, consolidate around a few big, commercial providers of elearning solutions.
     Yet how does such consolidation accommodate future innovation? We address this question through qualitative case studies of online programs in both the US and UK, looking at the different ways elearning developments may be organised. We show how innovation continues within these mature, professional organisations, with varying degrees of health:
* at one extreme there is failure, with creativity eradicated by commercialisation or political infighting
* innovators may be marginalised
* innovators are kept—or keep themselves—at arm’s length, retaining some independence, but without the organisation benefitting from their creativity
* finally there may be accommodation of each by the other, and thereby, organisational learning and positive change.
We support these claims through analysis of interview data from a range of different stakeholders (academics, developers, planners) in each of our case studies.

We conclude that far from having been exiled, the Lone Ranger is alive and well—working, without institutional support, on the next generation of elearning technologies. We suggest that if universities want to retain their ability, as organisations, to learn, creativity must bloom somewhere, despite understandable organisational imperatives towards consolidation. We learn about these technologies best in teaching settings – which by definition, administrators and developers do not enter. Lone Rangers will continue to work on creative solutions to the problems posed by developments in elearning technology.

Bates, A. W. (2000) Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Mintzberg, H. (1989): Mintzberg on Management, London, Collier Macmillan.

Author Bio(s)

Andrew Whitworth is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Manchester. He is Programme Director for the MEd: ICT in Education. His research stands at the boundary of critical theory, organisation theory, and the use of ICT in education.

Until summer 2006 Angela Benson was Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. She has recently taken up a position as Associate Professor at the University of Alabama. At Illinois she offered classes on instructional technology and the design of learning systems. Her research interests include distance learning, instructional design, technology integration, and educational change.

The project discussed in the paper has recently attracted funding from the Worldwide Universities Network and the British Academy.