CAN WE DESIGN CULTURALLY SENSITIVE INTERACTIVE DISTANCE EDUCATION? - MAYBE
Department of Rural Extension Studies
University of Guelph
The advances in technology coupled with the exponential growth of distance education should be of increasing concern to adult educators. Recognizing that distance education and the application of various technologies in distance education is constructed from a particular cultural perspective, this paper proposes to challenge this monolithic view of distance education. It begins by making explicit distance education as a community of practice and the implications this has had for so-called marginalized peoples. Arguing that this form of distance education is a form of neo-colonialism, it proposes a heuristic framework for designing distance education that integrates the concept of situated knowledge with Giroux's concept of border crossings. Implications for application are then examined.
Distance education, as an enterprise, is growing exponentially. I can assert this with confidence. We can also assert that distance education is embracing technology in an unprecedented fashion. Again, I believe I can assert this with confidence and believe that no one would, for the most part, disagree. Lauzon (1999) in examining the growth of the use of educational technology in general, has argued that education is being dominated by market needs and the global economy. He further asserts that market domination leads to the eclipsing of diversity in education. All culture is reduced to the culture of the market. This negates the ability of education to respond to diversity. Flannery (1995) has argued that while these market demands for more lifelong learning are important, there is an moral imperative to ensure that education can accommodate culturally diverse populations.
This paper begins by arguing that we need to understand distance education as a community of practice
and how it includes some people and excludes others. This is followed by suggestions as to how we, as the
community of distance educators, can meet the needs of culturally diverse learners.
Distance Education as a Community of Practice
Distance education, as a field of study and practice, is having a tremendous impact on education and the organization of education. This cannot be denied. But we must also question what the implications are of a field of inquiry that defines its evolution strictly in terms of technological development. Part of this is accounted for by Sumner (1998) who argues that to understand the history of distance education and the economic and social role it has played is to understand how the lifeworld has been colonized by the system. She argues that distance education, from its earliest inception, has been devised and designed to serve the interests of those who have power, ensuring the continued domination of the system over the lifeworld and protection of their interests. Lauzon (1999), in tracing the history of educational technology, has argued that its roots can be traced back to the scientific and industrial revolutions and the emergence of capitalism. Muffoletto (1994) has argued that historically educational technology has been grounded in the project of modernity and is guided by the principles of logical positivism, social control and system management. He further argues that this is a powerful discourse whereby the agenda of the powerful is obscured by the presentation of technology as value neutral hardware. Lauzon reiterates this point from a contemporary standpoint of economic globalization when he states that "Educational institutions, in an effort to meet increasing expectations generated by the private sector, in conjunction with declining public resources, see technology as a way of increasing their market share (i.e. open learning) while realizing efficiencies. It can lower their unit cost and increase their revenues (1999: 6)!" Education, from this perspective, is characterized by a technocratic ethos and an instrumental rationality dominated by practicalities and commonsense. Education, within this context, is presented as apolitical, knowledge is believed to be value neutral, and learning and educational theory is dominated by the ideology of individualism (Lauzon, 1998). As Yeamen (1994: 22) notes, the role of education is to be the dispensers of the "unequivocal, objective truth." Educational technologies' roles within this enterprise, is to control the educational experience while ensuring the dissemination if efficient. There, are, however, those argue that technology allows for active distance learning. This, however, is merely an illusion meant to deceive. While learners are actively engaged, it is the technology that they are actively engaged with rather than engaging the content in critically meaningful ways. Despite the rhetoric about active learning and effective pedagogy, the expansion of distance education offerings is driven by "economic necessity" and this is consistent with the ethos of an area of inquiry and practice that defines its evolution in terms of technological developments.
Utilizing situated cognition as a theoretical and analytical lens, distance education can be viewed as a
community of practice. Simply stated a community of practice is a consensus among knowledgeable practitioners.
