Systems Theory as a model for conceptualizing online programs

I read an article by Dechant and Dechant (2010) which describes the process the University of Connecticut used to conceptualize their online undergraduate program. The authors, as a part of a task force assigned by the Provost’s office, describe their use of system’s theory, and of Jay Galbraith’s et al star model (2002, as cited in Dechant & Dechant, 2010) in particular. They modified the star model slightly to add a sixth component, culture. This system was used to describe the issues the university would need to address when determining the direction of their online program in order to ensure its success.

The first thing that the article addressed was the environment, which makes sense as they were approaching the analysis from a systems theory perspective. They talked about the environmental conditions that are driving many universities into pursuing a program of online learning, and then offered questions a university could ask to determine the university’s own reasons for pursuing this path as well as the university’s opportunities, competition, and possible barriers that could stand in their way.

The paper then addresses in turn each of the six components they describe in the model. The first of these is strategy. The authors state that the strategy for online learning selected by the university must fit the environment. They recommend aligning the strategy with missions and strategic plans already in place. They note universities which initially failed in their endeavors because they merged with commercial organizations to bring in their online offerings, and the courses were expensive and viewed as threats by the existing faculty.

The next component analyzed was the structure of the university. Here the authors mainly focused on what parts of the online program where going to be designed by whom, and whether this effort would be centralized or decentralized. They gave several examples of each kind of structural organization and discussed the benefits and problems associated with each.

Next they described process. This was another area where this model strongly overlapped with Banathy’s (1973) model. This was perhaps my favorite section, as it focused on the need for online quality and uniform processes in online course design.

The next part of the model addressed was the people. The authors first spoke about the misconception held by many faculty new to online teaching that the only skill needed to transfer between traditional and online instruction was familiarity with the technology to deliver the instruction. The authors describe the need for faculty to receive not only technology training but pedagogical training. They spoke of the disconnect between student expectations and what was actually being delivered in many online courses. In interviews with faculty, they found that many faculty members believe it is impossible to create the same levels of interaction in an online environment as they achieve in their face-to-face courses, because they have not been trained on pedagogical techniques that are effective for online instruction and are using traditional classroom methods in an online environment. In this section, they also covered the problem of student readiness for online instruction.

The next section of the paper addressed rewards. The authors spoke of the importance of including both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to motivate faculty for participation in an online initiative or it was likely to fail. The reasons for this include the extra time involved in creating and teaching an online course and the current lack of incentive for faculty to teach online as these courses are often not included or given any special consideration in their evaluations and tenure considerations.

The final section discussed the university’s culture and the importance of making the online program a part of that culture. Adding an online program means change, which the authors recognize as a change to the university’s culture. The authors describe ways to approach this change at a grassroots faculty level which will help it to have its best chance for success.

I found the article particularly useful. I am serving on a task force appointed by our provost not to establish our online program, but to regulate its quality. This same challenge has been shot down in the name of academic freedom several times in past years. This systems approach is such a great way to look at this that I think I am going to share this article with the other members of our task force. The language is academic, but not jargon. It is written in a language familiar to faculty and from a perspective I think faculty at my school will appreciate. The focus in on building the school’s reputation and preserving its brand; both ideas I think members of my university will find important. The article says all the things I’ve been trying to say to the members of this committee but much more eloquently and in an academic and scholarly way. I only had one criticism of the article as I read it; the following sentence: “Traditional testing can be tricky to implement online – the inability to visually observe students and deter cheating as one would in the classroom is not possible.” As I read it I realized that the authors must have changed thoughts midway through the sentence, because what they should have said is that the “ability to visually observe…is not possible.”


Banathy, B. H. (1973). The functions/structure model. In Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach (pp. 59–97). Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Dechant, K., & Dechant, L. (2010). Using systems theory to conceptualize the implementation of undergraduate online education in a university setting. Organization Management Journal, 7(4), 291–300. doi:10.1057/omj.2010.38

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