Educational Technology  and the 'Colonisation' of Academic Work
This is a paper presented to the British Sociological Association Annual Conference at Leeds in 1987. It summarises and extends some of the ideas in my 1987 book


 Educational technology is considered as an example of the processes described by Habermas as 'colonisation'. The argument proceeds by examining the 'material' and 'ideological' roots of educational technology in 'scientific management', behaviourist and then cybernetic psychology. Forms of educational technology in current practice are then discussed. It is argued that educational technology must be taken seriously by academics as perhaps the most immediately relevant example of the 'scientisation' of their activities. Contradictory aspects of the approach are outlined, partly to account for the lack of serious resistance to the use of the techniques, drawing on themes in critical theory to guide discussion.

Techniques of abstraction and operationalisation from conventional academic or educational discourse are described in 'distance education'. 'Concrete' examples are given of the reductionism of the approach, especially with 'critical' discourse. The paper concludes with some 'methodological' points about linking concrete studies and general theory, and some general discussion of the notion of 'colonisation' in Habermas.


In examining the roots of educational technology, it is possible to introduce the main framework for the subsequent critique at the same time. This is not an attempt at an empirical history, in other words, but an analysis that charts the emergence of a number of central practices, considered as characteristic of an underlying 'scientism'

 Educational technology has made a number of actual empirical appearances. Many teachers will associate the term with the enthusiasm for 'programmed learning'  in the 1950s and 1960s, or with teaching machines. Other variants include the 'rational curriculum planning' made popular, in theory and in practice by  the British Open University. A more fashionable recent enthusiasm, basking in the reflected glamour of microcomputers, calls itself 'information technology (in education)'. There have also been much earlier, and perhaps less well known or half- forgotten approaches in Bentham's schemes for a 'Chrestomathic' school, and the accompanying desriptions of the Bell and Lancaster monitorial methods. There is no space here to give proper attention to the specific elements in these different variants - the technological, social and political contexts, for example. Instead, it is possible to isolate certain more general features, which will lead to a critique based, initially, on a familiar argument about 'positivism'. Although critiques of 'positivism' are famous (or notorious) in various applied 'sociologies', there is still a point in developing this line to try to grasp the attempts to 'scientise' academic work. The specifics of academic work, in turn, can inform some of the recent controversies about the critique of positivism, in Habermas in particular.

Educational technology claims to be able to organise an unusually systematic and efficient relation between learners and knowledge. This claim usually involves appeals to psychological or metapsychological ('scientific') theories as some kind of 'foundation' for the technology of learner-knowledge interactions. Examples include the 'Happiness Principle' for Bentham (Smith & Burston 1983), Skinnerian behaviourism (Gilbert 1969), the psychologies of Gagne or Ausubel (Rowntree 1982) or various approaches in 'artificial intelligence' (Pask 1976). There are sometimes claims to a hard-earned 'experience' as well, often in highly 'practical', commercial or industrial settings. Appeals to high status theory and to practical experience can be found in a number of strategic combinations designed to increase the appeal of educational technology, and the two combine in everyday practice in less acknowledged ways too, it will be argued.

Further, educational technology commonly launches a radical critique of existing forms of educational practice and their foundations. Such a critique might turn on the naturalistic fallacies of the older forms (as a part of Bentham's more general project to critique 'natural law', for example), or on the conservative assumptions made in traditional educational institutions. Yet this critique is limited and partial, tied to an external goal rather than 'for its own sake'. The critique and the appeal for new solutions and technologies cangain force from some view of crisis in contemporary education such as an imminent 'technological revolution', or the need for greater efficiency in the face of some industrial decline, which both points to the redundancy or inefficiency of the old practices and provides a solution in the form of some new breakthrough. There is a technological orientation to educational and social problems, a belief in a 'technical fix', whether this be the scientific principles of Utilitarianism or the progress being reported in artificial intelligence.

In modern variants, a double technologism appears since educational 'outputs' are conceived in terms of 'economic' goals of the system, and the educational system itself, in its very procedures, is subjected to technological criteria ('performativity' - Lyotard 1986). These themes in educational technology are capable of being articulated with common 'political' anxieties or ideologies of 'action' producing periodic substantial sponsorships of variants of educational technology in educational policy. The new vocationalism has been analysed at general levels by Bates et al. (1984), Habermas (1985), and Collins (1981), while Senker (1986) offers a more specific account of the articulation of various 'political' interests and positions in the establishment of TVEI. Harris (1985) describes another articulation in terms of 'winning consent' for the establishment of the Open University.

