Distance Education 2 -- course design

'Irrelevant Scholastic Displays Must Be Eliminated'

It is clear that distance education permits the possibility of large numbers of unqualified persons gaining access to academic materials, in circumstances which place them beyond the normal tight controls of conventional education. While certain radicals might have seen in this possibility a chance to unite theory and practice directly in the person of the distance student, the planners involved in the OU were far from keen to attract too many unqualified as students (no one minded too much about 'eavesdroppers'). There is more than the parochial British mistrust of the working classes here - as developments in other, less obsessed cultures have shown, it is also a 'practical' matter. Drop-out must be kept within certain limits in order to retain cost advantages (discussed below), and this means that 'working class' or 'unqualified' students are simply too risky. Nevertheless, some attempts were made to think out some of the implications of dealing with a large, diverse (in other than class terms as well) and distant student body.

The planners placed much faith in certain 'new' techniques of individualised instruction (see the 'Green Paper' - HMSO 1969). There was very little concrete evidence to justify the ambitious claims of the enthusiasts, but then ,as now, a belief in a 'technological fix', a kind of 'cult of the rational' (1) carried the day. The new techniques were referred to as 'applied educational science', or later 'educational technology'. Although there is no space to argue this in detail here, the discussion about these techniques parallels almost perfectly modern enthusiasms for 'information technology' . Only aspects of the discussion can be considered, in terms of open-ness and closure, this time referring to academic discourses and pedagogic strategies.

There is a fairly long tradition, rooted in British Utilitarianism, of a faith in rational principles as a guarantee of democratic participation in social life. As Bentham himself argued, making the categories, arguments, and procedures of academic knowledge rational, logical, and clear would widen participation. If this were not done:

'...the form in which [an academic piece of 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'. (Bentham 1983)  see file for more

The benefits of a (substantial) labour of clarification would appeal to scholars, able to 'exercise dominion over almost every branch of art and science', to students, who would find removed all the 'dark spots' produced by indeterminacy in academic subjects, and to 'legislators' who were thereby enabled to intervene in educational policy. The latter possibility arises because Bentham, like many since, suspected academics of perpetuating a deliberate 'indeterminacy' in their activities, of using deliberately mystifying language and argumentation, as a restrictive practice.

Some 150 years later, educational technologists at the OU were harbouring the same suspicions and offering similar, but modernized, methods to solve the problem. The clearest example lies in the work of a small research group, headed by Prof. Lewis, whose words head this section (Lewis 1971). Lewis had had some early success in clarifying some obscure prose in Inland Revenue instructions concerning capital gains tax: the prose was reconstructed as a series of simple statements to which clients merely had to answer either 'yes' or 'no' - as a 'logical decision tree' or 'algorithm' (Lewis et al.1967).

This early experiment was to be extended, first to all arguments, including obscure academic prose, secondly towards a more flexible logical structure than a mere decision tree. The latter was provided by some work by Pask and his associates on artificial intelligence (Pask & Scott 1972, Pask & Scott 1973, Pask 1976a, Pask 1976b, Pask & Curran 1982). At its most basic, academic language was to be modelled as a computer program, as a network of unambiguous 'concepts' or 'relations', connected into a well-formed graph by a limited set of logical operations - a 'knowledge structure'. As is well known, computer programs have to be rigorously designed, with no ambiguity, with clear rules, and with complete 'closure' (i.e. the higher-order operations have to be nothing more than permitted combinations of the lower-order ones, to be based on the information already provided to the machine). Pask and his associates were confident that academic language could be transformed
in this way, and had some experimental examples of the approach to illustrate the possibilities, and to justify their confidence in the superiority of the approach compared with the ambiguity and 'noise' of conventional academic discourse.

At the OU, and elsewhere, procedures like this are likely to produce strong negative reactions from humanist academics, who often see techniques like Pask's as offering a reductionist view of human knowledge, with all the subjective and 'creative' aspects sheared off and replaced by cold logical operations. The problem is that some of these subjective elements were undoubtedly exclusionary, restrictive, 'irrelevant scholastic displays' indeed. Opposing an undifferentiated 'subjectivity' to the reforms runs the risk of a lapse into conservatism and 'distorted' or 'blocked' communication, to use Habermas's terms (Habermas 1976)

