The thrust of the analyses so far has been two-fold: to launch critique at the existing accounts of distance education (principally of the British OU), described here under the general name 'educational technology', and to critique the actual practices of distance education. The two kinds of critique are inextricably linked for classical critical theory, although some critics argue that they are logically distinct. 1 As with the analysis as a whole, critical theory is used in these concluding sections as a basis for a much more limited project than the authors themselves pursue: in the first section, the achievements and limitations of educational technology are reviewed. In the second section, aspects of the contradictory possibilities of distance education are noted. In both cases the main substantive point of the critique is to reassert the importance of a social context for the debates.
Educational Technology: Between Common-Sense and Critique?
To summarize and generalize from the specific characteristics of educational technology and its procedures discussed in Chapters Two and Three, it is convenient to consider educational technology, at least in its earliest guises and appearances, as a species of 'positivism'. Criticisms of 'positivism' are common in social science, and characteristic of social theory in the 1970s and 1980s. 2 The position of critical theory varies according to the author chosen, although in general all the major authors consider positivism to be a particularly acute and modern form of domination, both in cognitive and real terms.
In Adorno's work on 'scientism', and in his interventions in the 'Positivist Dispute', for example, positivism is a particular kind of 'identity thinking' which tries to grasp and subdue the complexities of reality by imposing definitions and operationalized categories specifically in the interests of control. 3 As with identity thinking in general, positivism owes its force to a basic social principle - the 'barter principle' 4 - developed in capitalism specifically as the mechanism of commodity exchange. These social processes involve unlike things being made alike in order to be exchanged. The particular characteristic that items have in common, which enables the exchange to take place (classically, the amount of socially necessary labour time involved in their production) comes to stand for the whole complex of qualities and attributes. Exchange value replaces other characteristics and values. Positivism preserves this form and procedure: its general concepts collect together and subsume a range of different objects as mere examples or samples or specimens. 5
For Marcuse too, positivism is based on domination, at least after an initially liberating phase where it was developed, say in the work of Comte, in opposition to metaphysical, religious and mystical doctrines and ideologies. 6 (This liberating potential is attested to in all the theorists. ) In Comte's work, the interests in preserving social order and stability soon became apparent, while modern positivism, in the guise of linguistic philosophy or behavioural and applied social sciences, plays an active and crucial part in the manipulations and control of human wants, demands, and even needs, in order to harmonize both inner and outer nature with the economic system. 7
Habermas's work differs again. In his early interventions in the 'Postivist Dispute' he seems to take a stance which agrees with Marcuse and Adorno in grounding the drive to cognitive domination in the processes of labour and exchange in capitalism 8 , but he was later to deploy a different apparatus, of 'quasi-transcendental human interests', to account for it. Briefly, according to this apparatus, positivism expressed a human interest in 'work' or 'instrumental action' which was necessary and universal, and which concerned the relations of human beings to the natural world. 9 The problem then became one of restoring this necessary activity to human control under a set of universal and rational values. This whole approach is one where the differences with Marcuse are at their most visible. 10
These are very brief and controversial summaries, of course. 11 As usual, very broad themes are addressed in critical theory - the charge of 'positivism' is applied to a range of positions in social theory, most controversially, perhaps, to 'critical rationalism', and for some critics, the range of targets is too broad and general. 12 Among other problems, too, the precise nature of the connection with real social and economic processes, like commodity exchange or labour, has also been much discussed and criticised. 13 Attempts to launch critical practice based upon some 'anthropological' conception of human labour also run into difficulties. Aspects of this problem are considered briefly below.
Shifting the level of analysis to consider educational technology specifically presents fewer problems in one sense, since the approach openly eschews 'philosophy' and opts for 'practical relevance'. Of course, tendencies towards essentialism or foundationalism should be resisted, and, given the restrictions of space, differences between the theorists tend to be underemphasised. Nevertheless, educational technology clearly is a discipline which uses classic positivist techniques to subdue its object. It too has had a liberating phase, having done much to expose ill-thought out and conservative alternatives, as discussed in the accompanying files 1 and 2. Yet the principles of curriculum design, especially in their 'behavioural objectives' guise clearly aim to reduce complexities by transparent operationalizations: learning becomes a matter of attaining pre-set objectives (that is, gaining suitable scores on tests based on those objectives); objectives themselves are operationalized definitions of cognitive processes (doubly operationalized, it was argued). The procedures originate in a clear commitment to purposive-rational interests, although later definitions of 'mastery' are more liberating.
These principles, and even the ones developed in the 'knowledge structures' approach, were based on some rather sweeping assumptions about actual students or writers, grounded in some very structured laboratory-type, experimental, or training situations. Adorno's remarks about the amount of work and effort required to make conditions simple enough to fit the highly limited concepts of positivism seem particularly apt. 14 'Practical' or 'political' problems, arising from social situations that could not be simplified so easily - sceptical course teams or instrumental student reactions - were the ways in which this fundamental cognitive limitation appeared.
