Being Digitally Educated, Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning

Michael Brint
Associate Professor and Director, Integrated Program in Humane Studies
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

I. The Experience of Education in Digital Life

In his 1995 book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte signals what many believe to be a paradigm shift from “atoms” to “bits”–from an “atomic” orientation to the world consumed by material interactions to an orientation unburdened by such impediments as space, time and atomic weight. Racing unfettered at blinding speed over vast distances of space, the bit, the smallest unit in the “DNA of information,” [1] has done more than help usher in the post-industrial age of information. According to Negroponte, it has become the basic commodity of interaction in the post-information age–an age in which the possibility of digital living has become increasingly viable:

The industrial age, very much an age of atoms, gave us the concept of mass production, with the economies that come from manufacturing with uniform and repetitious methods in any one given space and time. The information age, the age of computers, showed us the same economies of scale, but with less regard for space and time… [By contrast,] in the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order and information is extremely personalized… The post-information age is about machines’ understanding individuals with the same degree of subtlety (or more than) we can expect from other human beings.Such customized digital living entails more asynchronistic communications (like e-mail), billions of bits of information on demand (in such forms as TV programs, videos, music, and news), and less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time. [2]

In examining the educational implications of living digitally, Negroponte captures many of the central pedagogical points now being advanced by prominent policy analysts urging the development of distance learning opportunities. [3] In most instances, such approaches consist in the creation of highly individualized asynchronistic learning programs accessible on demand. This form of delivery is said to particularly aid the growing numbers of non-traditional students whose lives require that learning be less and less dependent on one’s ability to be in a specific place at a specific time.

Whether delivered to a classroom, laboratory, workplace or home, learning digitally as an experience is said to be one of individual exploration, experimentation, and expression. Emphasizing the benefits of computers as learning tools, Negroponte notes that

While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching–but good teaching and by good teachers–a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself. Until the computer the technology for teaching was limited to audiovisual devices and distance learning by television, which simply amplified the activity of teachers and the passivity of children. The computer changed this balance radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing became the rule rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog. By playing with information, especially abstract subjects, the material assumes more meaning. [...] Anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist approach is an extraordinarily rich means of learning, across a wide range of cognitive and behavioral styles.[4]

“Learning by doing,” “finding out for oneself,” “playing with information,”–Negroponte’s orientation sounds a lot like an updated version of John Dewey’s educational approach. Stressing similar ideas, Carol Twigg, a senior analyst for EDUCOM and one of the leading advocates of distance learning, claims that “what we know about high-quality learning, cooperative learning, and discovery learning-implies a learning-by-doing model rather than the passive, classroom-based model that typifies the teaching infrastructure.”[5] Against such passive learning, Dewey notoriously stressed the importance of experience as an active process. “To ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequences. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction–discovery of the connection of things.” [6]

In a similar vein, discovery labs for physics and other natural sciences (like the CUPLE program developed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) stress the experience of discovery through exploration and experimentation. By using a studio approach to learning, computer simulations allow students to discover scientific principles through their own active engagement. Jack M. Wilson, Director of the Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, explains the basic premise underlying such initiatives: “The focus is on student problem solving and projects,” he tells us, “and not on presentation of materials. The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.” [7]

While the CUPLE program uses multimedia tools authored by experts for student use in the discovery, experimentation and exploration of science, multimedia offers new domains of student expression as well. “We are entering an era when expression can be more participatory and alive,” Negroponte tells us. “We have the opportunity to distribute and experience rich sensory signals in ways that are different from looking at the page of a book and more accessible than traveling to the Louvre.” [8] Rather than simply interacting with a designed exercise, students can become their own authors–designing and architecting multimedia projects that integrate both different disciplines and media.

CITYSCAPES at Kenyon College is just one example of a course developed to focus on the student as the creative agent of learning.[9]From a literary walk through the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to an analysis of the role of women in the agricultural economy of Nairobi, students in this course become authors of multimedia projects that focus on specific themes related to particular cities or regions of the world. In addition to the Internet and library resources, these projects, currently produced as a CD-ROM, combine videos, photographs, recordings, interviews, and journals made by the students themselves. As authors guided by both local scholars and distant experts in various fields related to their study, students become increasingly fluid in coherently drawing together and creatively comingling function and form, method and subject, narrative and design.

Along with their expressive and experiential potentials, many see the greatest advantage of computer learning environments in terms of their potential for customization. Course materials can be delivered to fit the different learning styles of students and developed to help students realize their unique potentials and capacities. According to Massy and Zemsky, the two most fundamental advantages of information technology are the new “economies of scale” it offers and its ability to provide what they term, “mass customization.” “Technology allows faculty to accommodate individual differences in student goals, learning styles, and abilities, while providing improved convenience for both students and faculty on an ‘any time, any place’ basis.”[10]

In the post-information age, most surmise, the advent of sophisticated and customized simulations across the curriculum will increasingly provide the basis of experience for engaged learning. Many who are helping to lay the foundation for the future of information technology and education advocate the creation of a National Learning Infrastructure that could deliver these sophisticated simulations “anytime, anywhere, to anyone.”[11] If these trends continue, the experience of education in digital life may well be one of more convenient asynchronistic communication, customized educational services on demand, and less and less dependence on being at a specific place at a specific time. Yet, for all of the Deweyean-sounding practices that are supposed to accompany these educational delivery services–learning by doing, exploration and experimentation, play and discovery–I doubt it is time to begin celebrating the realization of Dewey’s educational philosophy in the post-information age.

II. Learning as a Social Environment

If many proponents of distance learning follow Dewey’s lead in emphasizing experiential and constructivist models of education, few follow his views regarding the inexorably social and relational nature of learning. Most of their accounts portray distance learning (at least at the level of higher education) as a highly individualized process of self-development, driven by the student’s own initiative toward the successful acquisition of specifiable skills.[12]

For Dewey, no matter how individualized or customized the material that is being explored, learning is not an isolated enterprise that takes place within the self or between the individual’s mind and the material it confronts, but a social activity that takes place within the context of a social environment. “As matter of fact,” Dewey tells us,

every individual has grown up, and always must grow up, in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values. Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, individuals gradually acquires a mind of their own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account. [13]

From Dewey’s point of view, even the ideal of education as self-development must be understood as a social process achieved through interaction and relation with others. Rather than fostering this ideal, advocates of distance learning, particularly those who stress self-paced, independent study, tend to reinforce individual isolation. “The effort at isolated intellectual learning contradicts it own aim,” Dewey claimed, for it “precludes the social sense which comes from sharing in an activity of common concern and value.” [14] In examining the economic efficiencies gained by computer innovations, Massy and Zemsky tellingly report that without a supportive social environment, “the students who would most benefit from self-paced learning have the least motivation to do so.”[15]

The prevailing attitude toward teaching is also particularly telling on this point. In Twigg’s words: “Because of the widespread availability of self-paced learning materials, direct faculty intervention throughout the learning process will lessen.”[16] Like a small country being invaded by a foreign power, the idea of faculty interaction is not said to be condemned simply because of the enormous costs of the labor involved (although one suspects that this is the most significant issue). Rather advocates of information technology assume a notion of independent learners at the center of the enterprise who simply do not depend on faculty as the primary source of their learning. While Dewey was among those to argue against a teaching-centered model of education, he would certainly reject the radically asocial dimension of distance learning as it is currently being discussed. [17]

Once again, Dewey’s position is that the social environment–the interdependence and engagement of individuals in the performative acts of learning–is a necessary condition for developing the unique capacities of individuals. Even if such a model as the National Learning Infrastructure could develop an individual’s dispositions for distance learning; in its current direction toward individualization, it would be difficult to account for the experience of sharing in a common activity that is central to Dewey’s understanding of both the social environment of learning and the social aims of democracy.

