Educational Technology & Society 2(3) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

The Impact of Technology and Distance Education: A Classical Learning Theory Viewpoint

Herb Thompson
Professor of Economics, Murdoch University
Murdoch, Western Australia 6150, Australia
Tel: +61 8 9360 2557
Fax: +61 8 9310 7725


For the past two years the author has been teaching economics (History of Economic Thought and Economic Development) at the tertiary level via the Internet and computer-mediation. This is done primarily for students who are unable or who do not wish to attend classes on campus, but desire an education as good, if not better, as the campus based enterprise. This paper provides a reflective analysis of the theoretical content of that practice. Teaching ‘online’ is a vastly different enterprise than face-to-face exercises, thereby demanding a revaluation of one’s pedagogical theory and praxis.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels articulated their claim that historically dominant classes embody their ideas in essential forms, representing them as universally valid. It is within this framework that we begin to examine what it means to "know" in economics. How knowledge is legitimated in universities continues to be under-theorised, particularly with regard to electronic transmission. The mechanism of transmission of particular concern here is that which is computer-mediated.

Landow represents hypertext as the latest flowering in a long march of democratic processes originating in the displacement of Platonic authority by the lesser authority of the written word. It is argued here that the determinism of the "progressive narrative" within and around the "hypertext revolution" deserves careful scrutiny, particularly in its application to pedagogy.

Pedagogical artefacts, such as computers, mediate the transmission of ideas. The question "how does this happen?" relates to the complexity of theorizing the relationship between the educational process and the social relations of capitalist social formations. Over two decades ago, Bowles and Gintis attempted a Marxist understanding of the nature of this relationship. In their conception, pedagogical mechanisms were seen to operate in a fairly deterministic way to mirror and model the norms and values of the capitalist class. The role of education was seen to be confined to the transmission of those norms and values. Unveiling the hidden curriculum was the central point of their endeavour.

Herein, it is argued that knowledge is not deterministically set by the structures of social formations, being transmitted unproblematically through pedagogical systems. Capitalist ideas are hegemonic only to the extent that they embody common sense propositions. Since power works in multiple sites, with respect to pedagogic discourse, winning consent requires struggle and conflict at the level of both economy and culture. In this sense, the central concerns are: "whose knowledge, in what form, how is it selected and by whom, and to what ends". Further, the technologies employed in teaching are not neutral applications that simply guide the learner; rather, the artefacts of educational technology are themselves the products of social shaping, and are implicated in the reproduction and legitimization of social knowledge and inequalities.

Pedagogical praxis is also a political praxis, i.e., personal knowledge is a function of class, race and gender experiences in relation with, and towards, others. The conceptual, symbolic and physical artefacts of pedagogy provide both the means and the object of our critique, through which teachers/learners come to challenge the status and legitimacy of dominant knowledge claims.

Course material will be used for purposes of exemplification, examples of which can be found in the appendices to this paper. Alternatively, either or both of the courses may be viewed in their entirety by the reader. Simply email the author requesting the relevant URLs and passwords.

Keywords: learning, teaching, theory, hypertext, economics

* Manuscript received 15 Feb. 99; revised 22 Mar. 99

Course material discussed herein is available on the Internet. The author will provide the URLs and necessary passwords upon request.

"…we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks. Almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weaknesses of the printed book. This response has profound implications for literature, education, and politics." (Landow, 1992: 2-3)


What is not clear in the above quotation is whether Landow is speaking of the form or the content (or both?) of knowledge (For specific delineation of form from content see Brandt, 1997). In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels (1845/1968: 61) clearly articulated their much cited claim that historically dominant classes embody their ideas in essential forms, representing them as universally valid. Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks, interrogated the ways in which a predominant class operates. He found the powers of the state extending far beyond the proper realm of the state through institutions such as schools, churches, press, sports, theatre and leisure agencies (Holub, 1992: 103). Raymond Williams (1977: 108-115) eloquently defined ‘hegemonic control’ as "a lived system of meanings and values, not simply an ideology, a sense of reality beyond which it is, for most people, difficult to move, a lived dominance and subordination, internalized."

It is within this framework that we examine what it means to ‘know’, having studied economics ‘online’. General questions about what constitutes knowledge, or the methodologies that legitimate knowledge, have been at the centre of Marxian critiques within the social sciences for decades (Marcuse, 1972). However, knowledge doesn’t wear a label. How knowledge is legitimated in universities, and how it relates to wider goals, continues to be under-theorised, particularly with regard to the mechanisms of transmission (Apple and Christian-Smith, 1991). The mechanism of transmission of particular concern here is that which is computer-mediated. This involves two sets of relationships, both equally important: the interactive relationship between teachers and learners; and the relationships embodied within the computerised technology.

