Uys, P.M. (2000). Towards the Virtual Class: Key Management Issues in Tertiary Education. Unpublished PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Available online:





This research reports the findings of a three-and-a-half year study that started in July 1995 and examined what key management issues are involved when implementing the virtual class (Tiffin and Rajasingham, 1995) in conventional tertiary education in New Zealand.


 Over this period a study was also made of the endeavours to manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure and the operations of the virtual class at Wellington Polytechnic, a conventional tertiary educational institute in New Zealand. The interim findings of this research were compared to similar developments in New Zealand and elsewhere. The author was the project manager (a part-time role) for implementing the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic during the research period.


By definition, the virtual class equates to the process that occurs when teacher, learner, problem and knowledge interact through information and communication technologies (ICT) for the purpose of learning (Tiffin and Rajasingham, 1995). The manifestation of the virtual class used in this study occurs through the interaction of the teacher, learner, problem and knowledge by means of Internet- and intranet-based technologies called networked education. An intranet is an internal network on which documents are viewed by using a Web browser (Cher, 1995; Gundry and Metes, 1997). These two terms, virtual class and networked education are used interchangeably throughout this study.


The term "management" is used in a broad sense to describe planning, organising, leading and control (Schultheis and Sumner, 1989:65) at all levels within a tertiary educational institute. It relates to management processes of the institute, administrative departments, academic departments, the design and development of the teaching materials, the actual delivery of the teaching materials and the students’ own management of their learning.


Conventional tertiary education in this study is a term referring to post-compulsory public educational institutes that are funded predominantly through the state to which it also has a central reporting responsibility. Such education further has clearly defined administrative and academic components, does not differentiate between their students on a cultural or racial base and, furthermore, has a strong focus on face-to-face education as learning and teaching occur physically “on-campus”.


The virtual class is seen as integral to the operations of the emerging information society or information age (Tiffin, 1996b). The research period brought to light various pointers to the continued emergence of an information or knowledge society both in New Zealand and in the developing world at large. This information or knowledge society is emerging from an industrial society in which physical production technologies strongly influenced the forms of service and way of living, and physical means were being used to create new value for the customer. Tapscott (1996:43) states that "it is fairly widely accepted that the developed world is changing from an industrial economy based on steel, automobiles, and roads to a new economy built on silicon, computers and networks. Many people talk of a shift in economic relationships that’s as significant as the previous displacement of the agricultural age by the industrial age”. Marquardt (1996:6) asserts that “according to leading futurists and business leaders, we have clearly entered the knowledge era; the new economy is a knowledge economy. Knowledge provides the key raw material for wealth creation and is the fountain of personal and organizational power”. Drucker (1995:65) calls the society in which tertiary education currently operates the “networked society” because of the centrality of networking with other organisations through alliances, partnerships and outsourcing. The network society is a term that also incorporates the notion of an increasing number of people networking their abilities to different firms for longer or shorter periods.


Rajasingham (1999:166) points out that despite the wide penetration of ICT in New Zealand, there is a lack of ICT in tertiary education. Financial issues need to be addressed but also the management infrastructure within tertiary education: "while New Zealand has one of the highest per capita telecommunications access in the developed world, and the highest proportion of Internet users, educational institutions and schools (primary, secondary, and tertiary) seriously lack access to ICT. In an increasingly user-pay environment and with the stringent cuts in government funding, educational institutions can simply not afford ICT. While many institutions have centrally administered e-mail, the management infrastructure to integrate ICT into curriculum is not present”. Moreover, the same author cites the Victoria University of Wellington, the Open Polytechnic and the Wellington Polytechnic (through the HYDI Educational New Media Centre) as examples of virtual education in New Zealand. Electronic operations, for instance in the banking and commerce sectors, have become prevalent in New Zealand and other developed countries through the use of automated teller machines (ATMs) and electronic funds transfer at point of sale (EFTPOS). Agricultural communications in New Zealand and abroad have also started to change due to the increased use of the Internet (Bridgeman, 1998).


To Beare and Slaughter (1993) the information or knowledge society is characterized by the fact that manufacturing industry and large-scale factory production are no longer the prime employers of a country’s workforce. Tapscott (1996:xiii) describes this change as a communications revolution:

A new medium of human communications is emerging, one that may prove to surpass all previous revolutions – the printing press, the telephone, the television – in its impact on our economic and social life. The computer is expanding from a tool for information management to a tool for communications. Interactive multi-media and the so-called information highway, and its exemplar the Internet, are enabling a new economy based on the networking of human intelligence. In this digital economy, individuals and enterprises create wealth by applying knowledge, networked human intelligence and effort to manufacturing, agriculture, and services... Such a shift in economic and social relationships has occurred only a handful of times before on this planet.   