The boundaries of the community are delineated and community coherence maintained through agreement upon
the main concepts, ideas, theories, beliefs, values and appropriate actions by those exercising authority and
leadership within the community. Lauzon, however, has argued that
any community of practice is embedded in a larger context and the larger context determines
what that community of practice believes, values, and practices; communities of practice do not
exist in a vacuum and are influenced buy socio-historical and socio-cultural sources of
knowledge, values, and beliefs (1999: 5).
Thus any community of practice is embedded in a larger context that gives it shape and form. It is only in knowing
and understanding a community of practice, particularly its beliefs and values that one understands its actions.
Distance education has been technologically driven, embracing the ideology of scientism and individualism,
whereby learners are "extracted" from their communal context and enculturated into a way-of-being that
perpetuates the system colonizing the lifeworld; distance education's function is reduced to cultural reproduction
rather than cultural production.
Culture and Distance Education
If we now examine learning and learners within the cultural context, we can begin to understand how
educational inequities arise. For example, Lauzon (1999: 5) has argued that
any individual learner participates in a variety of communities of practice which may overlap and
share similarities in terms of values, beliefs, or practices, or different communities may be the
antithesis of one another in terms of these fundamental dimensions.
He further argues that the more congruent a learners values and beliefs are with the community of practice in which they are embedded, the more likely they are to be "successful." Flannery (1995) suggests that the very function of education is to reduce groups of persons to a single cultural identity. In other words, an educational system that cannot accommodate diversity actively works to discipline those designated as "other." Giroux (1997: 236)) argues that this type of education "highlights how differences in power and privilege authorize who speaks, how fully, under what conditions, against what issues, for whom, and with what degree consistent, institutionalized support." It is repressive to those who are unwilling to tow the party-line. Clearly when distance learners from culturally diverse backgrounds enter the community of practice known as distance education they are being oppressed by having to adhere to a story that is not their story, to subscribe to a knowledge that is not their knowledge, to adhere to values that are not their values. Powell (1997) captures this when he acknowledges that learners' attitudes, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors will be reflective of their cultural group. The question becomes what happens when the demands of learning conflict with the demands of the learner's cultural group? Clearly a dissonance will arises resulting in the marginalization of the learner whereby they learn to "play" the "game", force the learner to withdraw in order to honor that which they are, or abandon their cultural identity and embrace that which is advocated within the community of practice.
All of this leads to the question can distance education design be culturally sensitive? This will be the
question we take up in the next section of this paper.
Can We Design Culturally Sensitive Distance Education? - Maybe
Can we design culturally sensitive distance education. I believe it is possible, but not without a willingness and concerted effort on our part as a community of practice.
First, we need to cast our gaze inward, to acknowledge the inherent biases and prejudices that our
community of practice is guilty of perpetuating (Branch, 1997). Powell (1997) argues that we need to be sensitive
and aware of the existence and legitimacy of other cultures and actively work to affirm those perspectives. He
The teacher and designer, often unaware of these differences because they are "culturally
insulated", find themselves without a vision of educating beyond their own personalistic and
ethnocentric views, and without sufficient repertoire to challenge traditional regularities they had
learned so well as students (Powell, 1997: 7).
Thus we need to emerge from our ethnocentric capsule, actively engaging the very assumptions that guide our community of practice. Emergence from our ethnocentric capsule, acknowledging that there are multiple perspectives, leads to the recognition that learning theory must be critical, for "all human interactions, including the theoretical text of learning that supports the teaching/learning exchange, must be viewed as political (Flannery, 1995: 156). But this is only the start, a beginning. Once recognized, how do we move beyond this point in a meaningful way.
First, we need to recognize cognition is structured by activity and setting. Thus learning, in its broadest
sense, is social and the social cannot be separated from the personal. Second, we need to recognize that peoples'
voice is a product of their culture, history and their relationship to power. This also connects the personal to the
social. Third, we need to recognize that the setting of education, in this case distance education, often replicates
relationships among culturally diverse groups and perpetuates existing hegemonic relationships. Flannery (1995:
156) argues that learning theory must account for the structural dimensions of oppression and captures this when
he writes that
To give voice to multiple individuals and cultures, learning theory must also understand the
social, cultural, political, economic, and historical constructs that silence and influence them.