The work of the Survey Research Department in the early days also presents an easy and familiar target for the charge of naive positivism. The kind of highly limited and 'factual' questionnaires used, the operationalism of the coding procedures, the ways in which 'coomon-sense' or already-held beliefs or wishes were used to 'interpret' the findings - all these examples could be used to make the charge stick convincingly. The ways in which the early drop-out research worked with an existing division of 'reasons' for drop-out which were then 'discovered' in the findings, or the ways in which 'evaluation' became a strategic activity, indicate the close connection between this sort of research and the interests which inform it. Indeed, as an earlier file showed, the Head of the SRD saw her work as limited to 'market research' in a move that might show precisely Marcuse's 'contraction of thought. . . self-imposed' in contemporary social science. 15 Close connections are also apparent between the ostensibly Sociological research on social class and its effects on attainment, and the 'targetting' policies which inform advertising, which in turn affects recruitment, which produces an overall admissions policy.
Assessment procedures can be read as classic examples of the distortions of the object produced by positivism too. One example would be the crucial shift from notions of validity (important but unmeasurable) to the notion of reliability (eminently measurable, following the usual operationalization), and the developing 'indices' of performance to which these procedures lead. These indices then drive policy, as it were: the technical possibilities unleashed by the procedures for measuring error or otherwise reducing unreliability (such as normalization and standardization) overtake policy and push it in the direction of discrimination instead of diagnostic. Here too, interests are not far beneath the surface, especially the specific interest in maintaining credibility against the supposedly settled norms of important peer institutions or 'employers' (or, doubtless, the Government).
To maintain these interests the responses of students and to some extent Regional staff have to be standardized and simplified: it is no longer of importance whether responses actually mean anything in educational terms, as a number of people at the OU have recognized themselves 16 Further, the techniques and manipulations necessary to achieve the desired distributions of grades offer a chance of centralizesd control, and something akin to the 'deskilling' of Regional staff Finally, as with other procedures described above, a certain level of technical terminology, and the use of a computer program, can serve to shroud the issues of control and interest in an effective 'technological veil' (discussed below).
It is still necessary, perhaps to summarize the 'good side' of these procedures too, to make again the point that educational technology compares well with the 'spontaneous philosophy' and the unreflexive conventional views of some of its rivals. Curriculum design as 'scholastic display' or restrictive practice, evaluation as a collection of impressions about what students feel, and grading as reflecting the return to unequal amounts of cultural capital, or measurement error, or unintended consequences, are all exposed by the approach in a most effective way. The more theoretically open work, such as some of Pask's, also offers real advantages in clarifying assumptions and discussing alternatives. 17 Finally, the operationalisms of educational technology are as nothing compared to the latest crude attempts to develop 'performance indicators' to rank and control financially conventional higher education in Britain. 18
Educational technology, rather in defiance of the usual critiques of positivism, has also shown itself capable of breaking out of some of its self-imposed conceptual limitations with new techniques, methodologies and topics of investigation. Thus 'ethnographic' techniques have been deployed in the recent studies of course team strains mentioned in Chapter Four. Questionnaire data have been suspected of tapping 'rationalizations', 19 and have been supplemented with small-scale intensive interviews, intended to uncover student perspectives: several of these have uncovered student instrumentalism to a considerable degree, as another file argued.
In curriculum design activities, educational technologists themselves have come to question many of the central tenets of the old educational technology, such as behavioural objectives specifically, or the role of 'advanced organizers' more generally 20 ; the conventions of 'good writing', especially the use of 'in-text questions' 21 ; the conventions of 'good broadcasting' 22 ; the role of assessment as a discriminator 23 ; and the general attempts to minimize the role of face-to-face. 24
However, these innovations too can have a managerial side, and all tend to be liable to reabsorption by the teaching system, as was argued in earlier files 1 and 2 with the 'paradigm shift' into project work. Thus the strains on course teams, although uncovered in an avowedly unprescriptive form, could easily lend themselves to a 'human relations' approach to management instead of a Taylorist one. In fact, one response to the problems of course teams has been to make them more hierarchical in structure to avoid what tend to be seen as merely irritating conflicts and delays among feuding academics. 25
Similarly, the challenge to the existing conventions of good design of written materials could coincide conveniently with proposals to reduce costs by new publishing techniques using fewer textual insertions. 26 The educational technologists' responses to the discovery of the effects of 'good television' have also been ambivalent: supplementary materials to accompany 'case-study' broadcasts have been seen as needing to assist 'deconstruction' by some 27 , but as needing to point even more clearly to 'preferred meanings' by others. 28
Some aspects of the new educational technology are particularly public in their ambiguity. Some of the work on drop-out, for example has gone some way to break the early public relations inspired accounts of the phenomenom, clearly describing the effects of lack of qualifications and social class. 29 However, similar work also appears in a more strategic setting, with more managerial policy implications discussed, even if not actually recommended. These include developing yet another targetting policy for recruits to avoid attracting too many students with known characteristics which lead to drop-out. 30
In curriculum design terms, similar tensions arise from interests in 'information-processing styles'. As with Pask's work, the work of the Goteborg Group has critical implications for the kind of teaching done at the OU (and elsewhere), but dilemmas occur as a result. One option is to develop ways to compensate for, rather than modify, the teaching system: students can be trained in suitable kinds of information processing, teaching effectiveness of units and asignments can be improved. 31 On the other hand, other pieces from the same research argue explicitly for the indispensabililty of face-to-face contact and openly recognize the implications for a critique of distance education. 32
