Selling Solar Panels to Oil Sheiks

In a reflective mood on my Friday evening commute home I tweeted that:

Being an advocate of #elearning and #edtech in universities is a bit like trying to sell solar panels to oil sheiksless than a minute ago via Seesmic

That tweet seemed to strike a chord with some people and I can understand why. For me, it was bought on following a couple of weeks of analysing use statistics for a university LMS and observing that the use rate remains similar (slightly lower in fact) than Rogers’ (Rogers, 2003) numbers for innovators and early adopters combined (2.5% for innovators and 13.5% for early adopters). This is after eleven years of using a university wide LMS. I am sure that this is the case for the majority of traditional universities.

Now this isn’t a diatribe against the use of an LMS. For what it’s worth I think an LMS can be an important part of the way staff and students access elearning. But I also don’t think the ideal LMS (if there is such a thing) looks much like most of the products that are currently used.

This post is simply to try and say what many people don’t want to say and that is, that most universities really don’t care about educational technology or elearning. I was looking through the 2010 – 2015 strategic plan for a university the other day. It did not contain one reference to  educational technology or elearning. The fact is that universities are married to the delivery methods of the 20th Century and many don’t even recognise that there is another way. They pay lip service to edtech but really expect business as usual. This is almost certainly because senior academic managers in a position to change direction do not understand what is happening in the world around us.  Never has there been such a disconnect between academic leaders and potential realities of practice.

I regularly hear of senior academic managers describing the uploading of lecture notes to an LMS as being ‘blended learning’. How many executive level academics charged with teaching and learning at universities do you know that you would say have a good understanding of elearning and edtech in universities?

Getting back to our LMS use numbers what we can see is that ten years after LMSs were first implemented we haven’t been able to mainstream their use as a vehicle for course delivery. I suspect the proportion of academic staff innovating and adopting edtech is the same now as it was ten years ago.

It’s going to take a determined effort to change this and I can’t see it happening any time soon. There are reasons for resistance to uptake apart from lack understanding at senior management level. These are well described by Mlitwa, N. & Van Belle (2010) and Samarawickrema, G. & Stacey, E., (2007) amongst others and I won’t go into them in detail here apart from to say the the problem of adoption is primarily not a technical one but one of organisational culture.

Finally, I think we will get there in the end. Peak oil will happen (if it hasn’t already) and the oil sheiks will invest in solar panels and universities will use elearning and edtech effectively. It just might take quite a lot longer than many of us hope.

Mlitwa, N. & Van Belle, J.P., 2010. A Proposed Interpretivist Framework to Research the Adoption of Learning Management Systems in Universities. Communications.

Rogers, E., 2003. Diffusion of innovations 5th ed., New York: Free Press.

Samarawickrema, G. & Stacey, E., 2007. Adopting Web-Based Learning and Teaching: A case study in higher education. Distance Education, 28(3), 313–333.

6 Comments On “Selling Solar Panels to Oil Sheiks”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Selling Solar Panels to Oil Sheiks | Mark Smithers --

  2. G’day Mark,

    Geoghegan (1994) made a similar observation. He used Moore’s chasm – closely related/same thing as Rogers’ adopter categories – to highlight the problem with instructional technology and then propose some explanations.

    I think there is some connections between his explanations and your tweet. i.e. trying to sell solar panels to oil sheiks is always going to fail because they will not see the value. So you have to find something that they do value and/or create experiences through which they can learn the value.

    Too much of e-learning/LMS installation is for the wrong purpose and done the wrong way. Trying to sell it, rather than work with academics to show them how it can be valuable within their context

    Which is a point that gets raised in some later work which I talk a bit about here



    • Thanks for the response David as well as your thoughtful blog post. Much appreciated. The importance of value to the academic is crucial I think. There are organisational steps that can be taken to modify behaviour by adding value to specific activities. Universities do it already with research output. At the moment there is little, if any value for academics to adopt the innovation. Until that changes nothing much will happen. I do wonder whether the rise of competitors to traditional universities may force their hand but somehow I doubt it. At least in the forseeable future.


  3. Pingback: Oil sheiks, Lucifer and university learning and teaching « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  4. Hi Mark – a great analogy. i was inspired to elaborate here:
    Thanks for the inspiration – albeit discomforting.


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