The emerging information or knowledge society is having an increasing impact on the concept and practice of tertiary education. Tapscott (1996:xv) notes that "the new media is changing the way we do business, work, learn, play, and even think”. Hamilton (1990:69) highlights the relationship between the development of pedagogies and production technologies and notes that up to now there has been “handicraft”, “domestic” and “batch” production within education. He states that the post-Fordist phase is one of continuous production which moves away from moving students “… through the curriculum in batches” as was integral to the “… emergence of industrialism and the early factory system” (Evans and Nation, 1993:201). Hamilton (1990) links the notion of continuous production to advances in information technology, which are closely linked with the concept of the virtual class.


Drucker (1989:259) asks in the context of the emerging information society "and will tomorrow’s university be a ‘knowledge center’ that transmits information, rather than a place that students actually attend?” Garrison (1989:121) asserts that the “…status quo as represented by much of conventional education limits the pressing need to integrate learning and living in an information society”. Peters (1993:53) contends that “the definite shifts described indicate that the organization of the learning process in the post-industrial society might become entirely different in many ways”. Tiffin (1996b:1) believes that the “...concept of the virtual class is the kernel of a new educational paradigm that matches the needs of an information society”. Tiffin further states that the “...virtual class is an Information Technology system for education and training which could become to an information society what the conventional classroom is to an industrial society, the core communication system for preparing people for the society they live in” (Tiffin, 1996:2). These observations are linked to the work of Heinrich (1970) who investigated the possibility that a new educational paradigm would be called for by societal changes and the advent of new technologies.


The virtual class can therefore be seen as an inevitable component within an emerging information or knowledge society in countries like New Zealand where information technology plays a key role in  forms of service and way of life, and where information is used to create new value for the customer (Rayport and Sviokla, 1995).


Networked education, as defined in this study, uses the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) technologies extensively. This research coincided with a time of dramatic growth in the use and size of the Internet and WWW. According to Gray (1999) the World Wide Web grew from and estimated 23,500 Websites in June 1996 to 230,000 in June 1997 and 650,000 in January 1998; an average annual growth of more than 1000%. The Internet in 1996 (Wizards, 1997) was represented (through domain names) in 129 countries and in July 1999 in 252 countries (Internet Software Consortium, 1999b), an average annual growth rate of over 30%. This correlates with data from the longest-running survey of Internet hosts (Glave, 1998) to the effect that the Internet itself has been growing at a rate of about 50 per cent per year over the research period covered here. The size of the Internet, based on the number of Internet hosts (which is the key measurement of the size of the Internet), tripled over the research period according to The Internet Software Consortium (1999c) (see Figure 1.1 below). The dramatic growth of Internet hosts is also illustrated by the annual growth rates over the research period, which in 1995 was 73%, in 1996 101%, in 1997 57% and in 1998 58% (Internet Software Consortium, 1999a). The Internet Software Consortium (1999c) depicts the exponential growth of the Internet in their latest survey as follows:


Figure 1.1         Internet growth (Internet Software Consortium, 1999c)


At the same time the profile of Internet users is undergoing a major change. McKenzie, (2000) remarks on this opening up of the original network of scientists and computer buffs to an increasingly vital communications medium serving the workplace and a rapidly growing number of households. The widespread use of and access to the Internet in New Zealand and elsewhere has contributed to the feasibility of offering networked education. The worldwide users of the Internet grew from an estimated 16 million in December 1995 (International Data Corporation, 1999) to 150 million in December 1998 (Nua Limited, 1999), which constitutes an average annual growth rate of nearly 300%. Internet Access business account holders in New Zealand increased between l995 and l996 by roughly 135% to just over 32,400 (Infotech, 1997). In New Zealand the Internet users in general grew from an estimated 327,290 in October 1997 to 561,300 in November 1998; a growth rate of 71% (IDC New Zealand, 1998).