Computer-mediation of knowledge production and consumption is progressing rapidly within all levels of education (Potashnik and Capper, 1998; Veen et al., 1998). ‘Knowledge for profit’ is being seriously assessed, and actively pursued globally, by the managers of public and private tertiary institutions. It is increasingly possible for shareholders to buy a piece of the ‘knowledge industry’, in which the exigencies of profit, loss, and costs of production are the primary determinants of what is to be learned and taught. (See for instance the self-described "Leader in Online Learning over the Internet" Real Education at http://www. realeducation. com). Given the necessity of surviving in the public arena where parliaments are reducing budgets, while simultaneously demanding ‘quality assurance accountability’, the newly corporatised employees of the public university must identify and follow the ‘demands of the marketplace’ as well. The electronic transmission of knowledge has set off waves of competition between universities to cut labour costs and to increase the number of fee paying students. This atmosphere is part of the mega-context within which teachers and learners must collaborate.

From the teacher/learner perspective, much has been made of the social and pedagogical ‘effects’ of the transformation of knowledge by technical means. Landow and Delany (1991: 6) argue that the "theoretical implications of hypertext converge with Derrida’s emphasis on decentering, with Barthes’s conception of the readerly versus the writerly text, with postmodernism's rejection of sequential narratives and unitary perspectives, and with the issue of intertextuality". Pedagogically, the most positive discursive claims appear to be that hypertext undermines the center of political and ideological control, permitting a learner to "choose his or her own center of investigation and experience" (Landow, 1992: 13); virtual text appears on the computer screen as a digital reconstitution of reading as writing, destabilising the teacher-writer/student-reader hierarchy; the design of the technology embodies a non-linear rationality that liberates thought from the shackles of a mechanistic world view; and finally, hypertext promotes epistemological pluralism by positing multiple interpretations of the world. For Landow, then, hypertext represents the latest flowering in the long march of democratic progress originating with the displacement of Platonic authority (Cornford, 1971: 175-263) by the lesser authority of the written word.

Building on Valsiner’s (1992) insight into the relation between discourse and praxis in the social production of knowledge, it is argued that the determinism of the "progressive narrative" within and around the "hypertext revolution" deserves careful scrutiny (Also see Burbules and Callister, 1996). To begin with, the term pedagogy describes a social activity with a teleological goal of arriving at effective means for transmitting knowledge. Therefore, the goals of teaching and the act of teaching coincide in a socially meaningful context guided by maxims, or presuppositions, about the act of knowing, and what it is that must be known. As such, pedagogy itself is a "complex and contested term" (Gipps, 1996: 1), embedded in psychological theories of learning that are themselves developed within dynamically changing social agendas (Walkerdine, 1984; Murphy, 1996). The meaning of ‘pedagogy’, in content rather than form, applied to the medium of hypertext-based teaching, has yet to be critically examined with reference to Economics. We hope to begin that process of examination here by reflecting theoretically on the praxis of teaching "online".

The confluent works of methodological insight which have influenced the author in this exercise include those by: Antonio Gramsci (1971); Sylvia Scribner (Tobach et al., 1997); and Lev Vygotsky (1978). It is these works to which I refer, in the title, as representative of "classical learning theory".

The following section begins with a summation and theoretical critique of pedagogy (informed by praxis), arguing that teaching/learning relations and the social relations of technology always imply economic, political and ideological agendas. This is followed with a case examination of the praxis (informed by theory) of actually teaching economics in a computer-mediated environment. Appendices, replicating selected pages of the Internet-based course material are referred to and provided at the end of the paper. Hypertext, clarified as a site of social production, in the penultimate section brings us full circle, critically reflecting on the quotation with which this introduction began. A summatory conclusion completes the task at hand.

The Critique of Pedagogy

Pedagogical artefacts such as computers and texts mediate the transmission of ideas. The difficulty in answering the question "how does this happen?" relates to the complexity of theorizing the relationship between the educational process and institutionalised social relations. Over two decades ago, Bowles and Gintis (1976) attempted a Marxist understanding of the nature of this relationship by constructing a two-fold problematic: first, to understand the role of educational systems in the reproduction of the division of labour, and second, to understand their own pedagogical role in the reproduction of consciousness. In their conception, pedagogical mechanisms were seen to operate in a fairly deterministic way to mirror and model the norms and values of the capitalist class. The role of education was seen as confined to the transmission of those norms and values assumed to be required by the labour market. Unveiling the hidden curriculum was the central point of their endeavour, as the superficial appearance of the curriculum (the forms of pedagogy and knowledge) was considered to be inconsequential (Apple, 1992). The strength of their work is that they concentrated on what was taught, as well as how it was taught.

Apple (1992: 132) draws our attention to the fact that the "automaticity thesis" implied in the Bowles and Gintis view of schooling and social reproduction has been challenged more than once by Marxist educators arguing for a "more complex theory of culture, a more elaborated view of class agents, and a recognition of the relative autonomy of different spheres of society". Knowledge is not deterministically set by the structures of social formations, being transmitted unproblematically through pedagogical systems. Ideas are hegemonic only to the extent that they embody common sense propositions (Gramsci, 1971). In this sense, education is hegemonic only to the extent that it forces people to see the existing world as the only world. Since power works in multiple sites, with respect to pedagogic discourse, winning consent requires struggle and conflict at the level of both economy and culture (Apple, 1992: 142). In this very real sense, pedagogical texts are products of" a political process of contestation over knowledge". The central concerns are: "whose knowledge, in what form, how is it selected and by whom, and to what ends" (Jules, 1991: 259).

