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2002-02-20 14:39:42 ]

From: Phil Agre <pagre@alpha.oac.ucla.edu>
To: Red Rock Eater News Service <rre@lists.gseis.ucla.edu>
Subject: [RRE]Critical Theory of Technology

[I've heavily reformatted this, omitted references and footnotes, etc.
Apologies for any glitches.]

Date: Sun, 17 Feb 2002 12:41:36 -0800
From: feenberg@sdsu.edu

Critical Theory of Technology, Second Edition

Andrew Feenberg

Oxford University Press, 2001

Praise for the Previous Edition of "Critical Theory of Technology"

"Feenberg's book is an important contribution to the philosophy of
technology and science not only because of its exceptional analyses
of technology in the works of Critical Theory, but also because it
calls upon the resources of that tradition to supply us with the means
to grasp the outlines of another possible industrial civilization
within our reach."  -- Theory and Society

"Timely.  The book is appropriate and recommended reading for managers
and bureaucrats.  It provides perspective.  It offers ideas to
consider in attempting to discover alternative directions societies
and workplaces could take in this decade to address issues and solve
problems.  The book is appropriate for an academic study of technology
and society, or for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course on
computers and society.  The book is also appropriate for workers in
technology."  -- Computing Reviews

"Short, clear, and wide-ranging. ...  Feenberg's book deserves a wide
audience among industrial designers, economists, and engineers, and
philosophers concerned with technology and democracy."  -- Ethics

Modern technology is more than just a neutral tool: it is the
framework of our civilization and shapes our way of life.  Social
critics claim that we must choose between this way of life and human
values.  In this thoroughly revised new edition of Critical Theory of
Technology, Andrew Feenberg challenges that pessimistic outlook.  This
book re-examines the relationships between technology, rationality,
and democracy, arguing that the degradation of labor--as well as of
many environmental, educational, and political systems--is rooted in
the social values that preside over technological development.  This
new edition of a classic work reflects the growing emphasis of the
past ten years on the fields of technological and cultural studies.

Andrew Feenberg is Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State
University.  He is the author of Alternative Modernity, Technology and
the Politics of Knowledge, and Questioning Technology.


1. Introduction: The Varieties of Theory
Part I. From Marxism to Radical Critique
2. Technology and Transition
3. The Bias of Technology
Part II. The Ambivalence of the Computer
4. Postindustrial Discourses
5. The Factory or the City: Which Model for Online Education?
Part III. The Dialectics of Technology
6. Beyond the Dilemma of Development
7. The Critical Theory of Technology

Chapter 5

The Factory or the City: Which Model for Online Education? [1]

Technology and Modernity

Much recent discussion of the Internet emphasizes its promise
of epoch making changes in our lives.  In no domain are these
anticipated changes more radical than in education.  We are told that
the substantive content of instruction can now be delivered better
by computers than by teachers.  Are we on the verge of a fundamental
transformation of all our assumptions about education as we enter
a postindustrial information age, or are we instead witnessing
significant but more modest changes in education as we know it?
As a participant in the early development of online education,
I hope to be able to bring a touch of realism to the debate.

The debate is not limited to education, which is simply one among
several fronts in the struggle to define the society of the future.
The meaning of modernity is at stake in this struggle.  One possible
outcome is a society reflecting in all its institutions the logic
of modern production, obsessed by efficiency achieved through
mechanization and management.  The Internet could serve this
technocratic project in hitherto protected domains such as education.
But one can also envisage a very different outcome modeled not on the
factory but on another modern institution, the city.

The city is the place of cosmopolitan interactions and enhanced
communication.  Its god is not efficiency but freedom.  It is not
dedicated to the rigid reproduction of the same, the "one best way",
but to the flexible testing of possibilities and the development of
the new.  Not hierarchical control but unplanned horizontal contacts.
Not simplification and standardization but variety and the growth
of the capacities required to live in a more complex world [2].  The
Internet extends this urban logic in a radically new way.

The question implied in the debate over educational technology is
therefore: Which model, the factory or the city, will shape the future
of education?  Online education can serve either strategy in different
technical configurations.  Automated education is certainly possible
although at the price of a redefinition of education itself.  The
generalization on the Internet of a more traditional concept of
education centered on human interaction would facilitate participation
by under-served groups and might raise the cultural level of the
population at large.

This latter prospect recalls a significant precedent.  It is clear
that the gradual disappearance of child labor and the consequent
establishment of universal education has transformed modern societies
and shapes the kind of people who inhabit them.  To the extent that we
are capable of understanding the complex technologized world around us
and acting independently within it, this is owing to the extended time
for learning modern societies allow.