Educational technology commonly follows a conceptual career. Attempts merely to systematise, regularise, and make rational existing practices (a 'negative phase' where the old principles  and practices are reformed, or 'inverted') give way to more ambitious 'positive phases' in which conceptions of both 'knowledge' and 'the (individual) learner' are changed and theorising takes place. The analysis shifts from 'vulgar' to 'scientific' poles, from 'strategy-dominated' towards 'reflection-dominated' (Apel 1979). Defenders of the approach would argue that whole new paradigms, problematics, or possibly discourses are involved. As an educational technology, new practices are expected to follow from these 'epistemological careers' - distance education or new information technology networks are recent examples (and see Pask, G. and Curran, S. 1983 for some particularly imaginative speculation about the future 'information society'). 'Applications' aside, these more 'scientifc' conceptions  exhibit the dualistic, contradictory features described in general by Habermas (Habermas 1984): they are both more rational, objective, context-free and 'discursive', and more likely to produce a scientistic colonisation of educational practices. Of course, stages in the career might also include a need to consider resistance to these advances, sometimes in the name of conservative or 'humanist' principles and practices, which oppose 'tradition' or 'creativity' to the encroachment of rational elements.

It is clear that a number of sociological criticisms of 'positivist' conceptions in educational technology of the individual subject and of knowledge are available. The intention in what follows is to organise these around the work of the 'critical theorists' (principally Adorno and Habermas). However, in order to examine issues in a more concrete manner, it is necessary to provide some illustrations of educational technology in practice.

Curriculum Design

There has long been an interest in 'effective teaching' and in developing a systematic approach to teaching and learning 'based' (somehow) on secure scientific principles. Bentham's work reveals how a particular combination of arguments and events can place this interest firmly on the agenda: in his case, the inefficiency and expense of traditional schooling (conducted in classes of up to 200, with one master hearing each pupil in turn 'say' his lesson) had become a scandal. The supporters of the Chrestomathic scheme were able to describe the new 'monitorial method' in a most favourable manner by comparison. The new method involved splitting the large classes into smaller 'divisions', each under the charge of a monitor (a senior pupil). Lessons could take a number of forms - the monitor could call on each pupil to translate some lines of Latin verse, for example, and any mistakes were recorded for later testing by the master; pupils, for their part, could also hear the monitor relating a grammar lesson, and record any of his mistakes (the system mostly catered for males, although Bentham was keen to admit females too). Should the monitor be caught out, an 'appeal' would be heard by the master, and a successful appeal would result in the appellant advancing one 'place', while the monitor lost one. These 'places' would be awarded by monitors, subject to appeal, and the system produced a rank-order within each division and class.

The monitorial system enabled a marked degree of what might be termed 'individualisation', and the view of the enthusiasts was that this system provided a particularly strong form of motivation for each participant:

  'This system binds both Monitor and pupil to careful preparation at home: the former from fear of detection and exposure by a boy far below him in the class; the latter both by the infallible certainty of his being called upon to say [a lesson] and reported if he fails; and by the honourable desire of rising in the class, and proving that he knows the lesson better than the Monitor' (Pillans 1983).

Another contributor was keen to emphasise the moral advantages of the new system. In the old regime, pupils were often kept waiting for hours until their turn came to be heard, and this encouraged inattention and failure. Idleness also led to a subsequent dislike of the teacher and the subject, and to 'habits dangerous to virtue'. Under the Lancaster scheme, all pupils were actively involved every minute of the day either speaking or listening. Failure had been eliminated by this new peadagogy - and corporal punishment had been abolished too, as unnecessary, since all members of the school were working happily 'with one spirit'. Everyone was able to attain at least the basics of the lessons, enough at least to gain some introduction to classical literature - the 'shield of the young mind against the ruinous inroads of vice' (Gray 1983).

It is, of course, easy to see in these early examples a close connection between the new scientific methods and the interest in new forms of social control, the link betwen cognitive domination of an activity and real domination, to use the terms of critical theory (Marcuse 1973). The ambiguities of 'individualised' instruction are particularly clear when it is recalled that Bentham's school was to be designed on the same architectural lines and methodological principles as his 'Panopticon' prison, which has been more widely discussed (most famously, perhaps in Foucault 1979).