Piagetian psychology, for instance, confronts the Bowles and Gintis view of the world by introducing the possibility of an individualised, rather than a class-based pedagogy, into the teacher/learner relationship (Murphy, 1996: 11). Harnessed to liberal goals of individual attainment and fulfillment, learner-centered approaches re-define learning as individual ‘discovery’. There is a presumption that the teacher’s activity, as well as the texts and other tools of teaching, are neutral and value-free condiments added to the learning process (Walkerdine, 1984).

However, far from emerging spontaneously through organic maturation and the social development of egocentric speech, an individual’s knowledge is constituted by "a complex web of related practices and apparatuses which together produce the possibility and effectivity of the (learner)-centered pedagogy" (Walkerdine, 1984: 162). Further, the technologies employed in teaching are not neutral applications that simply guide the learner; rather the artefacts of educational technology are themselves the products of social shaping, and are implicated in the reproduction and legitimisation of social knowledge and inequalities. Pedagogical artefacts always imply economic, political and ideological agendas. "Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and power it carries with it" (Foucault, 1972: 227). The teacher/learner/artefact/form/and content/ are intertwined together in both the contest and construction of knowledge.

Pedagogical praxis is also a political praxis, i.e., personal knowledge is a function of class, race and gender experiences in relation with, and towards, others. The conceptual, symbolic and physical artefacts of pedagogy provide both the means and the object of our critique, through which teachers/learners come to accept or to challenge the status and legitimacy of dominant knowledge claims (Freire, 1985). Knowledge is embedded in a "set of cultural practices which are encoded in language, resulting in the creation of a set of texts, whose emphases and omissions help to construct what a subject means and what it means to know" (White, 1996: 109). Pedagogy as political praxis implies the need to adopt a critical stance towards those texts and hypertexts, in whatever form they are presented.

Theorising Change in Economics


Through an asynchronous structure of links and nodes, hypertext is said to transcend the linearity, boundedness and fixity of the written or printed text; this fundamental difference in form supposedly corresponds to what Landow and Delany (1991: 3) identify as a ‘revolution’ in the rules of thought; consequently giving us a revolution in social organisation.

Firstly, one point either to be acknowledged or challenged is whether or not we really consider textbooks simply as ‘delivery systems’ for the transmission of knowledge in fixed form as implied by Landow and Delany? Or do books signify much more than this? For instance, Apple and Christian-Smith (1991: 3-4) suggest that:

"Textbooks are surely important in and of themselves. They signify - through their content and form - particular constructions of reality, particular ways of selecting and organising that vast universe of possible knowledge. They embody what Raymond Williams called the selective tradition - someone’s selection, someone’s vision of legitimate knowledge and culture, one that in the process of enfranchising one group’s cultural capital disenfranchises another's... Yet such a statement - even with its recognition that texts participate in constructing ideologies and ontologies - is misleading in many important ways. For it is not "society" that has created such texts, but specific groups of people…."

The fact is that in selecting textbooks particular constructions of reality, the selective tradition if you will, can be contested. Course readers can be used as supplements, radical or alternative texts can be identified and used as options, and specific bibliographic textual links can be highlighted by either teacher or learner. That is, whereas a single textbook (such as Paul Samuelson’s Economics, in the nth edition) may provide the delivery of one form of fixed, enfranchising knowledge, teachers/learners possess the option of delinking Samuelson’s understanding of ‘economics’ from other knowledge of economics via other texts. So while textbooks may be linear and fixed, they are not essentially so. They become so as a result of contestation, ideologically and politically, by particular groups of people. Concurrently, it is evident that most publishers are beginning to see the market potential of uploading hardcopy texts onto the WWW (for an access price of course) to take advantage of hyperlinking what would have normally been the "concepts for further study" at the end of the chapters. There is no "revolution" here, but only a cooptation of a hyperlinked format to provide linear, fixed material in an electronic medium. The content is perpetuated.

To avoid the impression that we are opposed to hypertext per se, rather than the deterministic proselytising of its virtues, the work of Drexler (1987/1996) is drawn to your attention. Drexler, in an article which is simultaneously circumspect in argument, and adroit in analysis and resourcefulness, identifies the importance of hypertext with respect to the evolution of knowledge. To begin with, Drexler makes it clear that hypertext (as a technological tool) has nothing to do with the "creation" of knowledge. The importance of hypertext, architecturally sketched by Drexler, is its capacity to act as an aid in the transmission of knowledge. What Drexler identifies as "filtered, fine-grained, full-hypertext publishing systems..." can provide "faster and less expensive means for expressing new ideas, transmitting them to other people, and evaluating them in a social context." With this there can be no opposition, as long as Drexler would concede that  "ignorance" can be pursued with equal vigour as well. There is no argument with the fact that hypertext provides for the efficient transmission of, and acts as an advanced aid to, the transmission of knowledge (or ignorance). Our concern is with the social construction of knowledge, which is not technologically determined, but rather contested within the parameters of either text or hypertext.

