Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Knowledge transfer and technology in education: toward a complete learning environment

Moderator & Summarizer: Ania Lian
University of Canberra
Australia, ACT, 2601

Discussion Schedule
Discussion: 3 - 12 April 2000
Summing up: 23 - 24 March 2000

Pre-discussion paper

1.0 Introduction

Education as a field where social relations are played out immediately raises concerns regarding the sources of power which regulate the ways in which knowledge is introduced and managed. Questions thus arise regarding the criteria by which decisions are made regarding the teaching/learning objectives and the means for their achievement. Which understandings, or reference contexts, are mobilised in order to justify the decision process put in place? How is it ensured that learners are not excluded from the process of formulation of the learning objectives? In other words, how is it ensured that learners would understand the interests which generate these objectives? Furthermore, how can it be shown that the new technological applications truly serve learners' needs rather than the interests of the invisible but omnipresent spirit of true 'Competence'?

This paper has been written with the aim to problematise the question of the pedagogic task and its articulation in the context of the opportunities that multimedia technology opens up to education. Fundamental to this goal has been to illustrate the relevance of the assumptions about learners and the task of learning which underpin educational environments and which, in turn, inform different uses of technology. Drawing on the intellectual frameworks of postmodernist/postructural authors, the question of the pedagogic task has been posed as embedded within the larger framework of understandings that shape institutional and individual perceptions of the goals and methods by which education should proceed. These perceptions are formed in the contexts of social interactions which are not free from models of the social order, social power, and social change; and, to paraphrase Luke, ultimately models of how learners should look and be (Luke, 1995: 97). Therefore to reflect upon the ‘How?’ of technology (or its place and function) in education is to reflect upon the goals which technology is to support and make possible.

To facilitate a step in this direction, this paper attempts to sketch out a framework for thinking about technology and education. In particular, it looks at the concepts of knowledge and knowledge transfer from the perspective of the goals that motivate their specific forms of integration into a learning environment. The paper argues that the solutions to pedagogic problems do not lie so much in technology as in the ability, on the part of the pedagogues, to approach critically the issue of knowledge production and reproduction. It is argued that technology itself is neither liberating, empowering nor enabling one to be with other people but that it will serve whichever goals motivate its incorporation. If this goal is to facilitate a model of education where learners have a right to a point of view and where this view has a status, a necessity arises for rethinking the conditions which would make such a model possible. It is the task of this paper to stimulate reflection upon the notion of supportive learning conditions and the role that technology can play in such an environment.


2.0 The social basis of knowledge and the problem of bias in teaching and assessment

When talking about learning and teaching, people often refer to these processes as being contextually based or socially-embedded. While it seems obvious that the goal of education is to prepare learners for the life outside the classroom walls, it seems that the notion of the social basis of the concept of knowledge or the means considered appropriate for its transfer (or its appropriation by learners) remain still obscure. This difficulty to articulate the bridge between the goals and the means of learning becomes particularly apparent in the context of assessment.

It is commonly the case that teaching objectives are established prior to the commencement of learning while the assessment criteria, though often articulated to learners, remain ambiguous to them and possibly also to teachers. For example, Atkinson in his discussion on the place of critical thinking in second language education reports on the difficulties that university professors had when asked to specify what they understood as critical thinking and critical learning:

"Likewise, Fox (1994) describes interviewing seven university professors who had extensive experience working with nonnative graduate students on their academic writing. Hoping to receive from them precise understandings of the notion of analysis and critical writing  - terms that she equated directly with critical thinking and that the professors commonly used - Fox asked them to define these terms. She reports, however, that "this question was surprisingly difficult for them to answer, despite their confidence in using these terms in the language of their assignments" (p. xviii) and despite the ease with which they were able to identify such characteristics as "good analysis" and "difficulties with analysis" in their students' writings.” (Atkinson, 1997: 75)

It the light of these remarks it appears that the relationship between the goals of teaching and the assessment criteria is not a straightforward matter for all involved. Furthermore, if, as the quote above illustrates, the goal of critical thinking appears equally confusing to teachers, chances are that teachers may well not be quite clear about the kinds of support structures (and their organisation) that would best enable learners to fulfil their course obligations. The difficulties reported above suggest that, more often than not, intuitive solutions to teaching and assessment are being applied with pedagogues lacking a critical base for approaching their own beliefs.

The situation becomes gloomier when one considers that teachers' failure to critically approach their own pedagogic beliefs means that it becomes quasi-impossible for learners to understand the objectives that drive both the teaching and the assessment agenda. Effectively, a problem of inequality and power imbalance is created. Everyone, ranging from politicians, through teachers and finishing with employers, is entitled to the belief that they are able to discern the properties of knowledge with which education should equip learners and which will prove of value to their future lives and work. In this perspective, learners become the object of expert's attempts at classification with no possibility of influencing these.