The research period was further characterised by an exponential growth of interest in and spread of the virtual class as Farrell (1999:2) indicates "… the interest and activity in the concept we have called virtual education is extremely dynamic". Although Internet facilities like electronic mail, Gopher, Archie and UUNET, had been used widely by the academic community in tertiary education since the 1980s, the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991 has contributed to a new and wide interest in the use of the Internet in education. Berners-Lee (1999a), the inventor of the Word Wide Web (WWW) notes the steady annual rise, by a factor of 10, in the load on the first Web server ("") between 1991 and 1994. In 1992 academia, and in 1993 industry, started taking notice. He was hoping that educators would pool their resources and create a huge supply of online materials; his fervent wish was for much of this to be available freely, especially to those in developing countries who may not have access to this material in any other way.


A search for the term "virtual class" for instance on the WWW search engine Alta Vista in 1995 by Tiffin and Rajasingham - when this research started - returned six documents all pointing back to themselves in New Zealand (J. Tiffin, personal communication, 18 April 1999). The same query in December 1999 returned more than 7000 documents pointing to a host of authors from countries including the United States of America, Australia, South Africa, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Italy, Hungary, Taiwan, Spain, Brazil, Bulgaria, Germany, Norway and Japan.


The virtual class provides students with the ability to study at their own pace, and at their choice of time and place. The remarkable growth of interest in the virtual class might also be influenced by “...the emerging culture of post-modernism” (Hartley, 1995:420) which leads to increasing pressure for “...choice, flexibility and diversity” (Hartley, 1995:421). Another factor contributing to the growth of the virtual class might be the potential increase in the cost-effectiveness of delivery as Romiszowski (1993) points out that telecommunications costs are falling whereas the costs of educational space, staffing and transport are rising. This wide interest can also be linked to the pressure for change in educational policy referred to by Fullan (1991:17) as “… internal contradictions, such as when indigenous changes in technology lead to new social patterns and needs…”


The virtual class can also be seen as an educational response to the globalisation that has been occurring and accelerating in other fields like the economy (Holland, 1987; Tapscott,1996) and communications; as Frederick (1993:269) points out, “we now have the capability to communicate with virtually any other human being on our globe”. In view of the globalisation and transnational exchanges in many fields (Marquardt, 1996:3), Evans and Nation (1993:7) indicate that in “… these circumstances politicians, policy-makers and citizens are making demands upon education systems to reform. Open learning and distance education are at the forefront of educational responses to the changes that are taking place locally, regionally, nationally and internationally”. Networked education in particular seems to be an appropriate response to the environmental changes mentioned above.


There is optimism among many educators that the quality of learning can be enhanced through effective hypermedia environments within the virtual class. Hypermedia can be defined as multi-media (which includes text, movement, sound, pictures, colour) with hyper-links, which seamlessly transports the reader to other hypermedia materials (Uys, 1998). It could contribute to addressing two known problems in traditional distance education, which are a decrease in personal motivation and a sense of isolation (Stacey, 1997; Henri and Kaye, 1993:29-31). Both asynchronous (e-mail, message boards) and real time on-line communication facilities (voice, video, Internet Relay Chat and shared whiteboards over the Net) can be used very effectively to address these problems. Concerning educational materials on the WWW, Berners-Lee (1999b) remarked on the fact that it would show how essential people, and their wisdom, and their personal interactions, are to the educational process; a university is, after all, a lot more than its library. Effective networked courses have the potential to bridge the boundaries and limitations of time and space. It can provide for a variety of learning styles and various navigational paths through educational materials. It allows students to take more control of their learning and develop "life" skills like time management and research skills. The virtual class allows them to set their own study plans, search for WWW resources and critically evaluate its validity. Lundin (1993:13-16) argues that:

The use of ODE [Open and Distance Education] and CIT [Communication and Information technologies] is at least as good, and in some instances better than face-to-face programs in terms of both student satisfaction and achievement as well as staff perceptions. Methods based on ODE and CIT can be effectively applied to every aspect of every subject in any curriculum given the appropriate design, media mix and learner support services.


Networked education is seen by some as a way to address the increase in the world demand for tertiary education. Daniel (1998:12) states that “one new university per week is required to keep pace with world population growth but the resources necessary are not available. Higher education must develop more cost-effective methods so that public resources can be focussed on schools and youth training”. Bates (1999) concurs that by using technology for teaching universities can serve the public more cost-effectively and in particular can prepare students better for a technologically based society.


