Power, Subjection, and the Ethics of Online Education
Note: In this short reading log, I want to look at the connections between the industrialization of education and the ethics of distributed learning, particularly on a global scale. I will use some of the theories of Marx and Foucault to ground this conversation. And, if the writing gods are backing me, I’ll even get in a little Said. I use the terms “distributed learning” and “distance education” interchangeably throughout this log and I cover several articles outside the initial readings for Cultural Studies in an effort to discuss the theories we’re learning in class through a “lens” unique to my research interests. In other words, I’m trying to take theory from class and “do” something with it.
Garrison calls the 21st century a “postindustrial” era of education, an era that will be concerned largely with transactional issues—teaching and learning—instead of structural issues like geographic distance. This is a popular notion because it reinforces the promise of distance education; specifically, that distance education (DE) advances a “democratic social ideal.” Thanks to more affordable infrastructure and the human capital to build and deliver quality instruction, even housewives in Nebraska, or Hutu women in Rwanda, can take a course in Feminism. That’s what the rhetoric of DE says, anyway.
But Garrison’s postindustrial decree bothers me. Is education really postindustrial? Doesn’t the very language with which we talk about distributed learning with its modules and centralized curriculum and leveraged efficiencies created by divisions of labor—not reinforce Otto Peters’ theory of industrialized education? In his groundbreaking work, Peters analyzed the structure of distance education and found the industrial production techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries best fit the DE model. This theory of educational organization, in my mind, is still largely at play across the globe.
Additionally, there is another interesting rhetorical that tension exists between the “anytime, anywhere, anyone” promise, and the relative rigidity, structure and silencing that takes place in an industrialized online environment. Courses are—generally—designed in advance, by designers who may or may not be curriculum or subject experts, and then delivered by instructor who may or may not offer local support or synchronous contact. Although new technology helps to reduce “transactional distance,” it also, perhaps inadvertently, silences and isolates students with its focus on high structure/low dialogue.Further the technology used to reduce transaction distance requires an infrastructure, namely high-speed Internet service, that isn’t available in the remotest areas.
Other tensions run deeper still: if more people across wider geographies are accessing education via the Internet (I am thinking now of the popularity of the Open University in England or the “open” courses from Stanford, Harvard or MIT, or corporate-run “diploma mill” programs) who is controlling the curriculum? Who is calling into question the cultural implications of post-colonial countries like Kenya importing curriculum designed by and, arguably, advancing the interests of, its former colonial power? Does distance education give the ruling class yet another distribution method whereby they can affect a Gramcerian “consented” coercion?
Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . .the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
How ominous. Everywhere we go, he suggests, the proletariat must be ever vigilant for the bourgeoisie is constantly chasing financial ends. Marx and Engels never utter the word “globalization”, but for modern readers of this passage, it would be hard to see anything but. Technology, worldwide systems of communication, integrated financial markets, and fluid trade zones allow the bourgeoisie to chase expanding markets and education is such a market. Here we come to the heart of the ethical problem with distributed learning: both the commoditization of education and the hegemonic control of knowledge production.
On the surface, it seems silly to suggest that access to an Oxford course in Political Theory would do anything but advance democratic values. But a closer look at the political history of colonial education and this claim isn’t so easily made.
As Islam and Christianity spread, so too did their respective educational reaches. Interaction, disruption or displacement of indigenous forms of education was essential to advancing a monotheistic agenda. Hungry empire builders—first the Muslims and later the Europeans —colonized the world’s population using an educational apparatus to help spread its values. European-colonial education spread modern value systems through its curriculum of episteme, rooted in the Greek tradition. But largely, colonial education was an industrial enterprise, as it sought to develop global trade by providing native labor with skills and the “disposition” needed to maintain and extend its political and economic base. “Hegemony work[s] by diffusing the ideological position of the dominant class throughout the fabric of social practices so that the special interests of the powerful become identified as the interests of society at large, become the “common sense” to which we all automatically subscribe.” This is also why colonial education was selective, educating a few elite who would adopt the “right” disposition, a disposition that did not include utilizing knowledge to alter power relations.
