Another Convergence: Electronic Commerce, Education and Governance

Karin Geiselhart

School of Business Information Technology

RMIT University

Melbourne, Australia


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The abundant and ever growing literature on electronic commerce makes much of new business models. The education sector is also experiencing unprecedented changes in response to the information revolution. This paper looks at the convergence between these areas, and examines the new models as communication patterns. Examples of these business patterns and their potential to maintain and expand the traditional values of education are discussed. The author suggests the protocols underpinning successful electronic commerce resemble the criteria for democratic process.


Electronic commerce, electronic democracy, electronic governance, globalisation, convergence, communication


The realms of electronic commerce have expanded so rapidly that scarcely an area of human endeavour is untouched by it. Indeed, next year’s Bled conference on electronic commerce has the simple title ‘E-Everything’, indicating a triumph but also a surrender to this ubiquity. This sudden pervasiveness has been accompanied by a set of often baffling convergences. On a technological level the most notable convergence is between computing, telecommunications and the media, but social and cultural patterns of merger are also apparent. The PC allows work at home, while e-mail and Internet banking have brought personal electronic commerce into the office. This blurring of the boundaries between work and home life is repeated in the ‘edutainment’ industry. Lifestyle programs and web sites that inform and support sporting activities are just two examples.

Recognising these convergences, educators have been gradually implementing aspects of electronic commerce for their service delivery. However, they have often overlooked the deeper shifts in information sharing and communication patterns that characterise the most successful electronic commerce endeavours. These patterns have much in common with the generic requirements of the democratic process.

This paper looks at some of the principles of the new economy as applied to education, and their similarities to what is loosely termed ‘electronic democracy’. It argues that the electronic commerce design principles of openness and participation have much to offer any field that is currently experiencing the turbulence of the information revolution.

E-ducation – promise or threat?

The convergence between entertainment and education exists because there is a market for information which is both useful and fun. Educators have long realised they are in competition with other providers of cleverly packaged activities, such as electronic games, chat lines, and soon, interactive digital television. On a cultural level, some voice concerns that globalisation and consumer demand for electronic amusement are undermining cultural distinctions and fostering ideological uniformity (Haywood 1995, Herman and McChesney 1997). Formal education delivered over the Internet can also unwittingly contribute to the rise of a global monoculture.

Education is inevitably part of the e-everything revolution, with the attendant upheavals and challenges. In the wider context of globalisation, it is difficult for those delivering courses and hopefully enlightenment at ground zero - the local level – to fully grasp the implications. The convergence of electronic commerce and education is, like the other convergences, systemic yet fragmented. The rapid development of online courses, capable of anywhere, anytime delivery, presents a golden opportunity for education. At the same time, there is the risk that this commodification of education could diminish widespread educational values. These values include diversity, tolerance, open dialogue and questioning of received wisdom or status quo. Effective democracy, in turn, depends on the maintenance of these competencies in at least a robust minority of the population.

Can these values be sustained, or indeed nurtured, in a more competitive and globalised electronic environment? An examination of the business models and communication patterns of electronic commerce reveals strong synergies between efficiency and the elusive ‘democratic dividend’.


In a now famous article, Raymond (1998) set out the metaphors which distinguish the emerging patterns of electronic communication and creativity from those of the past. He described the ‘cathedral’ model as monolithic, controlled from above, dominating, rigid and permanent. He says this is the approach of proprietary software development.

He contrasts this with the ‘bazaar’, where an unstructured exchange at a distributed local level fosters a robust diversity, and function is independent of a clear locus of control. This is typical of ‘open source’ software development, where the code of a program is available for free to any interested person to contribute to and hopefully improve. The most famous example is Linux, the operating system based on Unix.

In the bazaar, this creativity is heavily dependent on the Internet for rapid electronic communication and sharing of information. Several of the strategies or assumptions of the ‘old’ economy melt away in the bazaar: ownership and protection of intellectual property take on new dimensions and require rethinking; pricing changes because the exchange of the good does not diminish its availability; and the developers themselves become the value-adding intermediaries.