The increased interest in the use of the Internet in education has been evident through papers and representation at national and international conferences like the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) Conferences, the World Conferences on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (ED-MEDIA) and the World Conferences on Educational Telecommunications (ED-TELECOM). This interest is also evident in the extensive listings of networked courses at WWW sites like the World Lecture Hall (The University of Texas at Austin, 1998) the TeleCampus Online Course Directory (1999) and the Directory of Online Colleges, Internet Universities, and Training Institutes (Geteducated, 1999). Hanvey (1998), for instance, reported that by the middle of 1998 most Australian universities were offering some of their learning materials and courses via the WWW.


 The large number of tertiary institutes in New Zealand and institutes internationally which have been engaged in implementing the virtual class have also been featuring in participation and representation of participants in electronic mail discussion lists such as DEOS-L, OCC-L and a New Zealand based list created by the author: OnLinEdu.  


The interest shown in the virtual class by tertiary education institutes of New Zealand was evident at the Virtual Technologies in Tertiary Education: A Vision for New Zealand Conference held in Auckland, New Zealand in October 1997, at which more than a third of the universities and polytechnics in New Zealand were represented. Another example of this interest was the attendance at a small-scale local conference held in Palmerston North, New Zealand in July 1998 called “Technologies in Flexible Learning - New Dimensions in the Application of Technology for Education”, where staff from the smaller to the largest tertiary institutes attended: Massey University, Auckland Institute of Technology, Taranaki Polytechnic, Waiariki Polytechnic, Whitireia Community Polytechnic, Waikato Polytechnic, Whanganui, UNITEC Institute of Technology, Manawatu Polytechnic, Wairarapa Community Polytechnic, Hutt Valley Polytechnic, Christchurch College of Education, Wellington College of Education and Wellington Polytechnic.


The implementation of networked education relates to a core management issue in tertiary education, as Holt and Thompson (1995:47) aptly say:

All tertiary institutions -- whether they see themselves as being open and distance institutions or not -- are grappling with the challenge of information technology in relation to the very core of the academic enterprise: teaching and learning, research and scholarship.


Attempts to introduce any significant reform, as is the case with the introduction of networked education into the system of conventional tertiary education, will impact on all of its sub-systems. Bates (2000:196) contends that “…using technology to extend the campus on a global basis will affect all aspects of a university or college, but particularly administrative systems”. Fullan (1991:349) refers to the necessity of looking at innovations within the framework of institutional development. The term “infrastructure” with reference to the virtual class in this research refers to the essential sub-systems that are required for the successful operation of the virtual class, which includes the systems pertaining to the technological architecture (the ICT systems), administration, management, instructional design, course development and delivery. Information and communication technologies (ICT) describe the collection of available information technologies and telecommunication technologies. Information technologies refer to the tools used for the “…collection, storage, processing, dissemination and use of information” (Richardson, 1979:121) and refer to entities like computer hardware, printers, servers, databases, computer programs and virtual reality. Telecommunication technologies refer to the means by which voice and data are transmitted and include technologies like telephones, modems, satellites, fibre optic cable, the Internet and intranets (Schultheis and Sumner, 1989; Stair,1992). Just as the conventional class needs a comprehensive infrastructure of roads, lecture halls, electricity, printing, administrative and management systems, the virtual class requires a similar, extensive but digital infrastructure.


A virtual organisation for Ahuja and Carley (1998) can be described as a geographically distributed organization whose members are bound by a long-term common interest or goal, and who communicate and co-ordinate their work through information technology  This correlates with the concept of virtual educational institutes which “…differ from their conventional counterparts in that they rely on a telecommunication infrastructure rather than a transport infrastructure to bring together the essential elements of education…” (Tiffin, 1996b:1). Virtual educational institutes would thus deal primarily with the movement of bits of information rather than with the movement of atoms (Negroponte, 1995). Mason (1996; 1999:11) points out that those who claim to operate a global university need to have their students distributed across continents, have global operations of significance, their mission should include global education, telematics support needs to be present, materials and communications need to be available for global use. Virtual institutes in various formats have been emerging like the Global Virtual University (Global Virtual University, 1999) and Athena University (Mason, 1998:5).  Butterfield, Chambers, Moseley, Prebble, Uys and Woodhouse (1999) point out that these innovations take many forms, and include the University of Phoenix, California Virtual University, DeVry Institute of Technology, Sylvan Learning Systems, Michigan Virtual Automotive College, and Jones International University. In addition, there are also diversification by existing institutions and government projects such as the Western Governors University.


1.1     Research problem


The research problem that this study seeks to address is what the key management issues are when implementing the virtual class in conventional tertiary education.