However, there is strong link between education and the division
of labor, with the latter determining the former over long periods.
Where deskilled production governs educational expectations, cultural
levels remain relatively low.  Marx saw no escape from this situation
so long as capitalism survived to impose its division of labor.
But capitalism is alive and well long after the demand for skill
has risen to encompass a significant fraction of the labor force.
The consequence has been tremendous educational dynamism.  Adult
education, for example, now embraces more than half the students
in American college programs, a reflection of the shortage of
competencies in the labor pool.

Yet one wonders how far this trend can go under capitalism.  In the
first place, the growing demand for educated labor in the advanced
capitalist world is accompanied by the export of manufacturing to poor
countries.  While skilled and unionized manufacturing workers suffer
steep declines in income and job security in the advanced countries,
old fashioned patterns of industrialization appear everywhere else.
The net effect may well be a global increase in deskilled work despite
the contrary appearance in places such as Silicon Valley.  Second,
business leaders appear to be increasingly alarmed by the high cost
of education which is now the largest budget item in practically every
advanced capitalist nation.  In the US, the promise of the Internet
has inspired an ideological offensive in favor of automating and
deskilling education.  These problems suggest the continuing relevance
of critical theory to educational policy.

The Meanings of the Internet

One of the first educational technologies was writing, and like
every subsequent educational technology, it had its critics.  Plato
denounced the medium for its inability to recreate the give and
take of spoken discourse.  Writing is analogous to painting, he has
Socrates argue in The Phaedrus (a text that, fittingly, depicts an
intimate conversation between teacher and student).

  The painters' products stand before us as though they were alive,
  but if you question them, they maintain the most majestic silence.
  It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as
  though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about
  what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling
  you just the same thing forever (Plato, 1961: 521).

In short, Plato holds that the technology of writing has the power
to destroy the dialogic relationship that ought to join teacher
and student.  Technology in the form of writing is the enemy of the
human touch, a position familiar from critics of modern life today.
How often have we heard that technology alienates, "enframes"
and dehumanizes, that technical systems intrude on human relations,
depersonalizing social life and neutralizing its normative
implications?  Could it be that the humanistic bias against the
computer can be traced back to Plato?

Ironically, Plato used a written text as the vehicle for his critique
of writing, setting a precedent that we continue to follow in
present-day debates about educational technology: many of the most
vociferous attacks on web-based media circulate on the Internet
(Noble, 1997).

As Plato sees it, the medium in which we communicate determines the
quality of our interactions.  But this is a deeply flawed view, as we
have seen in the case of the Internet.  Rather, the social impact of
technology depends on how it is designed and used.  Writing can lend
itself to ongoing dialogues between teachers and students, and speech
can easily become one-sided.

However, while Plato's condemnation of writing was unfair, he
alerts us to a real issue: whenever a new educational technology is
introduced, arguments emerge for substituting interaction with the
technology for the process of intellectual exchange.  But there is
something about dialogue, and the active involvement of the teacher,
that is fundamental to the educational process and that should be
woven into the design of every new instructional tool.  Any break with
this assumption would amount to an epochal change in the communication
between the generations.  Ultimately, then, the question comes down to
whether we can still defend an understanding of education like Plato's
or whether the Internet, a more powerful technology than writing,
has finally rendered his conception obsolete.  Neither television nor
stand-alone computers ever managed to accomplish this feat, but many
believe that such possibilities await us just a few miles down the
information superhighway.

The optimism of these advocates of automated education fuels
long-standing humanistic distrust of computers.  As discussed in
the last chapter, the computer appears as the very emblem of the
modern experiment in total rational control.  It is this image of
the computer that inspires much of the current rhetoric of online
education, both for and against.

To the extent that social thinkers fear or anticipate an automated
society, they loath or admire the computer.  While technocrats
hail the power of the computer to render social life transparent and
controllable, humanists foresee the domination of man by the machine.
In 1962, Heidegger offered a typical example of this pessimistic view.
He explains the difference between language as saying, as revealing
the world by showing and pointing, and language as mere sign,
transmitting a message, a fragment of already constituted information.
The perfection of speech is poetry, which opens language to being.
The perfection of the sign is the unambiguous position of a switch,
on or off, as in Morse code or the memory of a computer.  Heidegger

  The construction and the effectiveness of mainframe computers
  rests on the basis of the techno-calculative principles of this
  transformation of language as saying into language as message and as
  the mere production of signs.  The decisive point for our reflection
  is that the technical possibilities of the machine prescribe how
  language can and should be language.  The type and style of language
  is determined according to the technical possibilities of the formal
  production of signs, a production which consists in executing a
  continuous sequence of yes-no decisions with the greatest possible
  speed . . . .  The mode of language is determined by technique
  (Heidegger, 1998: 140, translation modified).