Although Raymond focussed on the usefulness of this approach in debugging software, others have read more into the open source movement. As Forge (2000) notes: ‘open source is about free speech…in the sense of creativity …freely sharing ideas in software is about communicating with hindrance. Open source software could almost be seen as a return to the political ideas of syndicalism and shared benefit through freedom from ownership.’

This approach has influenced education in subtle ways, as the potential for electronic courseware alters even traditional classrooms. Presenting the ‘received wisdom’ is no longer welcomed by many students, as teachers are compelled to engage students actively at every stage. The lecture theatre has become more interactive, interspersing questions and scenarios. These changes reflect the influence of the online learning environment, but also the impact of games and video entertainment. One online course developer described the new environment as: more individualised, more student focussed, valuing the student’s life and cultural experiences, and oriented towards problem solving. In an online learning situation, students are much more dependent on their own resources, but are guided in this by both the ‘facilitator’ and by other students. Group tasks have become a standard form of assessment. Thus, education as a ‘cathedral’ is being replaced by a more diverse, customised learning ‘bazaar’, where students have greater choice in shaping their own learning experience. This may be the ‘democratisation of education’, complementing Friedman’s (2000) list of globalisation leading to the democratisation of finance, information, technology and decision-making.

A similar network model has been posed for the civic sphere. Perhaps the best known advocate of electronic democracy, Steven Clift, proposes a civic participation centre, which brings together ideas and creates dialogue among political organisations, government, the private sector, and media and commercial content (Clift 1998). To these groups we can add, for an Australian context, the non-profit and education sectors.

Such ‘open systems’ approaches to education and civic dialogue embrace the contradictions between a market operating without intervention and the need to encourage active participation. The goal of active citizenship was pursued in early Australian policy, and helped to establish free public libraries and museums as key institutions (Sawer 1996). A similar dialectic is embodied in the concept of education as ‘leading forth’, with the goal of developing a capacity for independent and original thought. These concepts are consistent with electronic commerce’s capacity for diversified, individualised input that efficiently adapts to feedback.

Conceptualising the public sphere as an electronic market of ideas is also consistent with a broad view of electronic commerce. An older meaning of commerce is any form of intellectual exchange. Like political exchange, the trading in information that precedes a transaction is crucial part of the electronic commerce process. From this perspective, efficiency of information exchange is as crucial to the creation of knowledge as it is to the creation of wealth. The next section shows that this point has not been missed by those who supply content on the information superhighways.

Many screens one picture

In the information infrastructure, the cathedral model has come to dominate, most notably in the convergent mass media industries. Ownership and control of content is now more concentrated than ever before, and these processes seem to be intensifying (Herman and McChesney 1997). There is a blur between carrier and content, with huge incentives for whoever owns the access to key regional markets such as China. The next ten years will see the delivery of information and education via common channels. This will have most impact on areas that are currently just awakening to mobile phones and the Internet. While many signs in Asia are encouraging (Geiselhart and Swatman 2000), observers are watching developments to see how conflicts between the carrot of commercial reward and the stick of control are resolved.

If profit alone becomes the driving force behind the mass delivery of education, it is likely that a truncated set of values will be passed along with the mathematics, not just the MBAs. Corporate public relations efforts see education as an essential technique in promoting their views and values (Stauber and Rampton 1995, Beder 1997, Carey 1995). The survival of the education sector may well depend on its ability to articulate and present a broader view of knowledge and its role in maintaining diversity and innovation.