The problem is, even with the critical pieces, that enquiries are still too descriptive, and content to operate with a particular residual and unexamined view of subjectivity. These problems are common with 'progressive' counters to old-style educational technology too, it was argued. Once elements of unexpected subjectivity are uncovered, investigation stops and assumptions take over. Thus the ethnographic descriptions of course team conflict describe the anxieties and pressures on academics, but do not account for these pressures. In the most simple and direct case, the very conventions of draft preparation and revision which cause the problems tend to be reported as the personal views of the course team chairman, for example, instead of as the established policy of the early designers of the teaching system. Conflicts between these constraints and the requirements of academic arguments are described as conflicts for individuals at the level of role expectations. 'Solutions', almost invariably involving the eventual reconciliation of the individuals to the 'needs' of the teaching system, are seen as the personal strategies and tactics of the persons concerned. The uncritical nature of this sort of descriptive approach in practice is clear: it offers a 'misplaced concreteness, thus performing an ideological service while proclaiming the elimination of value judgments'. 33
The same limitations affect the work on students' subjective capacities. In particular, instrumentalism is seen as a purely subjective, individual response, 34 or as a purely cognitive matter. The connections between student instrumentalism and the effects of the system in which they work, or the one in which they have worked, have not been considered. Subjectivity is still a residual category, with a bundle of individual characteristics which require no further explanation or investigation: instead of the negative implications upheld by the old technology, the new kind tends to celebrate certain of these characteristics, like its 'progressive' allies. An astonishing tendency to assume that all students are 'really' enagaged in education for purely intellectual gains is perhaps the most striking. 35
The abstractions involved in such a view of subjectivity have been pointed out with some force by critical theorists. The absence of a social context has had both cognitive and political consequences. 36 The alternation betwen pessimistic and optimistic views of subjectivity ignores the underlying and uncriticised link between them: there is an inevitably dark side to the pursuit of enlightenment. 37 To liberate individuals from social constraints (the intention if not the capacity of progressive education) would be to risk the emergence of this 'dark' side too, not because human nature is inextricably evil or because humans are inherently ill-organized information processors, or whatever, but because subjectivity has been 'eclipsed' or 'mutilated' by modern social formations. 38 This is not an 'elitist' stance in the usual sense. 39
The individual student, especially in distance systems with relatively open admissions tends to be seen, by managers and progressives alike, in abstract terms, as the possessor of some primeval subjective or 'natural' qualities. Progressives hope that these qualities can be tapped directly by the 'shock' of new pedagogic techniques. Instead, students enter the system with a series of highly mediated opinions, attitudes, capacities and competencies already. These mediations, and the contradictory effects of the 'hidden curriculum', are still largely uninvestigated, but they can offer a source of interpretations and 'textual competencies' which can effectively defuse any such 'shock', it was argued. 40 These system effects remain outside the scope of any of the investigations from the standpoint of educational technology so far. To pursue these effects would be to take a step further towards critique. Leaving behind the empiricist view that students possess instrumental characteristics as 'attitudes' or 'cognitive styles', for example, might help uncover the deeper similarities between what instrumental students do and what educational technologists themselves do: both reduce and operationalize, both apply rational information management techniques, and both conform to the same 'educational realist' conventions. Yet one approach is seen as superficial and inadequate, while the other is merely 'practical' and efficient!
To focus further upon the 'real'
consequences of this point. it is necessary to turn to the 'material substrate'
of educational technology, the distance teaching systems.
Distance Teaching in Social Context
In the usual discussions of the requirements for successful distance education systems 41, the main emphasis tends to be placed upon 'practical' considerations such as the availability of suitable distribution systems for written material, or the availability of regional staff. Discussion about what might be called a social context tends to be limited - to hints of issues of political consent and relations with other rival institutions for example. 42 Even rarer, and still rather obscure, are discussions of the 'cultural needs and customs' of different national or ethnic groups 43, the historical antecedents of demands for adult education 44 , or the connections with occupational or economic systems. 45
By contrast, one early file tried to demonstrate that the nature of open-ness in the British Open University could not be understood without a consideration of the systems of class and status which give the concept limited meaning in practice. At the simplest levels, had it not been for the unusually selective nature of British higher education before the Robbins reforms, there would have been no suitably large 'pool of talent' of mature, able, and committed students to ensure the success and viabilty of the enterprise. It is worth adding that many of these students had been 'warmed up' before applying by other forms of tertiary education, above all the Teacher Training Colleges and other adult education institutions.
Had there been no impetus to upgrade qualifications for these persons, the OU might have floundered. The happy coincidence of policies of professionaliztion by teacher unions, and credentialist closure by the Government was particularly significant. Continuing policies of credentialism still provide a main impulse for recruitment, it was argued, especially if one widens the discussion to include the status aspects of credentials. The spreading ideology of credentialism provides a lucrative role for the OU's Continuing Education and Community Education schemes. Diplomas offered in these schemes might overcome one problem with distance education - providing for certification in 'practical' disciplines requiring on the job experience. The OU's initiatives offer to separate out 'high status' knowledge (that is knowledge which is abstract, literate and asessable 46) and to use that as a basis for assessment.