And Heidegger goes on to announce the end of Man under the impact of
the computer.

Lyotard concurred in his 1979 book on The Postmodern Condition.  Here
is his account:

  Knowledge cannot enter these new [computer] channels .  .  .  unless
  it is capable of being translated into quantities of information.
  It is predictable that everything belonging to the constituted body
  of knowledge that is not so translatable will be abandoned, and
  that the orientation of new research will be subordinated to the
  condition that the eventual results be translatable into machine
  language...  Consequently, one can expect that knowledge will be
  rigorously externalized with respect to the 'knower' (Lyotard, 1979:
  13, my trans.).

Lyotard foresees the disappearance of humanistic culture and the
complete commodification of knowledge in a postmodern society
(Feenberg, 1995: chap.  6).

These thinkers bring out the difference between knowledge considered
as pure data, mere information, and knowledge as a living process of
discovery, growth, and communication between human beings.  A critique
of automated education could be built on this basis, but it would
be far too encompassing.  Heidegger and Lyotard blame the problem on
the structure of the computer as such and not on particular designs
or applications.  If they are right there can be no alternative
realizations of the technology with different social consequences.
It is digitization itself which is the villain.

All this makes fun reading for philosophers, but it is embarrassingly
wide of the mark.  What has actually happened to language in a
world more and more dominated by computers?  Has it in fact been
reified into a technical discourse purified of human significance?
On the contrary, the Internet now carries a veritable tidal wave
of "saying", of language used for expression as always in the past
[3].  Of course, we may not be interested in much of this online
talk, but that is another story.  The simple fact of the case is
that these philosophical reflections on the computer were wrong.
They not only failed to foresee the transformation of the computer
into a communication medium, but they precluded that possibility
for essential reasons.

It was only in the 1980s that electronic communication by computer
exploded, moving beyond the corporate settings to which it had
been largely confined up to then and entering the home.  The first
breakthrough occurred in France, where the Minitel system quickly
attracted millions of users.  Within a decade the Internet was
to forever change the image of the computer.  It was mainly
nonprofessionals (or professionals not associated with the design and
management of the systems) who pioneered these unexpected uses of the
new technologies.  And they succeeded because ordinary people wanted
computers to serve personal goals and not just the official functions
emphasized by experts.  In the process they refuted widespread
deterministic assumptions about the rationalizing implications of the
computer and revealed its communicative potential.

The Minitel was the first large scale domestic computing network.  In
the early 1980s, the French telephone company distributed six million
terminals connected to a packet switching network to which servers
could be easily hooked up.  This was a national anticipation of
what the Internet became on a global scale.  The system was designed
by telephone company technocrats who conceived it as a means of
modernizing French society through improving citizen access to
information resources.  Human communication over computer networks was
not originally part of the design or, where it was mentioned in early
documents, it was far down on the list of priority functionalities.
As a result, hardware and software were biased against human
communication, although it was not technically impossible.  Very
quickly, hackers opened the network to human communication which soon
became one of its central functionalities (Feenberg, 1995: chap. 7).
This case is emblematic of the democratic transformation of technical
networks by the human actors they enroll, innovating novel social

But is this transformation really significant from a democratic point
of view?  Isn't this just a "market rationalization" responding to
commercial motivations?  After all, most of the online communication
supported by the Minitel system, as later with the Internet, is of no
public significance.  But transpose the case to a university campus
and the point is clear.  Suppose that the Chancellor promulgated
a new rule forbidding all unofficial conversation on campus.  That
would surely be perceived as undemocratic, indeed, as positively
totalitarian.  And why?  For two reasons: first, because it would
reduce complex living persons to the simple functions they serve
inside a specific institution; and second, because it would make it
nearly impossible to articulate complaints that might lead to changes
in the institution.  Absurd as this example must seem, it may well
apply to virtual campuses in which automated learning systems are
substituted for human contact.

In any case, this analogy illuminates the Minitel case.  The doubling
of real social space by the virtual space of computer networks opens
new communicative possibilities for everyone.  Limiting interaction
to an official subset, such as business and government communication,
has undemocratic implications online just as it would on campus.
Fortunately, such limits have not been imposed.

