An article I was working on that I abandoned due to PhD research but one that might be useful to someone

Widening seas of possibility in the Digital Age.

Commentators often use the term ‘digital divide’ in a way that suggests the core problems are lack of access to and education in the proper usage of new technologies. There are a great deal of initiatives taking place at grass roots level, both in education and in industry, but these rarely form part of a harmonious whole and mainly seem to take place in isolation, as has been described in the work of Keniston (2001) and Thorpe (2002). Very often, too, these projects are “doomed to succeed” (Davis, 2004) and they are held up as trophies on the mantelpiece rather than being subjected to the necessary critical analysis. One may well ask why it is so important to critically evaluate projects such as these.

The answer is that new technologies represent a key aspect of contemporary life and open up new visions of possibility for a future where the affordances of these shall be exploited to the full. As it stands, there is a considerable amount of research taking place within this field. Yet, very often this research is driven by the economic necessity of relying on industry or the private sector for funding. As a consequence of this, some critics have also raised the question of whether or not such assistance can ever be agenda free. Since one of the key areas of exploration at the present time involves efforts to bridge the digital divide it is important that analysts should be impartial. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide can ill afford to be promised a panacea for all their ills which subsequently fails to materialise. I think particularly of developing countries and marginalised social groups.

Taking Facebook or other social networking sites as an example, it should be straightforward in today’s society to open the barriers of communication between countries, classes, creeds, and genders. Already the marginalised in society are finding their voice through new developments that were not available to them a decade ago. Ignoring any debate on the ethics of the medium, for the purpose of this example, one only has to log onto Youtube to see how the teenage gangs of south east London broadcast their message to an audience which seems to be motivation-illiterate in the classroom but fully computer literate outside. How does society account for this explosion of voices from the urban underclass, while at the same time labelling them as being on the wrong side of the digital divide? The reason they may be labelled as such is that ultimately new technologies are presently seen as having a mainstream and commercial purpose at the core of their being. If groups of people or society as a whole are not using these new technologies as vehicles for profit, progress, or mainstream purposes then they are viewed as not being full participants in the digital age.

Once upon a time, or at least how it seemed to someone born in the seventies, universities were at the cutting edge, the very forefront of radical ideas, voices of dissension, and the remodelling of society in a freer, contemporaneous form. These days the revolution brought about by technology is something that universities are dragging themselves closer towards rather than grabbing hold of the new affordances and remoulding them in the manner of how things should be, rather than simply following them blindly as they are at this present moment in time. Education, and universities sitting on the high peaks of education, should be the driving force of new developments in technology, or at least the force that serves to make these developments purposeful for everyone in society and not just the few. Warschauer (2003) has argued that there must be equilibrium of access to knowledge, education, opportunity, creation, and employment in today’s society. Corporate interests are not going to push for that. Thus it’s up to educationalists.

However, giving people access to technology is not enough on its own. That alone shall not empower those who are currently alienated, marginalised, disaffected, computer-illiterate, or under-utilising the power of new technology to educate themselves or in the case of teachers, to educate their students in a more engaging and interactive manner. Users, and not just creators of digital education resources, also need access to a form of partnership that in all cases does not have to be or indeed cannot be a partnership of equals, but rather a partnership that means having the right to have their voices heard.

If people believe that their voices are being listened to, they will become active participants in society. It should be the goal of universities to widen the pool of such participants. Firstly it makes sense from an academic perspective in that the greater the amount of people actively participating in university-led discussion, the greater the scope for research, and projects that will have practical, rather than purely intellectual, benefits for society. Secondly it will help to push the educational world back into the forefront of public debate which at the moment seems to be led by a media that relies as much on hyperbole and sycophantism as sound research and objectivity. Finally, it makes economic sense because the more that people are attracted to participation in university life, the greater number of students the institutions themselves shall have. By actually reaching out and widening the net of public participation, universities can ‘catch’ potential students who may otherwise have slipped through the system.

Furthermore, in a time of global economic uncertainty, the Internet, Virtual Learning Environments, and associated new technologies can serve to maintain the international dimension that has become such a feature of contemporary tertiary education in the United Kingdom and the other major English speaking countries.