Despite the obvious elements which 'date' the example, there are also echoes of contemporary  practices, especially the 'behaviour-shaping regimes' in Borstals or 'special units'. Bentham's own contributions to the scheme also have a contemporary ring: he wanted to rationalise and systematise 'knowledge' in order to make it more accessible to pupils and more manageable in a rational school regime. One way to accomplish this was to clarify the 'nomenclature' of different academic subjects: a rational nomenclature would both present to view the contents of a branch of knowledge (its 'ordinary' purpose) and reveal the relations between different branches of knowledge (the 'systematic' purpose). 'Conceptions' should be 'as clear, correct, and complete as by and in the compass of a single denomination can be afforded' (Bentham 1983 p.142), and the relations between these unambiguous conceptions should be depicted: relations of 'agreement and disagreement' with conceptions in other branches, and relations of 'connection and dependence: viz those which [involve] an acquaintance, more or less intimate, with this or that other branch of art or science' (ibid p. 144). Such clarity and consistency would enable what these days would be termed a 'closure principle':

 '...the parts...[of a subject]...must exhaust the contents of the whole...the information, contained in a work which is composed of them [i.e. the conceptions], can be complete...[If not]...the form in which [a work] presents itself will be no other than that of a confused heap of unconnected fragments - each of them, in respect of form and quantity, boundless and indeterminate.' (ibid p.218)

The benefits of such a labour of clarification and consistency would be available to scholars, able to 'exercise dominion over almost every branch of art and science', to students, who would have all the 'dark spots' produced by 'indeterminacy' in existing subjects removed, and to 'legislators' who were thus enabled to enact educational policy 'sometimes in furtherance of the interests of the professors...more frequently and more necessarily in furtherance of the interests of the whole community' (ibid p.219).

More modern versions of systematic design include the familiar 'behavioural objectives' approach in 'rational curriculum planning'. Here, pedagogy is supposedly regulated by a system of apparently unambiguous specific 'objectives' which the learner is supposed to attain under particular specified conditions - according to one version (Melton 1984). These specifics take the place of worthy but intangible goals like the ones mentioned by Gray above (or generations of liberal academics since).

Shifting the emphasis in this way enables a whole cycle of rational goal-setting, planning, implementation, and evaluation/development to arise -  the GPID model, or in one elaborated version, an AOSTMTEC model (aims, objectives, strategies, tactics, methods, techniques, evaluation, consolidation - Merritt 1972). Although the crucial objectives are usually specified in terms of 'behaviours' as operational indicators of (or replacements for) inner mental processes like 'learning' having taken place, the approach is not exclusively supported by behaviourist psychology. Other kinds of psychological learning theory can be involved - a theory of human 'need' (Merritt ibid),for example, or, by letting the objectives serve not as desired outcomes as such but as 'advance organisers', Ausubel's cognitive approach (Melton op.cit).

Knowledge in the 'rational planning' approach has become instrumentalised, of course. The emphasis is upon the learner and his performance, and although there is an assumption that the lesson has been crucial in achieving that performance, there is no practical concern with any intangible or unspecified outcomes, no interest in knowledge 'for its own sake'. Many critics have argued that education is reduced to training in this approach, and,indeed, the paradigm exemplars for many of the techniques were found in industrial and commercial skill training programs.

The charge of reductionism will be examined later, but advocates of the approach  have been able to reply that the 'objectives' approach merely clarifies the procedures of existing practice which is aimed at behaviour modification just as much - 'Explicit objectives at least let the student see what is expected of him (sic)' (Rowntree 1982). In this way, the emphasis is shifted to outcomes, to effects on learners instead of the professional interests of academics and is in this sense 'student-centred': '...[opponents]...seem to prefer structuring courses around the dictates and traditions of the subject discipline rather than by outlining how students might develop as a result' (ibid). It is possible, in fact, to hear echoes of all the claims made by Bentham for his approach - greater clarity, increased efficiency, fewer failures, the possibility of greater accountability and control. It is also possible to note parallels between rational curriculum planning and 'scientific management', and thus to explore the issues in terms of 'deskilling debates' (Littler and Salaman 1982).

These issues also arise when considering another variant, one which places the emphasis back again on the 'knowledge' side of the knowledge-learner interaction. This variant appeared at the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology after much debate about the inadequacy of behavioural objectives for higher education. In a nutshell, behavioural objectives were seen merely as observable indicators of a network of concepts that had to be mastered anyway in order to perform them. Instead of just listing certain goals to be attained, the idea was to make available the whole net or structure of concepts, overcoming some of the inefficiencies and restrictions of the objectives approach. Students could explore networks without being subjected to the operational decisions and specifications of the designer, and the 'knowledge structures' approach would concentrate attention on the cognitive skills required for mastery (MacDonald-Ross 1975).

Conventional academic subjects were to be conceived as regular combinations of basic concepts or 'operations'. Just as with Bentham's scheme, but this time based on analogies with computer programming and on principles of 'cybernetic psychology', conventional arguments would be reconstructed as 'entailment structures'. An early experiment had succeeded in turning some obscure prose concerning tax regulations into a logical decision tree or algorithm (Lewis et al. 1967). The project at the OU intended to apply the same principles to obscure academic prose as well.