In the similar case of the Internet, the stakes reach well beyond
the Minitel example.  Corporate and government organizations
globalize on the Internet today without restraint.  Obstacles to
human communication on computer networks, had they been introduced,
would have prevented a comparable globalization of citizen critique.
Events such as the World Trade Organization protests would have
been that much less likely in an environment where business was ever
more cosmopolitan and citizens still provincial in their contacts
and attitudes.  This is of course not to say that the Internet
causes or determines anything in particular on either side of the
lines of battle drawn in Seattle.  But the exclusion of ordinary
human communication from the Internet would certainly have had
undemocratic consequences.

This is the context in which to evaluate the opening of the networks
by users to innovative communicative applications.  Wise after the
fact, we look back on the history of computing with the certainty that
it was always meant to facilitate human contacts and then complain
that it doesn't do as good a job as it should.  If we "follow the
actors", as Bruno Latour advocates, we discover a very different
picture in which the networks are invented and reinvented by users as
places of human encounter.

Just twenty years ago, few imagined what the future would hold for
apparently trivial applications such as email.  But it seems obvious
today that the computer is a vital medium of communication, and not
just a calculating and information storage device.  Its definition
has changed in a direction determined by a social process.  And the
story is not yet over.  The computer is not yet a finished product.
It is still in flux, its evolution subject to a wide range of social
influences and demands.  But this fact also means that to the extent
we depend on computers the very definition of modern life is still up
for grabs.

As universities move into online education, they are becoming one
of the most significant fronts in this struggle over the meaning
of modernity.  The new computer-based initiatives polarize around
two alternative understandings of the computer as an educational
technology.  Is it an engine of control or a medium of communication?
This choice which faced Minitel and Internet users decades ago returns
today as a live option in the world of education.  The automation
of education relies on the first option, an informating solution that
incorporates human-to-human teaching relies on the second.  In the
remainder of this chapter, I will argue for that second solution as
a progressive technical alternative.

Automating Education

Why would one want to automate highly skilled educational tasks?  Some
may argue that technology can deliver education more effectively than
can faculty, empowering the learner who is presumed to be oppressed
or at the least badly served by the teacher.  Others would claim that
automated instruction offers "consumer-friendly" options for working
adults.  Automated education is said to foster postindustrial virtues
such as temporal and spatial flexibility, individualized products,
and personal control.  But in the final analysis, the main reason for
automating is obvious: to cut costs.

Costs, of course, are the concern of administrators and for too many
of them the big issues in online education are not educational but
financial.  They hope to use new technology to finesse the coming
crisis in higher education spending, and to accommodate exploding
enrollments of young people and returning students.  Automated
online education is supposed to improve quality while cutting costs
of delivery.  Students in virtual classrooms need no new parking
structures.  What is more, courses can be packaged and marketed,
generating a continuous revenue stream without further investment.

All this should have a familiar ring since it describes traditional
correspondence schools.  These schools fed written documents or TV
and radio broadcasts to isolated students studying in their homes.
Compared to classroom education, the economies of scale in the
production of documents and broadcasts yield tremendous cost savings.
Labor costs approach zero as the school acquires a body of reusable
materials and substitutes low wage graders for professional teachers.

The Internet can raise the level of correspondence education
inexpensively by improving the materials available to the student.
To the extent that earlier attempts at replacing teachers failed
for purely technical reasons, the Internet does show promise.
In its ability to transmit graphically exciting materials and
programs, as well as text, it represents a considerable advance over
the correspondence schools of the past.  It can even offer crude
imitations of teacher-intensive tasks, such as answering questions
using FAQ's (Frequently Asked Question lists) and "Ask the Expert"
help programs.  "Intelligent agents" can adapt computer-based programs
to students' learning styles (Kearsley, 1993).  And, incredibly
enough, it may even be possible to automate the grading of some types
of essay tests, as Peter Foltz and Thomas Landauer claim in describing
their "Intelligent Essay Assessor", based on a technique called
"Latent Semantic Analysis" (Foltz, 1996).  According to a Coopers
& Lybrand white paper, this kind of software will soon have a radical
impact upon the daily realities of higher education.  "[A] mere
25 courses" of packaged instructional software could handle 80% of
enrollment in core undergraduate courses; a 24-hour help desk would
add a personal touch (Coopers & Lybrand, 1997).

The key to automation is to separate out informational "content" from
"process".  A small number of well paid "content experts" will work
as "star" performers, while the delivery process is deskilled so that
inexpensive tutors can handle interaction with students.  In a really
low cost solution, discussion can be replaced by automated exercises.
Eventually it will be possible to dispense with campuses altogether.
Students will pick out courses at an educational equivalent of
Blockbuster and "do" college at home without ever meeting a faculty
member or fellow student (Agre, 1999).

