Knowledge structure and representation: Changing messages on Australian university websites

Year: 2012

Author: O'Connor, Kate

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



Higher education purposes are changing globally, as institutions and governments struggle with the implications of rapidly changing forms of knowledge and shifting societal expectations for university research and teaching. This paper takes the broader questions of an ARC funded project looking comparatively at disciplinarity and attribute-centred approaches to knowledge as its background to consider how Australian universities are representing and structuring knowledge today, and how this has changed in recent history.


The study is based on a comparison of university websites from the present day with those stored on internet archival systems between 1997 and 2000 (the earliest available for most institutions). Pages relating to university wide approaches to research and learning and teaching, faculty and department structures and the disciplines of history and physics from Australia's 40-odd universities were selected and analysed in relation to differences and changes across the sector and over time. 


The study finds significant changes between the ways Australian universities represented and structured their research and teaching in the late 1990s compared with how they do so today. The numbers of departments dedicated to a single discipline (based on the case studies of history and physics) have waned in favour of multidisciplinary groupings and the number of pages dedicated to university wide teaching and research has grown, and in many cases shifted in focus from service provision to promotional. And where previously graduate attributes were almost unheard of on university websites, now they are readily available on most, and illustrate differences across the sector in how they emphasise disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge and skills agendas. The study also illustrates the challenges of conducting research in an era of website publication, constant revision and limited archival, as many webpages from the 1990s were either not stored or not accessible in the archive, earlier pages are not on the public record, and the proliferation of pages in today's websites present challenges for content navigation.  


The differences seen in the websites over the last decade and a half point to changing concerns and views about how knowledge should be structured and represented. They illustrate tensions between institutions on the one hand wanting to be at the forefront of big-impact collaborative interdisciplinary research and provide their students with the skills and knowledge to deal with real world problems and changing employment, and on the other maintain the academic rigor that has typically developed within disciplines.