The difficulty of linking teaching and assessment on the basis of principles of inclusion rather than exclusion is the subject of the critique presented by Freebody, Luke and Gilbert in the context of literacy training (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991). They point out that, in spite of the general sociopolitical sensibility in the field of education, teaching practices remain largely uncritical to the ways in which they approach the issue of knowledge, its production and reproduction. The consequence of this attitude are educational technologies which turn learners into cybernetic machines to be filled with programs for their efficient functioning and ready for future updating. There is little room in such teaching models for the notion of learners as individuals whose actions and judgments cannot be disembedded from their sociohistorical contexts:

"It is by now something of a common place to assert that an educational curriculum cannot be interest-free. Nonetheless, the models of literacy alluded to above purport to present universally valued accounts of reading and writing – accounts based on and aimed at, for example, efficient information processing, enhanced retention of knowledge, generically “better-formed” texts, or personal growth through genuine response to valued literature. Such accounts typically do not “interrupt” the naturalizing drives of the text by directly addressing the thesis that school texts and literacy activities are important material resources in the complex politics of cultural production and representation.” (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991: 450)

In the context of this criticism it would appear that the personal agendas of both teachers and examiners prevail as the sole solution to the problem of bias in teaching and assessment. The danger with this approach is that the teaching objectives established and the assessment criteria applied will function more as limits of knowledge than as a springboard for all involved to seek out innovation and new perspectives. Cope and Kalantzis bring to our attention the problem of "perspectives" in education and the necessity for shifting away from pedagogies which turn education into a system of indoctrination:

"If the classical revivalists don't like some strains in late twentieth century intellectual and educational thought, if they are nostalgic for thoughts and schools from times past, this does not give them an automatic right to impose their own exclusionary Political Correctness. And, if they feel there is a cultural crisis, they should not simplistically attribute this to educational innovation. When the educational innovations leave something to be desired, it is probably a function of the cultural crisis, the consequence of a broader social failure to come to grips with diversity, than the other way around." (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993: 114)

It becomes evident that when the diversity of discursive resources on which learners build is ignored, education makes learners' passive compliance its goal (cf. Luke, 1995: 27). In such models, the need for learners' explorations and contestations of views is abandoned. Critical inquiry and the need for rich perspectives are replaced with a doctrine. Its goals and methods of enforcement become nothing other than a collection of abstract stereotypes about knowledge and the educational needs of learners. In turn, these stereotypes give birth to speculations about the teaching methods appropriate for the development of the (one-and-only) satisfactory forms of knowledge. In another paper, Luke continues his critique of educational models which reduce knowledge to such stereotyped competency-skills:

"Looking over current and recent reports on “key competencies”, “audits,” “profiles,“ and “generic skills” in Australian and American adult education, one could be forgiven for thinking that we inhabit a world of literal language users: that the domains of everyday institutional life are conflict-free places of robotic consensus; where nonfiction work-place texts are, more or less, clear and unambiguous; where readers and writers go about work each day reading, quite literally recalling and doing as texts tell them - telling and writing truths, responding “acceptably,” “efficiently, ” “appropriately, “ and, as one Australian set of competency scales reminds us, “often.” (Luke, 1995: 96)


3.0 Knowledge and the sources of its legitimation

It turns out that just as culture escapes attempts to lock it in some set of fixed form-function relationships, so does knowledge or, more specifically, the forms of reference which would ensure that our learners truly know. Knowledge, conceived as a product of the interpretatory mechanisms applied, makes impossible attempts to solidify it into units of knowledge thought to be inherently valuable and hence object of testing. It seems therefore that knowledge is not a matter of facts and their reproduction but a matter of the power of the interpretatory strategies applied for the purpose of identification and resolving of problems. In other words, knowledge is not a function of the ability to retrieve its "powerful" units but a function of the ability to show the power behind the systems of knowledge formulated. In this approach, it is not knowledge as such that should be sought after but the ability to build powerful (critically informed) systems of organisation.

Thus approaches which view the meaning of the teaching objectives (goals), and hence the process of their translation into a set of teaching conditions, as void of questions will also tend to view learning as simple and equally unproblematic. In such approaches, the object of teaching will be reduced to discrete forms of reference considered to form knowledge in themselves. In turn, approaches which acknowledge the interpretatory basis of all knowledge will make room for forms of learning where the object of learning is not a closed system of referents. Rather, the focus would shift away from fixed systems of referents toward the goal of enabling learners to creatively manage various forms of reference.

The distinction between the two approaches to learning can be illustrated through the criterium of distance between learners' beliefs and the contexts of relevance in relation to which educational goals and methods are formulated and put into practice (cf. Agre, 1999: 5). The criterium of distance makes two approaches to education apparent:

  1. where knowledge derives its legitimacy status from institutionally imposed laws of truth production
  2. where knowledge derives its legitimacy from the power that it gives learners in their further explorations and inquiries.


While Model (a) builds on institutionally approved model of the required competence, Model (b) invites learners to submit their own sets of beliefs to a challenge from outside. In the former approach teachers function as the spokesmen for and experts on the true competence and the methods of its production and reproduction. In the latter model, teachers are expected to open up to the diversity of contexts from which the task of production and reproduction of knowledge can be approached. Thus while the former model seeks ways to specify the categories of the knowledge expected from learners, the latter makes it its task to increase awareness in all involved as to the complexity of the issues involved and hence to the complexity of the conditions which would meet the demands which this complexity in turn imposes on educators and learners. The criterium of distance thus proposed should help in the task of distinguishing between educational models where:

  1. pedagogues are unable to approach critically their own sets of value and who therefore enframe learners by trying to fit the world into equations one has to hand (Agre, 1999: 5);
  2. pedagogues view learning as an essentially interactive process between learners and the world around them and who, as a result, open up their teaching models to the diversity of contexts from which other people approach their learning goals (cf. Agre, 1999: 5).