As we saw in the last chapter, strategies of automation go way back.
Skilled workers are expensive, and automation is a time-honored
strategy for cutting costs.  The story begins in the early 19th
century, when textile manufacturers in northern England discovered
that they could replace skilled with unskilled labor by mechanizing.
The whole history of the Industrial Revolution is dominated by this

Here is how the 19th century "philosopher of manufactures" Andrew Ure
described the goal in 1835:

  By the infirmity of human nature it happens, that the more skillful
  the workman, the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to
  become, and, of course, the less fit a component of a mechanical
  system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great
  damage to the whole.  The grand object therefore of the modern
  manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to
  reduce the task of his work-people to the exercise of vigilance
  and dexterity (Ure, 1835: 18).

Is such a gloomy version of the future of education really plausible?
Is it likely that "self-willed and intractable" professors will
disappear as have weavers, shoemakers, and typesetters?  Probably not,
but whether technology is about to deskill the professoriate is less
important than the fact that this idea occupies a key place in the
imagination of many educational reformers.

The idea of replacing teachers by computers is an old one, but
until recently few educational technologists and administrators
were convinced.  The ideal of automated education is no doubt still
a minority view, but it has gained sufficient plausibility from
advances in computing and the Internet to occupy a considerable space
in public discourse.  Other current buzz words such as "self-paced
individualized instruction" feed into this trend.  The essential idea
is that in a future virtual university, accomplishment will no longer
depend on contact hours, indeed, on contact with professors.

Much of today's reform rhetoric, with its appeals to the revolutionary
potential of virtual universities and competency-based degrees,
hints at the obsolescence of the traditional campus and its teaching
methods, arousing suspicion among faculty that technology will be used
against them.  In the longer run, should teachers really be expelled
from the classroom, we would truly enter a new era.  One fundamental
project of modern societies, the substitution of technical control
for traditional methods and devices for social arrangements, here
overflows the sphere of production to which it has been largely
confined up to now and enters the realm of social reproduction.
In this model the "disembedding" of the educational process, its
disconnection from the local setting of the campus, is also its
depersonalization.  If human contacts are no longer central in so
fundamental a growth process as education, then surely we are headed
for a very different ideal of adulthood and a very different kind of
modern society from the one we live in at present.  But is this a
necessary consequence of modernization?

Ironically, contemporary theory (if not practice) in the business
world has left behind the industrial era's fascination with
deskilling.  Starting with Peters and Waterman's 1982 best seller
In Search of Excellence, Frederick Taylor's old model of deskilled
labor and hierarchical management was blamed for everything that
ailed American business.  Since then the lesson has been hammered
home in dozens of similar books devoted to exploring a third way,
an alternative to the old opposition of "man" versus "machine".

As discussed in chapter 4, Shoshanna Zuboff's contribution to this
literature emphasizes the complementarity of human and computer
capabilities.  While humans are best at dealing with unexpected
situations and responding to novelty, computers can organize
the vast amount of data required by modern production.  A similar
complementarity is at work in education: the teacher manages the
complex and unpredictable communication process of the classroom,
while data is delivered in textbooks (and now by computers as well).

The specifics of the business literature do not always apply to
colleges and universities, but Zuboff's emphasis on technological
choice is relevant.  Unfortunately, though, higher education hasn't
quite gotten the message.  Many college presidents continue to sell
their constituents on the inevitability of computerization, as though
the very existence of these new devices sets the reform agenda in
some clear-cut and unambiguous way.  And there still exists plenty of
faculty opposition to the supposed consequences of the new media, as
though their impact were predetermined (Feenberg, 1999; Farber, 1998).

Higher education has a $200 billion budget and employs and services
many millions of people.  The shape of the educational future is the
shape of our society, and increasingly it is corporate rather than
professional models that prevail.  The erosion of traditional faculty
status continues apace in innovative institutions serving adult
learners, now half the students in higher education.  Even the older
universities that now teach a declining fraction of students employ
more and more part-timers in the search for "flexibility".  And it is
becoming more difficult to resist arguments against tenure which carry
conviction with the public if not with most members of the university

This explains why there is so much faculty resistance to new
technology.  Faculty detect continuity in administration enthusiasm
for cost-cutting at the expense of traditional educational roles
and values.  Between 1970 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty
increased by about half, while over the same period part-time
faculty multiplied two and one half times.  If the trend continues,
part-timers will overtake full-time faculty on college campuses in
several years.  At community colleges, part-time faculty are already
in the majority.

