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Technology and the Deschooled Information Society

Tomi Kiilakoski Sami Hautakangas
Humanities Polytechnic
Tornio, Finland
University of Tampere,

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004

Our paper examines critically the perspective of deschooling as one possible "ideal" framework to understand and approach the relation between education and technology. In our earlier work we have analysed the structural similarities between the Tyler rationale, interpreted as a paradigm of curricular control, and the emblematic features of the current discourses affecting the use of educational technology: socio-economic discourse, organisational discourse, technical design approaches to educational technology and their meaning for the pedagogical design of educational technology. Our conclusion was that instrumental rationality is inherent in the models and practices and that there is a natural tendency to choose the Tylerian approach unintentionally as a result of the work on different levels, as the ramifications of the rationale cannot be detected inside the framework. (Hautakangas & Kiilakoski 2004)

The role of technology is often unquestioned in the Tylerian model of curriculum studies. Technology is seen solely as a means to an end, as a neutral device. Plausible arguments have been presented against this conception of technology. We feel strongly that this conception of technology should be deconstructed so that the workings of instrumental rationality could be grasped. Instrumental rationality affects modern and postmodern societies in a drastic way. However, this is a problem shared by all paradigms which might serve as a basis for e-learning planning.

If one wants to create learning webs or more generally deschooled information society one should be able to give a detailed analysis of the cultural conditions affecting the impact of technology. If these conditions are not clearly articulated there is a grave danger of slipping into some mode of technological determinism (a piece of equipment itself controls or determines the social change) or to an unfounded hope that society will just happen to change when the technology is taken into use.

We wish to emphasise that we do not intend to criticise the use of technology in education. The problem is not choosing between using technology and abandoning it altogether. Abandoning technology would probably lead to glorifying the existing state of education as a desirable way of organising human growth. It is important to note that institutionalised education can be seen as a technological instrument created by the needs of instrumental rationality. Our form of life is already profoundly technological (Heidegger 1977) and any theorizing that abandons technology is not realistic. Instead, we wish to shed light on the cultural and social conditions that affect and in some cases even determine the use of technology.

We begin by describing some of the basic arguments evinced against the workings of schools as educational institutions. Special attention is paid to the work of Ivan Illich, whose formulation of a deschooled society seems to coincide well with the developing web-based information society. We then examine some structural similarities between the deschooling tradition and the proponents of e-learning technology.

Deschooling, the paradigm for educational technology?

We understand deschooling as an educational paradigm that claims that school cannot maintain its function as a social institution. We do not identify deschooling solely with the anti-schooling movement of the seventies, nor do we understand it as thinking connected to the homeschool advocates. Instead, we see deschooling as an argumentative orientation which holds that education cannot be economically, culturally or morally effectively organised within the institution we call school.

Criticism of schools can be divided into different categories. The criticism of schooling often claims that school is unable to keep its promise. That is, school does not achieve the goals it should achieve. This may mean that it fails on the cognitive or moral level. Secondly, one could also question the goals by trying to show that schooling leads to unnecessary uniformity which is detrimental to the development of democratic society. The third way of criticizing school would be that the goals are achieved by sacrificing something valuable – that schooling as a social institution requires techniques that are inhuman (hidden curriculum, biopower). The fourth alternative of criticising school is to say that is does achieve the goals but it does not do this effectively enough. These arguments may lead to a requirement that schools should be replaced by more effective institutions. On this paper we concentrate on the last criticism which seems to be one of the core arguments of Ivan Illich and the deschooling thinking in the 1970’s in general.

Schooling as a hindrance for true learning

The name that is often equated with the concept of deschooling is Ivan Illich, whose well-known book Deschooling Society in 1972 expressed the key ideas of deschooling in a radical form. This work is central to our analysis as we see it containing an ideal picture, which we call "the Hope of the Deschooled Information Society". Illich is a good example also because his analysis touches also the political and societal conditions, and offers good grounds to clarify the limitations of this approach.

Illich’s main theses for the ideal condition for learning are expressed on the section of Learning Webs.