The interplay of these forces and impulses are not simple, however, and contradictory outcomes are possible unless flexible responses to changing demands in the labour market are possible. The OU system, with its staff employment policies - increasingly to make short-term academic appointments, or to hire 'consultants' specifically for particular courses - and with its acute managerial attention to costs, is particularly well placed to take advantage of these short term shifts. The long term effects could be to facilitate a credentialist closure of the occupational system, especially since this can be done 'post hoc'. If one accepts the genuiness of the commitment to open-ness in class terms, then these outcomes show how resistant class systems can be. They also show a new and unprecedented level of accommodation between higher education and the 'system of social labour'.
However, it was argued that a major part of the commitment to open-ness at the OU was already a strategic matter of opening a new market. In order to attract the right kind of clients for a successful new venture, it was necessary to know the workings of the British class system (in its broadest sense) very well. Middle class, well qualified students were required, and a speculative advertising and publicity campaign was very successful in targetting precisely those groups. The selection procedure described earlier was simply redundant as a result of this success, and, indeed could then be used to admit some more risky applicants. None of this would have been possible had there been no clear links already established between educational success, educational commitment, and the chosen indicators of occupation, leisure interests, previous educational qualifications and the rest. Whereas much of the work in educational research has been devoted to attempting to minimize the effects of these class factors, one ironic possibility is to use the indicators provided by the research to perpetuate class advantage: research with a critical intent in one social context becomes 'colonized' by purposive-rational intents in another.
At the course design stage too, an acute consciousness of the status divisions between 'proper' university education and its lower status alternatives seems to have been essential to success. The desire to overcome ridicule and to win consent from important agencies and audiences led to considerable compromises with the progressive connotations of open-ness. Relations with existing universities developed in a particularly favourable way, in fact: initial scepticism from academics was overcome by the 'quality' of the materials, outright hostility was averted by focussing on an untapped adult market, and a degree of loyalty has ben ensured since by the provision of substantial part-time employment opportunities and other resources.
Finally, the main parties involved seem to have possessed a particularly effective political knowledge to overcome the various objections and to gain the necessary support and funding. The legitimating role of traditions of open-ness and meritocracy were marshalled to gain the consent of some parties, while appeals to new and promising disciplines like educational technology or 'management science' to maintain standards and reduce costs were used to conquer remaining doubts and raise new possibilities. Seen from the point of view of the actors involved, this political flexibility, or perhaps ambiguity, was also a crucial element of tacit social knowledge. Seen from a systems perspective, the force of these traditions and ideologies crucially affected and limited the possible shape of the OU by constituting the elements of a 'realistic' political discourse about open-ness. It is clear that all these factors have been of at least equal importance to the purely technical ones, and that any transfer of OU technology directly to another context, in another country possibly, will encounter the familiar problems of lack of fit.
On a more specific level of analysis, it was argued that the transfer of teaching techniques from one context to another in the same education system is also difficult. The educational technologists discovered this when they tried to implement techniques based on small-scale experiments to a university context. In his laboratory, for example, Pask was able to call for volunteers to undertake a purely abstract task - the learning of a fictitious taxonomy - and to engage in detailed teaching and discussion with each volunteer. 47 The differences between this learning situation and the one at the OU are clear: in the laboratory there is no formal assessment, no credential to be gained for the student, and no academic status to be defended by the teacher; the subject matter is completely formal with no 'distractions' provided by previous knowledge, and no particular interest in (or anxiety about) the outcome for either party. There is direct social contact between teacher and taught, beyond the formal exchange of information described in the analysis, which motivates, encourages, shapes and polices student reactions. Pask and the others were aware of these differences in principle, but unable to anticipate their effects in practice: abstractly rational models of teaching and learning, or a focus on abstracted techniques and procedures, supposedly with universal applications, failed to deliver the goods.
The effects of the procedures of distance education at the OU seem to include strong tendencies towards conceptual closure. Conventions of 'good writing' and 'good broadcasting' pre-construct a largely passive student. It would be interesting to see whether these conventions are inherent in distance education, or are simply the results of the particular context of the British OU with its need to rely on public broadcasting and to conform to certain local standards of appearance with its products. The question of the determinants of these specific conventions offers a possible issue for future research in this area. 48
Yet there is an extra dimension, provided by the specifics of educational broadcasting and writing. Where conventions are broken or weakened, as they may be, in educational discourses as in 'artistic' discourses, the effects of the 'hidden curriculum' still operate, and students themselves can close off implications and reduce academic materials. No other mass media material is quite so doubly closed, it was argued.
Further, the division of labour between central course writers and students on the periphery can lead to particularly separated orientations or 'coding practices'. Central academics are able to concentrate on the construction of what can become purely 'theoretical objects' 49 (that is theoreticist objects), leaving others to try to popularize or maintain courses as teaching instruments. Students, on the other hand, are able to concentrate on their own 'practical' purposes when they receive the texts and broadcasts, without needing to articulate or defend their views against any theoretical intrusions.
