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Papers from the 28th Annual SCUTREA Conference
Research, Teaching and Learning: making connections in the education of adults

Lost and found: 'cyberspace' and the (dis)location of teaching, learning and research

Robin Usher, School of Education, University of Southampton, UK

Richard Edwards, School of Education, Open University, UK

The relationships between research, teaching and learning are inevitably changing in a world characterised by a blurring of boundaries between knowledge and information, yet where 'knowledge' is accessible to many more. Pedagogy can no longer be seen simply as the 'authoritative' transmission of canonical bodies of knowledge by research-based 'experts'. Increasingly, research and pedagogy follow different imperatives, in the UK at least in higher education where the link has always been supposedly closest. Equally, where 'learning' rather than 'education' is increasingly foregrounded, there is a separation of teaching from learning which both reflects and contributes to the inappropriateness of notions of pedagogy as 'transmission'.

Central to these shifts are the possibilities opened up by the development of information and communications technologies. Their deployment has challenged long-standing traditions in complex and contradictory ways, facilitating on the one hand, an emphasis on performativity in the sense of systemic efficiency and on the other, an emphasis on learning (and learned) outputs from a multiplicity of sites and a diversity of sources. In this paper, therefore, we will look first at the way knowledge is being reconfigured as a consequence of its interface with information/ communications technologies and what this implies for research and its relationship with pedagogy. Second, we will examine the development of what is now increasingly referred to as 'cyberspace' and the spaces thus opened up for new relationships and possibilities in pedagogy and learning. But in keeping with our theme of 'lost and found' we will also highlight some of the limitations and dangers posed by these new relationships and possibilities.

Reconfiguring knowledge

As knowledge becomes reconfigured by the logic of information and communications technologies, new opportunities for learning and demands for new kinds of learning are stimulated (Lyotard 1984). Technologically mediated knowledge becomes commodified into information and provides the basis for individualising learning in a more complex and active way. Through the Internet, e-mail, CD-ROMs and hypertext, possibilities are presented for individuals to access information, interact with it and other learners, and thus learn more flexibly without the need to attend institutional centres of learning. At the same time, subjects (in the sense of bodies of disciplinary knowledge) and their transmission become relatively less important in relation to, for example, multi-disciplinarity, multi-literacies and transcoding, and 'imaginative' skills of gathering information and connecting it together in new ways.

One effect of the use of these technologies, particularly in the accompanying development of 'cyberspace', is that 'canons and authorities are seriously undermined by the electronic nature of texts…as texts become "hypertexts"...the reader becomes an author, disrupting the stability of experts or "authorities"' (Poster 1997: 214). Knowledge then is not only commodified but also decentred , functioning in an environment where epistemological boundary making is not so potent. Predictability and certainty become less the norm and paralogy, or the acceptance of dissensus and conflict in what constitutes knowledge, is more readily seen as a positive value.

Stronach and MacLure (1997) argue that the very nature of research is changing as its space is compressed and where it is more obviously politically influenced. With the decline of traditional research cultures, there is a demand for 'relevance', immediate policy pay-offs and a direct instrumental contribution to system efficiency. It could be said, although not unproblematically, that the need to seek and carry out performative research not only leaves little or no time for teaching but more significantly has contributed to diluting the connection between these. But against this, information/communications technologies and the disseminative power afforded by their use can enable research outputs to more swiftly inform teaching.

In research, there seem to be two trends pulling in opposite directions. The demands of performativity pull towards closure and a locking in of research to an economy of the same. Equally, however, there is more of a possibility for a transgressive or 'hybrid' research that works 'between the spaces' of established and newly emerging performative research cultures. We can characterise this as a (dis)located research - a research that recognises the necessary intercomplexity of the closed and the open, the bounded and the unbounded, the traditional and the emerging.

At the back of this is what Stronach and MacLure refer to as a contemporary 'un-ruliness' of knowledge, the dissensus mentioned earlier about what constitutes knowledge and knowledge-production manifested in the epistemological and methodological questioning of postmodernity. Performativity plays a significant role here in subverting canons of knowledge and traditional ways of doing research - its demands both close and open possibilities, contributing simultaneously to the strengthening and loosening of boundaries.

