Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun

Kennaraháskóli Íslands

Ritrýnd grein birt 17. október 2007

Greinar 2007

Anna Ólafsdóttir

Change agents in
the contemporary university

How do forces of change such as ICT
impact upon developments and quality
within higher education systems?

The article seeks to illuminate how ICT, along with other forces of change, is affecting developments within the higher education sector and, as a consequence, impacting upon the quality discourse.

In the last few decades, several forces have been at work, shaping the modern university culture. Here, forces such as globalization, expansion in student numbers, credentialism, and academic drift are introduced, but the main focus will be on how ICT has acted as an agent of change impacting upon quality policy and development in higher education institutions.

In order to give an example of the impact of ICT in this context research findings from a study conducted in a university institution in Iceland will be reported. The study investigated what role ICT had in the strategy adopted for the institution and how ICT affected the quality of studying and teaching. The findings indicate different perspectives from which quality may be viewed and these need to be accounted for when setting policy with the aim of enhancing the quality of university learning and teaching. Nevertheless, more research is needed in order to understand better how quality is conceptualized at different levels in the higher education sector. These conceptions affect how the learning-teaching environment, the implementation of quality policy, and as a final outcome, the quality of the education implicit in the university degree is understood.

The author, Anna Ólafsdóttir, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, Faculty of Education.


In later years the terms excellence and the university of excellence have become widespread when referring to university education and university institutions.

I take it for granted that all university institutions aim at providing their students with education of the highest quality, or excellence, as commonly phrased in the quality discourse (Readings, 1996). However it is important to throw light on the meaning of the terms quality and excellence as they are employed by various parties.

The higher education sector has undergone rapid changes in the last few decades, many of which impact on the quality arena in one way or the other. But what are the forces of change that are acting upon developments within higher education systems, and how do they mould the quality discussion? These are the questions that those involved in policy making, administration and teaching at the university level should ask. The criteria set for quality education depend on the answers, and the quality of education offered by universities depends on how the universities meet those criteria.

In this article, an attempt will be made to illuminate some of the changes which may be seen as impacting upon the contemporary university. These are changes caused by forces such as globalization, expansion in higher education systems and information and communication technology (ICT), as well as others less evident, such as credentialism and academic drift, all of which may be seen as affecting quality in one way or the other. It is not possible in one article to address all these different forces in any depth. Therefore most of those mentioned above will only be introduced in brief to set the scene and give an idea of how these forces are affecting the higher education sector. Then the evolution of ICT will be addressed so as to give an example of an agent of change that has been impacting upon the development, the quality discourse and policy procedures within the higher education sector. In that context, findings from an evaluation, carried out in a university institution in Iceland in 2002–2003 will be reported. These findings illustrate the weight ICT has been given in institutional strategy, as an instrument having the potential to improve the quality of learning and teaching but at the same time the findings are bound to raise questions such as how quality is conceptualized by different parties in the university sector, and how that affects the quality discourse, and hence, as a final outcome, the quality of education implicit in the university degree.

Change and development in the higher education sector

During the last few decades various forces of change have been at work influencing and shaping the culture and developments within higher education systems. In the following sections the most prominent ones will be introduced. First, however, an account will be given of different ideas of a university that have emerged since medieval times and also there will be a short description focusing on how the term quality has been defined and addressed by different parties involved in the university sector.

The very idea of a university

In a discussion about the idea of a university, it is perhaps appropriate to go as far back, as to medieval times. The medieval conception of a university, was that of a place for learning, and training (Graham, 2005). The medieval university had in that sense the characteristics of a university of teaching (Bowden & Marton, 2004). This conception is contrary to the one introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt, in 1809. The Humboldtian conception of a university was that of a university of research (Bowden & Marton, 2004, p. 4), a community of scholars, ‘devoted to intellectual inquiry entirely for its own sake, without any requirement that their studies be practical or profitable’ (Graham, 2005, p. 12). In 1873 John Henry Newman formulated what has been described as ‘the most passionate statement’ about the idea of a university (Bowden & Marton, 2004, p. 4). According to Newman, a university was a place for teaching universal knowledge, and university education was, in Newman’s view, by definition different from the one providing education for vocation or profession’ (Turner, 1996, p. x).

What has been reported in this discussion so far might be referred to as traditional ideas of a university.

