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An application of complexity theory to the development of Web-based education at a university in the United States DISSERTATION

, West Virginia University, United States

West Virginia University . Awarded


This study examines the perceptions of higher education administrators concerning the activities related to the implementation of web-based education at a university in the United States during the 1990's. In pursuing an Orientational Qualitative Inquiry, I conducted ethnographic interviews during calendar year 2000 of academic affairs and information technology professionals, and I reviewed relevant documentation related to the university's web-based education efforts. I initially employed an a priori theoretical framework based on Loosely Coupled Systems Theory to guide my data collection, but my analysis of data led me to adopt Complexity Theory to adequately explain my findings. More specifically, I used the Complex Adaptive System model suggested by Cilliers (1998) to structure my conclusions. My study results suggest that Complexity Theory is a valuable lens through which to view the university's use of web-based education during the period under study. Without applying that theoretical lens, the data revealed evidence of a “creation myth” told by participants that credited only the university's president with bringing web-based education to the campus. When the same data was assessed with the Complex Adaptive System model, an alternative conception of the web-based education initiative, one dominated by the forces predicted by Complexity Theory, became evident.

Based on this latter view of the data, I argue that web-based education evolved at the university from the self-organizing and unrelated efforts of various individuals within the institution who pursued web-based education as part of their own local agendas. Web-based education later became a wider phenomenon at the university because these localized individuals interacted with their neighboring peers by sharing information and galvanizing those interactions with effort and enthusiasm. These local interactions in turn cascaded across the university in unpredictable ways that did not follow the linear chains-of-command in place within the organization, but generated both positive and negative feedback for the various web-based education initiatives. I conclude that web-based education arose and persisted at the university not as the result of a top-down presidential mandate, but through a combination of individual effort, peer interaction, and unforeseen happenstance that mark the mechanics of a Complex Adaptive System.


Huck, D.N. An application of complexity theory to the development of Web-based education at a university in the United States. Ph.D. thesis, West Virginia University. Retrieved November 19, 2018 from .

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