At the same time, however, performativity and its demands is not the whole story. In discursively constructing the 'active researcher', successive research assessment exercises have also reinforced an economy of the same - for example, through the foregrounding of 'output' and the differential weightings attached to different kinds of output (McNay 1997). Knowledge production is repositioned in terms of individual and institutional performance, thus making the boundaries even stronger. But again it is possible to point to tendencies in the opposite direction. First, given that the logic of cyberspace is participatory and interactive, the wider use of information/ communications technology enables research to be subject to a peer review which goes beyond judgements by colleagues in the same academic discipline to include research subjects and stakeholders. Second, as an aspect of the dissensus or decentring of knowledge, one of cyberspace's effects is to problematise the convention of authorship (Lankshear 1996). The distinction between informal communication and scholarly publication becoming less easy to maintain, thus making possible the repositioning of knowledge production as something that is not exclusively in the hands of university based researchers.

With the commodification of knowledge and the individualisation of learning, research begins to move uneasily from the ivory tower into the marketplace. As universities gradually lose their status as primary producers of knowledge, they become part of a wider knowledge market, forced to compete with R&D companies, consultants and think-tanks. As Plant (1995) points out, universities are less able to control access to knowledge when it increasingly takes the form of information circulating through networks outside the control of educational institutions. With these developments comes a need to think anew about what constitutes research and its relationship with pedagogy and learning.


Each self exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at nodal points of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be.

(Lyotard 1984: 15)

In recent years, 'cyberspace' has developed rapidly both as a concept and an actuality. The explosive growth for example, of the Internet is indisputable although its significance and effects is contested. Part of the key to this growth lies in the Internet's technological structure of costless reproduction, instant dissemination and radical decentralisation (Poster 1997). However, due weight must also be given to factors which are not the outcome of technology alone, such as for example, its openness and accessibility. It cannot be understood simply as an efficient tool of communication but as a social space which stimulates new forms of interaction, helps in restructuring and forging creolised identities, and produces new relations of power, for example, between teachers and learners.

Featherstone and Burrows (1995: 5) define cyberspace as - 'a cluster of different technologies, some familiar, some being developed and some still fictional, all of which have in common the ability to simulate environments within which humans can interact'. It is both a space and a non-space; a (dis)location - something that is both positioned and not positioned, (dis)placed but not re-placed, a diaspora space of hybridity and flows where one and many locations are simultaneously possible. It's significant, as Featherstone (1995) points out, how frequently metaphors of movement figure - for example, 'flows' originating with Deleuze and Guattari (1987) and their notion of rhizomatic branching networks as a way of critiquing fixed boundaries and identities, or positionalities.

Flows, through globalisation and space/time compression, deterritorialise people, images and information, commodities, money and ideas (Appadurai 1990). Wark (1997), borrowing an image from geometry, refers to flows as 'vectors' ( lines of fixed length and direction but with no fixed position), arguing that we all now live in a space of vectoral flows not bounded places. A vector is a trajectory along which information or anything else can pass and in the contemporary scene vectors have become faster and more flexible, in the process connecting anything to anywhere and creating a new space of possibilities. Cyberspace then is the emerging deterritorialised terrain of vectors.

Wark (1997: 57) claims that one consequence of this is that cultural differences are not so closely tied to experiencing particular places….'vertical differences of locality, ethnicity are doubled by horizontal differences determined not by being rooted in a particular place but by being plugged into a particular circuit'. This is antipodality - 'the experience of an active trajectory between, places, identities….rather than a drawing of borders, be they of self or place' (ibid). Antipodality is the experience of (dis)location - of being neither here nor there but both here and there - created by vectors of transnational and globalised communication. This (dis)location or dis-place-ment is part of the postmodern condition with identity marked by a postmodern geography where 'marginality and otherness increasingly figure as the signifiers of identity - to "be" in the postmodern sense is somehow to be an Other' (Bammer 1997: xii). Information and communications technologies provide the means of enhancing these postmodern possibilities for different forms of identity. The new relationship between place and space where for example, through World Wide Web sites more and more people are connected electronically (Kaplan 1996) creates networks, communities and identities that both locate and dislocate learners.

