The mediated nature of open and distance e-learning (ODeL) makes it an institutional/organizational performance or accomplishment which means that there are agents other than the teacher participating in the teaching and learning process. Extant studies on the organizational dimension of open and distance learning (ODL) focused either on the economic or the governance/administration issues rather than on how educational purposes are accomplished organizationally (Shane, 2002; Hai- Jew, 2004; Lachtem, 2007; Zawacki-Richter, Bäcker & Vogt, 2009; Davies, Lowell & Petrie, 2010). Since 2004, I have embarked on an exploration of the agency framework, drawn from the organizational communication field which is my academic discipline, in explaining how and why education is possible at a distance  (Saludadez  2008,  2010,  2011,  2012,  2013;  Saludadez  &  He,  2012).    The exploration challenges the adequacy of present scholarship in the distance education (DE) discourse to explain why and how virtual organizations such as open universities accomplish their purposes. Within the agency framework, communication is seen as “not only a matter of people speaking or writing to each other, but that other things are continuously inviting and expressing themselves in day- to-day interactions” (Cooren, 2011, p. 11). These other things are agents. Being an agent means being able to act or speak “on behalf of principal” (Taylor & Van Every, 2000 as cited by Cooren, 2006, p. 82). In this chapter I illustrate the use of the Agency Theory as an organizing framework for ODeL through a study of authority. Authority plays a key role in understanding the constitution of organizations.

Acceptance as a Means to Understand Authority

People can orient to a given source of authority, which is then identified as tele-acting when its/her/his spokespersons/ spokesobject is acting or speaking. But this is a matter of negotiation and recognition, since this tele-action is not always obvious, accepted or recognized (Cooren, 2012). The study explores tele- action in terms of the acceptance of authority (Taylor & Van Every, 2000) or uptake (Austin, 1962 as cited by Taylor, 1993) in the context of open universities “where learning may reside in non- human appliances” (Siemens, 2005 as cited by Anderson, 2012). Using a ventriloqual approach, it examines the pedagogies and the technologies that were incarnated in the archived recordings of teacher-student interactions in the virtual classrooms of three open universities in Asia, including the students’ reflections on their learning experiences. Surfacing the non-human agents staged at teacher-student interactions will tell what lends weight in ODeL organization’s performance and explain the accomplishment of open and distance elearning.

In the articulation of the Montreal School of Organizational Communication, authority is not a position but a communicative action that refers to “authoring  an  account”  (Taylor  &  Van  Every, 2011, p. 63). A given source of authority can speak or act through “spokespersons or spokesobjects” (Cooren 2006, 2012). Acceptance of authority is operationalized as acceptance of the role of a spokesperson (or of the role of an agent for  a principal  in the parlance of the narrative economy). Acceptance of the spokesperson’s role does not reduce the human agent into a “judgmental dope” (as Cooren, 2010 quoted Garfinkel, 1967) as human agents are autonomous agents, rather it is suggestive of a shared action and responsibility. It is precisely this tension between “an acceptance for the moment, of authority as lodged in another, and a continuing sense of judgmental authority that explains the principle of why each organization unfolds the way it does (Taylor & Van Every, 2011, p. 36).

Analytical Approach

The study made use of the Ventriloqual Approach that assumes that “Various sources of authority—understood as forms of agency—can be invoked or mobilized in a given interaction or dialogue” (Cooren, 2010, p. 75).

The approach involves

  • * recording interactions as they happen or collecting recorded interactions;
  • * identifying markers through which a variety of figures appeared to recurrently and iteratively express themselves in the interactions; and
  • * understanding or hearing what the figures are made to say

Asian Open Universities as Study Sites

Accounts were collected from three open universities in Asia— where most of the open universities are located. Open universities are higher learning institutions that are primarily concerned with education at a distance, namely, education in which the systematic teaching and the communication between student and teacher or institution take place mainly by a variety of media (Asian Association of Open Universities, 2014).

The three universities shared common features:

  • * majority of their teachers/tutors were working part-time (affiliate teaching status) and
  • * majority of their students were working adults

Such relatively autonomous status of the  teachers/tutors  and  the students (common in many open universities) makes them a good site for the study of authority in terms of acceptance in this context.