One cannot deny, therefore, that the form of hypertext differs fundamentally from that of printed text. But what of its content? Analysis is required rather than apriori presumptions. Is hypertext necessarily more progressive (more revolutionary!) than textbooks, or does it represent little more than old wine in new bottles? It is argued here that in terms of content or curriculum development, hypertext is yet another (albeit different from books) site of contestation over knowledge that is not fixed, and never has been? Landow himself (1992: 3-4) quotes Foucault’s assertion in the Archeology of Knowledge that "frontiers of a book are never clear-cut, because it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network... [a] network of references". Foucault describes "text, the world of letters, and the power and status relations they involve, in terms shared by the field of computer hypertext". Therefore, it would appear, even in Landow’s terms, that both hypertext and printed text share a capacity for the multiplicity of meaning and interpretation. Further, it could be argued, that both possess the potential (albeit in different forms) for the hierarchical transmission of knowledge. At this point the substance of any "revolution" begins to take on the form and content of the Chesire-Cat’s grin (Carroll, 1939: 64-65).

Production of Ignorance

Traditionally, teaching in economics has followed the information transmission model: the lecturer selects a body of knowledge, organises it, delivers it to students via readings and lectures, expects the students to absorb the material as passive recipients, and then to feed it back in essays and exams. This information transmission model is prevalent in both internal and external modes of delivery and in many other disciplines as well as in economics. It has been argued, with reference to economics, that this particular process is instrumental in the purposeful promotion of ignorance within the discipline (Thompson, 1997).

In mainstream discourse, the subordinates (academic workers and students) tend to reveal only what is "safe" and "appropriate"; that which is delineated by the dominant paradigm or its ideological purveyors. Total subordinate revelation is only forthcoming in student or worker newspapers or "less reputable" heterogeneous journals, all treated with condescending contempt by the orthodoxy. University departments, professional journals and peers form an institutional web, which provides for the career potential of any aspirant to the profession. The proficiency shown in neoclassical tools, concepts and language becomes the hallmark of identification and quality. A student may actually accept what s/he is taught as normal, even justifiable, as part of the social order. Another may reject the information as "unreal", "incomplete", "too abstract", "not relevant", or "not falsifiable" and yet have no "realistic" option to present as a critical counter-claim. In either case, to survive, to pass the course, to increase their potential material enhancement upon graduation, both types of students must internalise and become technically proficient with what is served up. At the level of ideas, this symbolic production and re-production of both knowledge and ignorance-squared is replicated, with or without conscious consent (Gramsci, 1971: passim).

As well, many developments in hypertext course formats are also little more than an electronic repackaging of this information transmission methodology, characterised by long scrolling screeds of text (internal lectures uploaded to the internet), a continuation of the one-way flow of information from lecturer to students, little navigational structure (students are told: "there’s the information, go read it") and rudimentary levels of interaction ("click to continue") or ("see references at the end of the page") or ("you might find some interesting stuff at the World Lecture Hall"). The hypertext that is used refers to materials supplementary to, but outside the linear flow of the document itself. For amplification of this point see (Brown and Thompson, 1997: 74; Drexler, 1987/1996).


In order to elicit a ‘revolutionary process’, computer-mediated-communication must be constructed through an active intermental collaboration of learners with teachers. The goal is to articulate a new, more fertile intra-mental understanding by both learners and teachers. Preparation of the ‘online’ material should permit both teacher and learner to reflect on the new material, discuss tentative understandings with others, actively search for more information to throw light on areas of interest or difficulty, and build conceptual connections (Cunningham et al., 1998; Jacobson and Levin, 1995; Jacobson et al., 1996; Laurillard, 1993; Yakimovicz and Murphy, 1995: 203; Yang, 1996: 47). In appendix 1, the introduction to the material provides for a strict delineation between hyperlinks as information (of which there is a vast quantity on the Internet), and hypertext as one element towards the endeavour for knowledge (which must be based upon a teacher/learner/peer process of discovery).

Each topic, presented in a hypertext format, must allow a degree of learner control as to what information will be accessed and in what order (See appendix 1). Relevant links to outside sources (many contrary to what is being argued in the course material) must be built into the text itself, making the lecturer’s voice one of many possible voices in the exploration of a topic. Links are to be made at the point where relevant information interconnects with other information, rather than the traditional add on ‘for further information’ section at the end of a topic or lecture or set of notes (See appendix 2). Consequently, the student becomes a collaborator in constructing the course rather than a passive recipient of a course already constructed (Berge and Collins, 1995: 6). This is effected by the students following their interests via hyperlink; and then, most importantly, by bringing their information, analysis and opinion to the discussion forum (See appendix 3). This opening page of the forum emphasises the collaborative and communicative nature of the learning process; they are provided with the philosophical and methodological position of the course coordinator; and encouraged to participate and share their unique forms of knowledge with their peers.

