Teaching on the Web: The  'End of the University'? 


It might be of interest to read this file in conjunction with the one on deschooling, since the arguments are in some ways parallel. It is clear that the deschoolers' arguments [see file] could well apply to higher education too. Indeed, I have myself used Freire's work to critique the UK's Open University (UKOU) for its 'banking' conceptions of knowledge, and, in the process, met some interesting counter-arguments for the strategic necessity to 'tell' students things. Deschoolers' proposals to abolish schooling altogether are sometimes more popular with schools than with universities, though. When considering universities, we might encounter a 'good side' to teacher-mediated approaches for ourselves? If I am right, many of you might not like the look of proposals to 'de-university', for example, to supply all your teaching needs via the Web and encourage you to become much more 'independent' as a learner. Others will be keener, of course. Staff views are likely to be equally polarised, in my experience -- so we should have a range of views to discuss. Here are some polemical points to get us going...

Web-based teaching

There has been much discussion about the impact of the Web which suggests that one day  it might replace university teaching altogether. Certainly, many universities are already experimenting with replacing some of their lectures and courses with Web-based materials. They are also some experiments in providing whole modules, validated by universities across the world, which students can download to assemble their own course -- the Mind Extension University, an organisation run by the Jones cable network in the USA, is supposed to be one of the most advanced.. While you're at it, try other organisations such as the Global Network Academy. or the World Lecture Hall. The excellent Distance Education Surf Shack has  long lists of other online courses from all over the world.

It is easy to see why the Web-based teaching appeals to a number of the most powerful players in the provision of university courses. The success of the Open University is often held to have led the way -- distance teaching is successful, it is assumed, and it is certainly administratively very convenient: it becomes possible to offer courses without any constraints timetabling, for example. Particular experts can be hired, on short term contracts, to provide specific courses -- or other on-line courses can be bought in to supply missing subjects. Just think of the advantages as a student, for a moment -- if you want to do Law or Business Studies, and you are thinking of working in another country, why not download a course from the best universities in that country -- Brits can find courses on American Law from excellent American universities, for example. 

The whole enterprise is probably less costly, especially in the short term -- after all, many of the costs of distance education are shifted on to the students  (housing, the provision of equipment, living expenses, travel and so on).  Again this has benefits for students too --  the university can afford to spend much more money on constructing excellent courses in the first place: at the UK OU, for example, they could afford to fly in famous American professors ( such as Howard Becker on one occasion), and get him to record a broadcast specially for OU students. How much better than having some Brit hack such as myself telling students what I think Becker says ( as in my files on him). Thank God Becker has his own excellent website now ( here) so we can all find out what he is doing these days!

Of course, there may be residual worries about standards, although here, publicly available materials are actually much easier to check than what is offered in the privacy of lecture rooms and seminars. The British Quality Police are not much interested in websites at the moment though (luckily -- those of us who like them can get on with it in the ways we like, publicly displaying our own work for evaluation, without having to worry too much about some banal 'criteria' laid down by some committee somewhere). How do you judge quality then? How do you judge the quality of the newspapers or books you read, or the TV broadcasts you watch? No nanny State there to place its solemn seal of approval on what the public gets.

At the moment, many students do not seem to be particularly happy to study at a distance, especially through electronic means -- but they will get used to it, no doubt, and the so-called  'social functions' of university life  (meeting exciting people, and having a nice time) can hardly be used to justify substantial expenditure in the future -- students should get their own lives!! 

Discussions about standards often seemed to me to echo the old  'reproduction' debates, which raged in the 1940s. Mighty critics, such as Adorno and Benjamin, tried to predict the effects on culture of the emerging 'culture industry' -- see their respective bits in Arato and Gebhardt (1978). Works of art were becoming increasingly available as publishing, cheap paperbacks, cheap musical records, photography and film were spreading. Optimists, and we may cite Benjamin as an example here, slightly unusually, believed that such technical reproduction would help to strip works of art of their  'bourgeois aura', and enable a genuine widespread participation in art. Proletarians would encounter art in circumstances which permitted them to feel the shock of the new. Pessimists, including Adorno, believed that instead reproduction would transform works of art into mere commodities, alongside all the other junk produced in capitalism. Far from people being artistically shocked and having their horizons widened by exposure to challenging or utopian visions, most people would respond in the way they do to any commodity -- they would make art part of their world, an amusing diversion rather than a challenge to what they believed already. How do you feel -- have universities made themselves more available at last, but only by providing a watered-down or under-resourced version of the 'real thing'? How do you respond to the challenge of the academic?