Bowden and Marton (2004) argue that the traditional definition of the university refers to a scenario where the professors, surrounded by their students, gave their lectures and used the classroom to discuss their own research. For many reasons this face-to-face contact is no longer the traditional form of university study (Bowden & Marton, 2004). Instead, the relationship between the students and the teacher needs to take place through any range of means, individual learning, as well as collective, and ranging from human to electronic means (Bowden & Marton, 2004, p. 6). On these grounds Bowden and Marton (2004) underscore learning as the critical feature when considering the very idea of a university; hence arguing for the university of learning as the most suitable idea of a university.

There have also been attempts to challenge the very idea of a university, by using the term multiversity to describe, and underpin, the multiple functions, and variety of institutions (Bowden & Marton, 2004; Jónasson, 2005b).

Most recently university administrators, as well as government officials, have been increasingly using the term excellence and the label university of excellence when referring to university education and university institutions. This has been described, as a shift in the very idea of a university, i.e. a shift from the Humboldtian idea of culture, to the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence, where a discourse of ‘excellence’ replaces the idea of ‘culture’ ‘as the language in which the University seeks to explain itself to itself and to the world at large’ (Readings, 1996, p. 12).

If quality has in this sense become the main focus when discussing the idea of a university, the meaning of the very term quality must be considered a central issue when discussing developments within the higher education sector.

Definition of quality and the criteria set for quality in university education

Quality assessment approaches, at university level, have been described as involving data gathering classified into three categories, structure, process and outcome. Each of them has been seen as having three dimensions, the first one being the individual dimension; second the departmental, and the third one, the institutional dimension. The first category, structure, includes the organizational structure, as well as all the material and human resources provided by the institution. Process has to do with the operation of the university, e.g. the implementation of the courses offered by the university. The last one, outcome, refers to the effectiveness, or outcome of the education provided, and the research undertaken within the university, e.g. the students’ competency when graduating, and teachers’ productivity in research. The information gathered comprises the material, which is being measured, with reference to a certain set of criteria, which, as a result, allows for inferences to be drawn, about the quality of the university as an institution, and the education students are provided with (Donabedian, 1988, 2005; Vilhjálmsson, 2005).

Until the last two decades of the 20th century it seems that quality of learning in higher education institutions was considered mainly an internal matter for the university itself to address. National and regional governments were among the first, outside the university itself, to raise the issue of quality assurance in universities (Bowden & Marton, 2004). During that time, in the 1980s, various definitions of quality emerged, with reference to higher education. One has been referred to as the stakeholder approach, a framework, built on five categories, where various stakeholder perspectives, when defining quality, are clarified (Harvey & Green, 1993). The five categories refer to quality as Exception, i.e. exceptional or distinctive; Perfection, i.e. without defect; Fitness for purpose, i.e. the purpose is defined by the provider and quality relates to that purpose; Value for money, i.e. outputs measured against inputs where efficiency and effectiveness are the main focus points; and finally, Transformation, which refers to change, and bears within it concepts such as enhancement and empowerment. Transformation also refers to process, as well as outcome (Harvey & Green, 1993; Watty, 2005). As an example of different stakeholders’ perspectives, it has been pointed out, that governments may define quality in terms of pass and fail rates, whereas students may define quality with reference to their individual development, and how they are being prepared for their future positions. The profession may focus on the skills developed, during the study, whereas academics may define quality with reference to the transfer of knowledge, and academic training (Vroeijenstijn, 1995).

Readings (1996) gives a more critical perspective, when drawing attention to, what he labels as de-referentialization of terms like excellence in that these terms ‘no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas’ (p. 17). Yet, the talk of excellence has, ‘become the unifying principle of the contemporary University’ (p. 22), and the one often used colloquially by university administrators in their talks. ‘Today, all departments of the University can be urged to strive for excellence, since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness’ (p. 23).

Bowden and Marton (2004) also pose a central question when they ask whether any of the quality demands referred to and instigated in quality assurance processes relate to the qualities of the universities per se or to the qualities developed by graduates’ (p. 212). This draws attention to how qualitative differences in learning and teaching are accounted for when defining and addressing quality, i.e. how the question about quality of learning and teaching per se is handled by different dimensions within the university sector.

Quality education - the learning and teaching context

Over the last thirty years, there has been steadily growing interest in research into qualitative differences in students’ learning as a means to improve the quality of both teaching and learning in higher education.

Until the seventies, research into the psychology of learning in higher education mostly relied on the experimental design, when dealing with various aspects of learning (Entwistle, 2000).

In 1976, articles presenting findings from a set of studies, conducted by Ference Marton, professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, were published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. In their introduction, the authors, Marton and Säljö (1976), argued that a considerable amount of evidence confirmed that the traditional way of describing differences in outcomes of university learning, i.e. by referring to those differences in quantitative terms, was inadequate for the reason that both with regard to instructional purposes, as well as better understanding of what it takes to learn, ‘a description of what the students learned should be preferable to the description of how much they learned’ (Marton & Säljö, 1976, p. 4).

