From Cybereducation to Cyberactivism. Can Cyberliteracy Transform the Public Sphere?

Andoni Alonso

Technology is commonly imagined as liberating. This is especially true when thinking about information and computer/communications technology (ICT) and the construction of cyberspace, a realm seemingly free of physical constraints. (Debates about the precise meaning of “ICT,” and whether the C stands for “computer” or “communication”, suggest a preference for “cyber-” constructions.) The situation is hypertrue when imagining cybereducation—since public education is the foundation of any strong public-sphere cyberactivism. The reality, however, is more problematic— especially when considering the central role of cyberscience. Liberation is never the automatic result of technological change.


From the beginning, information and computer technologies were projected to be powerful means for opening up higher education and lowering costs (Feenberg, 2001). New electronic devices promised an educational utopia: the possibility of an unfettered dissemination of knowledge and literacy. The idea is that access and costs are the primary barriers to making the university democratically available to everyone and that the former can be made virtually present everywhere while simultaneously reducing the latter to virtually

J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014

nothing. Additionally, much has been written about how the information society and economy depend on knowledge as a key resource (Castells, 2001). Online education and cyberliteracy came to be thought of as the foundations for contemporary society (Echeverria, 1999 and 2003).

Of course, cyberliteracy is not the same as literacy in the traditional sense of reading, writing, and critically interpreting texts. The new techno- or cyberliteracy involves document accessing; word processing; emailing; database, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint slide creating; and more. Some argue that even programming is required—as if driving a car required knowing how an internal combustion engine works. Certainly web page design has become a commonly assumed skill, as well as knowing how to protect against malware infections. Even more basic is the fact that people must be able to access computer hardware. Challenges associated with the digital divide between the hardware rich and hardware poor have cast a skeptical shadow over the dream of cybereducation (Norris, 2001).

The digital dream has nevertheless strongly influenced the educational system in Spain, where the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distan- cia (UNED, or National University of Distance Education) was founded in Madrid in 1972 by educational technocrats who were ascendant during the last years of the Franco regime. UNED now has the largest enrollment of any university in Europe, with more than 250,000 students and outreach centers in 13 countries stretching into the Americas and Africa. The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC, or Open University of Catalonia), established in Barcelona in 1994 as the university of the knowledge society is another institution attempting to utilize ICT to transform higher education; Manuel Castells has lent his prestige as a UOC professor.

Yet mere quantitative increases in student numbers obscure as well as disclose. History, for instance, reveals the repetitive character of the utopian discourse about educational technologies—and how much current efforts echo previous fantasies with regard to earlier communications media (see Waks 1995). Every new electronic communications invention, from radio and motion pictures to television and the Internet, has been invested with the same promise: the technology will expand higher education as never before, increasing the productivity of teachers while making their work globally accessible and inexpensive to students. Democratic intelligence will blossom forth on the planet. At the same time, no more than a brief look at course offerings of the online educational programs—many of which are actually offered in the United States by private, profit-making corporations— discloses a shift away from the humanities and the social sciences, which are the foundation of democratic intelligence, toward technical and vocational training. Cybereducation commonly focuses on developing skills related to the processes of cybereducation—computer programming, web design, database management, and related activities—instead of cultivating the critical skills associated with traditional literacy along with reflection on the goals, goods, and aims of life.

Education itself can be conceived in two quite different ways: as a fundamental right or as a commercial product. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 26:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education . . . Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

It is not clear that cybereducation goes beyond extending technical and professional education—often for the commercial benefit of cybereducation providers.

The fundamental rights view also expresses a traditional public goods concept. According to John Dewey, for instance, “education is a necessity of life” and crucial for democracy: “A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder” (Dewey, 1916, chapter 7, summary).From Dewey’s perspective, education may also be described as a commons—and could be analyzed using Elinor Ostrom’s (2000) theories of collective action, trust, and the cooperative management of common pool resources.