The issue of how to help learners learn therefore develops into a question regarding the kinds of things that we want learners to do. Depending on the approach adopted, these things (the teaching goals) will feed on the power derived from the process of imposition or negotiation. If however, as stated in the beginning, our goal is to facilitate a model of education where learners have a right to a point of view and where this view has a status, it seems futile to embark on a search for a curriculum which hopes to achieve some form of balance between the differences that shape the learning process and some "clearly articulated linguistic-cognitive ends and standards" (Cope, 1988: 23).A hope for such a balance may in fact end up to be nothing else but a yet another compromise where diversity must give in to some preconceived values regarding what is worth knowing (cf. McMahon, 2000).

Thus rather than to search for some "clearly articulated ends" and the strategies for their delivery or accomplishing, it may well be more appropriate to direct our efforts toward a concept of a learning environment which would function less as a means toward some specifiable ends and more as ends toward some unspecifiable means. Or in other words, rather than to think of education as a means toward some proper ends, we may want to think about education as a place where educational goals (or ends) function as challenges against which learners negotiate their paths in ways that enable them to build further. We may want to think of education as a place which does not require learners to think in terms of approved categories but as a place which enables learners to surprise us in the kinds of outcomes that they accomplish and the kinds of reference contexts on which they build their learning.


4.0 Toward a complete learning environment

While it has been said that life is too short to explore everything, the model above does not build on negating everything that has been created so far. On the contrary, it issues a challenge to education regarding the ways which would assist learners in the process of exploration of the various forms of knowledge and their subsequent reappropriation in new contexts. It is this reappropriation that is the goal of education which sees knowledge and its development as building blocks toward a change. This goal of reappropriation stands in strong contrast to methods which see in learners' obedient reproduction of fixed systems of referents an assurance that knowledge has been produced and formed.

To allow for a learning which demands creativity and a sense of openness on the part of learners and teachers would not be to support anarchy. Rather it would be to make room for a kind of informed subversion that brings a positive change to our lives. However, an organisation of such learning conditions is not without its problems. The points below should function as examples of issues which require further discussion and contemplation.


4.1 On line teaching and collaboration


It seems that most of the time on-line learning has been seen as positive because of the discussion opportunities that it hopes to encourage and because of the opportunities for exploration of the Internet-based materials that it offers. The collaborative aspect of the on-line teaching therefore has been located in the belief that discussions and explorations of various resources must be good. In other words, it would seem that if formation of knowledge depends on the conditions of access to information and its evaluation, provided we identify good reasons (tasks or goals) for such discussions and explorations, learning should happen.



While it is  true that exploration and evaluation are prerequisite to formation of knowledge, it is equally true that knowledge formation depends also on the qualities of the context of the exploration and the kinds of the reference structures against which learners can make their evaluative judgments. In other words, exploration of the Internet-based materials or peer-discussions per se do not create conditions for a form of learning where learners have a right to a point of view and where this view has a status.

A meaningful learning (i.e. a learning process which begins with and values the meanings which learners attribute to specific events) must begin with a question which make sense to the learner and not to the teacher. What must make sense to the teacher, are the final products of that learning, possibly presented in a form of an argument or some project. The power of the learners' argument will therefore not lie in the specific reference systems that they evoke but in the strength of the case that their arguments build for them. Question is, how can we devise the conditions which begin with the learner and which, as a result, give rise to products that are appreciated by others? The question of the "How?" brings together the philosophical (in the broadest sense) aspects education regarding (a) the structure of the teaching conditions, (b) their management and (c) the forms of appreciation in relation to which assessment criteria are constructed.

In the case of on-line discussion forums, it has often been a problem that learners did not want to participate in spite of the fact that they were assessed on their participation and its quality. However, if on-line learning is about making room for learning to happen (i.e. it is about creating conditions where no form of knowledge/interaction is given a status of being better), attempts on the part of teachers to watch these discussions, assess learners on the basis of the quantity and quality of their input, seem to beat the very purpose for which on-line discussion forums are created in the first place. The strategies of watching and assessment seem to deny the very virtue of collaboration as fundamentally based in a shared need to discover, explore, discuss, evaluate and exchange. It seems that if learners do not share or do not feel to collaborate, problems may lie somewhere else than with the learners themselves. It is possible that the problem may lie in the very nature of the conditions in which the activity of exploration might have been placed.

Furthermore, even if learners do play the game of talking and talking "quality", educational environments cannot be build on the principle that some learners are good and others are bad. What is required is a critical investigation of the very categories, or values, on which we build our assumptions that our environments do indeed encourage thinking, exploration, discussions, exchange, collaboration, and hence learning. Are the places that we create truly that good and our students are simply just rebels? If part of learning is to rebel (be critical) against the world, how do our learning places make this possible? It seems that our learning environments must be built on the principles which makes meaningful learning possible by facilitating (or encouraging) a true engagement.

For example, maybe learning is less about complying to the requirements of Mathematics and more about making Mathematics comply to the questions and problems that emerge from the struggle between various forms of legitimation i.e.. various contexts of knowledge production and reproduction. We may need to reflect on questions like: 'Did Copernicus need Mathematics to create his solar model or did his question about the solar model require various forms of knowledge (incl. Mathematics) in order to make a case for a reality which was different than it was believed by others?' Furthermore, we may need to remember that there are many ways in which various problems can be approached and resolved. Copernicus did neither find THE method for describing the solar system nor was he the first one to document that the sun was "stationary" (cf. Sagan).

