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Editor’s Note:  The course of human history is riddled with questions concerning the quality, value, and intrinsic benefits of change, whether it is social change, organization of political parties, or development of mass transit systems. The teaching-learning arena is no different!

A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Use of Information and Communication Technology in Teaching in Universities

Reginald Nnazor



Advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have provided unprecedented opportunities for technology-facilitated synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning on-campus and in distance education environments. Although there is considerable research on the use of ICT in higher education, the approach to understanding the phenomenon has been mainly internalist. The internalist approach typically focuses on how factors within institutions influence the use of ICT in teaching. As a result, there is little systematic understanding of the influence of factors external to institutions, and how these external factors combine with internal factors to shape the use of ICT. This paper proposes a conceptual framework for investigating factors external and internal to universities that facilitate or hinder the use of ICT in teaching. The framework is constructed with factors that emerge from a purposeful review of the literature on the external and internal environments of higher education.

Keywords: technology in education, higher education research, distance education, framework


The use of information and communication technology (ICT) in teaching and learning in universities is now almost ubiquitous. There is, however, a paucity of research that provides systematic understanding of factors external and internal to universities that facilitate or hinder the phenomenon. Studies on the use of ICT in higher education typically take an internalist approach – they focus mainly on factors within institutions (Bates, 2000; Cole, 2000; Ransom, Graham & Mott, 2007; Price & Oliver, 2007).

The use of ICT in the teaching and learning process in universities is a social and organizational phenomenon. Social and organizational theories suggest that studies seeking to provide robust and comprehensive understanding of phenomena take approaches that seek explanation of relationships or connections between micro and macro levels of factors. This is because ‘institutional or structural features of society are intimately interwoven with behaviour and activity” (Layder, 1993, p.55). The implication of this is that attempts to comprehensively understand an organizational phenomenon, such as the use of ICT in teaching and learning, should entail taking into account the influence of relevant factors at individual, organizational, and societal levels (Katz & Kahn, 1966). In higher education research, in particular, this approach receives strong support (Becher & Kogan, 1992; Clark, 1983). Becher and Kogan (1992), while generally examining faculty attitudes and values note that, “academics are amenable to outside influences impinging on their beliefs and values in the normative mode and conditioning their activities and practices in the operational mode. The normative dimension includes professional norms as well as social, economic, and cultural forces” (p.117).

If, as Becher and Kogan (1992) postulate, faculty beliefs, values and occupational practices are susceptible to societal influences – a postulate that is, of course, in consonance with the rationale undergirding the micro-macro approach in social research – then an analytical framework for investigating the use of ICT in teaching in universities should include the influence of factors external and internal to universities.

External factors

Theories of organization, such as open systems (Katz & Kahn, 1966), contingency (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), ecological (Aldrich, 1979; Hannan & Freeman, 1977), and institutional (Meyer & Scott, 1992) emphasize the relationship between organizations and their external environments. Universities, like other organizations, are susceptible to the shaping influence of elements in their environments. A review of the literature, for instance, (Blackman & Segal, 1992; Neave & Vught, 1994; WGDOL, 2003, 2002) identifies the following key elements in the external environment of universities: information technology, government, industry, and demand for access.

In the paragraphs that follow, the literature on the external environment of higher education is purposefully reviewed to identify external factors that have potential to influence use of ICT in universities. Identified factors are utilized to construct the external component of the framework for research presented in this paper.

Information technology as an influence on the university

Contemporary society is evidently experiencing information revolution. The single most important factor enabling the revolution is Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Martin (1988) describes ICT as a change agent and observes that “no field of human endeavour remains immune to its influence, no corner of life is left undisturbed by its coming” (p. 11). Increasingly, ICT is used to facilitate teaching and learning in universities because of its potential to facilitate time and place independent access, enhance quality, and reduce costs (Price & Oliver, 2007; WGDOL, 2003). In spite of the strong, if not enthusiastic global interest in the use of technology in education, critics question the notion of technology as a “magic bullet” for addressing the concerns about access, quality, and cost.