The authors’ main research interest was to develop methods which could be used to describe the variation in conceptions of the same learning content held by university students, i.e. ‘how this same learning material (content) is comprehended by different subjects, that is, the individual meanings which students assign to a particular text, principle, idea and so on’ (Marton & Säljö, 1976, p. 4).

In order to provide this instrument, a new methodological approach was chosen, labelled later by Marton with the term phenomenography (Marton, Hounsell, & Entwistle, 2005). The starting point of the study was to empirically answer the question what it meant that some people were better at learning than others, and subsequently, why they were better at learning than others (Marton, 1993).

In the study, individual university students were asked to read a certain text from a textbook, and told beforehand that when they had read the text they would be discussing their understanding of the content with the researcher. When examining the data it became clear, that although every answer had individual characteristics, the various answers could be categorized, depending on their special characteristics, in relation to the others. These were called categories of description, and in a hierarchical manner, these descriptions formed an ordered set of categories, called the outcome space. As Marton (1993) describes it:

The outcome space thus depicted the different ways in which the text had been understood; by referring to this outcome space the categories of description could be compared with one another to judge how appropriate, in relation to specified criteria, was the understanding they represented. This line of reasoning applies, of course, not only to the understanding of the text as a whole but also to the various topics dealt with in the text (Marton, 1993, p. 2).

Hence, a device to characterise, in qualitative terms, what it meant that some people were better learners than others had been developed (Marton, 1993).

Answers to the question why there were qualitative differences in students’ learning, were found in students’ accounts of their experiences of the learning situation, and how they had gone about the learning task. It was found that for some students reading the text was an act of learning, where the main focus was to try to move the text, as it was, from the pages into the memory, meaning, that they were not going beyond the surface of the text. This way of setting about the learning task was referred to by the researchers as surface-level processing. For other students the focus, when reading, was on the meaning of the text; i.e. the point the author was making about the subject. This was identified as deep-level processing (Marton & Säljö, 1976). As the students’ intention evoked the distinctive processes of learning, the combination of intention and process was described as an approach, the qualitatively different ways of handling the learning situation were referred to as a deep approach and a surface approach to learning (Entwistle, 2000).

When studying in more detail the relationship between the qualitative differences in understanding of the text, and different approaches to the learning task, it was found that there was a close connection between the two. Findings showed that students who gave answers that fell within the higher categories of outcome were also the students who were identified as adopting a deep approach when setting about the learning task. Likewise, the surface approach to learning was found to be closely related to the lower categories of outcome (Marton, 1993; Marton & Säljö, 1976).

Since the Gothenburg studies, extensive work has been carried out in research into student learning in higher education where the point of departure has been Marton’s findings. These studies, many of which used a phenomenographic approach, have impacted on research into academic work in universities in many ways. Interviewing students’ on their experiences has led to the evolution of various concepts that allow students’ experiences to be reflected back to those involved in academic work. These include e.g. studies into learning concepts and outcome (Dahlgren, 2005), studies focusing on learning skills and organising knowledge (Svenson, 2005), studies exploring the nature of academic understanding (Entwistle & Entwistle, 2005) and studies exploring the interplay between different approaches and regulation in studying (Van Eekelen, Boshuizen, & Vermunt, 2005; Vermunt, 1996).

The concepts that have evolved through investigation into students´ experiences have also proven to have implications for the quality of university teaching. Studies have confirmed relations between approaches to learning and the way teachers approach their teaching (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999).

The previous sections are far from giving a thorough account of the quality discussion relating to the higher education sector. In Vroeijenstijn’s (1995) examples, it becomes clear that different dimensions within the university sectors view quality from different angles. It is also clear that many forces of change have been at work in recent years, impacting upon all parties within the university sector, be it students, teachers, administrators or governments. As a consequence, those need to be addressed when handling the quality of higher education. In the next sections a few of them will be introduced and clarified.

Expansion in higher education systems

One force of change has been seen in the rapid expansion in student numbers and growing numbers of university institutions. The numbers of institutions offering higher education have, in most western countries, been growing rapidly for the past two to three decades. In these countries, the increase of student numbers entering universities has been fivefold in the last twenty years, and both age participation and postgraduate student numbers have risen dramatically (Brennan & Shah, 2000). In Iceland, a country relevant in this context on grounds of the reported findings on ICT in a later section, the number of university institutions has, since the nineteen eighties, risen from three to eight in a country with the population of 300.000 and in only four years period, 2001-2005, the increase of students studying at university level was nearly 40% (Menntamálaráðuneytið, 2006).