Having access to information, and then collaborating in the reformulation of information sources, interpreting the connections, sharing new discoveries with others, and building further insights through feedback from tutor and peers, becomes the core of the production of knowledge online. An electronic forum enables asynchronous communication between the learners and teachers. The desire is to provide a more egalitarian, learner-centred process in which reflection and feedback become important (Brown and Thompson, 1997: 76-77). The teacher/learner dichotomy should disappear at this point with a shared discourse. To provide alternative ‘authorities’, elements of the forum are structured specifically to introduce the students to thinkers with an ideological/political perspective distinctly converse to that of their set reading and course coordinator.

Group projects can be constructed online in which teachers/learners work together to develop knowledge about the variety of topics incorporated in the course. One of the most recent successful collaborative exercises in the Economic Development course was the establishment of a ‘supra-link’ between the author’s ‘online’ students in Perth, Australia, and students taking the same course, in Georgia, USA. The same hardcopy textbook was used by each group, students had access to both the Economic Development site in Georgia and in Perth, and both groups participated asynchronously in the discussion forum.

For another specific example of a teacher/learner collaborative project see the E-book produced online by Professor Enrique R. Carassco at the University of Iowa law faculty (Carassco, 1998). After viewing the E-book one Australian student in the online course reflected:

"What can I say about the uni of Iowa law project? I am totally impressed, overwhelmed, inspired - and, oh yeah, overjoyed to see such a brilliant example of collaborative knowledge production. The project is focused, to the point, lucid and informative, and thoroughly interactive.

Of course, I realise that I am prejudiced towards pedagogical enterprises that involve students actively in challenging and truly constructive collaborations with 'knowledgeable others'. I wonder if any of you share my prejudices:

Would you enrol in a course structured around the creation of an electronic project in economic development? What do you think might be the benefits of producing an e-book (say for example, on population issues) in collaboration with peers and lecturers? Do you think you would learn more about the issues through this sort of collaboration? Or do you prefer to nut it out for yourself, individually, and write essays according to some specified way of doing things? What about problems of assessment? What about time constraints? What about privacy? Would you be slightly anxious about the public face of the exercise - having your contributions 'published' for all to see? Or would you enjoy writing for an 'audience'? Would you give it a go, anyway - or would you just think 'hmm, interesting but looks like hard work, so not for me'?

Just wondering..."

This example, amongst others, suggests that students are excited by the potential of hypertext learning and willing to experiment; but simultaneously aware of the practical difficulties of engaging in the collaborative production of knowledge in a contextual environment based on information transmission and replicated responses. Given the socially constructed pressures, many (most?) students and staff continue to "prefer to nut it out…according to some specified way of doing things". This is the case, irrespective of text-based, or computer-mediated approaches. But something also happens at a deeper level. Appendix 4 portrays one student’s response to the topic on "education and economic development". The student’s response shows a capacity to connect the question of education and development, with a more general theoretical questioning of education’s role as an agent of change, subject to socio-historical circumstances. Analogously, the student’s point is similar to the thesis in this paper. That is, if the content of hypertext simply reflects, educationally, a linear navigational structure, information transmission, and asocial, individualised analysis, then modus tollens, there is nothing about the form of hypertext that can be suggestive of the ‘revolutionary’.

To claim that hypertext produces a ‘revolution in pedagogy, rests crucially on an apriori progressive narrative; that is, a belief in technological progress and in the universally beneficent effects of technology ‘in the long run’. The disparities in status and power that result from the introduction of new computer technology are viewed by Landow as a short run aberration: "…empowerment has always marked applications of new information technologies to education" (Landow, 1992: 172, 174). In Landow’s argument, hypertext represents the latest flowering of the grand march of the democratic process - the dissolution of the authority of the written word. In evaluating Landow’s claims, we are concerned to delimit the possibilities for hypertext pedagogy in undergraduate economics, without detracting from its potential. This was done by viewing both the technology and the education involved as a socially collaborative process.

Hypertext: Site of Social Production

Computer-mediated-education renders a new form of teaching/learning. The technology involved is not a first cause. It should be viewed as a collection of social artefacts created within, not outside of socio-economic circumstances. Yet there are those who would argue as if it is technological diffusion that is in control of social change. Miles and Gershuny (1986) evoke Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ or Kondratiev’s ‘waves’, to suggest the effects on economic activity of technological diffusion. According to ‘wave’ theory, the structure of ‘old fashioned capitalism’ is said to have undergone radical transformation (creative destruction) as the result of information technology: hierarchy has given way to ‘networking’, domination to ‘participation’; and the goal of liberation has been achieved in workforce flexibility (Naisbitt, 1982).

The implication of Miles and Gershuny, Naisbitt, and others (e.g., Bell, 1980; Toffler, 1980) is that a trickle-down effect is operative with the resultant economic prosperity liberating everyone, equally. A growing divide between nations, races, rural/urban sectors or individuals regarding access to new technologies are considered to be only problems of transition. The information ‘superhighway’ is offered up as a powerful moral and political imperative giving all of us the means of transit from an industrial to information economy (Stonier, 1983: 48).