Today, as Tikly points out, many postcolonial governments (and government generally) use education to foster nationalism, but in many low-income countries, access to computers or the Internet is still limited to an elite few. Marx might call these few the petit bourgeoisies. These elite are “keyed into” and invested in the capitalistic drives of an information economy. Formerly, these were the very elite who helped maintain colonial subjugation and advance the bourgeois agenda.
Foucault would not find it coincidental that, since the 19th century, educational institutions in colonial countries were designed and maintained by their colonizers, as were their penal and parliamentary institutions. Everything from classroom layout to uniforms to curriculum were designed in the colonial “center” and reproduced in the outer lying “oriental.”
Technology and distance education promised to change this, to liberate the oppressed, to shift the marginalized to the center of the political and cultural conversations, to give access to the remote and un-actualized. Instead, old patterns perpetuate. Content flows in from the bourgeoisie (from Europe to Australia in example) while payment for content, digital information, and access flows in the other direction, from poorer regions to wealthier regions. By continuing to use the Internet as a means by which one delivers knowledge in exchange for a fee, we will not overturn the neo-colonial relationship already entrenched in post colonial countries.
Lest you think I sound hyperbolic: “The globalizing of curriculum standardizes teaching in an effort to ensure that students share the same educational experience regardless of their location.” Local references are removed from curriculum and there is support for only those “universal approaches” that can be applied across context, effectively disassociating education from the “social, cultural and political origins” of one’s home country,” establishing the “common sense to which we all… automatically subscribe.”
It may be that education is the path out of poverty and political powerlessness. But, “we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.”
How then, do we encourage access to and make good on the democratic promise of distance education while “re-narrativising,” as Hall suggests, the global education story such that those who have been on the periphery of its discourse move to the center where they can shape the debate without sacrificing access, identity or the opportunity to hear counter-ideology? How do we get to the place that Zembylas & Vrasidas suggest wherein online education empowers teachers and learners to “deconstruct fixed identities and develop a capacity for thoughtful flexibility in the pursuit of new kinds of knowledge?”
Wouldn’t an ethical global education theory encourage ‘‘political resistance to hegemonic and exclusionary views of subjectivity,’’ whether those views were local, national, or international? Education, regardless of the method of distribution, should seek to constantly renegotiate Foucauldian power relations, even or perhaps especially as, education becomes more “governmentalized.” Wouldn’t ethically sound curricula reflect a particular view of the universal informed by the “geographical and social location of the curriculum developer”? Then why does it often not?
“Worldwide education is not only affected by global forces, but it is the primary means through which global forces affect the daily lives of individual people. In other words, globalization works both on and in education policy. As the world integrates its economies, political realities, and cultural differences, some countries and educational networks will suffer fragmentation and stratify, while others will become enmeshed and marginalized.
Though the economic imperatives of education generally use technologies like distributed learning specifically to maintain the status quo, Gramsci suggests that this underlying economic and political reality may also be used to influence said factors. “Hegemonic activity is a process of continual struggle; if there is a powerful dominating hegemony, there are also “counter-hegemonies,” competing forms of “common sense” that disrupt the power of the most powerful classes. This suggests “rhetoric can analyze cultural discourses and identify ways in which they construct a common sense that serves the interests of a limited class and that can identify possibilities for counter discourses.”
If, as Moufee and Laclau argue, the “central problem is to identify the discursive conditions for the emergence of collective action, directed toward struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination” then that is what this short log seeks to do: to enter or start the conversation, to ask discomforting questions, to challenge the rhetoric that distance education is a democratic panacea.
Indeed, if we are to develop an ethic of online global education, then we must understand the way the international community is using language to represent the real, to exclude ideas that are detrimental to existing power structures, or privileging certain ways of thinking or being, or accessing, in order to advance and perpetuate unchecked power.
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