In contrast to Dewey’s concentration on the social functions of education, the individual ends of distance learning are most frequently described in terms of the acquisition of definable skills. “It seems to me,” Carol Twigg writes,

that our definition of learning is changing in a number of ways… Increasingly, viewing a college education as mastery of a body of knowledge is becoming outmoded. Instead we recognize that graduates need to have acquired skills… along with such abilities as finding needed information and working well with others.[18]

With this emphasis on acquired skills, we are also beginning to see more stress placed on educational outcomes. “Because of its capacity to focus on individual assessment,” Massy and Zemsky note, information technology “will make the teaching and learning enterprise much more outcome-oriented.”[19] In large measure this growing emphasis on skills and outcomes is related to a greater consumer orientation to education. Increasingly students are looking “for increased competition between higher education providers to work to their advantage as consumers.”[20]

While Dewey too understood the importance of acquiring skills, he would no doubt be disturbed by the instrumental and pecuniary ends of distance learning. In his essay, Individualism, Old and New, he claimed that “the development of a civilization that is outwardly corporate–or rapidly becoming so–has been accompanied by the prevailing mentality of the ‘business mind’” and the prevailing standards of value derived from pecuniary success alone.[21] On the educational front, the ability to buy economic success is understood in terms of the acquisition of skills of technical mastery sold at the best price. Yet paradoxically, Dewey argued, even if these skills are quite broad and fluid, such narrowly conceived individualist attempts to find economic security in an increasingly insecure economic world produces the conditions under which individuals become increasingly lost, unable to “find support and contentment in the fact that they are sustaining and sustained members of a social whole.”[22]

For Dewey, a highly individualistic or libertarian model of learning severely narrows and restricts the meaning and practical effects of education’s social function. In his view, the purposes of education in a democracy are necessarily both individual and collective in nature. They consist in developing individuals’ natural capacities and acquisition of skills in concert with their preparation for the activities of engaged citizenship and reflective thought. Indeed, without pathological effect, the growth of the individual–the unique development of the individual’s talents and skills– cannot be separated from the social environment of shared activities, values and common interests within which the individual is sustained and grows.

Although information technology has the potential “to increase learning productivity in the areas of codified knowledge and algorithmic skills,”[23] it may not serve these larger social purposes. Indeed, even if one could argue that sharing in common activities that are primarily non-algorithmic can take place within the social environment of distance learning, Dewey would strongly criticize the disembodied nature of such a “social” environment.

For Dewey, learning digitally may well push Cartesian dualism to new heights as minds connect over vast distances without the inconveniences of time, place and body. In his view, the separation of body and mind culminates “in a sharp demarcation of individual minds from the world, and hence from one another… [This] dualistic philosophy of mind and the world implies an erroneous conception of the relationship between knowledge and social interests, and between individuality or freedom and social control and authority.”[24] In educational practice, it often assumes the form of a body of knowledge distinct from its social purposes and a mind free from its social context and physical constraints. As Sidney Hook explains, a dualistic theory of mind and body, according to Dewey, “converts functional distinctions in the ‘moving unities of experience’ into separations of existence. Thus mind is considered separate from the body, whose activity is viewed as an alien influence on how the mind learns and the self is divided from its environing physical and social world.”[25]

Even as a real time-interactive-talking heads-model, being digitally educated decontextualizes the experience of learning and realizes in practice what Descartes only separated philosophically: Minds communicate through bits, bodies move through atoms. The most elemental dualism of the post-information age is thoroughly Cartesian. Detached from the motion of our bodies and disengaged from our local physical and social surroundings, education in the post-information age does not connect, but separates the self from the world, and thus from others. Rather than fulfilling its promise, learning digitally seems only to compromise the most significant elements of Dewey’s educational philosophy.

III. Learn Locally, Think Globally

Although information technology, like the printing press, opens up radically new options for education, Dewey would remind us that computers are, after all, tools. And, like all other tools, they provide ways of getting around and fulfilling one’s purposes in one’s environment. The question is how can we best use the tools of information technology for our educational purposes and aims?

In terms of delivery, advocates of digital learning often argue that information technology provides a better option than the traditional university. With its relatively fixed economy of scale and centralized location, the university has become a legacy of the industrial age. In Twigg’s words: “Our institutions of higher education are reminiscent of other kinds of industrial age organizations such as the factory and the department store–characterized by size and centralization–in contrast to the distributed, networked organization and mail-order shopping services of the 1990s.”[26] Twigg predicts that the ability to transmit through networked organization high quality learning tools customized for the individual student will begin to replace the traditional (teacher-centered) functions of the university. While there will still be a role for faculty and institutions of higher education in terms of certification, student services, and some collaborative experiences, she suggests, its centrality in the process of learning will significantly change as students become more independent and self-reliant and as physical contact becomes “less important to them.”[27]

Although Twigg may well be correct in arguing that the industrial designed university no longer provides the best option for educational delivery, her vision of the future predicated on independent learning, as we have seen, is not without its serious defects. In analyzing the profound implications of the printing press in America, Dewey noted that localism with its infinite variations and specific contexts tends to become stronger as the world (or at least information about it and our connection to it) grows closer.[28] And just as industry and politics are witnessing a tendency toward both decentralization and globalization, the best option for educational delivery may well be the more local community and small college system with new neighborhood and workplace learning centers further developed to meet the educational needs of both traditional and non-traditional students. Within these small colleges and decentralized institutions, the physical proximity of students and faculty would help to embody learning and knowledge as a social process.

To learn locally and think globally, students must have access to the tools of technology. Information retrieval, communication systems, and independent and collaborative learning tools are now necessary and even elemental parts of learning. But they are not sufficient. They must be contextualized within a learning environment. As most agree, learning tools can “stand in” for a physical and social environment, but they cannot replace it. One simply cannot replace the direct and palpable gravity of social interaction that is intrinsic to the atomic weight of learning with weightless bits traveling at blinding speed through thin fine fibers of glass.

As global communication systems eviscerate time and space, digital learning may transform the mode of educational production and delivery. It may even make the traditional university and large state institution obsolete. But as our access to the tools of technology become less dependent on space and time, as distance learning increases, the proximity of social interaction in the process of learning should increase proportionally: The more distant the means of delivery, the more proximate the learning experience should be in terms of the intensity, relation, and quality (if not quantity) of interactions between faculty and students. Rather than becoming less so, the physical and social environment may become more important as distant learning tools become more available. As in the case of localism and globalism, physical proximity and intensive social interaction may both compliment and counterbalance distance in learning. Although learning digitally may promise to make us less dependent on time and space, it is only within a social environment of learning that we can begin to celebrate the experimentation, exploration, and expression–the idea of learning by doing–central to the spirit of John Dewey.

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[1] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, (New York: Borzoi-Knopf, 1995), 14.

[2] Ibid., 163-65.

[3] For example, see William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity” 4.

[4] Ibid., 199f. Return to text

[5] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” 5.

[6] Dewey, Democracy and Education, in John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 147.

[7] Jack M. Wilson, “The CUPLE Physics Studio,” The Physics Teacher.

[8] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, 224.

[9] A description of CITYSCAPES can be found in “Strengthening Teaching and Learning in the First Two Years,” PEW Charitable Trusts (Number 9, January 1996), 4.