"While the advanced societies produce silicon chips comprising hundreds of thousands of elements, in Africa only one person in eighteen has a radio" (Lyon, 1988: 14). Inequalities in access to pedagogical tools are not confined to ‘less developed’ countries. Reviewing a decade of social science following the introduction of computers into classrooms in the USA, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, Sutton (1991) identified a widening gap in educational outcomes, with gender, race and class the key predictors of differences in performance, access, and type of use. According to Sutton, the apparent ‘bias’ of computer technology in favour of white, middle-class males has produced, in these countries an extremely narrow focus on equity in access and participation, betraying the extent to which adaptation to information technologies has been accepted. As well, Spender (1993 : 35) argues that "we know enough about power, past and present, to know that there will be the information rich and the information poor, and that the feminisation of poverty will have a knowledge dimension". Her principle claim that access alone does not ensure equity, requires our consideration of the wider questions of the social relation of knowledge to power (Also see Ferganchick-Neufang, 1998).

One rationale of the managers of education of technologically-enhanced learning is to push for the diffusion of information technology through education. The language is constructed in accounting terms (e.g., user-pays, cost-reducing, increasing productivity of delivery, promoting quality assurance, etc.). The actions of those, in control of the resources for hypertext learning, might be described as constructing pedagogy in accordance with the principles and priorities of the market. The idea that universities must be better prepared to compete for students in a global market place becomes the focus of attention. In these terms, the ideas of class, gender, equity, collaborative learning, or pedagogical epistemology, become irrelevant as focal categories. Commodification of education becomes the primary concern. Within this paradigm, we are given the vision of ‘homo economicus’ as our pedagogical mandate. Students become clients; course material becomes a unit for delivery; academics are hired on a part-time or casual basis to deliver the units to the clients. Rational behaviour moves away from the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, to "one of the main enterprises of the future post-industrial economy" (McLaren, 1995: 8). The university is reconstructed as a ‘supply side mechanism’ to advance the goals of economic rationalism and global reform.

David Nobel (1984) views information technology within the context of historically produced social relations, and sees the computer itself laden with the values of rationalisation and norms of productivity. From this perspective, information technology enables unprecedented centralisation of control over production of both things and knowledge, and a simultaneous dispersion of work and study around the globe. Both workplace solidarity and student communalism become anachronisms. The computer transforms value into exchange-value through the permutation of all types of knowledge into commodity forms.

The difficulty with Nobel’s work is its similarity to the unproblematic determinism of the previously noted effort of Bowles and Gintis. It denies any possibility for fruitful intervention into educational or industrial battles, either economically or culturally. Historically produced social relations are just that, relations produced by individuals acting critically, in order to mediate or transform technology (Marx and Engels, 1844/1975: 93). Technologies that mediate human activity are bound up with the accumulation process evolving through history, and yet remain the means for active resistance to that process. Human activity provides the fabric of history, the dynamic shaping of both material and cultural worlds, the unifying process of object and subject, the creative force for change. The information technologies which mediate human activity in the late twentieth century are neither a product of, nor embodiment of, fixed relations; neither "rotten fruit of futurist fancy" nor "ideology in the guise of social analysis" (Lyon, 1988: 8). Pedagogy is not a ‘tool’ for transformation; it is neither a determining process nor a finished product. It is a process of becoming. It is relational. Or, as Foucault and Gramsci observed, pedagogy has to do with the reinvention of power and the explication of strategies for resistance in social sites that are contested. Regarding hypertext pedagogy in this light, we would do well to ask about the dynamics or politics of social change as information technologies are diffused through tertiary education? More importantly, what possibilities and constraints do those dynamics reveal for a pedagogy of resistance and empowerment?


It cannot be assumed that simply providing teachers/learners with appropriate tools and task materials will result in their spontaneous engagement with contextual thinking. When learners use computer tools in ways which pay attention to the attributes of concepts and their interrelationships, then they are employing contextual thinking and learning. When they use the same tools to create links between material in a haphazard fashion, they are gathering information which may or may not lead to knowledge. The potential of computer mediation to foster knowledge depends less on what learners use, than on how they use it.

  • The Bowles and Gintis analysis was an important first step, but with hindsight is seen as a somewhat naive, deterministic Marxism, in which class power is one-dimensional and pedagogy is unilaterally transmitted. Therefore, accepting the social construction of reality and class-content of knowledge, an interpretation has been pursued here, in which pedagogy is constitutive of multiple categories of analysis, and where power and knowledge are as much properties of resistance as they are of hegemony. That the knowledge/power nexus is constituted in multiple sites implies an extension of class analysis to include understanding of the ways that pedagogical artefacts are biased against women and subordinate racial groups. To understand what is being produced and reproduced, we require a theory that allows for analysis of the contradictions within the social dynamics of class, race and gender. McLaren (1995: 18) argues:

  • "We need to rethink what the conditions of possibility are for the subaltern student to speak, to act, to transform the ideological precepts that inform the imponderability of everyday life and naturalise its social relations of power and privilege. We need to look to the subaltern for counter-representations, for counter-hegemonic articulations of new epistemologies, new epistemes of resistance in both the practice of theory and the theory of practice. We need to motivate to an evaluative visibility the critically utopian imperatives that guide our project of possibility, our critical pedagogy".