He further argues that in order to move beyond the narrow confines of the self in education (i.e. individualism) we must create a space that allows for the telling of the stories of the missing voices: women, people of color, the economically deprived.
Creating spaces for the voices of those not present means creating a space to accommodate those voices in
meaningful ways. It is not just a case of telling their stories as a form of catharsis that allows us to move onto to the
real learning, it is actively engaging their stories and using them as the basis for constructing knowledge. This
requires, as Lauzon (1997) has suggested, a reconstructive postmodern perspective on epistemology. This
perspective is captured in the following quote.
The educator is no longer the authority but is a member of a collective striving to develop a
learning community through common understanding. Community means being responsible not
only for one's own learning, but being responsible for the learning of others. This often requires
that we "bear witness" to the stories of others, to affirm those stories and to affirm them as
individuals or collectives of people (Lauzon,1998: 141).
Therefore we need to acknowledge and honor narrative as vital to constructing shared understandings, meanings, and knowledge that is inclusive.
The challenge is how do we accomplish this with a geographically dispersed learning population
characteristic of distance education. It is worth noting that the convergence of communication and computer
technology has improved our ability to present to and engage the individual learner in individual active learning
(stand alone multimedia); it has also opened the communicative dimension for distance education. Fro example,
Boyd (1991) has argued that these technologies have the capacity to be domesticating or liberating. It is in the
communicative dimension where their liberative capacity resides; it is the through the communicative dimension
that we can learn to cross borders and re-map borders with others to make them more inclusive. For example,
Giroux (1992) has argued that in order to re-map borders to be more inclusive learners need an opportunity to be
heard and articulate their experience in a language that is meaningful to them. This provides opportunities to
engage differences, identify similarities and commonalites, making explicit values and beliefs within various
communicative practices. Barbules and Rice (1991) maintain that it is through dialoguing across differences that
we become aware of how one frame of reference imposes meaning and that there can be multiple frames of
references, hence multiple meanings to anyone stimuli, event or theory. This points to a contingency theory of truth
whereby we are confronted with acknowledging that specific interpretive frameworks are embedded in historical
webs of power relationships; it demonstrate how borders are created and how some people are included and some
are excluded, eroding the idea of universal metanarratives, creating the space for the plethora of narratives that is
characteristic of the global village.
This paper started with the question as to whether we can design culturally sensitive distance education.
The answer was maybe. Technological developments in distance education have created a communicative window
of opportunity. However, to take advantage of this we will have to be committed to examining our values and
beliefs as a community of practice and determine how they have led to actions that include some while excluding
others. We will need to be committed to hearing the stories of others into truth, recognizing that stories of those of
others, of those outside the borders, of those who are oppressed, will elicit feelings of defensiveness and guilt. We
must learn to sit with that, to accept ownership of those feelings and to commit ourselves to dialoguing across
difference, encouraging others members of our learning communities to do the same. Education that is sensitive
to the plethora of cultures is process oriented not product oriented. Ursula Franklin (1990: 12) suggests this in her
book The Real World of Technology when she writes that
Technology is not the sum of artifacts, of wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic
transmitters. Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components.
Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and most of all, a
She continues to argue that when a technology is defined as a practice then that practice will define the content. As
a field which defines itself, in fact traces its history as a history of technology, we need to be acutely aware of how
this defines our content. Finally, Franklin distinguishes between two types of technological developments. First,
there are prescriptive technological development characterized by specialization of process whereby steps are
delineated and specialists are responsible for certain tasks and is constructed within the context of production.
Then there are technological developments that are holistic whereby control resides within the individual and
decisions are made while in process (i.e. pottery). This is based upon a conception of growth. Clearly distance
education has historically been indebted to a production mode mentality and a commitment to prescriptive
technology use. Yet as Franklin writes "If ever there was a growth process, if ever there was a a holistic process, a
process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education (1990:29)." If distance education is to
be culturally sensitive we need to recognize it as a holistic process, a process of engagement, a process of dialogue.
We have the means, the question remains do we have the will?
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