[10] Massy and Zemsky, Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2. (

[11] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”

[12] Although one of these skills may involve collaboration, it is nevertheless described as a kind of “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” social environment of independent learning.

[13] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 304.

[14] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 44.

[15] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 4.

[16] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 8.

[17] On the role of the teacher and the social purposes of education, see Dewey’s The School and Society in The Middle Works, vol. 1.

[18] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 1. See also, Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes, “Information Technology as a Liberal Art,” Educom Review (March/April):31-35.

[19] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 3.

[20] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 4. Return to text

[21] Individualism, Old and New in John Dewey: The Later Works, vol 5, p. 67f. Return to text

[22] Ibid. Return to text

[23] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2.

[24] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 300.

[25] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” x.

[26] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 5.

[27] Ibid., 8.

[28] See “Americanism and Localism” in John Dewey: The Middle Works, vol. 12, p.12-16.

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Women: Lost in Cyberspace?

Laurie Finke
Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio
Date of publication: 1997

The Culture of Virtual Communities

In one passage from A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s fictional narrator finds herself walking across the grounds of an Oxbridge college deep in thought, contemplating an essay by Charles Lamb on Milton’s “Lycidas.” She remembers that the manuscript of that famous poem that Lamb cites in his essay is housed in the library of the very college whose grounds she walks. She imagines herself literally retracing Lamb’s footsteps “across the quadrangle to that famous library where the treasure is kept.” Finding herself at the door of the library,

I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel, barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. (Woolf 7-8; emphasis in original)

The narrator’s response shows how quickly alienation follows from exclusion, how quickly intellectual curiosity can become indifference: “Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe and locked within its breast, it [the library] sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep forever” (Woolf 8).

I found myself returning to this scene again and again when I was asked to think about the consequences of emerging information technologies for the teaching that I do in a Women’s and Gender Studies program, particularly in relation to the kind of student-centered pedagogy that we, for the purposes of this project, are calling “proximity learning,” and opposing to the “distance learning” so often extolled as information technology’s future (Twigg, Alley). Surely such scenes of exclusion as Woolf describes in 1928 could not be repeated in an American university at the end of the twentieth century? No student of ours–female or male– would be turned away at the doors of our colleges’ libraries by kindly silver-haired librarians guarding the doors and rebuffing the unwelcome. Yet the refrain heard constantly among cyber-touts these days is that the locus of the library is rapidly changing. Soon the “treasures” about which Woolf writes so eloquently will reside not in atoms–in weighty volumes stored on scores of shelves in monumental stone buildings–but in ethereal bits, floating around in a non-place we’ve come to call “cyberspace,” capable of being disassembled and reassembled at our merest whim in any format we desire (Negroponte). Knowledge–or at least information– will no longer be “locked away” and apportioned out by the gatekeepers of culture, but will be available anywhere, anytime at the press of a button or the click of a mouse.

This enthusiastic assessment of the democratizing potential of information technologies, however, merits closer scrutiny. What will the effects of this dematerialization–this transformation of information from atoms to bits–be? In particular, we ought to pay close attention to the rhetoric of the sales pitch through which the benefits of cyberspace are being promoted. While the term is often used rather loosely to refer to everything from computer games to the World Wide Web, “as though each computer screen were a portal to a shadow universe of infinite, electronically accessible space” (Markley 2), it is worth noting how the experts talk about the concept. Michael Benedikt defines cyberspace as “a globally networked, computer-sustained, computer-accessed, and computer-generated, multidimensional, artificial, or virtual’ reality” (Benedikt 122). Marcos Novak characterizes it as “a completely spatialized visualization of all information in global information processing systems, along pathways provided by present and future communication networks, enabling full copresence and interaction of multiple users, allowing input and output from and to the full human sensorium, permitting simulations of real and virtual realities, remote data collection and control through telepresence, and total integration and intercommunication with a full range of intelligent products and environments in real space” (Novak 225,226). What both definitions have in common is their thorough erasure of human agency in the transition from a material to a virtual reality [1]. In both definitions machines are remarkably lively and intelligent. They “network,” “sustain,” and “generate.” They provide access; they “enable”interaction, “allow” input and output to circulate, and “permit” simulations. Humans, on the other hand, have almost entirely disappeared or are completely passive. Indeed we no longer have people attached to computers at all, but “human sensorium.” People have become little more than inert receptacles for “input” and “output.” As Donna Haraway writes, “Our machines are disturbingly lively and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 152). This way of talking about computer technology is not limited only to VR visionaries. Most educators writing about the benefits of information technology use the very same rhetoric:

  • IT will change teaching and learning profoundly, no matter what the response of traditional higher education institutions. (Massy and Zemsky 2)
  • IT enables students to work at their own pace with continuous assessment, in contrast to the traditional post-secondary education method which can be described as batch-processing with episodic assessment. (Massy and Zemsky 4).
  • For not only will information technology accelerate the move toward a process focus and collaborative learning, it may change the fundamental relationships and understandings we’ve developed during the era when most information was stored on paper. (Batson and Bass 44)

In the first sentence, information technology is characterized as having the power to transform higher education in spite of whatever paltry resistance its institutions might mount (notice it isn’t educators, but only institutions that resist). Human agency can amount to little more than a pallid and ineffective imitation of computer efficacy (“batch-processing with episodic assessment”). In fact, in the technological determinism that marks most writing of this kind, human actors appear only as obstacles to the electronic transformation of higher education. Faculty and administrators who resist the inevitable digitalization of the university are seen as the problem to be solved: “faculty will have little interest in IT’s capacities to boost academic productivity to the extent that they lack an appropriate vision of learning productivity” (Massy and Zemsky 6). Sentiments like this are so common nowadays that they fly by unnoticed. But their consequences for how we think about information technologies and for the problems we gloss over are profound.

The effect of this discursive logic that endows machines with agency while erasing human actors is to write out of existence a whole host of material and cultural institutions and practices that create and sustain information technology, but which also determine who is allowed access to this information. Gone from the analysis are the programmers, designers, factory workers, sales workers, service technicians, patent and copyright lawyers, policymakers, executives, college faculty and administrators, as well as the hardware, software, electricity, and raw materials necessary to keep the production line moving. A whole host of technoscientific, economic, social, and cultural practices that regulate both knowledge of and access to information technology simply become invisible. Those who extol the democratizing potential of new information technologies rarely talk, for instance, about the complexities of copyright law, the economic costs of access to this information, or the inevitable pattern of breakdown, repair, and obsolescence involved in maintaining electronic equipment, all material practices that involve human actors who serve as gatekeepers, determining who will have access and who will be denied.

Even the most superficial examination of the material practices that sustain the illusion of “cyberspace” reveal that far from being a cultureless and egalitarian meeting place in which “status, power, and prestige are communicated neither contextually. . .nor dynamically,” in which “charismatic and high-status people may have less influence and group members may participate more equally” (Taylor et al. 18), emergent information technologies, because they are situated in networks of material and cultural practices, institutions, and economies, replicate all of the inequities and hierarchies that currently plague academia and the larger world of which it is a part. As colleges and universities celebrate the
promise of brave new technologies that will fundamentally change the ways in which faculty and students interact, it is important to keep in mind the very real danger that some of our students, because of where they are situated in these networks, may, like Virginia Woolf, find themselves locked out of the technological campuses of the future.

