Book review: Students’ experiences of e-learning in higher education: the ecology of sustainable innovation


Students’ Experiences of e-Learning in Higher Education: The Ecology of Sustainable Innovation (The Open and Flexible Learning Series)

Professor Rhona Sharpe is Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University. Her interests are around developing and tutoring online courses, developing learners for a digital age, and  pedagogic research. Rhona is one of the co-founders of ELESIG (Evaluation of Learners’ Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group), a Senior Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a National Teaching Fellow. She is Editor of the Brookes eJournal for Learning and Teaching.

This book draws together student learning research conducted by the authors over many years and combines it with their recent thinking on institutional development. Together they present a framework for universities which builds on what is known about student learning, students’ use of technology and teachers’ beliefs about technology. Their framework conceptualises universities as ecosystems, where what is important is the relations between the elements in the system. It is an attempt at taking a holistic view of a complex system. Having outlined the approach and the evidence on which it is based, Ellis and Goodyear go on to show how it can influence institutional practices, with specific guidance for institutional leaders. The book is aimed at PVCs, Deans, educational developers and others with responsibility for developing and implementing institutional strategies.

The cover reviews highlight that this is one of the few books about technology which comes with a single ‘big idea’. Perhaps this is because, although the title of book foregrounds ‘e’-learning, it is quickly argued that the ecological approach is intended to be a unified account of learning and teaching in higher education, where technology is part of the work a day, arguing that …

“It is no longer defensible, if it ever was, to ignore the involvement of new technology in the reshaping of educational practices, expectations, assumptions and relationships. Technology is not going to go away. Nor is its use an unsolved problem.” (p.11)

The early chapters show that technology is so prevalent in society that it is influencing not just what is possible in education but what students and other stakeholders expect. The big idea is that in order to understand technology in learning, indeed, in order to understand learning at all, we need to look at relations.

Building on a wide ranging, interdisciplinary literature review, Ellis and Goodyear show how relational approaches have helped our understanding in a range of fields. To give just two examples which readers might be familiar with, James Gibson’s notion of ‘affordances’ is explained as an ecological approach to understanding the psychology of perception. Here it is the relation between sensation and usefulness which creates an object’s affordances e.g. a handle affords being picked up, a flat surface affords being walked on. This concept has already been adopted by learning technology to help us understand the uses of different technologies. A second example is Gidden’s structuration theory which explains how social structures are both shaped by and shape human actions. The common factor extracted from the review of ecological theories and metaphors is that they have been used to understand highly complex situations where there are inter-dependences between elements: in education between students and their environment. Their ecological perspective foregrounds the student experience, the environment and those embedded in the ecology (including us – the designers and teachers). Everything has to be seen as taking place within the ecosystem.

Taking this systems approach has immediate implications for institutions. It is proposed that in order to be in balance, all parts of the university must be aware of their role in fulfilling the mission of the university (which is seen to be good learning), by seeking feedback and correcting on the basis of it.  So, for example, a university’s infrastructure can only be understood in relation to student activity i.e. by understanding how students are using it. There would need to be self-awareness, ongoing feedback and self-correction in order to keep the university’s infrastructure in balance and in line with the university’s aims. It is clear that in order to achieve any kind of ecological balance, universities would need be proactively engaged in their own institutional research. Indeed Ellis and Goodyear say…

“This puts a premium on evidence gathering: the well prepared university will spend effort gathering data about the habits and expectations of its students. It will have the conceptual tools and self-belief needed to make sense of this evidence and use it to construct and monitor learning and teaching policies.” (p. 39).

Chapter 3 ‘New students, new technology’ presents a powerful argument for why we should be researching the habits, needs and expectations of our students  – whilst presenting counter arguments to Prensky’s digital natives. They identify the gaps in the research base currently, highlighting in particular our lack of understanding of international and cultural differences in how students are using and experiencing new technology. This chapter draws extensively on the JISC Learner Experiences of E-Learning programme which Brookes has been involved with since its inception. This adds support to the OCSLD research strategy to continue to research in tis field, both for the benefit of Brookes and more widely.