The rising numbers of students seeking a university degree have been seen as playing part in a complex interaction between two other forces, namely credentialism and academic drift in educational systems.

Credentialism and academic drift in the educational system

One of the reasons for growing numbers of students entering universities has been seen to be the credential account, also referred to as status competition account (Jónasson, 2004). The modern credentialing theory has its roots in Weber’s analysis of the relationship between education and jobs. Weber described educational credentials as being ‘cultural-political constructions of competence and organizational loyalty’ (D. K. Brown, 2001, p. 21). What has been referred to as neo-Weberian analysis of credentialism (D. K. Brown, 2001) suggests, that individuals seek credentials, as a means to strengthen their competency in the job market, but also implies, that people no less see it as a way to enhance their social, or cultural capital in general (D. K. Brown, 2001; Jónasson, 2004).

Jónasson (2004) points out, that this strife to acquire a university degree as a formal declaration no less than for the specific skills or knowledge implicit in the degree may be at least partly responsible for what has been labelled with the term academic drift. This drift has been suggested to have four subcategories. The first is the student body drift. Jónasson (2004) gives an example when he describes how students evaluate the functional features of a programme, versus its general status, both for pragmatic reasons and on the grounds of various constraints. Thus, students may prefer programmes of a vocational or professional kind rather than academic ones, but only as long as the programme is of ‘sufficient’ status when compared to academic programmes. When the status starts to change, in the way of being more in favour of the academic programmes, the student body starts to drift toward the academic programmes. Another subcategory of academic drift is the content or curricular drift. This category refers to the development of certain individual programmes towards being academic in character, without it affecting the institution directly in other ways (Jónasson, 1998). The third has been referred to as the institutional drift, which means that entire institutions move between educational sectors, e.g. from the polytechnic level to the university level. This drift is manifested, particularly, in the tendency for vocational schools to become polytechnics and professional schools to become research universities. The last category is labelled with the term system drift, which refers to the tendency of a multitude of institutions to, more or less, drift in the same direction (Jónasson, 2004).

It has been pointed out that the current discourse, in particular aspects focusing on quality matters, gives indications of a gradual drift towards homogeneity, rather than that of diversity (Birnbaum, 1983; R. Brown, 1999; Jónasson, 2004), and as Jónasson (2004) has pointed out, that drift has its roots in the quest for higher status; i.e. the higher education institutions seem to be seeking the status of being a research university.

The tendency of academic drift in the higher education sector may have a particular significance for the quality discussion, in that it addresses the question whether quality criteria and the definition of quality are affected by the forces that are driving institutions into a certain direction, be it diversity or homogeneity. From the present perspective, there are three important questions about institutional diversity. These are: Is it important, and if it is, why is it important? Is it increasing? And how does it impinge upon the quality issue? Robert Birnbaum (1983) argued convincingly for the importance of diversity in his book, Maintaining diversity in higher education, and Brown (1999) agrees with him in that they both point out, that the more institutions differentiate and focus on their specific mission, the effectiveness of the system as a whole increases. It is on these grounds that both authors express their concern about the move away from diversity in educational systems (Birnbaum, 1983; R. Brown, 1999).
Forces of change, like the ones reported above have been seen as being part of a larger phenomenon referred to as globalization.


It has been convincingly argued that globalization has, for the last few decades, been one of the key forces of change in higher education systems in most countries (Fägerlind & Strömqvist, 2004b). Globalization has been described as a multidimensional phenomenon, involving domains as diverse as cultural, environmental, economic and political (Yang, 2003). Yet, it seems that all universities are being influenced by the same processes of globalization (Fägerlind & Strömqvist, 2004a; Scott, 1998) Changes seen as caused by globalization tend to be, to a considerable degree, motivated by economic and commercial forces. This is manifested in the discourse of higher education, in various ways, many of which affect the quality discourse. Higher education institutions are labelled as a part of the higher education market, and there is an increasing demand, from the market, for curricular standards. Another manifestation of the impact of market forces on universities can be seen in the employment of economic standards, or benchmarks, as one of the tools used, in quality assurance procedures in higher education institutions (Yang, 2003). In their account about transmitters of change, and the impact of globalization on education, Evans and Nation (2000) pose the question of what is truly global about the world that globalization has created. The authors argue, that it is without any doubt the communicational infrastructure that allows for almost simultaneous transactions to occur in our activities, be it in business, domestic affairs, political procedures or other social activities in general (Evans & Nation, 2000, p. 165). It can be stated that one of the main forces behind this communicational transaction, is the evolution of ICT, and that is evident when studying the development within higher education systems, no less than it is in other dimensions of the social sector. Yet, as has been clarified in previous sections, ICT is at work along with various other forces in the higher education sector all of which should be considered and accounted for when handling quality-related issues within the university sector. For example, ICT can, to some extent, be viewed as the main pathway for globalization. The way ICT has opened numerous new opportunities for students to access higher education implies that growth in the student population may be looked upon as one of the concomitants of the evolution of ICT. But expansion in the higher education sector has also been seen as a consequence of credentialism, which, at least partly, is considered to fuel academic drift in educational systems. Academic drift, which is linked, to some extent, to the credential account, both of them being affected by globalization, can in addition be seen as an element affecting diversity within the higher education system and this possible drift towards homogeneity in higher education systems may be motivated to some extent by the economic and commercial forces of globalization.