I believe that both faculty and students can use computer mediated communication (CMC) and IT to teach and learn in new ways that are more collaborative, interactive, and ultimately more effective, but I am also wary of the very real possibility that gender, race, and class hierarchies will (and have) all to easily become part of the “circuitry” of the new information technology on our campuses. I worry that these technologies could have unforseen and undesirable consequences for the politics of gender, race, and class in academia. The question I want to pose is, as teachers, how do we responsibly integrate new information technologies into our classrooms without excluding or alienating the very students we want to empower? My answer is that we can do so only when we pay attention to the material and cultural practices that accompany the adoption of new technologies.

The cultural practices that have sprung up around computer mediated communication (CMC) and information technology (IT), far from being gender-neutral, are, if anything, more male than the culture they mirrors. By almost any measure we might choose, men dominate the computer world through sheer numbers. 87% of all doctorates in computer science go to men (and two-thirds of all bachelors degrees); 92% of all computer science faculties are male (and 97% of all tenured faculty) [Shade, Simmons]. These numbers suggest that those who are designing hardware, software, and networks, supporting and servicing them, and teaching about them are most likely to be men. This is not to suggest, however, that women have nothing to do with computers. Women figure heavily in the global production lines of the computer industry (Taylor et al., 15), in data entry, and in secretarial positions. In other words, they cluster disproportionately in those areas of computer technology that are low-paying, repetitive, and routinized, those areas that are least likely to influence decisions about how CMC and IT will be used and who will have access.

On the internet, the heart of the revolution in information technology, depending on how you count, men outnumber women in proportions that range from 2 to 1 to 9 to 1. If you measure access men outnumber women only by two to one. If you measure actual use the disparity can be as high as 10 to 1. A survey conducted in 1994 by the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center (GVU) at Georgia Tech showed that male internet users outnumbered female by a ratio of 9 to 1. A year later, the same survey showed that , at least in the U.S, the disparity had begun to shrink; women accounted for 29.3% of users in the 4th Annual GVU Survey. However, to be counted in a survey of this kind a user would have to find the GVU web site and complete the questionnaire. To avoid the potential biases that might result from self-reporting, Matrix Information and Directory Services (MIDS) and Texas Internet Consulting sent electronic surveys to the domains representing organizations on the internet. These surveys counted the numbers of men and women who could send e-mail outside the domain. In 1994, this survey showed only a two to one discrepancy between men and women who had active email accounts (64% to 36%, MIDS Survey). John Quarterman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell suggest that the proliferation of email on college campuses explains the smaller gap between male and female users in this survey. Students have become the largest proportion of internet users and the average university student population is pretty evenly divided between men and women. But the MIDS survey still leaves a 2 to 1 “gender gap” even for relatively simple electronic technology like email. Collectively what these studies suggest is that while men and women are becoming more equal in opportunities for accessing the internet, there are still wide disparities in how men and women use electronic media.

The reasons for this disparity, I believe, are not all that well understood. Much of the research on women and computing, even the feminist research, begins with the assumption that women are disadvantaged and even deficient users of computer technology. Such analyses locate the problem in the resistance of users rather than in the technology they are being asked to use, or better in the network of material and cultural practices that sustain the technology. Women, in this view, are intimidated by the technology and the communicative style of the internet because they communicate differently from men: men are comfortable with the kind of adversarial exchange characteristic of the internet, while women prefer a more supportive communicative style (Herring). Indeed, women’s and men’s communicative strategies are
so different that they inhabit different cultures (Mulvaney). Such views, however, are based as much on stereotype as on any empirical evidence. Michele Evard’s research on fourth and fifth grade children using a netnews-like forum in a classroom setting suggests that, before they encounter the culture of the net, boys and girls act in CMC in almost identical ways: girls speak as often as boys, they give instruction in equal numbers, and they flame just as often as boys (Evard). This study suggests that what ever discrepancies exist between men’s and women’s use of CMC and IT result less from profound psychological differences between men and women than from the practices, values, and institutions that
constitute and are constituted by the virtual communities that have sprung up on the internet.

To understand the discrepancies between male and female computer use and their implications for classroom use of CMC and IT, we must investigate the material practices that discourage women from participating. These include:

  • Economic barriers. Access to information technology requires hardware, software, and, increasingly, internet access, all of which require a significant financial output. Since women on average make less than men, they may be more disadvantaged as buyers of computer services (Shade, Simmons). Cost may have less impact on college students as the cost of some (though certainly not all) of these services are borne by colleges and universities. Nevertheless, as educators we must constantly remember that the increasing dependence of higher education on electronic technology will always work to the benefit of more advantaged students who can afford the cost of cutting edge technologies.
  • Lack of familiarity with computer technology. As children, girls are often have less access to computers than boys. When they do, their use of the computer is almost exactly the same as boys (Evard). The computer game industry, however, is notoriously male-oriented, producing few titles that would appeal to girls.
  • Learning styles. While the literature on infotech frequently promotes the potential of technology to appeal to a variety of learning styles (Negroponte, Batson and Bass, Alley), it is not always clear that training in the use of infotech accommodates a variety of learning styles, especially when the learner in question is resistant to technology or anxious about it. For some users (and here I would include myself), the rapid obsolescence of technologies once learned can be quite daunting and a disincentive to investing the time required to learn still newer technologies every six months.
  • Harassment and pornography. Information resources like the internet are not always friendly places for women. The kind of harassment that often plagues women in face to face communication  has, not surprisingly, become perhaps too frequently a fact of life in CMC (Anderson, Brail, Kendall). The libertarian, anything goes culture of the Web has made it an attractive place to sell and disseminate pornography. Without advocating censorship or indeed any reigning in of the Web’s decentralized (non) organization, I would point out that the climate for women on the web can be chilling; one need not actively look for pornography to find it. Recently I logged onto a popular search engine, looking for information on “women and the internet” for this piece. My query
    yielded some fifty entries, half of which advertised “the hottest women on the internet,” “lingerie lounge,” “Asian playmates,” and “SEX PORN XXX FUCK ADULT GAY WOMEN VIDEO.XXX.COM” repeated over and over in capital letters (the electronic version of shouting). My students have reported similar experiences. Women on the internet are both subjects and sexual objects.
  • Discursive inequalities. Although CMC was supposed to eliminate status markers like race, age, physical appearance and physical abilities, empowering those in low status positions,(Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler, Taylor et al. 54, Stone), gender seems to be a status marker that persists even in  electronically mediated situations[2]. Recent studies of usenet groups show that, even when the subject matter focused on women’s issues, in mixed sex groups men contributed significantly more posts and that when women’s participation rose above 30%, they were perceived as dominating the discussion (Taylor et al. 17, 55, We). In a study of the relative participation of men and women in usenet groups devoted to women’s issues (where we might expect women’s interest, and hence their participation to be higher than elsewhere), Gladys We reported the following discrepancies between men’s and women’s contributions:
Newsgroup #responses %female %male %unknown
Alt.feminism 303 11% 83% 6%
Soc.women 292 13% 78% 9%
Soc.feminism 47 53% 40% 7%

These findings validate the experiences many women have had in internet discussion groups and raise questions about the consequences of their use in a classroom setting.