It follows therefore that our learning models should create conditions flexible enough for all to want to play rather than for those who would play no matter what game would be played. What is therefore required are principles which should have a potential, as the first step, to respond to learners' interests and to further generate more interest in all learners, all the time. Schank et all seem to have written something similar along the same lines:

“Many students may not be interested in the curriculum, but everybody is interested in the parts of the world that they believe relate to their own existence. This basic self interest, if it is allowed to flourish intellectually, can lead to a wide variety of discoveries motivated by curiosity based on internal needs.

If we want to allow students to pursue their own interests, we need to provide them with a way to get their questions answered. Many of the teaching architectures are, in fact, specifically designed to bring students to the point that they want to know something. How are we to help them?

One teacher cannot possibly know the answers to all questions a student might develop. The idea that any one teacher knows all there is to know is ludicrous. The one-on-thirty model of learning should be exactly the other way around--thirty teachers to one student. Students should have access to a variety of experts. They should be able to access these experts easily and quickly, and should have the opportunity to compare and contrast the different opinions of the different experts. Learning by Exploring simply means enabling students to pursue their own interests.” (Roger Schank and Chip Cleary)

The same concerns Internet-based explorations. Whose questions direct these explorations? What means are made available to learners to ensure that these explorations will respond truly to learners' (and not teachers') assumptions about the subject matter? Who determines the subject matter and in reference to what legitimation structures? Are these explorations genuine? Do we therefore create genuine knowers or just good boys and girls whose only lesson will be that education is a yet another place where truth is more a matter of acting truthfully rather than being true to yourself?



Most possibly, the problem with on-line learning is not that learners may or may not want to talk, or talk quality, or that the Internet-based activities are not for everyone. Such arguments echo beliefs that there are learners that can adopt exploratory methods of learning and some others need a more "conservative", transmission-based teaching conditions. The argument that this paper presents is that the ways in which learners approach the task of learning are not intrinsic to learners. They are a product of an interaction between the culture of the educational institutions experienced by learners in their past, the current institutional culture and only then, maybe, some internal factors may come into play whose identification, however. is well beyond anyone's guess, so far at least.

We may think that through the use of computers, the Internet, discussion forums, we provide flexible conditions for exploratory learning in a way that does not discriminate between good and bad knowledge per se. However, these conditions will never be flexible until they will be experienced as flexible by individual learners. Their flexibility is not a matter of the technology used or the channel made available to learners for accessing information. It is not a function of the tool. Flexibility is a function of the adaptability of the teaching environment to the demands that learners experience in the process of exploration of the power of their own beliefs/understandings. It is a function of the quality of the response that a learning environment generates in learners.

This response can be either another challenge experienced by learners which would test the power of their newly acquired knowledge, or it can be a sense of understanding generated by learners in the course of their exploration of some specific reference points. Either way, both these aspects function as help-facilities which enable learners to take their knowledge further. In turn, none of these aspects is reducible to a single way of their provision. Thus a complete learning model cannot be achieved through a means which reduces learning to the reference points of its designer. A complete learning model is a function of the opportunity which it offers learners in the task of creating their own reference points and in ways that enable these points to derive their legitimacy from the world outside i.e. outside the singular form of reference be it a learner's own beliefs, the beliefs of their teacher, or a single set of conditions which declare specific conclusions true (like a closed system of referents). If our learners are to be critical, then the first step toward this goal is to create a culture where no beliefs are given a privileged position. Rather, it seems that the first step toward creating a critical learner is to create a culture which appreciates criticism i.e. create possibilities where all beliefs are made subject to a test of their strength against beliefs and evidence from other sources. If we want our learners to make informed decisions, they can only be informed through a process which makes such a critical inquiry possible.

Learning, it would seem, must therefore begin with conditions which start with the power of the learner and enable learners to develop confidence in their own powers. Learning models which defer this confidence to some later stage, remove from learners the greatest source of support that they have: a belief in their own understanding of things. Such models begin with a judgment which denies learners the right to own point of view and are oriented toward the goal of inculcating submission to the power of the source which they privilege. In such models there is no room for a critical learner whose very definition would demand from them to subvert the power structures thus imposed.


4.2 Deprivation vs enrichment

When considering the question of a complete environment, it has to be mentioned that its sense of completeness cannot be derived from assumptions that if some learners seem to have worked in our model well then such a model is complete. All learning models will always have a dynamic aspect to them. This dynamism, however, will not be, as it is sometimes assumed, a function of teacher's engagement in the learning process itself. Rather it is a function of learners' previous experiences and their interaction with the new challenges that they encounter in the process of learning. For a learning environment to respond to the continually changing demands, the enriching opportunities which it offers to learners must always be critically reassessed. There is no such a thing like a completely finished product. Attempts, on the part of learners, to articulate bridges between the diversity of the sources from which their new challenges spring out will continually force teachers to reexamine the beliefs that underlie their teaching structures.

The enriching function of a complete learning environment brings to focus another aspect of educational design, that of the difference between the Distance Education and the Face-to-Face settings. It has been often considered that to eliminate the difference between the two, Face-to-Face teaching can be replaced by the strategies used in Distance Education. The assumption is that it is not the face of the teacher that learners need, but the possibility of a collaborative exchange. Thus Face-to-Face teaching, as a form of learning which is rather difficult to support in Distance Education, is often replaced with the strategies which are thought to encourage an exchange between students, like on-line discussions or on-line explorations.