"Educational resources are usually labeled according to educators' curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches, which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource, which may help him to define and achieve his own goals:
1. Reference Services to Educational Objects-which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off hours.
2. Skill Exchanges--which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
3. Peer-Matching--a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large--who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients." (Illich, 1972)

In a nutshell, Illich’s conception is that school as an institution cannot really educate people, because both students and teachers are tied in artificial settings, where they learn in frustration to follow the rules of the institution instead of engaging in authentic learning. From this perspective it is natural for Illich to describe the ideal alternative as an educating society where the schools as institutions do not exist.

Open learning environment, a dream come true?

In recent years there has been a multitude of closely synonymous terms of the form ‘x learning environment’, of which ‘open learning environment’ is one. In the field of educational technology the change in the used vocabulary is markedly rapid, even if the basic ideas do not change. Partly this is due to the nature of the financial steering of the development by public institutions such as EU or governments and private financing institutions, which require from research and development constantly something that is innovative and new. This means that particular keywords have quite short life cycle before they are regarded as "old" and projects relying on yesterday’s terms are not as likely to be funded. The case is the same with the concept of open learning environment, which may already be past its prime and is been replaced by new buzzwords such as ‘blended learning’. However, the concept of open learning environment and its characterization make a good example, because they link aptly together the broader perspective of deschooling paradigm and its interpretation in the context of educational technology in the information society.

In the discourse of web-based education open learning environment has been often characterized in comparison of something called ‘closed learning environment’. One such characterisation lists the qualities of an open learning environment as follows: objectives are defined by the learner herself, learner makes her own timetable, learning environment has many places, contents are individually tailored, means of learning is self-study, context means real life situations and there are several alternative learning methods (Manninen 2000). These features are contrasted with the closed learning environment where an institution defines all the qualities and is also the context. This characterization is quite straightforwardly another formulation of how Illich described Learning Webs as an alternative to the school in the beginning of the 70’s.

The basic ideas of deschooling have survived to our day and web technologies and web services have been seen as a natural basic infrastructure and driving-force for this type of information society. However, it is another thing how these ideas and principles have been put into practice. The following examples show how different actors have interpreted these concepts.

Open Learning Initiative project by Carnegie Mellon University describes its purpose as creating a new paradigm for online education.

"Through the OLI project, Carnegie Mellon is working to help the World Wide Web make good on its promise of widely accessible and effective online education…A primary objective of the project is to build a community of use. Ideally, the courses developed and delivered through the OLI project will be used by instructors and students in Colleges and Universities throughout the world as well as individuals seeking education who are not affiliated with an institution."

(Open Learning Initiative 2003)

This university project funded by a foundation seems to be a quite concrete attempt to create something that Illich calls for in his principles. Structurally the basic idea to offer a technological solution to store and deliver courses free of charge for the self-studying purposes as well as for institutional use seems to be in accordance with Illich’s principles. The same can be said of the idea to form a community of use that would ideally make the concept self-sustaining. The question is whether the central role of the universities would corrupt the idea of openness, as the described elements of the courses entail tools fit for the traditional educational uses of evaluation, tracking and measurement.

Another example of the use of the concept is how the UK colleges see their function in this respect.

"Open Learning is a description of strategies by UK colleges to offer learning opportunities, including qualifications, to people in ways which are flexible, negotiated and suited to each person's needs. This could cover the time, place, style of learning & length of time of the learning programme."

Here school institutions have taken the role to organize and offer the learning opportunities and they treat open learning as a mode of work. This seems to be a step further from the deschooling paradigm, but on the other hand, there remains the idea of flexibility that covers almost the same characteristics mentioned earlier. Would this fill the basic ideals of the deschooling paradigm, even if the form is institutionalized?

A third example of current development that shares the same basic stance is an initiative concentrating on creating simple terms for publishing and licensing content materials that could be used and developed further by anyone. This initiative called Creative Commons is designed to make grounds for building large repositories of content enabling a mass use and development of the materials. This or some other similar initiative has gained popularity among public sector and publicly funded projects are being encouraged to publish the educational materials for open access. For example, in Finnish Information Society Program by the government contains explicit guidelines for the educational institutions to have measures to ensure the quality and access of the content materials. This seems to be the same idea that Illich calls "Reference Services to Educational Objects".

The common features with these cases is that they share ideas with the history of school criticism that we have been calling deschooling and that they have some kind of governmental or institutional support. On the other hand, there have been many experiences from private sector that different types of networked communities have been formed quite successfully, when the access for the users has been free of charge. And after the companies have started to implement their business plan and charge users of the access to the community and its communication services, many popular communities have withered away.