'Knowledge structures' did offer a model of well-structured and rigorous discourse. The approach also promised a more rigorous assessment policy too. The main assessment task for the students would be to demonstrate their mastery of the argument by replicating parts of the network, rather than to try and display some vague and unspecified stylistic criteria as in the classic undergraduate essay. Parts of the network could be rank ordered in terms of 'difficulty' or 'complexity', but these common terms could be specified operationally - 'complexity' in terms of numbers of connecting relations centring on a node, perhaps, or 'difficulty' in terms of level in a conceptual hierarchy displayed in the network. More difficult or complex tasks could be reserved for advanced students, or awarded more weight in assignments (2). Finally, students could enter the network at a number of levels and in a number of ways, perhaps after taking an initial diagnostic test to see how much of the network they could replicate already. The approach offered a systematic attempt to demystify academic procedures, clarify them, and thus leave them open to rational participation without having to penetrate the usual dense thickets of stylistic camouflage and affectation.

The real problem lies in the operationalism of the approach, with all the 'good' and 'bad' aspects of that procedure familiar to social scientists. Operationalism is necessary to make some progress away from the context-bound 'mythical' ways of doing academic work, but there is a price to pay in that certain information is lost by the 'glossing' involved. 'Knowledge structures' operate with fully formed 'sanitised' concepts and an artificial, closed metalanguage to join them. There are familiar problems with these characteristics, and it is convenient to follow Adorno in briefly listing some of them (Adorno et al.1976): the abstraction involved in the struggle to stabilise concepts and close the metalanguage; the necessary limitation of experience of the objects of enquiry as they are harmonised with concepts in laboratory conditions; the hidden judgements that drive the apparently 'value-free' process forward; the cognitive and real domination involved necessarily in the process.

The same procedures that open up academic discourse by stripping it of the unnecessary elements of 'style' (or 'cultural capital' to use a still fashionable term) also transform that discourse in the direction of a new positivist closure, closing off and banishing non-operationalised experience, glossing judgement, concealing argumentational manoeuvres and helping them become immune to public counterargument. The point can be made by considering the use of the term 'conversation' in Pask's work, where it describes the carefully monitored relations between the learners' inputs and the program's responses. In Habermas's work, by comparison, a discourse consists of an open-ended series of arguments, where participants are free to raise 'validity claims' about any of the utterances made by the others (Habermas 1984). A fundamental transparency characterises the latter, while for the former, a 'technological veil' hides the actual argumentation upon which the program's 'decisions' are based. It can be argued that some kind of restriction or masking is justified on pedagogic grounds, but the danger is always that academic discourse will remain confined to this didactic mode in distance education.

It is possible to argue this final point in another area, to further support it as a concrete possibillity. Distance education at the OU also uses elements of a popular style to transmit its academic materials. The teachers and students can not employ the interactional style allegedly so central to face-to-face conventional education (3). These matters have been much discussed by the educational technologists, and many ingenious communication devices have been developed and tested (such as forerunners of the fashionable 'interactive video' - see Henderson & Nathenson 1984). It is not as easy as it might seem to argue that face-to-face is indispensable to higher education following the success of these devices, yet the form of distance teaching does have definite effects upon the content of what is taught, and the 'readings' that are available.

Some arguments in the sociology of the media indicate these possibilities very clearly, and point to certain paradoxes in the effects of 'popular' films and television. In debates about 'progressive realism', for example,  see file  it is clear that there are dangers in using popular conventions to convey critical interpretations of events. As discussion of one famous example revealed, it is perfectly possible for viewers to occupy a conventional stance toward the film ('specularity'), and to 'read' it as onventional drama or entertainment: Days of Hope, intended to be a Trotskyite reinterpretation of events in labour history, using popular conventions to reach a wide audience ('authentic' sets and costumes, 'personalisation' of the issues by mediating events through central characters, a 'classic ealist' narrative structure) apparently evoked in many viewers a conventional reading after all - Days became another costume drama, an historical soap opera, controversial only in its lack of accuracy with costumes (see Bennett et al. 1981). In an equal and opposite case, also much discussed, the avant-garde convention-breaking of certain Godard movies does totally disrupt conventional viewings and encourage 'semioclasm' - but these films are deeply unpopular, inaccessible, and viewed only by a small aesthetic elite (Harvey 1980).

Thes examples have a direct bearing on the use of popular television conventions in OU programmes, as Thompson has shown. In his analysis of a 'case-study' programme (Thompson 1979), the intentions of the academics concerned were apparently to offer a critique of the common view that unemployment is a matter of individual inadequacy. But the rogramme focused upon real unemployed individuals as 'good television' ('talking heads', especially if they are academic ones, are 'bad television'). These contradictory discourses were arranged in a hierarchy, precisely as in classic realist narrative, with a 'neo-classical' account of unemployment dominant after all. Thompson draws attention to the 'filmic codes' and production values responsible for this transformation, and argues for more 'interrogative' techniques to help viewers 'deconstruct' he discourses presented by personal experiences, even if this were to infringe the conventions of 'good television'.