  • An interpretation of Piagetian pedagogy which suggests that learning is a function of the individual’s maturation is rejected. Those student-centered theories that aim, simultaneously, to promote knowledge as an individual acquisition and pretend to measure the individual’s attainment of knowledge relative to assessment norms deny that fundamentally, knowledge is a process of social construction.
  • Finally, the artefacts of technology used in any pedagogical process are not neutral, but themselves constructed socially and have a social history of development. The tools we use today embody a history of contestation and struggle, both in their construction and in their potential use. Computers can be used to spy on employees, to cut costs and replace labour, or to open up the potential to disrupt the hierarchy of knowledge and power transmission by teachers/learners. Teaching/learning, mediated by technological artefacts, has both a synchronic and diachronic reality. We use the artefacts which embody a social history of resistance and hegemony, in order to struggle to create new properties of resistance and hegemony in the production of knowledge and power.

Hypertext does not have intrinsic value, and cannot be judged independently of educational contexts and goals. "…it can be judged only in the light of its stated purposes (and) its intended and unintended effects…" (Salomon, 1993: 180). Hypertext may facilitate observation, comparison and categorisation. But if this is all that it does the result will be superficial, with little analytical content. On the other hand, if it is used as an instrument of strategic thinking, then the computer-mediated environment should be providing the wherewithal to guide critical learning. It should be providing the facilitating structure and tools that enable teachers/learners to make maximum use of their intermental intelligence and knowledge (Scardamalia et al., 1989: 54; DeLong, 1997).

What is the political context of a shift from textbook to hypertext? What does the diffusion of information technology into the production and teaching of economic knowledge mean for class, gender and power relations? These are pivotal questions for educators concerned with the means and processes of hypertext pedagogy; they beg further questions about the relationship between technology, history, and the social production of knowledge. Hypertext pedagogy, as a set of pedagogical artefacts, practices and theories, is a site of production, and of struggle, in its own right.


Appreciation is extended to Nicola Taylor for research assistance; and to Mick Campion for a critical reading of earlier drafts. The poignant criticisms of the four reviewers of this journal must be acknowledged for their assistance in enhancing the quality of the final draft.


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Appendix 1


The study guide is the core of the unit. It develops a hypertext introduction to each of the six major topics.

How to approach the material

You will have to read the material a number of times, and in a number of different ways.

First, I would suggest that you read each section from beginning to end to get the general idea of the topic and information being covered in the unit. That means you should ignore the hypertext links.

Second, read the material again, only clicking on those hypertext links that particularly interest you, or for which you would like additional information. Here you begin to follow up pertinent information in greater depth, looking to amplify the basic information provided or examine related topics. To get back to your place after you've explored a hyperlink, click on the 'Back' button in the top left of your Netscape toolbar.

Finally, read the material again following up the hypertext links as they occur. The purpose of doing this is to discover the innumerable links between economics and the rest of human intellectual endeavour. In-depth learning necessitates making connections between broad and diverse components of knowledge.

There are the obvious links between economics and politics, sociology, anthropology, industrial relations, commerce, etc.

There are also important connections between the methods of economic analysis and those used in biology or physics.

And there are fascinating, much less obvious, but no less important, connections between economics and the humanities such as literature, art, poetry and music. The discovery of these links provides not only in-depth knowledge, but is also a fun and fascinating journey through the results of human enterprise.

Because learning is interactive, I expect you to not only go through the links I have provided, but to find some yourself, and share them with your tutor and classmates.

You may now begin with the first major topic of the Study Guide by clicking on the link below.

Topic 1

Topic 2

Topic 3

Topic 4

Topic 5

Topic 6

Appendix 2

Adam Smith showed us in a clear and concise manner that the scarcity of resources (time, energy, goods and factors) forces the realisation that meaningful and purposeful individual endeavour will maximise output in the most efficient manner possible, as if guided by an invisible hand. Any bureaucratic, elite, or state control is destructive to this end. The Wealth of Nations was begun by Smith as an attack on the structures and ideas which shaped Mercantilism. According to Smith the role of the State should be limited to (1) providing a rule of order; (2) protecting property rights; and (3) providing only the essential social services of cohesion such as education or defence. Other than this the marketplace, competition, and self-interest would provide for the maximum wealth of a nation.

Please also see relevant material in C263 - Economic Development.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the ripples of the French Revolution began to spread throughout Europe, stirring rebellion against established authority and the remnants of landed feudalism. Traditions were being shattered before a tidal wave of new ideas and cries for political and intellectual freedom that had stemmed from the philosophers of the 'Enlightenment' such as Rousseau and Voltaire. The genius of political economy developing amongst the British economists was complemented by the genius of music, literature and the arts in Germany and Austria, given fruition by the likes of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827), Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Mozart (1756-91) and Johann von Goethe. Ludwig Beethoven was one typical example complementing Smith's break with the constrictions of Mercantilism and Feudalism. Freedom, the right of the creative ego to assert itself unhampered, was an obsession with him. The story is told that one day as he and Goethe were taking a walk on the streets of Vienna, the Empress passed and Goethe bowed his head as the entourage passed. Beethoven yelled, "stay as you are, for now they must give way to us". In the latter stage of his life, the stage of the Ninth Symphony, he completely broke with the past and, like the classical economists, entered spheres of expression previously unknown to others of his craft.

