Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Is online education about democratising or commodifying?

In August 1991, British computer scientist Tim Berners Lee published details of the idea he had been developing for some time – the World Wide Web – and created the world’s first web pages. Networked forms of communication and data sharing (known as the internet) had been in use among specialised groups of scientists, government organisations and a small number of educators for some time. But the World Wide Web changed the ways we would access and use information, redefining many aspects of our social and working life.

The web revolutionised businesses and the global economy and, before the end of the 1990s, many people in universities worldwide were persuaded it would transform them, too. Some believed it might cause the end of the university; some thought it marked a new beginning. Yet others found such revolutionary language in either direction to be an overstatement of what was fundamentally just a continuity of past habits, especially among distance educators, to adapt new technologies to help facilitate the human interaction that was so central to the university’s educational mission.  For higher education, the web represented a possible democratisation of educational opportunity, literally giving access to segments of society who were never able to enter higher education in the past. In the very same moment, however, the web was also the universities’ latest get-rich-quick-scheme, representing, for some scholars, all that went wrong in universities at the end of the twentieth century.

Simultaneously expressing hope and despair, the debates around eLearning remind me of a classic essay by German scholar Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in 1936. Benjamin argued that when art could be endlessly reproduced, it would no longer be elite. To him, this was a good thing – art was more accessible, it could be owned and accessed by everyone. At the same time, though, art would also become commodified in a new way – it would become a consumer product for a mass market. This would change the value of the work of art in a really important way. The value of art would move away from its aesthetics, or its place in the history of artistic thinking – all of the reasons art was appreciated. Instead, value would be in art’s market value, in its price.

In exactly the same way, university engagement with digital technology has significant implications, but it is not clear yet just how positive they all are. Australian scholar, Gerard Goggin, author of a history of the Internet in Australia, argues:
We are in the grip of a powerful social imaginary of the university in which digital technology is a cardinal element. The history of technology and social relations, and their critiques, show us that this can be a very heady thing indeed.  
This chapter explores the development of digital technologies in Australian universities from the perspective of these two powerful ‘social imaginaries’. The first represents a kind of redemption for the university, undermining some of its old habits in producing and reinforcing elite Australia, just as the photographic reproduction of art did for Walter Benjamin. The second is in the ways eLearning also represented a commodification of higher education, knowledge and information. It may also, just as mass-produced art was valued (by its producers) for its price, represent a shift from an ideal for university knowledge to a crude online education market. Leaping from the ivory tower, so to speak, into the waiting arms of late capitalism.

--- This is a rather rough and totally unedited segment of my first draft of Chapter 9: Knowledge in the Age of Digital Reproduction, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----

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