Several authors have described the emerging information infrastructure as a global nervous system (Beniger 1986, Mander 1996), which resembles the Internet itself. The Internet was conceived and designed as a network of networks, intended to have no centre that might make it vulnerable to missile attack. The patterns of communication arising from this infrastructure have indeed been web-like, breaking down hierarchical structures and causing a near critical mass of creative destruction along the way. It was not long ago that the educational compact disc market looked promising, only to be superseded by the Internet almost immediately. At the start of the 21st century, massively centralised commercial interests are positioning themselves to become ‘digital landlords’ with control over content (Chester 2000). This would repeat the history of other technologies in the last century, namely radio and cable television (McChesney 1999).

How can the education sector compete with these capital cathedrals? Learning the new principles of electronic commerce can certainly help educators to deliver the goods in the short term. The following sections argue that longer term strengths can result from a deeper recognition that these techniques also need to be applied to the traditional decision making cathedrals of education. To take advantage of the new knowledge webs, high level initiatives need to be balanced with responsiveness to grass roots creativity and collaboration. What might this mean in practice?

Trading in information, paying for knowledge

In an economy based on information, there are many ways to add value to streams of digits and then charge a premium for selling it on to new users. Money has always been made from information about financial markets and trends, but the value of these transactions now dwarfs trade in goods and services. Trading in personal information is also lively, and the expansion of intellectual property rights over many kinds of information is big business indeed. As a university legal officer noted, ‘What is a university if not its intellectual property?’ For educators at all levels, developing new resources and course materials, creating new online screens to assist students, and even incidental materials such as quizzes and lecture notes, all have potential value when they are traded or repackaged.

Thinking in these terms has not been part of the traditional approach to teaching. Educators and academics, like librarians, have been very generous with their information, knowledge and materials. And it is not difficult to extrapolate where the extremes of intellectual ownership can take us: in a world where all information is pay per view, the hurdles to learning or creating new knowledge could become disincentives. Already, there is little incentive for writing textbooks or courses for any audience less than global.

Yet even in the competitive world of intellectual property, the new patterns of electronic commerce can provide more productive ways to build collaborative networks that capitalise on niche groups and their strengths, while still generating a return on investment. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) illustrates the kind of collaboration that is likely to bear both social and financial fruits over the longer term. This three year project brought together a number of American art museums and universities to explore intellectual property rights in relation to educational uses of digital images and to recommend models for site licensing (Stephenson and McClung 1998). It was sponsored by the Getty Information Institute, which seeks to increase accessibility of art and culture through computer technology, with a special interest in digital libraries.

Two independent business models grew out of the MESL, showing that applications can follow quickly and maintain a substantial public benefit component. This project brought together essential ingredients for success with globalised information: educational institutions, owners of intellectual property (the museums), a direct acknowledgment of the need to deal with legal issues, and a source of funding. This source might be venture capital, government, or a philanthropic institution; the critical factor is alignment of values to include social benefit.

Projects such as the MESL illustrate the benefits of collaboration, by pooling resources across educational institutions. This approach overcomes parochial ideas of ownership, and achieves a balance between public benefit and private profit by realising that even the rarest intellectual property is most valuable when it goes forth and multiplies.

Closer to home, the long term success of Education Network Australia (EdNA) is no doubt at least partly due to its distributed ownership and structure. While nominally ‘owned’ by all the Ministers of Education and Training in Australia, it is administered by a company. The design and content encourages ‘collaboration and communication amongst and between the education sectors through communication links and information sharing.’ It easily bridges the gap between the local and the global by its seemingly endless links to projects, groups, discussion lists, notice boards and other resources. This outreach allows for economies of scale, saving time and effort while helping to establish best practice in areas that eventually might have economic implications, such as how to manage online assessment. These ‘many to many’ forms of communication can be highly efficient, and create a distributed decision making and consensus building network.

Several other features of EdNA highlight its role in shaping its own context. Firstly, the entities behind EdNA are active in establishing standards and agreements that enable online collaboration in education. Secondly, the abundant number of papers and analyses about EdNA and its role in the knowledge society provides a reflective resource that goes beyond technical standards in reinforcing the capacity of the educational community to participate in its own governance.