This worrying trend parallels the growth of the nontraditional
or returning student population.  These students require different
course schedules than the traditional ones to which faculty are
attached.  Largely because of this, adult education has developed
outside the standard academic departments and procedures under direct
administrative control.  As a result, a vast parallel system of higher
education has emerged in which faculty have low status and less power.
Since it serves adult learners -- precisely the students most likely
to be open to distance learning -- this parallel system has a free
hand to experiment even if traditional universities resist.

These trends set a precedent for administration strategies which,
many fear, are moving from deprofessionalization to deskilling.  The
replacement of full-time by part-time faculty is merely the opening
act in the plan to replace the faculty as such by CD ROMs.  A new
economic model of education is being sold under the guise of a new
technological model.  This is the route to what David Noble calls
"digital diploma mills".  Understandably, this is not a route many
faculty wish to travel.

The issue of educational technology must therefore be framed in
a broader context because it is not primarily a technical issue.
It reflects the changing relation of management and professionalism,
which in turn concerns issues of career patterns, standardization,
quality, and control.  The resolution of these issues and the
evolution of educational technology will go hand in hand.  In short,
there exists a great temptation to think of technology as a managerial
tool for centralizing the university.  Something like this may
actually happen in the confusing environment created by technological
change.  Once in place, bad decisions will be locked in technically
and difficult to reverse.

Informating Education

Technologies are not mere means to ends; they also shape worlds.
What kind of world is instituted by the Internet?  The basic fact
about computer networks is scarcity of bandwidth.  This limitation can
be overcome now to the point where audio and video can be distributed
on the Internet.  That possibility inspires plans for automated

But writing is the oldest technology we have for dealing with a narrow
bandwidth.  Plato was no doubt right to complain that writing cannot
reproduce the actual experience of living human interaction.  On the
other hand, we now have a rich experience of written dialogue online.
And we have discovered in that context that writing is not just a poor
substitute for speech and physical presence but another fundamental
medium with its own properties and powers.  It is not impersonal, as
is sometimes supposed.  We know how to present ourselves as persons
through written correspondence.  Nor is it harder to write about ideas
than to talk about them; most people can formulate difficult ideas
more easily in written form than in speech in front of an audience.

These considerations on writing hold the key to the informating of
online education.  The online environment is essentially a written
world (Feenberg, 1989).  In this section I will argue that electronic
networks can be appropriated by educational institutions with this in
mind, and not turned into automated teaching machines or poor copies
of the face-to-face classroom which they cannot adequately reproduce.

Wherever education takes place, the basic medium must be carefully
distinguished from the enhancements and their roles distributed
correctly.  Speech is the basic medium in the classroom, supplemented
with labs, movies, slides, text books, computer demonstrations,
and so on.  Similar enhancements to written interaction are possible
on networks.  No doubt these enhancements will continue to improve
and perhaps someday change the nature of online education.  But for
many years to come, writing will continue to be the basic medium of
online expression, the skeleton around which other technologies and
experiences must be organized to build a viable learning environment.

Confusing the medium with the supplementary enhancements leads to the
pedagogical absurdity of teacherless education.  To replace online
written interaction with the enhancements makes no more sense than to
replace the teacher in the face-to-face classroom with labs, movies,
slides, text books, and computer demonstrations.  That was tried long
ago with educational television and computer-aided instruction without

Despite the promise of automation, the ideal of dialogue has inspired
some educational technologists since the early 1980s, and considerable
progress has been made in using online education to support new forms
of interaction among teachers and students (Harasim, et al., 1995:
chap.  3; Berge, 1999).  In 1981 I worked with the design team that
created the first online educational program.  This was the School of
Management and Strategic Studies at the Western Behavioral Sciences
Institute in La Jolla, California (Feenberg, 1993).  Our goal was
to enable busy executives to participate in a humanistic educational
experience despite job demands that made it impossible for them to
attend regular university classes.  The only way to do this at that
time was the old-fashioned correspondence course, the reputation of
which had fallen so low in the US we did not envisage it.  Instead,
we opted for computer networking, a still experimental technology
available primarily in a few large computer companies and
universities, and on small publicly accessible servers such as the
Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) at the New Jersey
Institute of Technology.  These were the obscure forerunners of the
Internet as we know it today.  We succeeded in placing our school on
EIES, and for nearly ten years I helped with its operation, trained
teachers, and myself taught courses in it.