Policies of open access may even exacerbate such closure. Students are recruited in a way which is officially indifferent to their previous educational qualifications - but it is also indifferent to issues of motivation and orientation, except where these are likely to impinge on managerial concerns such as drop-out rates. OU students are not required to be open-minded, for example. Some undoubtedly approach the ideal of the adult student - self-motivated, mature, confident enough to be tolerant of ambiguity and academic challenge. 50 Yet there are reports of excessively opinionated and intolerant students 51, regurgitators who 'have not even begun to understand what is required' 52, and of degrees of instrumentalism. A definite indifference to these qualities informs the particular shape of distance education at the OU too, doubly determined by abstractions in marketing demands and in 'progressive' ideologies. As conventional higher education in Britain becomes more market oriented, the same trends will develop there too, perhaps.
Distance education systems can thus concentrate a number of tendencies to produce a particular kind of 'identarian' thinking and practice. Identarian thinking can be overcome by opposing to it the conceptual open-ness of Adorno's 'negative dialectics', Horkheimer's 'critical theory', or Habermas's fully reflective discourses - but is there some conception of open practice in critical theory? Further, could this conception be used to evaluate distance education, to move beyond immanent critique and 'determinate negation'?
There is some discussion of
the role of the university in all of the main writers, always connected
to the particualr historical circumstances, but always revealing central
issues in the various conceptions of critique and the circumstances in
which it thrives. This is best summarized perhaps in Habermas's views that:
'[There is an]. . . affinity and inner relation between the enterprise of knowledge on the university level. . . [and]. . . the democratic forms of decision-making. . . [an]. . . immanent relation between the enterprise of knowledge at the university and the critical enterprise. ' 53
'setting forth a well founded, substantive critique of the scientific enterprise, which would reflect on the didactic and methodological presuppositions of instruction and research and demand that the social context of their utilization enter into the basis of their legitimation. ' 54
'. . . the democratization of the university, meaning (a) that decision-making councils should be opened on all levels to all groups participating in the process of instruction and research and (b) that decisions about all questions of practical consequence should come from public discussion and uncompelled decision making in these councils. '56The path away from these proposals and from student revolt to the current state of conventional universities is one example of 'neo-conservative' trends. 57 What is of immediate significance is to see how the mechanisms of distance education have overwhelmed the social bases for demands for democratization of this kind. Instead of disaffected youth, adult students; thoroughly modernized forms of organizing knowledge and governing the university (including a particularly close financial relation with governments); isolated and only part-time students (the quietist implications of this factor appealed particularly to the Shah of Iran, apparently! 58); a marked division of labour among academic staff, enabling sufficient specialization (and a weakening of contractual security) to perform a wider range of tasks more flexibly than before - both updating courses for 'industry' and higher degrees coexist at the OU; and specialist ideologies of management and pedagogy, lending a particular aura of expertise and impersonal efficiency - a 'technological veil' in the classic sense. 59
Finally, it is clear that much more than technical tutorial functions is to be discharged by face-to-face contacts for Habermas. In the early work quoted above, and even more clearly in the later work, what is important is argument between people, unconstrained discussions which raise 'validity claims' of several types, and which settle these claims only by the force of the better argument. 60 The most obvious medium for these discussions is face-to-face contact, but it is the content of the discussions that count, their range and scope, and the lack of constraint. Two main implications follow for university education.
First, conventional universities may feature lots of face-to-face contact between participants, but this does not necessarily mean that democractic discussion of the kind Habermas identifies as the kernel of the critical role of the university is taking place. Conventional universities have their own ways of preventing democratic discussions, including onerous assessment systems, hierarchical and bureaucratic management systems, or impenetrable forms of social distance or mutual cynicism between teachers and taught. Much remains to be done to describe in more detail the concrete communication patterns in actual seminars and lectures in conventional universities.
however, distance education on the OU pattern at least, is the only form
of higher education specifically to be designed on any other basis than
the democratic discussion. In this sense, by dispensing with even the ideology
of democracy, distance education systems seem to have made a crucial transition.
They have replaced the immanent democracy of unconstrained discussion with
a characteristicallly modern form - 'plebiscitary democracy' in Habermas's
terms. 61 The opinions of junior or Regional staff and
students have never been sought so assiduosly, but they have never had
such 'one-dimensional' scope, or been treated with such indifference in
all but quantitative terms.
Distance Education: 'Colonization' and Crisis
Distance education operates by abstracting aspects of a social totality, breaking down aspects of educational discourse into course preparation, course presentation, student assessment, 'remedial' tutorials, and so on. These rationalized features are apparent not only in the UK but in all the existing systems (with the possible exception of China's). 62 Educational technology also operates with similar abstractions and interests, focussing upon the formal, rational aspects of educational interchanges, and on techniques. These tendencies too seem very widespread, in the USA, Europe, and Scandinavia . 63 The main form of critique which has been pursued here involves an insistence on the need to recover that totality or 'social context', for 'political' as well as for 'theoretical' reasons.