Any society contextualizes education; education is always part of a larger culture, and contemporary European and North American cultures commonly fail to conceive of themselves (European perhaps less than American) in common pool resource terms. In our turbo-capitalist societies, educational technology acquires a distinctive shape. In the United States, given its longterm capitalist ideological commitments, there has always been a small for- profit education sector, mostly for technical training. But since the 1990s, as a by-product of the neoliberal capitalist movement to deregulate commercial activities and privatize public services, the traditional not-for-profit institutions of higher education, both public and private, have increasingly been complemented with for-profit universities. In the 1970s, only 2 percent of US students were enrolled in for-profit higher education institutions; by 2008, this had increased to 8 percent (Geiger & Heller, 2011). Cybereducation has been a major contributor to this increase.

Cybernetworks may have been imagined as a means for creating universal access to traditional literacies. Internet use itself may have been thought sufficient to achieve utopian ideals (Negroponte, 1995). The Internet as a global repository for all human knowledge may make it theoretically possible for anyone to become an intelligent citizen or even a critical intellectual. Yet the realization of such possibilities on any mass scale is quite improbable (Maldonado, 1995).

Online packaged education has, in practice, often become a way to coopt the free time of citizens in the acquisition of skills necessary for keeping up with technical change—the colonization of leisure—while outsourcing the work of professors and depersonalizing learning. Cybereducation cannot substitute for face-to-tace discussion, although social media can sometimes enhance it. It is difficult to understand the excitement in the humanities about Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), since these are really no more than canned lectures broadcast to thousands. What is actually happening is revealed by the excitement of venture capitalists who are willing to invest in MOOCs as potentially new sources of revenue and profit.

The free and open source software (FOSS) movement and Wikipedia point toward alternative models for cybereducation. Software is as important as hardware for the construction of cyberspace, but business models for software production emerging from corporations conflicted with the more spontaneous sharing characteristic of premonetized software development. A nonmonetizing model of software creation was at the center of the FOSS movement (Stallman, 1999). At the time, most people thought it impossible to develop an alternative to the UNIX operating system, which AT&T privatized in 1982 as part of its agreement with the US Department of Justice to break up the company and spin off the Bell Labs research division. Bell Labs then had to make money and become self-supporting and saw UNIX licensing as part of its new business plan. But the computer ethic and ideal of collaborative sharing, of having a common task to which anyone who was willing might contribute, was so strong that it attracted more than a hundred thousand individual programmers and actually worked (Himannen, 2001).

The first e-tearning platforms, such as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) at the University of Illinois, were constructed on the FOSS model. (When PLATO was commercialized by Control Data Corporation, it failed.) Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), currently the most popular learning management system, is also a FOSS product, first released in 2002 by graduate computer science student Martin Dougiamas in western Australia. As of mid-2013, its user base was more than 80,000 sites, while that of its privatized, commercial competitor Blackboard was approximately 37,000 sites. Growing up in a small desert settlement, Dougiamas received his primary school education via shortwave radio distance education supplemented by regular airplane book drops; his desire was to bring this kind of noncommercialized learning to the Internet, as well as learning management systems. Although the noncommercial model of Moodle is currently in ascendance, it has to compete with the commercialization of Blackboard.

Another model for a public good, common pool cybereducation, can be found in Wikipedia. The wiki software for collaborative content creation was developed by extreme computing programmer Ward Cunningham beginning in the mid-1990s. In 2001, philosopher Larry Sanger and Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales conspired to use wiki software as the foundation for a new kind of online reference work that would draw on the knowledge base of anyone, anywhere who wanted to contribute. As of mid-2013, according to Wikipedia itself (which has repeatedly been shown to be at least as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica), Wikipedia has “30 million articles in 287 languages, including over 4.3 million in the English Wikipedia, [which] are written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone having access to the site. It is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, ranking seventh globally among all websites on Alexa, and having an estimated 365 million readers worldwide.”

Reading Wikipedia—and even more, contributing to it—constitutes engagement with a common pool, public good, educational experience. Wikipedia is the most visible manifestation of education or knowledge acquisition and production as a freely available right. Again, however, Wikipedia exists in tension with commercial educational content, software, and service providers such as Cengage Learning and Pearson, the former of which markets proprietary reference works such as the Encyclopedia of Bioethics and the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics.

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