Proponents of the use of ICT in education argue that the capability of technology to support time and place independent educational transactions can be harnessed to provide greater access. A claim, such as this, which tends to suggest that technology can be used to expand or democratize access, is challenged by critics, or presented rather gingerly by more cautious proponents on the grounds that not all can afford access to technology (Bates, 2000). The key questions about the access-expanding rationale relate to affordability of technology and possession of appropriate skills by those who need educational access. The capability of ICT to support a variety of educational transactions to a considerable extent is, however, hardly questioned.

With regard to the quality-enhancing rationale, it is often claimed that quality of education can be improved through the use of technology (Beers, 2007; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005; Epper & Bates, 2001). The capability of the Internet, for instance, to afford access to world-wide learning resources is a tremendous potential for improving educational quality. The capability of e-mail to support time and place independent teacher-student and student-student communication is also a quality-improving potential. Furthermore, the capability of computer conferencing to support one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many educational transaction provides opportunities for individualized and collaborative learning. In addition, the quality-enhancing rationale is underscored by what can be referred to as the synchrony thesis – that through the use of technology in the teaching and learning process, learners familiarize themselves with ICT, which has become a key and ubiquitous tool in the workplace.

Critics challenge the quality-enhancing rationale on two key grounds. First, that technology-mediated communication is bereft of authentic human contact. In this regard, critics contend that technology cannot support rich human interaction from which meaningful learning can occur (Brabazon, 2002; Noble, 1998; Postman, 1992; Weizenbaum, 1976). Second, critics hold that the notion of an education-economy synchrony is motivated more by economic exploitation (Mackay, 1991).

The third rationale for the use of ICT in teaching and learning relates to the cost-reduction potential of the tool. Proponents of the rationale hold that the capability of technology to support distributed learning allows for the reaping of educational benefits that can accrue from economies of scale if large numbers of learners are served. In addition, use of technology in education can save travel time and other transaction costs for instructors and students. The cost-reduction rationale is often presented with caveats that sound problematic. For instance, some hold that for there to be a reasonable reduction in cost, there has to be considerable labor retrenchment (Massey & Zemsky, 1995). Daniel (1997) couches the cost-reduction potential of educational application of technology in a proviso that implies significant structural and process restructuring: “technology can raise productivity, but only through a reorganization of the teaching-learning process based on the development of a technology infrastructure” (p. 16). Nevertheless, the use of ICT in teaching and learning in universities is burgeoning inexorably, putting pressure on institutions to restructure and reinvent themselves in ways that would allow for optimum realization of the potentials of the tool.

Government as an influence on the university

No study of the educational system “can be separated from the explicit or implicit analysis of the government sector” (Carnoy, 1985, p. 157). Government is a central factor in the political economic analysis of education because, as “power is expressed at least in part through a society’s political system … any political economy model of educational change has behind it a carefully thought out theory of the functioning of government” (p. 157).

Governments all over the world directly or indirectly influence universities. Altbach (1990) observes that government intervention in universities occurs in rich and poor, totalitarian and democratic nations. A review of the literature indicates that the rationale for governments to influence universities is based on the heightened interest in knowledge and skills as critical national development resources. Government intervention in higher education “may have been inevitable given the growing importance of systematic knowledge for economic growth, for social problem-solving and for the growing training function of higher education” (Teichler, 1991, p. 45). As a result of the accentuated interest in knowledge and skills as crucial national development resources, governments engage in continual development of their educational systems.

A concept central to government intervention in the university and in education generally is “public policy.” Public policy is a basis and an instrument for government intervention in the university. Acting on behalf of society within the context of perennial scarcity of resources and conflict of interests, government directly or indirectly intervenes to regulate, distribute, and redistribute educational opportunities and services; to capitalize universities; and to enable an ethical and safe environment for the conduct of research, public service, and teaching and learning. Adam (2003) observes the pivotal role of government in influencing the use of ICT in universities: “A well-articulated, networked learning environment in higher education requires significant government intervention. Government policy has a real impact on strategic initiatives in universities and often determines the parameters of such initiatives through laws, regulations, and the allocation of funds” (p. 219).