Another Australian example is Computer Assisted Support and Education (CASE). Based in Canberra, they assist community groups to use computers more effectively, using low cost solutions and a combination of education and advocacy. Recently, they have been involved with the National Women’s Justice Coalition in setting up a legally acceptable online petition format.

These last two examples embody in many ways the new patterns of electronic commerce, although their focus is on sustainability and social outcomes rather than profit. Their value lies in their networking connections, which put people, information and ideas together in ways that may create value exchanges in the future. The ‘centre’ of these networks has a facilitating rather than controlling role, just as in the best examples of online education. These networks resemble the asymmetrical barter systems or ‘cooking pot models’ that abound on the Internet (Ghosh 1998). They are based on longer term balancing of inputs and outputs, and flexible exchanges based on shared values.


The author has argued that the kinds of openness and receptivity implied by these bazaar and bartering models are, at their best, supportive of the processes that underpin democracy (Geiselhart 1999). More economically oriented institutions have also recognised the link between good governance and successful electronic commerce: ‘Openness is an underlying technical and philosophical tenet of the expansion of electronic commerce’ (OECD 1999); and the World Bank has found that economic success for a country is positively related to good governance (Kaufman, Kraay, Zoido-Lobaton (1999). Indeed, Burma is not an economic miracle. It is reasonable that benefits accruing to a nation from principles of good governance would be repeated at the smaller scale of a state or local education system. The Canadian government has been adventurous in learning from the network model (Richard 2000), and applying these lessons to policy, not just service delivery.

Others have articulated rights and responsibilities for the information age (Guidi 1998, Langham 1994) or democratic design criteria Sclove (1995), or a Charter for Citizens of the Global Information Society (Cameron and Geiselhart 1997). The protocols suggested below are based on Dahl’s criteria for democratic process, which include effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, and control of the agenda (Dahl 1989). These protocols have particular relevance to the information infrastructure, but they are quite general. That is, they apply at any level of governance, from the organisational to the transnational. There is no space in this paper to elaborate on the theoretical analysis of this connection between scales; the author has provided a fractal analysis of these relationships elsewhere (Geiselhart 1999). It is important to note, however, that the patterns created at different levels of governance influence each other. That is, the loss of democratic function even within a small school system reverberates to reinforce non-democratic forms of interactivity throughout the systems it forms a part of.

The following table presents suggestions for shaping a democratic information infrastructure, along with the salutary findings from the author’s two year case study of a central coordinating department in Canberra:


Evidence from major case study

Universal access

Universal access to desk top

Appropriate training

Training inadequate for developmental participation

Transparency of information, including feedback and agenda setting, strong freedom of information provisions. All major decisions fully textualised.

Little availability of corporate minutes, decision processes, no internal FOI provisions

Deliberate creation and maintenance of a public space for communication, protected from commercial pressures

Limited public space available but not fully supported, no further development

Strong interactivity (open ended input)

Moves towards narrow inputs

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and internal policy development

Participation in agenda setting and internal policy decreased

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection

High levels of commercial in confidence protection

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

Signs that surveillance and censorship were increasing

Maximisation of privacy protection

Possibility of anonymous communication removed

Equity in rights of transmission

Theoretically available, in practice upwards communication restricted to practical tasks

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots

Lateral communication widespread, ballots only for certified agreement

Availability of alternative forms and sources of information

Some availability of alternative views, information increasingly managed from above

Provision for localised information and dialogue

Local discussion possible, dialogue on non work specific tasks dampened.

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system

Little such provision

In the case study above, the changes in the information dynamics were accompanied by loss of both staff and morale, and quite likely loss of productive function as well. It is credible that the accompanying loss of participation might have a negative impact on the wider Australian policy process and society. The author believes there are implications for any institution seeking to adapt to today’s complex and rapidly changing environment. In the case study, as in many organisations, the managers have been schooled in the command-control models, and are unfortunately just middle-aged and at the prime of their careers. Successful people are often the most resistant to learning (Argyris, 1991), a dilemma that is relevant to but extends beyond the current topic.