The first stage was to scrutinise available texts and authors to obtain 'theses about the subject matter' (Pask & Scott 1972). An entailment structure  would be developed as a 'canonical representation of these theses, or an approved set of them (for instance theses sanctioned by a Faculty Board)' (ibid). The next step was to 'indoctrinate the expert with respect to the "metalanguage" of relational networks'. This metalanguage consisted of 'certain relational operators' which combined the theses together in such a way as to guarantee logical closure in the sense explained above - producing a well-connected graph expressing the relations between topics. Having obtained the graph, certain orders of priority  among the topics could be imposed in order to develop teaching sequences, and there was also a chance to undertake 'sanitization' - 'the elimination of pyschologically engendered inconsistencies, most of which are due to limitations on short term storage [of human memory]' (ibid).

A number of illustrations of the technique are now published (Pask & Scott 1973, Pask 1976a, Pask 1976b), including a remarkable attempt to model the decision-making procedures of USAF pilots as they simulated combat: in this example, the computer program was eventually able to make combat decisions 'for itself', based on the 'sanitized' knowledge of the human subjects it had been able to model (Pask & Curran 1983).

The teaching sequences based on knowledge structures provided for feedback loops to check on students' progress in mastering the network. Some of the techniques bear a strong resemblance to techniques employed in Bentham's day, which also involved learners in having to demonstrate mastery by reproducing maps (of countries bordering the Mediterranean rather than concept maps, but the test is the same), and even tested their mastery by getting them to teach the material to others (cf Pask's technique of TEACHBACK - Pask 1976a).

Pask claims that this 'conversational' form of interaction with the computer program was more effective than conventional methods, but the tests and definitions of effectiveness, and the rather strange samples chosen in the comparisons are inevitably controversial (Pask & Scott 1972 and Pask 1976a). It is worth pointing out too, that the 'conversation' can take place only if the human subject regulates his interrogations of the subject matter to match those of the program: certainly nothing like Habermas's notion of conversation as unrestricted argumentation, designed to raise and test validity claims, appears in the laboratory discussions. Nevertheless, students were free to interrogate the subject matter in ways outside those prescribed by subject matter experts, to combine concepts in their own ways, in accordance with their own interests, once the complete set had been derived.

The approach claims to have made progress in demystifying academic argument, to have reduced arguments to their essential logical form, free from the affectations and stylistic camouflage of conventional academic discourse. The project thus resonates with the more radical aspirations of educational technology at the Open University - to increase access to knowledge that had been restricted hitherto to a social elite. In describing the overall stance, one senior educational technologist offered a frank condemnation of conventional academic style:

'[In the OU system]...The main teaching points must be explained, misleading statements and irrelevant scholastic displays must be eliminated. There must be no mistakes, non-sequiturs, gaps, or any other defects in the arguments. All written materials in fact need to be well structured and self-explanatory, and pitched at the right level of difficulty' (Lewis 1971)

Knowledge structures would provide a model of well-structured and rigorous discourse instead. They would also permit more rigorous assessment. The main assessment task for students would be to replicate parts of the network rather than trying to emulate some unspecified stylistic criteria as in the classic essay. Parts of networks could be rank ordered in terms of 'difficulty', defined operationally, say, in terms of 'complexity' (numbers of connecting relations) or 'abstractness' (level in the conceptual hierarchy). More 'difficult' or 'complex' tasks could be reserved for advanced students, or awarded larger weightings in assignments, for example (Neil 1974). Finally, students could enter the network at many levels, perhaps after taking an initial diagnostic test to see how much of the network they had mastered already: 'knowledge structures' enabled a well-developed 'individualisation'. The darker aspects of this term have been noted already.

Assessment and evaluation

These aspects of the work of educational technologists represent further and better examples of the critique of existing practice discussed above. Partly because of the commercial and industrial contexts in which the curriculum design schemes were developed, modern educational technology has always claimed to be able to offer a more rigorous evaluation of its designs and practices. In thoroughly modern ventures like the establishment of the OU, or in the allegedly experimental 'pilot' operations of some recent MSC-funded curriculum schemes, the promise of systematic evaluation, instead of appeals to tradition, helped gain legitimacy.

Clearly, the particular design principles in use suggest corresponding principles of evaluation too. Setting specific objectives enables evaluation of outcomes in terms of the numbers of objectives achieved - a successful programme might enable 90 per cent of the students to achieve 90 per cent of the objectives in one formulation (the '90/90 criterion').

