sue watling

I’m still reflecting on the issue of power, since the lack of it was commented on in my EA2 (see politics and power) This weekend I revisited ‘All Watched Over by Machines of  Loving Grace’ (Adam Curtis, 2011).  The 3-part documentary examines how power is perceived and distributed. I’m writing about resistance to virtual learning. Both are connected to the 1990’s. Curtis revisits late 20th century dreams of a cybernetic utopia with freedom from social controls and conventions. Dearing’s  1997 landmark report into the future of higher education claimed the internet would transform the university. There is more…

Underneath, I’m interested in the social construction of identity; how society controls gender expectations opposed to how we interpret ourselves and ways of resistance. The commodification of gender expectations is a powerful and invisible social control. I’m drawn to Edward Bernays application of his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytic ideas to public relations and marketing. I also like postmodernist ideas on subjectivity, in particular Baudrillard on simulation and social manipulation of  confusion between the Sign and the Real. Power is the thread which pulls this altogether and digital media the channel where power operates most persuasively. In Propaganda, Bernays describes PR as the ‘conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses’. He claims this is an important aspect of democracy and ‘‘Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’

It’s a small step to social controls through corporations and governments. These excursions into power soon encounter Foucault who explored the power and authority of institutions and the state, how it became anonymous and embedded in bureaucracies. For all his ideas have been supported or critiqued, the Foucaultian view of hierarchical surveillance is alive and well and living in Google.

We have become accustomed to digital ways of working, but resist digital pedagogic practice. The lecture and seminar remain the most popular form of transmission and debate. The virtual in learning environment remains largely invisible.

Visions are rarely neutral and with technology they are mostly utopian or dystopian. In 1999 Daniel Nobel wrote Digital Diploma Mills attacking the distribution of digitized course material online, seeing this as a regressive trend towards mass production and standardization in the favour of commercial interests. In 2005 the HEFCE first elearning strategy promoted technology enhanced learning as leading to transformation through radical and positive change. In 2011, Feenburg (author of Questioning Technology, 2001) claimed the promise of virtual learning in the 1990s has come to nothing – and ‘the automation of learning has failed’ 

The embedding of the university VLE affects everyone who works or studies there but it is not universally loved; more tolerated or even hated. It’s possible the sector is still in a state of transition. Socrates complained the written word would damage education if people no longer needed to meet up and discuss philosophical ideas. After Gutenberg, there was concern the book would harm the educational imperative. Resistance to teaching and learning online may be an extension of academic culture shock. Or resistance may run deeper, indicative of caution from critical thinkers and reflective practitioners.



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