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The impact of technology and distance education: A classical learning theory viewpoint

Thompson, H. (1999) The impact of technology and distance education: A classical learning theory viewpoint. Educational Technology & Society, 2 (3).

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For the past two years the author has been teaching economics (History of Economic Thought and Economic Development) at the tertiary level via the Internet and computer-mediation. This is done primarily for students who are unable or who do not wish to attend classes on campus, but desire an education as good, if not better, as the campus based enterprise. This paper provides a reflective analysis of the theoretical content of that practice. Teaching 'online' is a vastly different enterprise than face-to-face exercises, thereby demanding a revaluation of one's pedagogical theory and praxis. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels articulated their claim that historically dominant classes embody their ideas in essential forms, representing them as universally valid. It is within this framework that we begin to examine what it means to "know" in economics. How knowledge is legitimated in universities continues to be under-theorised, particularly with regard to electronic transmission. The mechanism of transmission of particular concern here is that which is computer-mediated. Landow represents hypertext as the latest flowering in a long march of democratic processes originating in the displacement of Platonic authority by the lesser authority of the written word. It is argued here that the determinism of the "progressive narrative" within and around the "hypertext revolution" deserves careful scrutiny, particularly in its application to pedagogy. Pedagogical artefacts, such as computers, mediate the transmission of ideas. The question "how does this happen?" relates to the complexity of theorizing the relationship between the educational process and the social relations of capitalist social formations. Over two decades ago, Bowles and Gintis attempted a Marxist understanding of the nature of this relationship. In their conception, pedagogical mechanisms were seen to operate in a fairly deterministic way to mirror and model the norms and values of the capitalist class. The role of education was seen to be confined to the transmission of those norms and values. Unveiling the hidden curriculum was the central point of their endeavour. Herein, it is argued that knowledge is not deterministically set by the structures of social formations, being transmitted unproblematically through pedagogical systems. Capitalist ideas are hegemonic only to the extent that they embody common sense propositions. Since power works in multiple sites, with respect to pedagogic discourse, winning consent requires struggle and conflict at the level of both economy and culture. In this sense, the central concerns are: "whose knowledge, in what form, how is it selected and by whom, and to what ends". Further, the technologies employed in teaching are not neutral applications that simply guide the learner; rather, the artefacts of educational technology are themselves the products of social shaping, and are implicated in the reproduction and legitimization of social knowledge and inequalities. Pedagogical praxis is also a political praxis, i.e., personal knowledge is a function of class, race and gender experiences in relation with, and towards, others. The conceptual, symbolic and physical artefacts of pedagogy provide both the means and the object of our critique, through which teachers/learners come to challenge the status and legitimacy of dominant knowledge claims. Course material will be used for purposes of exemplification, examples of which can be found in the appendices to this paper. Alternatively, either or both of the courses may be viewed in their entirety by the reader. Simply email the author requesting the relevant URLs and passwords.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Publisher: IEEE Computer Society
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