Other forms of evaluation at the OU included questionnaires sent to students (McIntosh 1972). Panels of students or persons matched with students on certain criteria could also be asked to answer specific questions on aspects of drafts of course materials ('developmental testing' - see Henderson et al. 1977).

Enthusiasts claimed that these exercises did reveal serious flaws in the assumptions made about 'level' or 'difficulty' by course authors, and developmental testing has been recommended for writers of student assignments in particular (Edwards 1979). At one level, the proposals are reasonable and persuasive in arguing that conventional education is not evaluated systematically enough but depends instead upon assumptions and 'hunches' made by academics.

Since these techniques rely on familiar devices such as fixed-choice questions, or standard coding procedures, there is no need to criticise them in any depth here. It is sufficient to point out that at the OU at least, the whole exercise was established with a clear 'managerial' function: it was designed as a 'market research' enterprise rather than as social science, with a clear interests in gaining 'objective data' to enable rational policy decisions to be made. More recently, educational technology has turned to the use of other conventional techniques in social science, including semi-structured interviews (Gibbs et al. 1982), and 'ethnographic' approaches (Riley 1984). It is also the case that by no means all of this work now follows a 'managerial' orientation: some has led to an element of critique of the new practices as well (see Woodley and McIntosh 1980, Riley op.cit.).

A particular triumph for the spirit of rational testing of assumptions in conventional practice occurs in the work done on student assessment at the OU. Consultants were able to establish that the assessment scheme was producing all kinds of anomalies that conventional practice was unlikely to detect, let alone to control. In one classic example, the distribution of grades was found to vary widely between Faculties so that while 0.2 per cent of Social Science students got an A grade, 20 per cent got an A in Science. The obvious explanation for these variations - that there were differences inherent in the subject matter or in the calibre of students - were undermined by the further finding that substantial internal discrepancies among grades awarded within each faculty were also apparent. Thus proportions of students gaining an A grade in Science varied in different assignments from 0 per cent to 41 per cent; in one particular assignment, no less than 99.5 per cent of the students received a grade of B or better (Roberts 1971). These, and other anomalies (Harris op.cit.) could be accounted for not in terms of ' some real but unexplained characteristics of a single group of up to 5000 students...[but an]...infinitely more probable outcome - unsteadiness in...test writers' (Robertsop.cit).

Until this unsteadiness could be detected and controlled, many of the more complicated workings of the student assessment scheme, including the processes of 'weighting' different assessment scores and then 'conflating' them into an overall grade, were bound to produce anomalies both between and within Faculties. Whatever the assessment policies of the various Faculties, and there was no attempt at this stage to argue with them, assessment practices were shown to be riddled with unworkable assumptions and unexamined effects which were sufficient to undermine them. Even though clearly 'positivist', educational technology in this case was able to bring off an effective 'immanent critique' of existing policies.

However, the course of the arguments about assessment then took a classic turn towards 'scientisation'. The techniques proposed to control the unsteadiness did involve a break with existing policy. To summarise a complex series of arguments, it was proposed to focus on improving the reliabilty of the grading procedure as the only measurable aspect of 'steadiness'. Reliabilty can be measured in terms of gauging how well individual assessment items reproduce the results of the test as a whole. This apparently neutral technical procedure became articulated with another more 'strategic' concern at the OU (and common elsewhere) - to produce an improved, more 'acceptable' distribution of grades overall as a result of the test as a whole while they were there, so to speak.

The precise connection in this particular case became clear when the initial discussion documents argued that a classic 'normal distribution' of grades would solve both technical and 'strategic' goals. Even though full 'normalisation' was fought off at the OU, technical and 'strategic' goals still converged in an unusually rigorous concern with the ways in which grades discriminated among students to produce, with maximum reliability, agreed distributions. That this was a change from existing policy is clear: educational technology had always worked with a 'criterion-referenced' scheme like the '90/90' criterion mentioned above, and early views of the nature of an 'open' university had also appeared to reject an explicitly discriminatory scheme:

'...[students']...success will be measured... [but]...there is no need for an Open University student to get obsessed by grades. The Open University system is not based on a rat-race conception of grading...we do not say "we will pass x per cent and fail the rest". The continuous assessment scheme has two main functions besides assessing  your progress - to help you learn and to provide feedback about the effectiveness of the learning materials.' (Open University 1971).