The Pedagogies of Virtual Communities

As colleges and universities invest more heavily in information technology and as IT becomes more integral to our teaching, educators need to think about those we may be leaving behind. And yet such discussions seem to me to be precisely what is missing from the literature on information technology’s pedagogical potential. Although much of this literature discusses forms of faculty resistance to classroom uses of IT (Twigg, Massey and Zemsky, Gilbert), rarely does it acknowledge that student resistance will also be a barrier to the successful integration of electronic media into our teaching. In fact, students will show the same diffusion curve in adopting IT that experts predict of faculty; there will be a small group of early users, the majority will only follow once a critical mass is reached, and the resistors are in real danger of being left behind altogether (Green 29). It would be useful to have some information on, for instance, how gender, race, and socioeconomic class affect these categories. Are men really more likely to be among the early adopters of IT? Are economically privileged students with access to the resources required to access cutting edge technology more likely to be represented among early adopters? Are women more likely to resist the change to electronically mediated classrooms? Are there students or even entire institutions who lack the economic resources to participate in the IT revolution? It would be preferable to rely on some empirical data to answer these questions rather than on stereotype. Once patterns of student use have been established, educators have the more difficult task of determining the causes of resistance. As I have tried to suggest above, resistance to IT among women students (and faculty) may result less from deficiencies in the individuals than from their resistance to the culture they are being asked to enter. Overcoming this resistance will require paying attention to the developing cultures of virtual communities.

We must also pay attention to the pedagogies we adopt within these virtual communities, and the assumptions that underlie those pedagogies. Enthusiasts of IT will often point to the shift electronically mediated learning requires from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered one (Twigg, Alley). As Carol A. Twigg quotes Alan H. Leader, dean of the School of Business at Southern Connecticut State University:

The purpose and outcome of our educational enterprise is learning, not teaching.
Teaching is what we do. Colleges do not exist in order for us to teach but so that
students can learn. . . .The focus must be on the student, not the instructor (Twigg 13).

The pedagogical writing about IT and distance learning extols the advantage of student-centered learning, but what is its vision of student-centered learning? Critiques like Twigg’ s of the traditional teacher-centered classroom, in which the scholarly expert, having distilled the truth from the best minds in the field, transmits it to students, identify real problems in traditional teaching methods. But what do they offer in place of what Paolo Freire has described as the “banking method” of teaching in which teachers
make deposits of knowledge in their students’ minds (Freire 1968)?

Even the most sophisticated writing on distance learning and the pedagogical applications of IT, as, for instance, Twigg’s call for a national learning infrastructure, views the primary goal of education as the delivery of information transplanted from the teacher’s brain into the student’s (Freire’s “banking method” of teaching under a slightly different guise–the scholarly expert has been replaced by a
computer). Such transfers, educational analysts like Massey and Zemsky or Twigg claim, may be more efficiently accomplished with greater convenience to students (who may even be able to learn in the comfort of their own homes) by computers in an individualized, asynchronous learning environment, which is an elaborate way of describing a student sitting in front of a computer terminal. (see “Being Digitally Educated: Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning“) And if this is all education is about, they are undoubtedly correct. Computers can more efficiently convey information than human instructors. They can store, search, sort, transfer, transport, organize, replicate, and compute information much faster than any human can.

But do these enthusiastic claims about information technology confuse knowledge and information, transmitting with educating? Does student-centered learning refer only to students’ passive assimilation of data or does it require more active participation from them, more interaction both with their teachers and with their peers? Perhaps we cannot substitute a computer for the social interactions we claim occur in
proximity learning anymore than we can create a computer program to parent or an electronic therapist. Like parenting or therapy, teaching (and learning) does not involve a simple exchange of information. Information gathering is not the central activity. Like parenting or therapy, education integrates students into particular social networks–in the case of education we call these social networks disciplines. These social networks have customs, rules, procedures, and specialized languages. Some
of these are explicit, but many are unstated, taken for granted by those who have already been integrated into the social network. These rules, procedures, customs, and languages dictate what questions can be asked, what counts as an answer, what counts as evidence or explanation, who may speak at any given time, whose answers count, and how information is gathered. Students learn the customs, rules, and procedures of their chosen social networks or disciplines by acting as participant-observers, by learning the “culture” of their discipline, and not simply by acquiring the discipline’s content. A students become a member of the social network as she learns to create new knowledge, not as she learns to regurgitate information ( Brown and Duguid). The goal of higher education then only partly the transmission of knowledge; it also requires the creation of new knowledge.

Missing, then, from discussions of the technological classroom is a sophisticated analysis of pedagogy that unpacks the social networks students must learn to navigate during their college years. Those pedagogical discussions are, however, available in many other places. Feminist scholars, for instance, have explored these issues and their impact on women for nearly two decades. For two decades they have mounted a challenge to teacher- and information-centered models of education which has been remarkably successful at many institutions. That challenge has gone unnoticed in the literature on classroom uses of IT, this despite a virtual explosion of information on the subject. In the 1970s, feminist teachers, convinced that a female-friendly education required not only a transformation of the content of higher education but of its method of delivery as well, began to explore new teaching approaches. They found useful strategies in many different sources: the consciousness-raising practices of the early women’s movement, the progressive tradition in American education created by John Dewey (see “Being Digitally Educated: Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning“), and the liberatory teaching promoted by Paulo Freire and others. What makes feminist pedagogy unique, however, has been its attention to the particular needs of women and its grounding in feminist theory as the basis for its multidimensional view of how classroom knowledge is constructed through the formation and maintenance of social networks (Tetreault and Maher). This information is voluminous and readily accessible [3].

Yet, despite this wealth of information, discussions of both feminist pedagogy and information technology’s impact on the women who constitute upwards of 50% of our students are notably missing in most mainstream discussions of the IT revolution, which tend to treat students as largely featureless and interchangeable cogs.

Obviously I believe that IT and CMC can and utlimately must have a place in a feminist classroom. I have use these tools–e-mail, electronic discussion groups, the internet, multimedia programs– on a daily basis in my own classes. And my experience has taught me that these tools, along with the networks of social, cultural, and material practices in which they are imbricated, will change how we teach. But finally it is up to us as teachers (and as members of our own social networks) –and not the technology–to determine the nature and extent of these changes. It is my hope that by understanding the particularities of our students, the nature of the social networks to which they seek access, and the nexus of material and cultural practices that IT both embodies and sustains, that we will not, to paraphrase Anne Fausto-Sterling, create an electronic academy in which cyberspace seems an illegitimate place for women and gender issues seem an inappropriate enterprise for the gatekeepers of infotech.


Albright, Julie M. “Of Mind, Body and Machine: Cyborg Cultural Politics in the Age of Hypertext.”

Alley, Lee R. 1996. An Instructional Epiphany. Change. Mar: 48-54.

Anderson, Judy. 1996. “Not for the Faint of Heart: Contemplation on Usenet.” In Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_ Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.

Brail, Stephanie. 1996. “The Price of Admission: Harassment and Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West.” In
Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and the New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. 1996. “Universities in the Digital Age.” Change. July/August: 11-19.

Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise. 1996. Wired Women:Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle: Seal Press.

Evard, Michele. 1996.”‘So Please Stop, Thank You’: Girls Online.” In Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba
Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Finke, Laurie A. 1993. “Knowledge as Bait: Voice and the Pedagogical Unconscious.” College English 55:5-25.

Finke, Laurie A. 1994. “Pedagogy of the Depressed: Feminism, Poststructuralism, and Pedagogic Practice.”
Teaching Literary Theory, eds. Dianne Sadoff and William Cain. MLA: 154-168.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1 968

Gilbert, Steven W. 1996. “Making the Most of a Slow Revolution,” Change. March/April: 10-47.

Green, Kenneth C. 1996. “The Coming Ubiquity of Information Technology.” Change. March/April: 24-29.