However, if the concern with the enriching function of our learning environments were to be taken up seriously, on a second look it seems that the decision for abandoning Face-to-Face teaching is not based on the principle of critical assessment of its potentially enriching capacities. Rather, it is based in a logic which prioritises specific channels of contact (like on-line learning) over Face-to-Face modes which are considered redundant in the learning opportunities that they make possible. In other words, the strategy of abandoning Face-to-Face teaching is a strategy which deprives learners from access to learning channels only on the assumption that other channels can do the job just as well.

But, of course, Face-to-Face teaching may be of value not because it does what computers can do but because it does what computers cannot do. That is, when thinking about education and technology, the criteria applied need not always be about the kind of software and hardware that allows teachers to put all energy into overdevelopment of some communication channels at the expense of some others. Technology need not be about doing the same things now with different tools. If a complete learning environment is the goal and the learner as a thinking agent in this environment, then this requirement seems to oblige educational institutions to creatively explore different avenues of contact for the different forms of support that they potentially may offer to learners. That is to say, the goal need not be to select on behalf of learners between good support channels and bad support channels, but to create conditions which allow learners to find in different channels different forms of support. Thus if Face-to-Face teaching is considered redundant in its form, it may not be the form that is redundant but the way in which this channel is utilised by teachers. Furthermore, creative management of Face-to-Face settings can also feed back to Distance Education settings. The possibilities that Face-to-Face teaching may open up to our learning models seem a challenge which, when abandoned, remove from (rather than adds to) learners a yet another point of support otherwise facilitated through creative exploitation of the various meeting places.


4.3 Interdisciplinary learning

A complete learning environment cannot function in ignorance of the world around. In other words, if a complete learning environment is the goal of education, then the function of that environment must be to facilitate conditions which allow learners to articulate meaningful bridges between the diversity of the challenges that the world generates around them and the specific beliefs that are used in order to maneuver between them. As argued above, it would be expected that a critical learner will build his/her ways of maneuvering on a maximally informed basis. From the educational perspective, the possibility to build such an informed basis requires reflection upon the ways in which learners would be enabled to create rich links between multiple sources of information i.e. links which would be sourced in more than one reference system/framework. An interdisciplinary learning is an opportunity for learners to approach their beliefs from different points of concern.

But to promote an interdisciplinary learning puts specific demands on the holders of the disciplinary knowledges. One such a demand is to open up channels for collaboration between the disciplines. It is to open the disciplines to other languages (or ways of organising or codifying reality) and to make their boundaries subject to those languages. Another one is to facilitate possibilities for learners to make bridges between the various languages that define the disciplines of today. The general concern behind the task of promoting interdisciplinary learning is for educational institutions to enable learners to examine own and others' beliefs from many directions in order to give themselves the opportunity for a richer perspective on these beliefs. To use a metaphor from neuroscience, the aim is to exploit the (more or less infinite) capacities of the brain to modify its structure at the level of thought and to take advantage of its capacity to activate a diversity of cellular groups when flooded with less familiar information/stimuli (cf. Hundert, 1989: 240, 248).

An interdisciplinary learning therefore does not value an obedience to the principle of truth offered by each discipline (as if they were coherent in regard to such a principle) but an obedience to the principle of truth as it emerges from learners' informed inquiries.


5.0 What pedagogues can do and the computers cannot do

The continual use of metaphors which attribute to computers and technology specific support powers inevitably blurred the boundary between the technology as a tool and the purpose to which the technology can be oriented. While it is true that computers (or other technological tools, like camera or pen) enable us to do more things, or the same things but differently, the purposes to which we utilise technology did not emerge because of the computer but because of the specific cultural demands in which we function. It is therefore most likely that technology will not liberate education or learners toward their general betterment. Rather, it is expected that technology will be used to reinforce the old systems rather than the new paths. Thus if in our educational model the aim has always been to facilitate the path to the truth (supposingly held by some disciplines) rather than with facilitating paths for building truths, the technology itself will not change the model. It therefore is necessary to draw a distinction between the capacities of the technology (and specifically of the computer as a multimedia platform) and the kinds of support levels that computers have been assumed to offer. The distinctions drawn will not only separate the technology from the issue of the design but also will reveal the potential of technology which is often obscured by the ready-made translations of their capacities (Table 1).


Computers do not:

Computers do:

  • offer opportunities for people to communicate










  • offer exploration opportunities








  • allow for creative management of knowledge by learners or teachers
  • offer the possibility to connect computers together across the world.

It is important to draw this distinction because the function of communication is not a function of connecting computers together. To allow people to communicate is to reflect upon the different forms that communication can take and to adjust the capacity of computers to the demands of these different forms.

For example, in the case of on-line learning, peer-group discussions exploit a very narrow avenue of communication. While such discussions may form learning support for some learners, the limited scope of such discussions and the artificiality of the environment which tells learners that now is the time to talk and learn reduce the potential of communication that otherwise can be exploited through computers and other means.

  • offer the capacity to store and retrieve information at random.

Again, the function of exploration cannot be equated with the function of storage and random access. Like communication, exploration is a complex activity which is determined by the conditions around and within the learner rather than the computer alone. To allow for a genuine exploratory learning it is to inquire about, and make available, conditions which locate the purpose of exploration and its value in learners and the demands that the challenge of critical inquiry pose on them.