The three universities were selected as they offer a variety of settings in terms of program offering and of use of media/technology for teaching and assessment:

  • * University A offered mainly graduate programs with fully online teaching and offline (face-to-face) assessment,
  • * University B offered undergraduate and graduate programs with blended mode teaching (online with optional end of the month face-to-face tutorial) and offline assessment, and
  • * University C offered undergraduate programs with either fully offline or blended mode (online and face-to-face tutorial) and offline assessment.

Access to the archived recording of class interactions in the two universities was made through faculty exchange programs. The classes selected were those where permission by teachers was granted, that is, 4 classes in all (3+1) from AY 2011 to 2012. The third university is my home university and I used the archived recordings of two of my classes from AY 2010 to 2012.

Analyzing the Accounts: Some Samples

Five interactions were presented below to illustrate the analysis of the accounts using the Ventriloqual Approach:

Interaction 1: Forum thread on the venue for tutorial in University B

Interaction 2: Forum thread on the study guide for a course in University B

Interaction 3: Email exchanges on the final exam mode in University A

Interaction 4: Forum posts on experiences in the final exam and on being a distance learner in University A

Interaction 5: Questions and answers to an online evaluation of a course in University C

Interaction 1: Forum thread on the venue for tutorial in University B

Tutorial 1

by Tutor – – Wednesday, 25 July 2012, 11:00 PM

Dear All,

If you have any question for me, please post it on this page.

Tutors will not be replying to questions in the public forum. Public forum is meant for discussions among students only.

I will be online most of the evenings.


Re: Tutorial 1

by Student B1 – – Tuesday, 31 July 2012, 11:40 AM

Hi Tutor,

Can I have your email address please. Thanks.


Re: Tutorial 1

by Tutor – – Tuesday, 31 July 2012, 11:17 PM

Dear Student B1, My email is          

If you have questions on TMA1, please post it in Tutorial 1 forum so that my reply can be shared with your class friends.

But I encourage you to email or post it here so that we can discuss any issues together.

Contact Information

by Tutor – – Tuesday, 31 July 2012, 11:38 PM

Dear All,

I can be contacted at            . H/P no.                . Best time is Mon-Fri 10pm 12midnight.

But please post questions on TMA1 on Tutorial 1 page. We are living in the age of knowledge economy. Knowledge is meant to be shared and leveraged.


Analysis of Interaction 1

The incarnation in the teacher’s reply/post of the tutor’s forum as a venue for sharing accomplishes two things:

  1. It recognized what is the official venue for interaction and learning (teacher “herding” the class to the classroom), thus made present the unseen virtual
  2. It spoke on behalf of a pedagogical community (the constructivism pedagogy where knowledge creation is through sharing) whose presence made an open university a higher institution of

Interaction 2: Forum thread on the study guide for a course in University B

TMA3 results

by Course Coordinator (CC) – – Monday, 19 November 2012, 10:21 AM

Dear All,

TMA3 results have been released after the usual moderation process practiced by the university. I shall be uploading the answer guide to TMA2 and 3 either later today or tomorrow. I shall also be uploading some additional exercises for you to try. Perhaps also hints on what to expect in the coming exam.

Good Luck.


Re: TMA3 results

by Student B2 – – Monday, 19 November 2012, 10:27 AM


Looking forward to the model answers and the additional exercises, hope to receive it soonest as possible, so that we have more time for our revision. As we are all working adults, time is always the factor that limit ourselves.



Re: TMA3 results

by Student B3 – – Tuesday, 20 November 2012, 02:58 PM

Dear CC,

I have yet to see any answer guide for TMA 2 & 3 and also additional exercise uploaded in the forum. Could you please assist in uploading it in the soonest possible time for our revision. There are only 12 days left before our exam. Please consider that time is very precious for open distance learners and working adults like us.

Many thanks.


Analysis of Interaction 2

The incarnation in the students’ replies/posts of the timely posting at the course forum of the assignment guide accomplishes three things:

  1. It recognized what is the official venue for interaction and learning (the students waiting for the teacher to appear at the “lecture hall” so to speak thus made present the unseen virtual open
  2. It also spoke on behalf of a pedagogical community (cognitivism pedagogy where knowledge acquisition is through transfer) that at the same time materialized (or made real) the virtual open university as a higher institution of learning.
  3. It also spoke on behalf of the learner community making virtual universities real, as learners are what make universities an institution for


Interaction 3: Email exchanges on the final exam mode in University A

From: Student A1

Date: Wed, September 15, 2010 at 2:59 AM

Subject: inquiry re exams

To: Faculty-In-Charge (FIC)


I am inquiring if it is okay to use laptop for the exams. I will use Microsoft Word as answer sheet and have it printed at the Learning Center.


