Frank Webster argues that there are two main views about the nature of the contemporary world: those who argue that we are living in an age that is essentially different from the preceding period – a post-modern, post-industrial world; and those who emphasise continuity with the past (Webster, 2006, p. 7). For some this new world order holds promise of utopian dreams where man is enhanced by technology, and access to knowledge is unrestrained and emancipatory. For others, the new world order is an entrenchment of the inequalities of power, and vast swathes of humanity are bypassed as disparities of wealth widen rather than close. The main thrust of this essay will be to examine some of these approaches though the lens of education generally and educational technology in particular and to argue that educational technology is a site of struggle.
There is a general consensus that the new digital and communication technologies are changing the world in unprecedented ways and that these technologies are enabling a new and changed world order which is post-industrial and based on an information economy. This idea was first advanced by Daniel Bell. For Bell it is the computer which is at the heart of the change to an “Information Society” (Kumar, 1995, p. 8), a change as revolutionary as the advent of the industrial age itself. He describes a shift away from manufacture towards information and service industries, and with it new stratifications in the labour force and new space-time frameworks (Kumar, 1995, p. 11) as globalization and synchronous communication appears to shrink the planet and national boundaries are broken down by the growing power of transnational corporations.
Manuel Castells argues for a view which acknowledges the continuities of class power within the transformation of capitalism into what he terms an informational capitalism, whilst still acknowledging that “there is something new in the information age” (Castells, 1999).
The transformation of the capitalist system is characterised by the fact that it is enabled by the new information technologies and represents a concentration of capital in the hands of transnational corporations together with a decentralization of organization (Castells, 1999, p. 6). Informational Capitalism thus acquires the properties of a flexible and fluid network, able to respond rapidly to changes in circumstances. While being connected to this network leads to prosperity, many societies, what he terms the fourth world, are simply bypassed. Within the developed nations themselves individuals are connected to the nodes of the network or are marginalised.
This shift from manufacture to information-processing activities is accompanied by a change in the organisation of labour, from the large-scale standardized mass production of the Fordist era, to the more flexible units of fast capitalism, able to respond to changing markets rapidly, characterised by just-in-time production and distribution methods based on an information economy (Warschauer, 1999, p. 9). These economic changes require a new type of worker and a new work order (Lankshear, 1997). Reich’s analysis of the contemporary labour market in developed economies describes three categories of work: routine production services such as clerks and factory workers, in-person services such as janitors or hospital workers and symbolic analyst services such as management consultants or software engineers (Warschauer, 1999, p. 14).
There are, according to Reich, wide disparities in the experience of work and the education received to prepare workers for these categories. Symbolic analysts are educated in elite schools or better suburban schools followed by four years of college. These workers are educated to think critically and be creative, articulate and collaborative, in tune with the needs of fast capitalism (Warschauer, 1999, p. 15). Those being prepared for routine jobs, however, although the pedagogical rhetoric is the same, effectively receive an education which stresses functional literacy and fact recall. In this context the introduction of educational technology presents two faces. While for some it is used to enhance critical thinking and prepare them for full participation in the networked society, as Thomas and Yang have pointed out, for others the use of technology in education, controlled by a neoliberal agenda, only seeks to teach people ‘better faster cheaper’ (Thomas & Yang, 2013, p. 113). As Apple has pointed out, neoliberal education is concerned with meeting the needs of the job market and with efficiency, rather than being concerned with the growth of the individual (Apple, 2004).
For some the new society being ushered in by the new informational capitalism is frequently accompanied by a utopian vision of the limitless possibilities of the future. Stonier, for example argues that the post-industrial information society will be “peaceful and democratic … an era of plenty” (Kumar, 1995, p. 14). The new technologies offer the promise of participatory democracy and the ability to solve problems, rising above the struggle against material reality to achieve, what Masuda terms a “computopia” (Kumar, 1995, p. 15). As Fuchs notes, these views are “uncritical and affirmative” not because they mischaracterise the centrality of information and knowledge labour, but because they fail to correctly identify the continuities in class power and dominance (Fuchs, 2009, p. 388). For Fuchs networks are not inherently non-hierarchic or democratic as many argue, they can be asymmetrical in their reflection of the power relations within society. Some hubs within the network are more powerful than others, and the network itself bypasses many areas of the globe – a case in point being the often unequal access to ICTs (Fuchs, 2009, p. 395).
Much of the current educational debate is framed by the perceived need to restructure the educational system in such a way as to provide the skills needed by the new knowledge-workers, and this is often cast in the rhetoric of critical thinking skills, but we need to be ever-mindful that it is a dualistic system which perpetuates inequalities and seeks to limit debate as much as it promises creativity.
For Jean-François Lyotard the principle feature of the post-modernist world is the demise of the great meta-narratives and teleological explanations of the previous age such as the notion of progress, the Enlightenment or Marxism’s inevitable march towards Socialism (Webster, 2006, p. 231). The growing importance of symbolic production within the post-industrial world leads to a multiplicity of relativist positions, and the lack of a grand structure. For Jean Baudrillard, for example, the very proliferation of signs in the modern world robs us of a sense of being in touch with reality (Webster, 2006, p. 256). This presents a world less certain of its direction and less confident in its own ability to find solutions to the multiple problems we face. Gunther Kress describes our times as being characterized by “radical instability” (Kress, 2000, p. 134), requiring a new pedagogy to prepare people for such an age. In a world based on consumption, in a world where commodities are constituted as signs, meaning is no longer confined to texts in the old sense, and Kress, and the New London Group argue for a multiliteracies approach to education. This places digital an new media technologies at the centre of the educational debate.
For Stevan Harnad, furthermore, what characterises contemporary society most is nothing less than a cognitive revolution which he sees as being born: a revolution based on the new digital technologies and the networking of knowledge that this enables [i] (Harnad, 1991). His vision is one replete with promise and points to the liberatory potential within the new educational discourse. The new “skywriting” represents a cognitive advance and to ignore the potential inherent in the utopian visionaries is to surrender to the neo-liberal agenda. Education, schools, educational technology itself is a site of struggle. Castells argues that the Internet possesses “embedded properties of interactivity and individualisation” (Webster, 2006, p. 106)allowing for people to form electronic networked communities which provide a space within which to challenge the hegemony of the neo-liberal agenda. Antonio Gramsci noted the way in which knowledge is used to reinforce hegemonic power and the importance of conducting counter-hegemonic struggles (Bates, 1975), and it is in this sense that the New London Group argues for a focus on critical literacy within the curriculum.
Andrew Feenberg, for example, in examining the struggles between a vision of online education based on automation and deskilling of academics and attempts by faculty to re-instate human mediation (Feenberg, 2005, p. 61) is indicative of the kinds of struggles over educational technology through which the nature of contemporary society is being contested. While we may feel that the overwhelming power of global transnational informational capitalism allows for limited manoueuvre by human agency, but, as Kumar suggests, “(o)ptimists are as plausible as pessimists” (Kumar, 1995, p. 24) and it is too early to tell. Teachers have the crucial advantage of being on site and of having at their disposal a discourse which stresses critical thinking and creativity.
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[i]Harnad’s argument is that the new technologies allow for a bringing together of the immediacy of oral communication (the first revolution) and the reflective power of writing (the second revolution) in a form which allows for interactivity and reflection at the same time, and constitutes not just a quantitative change as was experienced with the advent of the printing press (the third revolution), but something qualitatively different (the fourth revolution).