The fact that ICT has been considered to play a leading role as a pathway for globalization, and that globalization has been seen as one of the key forces of change in the contemporary university, calls for the question in what way ICT has been working as a change agent within higher education institutions and how the changes are impacting upon the quality arena. In order to answer this question the following sections will focus on ICT as an example of a change agent within higher education institutions.

ICT as an agent of change in higher education

Fullan (1993) draws attention to ICT in university operations as one of the major forces of change within educational institutions. He also draws attention to the joint forces of quality demands, and the increasing role of ICT in the teaching process itself, when he points out how steadily developing technology, together with notably increasing demands for excellence from the marketplace, is making the teachers’ jobs more complex than ever before (Fullan, 1993).

ICT has changed the learning and teaching environments in higher education in various ways. Technology affects, among other things, the access students have, both to their teachers, and the learning material, but it is also changing the administrative environment. This is, for example, manifested in the use of information databases for management of the operation at institutional level (Ólafsdóttir & Matthíasdóttir, 2004). The multiple impact of ICT on the quality of learning and teaching in higher education will be discussed in more detail in a later section.

In brief, it can be stated, that the evolution of ICT in higher education has been causing more rapid changes in the higher education sector than probably most people imagined, when it came into existence. In addition to the above mentioned issues, these changes are manifested in the prominent role ICT has played in institutional policy procedures, as an instrument to improve the quality of learning and teaching. It also shows in the way universities have used ICT when meeting the challenge of growing competition, i.e. by transmitting learning and teaching through distance education programmes, in many cases as a means to increase student numbers (Ólafsdóttir, 2003a).

Despite the fact that ICT has been seen as an instrument, offering various opportunities to attract students and enhance the quality of learning and teaching in universities, studies have raised questions as to whether the steadily increasing use of ICT in universities has led to changes that have the unquestionable effect of adding to the quality of university learning and teaching (Collis & Wende, 2002; Ólafsdóttir, 2003a; Ólafsdóttir & Matthíasdóttir, 2004).

A study on the use of ICT in learning and teaching
in a university institution in Iceland

In the following sections, findings from a study on the use of ICT conducted in 2002-2003 in a university institution in Iceland will be reported. The institution had 5 faculties when data were collected and the total number of students was 1068.

Aim of study

The main aim was to study and evaluate the impact of ICT, i.e. what role ICT had in the strategy set for the quality of education provided by the institution, and how ICT was being used in studying and teaching.


Data was obtained from administrators, teachers and students. A mixed method approach was used, consisting of interviews with administrators and distance education students. Ten administrators were interviewed individually as well as 17 distance education students coming from all departments. All of them also participated in focus group interviews, where the total number of distance education students participating was 74. In addition, surveys, exploring the use of ICT, were conducted for students and teachers. Response rate in the student group was 416, which was around 40% of the student population and 54% in the teachers’ group, i.e. 60 teachers.


Interviews with administrators showed that ICT was seen as one of the key issues to be highlighted in institutional strategy, and viewed as being crucial for the growth and quality of the education provided by the institution. The strategy documentation, which was in the mid stage of a three year process when the evaluation took place, emphasized that it was of great importance that students gained competency in using ICT in order to improve and enhance their studying practices. It was also considered vital as a preparation for their future workplace. The strategy documentation addressed issues like general computer skills, and information literacy. It also stressed that it was important that the institution enabled students to use computers creatively, both with regard to their studying practices and to prepare them for the future.