Yet the operational shift toward reliability, in the interests of more rational control of outcomes, had abandoned the concern with validity upon which the diagnostic functions of assessment depend. It is clear, for example, that certain assessment items which produce reliable discriminations among students need not be related at all to the content of the course (Lewis 1972). Nor was this an abstract point since a 'workshop' on assessment identified at least one student assignment that was ambiguous yet which still produced the required distribution of grades - the decision was to retain the item even though, presumeably, an ambiguous item is hardly likely to help diagnose student difficulties or course effectiveness. It is not being suggested, of course, that this is a routine practice at the OU! Yet the example illustrates again the connection between procedures needed to attain 'cognitive' domination over a process, and the real control and domination of a system and the people in it, both students, and, since measures of reliability were also to be used to regulate the grading procedures of tutors (see Murrell 1976 for one scheme), peripheral staff as well. This connection arises not just because of a particular happy coincidence of technical and strategic goals in the actual techniques, but as part of a more general trend, it could be argued - the tendency for apparently neutral techniques to be articulated to the interests of dominant groups (see Adorno on the 'sociology of knowledge', for example - Adorno 1978).

Both the assessment and curriculum design areas of the work of educational technologists illustrate this trend. The new conceptualisations of the tasks in each case, as in the 'career' mentioned above, clearly allow for new manipulations and possibilities, for breaks with traditional practices. Conceiving of teaching in terms of rational encounters between learners and knowledge, with the former modelled as an abstract information processor and thelatter rendered as basic intelligible  statements and logical connectors, does enable a new level of theorising to be attained. Teaching can be 'objectified', taken from its traditional context and its dependency upon frequently authoritarian social relations. Assessment too can be removed from the 'secret garden' of academic privilege, and from the widespread suspicion that students are graded in practice according to  their correspondence to unspecified social, political, and academic preferences.

It is not surprising that these rational techniques have been seen as liberating (and were hailed as such at the Open University - see Birnbaum 1974). Yet if the old dependencies and systems of domination associated with traditional teaching and grading are broken, this does not mean that all such dependencies are dispensed with, and that no new ones will arise. The abstraction involved in the processes of theorising does not deal with the social factors which affect real teaching and learning, but simply discounts them. Classical critical theory deals with this point, say, in its discussions of the dialectic of liberation of the human subject from traditional society and the eclipse of the subject under new impersonal forms of dominationin modern societies,(Frankfurt Institute for Social Research 1974, chapter III), or with its discussions of the paradoxical effects of the 'reproduction' of culture in the 'culture industry' which allows wider access to knowledge by stripping it of certain mystifications, but at the price of commodifying that knowledge (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979).

Critical Theory

It is clearly impossiible to do any more than hint at ways in which themes in critical theory might be brought to bear on this discussion. Apart from the substantive issues hinted at above, critical theory's struggle with 'positivism' is also of relevance. One familiar reading of Marcuse's work, for example, argues that positivism is connected with domination, at least after an initially liberating phase, where it was deployed against various mystical and apologetic metaphysics (Marcuse 1973), especially in modern administered societies where 'applied' sciences play an active and crucial part in the  manipulation and control of human wants, demands, and needs (Marcuse 1968). Marcuse is usually held to oppose some 'humanist' conception of unalienated labour or unconstrained subjectivity to the constraints and limits of positivised knowledge and practice, and thus his position can be allied to other, liberal, criticisms of educational technology (such as Stenhouse 1976). However, this reading of Marcuse's humanism is controversial (see Kellner 1984, Jay 1972)

Adorno's contributions to the Positivist Dispute offer anothe line of criticism. Adorno makes an 'internal' critique seeing scientism as another kind of 'identity thinking', which tries to grasp and subdue the complexities of reality by imposing on them 'objective' definitions and operationalised categories (Adorno 1976). This process is energized by a basic social principle - 'the barter principle' - developed in capitalism specifically as the mechanism of commodity exchange (Adorno 1973). This mechanism allows unlike things to be made alike so that the exchange can take place. This process stands for the process of abstraction common in capitalism and in capitalist ideology - the whole complex of qualities, and the shifting attributes of objects are simplified and reified in the interests of exchange (see Rose 1978). Positivism preserves this form and procedure: its general concepts collect together and thus abstract a range of different objects as mere examples or specimens. Adorno's contributions to the Dispute also refer to the notion of 'negative totality' as an allusion to that which positivism abstracts from, so to speak  - the 'field of tension between the possible and the real'(Adorno 1976), a field which includes the human subject, even as scientist, in its flux.