When we started out online education was essentially untried.  The
equipment was expensive and primitive.  We used Apple IIE's with 48K
of memory and 300 baud modems.  (Multiply by 1000 and 100 respectively
to get current averages.) The complexity of basic computer operations
in those days was such that it took a full page of printed instructions
just to connect.  The only available electronic mediation was
asynchronous computer conferencing, which allows private groups to
form online and share messages.  Current online educational software
such as Blackboard or Web CT continues to perform many of the
functions of these early conferencing programs.

None of us had ever been a student in an online class or seen one
in operation, and we did not know the answers to the most elementary
pedagogical questions, such as how to start a class, how long or
short messages should be, and how often the teacher should sign
on and respond to the students.  We soon discovered that computer
conferencing was not very useful for delivering lectures, and
of course it could not support any graphical contents, even the
simple drawings teachers like to scribble on the blackboard.  After
considerable trial and many errors, we discovered how to sustain a
Socratic pedagogy based on virtual classroom discussion.  The school
soon grew to include over 150 students in 26 countries around the
world and inspired other experiments in online education.  The field
grew slowly and quietly on this original dialogic basis throughout
the 1980s and early 1990s.

Using email and computer conferencing, faculty in many American
universities have for years now been reproducing the excitement of
classroom discussion online.  For the instantaneous back and forth of
real-time discussion, a slower but still engaging day to day rhythm is
substituted.  With time to reflect and compose questions and answers,
students who might never have participated in a face-to-face setting
bring forward their ideas.  The use of writing imposes a discipline
and helps focus thinking.  Faculty learn to grasp students' ideas
at a much deeper level as they engage with them online.  Innovative
pedagogical techniques such as collaborative learning have been
adapted to the Internet and new forms of interaction invented
(Harasim, et al., 1995: chapter 6).  In successful experiments, small
classes are the rule: twenty is a good working number.  There is
little doubt that competent teachers under these conditions are able
to reproduce a true equivalent of classroom interaction [4].

At WBSI, the emphasis was on human communication.  Our version of
online education was conceived in a break with the correspondence
school model.  We gave up the use of elaborate prepackaged materials
in exchange for living interaction.  That choice is no longer
necessary.  The Internet can now do more than merely improve the
materials available in the traditional correspondence course; it can
also add human contact to an educational model that has always been
relatively impersonal.  Using email and discussion forums, groups
of students can be assembled in online communities where they can
participate in classroom discussion with teachers on a regular basis.
The gap between correspondence education and online learning as we
implemented it twenty years ago can now be erased.

An automated system of online education does not take advantage
of this new potential of the Internet but perpetuates the old
correspondence school model.  It simply extends the economies of scale
associated with the distribution of written materials into the wide
range of media supported by the Internet (Agre, 1999).  But the social
condition for the cost savings achieved by correspondence schools,
whether traditional or web-based, is the isolation of the student.  On
the other hand a system that also includes live interaction does so at
a price: a qualified teacher must be in attendance at every iteration
of the course.  Institutions may save money on building costs but
not on educational labor, the single largest item in most university

What does this say about the ambition to replace campuses with virtual
universities?  Large markets for distance learning will undoubtedly
emerge, and this will be a blessing for many students who cannot
attend college classes.  This trend has important implications not
only for working adults in the advanced capitalist world but for
residents of rural areas in poorer countries.  But if higher education
is cut loose from the traditional university and its values, the
blessing will turn into a disaster.  The best way to maintain the
connection is through insuring that distance learning is "delivered"
not just by CD ROM's, but by living teachers, qualified to teach and
interested in doing so online.

Then prepackaged materials will be seen to replace not the teacher
but the lecture and the textbook.  Interaction with the professor
will continue to be the centerpiece of education, no matter what the
medium.  And of course for most people that interaction will continue
to take place on campus if they have the means and the mobility to
attend a college.

Conclusion: The Future of Educational Technology

Today we are confronted with two very different directions of
development for democratic societies, one of which defines citizenship
in terms of the functions individuals serve in systems such as
markets, workplaces, and administrations, while the other conceives
of the individuals as bearers of a range of potentialities that
surpass any particular functional realization.  The definition of
those potentialities occurs in aesthetic experimentation, ethical
and political debate, and technical controversies.  The first view
characterizes modernity as we know it.  The tendency of this modernity
is to replace human communication wherever possible by technical or
bureaucratic systems that enhance the power of the few in the name of
efficiency.  Education, from this point of view, should be narrowly
specialized and tightly controlled, both in terms of costs and
content.  Automated systems in which communication is restricted to
the delivery of data and programs could serve this project.