When addressing the quality of teaching, the strategy documentation focused on teaching methods, and the importance of teachers adopting new and innovative approaches in their teaching practices. Although ICT was not mentioned particularly in that context in the documentation, the interviews with administrators confirmed that ICT was seen as one of the key instruments for the enhancement of teaching practices (Ólafsdóttir, 2003b).

The surveys conducted were aimed at mapping as thoroughly as possible how students and teachers were making use of ICT in their studying and teaching practices. The surveys also had open ended questions, asking what were considered the advantages and shortcomings of using ICT in studying and teaching at university level.

When asked about software use, findings showed that students most frequently used e-mail, Word and WebCT, which was the software used in the institution as a web-based learning environment. Following these were online communication, Excel and PowerPoint. Findings from the student survey also showed limited use of electronic information resources, such as e-journals, encyclopaedias, and electronic databases, both local and international. A little over one third of the students reported that they had never used an international electronic database in their study, and 16% had never used the local electronic database, Gegnir.

Findings also showed that when asked how different teaching methods suited the students in their study, 86% of them reported that lectures where the teacher used PowerPoint suited them very well. This was the highest score along with individual assignments worked on outside classes, but those two were listed in a group of at least ten different methods of teaching (Ólafsdóttir, 2003b).

Students reported the main advantages of ICT being that it provided them with information and learning material, and gave them more flexibility. They also mentioned more opportunities to enrol in study programmes, and ICT saving them time and money. The most frequent answers, when asked about disadvantages, were related to social aspects. Most students mentioned lack of personal communication as being one of the disadvantages of studying with ICT. They also reported ICT as being time consuming. Students complained about having to wait too long for material from the teachers, and late replies. Lastly they mentioned frequent technical difficulties and the problem that some of the teachers seemed to lack the skills needed to use ICT.

Teachers used PowerPoint and Word most frequently when preparing teaching, and PowerPoint was by far the most used instrument when teaching. To give an idea as to the extent PowerPoint was used in teaching, 85% of the teachers reported that they used PowerPoint always or in most cases when teaching. About one fourth of the teachers reported that they used search-engines and electronic databases always or in most cases, when preparing teaching. Around 10% of the teachers said they never used search-engines and 16% reported that they never used electronic databases in their teaching preparations.

When teachers were asked about the advantages of using ICT, they mentioned that ICT provided them with more flexibility and easier access to material related to their teaching. They also reported that ICT offered teachers additional opportunities to introduce new material to students, as well as more variety when it came to teaching methods. Among the disadvantages reported by teachers was that adapting to new technology was time consuming, and it caused a certain danger of ICT becoming an objective in itself, instead of focusing on the content of the courses. Teachers also mentioned the risk that ICT could lead to a certain stagnation of the courses.

To sum up how students, on the one hand, and teachers on the other, experienced the disadvantages of using ICT it is perhaps useful to give a few examples of reported answers:

Student: Teachers don’t provide the PowerPoint slides soon enough before the class
Teacher: I often feel that students are making too many demands on me to feed them with ready made material
Student: Studying gets difficult if the teacher is not competent in utilizing ICT
Teacher: The learning material tends to get too sterilized resulting in students’ sluggishness
Student: Teachers are all too lazy when it comes to answering my e-mail
Teacher: Students are asking for some kind of “canned” material [Ólafsdóttir, 2003: appendices 5 and 6].

Another example can be seen in the following quote from an interview with an administrator, when describing his own teaching experiences:

There seems to be some misunderstanding; maybe it’s only the newness of ICT that causes it, the thing is that students believe that they no longer need to work on the reading or learning for themselves for the reason that all the material that matters is what we put on the web. Thus, it happens that students say: ‘ Yes, but this was not in the PowerPoint slides’, but we then point out to them that it is part of the book that goes with the course and therefore it’s part of the material they are supposed to learn, and then they repeat ‘Yes, but it was not in the PowerPoint slides’. This suggests that it needs to be stressed when introducing ICT both to students and teachers, that it is a way to communicate and transform information, it’s not learning in itself, learning is something that takes place in the individual student’s mind, not in the computer itself, the student is the one that has to think, wade through things, he’s the one that has to tackle the tasks given to him [Ólafsdóttir, 2003: appendix 3].


When reflecting the findings from the survey exploring the use of ICT in studying and teaching back to the administrational dimension, the strategy documentation stressed three points when addressing the student dimension; competence in general computer skills; creative use of ICT to enhance studying and prepare for the future, and skills in information literacy. On the teacher side, the main focus was on teachers adopting new and innovative approaches in their teaching practices, using ICT as a key instrument for that purpose. The question posed when interpreting the findings could be whether all parties involved have similar conceptions about the very term quality? Or is it possible that what some may see as added quality for the sake of ICT, others may see as diminished quality for the same reason. Does one party involved see opportunities where the other sees a threat?