In examining the role of technology in students’ experiences of learning, Ellis and Goodyear posit that technology has two main affordances which should be considered: learning through discussion (Chapter 4) and learning through inquiry (Chapter 5). The authors have researched these extensively, taking a phenomenographic approach, which assumes that there are a limited number of ways in which individuals experience the phenomenon and that these can be categorized. For example their analysis shows four levels of conceptions of learning through discussion: challenging, developing, acquiring and checking ideas. This is correlated with approaches to learning (deep/surface) and perceptions of teaching (as measured by Ramsden’s Course Experience Questionnaire). Such analysis is derived from the holistic, ecological approach which views e-learning as part of a broader experience. Similar analysis is undertaken for teachers’ conceptions of blended learning in Chapter 6 and the implications of these findings for physical and course design are picked up in later chapters. If anything these middle chapters of the book underline how far removed the authors’ ecological approach is from teachers’ conceptions of e-learning, where it is noted that  ‘not all staff conceive of, or approach, e-learning as part of an integrated whole.’ (p. 104).

The remainder of the book is targeted at university managers. Chapter 7 offers the ecological approach as a way of managing uncertainty within the organization. Interestingly, given our experience of appreciative inquiry (e.g. Sharpe & Clarke, 2009), Ellis and Goodyear argue that ‘to judge whether an ecology is in balance, one needs to be able to identify the salient aspects that keep it alive and functioning well’ (p.109). Although appreciate inquiry isn’t mentioned, we might see how it could be used to identify the focus of the well functioning institution. For Ellis & Goodyear, their preferred focus is as ‘an institution of learning’, with a mission statement that the university can use as a point of reference to keep itself in ‘ecological balance’. There are recommendations for how to lead an institution towards ecological balance within a Governing Body, Policy Board, Academic Faculties and Central Services.

Another of the core ideas of how to implement the ecological approach is ‘teaching as design’ (Chapter 8), which recognises that much teaching takes place in collaborative programme teams, that much planning needs to be done before students even arrive on campus and that regular reflection, feedback and review are needed for programme improvements. They argue that design needs to be concerned with what the learner does and so are concerned with the planning of learning activities. They see both the reality and the value of incremental redesign. To those who have participated in Brookes’ Course Design Intensives and more recently, Assessment Design Intensives, this all sounds very familiar. In terms of the ecology of the institution, it is seen as absolutely essential that the university is able to influence course team planning decisions in order to follow through its mission – and so stay in ‘ecological balance’.

Two further chapters demonstrate how the ecological approach can be used to sustain developments in learning spaces (Chapter 9) and campus planning (Chapter 10).  In brief, these shows that learning is the point of reference for balance and so there needs to be a ‘structural awareness of the nature of successful student experiences of learning’ (p.116).  We might ask what such a successful experience is for Brookes and crucially, how we know. Adopting the ecological approach would involve concerted efforts in three areas of work

  • encouraging self –awareness so all staff understand the responsibilities within their role in relation to the whole,
  • maintaining feedback loops so feedback can inform the institution
  • facilitating self-correction to the mission by allowing parts of university to adjust their activities.

In order to do this, institutions must draw on as much data as they have available and seek evidence based knowledge about how students learn and teachers teach within their ecosystem. Currently, the authors’ research shows that it is still common for teachers to take a content based approach and students take a surface, strategic one, so there  clearly remains much work to be done.


Dempster, J.A., Benfield, G. & Francis, R. (2012) An academic development model for fostering innovation and sharing in curriculum design. Innovations in Education & Training International, 49 (2), pp. 135-147.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9 (5), October 2001 at

Sharpe, R. & Clarke, P. (2009) A community based programme of support, in JISC Emerge: a user-centred social learning media hub: Supporting the Users and Innovation R&D community network, pp 20-25 at

Students’ experiences of e-learning in higher education: the ecology of sustainable innovation by Robert Ellis and Peter Goodyear, University of Sydney, Australia. Published in 2010 by Routledge in their Open and Flexible Learning Series.

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