At the 'political' level, it is clear that both educational technology and the actual teaching system of the OU have gone through changes in their development, displaying different tendencies and characteristics at different stages. Thus it would be tragic if early educational technology were to be seen as fully adequate, and as capable of immediate transfer to another context without a recognition that many educational technologists themselves have changed their minds since those early days, and now realize the inadequacy of their early techniques and procedures. Another phase of 'hardline' positivistic measurement or design, this time, say, in the context of an 'Open College', new 'transitional' schemes of post-compulsory education, or an information technology network, would lead only to the same sorts of mistakes and unintended consequences.
The creative and critical potentials of these new schemes are very similar to the ones outlined here, yet discussions about them also seems to avoid the key issues of context and concrete organization. Instead, oddly abstract arguments about the liberating or repressive uses of technology, or the purely technical possibilities of information nets seem to dominate public concerns. Thus in discussions of 'information technology' in Britain, the discipline of 'artificial intelligence' (AI) is often cited to establish the theoretical and popular bona fides of the projects. 64 The public image of AI conveys an impression that computers are gradually being made more and more flexible and sophisticated, in order to enable them to cope with more and more of the activities of human beings. Although this might be a fair description of the work being done in some of the academic developments in AI, the reverse of this development is of more concrete social importance: human activities are being made more and more simple and unsophisticated, in order to enable them to be computerized and replaced. If complex skills are difficult or even impossible, in principle, to program, the task must be deskilled first. If human speech can never be simulated by computers, perhaps it can be simplified until it comes to match the limits of the machine. As the OU examples showed, if academic discourse remains beyond the reach of simple transformations in computer programs, it can be 'sanitized' by 'numinous authorities', or even abandoned. None of these operations of themselves need be 'dehumanizing', and each has a liberating side, but it is the social context into which they are inserted which leads to either outcome - in nearly every case, given the social relations in question, the outcome will be a conservative or a repressive one.
This is still unclear in public discussions, sometimes in obvious interests. Real life applications are sometimes discussed as having both 'good' and 'bad' sides, but these are left as mere possibilities to be realized by some abstract process like 'the march of progress' or 'Man's capabilities'. There is little analysis of the likely effects of contexts of power and interests. As a result, commentators are free to select aspects of the totality of theory and practice to illustrate their views: enthusiasts stress the interesting and politically indifferent aspects from the theoretical phases, and selected examples of 'good' applications, while conservatives do the reverse.
The same goes for actual systems of distance education. The British OU has also undergone a career, and is still changing. Its organizational forms can take on different sorts of significance at different times. The autonomous, highly rational and centralized forms were probably necessary to achieve the early goals of establishing the system and introducing educational reforms, but those forms became fetters on certain future developments. The organization became instead an end in itself or a means to achieve new goals of system integration. Established as an experimental form, to be continuously monitored and evaluated, it rapidly became a fixture which had to be made to work effectively.
It also became a kind of benchmark, or agenda-setter, defining policies in its own particular way: 'individualism' became a matter of individual packaging of standard courses, or what students did in their own time; 'independent learning' is set to become a matter of what happens when certain students are deprived of aspects of institutional support. 65 Enthusiasts can again abstract from these phases, or from aspects of the current phase, focusing on the excellent courses, or the successful students, or particular course profiles and so on. With no conception of historical or social context, it is difficult to see how these features are linked to their 'bad' sides, and how critical alternatives, outside the scope of the system, have been suppressed
At the 'theoretical' level, developments like these could be discussed in the traditions associated with critical theory as aspects of 'rationalization'. Classical critical theory drew upon the work of Weber and Lukacs as well as Marx to develop the idea that modernization could be grasped in terms of an increasing tendency for 'purposive rational' action to become dominant. 66 This tendency appeared not only in the imperialistic spread of scientistic or positivistic forms of procedure in the social sciences, as discussed above, but also in the rational organization of industrial and administrative enterprise, including the 'culture industry'. Although not an even or regular process, the spread of rationalization seemed irresistible, to Adorno and Horkheimer as well as to Weber, acounting for the deep pessimism noted by the critics.67
Rationalization for classical critical theory was rooted in the labour process, even if only at a very general and broad level for certain aspects of the work. 68 As with identity thinking, there is a social analogue for the key characteristics of rationalization as it affects thought and practice. The shift from concrete to abstract labour in Marxist economic theory represents the underlying form of the abstractions which take place in purposive rationality. What is left out by these abstractions, in both cases, is the full context or totality of human, unquantifiable, concrete historical and social aspects of labour and social life. Once abstraction has taken place, labour can be organized and handled as a commodity, divided, quantified, sequenced and ordered into machine-like forms, separated from value considerations, subjected to scientific measurement and standardization, and generally dealt with as an alienated entity 'on its own'.