Comparing students’ answers with the ones reported by the teachers revealed different perceptions of what effective use of ICT in studying and teaching should, and should not be about. This was obvious when examining the examples of reported answers from students when asked about the disadvantages of ICT. Many of the students seemed to view ICT first and foremost as a provider of information. The demands they were making seemed to be focused on better and quicker service, more information, more material etc. This became most evident, when students described teacher-related problems. The teachers, on the other hand, seemed to be concerned that technology as an objective in itself could overshadow the content and they also seemed concerned that the way ICT was used might result in a certain stagnation of the courses.

These reports raise many questions, such as what kind of quality is being sought by different dimensions within the university sector?

The relevance of these findings, seen from the quality aspect, is perhaps best shown by reflecting students’ and teachers’ use of the software PowerPoint in studies focusing on quality in the context of qualitative differences in approaches to learning and teaching. The widespread use of and students’ firm demands for PowerPoint slides for their study, may well be an indication that students are focusing more on how ICT can serve as a kind of ‘shortcut’ when covering the learning material, rather than seeing the potential in ICT as an instrument adding depth to their learning experiences. As reported earlier, findings showed that about nine out of every ten students highly favoured the lecture using PowerPoint as a teaching method. The survey also confirmed that PowerPoint was heavily used by teachers, as a support to their lectures.

Weigel (2002) addresses the increasing use of PowerPoint presentations in university lecturing. He points out how this extensive use of PowerPoint only seems to be resulting in students increasingly perceiving knowledge as something best served up in small portions in the form of bulleted points. Weigel (2002) draws attention to several non-positive consequences of this widespread use of PowerPoint presentations. Thus the teacher tends to focus on getting through the slides, causing the lesson to turn into a one way transmission of information, hence depriving the students of the learning opportunities inherent in a critical dialogue both with the teacher and fellow students. This in turn may lead to a tendency on the students’ behalf to adopt a surface approach, perhaps most clearly revealed when examining the nature of questions the students are inclined to ask in this situation. These are most frequently questions of the clarification kind, like whether this specific material is likely to be tested in the exams. Questions about the relevance of the material, the value of it for the subject or others of similar nature that imply critical thinking, and meaningful knowledge construction, are not likely to occur in a learning-teaching environment of this kind (Weigel, 2002).

Studies have shown correlations between teachers’ approaches to teaching and students’ approaches to learning. These studies indicate that students, who experience teaching approaches focusing on transmitting knowledge, report learning processes indicating a surface approach. They also give indications of a relationship, although not as strong, between student oriented teaching and deep learning approaches (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999).

If we accept that criteria addressing quality of approaches in learning and teaching are of special importance for the quality of the final outcome, i.e. the university education provided, studies like the ones reported here can serve as a guiding light for those involved in policy procedures. These studies indicate that as long as teachers are holding on to the presentational approach to teaching, there will be a tendency on the students’ behalf to adopt a surface approach to learning. If we accept that the way ICT is used in learning and teaching affects the quality of the learning-teaching environment, these studies are relevant to quality in that they illuminate, at least to a certain degree, the interactive forces at work. The findings indicate that as long as teachers use technology solely to enhance the way they transmit knowledge, instead of focusing on how ICT can add depth to students’ learning experiences, it is not likely that ICT will be a change-agent enhancing the learning-teaching environment in a way that promotes high quality learning outcomes (Garrison & Anderson, 2000; Ólafsdóttir, 2003b; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999; Weigel, 2002).

So, if there are certain threats to be found in the evolution of ICT in learning and teaching in universities, are there also threats in the various other forces of change, such as the ones introduced in earlier sections? How are these affecting the operation of the university, and as a consequence the quality aspect?

In most western countries, the numbers of students entering universities have grown enormously in the last few decades. As described by Fägerlind and Strömqvist (2004), mass higher education is becoming something like a norm in these countries. The expansion of the higher education sector has, among other things, resulted in a much more diverse student population (Brennan & Shah, 2000; Fullan, 1993).
Another consequence has been that class sizes have risen considerably (Evans & Nation, 2000). A change towards more diversity in the student population, and larger class-sizes in universities, is bound to impact upon quality, in the sense that the institution will need to address a much wider range of needs from the student population, and larger classes also mean that meeting the individual students’ needs will inevitably become a much more complex task.