The first part of the critique at least is fairly familiar. A number of other commentators have pointed to the work needed to make accounts 'objective' in social science (Garfinkel 1967) and natural science (Mulkay 1979). Educational technology discovered that no algorithms were available to make its rational procedures work - 'experience', 'judgment' and sheer political muscle were required to make those leaps from 'aims' to 'objectives' or from academic language to Paskian metalanguage. Controversy was involved in the ways in which concepts were stabilised and operationalised, or examples and 'applications' subsumed under them. An appeal to the power of 'Faculty Boards' to 'sanction' particular selctions of 'theses' was one solution, while another involved simply not teaching anything that could not be rationally grasped in Paskian terms. Less drastically, examples were carefully chosen to illustrate the power of the approaches, or experimental conditions were designed to assist the necessary cognitive dominations, in exactly the ways Adorno describes.

The second part of the critique - the reference to totality  - is much more controversial. A number of critics have referred to this notion as the source of Adorno's 'philosophical' excesses, his relentless negativity ,and refusal to become engaged. A notion of an ineffable and never-realisable totality, held as an abstract concept, against the ever-increasing fragmentation and reification of social life leads to a particular pathos in Adorno's work, and an inevitable flight from politics into aesthetics (Piccone 1978). Habermas himself has rejected the notion and has offered a number of more 'grounded' alternatives instead.

The first of these involves the view that all knowledge is grounded in 'quasi-transcendental human interests', and it becomes clear that positivism relates to just one of them (the interest in 'work'), instead of being a neutral procdeure with universal applicability, as positivists claimed (Habermas 1972a). Following extensive criticism of this approach (Thompson and Held 1982), including self-criticism (Habermas 1972b), Habermas was to develop another approach, based this time on universal 'communicative competencies'.

The advantages of the 'linguistic turn' in Habermas's work have been discussed elsewhere (Bernstein 1985). Briefly, Habermas believes an attempt to ground his approach in communication would: (a) break with an 'anthropological' conception of the human subject and root critique in a directly social act; (b) enable a reconstruction of social theory in terms of the deployment of types of argumentation (this would also address the problem of relativism); (c) offer a 'counterfactual' notion of an 'ideal speech act' as a kind of paradigm of unrestricted and undistorted social interaction - since communicative competence was available to every native speaker, there existed an 'immanent' potential  for democratic interaction which was  governed only by the force of the better argument.

The approach also allowed Habermas to reconsider the conventional Frankfurt School view of 'rationalization'. The process of modernization did exhibit a tendency for 'purposive-rational' action to dominate social life, as in the gloomy 'reification' thesis. Yet there was a 'good side' too, since rational argument also allowed discourse to break from the constraints of unreflected tradition, custom, and myth, to become 'context-independent', and to allow the liberating differentiation of social, natural, and 'inner' worlds (Habermas 1984).  Further, rationalisation becomes an uneven and concrete process, rather than an unmediated universal trend towards the 'iron cage' of reification, a matter of 'colonization', a process accompanied by crisis and resistance.

Although this work has its major 'applications' in the analyses of the State, legitimation, and the theories of crisis at the national level, it is possible to draw some basic implications from Habermas's approach in order to understand the impact of modernization on education too. At the most obvious level, for example, it is clear that this approach allows full weight to be given to the 'good side' of educational technology as allowing rational discussion about education, as argued above. It also directs attention to the concrete processes of colonization (although there is precious little to guide actual concrete analysis in Habermas's work,,as a number of commentators have noticed - see Held & Krieger 1983, Giddens 1985).

More generally, although Habermas has been reluctant to identify any actual social practice as a base for his notions of unrestricted communication, it is worth recalling some early work on the university and its connections with critique:

'[There is an]...affinity and inner relation between the enterprise of knowledge on the university level...[and]...the democratic form of decision-making... [an]...immanent relation between the enterprise of knowledge at the university and the critical enterprise' (Habermas 1971)

The role of the university was also clear:

'...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' (ibid).

Habermas is aware, of course, that the 'neoconservative turn' has changed the role of the university and the nature of the university student, so that these remarks are even less likely to find concrete form (Habermas 1985) - yet nevertheless, they stand as his clearest statements of the tradition that has been subject to colonization, the academic argumentation that has been rationalized by educational technology, the (admittedly idealized) academic lifeworld that has been subjected to system imperatives. The notion of unrestrained critique, of face-to-face dialogue pursuing the better argument, the idealization of the university, might still serve as a source of resistance to colonization, even if the other main source of resistance (the demand to cash in the promise of universal rights - in this case universal access - has been defused and incorporated by 'information technology').


A recent and influential, even if not entirely new, critique of Habermas's work has come from Lyotard (1986). Lyotard accuses Habermas of operating still with the discredited notion of totality, both in his 'grand narrative' of modernization, and in his advocacy of the fully transparent communication community as the final arbiter of 'the better argument' (a notion which Lyotard finds 'terroristic'). Whether these accusations do represent Habermas's position or not is not the point here - the argument also has relevance for the discussions of scientism.