Because that social life had been transformed, reified and 'massified' 69 by the forces of rationalization, and replaced with effective substitutes (including mythical notions of community in politics and in the culture industry), there was little hope for system crisis or for revolutionary politics. As Piccone puts it, classical critical theory still required a collective subject to reunify and reconcile disparate aspects of abstracted life, and restore the totality, but its very arguments precluded this possibility. 70
Partly to avoid these difficulties, Habermas's work offers a different account of rationalization and reification. 71 At the heart of the changes lies an account of what it is that has been rationalized, so to speak. Instead of labour or 'subjectivity' as in classical critical theory, Habermas proposes that we understand rationalization as involving abstraction from, and reconstruction of, 'the communicative basis of interpersonal relationships'. 72 It is clear that there are two important aspects of rationalization in this sense. 73 One involves the ways in which human communication and its institutional forms have been subject to 'scientific' regulation and control in the name of 'system imperatives', as in the classic Weberian scheme. But the other has a 'good' side: rational communication also involves the substitution of knowledge for custom and myth, the growth of shared forms of 'context-independent' discourse, the overcoming of communication distorted by a lack of reflective capacity. 74 There is another implication too in that rationalization for Habermas becomes a selective process rather than a general trend, a process of 'colonization' of the intersubjective 'lifeworld', subject to interruption, reversal, and, above all perhaps, to crisis. 75
Whatever the theoretical merits of
the 'linguistic turn' as a general metatheory in Habermas's work, 76
conceiving of rationalization as an abstraction from a potentially much
richer communicative practice has obvious appeal for this project. Although
'labour' or 'praxis' might be opposed as a descriptive term, it would be
difficult to deny the fundamental role of communication in universities,
even to the most blatant modernizer, or activist. 77 Similarly,
although Habermas has not yet identified an institutional base for his
'communicative ethic', 78 he comes very close in his early work
to pointing to the university as at least having a certain potential, albeit,
as has been argued, in definite historical circumstances. 79
'the goal of coming to an understanding. . . to bring about an agreeement. . . that terminates in the intersubjective mutuality of reciprocal understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another oriented to mutual understanding' 80Distance education simplifies and subdivides the roles and parts in that communicative action, enabling specialization and division of labour, and hierarchy to take the place of democratic universality. There is a 'good' side to this: such specialization enables progress to be made in acquiring rational knowledge of teaching, learning and assessing, to break out of irrational myths in these areas. There is also a bad side, though: the system of distance education can be used increasingly to discharge different functions in a narrower interest - providing technologically productive or suitably 'realistic' social knowledge, credentialist regulation of the labour market, a 'technicization' of education, beyond that achievable by conventional systems.
Educational technology too can be seen in these general terms. It abstracts from a context of communication in which not only roles are swapped freely, but also forms of argument, evidence, and levels of discourse. Again, certain educational and communicative advantages undoubtedly arise from abstracting from this context, and rationalizing (making conscious) the procedures for organizing educational sequences. But again educational technology can find itself used to transmit system imperatives beyond those forms of coordination and control which are necessary in the general interest for education to take place.
The task is to disentangle these different senses of rationalization, in practice as well as in theory. Habermas's work looks more promising than the usual blanket condemnations of 'positivism'. Moreover, critical theory has always recognized the need for some necessary forms of social integration mechanisms, and has tried to specify these more clearly than some of its 'activist' rivals. The problem is how to identify what is genuinely necessary as a social constraint, and what is merely the result of distorted communication or other forms of domination by specific groups. Habermas's discussion of 'generalizable interests' offers one possibility here. 81
It is interesting finally to consider whether any of the concrete examples of reactions to the system by participants can be interpreted as 'crisis tendencies'. Habermas and his associates have argued for these on conceptual grounds in their broader analyses of the State, but it does not follow that other, more limited subsystems will develop any such tendencies. Only the State has to act as a universal institution while representing special interests, and only the State has to maintain some notion of universal society. 82 Nevertheless, open universities above all other subsystems are the most likely to encounter similar tensions, perhaps. There is no clear procedure enabling trends to be recognized as crisis tendencies, and many of Habermas's substantive points are actually rather familiar ones from various sociological and economic analyses which do not use his metatheory. Concrete analyses pursued under a commitment to a politics of immanent 'resistance' also encounter these difficulties. 83
The British OU has faced questions of legitimacy, of course, from within and from without. Some of the interdepartmental rivalries and struggles have already been mentioned. Outside audiences were sceptical in the initial stages, but these doubts were overcome. New ones have arisen concerning the educational product, however. There is some emerging scepticism about modular credit systems of the type the OU offers, and about the relative absence of face-to-face tuition and open admissions, among some employers, it seems. 84 Should this scepticism spread, the OU would be faced with contradictory demands, since these same features are essential to the success of the system. It is fair to say, however, that these doubts seem rare, that most employers accept the value of an OU degree. 85 The doubts of conventional academics too have been almost entirely silenced. Whether this silence will survive the ensuing competition for students, as the OU takes eighteen year-olds and conventional universities develop their own distance systems, remains to be seen, but competition between different subsystems need not lead to system crisis, of course. Above all, the students seem to accept the legitimacy of the system. Some of those who succeed have doubts, as the studies show, but these do not take a subversive or anti-system form , while those who fail or drop out seem prone to blame themselves. 86
On a broader scale, the OU seems to have survived very well in the climate of recent Government spending cuts, which might be an indication that it has overcome any doubts about its legitimacy in that direction. Its modern form overcomes any legitimation crisis affecting more traditional universities who find it more difficult to adapt to new pressures for 'relevant' knowledge and/or greater open-ness in terms of access and accountability. Tensions between traditional and modern forms are one source of resistance to 'colonization' for Habermas, and the rising expectations produced by campaigns among certain groups for 'universal rights' are another. Both have been contained so far at the British OU.