Industry as an influence on the university

Industry influences the structures and programs of universities, as well as their values (Blackman & Segal, 1992; Buchbinder, 1993; Davies, 1987). University-industry relationship, like the relationship between government and the university is somewhat controversial because of its potential or real threat to traditional academic ethos and university autonomy.

The nature of modern economy provides the stimulus for contemporary university-industry relationships. It is knowledge which is skill-based and technology intensive. This makes investment in research and development, as well as in human capital imperative. Given the obsolescence of knowledge and skills, the need for continuing commitment to keep these vital resources up-to-date becomes a priority for nations and businesses. It is logical that “firms should seek to establish enduring relationships with HE [higher education] and other institutions, to ensure that they have the knowledge base and more particularly the skill essential … for economic activities” (Blackman & Segal, 1992, p. 936).

Universities themselves seek partnership with industry for a variety of reasons. The need to augment funding from government or traditional sources motivates universities to partner with industry (Michael & Holdaway, 1992). In addition, universities someVerdana interact with industry in order to have access to cutting edge theoretical and practical knowledge that may be available in industry. Blackman and Segal (1992) observe that, in some instances, industry may be ahead of the university with respect to “theory and not just practice” (p. 936). University-industry interaction provides opportunities for university faculty and students to familiarize themselves with state-of-the-art industrial science and technology, as well as management systems. Consistent with the rationales undergirding university-industry collaboration, universities take steps to enhance employment prospects for students by offering programs and courses that respond to the needs of industry.

Demand for Access as an influence on the university

Demand for access to higher education, which has been growing since World War II has shaped and continues to shape universities. There is hardly any attempt to account for increasing demand for access that does not significantly attribute the trend to the roles education plays in modern society. Education plays critical roles in economic productivity (Denison, 1962; Schultz, 1961), and in social selection or mobility (Dore, 1976). The value of education goes beyond the instrumental. Modern society has institutionalized education as a citizenship right, as a social virtue, as a public good, and as a stratification process; thus, providing individuals incentives to participate (Carnoy, 1985; Meyer, 1992).

Universities are under pressure to make institutional changes in order to meaningfully respond to the needs of a heterogeneous mass clientele seeking flexible and convenient arrangements. The key changes occurring in universities in response to mass or flexible demand for access include use of ICT for on-campus and distance education (Bates, 2000).

Funding as an influence on the university

Funding for universities is identified in the literature as a critical element of the external environment. Funding and sources of funding are implicated as an influence on universities in three elements of the external environment already discussed: government, industry, and demand for access.

Governments utilize a variety of funding opportunities as an instrument for steering both public and private universities. The use of funding to influence universities is generally seen as a very potent tactic and strategy. Neave and Vught (1994) observe that “in any higher education the budgetary process is a powerful instrument in determining institutional behaviour” (p. 312), and Becher and Kogan (1992) state that “resource allocations are a metaphor for allocation of values” (p. 83). Funding from government is understandably a major factor for government-sponsored institutions, and can also be a significant factor for private institutions to the extent that they receive research or special purpose grants from government or government-funded agencies.

Industry is identified in the literature as a source of funding for universities (Buchbinder, 1993). The goal of improving funding in the face of inadequate financial support from traditional funding sources contributes in motivating universities to partner with industry.  The pressure of rising student enrollment and the rising costs of running modern libraries, and of installing and maintaining modern laboratories and technology impel universities to look to industry for funding. Funding is also implicated in demand for access since increased enrollments can result in universities recording more revenue from tuition payments.

Internal factors

In higher education literature, the following are typically considered as key elements of the internal context of the university: leadership, academic work and culture, faculty and their attitudes, technology use (Bates, 2000; Becher, 1989; Becher & Kogan, 1992; Clark, 1983). In the paragraphs that follow, the elements are discussed in the context of their influence. Elements identified to have potential to influence the use of ICT in teaching are utilized to construct the internal component of the conceptual framework presented later in the paper.

University leadership

Leadership plays a key role in any systematic adoption and institutionalization of innovation in organizations. Integration of ICT in teaching is widely regarded as a challenging innovation for universities mainly because of the loosely coupled nature of the university organization and the tradition of faculty autonomy. Hence, the role of university leadership in creating enabling psychological, structural and policy environment for integrating technology in teaching is emphasized in the literature (Bates, 2000).