In practice the issue of making the resources publicly available that Illich is raising in his work seems to be very hard to tackle.

Grounds for criticising the deschooling paradigm

From the viewpoint of social criticism the deschooling perspective as a paradigm for educational technology in an information society seems to have rather severe limitations. Firstly, on the conceptual level 'open learning environment' has been described as an opportunity for the individual to pursuit knowledge free from the restrictions of time and place in the pursuit of knowledge present in the traditional schooling. Secondly, the deschooling discourse sees technology as an existing nature-like environment, which gives an individual a positive freedom to choose whatever she pleases. Or rather, by lacking detailed discussion on the nature of technology, this nature-like quality is taken for granted ­ technology simply works once it is in place. This means that the deschooling perspective sees the ideal solution for education as meeting two basic requirements: the non-interference of formal educational institutions and the existence of accessible technical frameworks with the available learning objects.

Within the post-traditional society (Giddens 1994) or the information society (Castells 1996) the structures of modern society are challenged: the logic which has shaped schooling is seen to be capable of producing citizens for a mode of work which is best exemplified by the conveyor belt. However, once the structure of work has changed this kind of schooling has lost its social justification. The main idea of the alternative perspective is to offer citizens opportunity to access knowledge whenever they feel this need. For society to be fully functional the requirement is that the educational system becomes far more flexible than the traditional school system. The wide accessibility and interconnectedness of the Internet seems to grant this dream to every citizen with the necessary technology and the ability to use to her advantage. In this discourse 'open learning environment' means absence of centralized governmental control over educational means and purposes.

In defence of the deschooling idea, it can be claimed that all education has an element of self-education. The basic principle of democratic society is that people have options to fulfil their needs without significant harm to other people. From the point of view of the individual, deschooling could mean better opportunities to gather information or enjoy entertainment suitable for one's purposes. When the individual is so interpreted, the main metaphor of the individual is a customer, an entrepreneurial autonomous chooser. On the other hand, democratic society needs a participatory activity. An important educational goal would be securing social action for a better future. This could be jeopardised if an individual is seen to be capable of existing outside her social connection.

Within the discourse of the deschooling movement, education for social transformation is seen to be dependent on the will of individuals. However, individual choice is greatly shaped by existing social institutions, such as market economy. The identity politics in general, and identity production in the Internet in particular, can be said to have ideological dimensions one may not be fully aware of. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002, xxi) state, the ideology of individualism "blatantly conflicts with everyday experience in (and sociological studies of) the worlds of work, family and the local community, which shows that the individual is not a monad but is self-insufficient, and increasingly tied to others, including at the level of worldwide networks and institutions."

This social framework may in fact remain hidden if the decontextualised nature of metacognitive learning skills is emphasised. If the social nature of an individual is taken for granted, the importance of the individual’s social connection is lost.

The questions suppressed in this point of view include the nature of the technology discussed, and what interest groups are maintaining the technical infrastructure. On the other hand, the cultural conditions under which successful self-education would materialize in practice are not addressed in this discourse. The main problem is that technology and the self-improving tendency of an individual remain as an "invisible hand" yielding the positive outcomes that are discussed on the conceptual level.


Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002): Individualization. London, Sage.

Castells, Manuel (1996): The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford, Blackwell.

Giddens, A (1994): "Living in A Post-Traditional Society". pp. 56-110 in Beck,Giddens, Lash: Reflexive Modernisation. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Hautakangas, S. & Kiilakoski, T. (2004): "The Information Society: Towards an Iron Cage of E-learning?" pp. 1-13 in European Educational Research Journal, Vol.3. No.1.

Heidegger, M. (1977): The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York, Harper & Row.

Illich, I (1972): Deschooling Society, New York, Harrow Books.

Manninen, J. (2000): "New learning environments: Theory and Concepts" in Flexible Learning in New Environments - Contents and Contexts, Second ERDI Expert Seminar, September 29-30, 2000.

Open Learning Initiative, Carnegie Mellon University 2003,

Wilson, J. (2002): "eLearning: After all the hype. Is it over?" Syllabus, Santa Clara, CA, July 31, 2002.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 May 2005