In my view, the UK Open University becomes important as an example of the pros and cons of distance education in a mode that embraced the old technology of print as well as broadcasting -- and I heartily recommend my own wonderful publications on this topic! To be brief, the UK OU has not entirely solved all the problems -- the drop-out rate, for example, is increasingly large, although this is little-known. Even more worrying is the argument that the great success of the Open University in its earliest stages depended more on the existence of a pool of highly talented and highly motivated students who had been denied access to the highly elitist traditional universities, but were more than capable of coping with distance materials. Whether  'normal' students will be able to deal with the self-discipline and burning commitment required seems to me to be much more debatable. 

One thing that my former colleagues at the UK OU worry about with the Web, specifically, as a medium of instruction, is that it permits very little control at the design end. Of course, webpages can be laid out beautifully, and hyperlinks carefully designed, and so on, but once transmitted, the receiver is free to do what they want with those materials. This was already a problem with the printed materials and broadcasts of the existing Open University teaching schemes -- I have try to show myself how real, active learners, like busy teachers, impose their own sequences of reading which simply trample on the intentions of the writers and designers. Busy learners ignore introductory sections, skip lengthy examples, ignore inconvenient TV broadcasts, don't bother with regional tutorials or e-mail discussions, and focus tightly upon their assignments and what they demand. 

With the Web, there are additional problems. We can approach them by first considering the problems of educational TV. Educational TV has many advantages for the designer, including the ability to blend visuals with commentary, and thus, classically, to be able to illustrate and motivate. However, some critics, including rather famous ones like Eco (1979), have argued that people watching educational TV find it hard to switch out of a 'naturalistic' mode in order to gain any particular  'educational' benefits. OU TV producers might work hard at grounding abstract theory, for example, but,  for people watching, the 'case studies',  'human-interest' elements, or light-hearted entertainment interludes might be enjoyed in their own right, as normal documentaries, soap operas, TV quizzes or whatever. A close analysis offered by Thompson (1979) of some OU social science programmes involving case-studies seemed to suggest that a contradiction can be set up in the minds of the viewers between academic content and popular form -- the message of a particular programme was that unemployment was not necessarily the fault of individuals, but by illustrating this message with some shots of actual individuals, the makers of the programme invited a popular reading that suggested quite the opposite. The actual role of these visual and popular elements in education is still little understood, and we must beware the enthusiasm of the Web-nerd.

The same sort of issue arises when considering the organising metaphor of the Web -- it is a web [!] or a net with many, almost an  infinite amount, of different nodes and connections between them. You can spend the rest of your life trying to explore all the nodes and connections, which is marvellous if you are one of nature's explorers -- but it must seem perilously easy to get lost if you are more cautious. To divert to another colourful metaphor for a moment, one supplied by a Canadian colleague ( Dr Liz Burge in fact) -- trying to learn from the Web is like trying to fill a glass of water from a fire hydrant! I have explored some of the implications myself in Evans and Nation (2000): conventional educational wisdom suggests that learners actually do need guidance -- a map or a set of signposts -- before they plunge in. These signposts might be public objectives or learning outcomes -- or lecture notes, assessment feedback, or even reading guides. The problem arises because these attempts to impose order might also limit creativity or dissent, encourage passivity and dependence in the learner, deliver them into the ideological jaws of pedagogues. Is 'independence' as in 'independent learning' just another name for indifference -- a matter of 'give us your fees, here's your list of assignments, now get out of here'? (see Morgan 1985 on this). As usual it is a question of balancing freedom with direction and purpose. Perhaps the best way to proceed is in stages or offer both? 

There is still one more additional problem related to the Web. As with television, webpages  'flow' at you, in an unrestrained and undifferentiated way. Of course, you click the buttons, on PCs as much as on TV, but just as a documentary which is critical of international finance is likely to be interrupted by an advertisement for a bank or building society, and then followed up by a celebration of rich and powerful celebrities enjoying themselves in various irresponsible ways, so a webpage becomes just one element in an evening's surfing. Specifically educational uses for Web materials have to compete with the much more prolific commercial and entertainment uses -- and these might contradict, or overwhelm the educational messages. I think that school teachers have discovered this danger particularly -- they can get their students to visit an educational site, but if they turn their backs their charges are likely to be viewing  'adult' material as well, or probably instead. 

This sort of problem might be solvable by a technical solution -- to teach people new kinds of study skills, for example, which enable them to find precisely what it is they require on the Web, so that they stay  'on task', while operating with various electronic safeguards to prevent the downloading of undesirable material. For adult learners, of course, the latter kind of safeguards are simply inapplicable: educators will simply have to rely on a cultural initiative to impress upon students the value of their materials, as opposed to those produced by porn merchants, advertising men, right-wing politicians, Christian crank, or whoever you fear most. 