The mediation of social relationships and identity by new technologies is perhaps best expressed by the notion of the 'cyborg', a term first coined by Haraway (1991) and defined by Featherstone and Burrows (1995: 2) as 'a self-regulating human-machine system… a human-machine hybrid in which the machine parts become replacements, which are integrated or act as supplements to the organism to enhance the body's potential'. For us, the significance of the 'cyborg' lies its hybridity, its embodiment (literally) of the breakdown or blurring of boundaries between nature and culture, technology and nature, bodies and subjects, active agents and involuntary machines. Beller (1996: 194/5) argues that 'the cyborg is the absolute limit figure for the conjunction of the global and the local - the intersecting of the human being from anywhere in the world…and the technology endemic to transnational capitalism'.

The 'cyborg' can be seen as a metaphor for that restructuring of boundaries which characterises the contemporary condition where hitherto fixed boundaries between subjects, bodies and the world are no longer so stable and impermeable. With this comes a questioning of the analytical categories deriving from such fundamental divisions, for example between technology and nature, which have structured the 'reality' of the world. In educational terms, this implies a restructuring of those hitherto bounded oppositions of formal/ informal, teacher/ student, classroom/ home, print text/ electronic text which play such an important part in defining educational 'spaces of enclosure'.

Implications for pedagogy

Lankshear et al (1996) argue that education as a modernist institution is characterised by the 'spaces of enclosure' of the book, the classroom and the curriculum - spaces which work to enclose meaning. The learner's task is then one of extracting a singular canonical meaning and the teacher's that of being the 'authority' in terms of interpretation and accuracy. They maintain that cyberspace calls all these spaces into question - the fixity and stability of the word, the linear text with definitive meaning, the teacher as authoritative bearer of meaning. There, it is argued, the rules are more egalitarian, purpose-driven, self -imposed and self-monitored. Cyberspace creates a reader-controlled environment or at least an environment where the distinction or boundary between readers and writers becomes less clear and consequently textual production and interpretation become less bounded. Hence, learners are more able to determine their own paths of learning where they do not simply interpret pre-given meanings but actively collaborate in its creation. In cyberspace practices, meanings are more readily negotiated by its users (Featherstone 1995).

Cyberspace therefore seems to signify a questioning of modernist systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy and linearity and where notions of multi-linearity, nodes, links and networks seem more appropriate. By undermining the stability and coherence of the book and creating new forms of textuality and intertextuality, the modernist subject with a core, fixed identity is called into question. With this, comes the need to re-think pedagogy in terms of multiplicity, of multiple paths and non-linear forms of learning and teacher-learner transactions.

This would seem to suggest more opportunities for learner-centred pedagogies in shifting from teaching to learning. But this learner-centredness is different from that of humanistic experiential pedagogy since, as Lankshear et al (1996) point out, this is a pedagogy which is self-directed and purpose-driven rather than oriented to achieving the externally imposed meta goals of modernist education. In the 'virtual' classroom the focus moves away from the teacher as the central authority responsible for validating input and encouraging consensus. The teacher-student relationship can also be reconfigured since potentially all can be 'experts', given the abundance and availability of information in the sites and networks of cyberspace.

If teaching and learning are reconfigured in terms of 'links' and 'networks', this also involves a redefinition of the role of teachers. The need now is to learn how to access and use information, although this particular role is one that teachers may have to share with learners given that the latter may often be more knowledgeable and skilful in cyberspace environments. The availability and accessibility of information may also help release teachers from their traditional role as providers of content to that of making the learning process explicit and transparent, for example, helping in the framing of questions and ensuring that learners critically interrogate that which they encounter in cyberspace. As Tabbi (1997: 239) points out 'the digital medium…encourages a branching discussion in which students link up to a network…the pedagogical dynamic is more provisional, not question-answer but comment-elaboration with cues coming from a number of centres besides that of the teacher'.