There seem to be no immediate contradictions between the requirements of the different audiences which might expose the claim to legitimacy of the organization as a whole. Everything seems to point to the OU enjoying support from a very wide range of publics. However, Habermas argues that even when this is achieved, as far as the State is concerned at least, a loss of traditional legitimation is likely. The very modernism of the organization, its very flexibility and frank acknowledgements of its intentions 'to survive' mean that the OU can not rely on the traditional loyalties which conventional universities (possibly) still enjoy. Its major forms of compliance and loyalty seem to be instrumental ones, for staff and students.
This might involve a potential for a 'motivation crisis'. Perhaps low completion rates for students, and the motivational problems for central staff reported in the debates about the course team mentioned earlier, may be understood as signs of this crisis. Some Regional staff clearly feel disaffected and remote from their official role, according to the reports about reluctance to enagage in project work or to comment fully on assignments. However, such 'instrumentalism' need not threaten the system unless the rewards dry up. The effects of longer-term dissatisfactions are less easy to determine at present. If the holders of credentials fail to gain rewards, doubts might arise about the system - but the students in question are often already in occupational positions or occupying the particular locations discussed for 'housewives', so these frustrations might be less apparent. As Habermas says, only rigid systems are threatened by rising demands. 87 If anything, the OU has helped overcome a major source of contradiction located in the apparent inflexibility of 'reflexive labour'. 88
Finally, one particular kind of contradiction or crisis arises as a possibility for educational systems specifically. Educational knowledge itself can radicalize and raise the critical consciousness of its receivers. Although there are grounds for pessimism about this possibility as a major outcome , it would be unwise to dismiss it completely . On the whole, students might use their freedom from the system at a distance to pursue cynical strategies of 'playing the game' or opt for 'surface level processing', as the studies showed. But some students do gain considerable personal insight, self confidence and an ability to reflect upon their own surroundings. Given the policies of recruitment, and the closed nature of the pedagogy, these persons are best considered, perhaps, as 'deviants', and it would be profitable to investigate their antecedents in the terms, say, of Parkin's or Jessop's studies of political radicals. 89 They seem rather like the isolated individuals of classical critical theory who somehow, almost accidentally, keep a critical distance from their surroundings. 90
Another possibility concerns the 'eavesdropper'. Distance systems are largely public systems, and perhaps the old hope in an audience of eavsedroppers being able to participate without incorporation is still a viable one. As well as the doubts raised about systematic insights being generated by the 'shock of the new', however, the numbers and persistence of suitable candidates from this source seem discouraging. 'Working class' traditions of demands for popular, radical education 'from below' seem on the wane, for example. 91
Perhaps another possibility lies in the use of OU materials by eavesdroppers already in face-to-face education. Although this too is little discussed, OU materials are widely 'borrowed' in conventional education, where there is a chance at last of their being used in a free discussion, combined with other materials to break the closed nature of their form, and developed in a non-didactic manner. It would be naive to believe that such free discussions are essential to, or even common in, conventional education. Yet in such a context, OU materials could have an interesting status as particularly accessible and readable materials for experienced students (and lecturers).
In any event, the implications of this critique point to rather pessimistic conclusions. Distance education and educational technology do have liberating sides, but their current forms prevent these from emerging fully. They need to be recolonized from below, subjected to the widest possible discussions instead of being isolated as anomalous to the mainstream of higher education, or treated as the latest enthusiasm of the rationalizers. People in distance and conventional education alike must resist rationalizing trends in the bad sense, and rediscover some suppressed alternatives. Inevitably, this will involve a much more self-critical stance than before - in conventional British education, the development of rationalization in the good sense; in distance education, the progression of educational technology into critique.
But there seems to be little chance
of these slogans taking concrete forms. It is conventional for activists
to point out that critical theory appeals, in the end, to a general and
universal (and hence an abstract) audience, rather than to a specific class
or political agent, 92 and to urge upon it a more concrete political
programme. But where are the agents who might wish to participate even
in reforms of higher education, especially in Britain? Students, even those
at the OU, are not mainly 'working class' persons, and seem unable to profit
politically from some contradiction between their statuses as 'objects'
while at work, and as 'subjects' when they study in an academic community.
Staff may be aware of contradictions specific to them, especially between
traditional and modern forms of organization, but academics in particular
have long experience of rationalization in yet another sense - coping with
contradictory norms and values in their working lives and rationalizing
away these contradictions. 94 Material contradictions of this kind
have not been totally resolved by present practices, except in ideology,
and they may sharpen or emerge again in the future. But until then critique
can only play a role in 'consciousness raising', offering purely theoretical
communicative patterns 'counterfactually', and pursuing a seemingly theoreticist
task of trying to prevent the final closure between concept and reality.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1 Bubner, R. (1982) 'Habermas's
Concept of Critical Theory' in Thompson, J. and Held, D. (Eds) Habermas:
Critical Debates, London, Macmillan, pp. 42-56.