The cultural dimension.

With 'the end of the university' debates, we enter fully into analysis of the social context, in a way which the deschoolers fail to do (or so their marxist critics say). Why is there a lot of doubt now about the role of the university -- signalled in a number of ways from massive disillusion among the participants to serious questions about future funding from governments? Even as I write ( September 2000) the Conservative leader is believed to be committing himself to privatising universities altogether, using windfall profits from things like selling digital TV licences to provide universities with their own endowment funds which they can then use to run their own affairs with no more State subsidy. Why so? There are marxist arguments, of course, usually based on analyses of New Right thinking [ see file]. In what follows, I shall be pursuing postmodernist analysis, for a change -- these are the people who have expressed the most famous doubts about the survival of the university (marxists have been remarkably quiet about it!).

The problem is, that there may have been a substantial cultural shift, towards  'postmodernism'. One aspect of the shift in particular might well be important for academic knowledge -- the famous  'scepticism towards metanarratives' highlighted by Lyotard ( 1986). I have a file on this, which you can look at on my website. Basically, this scepticism is directed against all the old promises offered by the leading edges of academic knowledge -- natural science, social sciences like marxism or freudianism, applied social sciences such as town-planning. These examples all offered an intertwined claim to be taken seriously and to have certain privileges extended to them: they claimed to to be a science, something much better than mere belief or ideology, and they claim to to be good for us, to help us emancipate ourselves from nature, from repressive politics, or from each other's hang-ups. 

Of course, these claims have been greatly doubted in recent years. We simply do not believe that physics can ever provide us with a free, non-polluting energy; both marxism and freudianism turned out to have had extremely unpleasant repressive sides; while no-one believes any more that experts should be left to design towns or buildings according to their own abstract principles, while ignoring the wishes of those who will live in them. As a result, our culture has never been more relativist -- ordinary, everyday people are likely to experience a positive whirlwind of competing beliefs as they saunter down their local high streets and encounter evangelical Christians, astrologers, aromatherapists, shops offering healing crystals or equipment for Feng Shui, Buddhist bookshops, Scientologists, the Socialist Workers  Party and anti-vivisectionists -- the world as colonised by Totnes [ apologies for any parochialism -- Totnes is a well-known market town in Devon with a very public 'New Age' colony]. 

Naturally, the university as an institution has also been the butt of some scepticism of this kind. To the public, universities always appeared as the homes of  'proper knowledge' (an impression cultivated by universities themselves, of course)-- precisely those sciences that are now in such low esteem. For participants, scepticism took a slightly different tack, perhaps -- as a student, I remember my own social science courses as offering a variety of equally plausible perspectives, so that one felt attracted to one perspective, only to rapidly find that other  'truths' were just as believable. As far as social sciences are concerned, at least, relativism has been part of the curriculum! Now I am a member of staff, there can be a bewildering uniformity between universities and any other kind of advanced welfare organisation -- all are now dominated by managerialism and bureaucratic performativity, or deep commercial entanglements. To try to make a case for the specificity of university knowledge and distinctive university technologies or social relations, is to risk being greeted with managerial scepticism! 

Ironically, the success of higher education as a  'mass' undertaking has also weakened its cultural monopoly. Many graduates have been produced, enough, some commentators think, to constitute a new class fraction -- the cultural petit bourgeoisie. This group of people have not only studied academic knowledge, they apply it in their everyday lives. They work in journalism, advertising, public relations, television, or in policy units of various kinds -- they do not work exclusively in universities any more. Such people produce varieties of academic knowledge outside of the university context, which shows that it can be done -- we might cxall them 'extra-mural ' academics. They publish this knowledge in the media or on the Web. They may not be licensed academics or pedagogues, but they communicate effectively. The distinction between what they do and what paid university academics do becomes increasingly fine -- perhaps, it has disappeared entirely? The university's monopoly on knowledge is increasingly debatable. Of course, this might be 'good' or 'bad' again -- extra-mural academics might be able to break with the stuffy, elitist, self-serving and patronising conventions of much university discourse, but they will probably also be more likely to break with ( what remains of ) the professional ethics of the academic (the view that 'knowledge must [both resist and] tell the truth to power', to quote an old slogan, the personal impartiality of the university and so on). Mind you, after knowing what we know of the dreadful tendencies of even the finest universities (in Nazi Germany, for example) to throw in their lot with power (sometimes after some heroic resistance, to be fair), we might come over all sceptical again!