This is a point which is also emphasised by Green (1993) who argues that learning has traditionally been conceived in terms of 'interiority', a particular kind of cognition and mental development, linked to a normative view of rationality. He suggests that in postmodern conditions of knowledge, we perhaps need to think of how forms of learning and cognition are themselves changing in ways which question the very assimilation of learning to cognitive interiority. We could perhaps then see new technologies as 'amplifiers of human attributes and capacities, and hence of human potential; as prosthetic devices which enable learners to operate differently' (Green 1993: 28).

Here we are presented with the interesting notion of the learner as a cyborg - an argument which although provocative does remind us that cyberspace affects not only pedagogy per se but the identity of learners too and with that changes in perceptions of what learning is. It's not then simply a matter of performativity, of increasing transactive efficiency, but also of a change in culture. Any critical understanding of the effects of new technologies and practices requires an evaluation of the type of subject it encourages - not the foundational subject of consciousness but a subject with hybrid identity constructed through communicative practices. When information can be taken up and used freely, identities as learners are constructed without policing by an external epistemological authority. In cyberspace, the disciplinary distinction between knowledge and information becomes difficult to maintain. 'Legitimate' or 'worthwhile' knowledge becomes that information used in the self-directing and self-monitored practices of cyberspace's virtual communities.

Cyberspace also seems to imply enhanced possibilities for a greater degree of democracy both in the classroom (even if it is virtual) and in education generally. Many see it as an environment where the skills and attitudes necessary for engaging in certain forms of democratic decision-making can be more readily cultivated. Tabbi (1997) argues that whilst the Internet has been seen mainly as a way for learners to more readily exchange information, it can also function as a forum where differences amongst learners can be articulated and where a greater equality of participation and interaction can be established. Lankshear et al (1996) believe that in enabling access to continuously available on-line information and participation in a range of activities and experiences, cyberspace's virtual communities enhance democratisation. On the other hand, cyberspace, although participative, is not inherently democratic. 'Disciplinary power' could well be re-invested from the transmission of inputs to the examination of outputs (Nicoll and Edwards 1997). Any democratising impulse will remain unrealised if learners are not stimulated to think critically about the impact on their learning of different technologies and the mediating processes that come with them - learners need to be inscribers lest they become inscribed.

Furthermore, whilst a decentred and interactive classroom experience can have democratic effects whether it will still depends on the wider social context. Cyberspace produces new formations of social and economic power and it is against these that its democratic potential must be evaluated. As Gabilondo (1995) rightly points out, there is a need to guard against utopian libertarian technophilia. However, these new formations should not be seen as always fixed and hegemonic. Although contemporary capitalism has a global reach, it does not wipe away everything it encounters.

Many would regard the world of cyberspace as highly problematic. It raises fears of the social effects of on-line existence as people become disconnected from 'real' life and simulacra take over from 'reality'. The communities of cyberspace consist of virtual, often fleeting and anonymous connections that exist only on-line. Tabbi (1997) argues that it is precisely the disembodiment, disembeddedness and decontextualisation (no bodies, no history, no place), or dislocation, of electronic discussion that will limit the democratic potential of cyberspace. On the other hand, as Porter (1997) argues being able to exhibit mobile, multiple and 'made-up' identities may not necessarily be a bad thing if instead of conceiving 'culture' as a homogeneous social sphere we think of it instead as adapting to the free-floating semiotic universe of cyberspace.

Lost and found?

We have examined some of the changes challenging education's modernist 'spaces of enclosures' - changes in what constitutes knowledge which effects the way it is produced (research), organised (curriculum), presented (the book) and delivered (pedagogy). These changes resonate with the move from the fixed institution based space of 'education' to the more open and unbounded terrain of 'learning'.

We have attempted to show how cyberspace, itself both space and non-space, both locating and dislocating, stimulates and facilitates these changes. The vectoral nature of cyberspace makes it a (dis)locating medium for those 'finding' themselves within it - and it is not simply information that is at stake here but identities also. Naïve technophilia and/or technological fetishism both construct cyberspace as a transcendent location, bringing with it in new forms the return of spaces of enclosure, of fixed and bounded space. Cyberspace presents exciting openings and reconfigurations for learners and researchers but there are limitations as well as dangers. In the diasporic unbounded spaces of cyberspace, one can be lost as well as found, lose as well as find.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 04 July 1998