  • offer the capacity to organise information in many different ways.

Creativity therefore is not a function of a software made available, or a function of teacher's appreciation of the final product. Creativity needs to be considered in the multiplicity of dimensions that contribute to one's sense of achievement. Thus for a learning environment to offer ways for creative management of information, it is necessary to make it possible for learners to approach problems and the solutions to these problems in ways that do not constrain their methods of analysis and production to a single way of doing things.

Table 1. What computers can and cannot do


6.0 Conclusion

A complete learning environment begins now to look more like a mix between the teaching strategies based in a critical inquiry and the teaching conditions which are thought to support the goals which these strategies hope to achieve. While no learning environment is ever complete, therefore the sense of its completion must derive less from a necessity to deliver all that learners need and more from its ability to allow learners to integrate various models of reality in ways that enable their meaningful management.

From the teachers' perspective, to facilitate a complete learning environment will require a continual examination and evaluation of the reciprocal relationship between the philosophy on which it rests and the teaching conditions which are thought to be in coherence with this philosophy. A complete learning environment therefore is never stable in its structure or the strategies which it serves if only because of the diversity element which learners will bring with them. The stability of a complete learning environment is derived solely from the sense of reliance or trust (but not dependency) that it gives to learners. This sense of reliance and trust are come from the potential of the learning environment to respond, in a supportive manner, to the continual dynamics which emerge between learners and the world/knowledge around them. Thus while teachers must continually engage in the task of examination of the ways in which this sense of trust can be made possible, it is imperative to remember that the development of a complete learning environment neither begins nor stops with a single aspect of its structure. Thus it is impossible to talk about the philosophy of learning without considering its practical implications. Also, it is impossible to talk about practice (e.g. technology in learning) without considering the intellectual foundations on which these solutions are formed.

It seems that if the task of a complete learning environment is to give learners an opportunity to stop, reflect, compare and (re)examine the powers of the newly established understandings, it is the task of pedagogues to ensure honesty as the founding principle of the processes thus put in place. Ultimately, the question about learning appears to be a question about the sources of interests that our educational environments serve. Thus if the task of teaching is to assist learners in the process of management of the demands and challenges that they encounter, then the task of teaching seems to be demonstrate that our teaching models do indeed allow learners to deal with problems which they experience. It has been the goal of this paper to turn readers' attention to the problem of the various interests that collide in a learning environment and a way for resolving this problem in a way that is based in a process of negotiation and respect for a difference. The critical concerns raised in this paper hope to serve as points of challenge in the task of reflecting upon the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice embedded in the question of "Why do we do what we do?".

The goal behind this paper has been less to specify the exact shape of the complete learning environment. Rather the aim has been to raise a number of concerns to stimulate creative thinking about its possible structure and about the possible ways in which articulation of the relationship between the teaching strategies and the conditions established for their realisation can be approached.



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Post-discussion paper


It was hoped that the discussion on 'Knowledge transfer and technology in education: toward a complete learning environment'wouldbring to attention two most controversial aspects of education i.e. the goals of education and the means for attaining these. The title of the opening paper reflects the most commonly accepted understandings of these aspects. Thus, on the one hand, the goal of education is most often associated with the notion of knowledge transfer, on the other hand, technology is seen as potentially one of the most promising vehicles for ensuring that proper learning takes place, i.e. that proper knowledge has been transferred to learners. The aim behind the subtitle of the paper: "toward a complete learning environment" was to invite an examination of those understandings in terms of the expectations, hopes and beliefs that generate the turn toward technology. The discussion paper was to stimulate critical reflection upon the questions:

  1. Why is it that we use and think of technology in the ways that we do?
  2. Will technology make our learning environments more complete, or is this sense of completeness a function of something else?


When searching for answers to these questions, the discussion paper raised serious concerns regarding notions like "knowledge transfer":

"It turns out that just as culture escapes attempts to lock it in some set of fixed form-function relationships, so does knowledge or, more specifically, the forms of reference which would ensure that our learners truly know. Knowledge, conceived as a product of the interpretatory mechanisms applied, makes impossible attempts to solidify it into units of knowledge thought to be inherently valuable and hence object of testing. […] In other words, knowledge is not a function of the ability to retrieve its "powerful" units but a function of the ability to show the power behind the systems of knowledge formulated. In this approach, it is not knowledge as such that should be sought after but the ability to build powerful (critically informed) systems of organisation." (Lian, 2000: 6)

By implication, the paper also questions those views which see in technology a means for making knowledge available to learners:

"While it is true that exploration and evaluation are prerequisite to formation of knowledge, it is equally true that knowledge formation depends also on the qualities of the context of the exploration and the kinds of the reference structures against which learners can make their evaluative judgments. In other words, exploration of the Internet-based materials or peer-discussions per se do not create conditions for a form of learning where learners have a right to a point of view and where this view has status." (Lian, 2000: 10)

"Whose questions direct these explorations? What are the means which are made available to learners to ensure that these explorations will respond truly to learners' (and not teachers') assumptions about the subject matter? Who determines the subject matter and in reference to what legitimation structures? Are these explorations [therefore] genuine?" (Lian, 2000: 13)

These considerations have cast some doubt on the notion of knowledge transfer and the role which technology should play in education. As a result, the problem arises regarding the range of possible alternatives and the pragmatics of their realisation:

"Question is, how can we devise the conditions which begin with the learner and which, as a result, give rise to products that are appreciated by others? The question of the "How?" brings together the philosophical (in the broadest sense) aspects of education regarding (a) the structure of the teaching conditions, (b) their management and (c) the forms of appreciation in relation to which assessment criteria are constructed." (Lian, 2000: 10)


Our discussions

The issues below reflect the concerns raised regarding the technology and the pedagogic functions which it fulfils:

  1. the tension between the demand for creativity and the demand for fact-based competency (Tom Abeles, 31 March);
  2. the neutrality of technology (Tom Abeles, 31 March, 3 April; Muhammad Betz, 31 March; Elyssebeth Leigh, 3 April);
  3. the empowering function of technology (Muhammad Betz, 31 March, 3April; Barry Kort, 7, 9 April);
  4. the opposition between knowledge transfer and "knowledge creation" (Bobbie Turniansky, 2 April);
  5. the vulnerability of education to manipulations by the profit enterprise (Donald Smith, 3 April);
  6. the value of creativity (Crispin Weston, 3 April);
  7. the subjectivity and objectivity of knowledge (Crispin Weston, 5, 13 April; Corrie Bergeron, 10 April; Dennis Nelson, 10 April);
  8. the problem of power in education (Crispin Weston, 5, 13 April);
  9. the empowerment of learners and the goal of education (Tom Abeles, 5, 6 April; Dennis Nelson, 6, 10, 11, 13 April; Muhammad Betz, 6 April; Peter Trethewey, 9 April; Bill Ellis, 10, 14 April; Sarah Tolley, 10 April; Barry Kort, 11, 13 April; Eric Flescher, 12 April; Ania Lian,13, April);
  10. change in educational practices (Arun-Kumar Tripathi, 5 April; Dennis Nelson, 6 April; Eric Flescher, 9 April);
  11. the need for continuous reassessment of own practices and beliefs (Nettleton Gavin,13 April);
  12. history as a factor in learning (Yannis Karaliotas, 13, April; Scott Overmyer, 13 April);
  13. general points regarding the opening paper by Ania Lian (Eric Flescher, 9 April, 12 April; Ania Lian, 10 April).


The distinction proposed in the opening paper between technology and the pedagogic functions which it fulfils was approached from varying perspectives. Within these, two very distinctive frameworks can be identified. Discussants like Tom Abeles, Bill Ellis, Barry Kort, Yannis Karaliotas, Scott Overmyer, tended to favour approaches to learning which place less emphasis on the identification of the specific constituents of knowledge and more on the process by which that which is recognised as knowledge is established. The question of the process brought with it explorations of issues such as what knowledge is (cf. Bill Ellis, 10 April), conditions suitable for its generation (cf. Tom Abeles, 6 April), the empowerment of learners (cf. Barry Kort, 9 April) and the historical nature of knowledge production and reproduction (cf. Yannis Karaliotas, 13 April ):

"It seems that the consensus is "power" personal power is the reason we educate. But isn't the root of learning something much more satisfying than that? Isn't there a feeling or emotion that comes from knowing that is just satisfaction in itself? Or perhaps it is to satisfy our basic need to "belong". I don't see that reading Poe or Shakespeare gives us power any more than walking in the forest, listening to birds or watching a sunset has anything to do with power. There is a deep feeling of belonging that comes from such experiences. A feeling of awe, wonder, and participation in a great mystery. This is what Einstein called his cosmic religion. It too comes from knowing; from comprehending and understanding the cosmos. Isn't that what drives our curiosity, our motive to learn? Just knowing." (Bill Ellis, 10 April)

"As a chemist I have seen a simple division of inorganic, organic and physical chemistry grow to a myriad of hybrids, including biogeochemistry and even crosses into the realm of psychopharmacological chemistry. Thus, rather than a reduction into distinct areas we are seeing, perhaps, a reintegration and then a recasting of knowledge into new units." (Tom Abeles, 6 April)

"In education, one learns good and valuable stuff, but one learns it well before the need for the knowledge has manifested itself in one's life. In therapy, one learns good and valuable stuff, but one learns it well after the need for the knowledge has turned up in the course of one's life. […] In empowering people to learn what they are most primed to learn next in life, we split the difference between education and therapy, facilitating just-in-time learning." (Barry Kort, 9 April)

"[…] the school-based *learning paradox* [occurs] where learners not only are expected to grasp 'new' concepts more complex than those they already have available by simply mirroring prescribed external representations, but are also left unmotivated and alienated as to the purpose of their learning. […] Although it appears to be very real, this learning paradox might just be the product of our understanding learning as a mirroring process rather than an interpretive one. Perhaps, it might cease to exist if we were to adopt the historical notion that learning is our eternal 'dancing' between individual and collective taken-as-shared realities." (Yannis Karaliotas, 13 April)

Proposals to relativise the concept of knowledge and to rethink the process of its legitimation was opposed by another group of discussants. At the heart of this resistance were concerns with the legitimacy of the final product of such a learning (cf. Muhammad Betz, 4 April). The legitimacy question generated replies which sought a solution to the problem in an assertion of common human experience which in turn would validate the reality (or the truth-value) of the interpretatory mechanisms applied and taught (cf. Corrie Bergeron, 10 April). In this perspective, the problem of education is no longer 'What to teach?' but 'How to do it best?'. By implication, the challenge which technology presents to education is no longer about examining the epistemological foundations of education but about ensuring that knowledge is presented and learnt (cf. Corrie Bergeron, 10 April):