Leadership is, of course, not limited to mobilizing and harnessing human and other internal resources needed to facilitate faculty use of technology in teaching. Leadership also entails scanning the external environment of the university in order to secure relevant resources from it, and manage the boundary where the university and its environment interface. Organizational boundary is an important concept in understanding university-environment interface, particularly with regard to the role of university leadership as gatekeepers with responsibility for facilitating innovation, and for responding to societal needs. An organizational boundary is a point of intersection between an organization and its environment. Miles (1980) defines organizational boundary as “a region in which elements of organizations and their environments come together and in which activities are performed of such a nature as to more effectively relate the organizations to the outside world” (p. 317). Analysis of the responsiveness and purposefulness with which university leadership manages the boundary with the environment can be useful in understanding some of the factors that influence the use of technology in teaching.

Academic work, culture, and faculty attitude

Within universities, academic work is divided and carried out in disciplines or knowledge areas. Usually, disciplines or fields that have close epistemological and methodological relationships are grouped under a department or basic unit (Becher & Kogan, 1992).  It is within disciplines and departments that faculty engage in research, teach and provide public service. Faculty have considerable autonomy over curriculum issues and the process of teaching and learning (Altbach, 2005; Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008). The supervisor-subordinate relationship which is a feature of the typical bureaucratic organization is not observed in a regimental fashion in the university. Each academic is simultaneously the expert or boss, as well as the front-line worker. The preponderance of faculty at the “factory-floor” of the academic enterprise accounts for the flat organizational form of the university often referred to as “bottom heavy” (Clark, 1983). Given that authority in the university is diffused, each faculty, discipline, and department tends to be autonomous. As a result, coordination of efforts in pursuit of the goals of the university is achieved through two main approaches: participation of faculty in making decisions which are binding on each of them, and application of administrative controls.

A significant implication of the relative autonomy of faculty, disciplines, and departments for the implementation of innovations in universities is that externally induced or top-down innovation must take into account the structure of academic work, and diffusion of authority within the university (Becher, 1989; Cerych, 1984; Clark, 1984). Faculty are more likely to adopt an innovation, such as the use of technology in teaching, if they take ownership of it.

The university has multiple cultures and subcultures (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008). Academic culture is easily regarded as its dominant culture. Academic culture consists of the norms and values common to all academics, irrespective of their disciplines. It encompasses the norms and values that support academic freedom, individual autonomy, collegial governance, and knowledge generation (Kuh & Whitt, 1988). Disciplinary cultures, as subcultures of academic culture are norms and values within individual knowledge areas or disciplines. Disciplinary culture includes “assumptions about what is worth knowing and how knowledge is created, about the task to be performed and standards for effective performance, and about patterns of professional interaction and publication patterns” (Kuh & Whitt, 1988, p. v). There are as many subcultures of academic culture as there are disciplines. “Around distinctive intellectual tasks, each discipline has a knowledge tradition – categories of thought – and related codes of conduct ….There is in each field a way of life into which new members are gradually inducted” (Clark, 1983, p. 76).

The classification of knowledge by Biglan (1973) into “hard”, “soft”, “pure”, and “applied” has provided a framework for a number of studies that have pursued the exploration of academic subcultures (Becher 1989, 1987). Knowledge of the epistemological and cultural properties of disciplines and characteristics of disciplinary communities is important not only for understanding how universities function generally, but also for explaining the dynamics of policy implementation and the adoption of  innovations within universities. For instance, at an epistemological level, knowledge of the characteristics of a discipline might be useful in understanding whether the extent to which faculty accept or resist an innovation has to do with the amenability of the discipline to the imperatives of the innovation. At a sociological level for instance, knowledge of a disciplinary community might help in understanding the extent to which cultural orientation or socialization enables or hinders adoption of an innovation.