The expansion in the higher education system can be, at least partly, explained as being one of the consequences of globalization. Although globalization may be described as a highly differentiated phenomenon, involving various domains, it is to a great extent a marked-induced process (Yang, 2003). The economic impacts of globalization are manifested, for example, in the discourse of global competition, and the higher education sector being referred to as the global higher education market (Yang, 2003). This has been seen to impact the quality arena in particular. One example can be seen in economic standards, as benchmarks for higher education. Yang (2003) argues that this has resulted in a tendency to overemphasize values of a more practical and technical nature, rather than focusing on genuine educational values. Thus, as Yang (2003) points out, market-driven fundamentals of globalization may be seen as bringing even more challenges, than opportunities, into education.

The question whether globalization may bring with it the danger of a kind of downgrading of true educational values is bound to be seen as an important issue to address for all parties involved in quality procedures in the higher education sector. This is particularly relevant when addressing questions, such as the one about the impact of academic drift and the drive behind students’ engagement in university education. Jónasson (2005) points out that those involved in strategy formation need to be aware of the impact that credentialism and system drift may have for the quality arena, in particular if it results in less diverse educational opportunities. Studies in Sweden have confirmed that there is every reason to take precautions, because quality procedures, as they have been practised, have appeared to encourage academic drift and homogenization within the system. It has also been reported that quality management experts are expressing their concerns about the common criteria, apparent in the national quality assessment, which they describe as being of a nature that will more work as a threshold to change and diversity in the higher education sector in Sweden (Kim, 2004). There have in addition been alert calls, warning that those involved in quality procedures need to consider the danger of being more focused on issues related to service, productivity and accountability, at the cost of genuine educational values, when setting criteria for quality in their institution (Jónasson, 2005a).

But what are the genuine educational values that might be at stake in the contemporary university?

It can be argued that these values have much to do with students’ way of learning and as a consequence the quality of learning achieved, when students are handed their credentials. The quality of learning subsequently needs to be reflected back to the teachers as the outcome mirrors, at least to some extent, the quality of teaching these students have experienced. This learning-teaching nexus may be looked upon as an internal force that, in a complex manner, interacts with the external ones The quality of students’ learning outcomes in higher education institutions is thus affected by a complex interaction between all three; students, faculty and organizational environment (Entwistle, 2001; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). As described by Entwistle (2001), this has, among other things, to do with not only students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching, but also the departmental and institutional policies and procedures. And last but not least, it has to do with the interaction between institutional and governmental policy.

The focus on ICT, has provided an insight into the way change agents work and impact upon the operation of a contemporary university, and demonstrated how important it is that all of them are accounted for when addressing quality. The different perspectives reported in the findings confirm that not only is it a complex assignment for those involved in strategy formation to address quality in a way that allows for all parties involved to be accounted for, but the discussion also illuminates that even addressing the very idea of quality is a challenging task.

Barnett (2003) addresses what he calls ‘the ubiquity of quality’ in his discussion about quality as an ideology. He points out that ‘the idea of quality has right explicitly written into it’. Although it may be expressed using different concepts all of them ‘share an interest in doing something well’ (p. 91). But, as Barnett (2003) explains further, well can be a problematic concept to address for the reason that:

... the family of concepts of quality differs over by whom or by which criteria that ‘doing something well’ is to be judged: it might be against the actor´s intentions or against the instituion´s objectives, or by the actor´s peers, or by the voice of the consumer or by the state itself (Barnett, 2003, p. 91).

Bowden and Marton (2004) add a question mark to another commonly used term in the quality discourse when they state that ‘any simple statement that an object is of high quality begs the question: high, relative to what? (Bowden & Marton, 2004, p. 214).

The various terms addressed in this article, be it globalization, ICT, credentialism or academic drift, all relate in one way or another to educational values. As such, they need to be given weight in the quality discussion in the contemporary university and caution needs to be taken not to lose sight of what may be referred to as genuine educational values when handling change in the higher education sector.


The literature reported above has sought to describe and illuminate some of the key forces of change in the contemporary university, and the implications these forces have been seen to have, in the context of quality in a university education.

The complex landscape that the higher education sector is faced with and the forces of change that seem to be acting upon it raise many questions, all of which in one way or another have the word quality written into them. Bearing in mind that even the very meaning of the term quality is far from being self-evident, these questions need to be addressed and answers sought.

In other words: More research is needed to deepen our understanding of the various conceptions of quality at different levels in the higher education sector, and how this may affect the learning-teaching environment, the implementation of quality policy procedures, and, as a final outcome, the quality of the education implicit in the university degree.


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