Appendix 3

Forum: Economic Thought and Controversy

Owner: Herb Thompson

Contact: Herb Thompson(

Description: The opportunity for personal growth and improvement occurs each time there is interpersonal communication. It does not matter if that interaction occurs face-to-face, over the telephone, or during communication mediated in some other manner, such as this electronic forum.

The purpose of this forum in Economic Thought and Controversy is to give all of us, teachers/learners, the opportunity to exchange information, assist and collaborate with one another in the struggle for knowledge. Irrespective of the number of students presently enrolled "online" it is important that we communicate, both through personal messages via email to our tutor, but more importantly to each other via this open forum.

If you are interested in some of the general philosophy and methodology that went into this particular unit in learning online, may I suggest you take a look at an article Course Design for the WWW: Keeping Online Students Onside I wrote with Allison Brown, Instructional Designer, in the Teaching and Learning Centre. This article will give you an insight as to why I think "online" learning is one of the more exciting challenges to face academics and students throughout the world today.

Whether or not this forum helps you, and whether or not it works as a learning tool, depends completely on you. If you have suggestions as to ways it could be made better, please don't hesitate to let me know. In the meantime tell us a bit about yourself and place it in the "Student Profiles" which is the first topic listed. Good luck and stay in touch.

Discussion Topics: (click on the topic to view messages)

  • Student Profiles (15 messages, 2 replies, last message/reply posted Tue Mar 10 21:46:46 Australia/West 1998 )
  • The Scope and Method of Economics (28 messages, 8 replies, last message/reply posted Mon Apr 20 16:35:20 Australia/West 1998 )
  • Pre-Classical Economic Theory (31 messages, 10 replies, last message/reply posted Mon Apr 13 12:23:24 Australia/West 1998 )
  • From Classical to Neo-Classical Economic Theory (18 messages, 6 replies, last message/reply posted Fri May 15 18:03:45 Australia/West 1998 )
  • Modern Times Macro, Micro and Econometrics (33 messages, 0 replies, last message/reply posted Tue May 26 16:25:27 Australia/West 1998 )
  • Female Contributions to Economics (26 messages, 8 replies, last message/reply posted Wed May 31 12:55:32 Australia/West 1998 )
  • Modern Non-Mainstream Economics 19 messages, 5 replies, last message/reply posted Mon May 11 16:19:32 Australia/West 1998 )
  • Discussion List # 2 Submissions (14 messages, 6 replies, last message/reply posted Mon May 25 14:21:32 Australia/West 1998 )

Appendix 4

Topic Description: EDUCATION

"What can I know? What shall I do? What may I hope?

Less than 40 percent of Indians aged four and older are literate.

Girls' participation rate in education in Pakistan in 1990 was 15% and their overall literacy rate in 1996 was about 10%. Yet, there is clear evidence that the economic and social rates of return to schooling are quite high, and on the whole, higher for women than for men.

The "gender gap" is highest in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, with the inequality in enrollments worse at the secondary and tertiary level than at the primary level. In developing nations where most families cannot afford to educate all their children, and where wage labor contingent upon education is closed to women, is viewed as waste. Eliminating the gender gap in education, therefore, is a question of educational, social and economic policies that have specific operational strategies to enhance girls' participation.

Reply Posted

'To think of education independent from the power that constitutes it, divorced from the concrete world where it is forged, leads us either to reducing it to a world of abstract values and ideals (which the pedagogue constructs inside his consciousness without even understanding the conditioning that makes him think this way), or to converting it to a repertoire of behavioural techniques, or to perceiving it as a springboard for changing reality.

In fact, it is not education that molds society to certain standards, but society that forms itself by its own standards and molds education to conform with those values that sustain it. Since this is not a mechanical process, a society that structures education to benefit those in power invariably has within it the fundamental elements for its self-preservation.

The idea of education as a springboard for changing reality arises, in part, from an incomplete understanding of the above mentioned epistemological cycle. The idea is rooted in the second stage, where education functions as an instrument for self-preservation. It is as though defenders of such an idea were saying, "If education preserves itself, this is because it can change what it preserves". They forget that the forces that mold education so that it is self-perpetuating would not allow education to work against them. This is the reason any radical and profound transformation of an educational system can only take place (and even then, not automatically or mechanically) when society is also radically transformed. This does not mean, however, that those educators who want and, even more so, are committed to the radical or revolutionary transformation of their society can do nothing. They have a lot to do, and without resorting to prescriptive formulas, they should determine their goals and learn how to reach them according to the concrete historical conditions under which they live… Throughout history one does what is historically possible, and not what one would want to do'.