The nature of the disciplinary community, particularly in terms of its responsiveness to demands from the external environment, and tolerance for individual approaches or experimentation might provide some answers to why a disciplinary group or some members of a group tend to adopt or resist innovation. Disciplinary communities with a tendency to guard the status quo are less likely to enthusiastically adopt an innovation, especially if the innovation does not arise from the developmental needs of the discipline itself (Becher, 1989, 1987). Lewis, Marginson and Snyder (2005) observe noticeable variation in how different disciplinary communities interpret and respond to institutional ICT initiatives. However, in spite of the power of disciplinary cultures, individual faculty members may have their idiosyncratic attitude toward a particular innovation or innovations generally (Rogers, 2003).

Application of Technology

Case studies on the use of ICT in higher education indicate that availability of technology infrastructure, faculty development, and student support services in college campuses is a critical factor in understanding the use of ICT in teaching, including the structural and cultural changes the use of the tool engenders (Bates, 2007; Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Institutionalization of the use of ICT in teaching is necessarily enabled by administrative, infrastructural, and organizational support. Institutions that have achieved considerable success in integrating technology in teaching typically assign technology-integration responsibility to designated units and offices, as part of their efforts to diffuse and institutionalize technology use. They also empower faculty to use technology.

Learning to teach with ICT is almost a paradigm shift. Instructors need support to make the shift (Kelly, 2007). They need support in developing appropriate technological skills and instructional design capabilities. Faculty workload and reward are also issues campuses typically grapple with as they encourage and motivate faculty to use technology in teaching. The extent to which institutions integrate technology in instructional delivery depends significantly on the effectiveness of their support systems for faculty and students (Bates, 2007).

A Framework

Guided by the foregoing review of the literature, a framework for researching use of technology in universities is proposed. The framework focuses on societal and organizational context of universities. The factors used in building the framework, emerged from the literature reviewed. The factors, which are disparately identified in the literature, are used to constitute a coherent framework delineating influences from the external and internal environments of universities (see diagram below).

The external environment consists of four factors: fiscal context of higher education, demands on higher education, range of technology available in the locale or region a university is located, and government policies on higher education. The internal environment consists of three factors: university leadership, structural or organizational support for technology use available for faculty and students, and faculty attitudes toward use of technology, and academic culture. Each of the factors, as the literature reviewed suggests, has potential to directly or indirectly facilitate or hinder use of ICT. It is conceptualized, as delineated in the diagram that while the use of ICT in teaching results from the influence of the external and internal factors, the use of technology itself, in turn induces changes in the structures and processes of the university.

Policy and practical value

The external and internal approach of the framework has potential to guide research to generate findings with policy and practical implications for use of ICT in universities. Studies guided by the framework can operationalize the external and internal factors of the framework to explore the following systematically: the kinds of ICT available in the locale or region a university is located; demand for on-campus and distance access; how or why a university utilizes ICT in response to demand for access; national or state ICT policy, especially as it relates to education; private sector or industry funding for ICT in education; government funding initiatives for use of ICT in education; university leadership’s ICT fund-raising efforts; leadership’s technology, structural, and administrative initiatives to encourage use of ICT. Also, studies utilizing the framework can operationalize factors of the framework to investigate the kinds of ICT used in teaching and learning at a university; the extent to which each technology is used; the extent disciplinary structure, and the ethos of disciplinary communities enhance or hinder use of technology; faculty perceptions and attitudes toward use of technology in teaching; faculty development initiatives related to technology use; and other kinds of support universities provide to enable faculty and students to use technology.


Guided by the external-internal approach to social and organizational research, this paper presents a conceptual framework for researching use of ICT in universities. The framework is designed to focus research on the external and internal factors driving and shaping use of ICT in universities. The framework is constructed with factors that emerge from a purposeful review of the literature on the external and internal environments of higher education. Research-based knowledge of societal and organizational context of ICT is a very important resource for planning, implementing, and evaluating ICT initiatives. The external-internal approach of the framework has potential for guiding research to generate knowledge that can better inform ICT policy in higher education at system levels, as well as policy and operational mechanisms within individual universities.


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About the Author

Reginald Nnazor, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair, College of Education. University of Maine at Presque Isle, Maine.

Email: reginald.nnazor@umpi.edu

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