Professing Education
Dec,2002.Vol 1.No.1 P.13-P.15

Professing Education Online

Rahul Kumar

Brock University

The developments that unfold in the field of information technology (IT) and permeate into other disciplines can be exciting and disorienting simultaneously. Sometimes we welcome the new tools at our disposal, at other times we resist and deplore them, or we can remain seemingly unaffected or indifferent. The differing reactions can be attributed to individual temperament, but also in our assessment of and relationship to the technologies in question. The subtle, and often overlooked aspects of human-computer interactions give rise to woefully simple concepts and equally lop-sided tales of gloom or doom. Such polarised thinking leads to the exclusion of subtle points that might reveal more accurately the nature of the issues. This short essay draws the attention of educators to the previously neglected aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI) that comes into play because of the nature of the medium itself. Surprisingly this has had a marked absence of this literature in education.

A combination of corporate zeal and administrative enthusiasm have brought the newly repackaged ITs to institutions of higher education and have guided most of the practices and uses of this technology (Feenberg, 1999). This external imposition, according to Feenberg, has had a two-fold effect. First, a segment of both teachers and students doubt the educational value of the tools in question, and second, some faculty members get upset by the commercial goals behind the initiative _ the connection of higher education and its modes of delivery to the market which has traditionally existed outside the context of a university community. What was once a daring faculty innovation has come to be perceived as a big business takeover of the campuses.

This is not to say that technology has not benefited many to a great extent. The growth of information technologies have made certain things more convenient and enjoyable (to those that have access to them). IT's role as a research tool has been valuable in advancing our knowledge base in the disciplines. And indeed, IT has been the source of a lot of wealth for some. Education that was inaccessible to some students _ living in remote areas outside the geographical reach of colleges and universities, or those unable to attend conventional universities, inter alia _ would attest to the merits of making education available using IT.

But to ignore and disavow the changed nature of work, and inter-relationships to self, family, friends, and communities, would be irresponsible. The price, as Postman (1989) argues, has been the decay of conventional social structures that defined communities. The change has brought about distinctly new communal structures. Instead of being mediated by oral languages and other conventional means, information technologies have become the sole instruments that serve this purpose. This inter-corrugated infrastructure of human interaction finds its strength not in embodied individuals, but in the digital (virtual) connection between people _ in the medium itself. The properties of the medium thus play an important role in the redefinition of or the nature of the relationship.

Immediately, those outside the circumference of the reach of technology find themselves excluded and this artificial divide starts to separate the "haves" from the "have-nots". It is ironic (and unnatural) that this distinction is created by technology itself. Haves in this sense, are defined as those that are equipped with the technological infrastructure to receive technology that binds them to their "community" and have-nots are those that cannot. The monetary issue remains just one criterion, however central, of separation. In this sense, the medium (IT) is not neutral. Additionally, current limitations in technology affect the educational arena, by constricting and restricting the nature of communication. While all available mediums do so, this particular case is different in that the medium is controlled and monitored by technical oriented people who hold little or no regard for teaching and learning objectives. The undue influence of technicians, corporations, and administrative bodies that are often involved in addressing (or redressing) pedagogical problems, risks obstructing important educational objectives. The combination of technology's own constraints in tandem with powerful (and often insistent) direction from educationally uninformed technicians and profiteers is most definitely insidious and possibly dangerous.

This diversion of educational goals by the technological imperative results in a precarious foundation for professing education online. Zygmund Bauman (1993) in the context of business ethics explains this manner of control as a managerial tactic that includes three distinct practices: a) denial of proximity; b) effacement of face; and c) reduction of individual embodied humand to categorical traits. In a detailed discussion, he traces the ill effects of these tactics as they influence conduct between various actors. In this context, then, the very strengths of IT that make it a viable tool, also make it suspect in the educational realm, especially when its reign of control highlights technical (and not necessarily educational) savvy. The technologically mediated virtual community conceals embodied selves from one another. On the one hand, in the text-based systems, for example, the agent is empowered with the security (perhaps misguided) that his/her contributions alone formulate his/her identity. On the other hand, this medium separates people, across unparalleled digital distances. This redefinition of space and time alters individual temporality and does little to arrest the anxiety of having to deal with the technology.

These temporal distortions that a growing number of people experience once they engage in the serious use of IT, need to be addressed and understood if we are to continue our march toward integrating technology within education. The challenge of attending to the inexact (non-algorithmic) aspects of teaching and learning with a seriousness equal to the effort that has been exerted in the acquisition of IT, stands to alleviate much of what makes the current marriage of the two disciplines an awkward and an unnatural union.

Only with a collective will that draws from the various disciplines along with a tempered approach to technology, might we stand to benefit from what the technology has to offer.

As educators, we need to seek ways to expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism. We need to serve as technology "critics" in the same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art critics, or literary critics. If we fail to understand and apply technologies in a manner more consistent with basic human values, we fail our calling as educators. If this empowers us to be passionately optimistic about some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others, so be it!

References

Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Feenberg, A. (1999). "Reflections on the Distance Learning Controversy" The Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 24 (3) 1999, 337-348

Postman, N. (1986). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. NY.