Conventional tertiary education faces the choice either of attempting to integrate the operations of the virtual class within current institutional policy and practice, or of a fundamental reform. Luke (1998) regards virtually all the rules that apply to face-to-face universities as impediments, if not total barriers to running a virtual university. Rayport and Sviokla (1995:75ff) argue that every organisation (including educational organisations) “ competes in two worlds: a physical world of resources that managers can see and touch [the “place”] and a virtual world made of information [the “space”]”. They illustrate and argue that these “...two value adding processes are fundamentally different” and that “...a company’s executives must embrace an updated set of guiding principles because in the marketspace many of the business axioms that have guided managers no longer apply”.


Luke  5:37-39 (the Bible, 1978) states that “ wine should not be poured into old wineskins, because the old wineskins will break and the new wine will spill out. Those who are used to the old wine will not want the new wine because they say: “the old wine is better”.” Jesus referred to the new life that He brings in contrast to the traditional religious practices of that time. This passage originally obviously did not deal with the virtual class, but it might be applicable to the emergence of the virtual class and the new management approaches it would require. The question is whether the virtual class is “new wine” or just another type of wine. Chou, McClintock, Moretti and Nix (1993) also used this metaphor to argue that he medium of print, for so long our almost exclusive means for preserving knowledge, has yielded significant ground to the remarkable storage and retrieval capacities of the computer. They further contend that, this loosening of the keystone of the modern educational past allows us to glimpse, and demands that we define, a new educational future no longer constrained and shaped by the exigencies of print/textbook-based education. Collis (1998) also reiterated this metaphor when she referred to the implementation of the virtual class at the University of Twente.


If the virtual class falls in the “new wine” category, it may have serious consequences for conventional educational institutes wishing to implement the virtual class without simultaneously reconstructing the management of their institutes. Thomas, Carswell, Price and Petre (1998) argue for a transformation of practices (both teaching and administrative) in order to take advantage of technology so as to provide needed functions, rather than superficial translation of existing practices. Bates (1999) argues that the introduction of the virtual class will prompt a thorough re-examination of the core practices of an organization, whether advertising, or registration, or design and delivery of materials, or student support or assessment of students, in order to arrive at the most effective way of providing these services in a networked, multimedia environment."


The hypothesis for this research is that tertiary education requires a new kind of educational management for managing the operations of the virtual class. Drucker (1998:100) believes that “… as soon as a company takes the first tentative steps from data to information, its decision processes, management structure, and even the way it gets its work done begin to be transformed” Paul (1990:72) argues that an institution that is dedicated to the values and practice of open learning needs to have an “open management style”


Drucker (1989:243) constructs an analogy between the introduction of computers in education and that of the book, and argues that a revolution in education based on the underlying technologies is occurring:

The printed book, fiercely resisted by the schoolmasters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, did not triumph until the Jesuits and Comenius created schools based on it in the late seventeenth century. From the beginning the printed book forced the schools however to change drastically how they were teaching…. We are in the early stages of a similar technological revolution, and perhaps an even bigger one.


Morrison (1995:189-190) claims that “'the late 19th century higher education model is increasingly unable to cope with the axial role higher education plays in most societies”. Based on the new “… dynamics which intrude open higher education and training”, Morrison argues that these challenge higher education on process issues:  how to access learning, how to organize research, how to manage institutions and systems…"


1.2     Objectives of this Study


This research aims to investigate the management of the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure, as well as the management of the operations of the virtual class in conventional tertiary education. It aims to address significant "how” issues as they relate to both of these aspects. Middlehurst (1993:189) supports the focus on management and states that one of the themes of change during the 1990s in the tertiary sector has been that

… at all levels of the university, there has been an increase in the prominence of management, whether management of research, management of the teaching function, management of student learning, management within administration, self-management or the management of others.


Managing change in general and in conventional tertiary education in particular is however problematic and is poignantly expressed in the second law of Senge’s Fifth Discipline(1990:58) “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back”. Senge (1990:7) ascribes this resistance to change also to our own subjectivity, stating that "since we are part of the lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change”. It is therefore necessary, as Fullan (1991:350) suggests, “… that we explicitly think and worry about the change process” in educational reform.


This research aims to contribute to knowledge in that it endeavours to formulate a set of heuristics as a tentative model for managing the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education (chapter 8). It further proposes a tentative new educational management paradigm for the operations of the virtual class  (chapter 9).