Other analysts have begun to explore notions of viewer competence, however, suggesting that OU student viewers are reading OU programmes as if they were conventional broadcasts (Brown 1984). In the rather restricted terms of educational technology, this is discussed usually in terms of students being unable to use or grasp specifically educational television which offers argument and analysis. Much less is available on possible solutions to the paradoxes at the production end discussed above. Judging from the much more extensive and prolonged debates in film theory per se, these paradoxes seem insoluble, not just confined to educational television but endemic in all television - critical analysis can not be popularised using the conventions of entertainment without risk.

Much more research in this area is required, especially in terms of how students actually do view OU programmes. Here, official accounts of student activity offer an indifference combined with an optimism - educational technologists were not committed to investigate actual student behaviour, but they tended to assume it was always creative and supportive of the official aims of the teaching system. One possibility is that in educational systems specifically, however, there are tendencies towards an 'instrumental' reading by students, one designed to process critical materials into safe arguments for the purposes of gaining good grades in assignments, or in using arguments strategically, for some 'practical' purposes already decided: these tendencies might be exacerbated in distance forms (4] . It is not known either how the conventions of 'good writing' affect the arguments in the correspondence packages at the OU, although some work has been done on the constraints of collective production (Riley 1984a, 1984b, 1984c) . Are there similar trade-offs to be made between involving the reader and pursuing the argument, even to unpopular, or ambiguous, or speculative ends? Adorno's own written style shows one way of developing arguments devoid of tendencies towards 'identarian' closure - but it is extremely 'difficult' and uncompromising, and likely to produce considerable student disaffection and resistance.

Conventions are (over)determined by the 'hidden curriculum' of distance teaching too, of course - the requirements to minimise drop out, attract funds, and to offer credentials to students. The latter in particular is a constraint specific to educational uses of mass media techniques. Both students and lecturers have an interest in the production of material which is to be assessed, and this also serves to de-emphasise ambiguity, open-ness of the Adornovian kind, in favour of logical closure of the Paskian kind.

It is perhaps necessary to emphasise at the end of this section that the dilemmas and paradoxes (or contradictions) outlined here apply to conventional education, albeit in different forms. Many colleagues in conventional education will surely recognise strains towards adopting more popular forms of discourse as pressures of student choice, assessment, bureaucratic regulation and intervention, and an 'enterpreneurial' ethos grow and develop. The forms of communication in distance education amplify these dilemmas and make them visible: distance education lies at the focal point of the effects of a number of factors diffused more widely in other organizations.


1. (1) The continued desire to seek solutions to acute social and educational problems in new technologies deserves to be explored, using insights from the sociology of knowledge, perhaps, or the sociology of religion. Despite its repeated failures to deliver the goods, educational technology in particular has made a number of appearances, offering in each case to cut through, somehow, the levels of real inequality to a genuine equality of opportunity in some abstract sense. Adorno's work, on the 'magical' qualities of modern positivism might offer some iniital insight.

2. (2) It is impossible in a short account like this to do justice to the ways in which the assessment scheme at the OU was brought under some element of rational control, using the techniques hinted at here. The work of Prof. M. Neil in particular, unfortunately largely unpublished, represents the liberating side of educational technology at its clearest, as it carefully set about demythologising the accepted wisdom on student assessment.

3. (3) There is a highly idealised notion of conventional education implicit in much of what the academic critics of the OU have said about 'face-to-face'. Higher education remains immune from educational research, by and large, but it would be tempting to put these notions to the test using, say, the systematic observation schedules of the ORACLE project (Galton et al. (1980). If my experience is any guide, the 'cut and thrust' of democratic face-to-face debate will prove as elusive in actual university seminars as it did in actual progressive primary schools!

4. There are a number of studies of OU students which reveal marked levels of student instrumentalism, including my own preliminary study of a very small sample of Education Studies students. My work also showed a tendency for such students to translate academic arguments into the familiar terms of their professional ideolgies (hardly a novel finding for teachers!) - thus the course was read as favouring or attacking 'progressive' education, whereas the course team saw it as discussing both 'progresive' and 'traditional' methods as educational ideologies, for example.


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