Grusin, Richard. “What is an Electronic Author? Theory and the Technological Fallacy.” In Robert Markley.
Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996: 39-54.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991 “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Herring, Susan. “Gender Differences In Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage To The New Frontier.”

Kendall, Lori. 1996. “MUDder? I Hardly Know ‘Er!: Adventures of a Feminist MUDder.” In Lynn Cherny and
Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle WA: Seal Press.

Kendrick, Michelle. “Cyberspace and the Technological Real.” In Robert Markley. Virtual Realities and Their
Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996:143-160.

Maher, Frances A. and Mary Kay Teatreault. 1994. The Feminist Classroom: An Inside Look at How Professors are Transforming Higher Education for a More Diverse Society. New York. Basic Books.

Markley, Robert. Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,

“History, Theory, and Virtual Reality.” In Robert Markley. Virtual Realities and Their Discontents. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996: 1-10.

Massy, William F.and Robert Zemsky. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.”

Milroy, L. 1980. Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Mulvaney, Becky Michele . “Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience.”

Negroponte, Nicholas. 1995. Being Digital. New York: Vintage Books.

Quarterman, John S. and Smoot Carl-Mitchell. “Is the Internet All Male?”

Shade, Leslie Regan. “Gender Issues in Computer Networking.”

Simmons, Susan. “Democracy, Women, and the Internet.”

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne.1991. “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures.” In Benedikt, Michael, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Taylor, H. Jeanie, Cheris Kramarae, and Maureen Ebben. 1993. Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship
(Taylor et al.). Urbana, Illinois University Press.

Twigg, Carol. “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”

We, Gladys. “Cross-Gender Communication in Cyber-Space.”

Woolf, Virginia. 1929. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.


[1] I am indebted to Richard Grusin for this point (see Grusin 1996, 40-41).

[2] Though “computer crossdressing” in CMC is by no means unheard of and given the lack of bodily cues, relatively easy to achieve, it is not at all clear whether such behavior has challenged or simply reinforced traditional gender stereotypes, see Stone, 82-85, Kendrick 155-159, and Kendall.

[3] A gopher site maintained by the Women’s Studies librarian at the University of Wisconsin contains a searchable bibliography on women and information technology with seven hundred entries. (gopher://

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Transforming IT Learning with a Slice of Pie

The Raspberry Pi is a very small but impressive piece of technology, in fact it’s only a little bit bigger than a debit card.  It does possess however all the basic functions of a personal computer at least when it is plugged into both a keyboard and monitor.    It’s goal however was not of minimization but rather to teach basic programming skills to young people in schools.

The computer was created and is indeed marketed by the non-profit making Raspberry Pi Foundation, on first look it appears little more  than a PCB board you might find in any sort of electronic equipment.  But beneath it’s simple exterior lies a fully fledged personal computer which actually can run 10 operating systems and is a fantastic introduction into computer programming.


The inspiration for the Raspberry Pi came from the developer, Eben Upton who ran the computer science department at St John’s College in Cambridge.  He was often called to interview students coming up from high school and was surprised at their lack of IT knowledge specifically in areas like programming and networks.   There was an assumption that certain skills would already exist for high school computer science students but often the children didn’t have even basic programming knowledge.

One of the reasons was the lack of hardware to help teach these subjects (although there were significant problems in teaching skills too).  Obviously schools had limited resources and it was difficult to allocate extensive funds for very specialized equipment.  The Raspberry Pi opened up the world of programming and networks at a very affordable price.   The issue it particularly address was that current computers are so simple to use that they require no specialized knowledge to operate.  Past generations who have grown up with the ZX81 and Acorn Electron were forced to learn how computers worked to even run a simple program.  Computer games magazines were once filled with computer code, that you inputted yourself.

This obviously was more difficult but it enabled  people to learn much more about computers in their everyday life.  People were forced into learning these concepts to use the computer on any level.  Programming and some basic networking skills like this, creating high speed VPNs  and IP addressing were just picked up by default were as it’s actually quite difficult now to access an environment to program on a modern day computer or laptop.

The Raspberry Pi is certainly making inroads into this area, with students, hobbyists and teachers alike all learning as they use the device.  The foundation is now trying to push the device into foreign markets were it’s hoped there will be a similar effect on young people learning computer skills at an earlier age.

The author is a blogger and technology correspondent.

James Hazzell

Smart DNS Service

The Exodus of Chinese Pupils to US Colleges

If you look at lots of league tables as reported in these pages, Chinese children often score very highly in certain ability related tests.  In fact they top  the tables in many such surveys and studies, so why then are so many Chinese pupils seeking to complete their education outside China.   The numbers are growing all the time, fueled perhaps by the growing prosperity of the Chinese middle classes.  US schools admitted more than 50 times the number of Chinese students this year than in 2005, in fact they represent the largest number of foreign students in the US education system.

The main reason is perhaps the growing disillusionment with the very strict, competitive and some would say restrictive education that is received in Chinese schools.   Although the tables would suggest  that a Chinese student is likely to perform better than an American student in subjects such as Maths or reading, it is is critical, creative and communication skills where they can perform badly.

It is these skills that are often the most valuable in carving out a successful career – communication and creativity lead to innovation and new ideas.   The competition in China is fierce to get the best scores and the highest results, yet these do not always lead to better employment and career prospects except for the very highest.  There is a growing concern that the skills taught in Chinese schools will not help the economy develop onto the next level

In the career market place it is seen that students with more rounded skills become more successful.  There are many more opportunities for those with a Chinese education supplemented by a Western based one such as from the US or Europe.  These graduates are often in great demand ironically by Chinese firms too who operate internationally.

Of course this comes at a price, continuing your education in the private sector in the US for example is not cheap.  Even with careful budgeting a student can expect to incur expenses of thousands a dollars a year when you include tuition, room and board in a foreign country.  It is only the wealthy that can exercise these options, although  the growth in online learning offers more potential for the future.

Thanks to the internet, and the growth of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) the opportunities for experiencing different education options will be increased to other students without the financial resources.  The internet opens up a lot of options for students to takes courses at any major university in Europe and North America.  Students already use the internet to access all sorts of online media even with the country’s infamous firewall and filtering – most are familiar with how to change your IP address online  to bypass these blocks.

The exodus represents many of the problem that the Chinese economy is facing over the coming generations.  In order to maintain it’s economic success it needs to adapt and embrace the skills that other developed countries have created withing their societies.  Unfortunately the biggest tool to enable this change – the internet is heavily filtered and censored, putting both Chinese individuals and businesses at a significant disadvantage in a digital world.  The youngsters though pretty much ignore these blocks and are well skilled in using circumvention techniques – on my last visit I found a group of students watching an episode of Coronation Street – the method is detailed here apparently.

Obtaining Advanced Vocalist Tuition

When you want to improve your vocal talent and gain a much better understanding of the processes behind that kind of improvement, it makes a lot of sense to enlist the services of a qualified professional vocal coach. This is basically what you will need to do if you are determined to take your singing ability to the next level.

With this in mind, you ought to be actively seeking the most suitable training courses that will provide all the educational aspects that you will need as well as a solid foundation in practical studies. The application of what you are learning is the basis for taking your talents to the next level.

There are many highly regarded professional vocal tuition courses available online that you can short list and then investigate in more detail, but that will take up a lot of time and some considerable amount of effort on your part. Alternatively, you can reduce your time and effort expenditure by taking advantage of a ready-made review site that has all the information you will need in one place.