Briefly, Lyotard argues that science is no longer the unreflective, naively self-sufficient and colonialistic force that it once may have been. Actual scientists are fully aware of the legitimation crisis which affects them, and of the need to incorporate forms of argumentation other than the strictly positivistic. Indeed, such 'narrativity' has become central to the practice of science itself. One result of this is to bring science back in to the human world, as it were, instead of representing it as an inhuman reifying force seeking to impose itself on the lifeworld. Moreover, despite a tendency towards 'bvureaucratization' as in the rationalization thesis, one result of the collapse of major legitimating metanarratives has been to release the liberating potential of little narratives (as Jameson's Introduction puts it), so that the power to resist, to play games, to ask subversive questions, to score points is widely distributed, even in universities.

This does represent a plausible picture of the career of educational technology in concrete terms. Educational technology, at the Open University at least, has undergone a crisis of legitimacy. Educational technologists found there were no algorithms to guide them as they faced the difficult leaps between the stages in their rational design models - between 'aims' and 'objectives', or between academic argument and Paskian metalanguage. Instead they had to rely on 'experience' or rhetoric, and they encountered reasoned opposition as well as unreflected traditionalism. Legitimation had to be reinforced by political muscle, by reliance upon the 'Faculty Board' to 'sanction theses', as we have seen, by appealing to the 'realities' of the OU teaching system, or by relying upon the 'malicious egaliltarianism' of the course team (see Harris 1985).

Moreover, even their own evaluation techniques failed to show positive effects from many of the cherished principles of course design - 'in-text questions' (Gibbs et al.1982), or 'advance organisers' (Melton 1984). The emergence of anti-educational unintended effects from well-structured 'good television' (Gallagher 1978, Thompson 1974), or from even the most reliable assessment (Morgan et al. 1982, Harris op.cit), revealed as hollow the claims made by educational technology that it could even 'close' let alone 'steer' the teaching system. Further unintended effects of the centrally organised rational system of course production, in the form of low motivation or merely calculative involvement among academic staff, may also be present (Riley 1984, Henry 1977).  Finally, educational technology has been replaced by an even more calculative and operationalized discipline - accountancy - as a major way of controlling the teaching system. One result may well be that educational technology has turned into a 'game'.

Yet there are different sorts of games. Lyotard concentrates on the 'science game', where academics pursue arguments and implications simply for the pleasures of providng themselves with problems, of criticising tradition, of constructing 'the new'. This sort of game probably is being played at the more 'scientific' edges of educational technology - in artificial intelligence laboratories, perhaps, or in other 'research' positions. Yet there are other,less playful and liberating 'games' - strategic initiatives designed to control a system effectively for example. Educational technology also offers to perform 'scientific' evaluations of teacher performance, face-to-face, dialogue in an attempt to impose 'performativity' even further (and simlutaneously  to diminish its rivals for funds and prestige). Educational technology also conspires to present a 'scientific' appearance to teaching materials to make them more palatable to commercial or political audiences, and simlutaneously more mysterious and 'objective' to recipients. As Jameson points out, critical theory has always been more alive to these conservative implications of individualized strategies.
 Similar points can be made for Lyotard's arguments about the distribution of narrativity as a liberating possibility. While he is aware of the ways in which the system in which individuals participate can affect access to the information needed to 'do' narrativity, he does not seem to have considered how the system can affect the form of that information. It is not just a matter of the ownership and control of information, nor just a matter of 'uses and abuses' of data. The real issue is whether participants can do anything more than just operate in ways which are compatible with system imperatives, however 'deviant' or 'playful' they may appear to be on the surface. Gouldner's critique of Goffman's emphasis on 'strategic interaction' refers to the limits of 'playing the system' (Gouldner 1969). On a more general level, Adorno has argued that the mere 'reproduction' of knowledge (or 'culture') does not break the commodity form but allows recipients to incorporate information into their existing ideological frameworks immune from any 'shock' (see Arato 1977). 
 In 'individualised' instructional systems, providing students with the space to play their own games, and with elements of unregulated knowledge can not guarantee a liberating result - it is just as likely to produce a cynical, 'instrumental', calculative approach ('playing the academic game') which, far from breaking the 'performativity criterion' of the system reproduces it as a 'personal' solution to the problems of identity. 
 These abstract possibilites are the ones in urgent need of investigation., in this, the most immediate area for academics concerned with the processes of 'colonization'

Dave Harris  Plymouth
 March 1987
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