Successful educational enterprises such as EdNA include many if not most of these protocols in their design and management. The suggested protocols might guide both designers and users of information systems who wish to ensure maximum communicative capability. These lessons have been learned from a different perspective by practitioners of electronic commerce: having mechanisms for collating consumer data, and being able to respond to preferences for products and information are central to the success of online marketers, whether in real estate Galloway and Adam (2000) or the health field (Mitchell 1999).

The area of scholarly communication, with less clearly defined economic goals, is no doubt more challenging. Harrison and Stephen (1996) survey this field and its trials, and note the importance of support from university leadership when implementing innovative technology projects. They provide a number of outstanding examples of excellence in educational uses of information technology to promote cost-effective information exchange while maintaining traditional educational values. Among these are Harrison and Stephen’s CIOS project, which continues to be a rich resource for communication scholars. Schrage (1998), calling for better networking between years K-12 and higher education, argues that the design of the relationships is always more important and more difficult than the design of the information. This again reinforces the importance of communication as conscious protocols which encourage diverse inputs and solutions. Technical systems without a foundation in open communications are unlikely to transcend their technocratic limitations.

On a more mundane level, university wide innovations in online course delivery, electronic commerce and customer relationship management might be expected to have higher chances of success if they actively establish staff involvement at all levels of the design, implementation and evaluation of these projects. Yet how many universities can point to a well thought out strategy that achieves this goal? Experts, consultants and top down directives are still the norm.


The application of electronic commerce models and practices to all aspects of education can become a potent or a poisonous combination. To a great extent, the outcome depends on another area caught up in the e-revolution, but with even less reflection. That is the changes to the shape and locus of governance. The processes of administration are being electrified and codified, re-engineered and streamlined as never before. The convergence taking place in governance, however, has not kept pace with the changing demands of globalisation and its accompanying community and commercial transformations.

It is no longer daring to suggest that electronic commerce techniques should be applied to the education sector – this is already happening. However, it is not yet widely appreciated that these techniques could also be productively applied to the governance of the education sector. The socially determined nature of technological innovation has been widely recognised (Feenberg 1991, Zimmerman 1995, Sclove 1995). The application of new communication technologies in government has so far been largely restrained to administrative processes (Gualtieri 1998, Geiselhart 1999). Thus, the explicit use of electronic communications to governance is not primarily a technological issue, but one that relates to deeper values.

Governance here implies mechanisms to foster participation and diversity, and support accountability and transparency in decision making. Such measures are in effect normative, democratic design protocols. This paper has argued that provision of these normative mechanisms can help create a dynamic and adaptive educational environment. Such measures may even be essential for the long term sustainability of education as a source bed to maintain and reinvigorate democracy in an information age.

Useful distinctions between electronic commerce and electronic educational networking are becoming more difficult to identify, or justify. More important is agreement on the values of information exchange and the facilitation of real learning, and how this contrasts with infotainment. In the sped-up world of multiple convergences and more information everywhere, there remains ample opportunity for the education sector to achieve productive synergies similar to those driving the commercial sector. This paper has provided an analysis of the application of electronic commerce to the education sector, and suggested that standards for communication are as important as technical standards.

For teachers at the action level, having an understanding of these new patterns of the knowledge economy can be helpful as they grapple with the multiple convergences and challenges of our changing times. Their awareness and input at every level is needed to encourage and support best practice in privacy, openness, accountability and independence.

Recognising the learning potential in information systems can, in turn, benefit electronic commerce practitioners. In an era of increasing pressures for corporate accountability and social responsibility, the intersection of social goals and private profit may be the most welcome convergence of all.


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[Karin Geiselhart] (c) 2000. The author assigns to ACIS and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ACIS to publish this document in full in the Conference Papers and Proceedings. Those documents may be published on the World Wide Web, CD-ROM, in printed form, and on mirror sites on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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