Perhaps the elite status of university knowledge depended all along on the elite nature of its clients? In the bad old days, there were other close connections between social elites and the university too. All the personnel came from the same social groups, and all alike shared an unconscious understanding of what counted as proper behaviour and proper knowledge. Bourdieu has done more than most to illustrate this point in his marvellous study of French academics and their 'structures of judgement' ( Bourdieu 1988). I have myself tried to apply this point to work on 'study skills', arguing that the 'deep approach' especially seems very close indeed to the elite's 'high aesthetic' ( in Evans and Murphy 1993).

Now it is all changing. The new mass audience for higher education has grown up with a plurality of provision of knowledge, and they no longer share the unconscious dispositions and judgments of the academics they read. Unlike the members of the old elite, they do not, and are no longer expected to, relinquish the world before entering the cloisters of academe in order to acquire practice in the exercise of these dispositions. They have normal lives to lead, normal jobs to perform, and normal families to raise, increasingly while managing university knowledge at the same time. Their stance towards such knowledge is likely to involve managing, coping, balancing this knowledge with that provided by these other worlds. There are also increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as fee-paying consumers -- like other consumers, what they do with what they buy is likely to be seen as up to them. As universities learn to cater for such consumers, they become increasingly indistinguishable from other educational providers in the market -- museums, heritage sites, theme parks, the Discovery Channel and so on. For some academics, the university, like many other institutions, has become 'Macdonaldised' (see Parker and Jary 1995)

The group of OU students I studied all had busy full-time teaching posts, and like many teachers, they have acquired a number of professional and working perspectives which they did not particularly want to be challenged by academic work. Indeed, they tended to fit in academic work around what they knew -- bits that seem to agree with their perspectives were incorporated, while bits that did not were ignored or easily dismissed. As busy people, they imposed their own priorities on the carefully structured educational narratives offered by Open University course teams -- they tended to ignore introductory sections and illustrative television programmes; sometimes they ignored regional tutorials and discussions as well; they let the assignments structure their reading; they tended to read those sections of the course that coincided with their own spare-time. They reported some definite benefits from their encounter with the world of academic knowledge, but they remained firmly in charge of that encounter. 

Open University experience suggests one final development of my argument. Before the OU, commentators tended to assume that higher education could only be accomplished using the traditional technologies. Those technologies involved combinations of pedagogy and distinctive social relations: the latter were possible only in face-to-face encounters, as in the classic tutorial, or in the equally classic social encounter in the student union bar. OU experience shows that it is quite possible to disentangle these elements, to separate out a teaching technology from those social relations that seemed so essential. I should be very surprised indeed if some State official is not considering doing so for conventional education as well: do all the teaching through the Web, one can imagine them saying, and give students the opportunity to meet each other and of the staff on specially subsidised foreign holidays, or study weekends. Nothing is lost, it is simply that things are separated and offered at different times. 

Concluding thoughts

Of course, we do not have any definitive studies of how people use Web-based materials at the moment. You might have your own thoughts or experiences to relate here. 

  • If you have used Web-based materials yourself, what were the advantages and disadvantages? For example, was the absence of a social group a problem or a benefit for you? 
  • What exactly did you look at in the course of an afternoon's typical surfing? Did feminist tracts have to compete side-by-side with soft pornography? 
  • Did you quickly surf through files in the 'busy consumer' mode, looking for titbits to put in your assignments, or did you find yourself pursuing arguments through the hyperlinks for the sake of knowledge in its own right? 
  • Did you impose your interests and themes on the material, or did it impose its own on you?


Arato A and Gebhardt E ( eds) (1978)  The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford : Basil Blackwell ( especially Part II -- Introduction by Arato)
Bourdieu P ( 1988) Homo Academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press
Eco U (1979) 'Can television teach?' Screen Education 31: 15--25
Evans T and Murphy D (eds) (1993) Research in Distance Education vol 3, Geelong; Deakin University Press
Evans T and Nation D (eds) (2000)  Changing University Teaching, London: Kogan Page
Lyotard J-F ( 1986)  Postmodernism: a report on the condition of knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Morgan A (1985) 'What shall we do about independent learning?' Teaching at a Distance, 26
Parker M and Jary D (1995) 'The McUniversity: organisations, management and academic subjectivity', Organisation 2, 2: 319--338
Thompson G (1979) 'Television as text: Open University "case-study" programmes' in Barrett M (et al) (eds) Ideology and Cultural Production, London: Croom Helm: 160--97.