The second view holds out the possibility of an alternative modernity
realizing human potentials ignored or suppressed in the present
society.  Many of those potentials are specifically communicative
and depend on the very practices being eliminating under the present
dispensation.  Furthermore, those potentials can only express
themselves in a communicatively open environment.  This vision implies
a broad education for citizenship and personal development, as well as
the acquisition of technical skills.

Educational technology will not determine which of these paths is
followed.  On the contrary, the politics of the educational community
interacting with national political trends will steer the future
development of the technology.  And this is precisely why it is
so very important for a wide range of actors to be included in
technological design (Wilson, 1999).  Students and faculty bring a
number of considerations to the table, including the desire to create
tools that support human interaction, a desire that has already
manifested itself forcefully in the earlier evolution of the computer.

Systems designed by administrations working with corporate suppliers
will be quite different.  Automating the classroom feeds directly into
a preference for video, which seems to offer the closest equivalent
to "real life" and a lot more entertainment.  We are not talking
about the old fashioned talking head video broadcast on TV networks,
but a new kind of computer mediated video capable of much more
elaborate presentations.  This has implications for course design.
Automated products will tend to be quite elaborate since they must
rely entirely on the computer to dramatize their message and motivate
the student.  Courseware designers and producers will manage the work
of star faculty who can offer polished performances in the new medium.
Predictably, educational technology will evolve to Hollywood levels of

When they actually engage with the new teaching technology, faculty
sense immediately that it is not mature.  In the actual experience of
online education, technology is not a predefined thing at all, but an
environment, an empty space faculty must inhabit and enliven.  They
have a craft relation to the technologies rather than a development
strategy.  They try to get the feel of it and figure out how to
animate it, to project their "voice" in it.  In doing so they are
acting out of an ancient tradition which assigns education to human
relations rather than devices.

This difference is reflected in different technological emphases.
While it would be nice to be a "star" professor in an automated
virtual class, most faculty do not aspire to that exalted status.
Live video, with its complicated and intimidating apparatus, holds
little attraction for either teachers or students.  Of course this
may change as high-speed access over the Internet becomes commonplace,
but we are many years away from achieving this in campus settings much
less in the home.  The graphical capabilities of computers are better
compared to blackboards than to classrooms; they are supplements to,
rather than replacements for, teaching.

These considerations govern the design of online courses animated
by a live professor.  They will generally be created under his or
her control in relatively simple and flexible formats.  No computer
professionals need be involved.  As in the conventional classroom,
much of the interest will lie in the interaction among students and
between students and teachers.  As far as techniques of presentation
are concerned, a certain healthy amateurism is to be expected.
Prepackaged computer-based materials will not replace the teacher
but supplement his or her efforts, much as do textbooks today.
Software designers will pursue user-friendliness and simplicity to
serve faculty needs.

Although neither video conferencing nor automated learning have
caught on with faculty, there is a long history of interactive text
based applications such as the experiment at WBSI described above.
These experiences go back to a time when there were no more elaborate
alternatives; it is widely assumed that the introduction of image
and sound renders earlier approaches obsolete.  But perhaps that is
a mistake.  The latest equipment is not always the best for the task.
Could it be that our earliest experiences with computer conferencing
were not merely constrained by the primitive equipment then available,
but also revealed something important about electronically mediated
education?  I believe this to be the case.  Even after all these
years the exciting online pedagogical experiences still involve human
interactions and for the most part these continue to be text based.

But here is the rub: interactive text based applications lack the
pizzazz of video alternatives and cannot promise automation, nor
can they be packaged and sold.  They do not conform to the fantasy
of total central control over a flexible, disseminated system
defying spatial and temporal boundaries.  On the contrary, they are
labor intensive and will probably not cut costs very much.  Hence
the lack of interest from corporations and administrators, and the
gradual eclipse of these technological options in public discussion
(if not on campus) by far more expensive ones.  But unlike the fancy
alternatives, interactive text based systems actually accomplish
legitimate pedagogical objectives faculty and students recognize and

To resist the automating trend in education is not simply to wallow in
an old-fashioned Mr.  Chips sentimentality.  Rather, it is a question
of different civilizational projects with different institutional
bases.  The traditional conception of education must be preserved
not out of uncritical worship of the past but for the sake of the
future.  I have tried to show here that the educational technology
of an advanced society might be shaped by educational dialogue rather
than the production oriented logic of automation.  Should a dialogic
approach to online education prevail on a large enough scale, it could
be a factor making for fundamental social change.  This prospect is
explored in all its utopian implications in the next chapter.

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