From: FIC

To: Student A1

Sent: Wed, September 15, 2010 9:20:46 AM

Subject: Re: inquiry re exams

Dear Student A1,

It is good to use laptop during the exam (and given that we are in a cyber campus). However, I am not inclined to allow its use because it will not be fair to those who do not have one. So, for the course final exam, the students will still use the old technology of pen and paper.

Hope this will not pose difficulty on your part.

From: Student A1

Date: Wed, September 15, 2010 at 9:50 AM

Subject: Re: inquiry re exams To: FIC

Dear FIC,

Yes, will follow as instructed. It’s just that I’ve been so used in using the laptop that my thinking cap works best when I’m using keyboards for writing. I guess this is one draw back of technology (the laptop) – at least for me: it took me away from the fundamental skill, art and joy of writing using the pen and paper.

Looking forward to the exams this weekend. Thank you very much.


Analysis of Interaction 3

In incarnating students not having laptop, the teacher spoke on behalf of a subset of the learner’s community in an open university. In doing so, it materialized/made real the university as an open university (“education for all” being the university’s motto).

Interaction 4: Forum posts on experiences in the final exam and on being a distance learner in University A

Introduction to the Final Forum

by: FIC

Date: Monday, 19 March 2012

How did your final exam go? I hope that that final requirement has still contributed to your learning by way of reflection…

You may share also what it is to be a distance learner, now that distance learning is no longer an idea but has become real, practical, and experiential to you having gone through it for a semester.

End-of-semester post

by Student A2 – Tuesday, 20 March 2012, 07:39 PM

First off, the final examination. I personally didn’t experience it as an exam but rather as another opportunity to take stock of what I had learned from the course…

The only issue I had was that computer use was not allowed for the final exam. For someone who has been using computer for all types of writing, I found doing two exams in one day torturous and somehow affected my thought process. Given the high technology available, I hope this will be addressed in the future.

This is my first semester at [the University] and I can now say it’s been a very productive start for me. My choice to enroll for this elective, as I’ve answered in the final exam, was rather arbitrary. Looking back now, I’m lucky to have made the decision because my experience in this particular course has convinced me that this style of learning suits me very well.


Final Thoughts

by Student A3 – Friday, 23 March 2012, 10:20 AM

I do agree that the exams could be made online as most of us have been using the Internet and computers, and will be more appropriate in the distance learning setting.

I’ve already experienced online examinations in my major subjects and mechanisms have been in place to ensure intellectual honesty.

But overall, [the Course] is in my top list of the most enjoyable courses I’ve taken during my [University] stint. I will be graduating this sem and I am happy I took this course.


Interaction 5: Questions and answers to an online evaluation of a course in University C.

 Q: Do you think this course helps you understand more about the new immigrants in the [country]? Explain how it helps you.

A:       I don’t think it is enough to understand by reading few articles. The best way to know deeper is to get into their lives and get acquainted with them.

Q:       Please write down your comments or suggestion to this course.

A:       I think this course shall not be limited in multiculturalism, immigrants and derivative only. There are many good articles, stories, news report and press info in various aspects that are good for use as reading for the curriculum.


Analysis of Interactions 4 and 5

The mobilization of laptop and students belonging to the technoword in Interaction 4 and of other means of learning (e.g., other materials, real experiences) in the students’ evaluation in Interaction 5 tells of

  1. the presence of learner communities that have diverse background and needs, and
  2. their spokespersons’ role for the future students to which the university should give attention.

By operationalizing acceptance of authority as acceptance of the spokesperson’s role, the virtual organization, that is, the open university is understood as:

  • * having material spaces
  • * being made up of various communities; and
  • * emergent spokesperson of such communities negotiate/ co-construct what an open university is providing a means to explain why and how open and distance e-learning is accomplished and education is possible at a distance
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Suggested citation:

Saludadez, J. A. (2014). Agency Framework as a Means for Explaining ODeL. In G. J. Alfonso, & P. G. Garcia (Eds.), Open and Distance eLearning: Shaping the Future of Teaching and Learning (pp. 21-34). Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines: UP Open University and Philippine Society for Distance Learning.

Agency Framework as a Means for Explaining ODeL | Dr. Jean Saludadez

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