A great place to find all this useful information on finding the best singing lessons online is as some of the best Internet based vocal coaching programs are listed there and reviewed for your convenience. It’s certainly worth your time to take a look at that site if you are truly serious about advancing in your chosen field of singing.

A good online course will certainly help you to develop your physical aspect to improve in that area. But you may well ask why you need to exercise your vocal muscles to sing better?

It may come as something of a surprise to many people who are aiming to sing professionally that by combining a good exercise program with breathing techniques actually boosts the effectiveness of any program for singing. However, many people still don’t know why they even need to do any exercising if they already have a perfectly good voice, but exercises for vocalists are an important factor in the overall process that can result in a greater level of success. Here is why.

While a good practise regime can improve your voice on its own, it is not quite as effective at helping the body develop the right muscles for the job. In fact the body will naturally mould its performance to match the amount of practice being undertaken.

To boost the performance, the muscles of the body must be forced to work so they will demand more precise tuition to maximise their effectiveness. This increases the ability to render better intonation and sing in tune all of the time, especially when holding long notes.

The process is simple enough and when the correct vocal exercise is added to a good understanding of the process, singing professionally is a real probability.

Nigerian Government to Expand Education

The Nigerian Federal Government was in the international spotlight this week, when answering questions from the Pakistani activist Malala Yousifzai.  Malala was the young girl attacked by the Taliban for attending school , since she survived the attack she has been actively promoting the rights of children particularly girls for a proper education.

The Nigerian Minister for education announced that they would increase the number of children to 2 million to be enrolled in a basic education system.  This might seem like a lot, but there are estimates of over 10 million children in Nigeria not attending any school at all.  Whether this was made with any real substance, remains to be seen however there are some promising signs.


180 new schools were built across the country in the last 12 months, including special centers for girls and some vocational centers for boys who had no access to the education system currently.  Payments were being made from the Federal level to states to provide more educational resources and infrastructure being provided to support this effort.

It’s often difficult to encourage parents who have a subsistence lifestyle to make time to get their children an education but some incentives are being put in place to encourage them.  Free food, books and uniforms were being distributed as an incentive for parents.

Nigeria has an advantage over many African countries seeking to improve the educational level of their children – mainly money.  The country has significant mineral resources which provide a large level of income for the federal government, and many infrastructure projects have been initiated in return for mineral rights to international companies.

It is hoped that the huge increase in internet based learning may be leveraged throughout Nigeria to help improve standards.   With a decent internet connection and perhaps a secure proxy based at the school or college,  students could potentially have access to world class educational resources.

Chris Patterdale

DNS News


Educate for a Vocation and Reality

There are many problems that can actually be caused by encouraging too many young people into education.  It’s not to say that education is in any way bad, but it has to be realistic and appropriate to economic demands.   For example producing tens of thousands of highly qualified and specialized archaeologists is never going to be a great idea – simply because of supply and demand.

There’s a limited requirement for people to work in archaeology for obvious reasons,  the vast majority will work in the academic world.  It’s probably a fascinating and interesting degree, yet is it smart to train thousands of young people in a vocation that they’ll simply never find work in.  I choose the example as I happen to know a few graduates in archaeology, who never got even remotely near finding a job which related to their qualifications.


Obviously you can argue that a degree is of value whatever the subject, it teaches all sorts of other skills.  Yet how can it be smart to ignore real shortages in an economy whilst producing a huge skills surplus in others?  The issue is that many, many students find themselves working in areas that they are completely over qualified in because they were unable to find work in their chosen area.

It’s a real problem in the UK, with the Association of Graduate recruiters reporting that 87% of employers failed to fill all their positions in 2014 because they couldn’t find enough candidates with the right skills.  After all if you’re looking to recruit for a medical research center you want science graduates not humanity students.

Employers often suggest that the problem is more fundamental than just choosing the right subject to study.  Poor interview skills, badly written CVs and application forms suggest that many students simply don’t have the right skills to find any type of job.  With economic growth starting to return to most European countries, the problem is likely to grow particularly if our ‘academic focused’ education system doesn’t start to provide a few more vocational skills.

After all any sort of graduate needs certain basic skills in virtually any job.  Most graduates would need basic computer skills for example wherever they work, they may not need to know how to set up or buy VPN services, but they should be able to use simple office applications competently.

Technology is not the only area, but it’s often one that’s overlooked, students are often experts in browsing, using smart phones and configuring their iPads, yet have no experience of spreadsheets, word processors or presentation software beyond what they learnt at primary and early in secondary education.

Educational and Learning -The Kumon Method

Many educational programmes focus on different areas, some are better for learning maths, other help promote language and linguistic skills.  However there are a few, that are just as effective in improving all areas of a child’s learning development.

The Kumon method was first developed way back in the 1950′s, by a Japanese school teacher.  Toru Kumon however created a method which is now being taught to well over 4 million students in 40+ countries across the world.  In the UK alone, there are nearly 70,000 student all learning at dedicated learning centres across the country.


They take place in generally unassuming surroundings – church halls, village halls, rented class rooms and sometimes in parent’s flats and houses.  The focus of the programme is to develop learning based on each individual child.  This allows the children to both study at their own pace and to quickly gain confidence in their own abilities.

This is important as children can easily become disillusioned with learning if they struggle, confidence is everything.   The Kumon method doesn’t rely on a traditional teaching method, you won’t find a single teacher standing at the front of the class delivering some boring lesson.  The Kumon method doesn’t in fact rely on the knowledge of the teacher instead promote self reliance – this has the effect of encouraging the children to develop at their own speed.

There are of course, different concepts within the method to deal with individual subjects.  Maths is focused on developing mental arithmetic, there is no calculator or even finger counting allowed.  In English, reading and phonetics are the core skills.  A lot of emphasis is put on reading simply because a child’s performance could be affected in other areas if their reading is poor.

Many educationalists are investigating whether Kumon can play a bigger part in UK schools.  The attraction is that it can be used alongside existing methods as it is an independent learning technique.  Children can study at home and use the classes to check their work, they can also discuss the homework and see if it is at a suitable level.

There is a real impetus behind this method, as it has delivered excellent results for many decades.  There are a number of reports on the British media and further reading options.  Most are accessible across the world however some of the material on the BBC may require a UK VPN to access.

The method does utilise tests to help assess progress but they are performed in a relaxed environment.  It is important that these do not create stress in the child as that is not conducive to the central aims of the Kumon method.  Many teachers and children report excellent result particularly if a child has been struggling in a particular subject or method.


James Millner is a blogger and online journalist who specialises in education and technology.  If you’d like to see his latest video article – you can see it here – ITV Player abroad.


e-Learning in South Africa

There has been a real push in South African schools, to introduce technology and ICT into the classrooms.   The recommendations come from research that was completed over ten years ago however some of the provinces are still having trouble implementing these slightly older technology standards.

The report was prepared by the publishers Via Afrika, they have collected information from schools and colleges across the country to try and assess the progress of the e-learning reforms in South Africa.    The report has now been published under the title “Snapshot of e-Learning in South African Schools”, it focuses specifically on technology and how it has been implemented in schools.  There is a caveat though with this report, there is no specification about the sample size and how many schools were surveyed in compiling this document.


Durban Schools have High Levels of ICT Provision

One of the positive findings were in the survey, eight provinces had extremely progressive and positive attitudes about using ICT in their classrooms although the locations were not specified.  Six more were committed to increasing the amount of technology used in classes but were not yet ready to implement yet.  There is some implication that the rest of the provinces were less engaged with utilising technology but again due to the lack of information on the scope of the study is unclear.