Tiffin (1996:2) explores the term paradigm as “ abstract system of integrated elements which can be drawn upon and applied in a practical manner to give substance to meaning”, for example language, and syntagm as a specific expression of a paradigm for example an actual discourse. Bertalanffy (1968:18) follows Kuhn (1962) in defining paradigms as “new conceptual schemas”. Management of the operations of the virtual class is considered as a new paradigm within this study, while managing the operations of the virtual class at Wellington Polytechnic is considered a syntagm that is a specific manifestation of this paradigm. This study also compares the findings over the research period at Wellington Polytechnic with syntagmatic expressions of the virtual class at other conventional tertiary educational institutes.


The paradigm and syntagm interact as management of the operations of the virtual class is being defined and tested through implementation. The interaction between paradigm and syntagm in this study also leads to a set of heuristics for managing the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education. The research is graphically depicted in Figure 1.2 below.


1.3     Research Question


Various questions arise when considering the possible interplay between the virtual class and conventional tertiary education and the effects of this interaction on educational management. Which aspects need particular attention when managing the implementation of the virtual class in conventional tertiary education?  Is it practicable for conventional tertiary education to embrace the virtual class within its current management practices, or is a totally new environment required to effectively engage in networked education? How is the management of conventional tertiary education affected and what changes are required when managing the operations of the virtual class?


The research problem translates into two related research questions:

A. how does one manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education?

B. how does one manage the operations of the virtual class?


Addressing of these two research questions constitutes the overall aim of this study.


1.4     Research Approach


Action research methodology is used in this study as it reflects the interaction between paradigm and syntagm that is theory and practice. During the action research the theory influences the practice and the practice changes the theory. This is the case especially with management of the operations of the virtual class, which is a new paradigm, and its syntagmatic expressions which are essentially experimental or pilot (Tiffin, 1996).


It is typical for action research to occur as a spiral of research cycles each composed of a planning, executing and reflecting phase. Each research cycle represents a syntagmatic expression of the paradigm, which constitutes the management of the operations of the virtual class. This new paradigm changes with the execution of each research cycle as the conclusions of what occurred in practice are being incorporated in the formulation of the concept of virtual class management.


Managing the implementation
and operations of the virtual
class at Wellington Polytechnic PARADIGM
Managing the operations
of the virtual class


Managing the implementation
of the virtual class infrastructure
in conventional tertiary education















Figure 1.2        Graphical representation of the research


The execution of the research cycles was governed by the first research question, which deals with managing the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education. This research question refers to the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic, which was the central operational objective of the HYDI - HYpermedia in DIstance education - project. These cycles were envisaged from the commencement of the HYDI project as sequential operational stages (Appendix 2). The actual starting and concluding dates of the cycles were adjusted in some cases as the project progressed. Although these cycles were initially seen as sequential stages to implement networked education at Wellington Polytechnic, the pursuit of the aim of this research added an expansive cyclical dimension to these stages.


The author was the project manager for implementing the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic during the research period and worked closely with the HYDI team. The research objective of the author, however, led to the independent research analysis and synthesis presented in this thesis.


Any true innovation needs to be carried through from “invention” to “exploitation” (Roberts, 1997:581). Stair (1992:404) also describes an information system as being operational in that after systems implementation, the system will be up and running. In order therefore to address the first of the research questions, the implementation of the virtual class – being a technological innovation and also an information system - had to progress from invention to where it was being exploited commercially, that is enrolling students for networked courses. In order to address the second of the research questions, the implementation of the virtual class had to progress at least to the stage where networked education was operational, that is to the point where teacher, learner, problem and knowledge interact through Internet- and intranet-based technologies. In order to address each of the research questions, the action research therefore had to progress through four cycles to the point of fee-paying students enrolling and participating in networked courses at Wellington Polytechnic.


The implementation of the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic through the four action research cycles confirmed the comment by Fullan (1991:31) that "…all real change involves loss, anxiety, and struggle". Various obstacles challenged the implementation, but dealing with these obstacles ultimately contributed to the research findings. This innovation also experienced some of the problems that Fullan (1991:27) refers to when political change occurs, such as “… overload, unrealistic time-lines, uncoordinated demands, simplistic solutions, misdirected efforts, inconsistencies, and underestimation of what it takes to bring about reform.” The findings of this research are based as much on what was learned from the mistakes that were made, as from the successes of the HYDI project.