"Ania's paper refers to the necessity of learning being a subversive activity . […] I suppose that what Ania's "subversion" is aiming towards is something akin to Descartes' "methodical doubt." The subversive approach targets only one type of learning or one domain, related to the catharsis of the individual learner, in a philosophical sense. There are certainly many other kinds of learning. What of the medical student? Is her learning also to be subversive? The result might be more cloning and euthanasia! No, I disagree here. I see education, in the mainstream in particular, as a generally mundane enterprise. That conceptualization does not preclude personality or intellectual development." (Muhammad Betz, 4 April)

"As self-selected instructional technologists, we have taken it upon ourselves to say that this thing called "knowledge" exists, and further we say that we have or will become expert in the tools that enable a learner to acquire or perceive it. So why the hand-wringing over the nature of reality? It seems that by being in this business, we have de facto taken the position that knowledge exists, it can and should be acquired, and there are better and worse means of accomplishing that end." (Corrie Bergeron, 10 April)

The legitimacy issue followed also in the debate which developed between Crispin Weston and Ania Lian, and which focused particularly on the issue of subversion in learning. Central to their discussion was the method by which we can "demonstrate the truth or falsehood of our beliefs" (cf. Crispin Weston, 13 April). Crispin Weston, along with those who seek objectivity which would be independent of the point of view, places the task of learning in the domain of a search for an objective reality i.e. a "reality which is very definitely *not* a product of our mind" (cf. Crispin Weston, 13 April):

"A rather more straightforward argument for the existence of objective truth is the extraordinary consistency that the world appears to exhibit and which allows experts of all kinds to make predictions about how it will behave.[…] I have argued the point exhaustively on this list, without receiving coherent answers to my questions from the post-modernists." (Crispin Weston, 13 April)

In response to Crispin Weston, Ania Lian argues from a position which adopts a more interactive model of reality where objectivity is not independent from its producers and the contexts of its perception (cf. Bourdieu, 1995). In such a perspective, the possibility of an objective standpoint is denied. Also, denied is the "I" of Descartes, which, as Crispin Weston writes, "was *not* entirely subjective, but had objective existence" (cf. Crispin Weston, 13 April). The "I" of Descartes, Ania Lian argues, is an example of a method which fails to reflect critically on its own condition (Ania Lian, 15 April). In other words, the "I" of Descartes exemplifies methods which, in an attempt 'to tell it as it is' assume a standpoint which excludes the exploration of its own sense of reality.

In the context of education, the possibility of truths to be independent of their producers implies a model of pedagogy which removes question as the building block of knowledge. Instead, question and a genuine exploration are replaced with attempts to explain to students the reality the way it is. In this way, both the reality and the power of the explanations thus produced are sourced in one text, i.e. in the single logic which appears to prove these statements true. By the same token, the possibility of other forms of logic is denied. This denial is at the heart of the pedagogies which make the task of knowledge transfer as their goal. The assumption of the commonality of the human experience disguises the diversity of the contexts that shape it and hence the diversity of the products to which it can give rise. In teaching models concerned with knowledge transfer, knowledge is not gained in order to produce more knowledge. Rather, the aim is to prepare learners for the next stage on the curriculum path. The academic and ethical implications of such a goal may require its closer examination.


Conclusion of the debate

The debate which began with the question "Why is it that we use and think of technology in the ways that we do?" focused largely on the epistemological foundations which underpin our beliefs regarding education and learning. The technology-related aspects of the debate emerged only as an extension of these beliefs in statements which either saw technology as a natural assistance in education or which encouraged a closer examination of this relationship. While the discussants engaged mostly in arguments of the philosophical nature, less has been said about the structure of the learning environments. On-line discussions and on-line searches were mentioned, however, little attention was given to the organisational aspects of the environments concerned with a meaningful learning. If technology is to help us organise these environments better in terms of their flexibility, their communication potential and the exploratory powers, it seems that (now) the old argument that an intelligent progress will depend more on the intelligence of the educators than on the intelligence of the machines is still very much valid (cf. Lian, 1992). The contributing role of the discussion can be summarised in the following points:

  1. If we accept that knowledge does not have an existence independent of its producers and the contexts which render it legitimate, then to learn is to engage in the task of creating knowledge. By implication, to learn it is not to "find" knowledge.
  2. As a result, a belief that knowledge transfer is possible is erroneous. Even in the extreme case like learning a second language, nobody learns to speak like the native speaker. Rather, people learn how to reapproriate systems of logics in new contexts. In other words, individuals do not learn how things are, for example, in French but how to accomplish things. There are no constituents of the French. Thus we may never be able to enumerate all sets of conditions in order to know how things are, but we may still be able to speak languages, build planes, invent new things, prevent diseases etc.
  3. The power of our knowledge is not judged in terms of some descriptive systems of what constitutes knowledge but in terms of the things that our models enables us to do or see.
  4. If goal is to enable learners to manipulate, control and discover, then this goal can only be achieved by building into the learning environment a capacity for learners to move between the diversity of the reference contexts, build upon their conclusions and evaluate their significance in relation to new challenges.
  5. Thus for a learning environment to be complete, it requires from educators to reflect upon the kinds of conditions which would enable learning based on the points made above. Last but not least education must find ways for conquering the distance (cf Agre, 1999) between its own world of discourses and the world of discourses beyond its walls.



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