All the provinces looked to a series of previously written reports as their preferred frameworks – these were respected research papers.  These include a white paper on e-education drafted in 2004 and some governmental guidelines for teacher training and ICT development.  This is perhaps a worry because it shows that even with recommendations made nearly a decade ago, some provinces still feel that they will be unable to implement these guidelines.  There are many countries who’s schools are way in advance of these recommendations – some schools in the Far East for instance already routinely buy VPN solutions to enable students to reach normally geoblocked content (like the BBC and international media sites).

Many countries feel under pressure to improve their ICT provision, and one of the most efficient enablers is the skills of the teachers.  The report suggested that only around 25% of teachers had received basic training in ICT and computers.  There is little chance of e-Learning plans being implemented successfully without first ensuring teachers had the skills to deliver any curriculum changes.

There are other positives, one reason that South Africa has lagged behind many other developed countries has previously been the poor levels of infrastructure but this seems to be changing.  In all of the provinces surveyed apart from the Northern Cape, there are reasonable levels of coverage including GPRS, 2G and 3G.  However although many more schools now have internet connections, they are still in the minority with a 50% level of schools connected should be achieved by 2016.   The improved infrastructure  does mean that many more pupils have access at home although internet access is much more expensive than many other countries.  There is evidence though that some parents have been enabling their children’s education themselves, by accessing internet resources – like iplayer online or through many of the online courses offered by Universities and colleges across the world.


The Internet Can Provide Companionship for Elderly

A recent report, by the think-tank Policy Exchange has suggested that the government could do more to combat the isolation felt by many pensioners by promoting the use of the internet.   The over 65s are the group least likely to have internet access and in many ways have the most to benefit from it.

The report suggested that for a relatively small national investment, over 6 million more people could have digital skills in this age category.  The costs would be relatively modest at approximately £140 per person.  Although this sounds a lot, it is estimated by Policy Exchange that there would be huge economic and social benefits if implemented in the United Kingdom.


The surprising facts are that about 40% of the over 65 age group do not have access to the internet from their home.  Over five million people in the same age category have never even been online ever.    One of the greatest advantages of encouraging the elderly to join the internet, is that it can drastically reduce the feelings of loneliness and isolation.  This is a major social issue, especially when you see research that suggests 10% of elderly people visit their GP simply because they are lonely.  Other health related concerns is that lonely adults are more likely to be admitted to hospital and needing residential and nursing care.

The health benefits to the elderly from tackling isolation are likely to bring huge cost benefits overall.  It’s difficult to estimate the overall monetary savings but most research suggests that they would be many times more  than the initial costs to the Government.

The elderly would benefit from increased social interaction, the ability to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives through email and social networking.   Online and distant learning could bring even greater benefits for older people and there is very likely to  be benefits in related to alzheimers, dementia and other mental illnesses common in older people.

There are other benefits which this age group are simply missing out on.   The ability to pay bills and organize finance over the internet is something that most of us take for granted.  But often this has become much more difficult for those without access to the web.  The ability to watch online media using sites like BBC iPlayer and ITV player also is a great entertainment for people.  You can even watch these from other countries like America – if you have the right technology like this – BBC Iplayer USA .

There are so many benefits in all areas that it seems an essential area to target.  An elderly person who has restricted mobility and lots of spare time would definitely be an ideal candidate for online learning resources and would certainly gain greatly from the interaction it would bring.

Jennie Harwood

E- Learning Correspondent.


Technology in University Education

The incredible growth of online learning resources has been written about here and just about every education website in existence.  However there’s another important factor that these course bring those in traditional University and college education too.

Most higher education establishments in the UK now make extensive use of online courses even for residential students.  In doing this they are building up a huge amount of information about their student’s learning activities.  This data is normally generated from some sort of virtual learning environment which is an internal facility designed to store learning resources such as guidance and digital courses.

Education AI - the Future

The advantage of a VLE is that it is simple to monitor and analyse student’s learning activities in this environment.  For example it is simple to monitor how often a particular students logs on and how long they spend actively participating in the online component of their course.  This information can be easily collated automatically and sent to their respective tutors. In tests conducted by the University of Bedfordshire using a similar system the use of the VLE increased significantly whilst the updates where in progress.

Of course this is technology and there are bound to be some sort of risks behind relying on this completely for student development.  Of course, it will not be long before some  start using technology like this - to fool and mislead such automated monitoring.   As such the traditional tutorial sessions will unlikely be replaced completely but still it does represent a much better use of an academics time rather than monitoring or relying on registers for such students.

The technology being developed currently is something similar to that used by big online companies like Netflix or Amazon.  That is they trace, monitor and recommend different courses and study goals based on participation in the virtual learning area.   It marks exciting possibilities of perhaps helping a student choose the best study path based on interests and highlighting early intervention for students who may be struggling in certain areas.

There are just like with most online retailers, a certain amount of confidentiality and privacy issues. Certainly the information gathered must remain highly confidential especially with it’s obvious interest to potential employers seeking to analyse a graduate’s potential.   I have to say that I would have some reservations about how the data would be stored, managed and transmitted.  Especially as I have seen the sheer number of misconfigured proxies and server in University departments across the world – great for watching the BBC iPlayer when abroad (see here) but not so good for reassurance about data security.

What Languages Should Our Kids Be Learning?

I don’t know how it varies across the world, but I’m rather worried that children in the UK are learning entirely the wrong foreign languages.  Traditionally, UK schools tend to look at French as the first foreign language to be taught, and if you’re in Wales your children have to learn Welsh too.

Now for an Englishman living in Wales, I suspect these two languages are not the best two to learn to enhance your children’s work prospects in the future.  After all that’s what it’s all about isn’t it.  I get the Welsh Nationalist’s opinion that we need to protect the Welsh language, but in a global economy and a digitally connected world – learning Welsh makes very little sense to me.   But still I chose to live in this country and to be honest it’s a small price to pay I guess.


Which moves me on to French, not a difficult language to learn perhaps although I never completely mastered it myself, despite convincing myself I’m fluent after a few glasses of red.  But how much logic is there behind learning this language, what great opportunities world wide are there, is there a great commercial opportunity across the water?   The answer is definitely – NO, on both counts.

For anyone who isn’t French, you ‘d have to be utterly mad to go and set up a business in France.  In fact if you’re French, speak French and live in France – it’s still a mad place to set up a business.  The red tape is incredible just trying to do anything involves paper work and charges like you’d never believe.  You need to take exams to try anything,  and I mean anything – three years to learn how to work in a shop – I kid you not.  A role learnt when I was 16 in my holidays, it really isn’t that difficult.

Of course, France is a fantastic place, it’s beautiful has loads of great towns to visit.  Lounging around a French cafe or a meal in a classy French restaurant is one of life’s delights.  The food is incredible, the wine beautiful and the people outside Paris are very friendly.   But there is little incentive to go and seek your fortune there, and even if you did – you would have to hand it all over to the Government under a 75% tax rate.  As for learning the language properly I found the fact  that I could now watch my the TV stations I want over the internet to be a powerful disincentive too – check this video for details.

I think it’s time for an overhaul of what languages we teach our children at school, after all how many more doors would Mandarin open, or perhaps Spanish for the booming South American economies sort of a Brazil proxy entry.  Having said that I could even make much more of a case for even Russian or Japanese.

It just seems that our education system just favors the status quo rather than what it genuinely beneficial for our children’s futures.  In some senses it’s much easier for many other countries you decide – they generally will teach English without hesitation.