This action research was carried out within the broader framework of systems thinking. Stoner (1989:56) describes this approach as one whereby an organisation is seen as a purposeful unit, which is composed of various inter-related parts or sub-systems. This corresponds directly with the definition of a system as a unit consisting of a set of inter-related components functioning together to achieve the objectives of that unit (Stair, 1992:5). Systems theory provides for feedback loops and self-correcting mechanisms that highlight the importance of control in systems design (Garrison, 1989:46). Furthermore all systems  …have a boundary that separates them from their environment” (Schultheis and Sumner, 1989:34).    


Many writers like Miles (1980), Schoderbek (1985) and Stoner (1989) assert that an organisation, and the management of it, can be viewed as a system consisting of sub-systems. Senge (1990:7) endorsed this view when stating that “business and other human endeavours are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions which often take years to fully play out their effect on each other”. Scott and Mitchell (1972) postulate that the only meaningful way to study an organisation is as a system. A conventional tertiary educational institute can thus be described in systems terms as consisting of five sub-systems representing the five factors of the MIT90 schema: strategy, roles and skills, structure, technology and management processes (Morton, 1991).


The systems approach, and specifically the open systems approach, is followed in this research because it has been used as a meaningful way to study an organisation (as noted above) and because it has been commended for its potential usefulness in synthesising and analysing complexity in organisations (Simon, 1969). The modern tertiary education institute is an open system and the complexity and speed of change in its environment is so vast, that questions may be asked as to whether chaos theory might not also be appropriate to use for this study (J. Tiffin, personal communication, 24 June 1998). However, the complexity of the modern organisation and its environment - which is also true of conventional tertiary education - and its interdependence with its environment, is integral to the open systems approach which emphasises the fact that the organisation is an open system, which exists in interdependence with its environment and where “… principles of multivariable interaction … become apparent, a dynamic organization of processes…” (Bertalanffy, 1968:154).  Leavitt, Pinfield and Webb (1974) also recommended an open-systems approach for studying contemporary organisations which today exist in a fast-changing and turbulent environment; this has also become the case in conventional tertiary education. Bertalanffy (1968) argued that closed system theory cannot apply to what he called open systems, which is typical of living entities, including organisations in which the external environment is essential for their maintenance, survival, and growth. A systems approach to organisations acknowledges that they are open systems that engage in various modes of exchange over its boundaries with a complex environment (Katz and Kahn, 1966).


The systems approach emphasises that "a system is a whole that cannot be taken apart without loss of its essential characteristics, and hence must be studied as a whole” (Ackhoff, 1972:40). This emphasis also influenced the presentation of the research findings in terms of the MIT90s schema. This schema was defined during the “Management in the 1990’s” research program (Morton, 1991). Yetton (1993) used it effectively in a study of the management of information technology (IT) in twelve Australian universities.


The MIT90 researchers investigated the impact of information technology on different types of organisations from a managerial perspective. The MIT90 schema is based on the concept that “an organisation can be thought of as comprised of five sets of forces in dynamic equilibrium among themselves  (Morton, 1991:18). These forces are strategy (that is how an organisation attempts to accomplish its objectives), roles and skills of individuals, organizational structure, technology and management processes.


This schema seemed appropriate because it highlights the centrality of management processes in the life of an organisation, it follows a systems approach, it provides an holistic framework for the analysis, and it has to do with the impact of IT - which is central to the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in organisations.


The research findings relating to the first research question (How does one manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education?) deal with four of the elements within the MIT90 schema: strategy, roles and skills of individuals, organizational structure and technology (see Figure 1.3). The findings are presented as a set of heuristics that represents a tentative model for managing the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education (Chapter 8).













Figure 1.3         MIT90 Schema


The research findings in addressing the second research question  (How does one manage the operations of the virtual class?) address the element of “Management Processes” within the MIT90 schema. The findings are presented as the dimensions of a new tentative management paradigm for managing the operations of the virtual class.


This research was undertaken within the New Zealand context, but it is proposed that the findings of this study may be generalised to institutes with a similar profile elsewhere (Chapter 3).


The author believes that the relative immaturity of developments in the area of the virtual class precludes any conclusive approach. This study is a deductive study that aims to uncover and highlight management issues when implementing the virtual class in conventional tertiary education in New Zealand and other institutes with a similar profile. It does not seek to present the findings as definitive “solutions”, but rather to uncover key management issues involved and suggest relevant management approaches.