Distance degrees are an attractive proposition for overseas students, for both pedagogic and economic reasons, and British universities should be at the forefront of developments in this field largely because of their power of reputation and accreditation. Furthermore Britain’s history and language have placed it in a unique position in the world, and the greatest resource which can be exploited by new technologies is the platform they offer for free and rapid exchange and interaction of ideas, on an educational level, in the manner of what Scardemalia and Bereiter (1996) describe as “the potential not just for the co-construction of knowledge but also for the collectivisation of knowledge.” Britain, ironically due to its colonial past, is in an ideal position to stand at the centre of such initiatives and then, by casting off the last traces of that past, become a partner in constructing pools of knowledge and experience that will have worldwide benefits.

One project that I have been involved in, mainly in the form of observation, was a teacher education project involving universities in Rome and Rwanda which was delivered by means of a Virtual Learning Environment (Moodle) combined with actual classroom-based lessons. This is a system known as blended learning and can work well not just for overseas students but also for those within marginalised groups who might not have access to full time, on-site education. Blended learning could benefit the single mother who has time to study but cannot leave the physical domain on her home, or the disabled student who traditionally would never have had the opportunity to have materials presented in this manner. This type of learning can also incorporate other forms of learning. Education through new technologies is not limited to Virtual Learning Environments and the Internet.

There are all sorts of new materials out there that can be utilised for the benefit of what used to be called ‘disadvantaged’ students. Take for example the scenario of teachers working in Chile on a project called Hyperstories which “exposes blind children to a learning methodology that uses 3D sound interactive software to help them construct cognitive structures that represents their surrounding space” and aims to move the participants from darkness to what they describe as “aural vision”, as described by Gourley (2004).

Finally, from both a philosophical and pedagogic point of view, the issue of time and notions of time itself have been dramatically altered by the development of new technologies. Although it is commonly said that we live in a 24/7 world the advent of synchronous communication across time zones, and learning materials/forum discussions conducted in an asynchronous manner on various learning platforms, means that the borders of educational possibility have become more fluid. Again these new affordances are sometimes at variance with the British university system which is very much framed around set notions of term time, deadlines, and so on. The North American and east Asian framework of building up credits rather than accumulating terms seems to allow students greater opportunity to complete degrees in their own time, or even their own sense of time. A nineteen year old undergraduate’s sense of time is very different to that of the postgraduate housewife, or the hospitalized patient, or the teacher doing an in-service training degree.

In conclusion then the new technologies offer fertile ground for exploration if universities shift their horizons a little bit and become more in touch with their more radical side. Forget the pedagogic or social-conscience arguments. The economic arguments alone stand up and in today’s corporate hegemony, there’s greater truth than ever in Butcher’s (2004) assertion that the economic argument is the cornerstone of every argument in the field of education and particularly so in the field of distance or computer-based education. Surely anything that widens the possibility of inclusion and participation must have long term economic benefits for those who exploit such possibilities, using ‘exploit’ in the sense of its original meaning ‘to accomplish or achieve’ rather than its contemporary sense of selfish usage.

Butcher, N. (2004). Financing Distance Education Programmes in African Education: A guide for sound investment. Paper presented at the 2004 All-Africa Minister’s Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education, Cape Town, South Africa.
Davis, A. ( 2004).Developing an infrastructure for online learning. T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca, AB: AUPress. Retrieved April 7, 2007 from:
Gourley, B. (2004). ‘The Digital Divide: Solution or problem.’ Paper presented at the 2004 All Africa Ministers Conference on Distance Education. Cape Town, South Africa.
Keniston, K. (2001, December). IT for the Common Man: Lessons from India, MN Srinivas Memorial Lecture. Bangalore : National Institute of Advanced Studies, India Institute of Science. [MIT published as a working paper in 2002].
Scardemelia, M. and Bereiter, C. (1996). ‘Adaptation and Understanding: A Case for New Cultures of Schooling.’ In Vosniadon, S.; De Corte, E; Glaser, R; and Mandl, H. (eds.). International Perspectives on the Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Thorpe, M. (2002). ‘Rethinking Learner Support: the Challenge of On-line Learning.’ Open Learning 17 (2), pp. 105 -120
Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.