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The automatic student and the robot professor: online education and the politics of university reform

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(Dissertation) Ph.D.
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Since the 1990s, “online education” has emerged at the centre of debates over the future of higher education. Symbolising for proponents a transformation of universities to align them with informational economies, for critics online education signifies the commodification of knowledge, commercialisation of learning, and the deskilling of instruction. Critics posit these tendencies as online education’s essence, and mount their critiques as a reaction against technology. This dissertation attempts to retain a critical position on educational reform while displacing critics’ essentialist claims. Commodification, commercialisation and deskilling are not inalienable technical properties but contingent social values informing how online education takes shape. This means that if online education supports commodification, commercialisation and deskilling, this is the result of its development within social contexts in which such values “win out” over competing educational values. It also means that these competing values could stand as a basis for alternative realisations of online education. Drawing on constructivist technology studies, Foucauldian genealogy and Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, this dissertation develops a framework for understanding the history of technology as a process of struggle between competing values. It demonstrates the validity of this conceptual and methodological turn through the analysis of historical and contemporary cases in online education – the development of computer assisted instruction for distance education in the 1970s; experiments in educational computer conferencing in the 1980s; and the translation of a programme of institutional reform into a logic guiding the articulation of online education in the 1990s. Each case demonstrates that the forms of educational computing are relative to the values and interests that inform the strategic development of pedagogical practice and technological development in online education. Interventions into these value frameworks can result in an alternative form of online education. In the conclusion, I outline three areas that reflect such a transformation – blended learning, open source online education, and institutional policy developments around network technologies.
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