Disembodied Learning:
How Flexible Delivery Shoots Higher Education in the Foot, Well Sort of

David Beckett Department of Vocational Education and Training University of Melbourne

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Dr David Beckett, lecturer in VET, at The University of Melbourne, publishes on professional practice, organisational epistemology, policy analysis and philosophy of education. Contact is welcome: Phone (03) 9810 3231; Fax (03) 9810 3170; E-mail d.beckett[email protected]

Written on the Body? Writing Off the Body

One of the great ironies in education at the moment is that increasing attention is being given to the body – how meaning is `written’ on it by gender, ethnicity and class – at the same time as the new information technology provides for the body’s very disappearance from learning. `Flexible delivery’ writes the body out of the learning equation – or tends to. This short paper, shaped by philosophy and styled as polemic, discusses this irony. It ends up with a few worries about flexible delivery, especially the so- called `delivery’ of learning, and suggests that higher education may not be as well-served by flexible delivery as is currently thought.

First however, some contextual details. `Flexible delivery’, at least in Australia, is the umbrella term for the entire range of multi-media provision of course and subject materials, and of the pedagogy by which these are meant to advance learning. Both of these are now afforded by globalised, broadbanded technology. At one end of a range, this includes totally on-line materials and pedagogies. Here, physical contacts and print materials may be completely redundant. This contrasts with more traditional `distance education’ or `open learning’ where some blend of mailed-out print materials, on-line or televisual materials, and physical attendance is required (more of a middle range position). Somewhere at the other end of this range is the typical physical campus. Here we have classes in rooms, in interaction with each other and with a lecturer-as-teacher. Various admixtures of these basic ingredients in higher education award-bearing courses and subjects provide `packaging’ or modes of provision for different sorts of access to learning. Hence: `flexible delivery’.

In Australian higher education, it is the vocational education and training (VET) sector – the trade, para-professional, community-based awards – which is leading the charge. But universities are not far behind. Academics everywhere are `marking up’ their courses and subjects into on-line mode as fast as the `marketing up’ of this new electronic access is pushing ahead. My own department is caught up in the midst of this, since our field of study is VET, but from an academic perspective. For example, all our Master of Education subjects in VET are expected to be on-line by year 2000. In this respect, we represent a typical response to what some are calling the `crisis of the universities’. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Leeds University, Zymunt Bauman, put this with erudition:

This…is the gist of the present crisis. With virtually all orthodox grounds and justifications of their once elevated position either gone or considerably weakened, universities…face the need to re-think and articulate anew their role in a world which has no use for their traditional services, sets new rules for the game of prestige and influence and views with growing suspicion the values they stood for. One obvious strategy is to accept the new rules and play the game accordingly. In practice this means submission to the stern criteria of the marketplace…(18)

Bauman, it must be said, then goes on to argue for a more eclectic set of responses. But his main point is a telling one. We are, in universities, caught up in a vast epistemological re-negotiation. This involves the rest of the community, technology, the nature of work – and a retrieval, I would argue, of some holistic notion of vocation. In what follows, I can only touch (lightly) on these substantial areas. And my vehicle along this pathway is the `flexible delivery’ bandwagon, as defined above.

But do not misunderstand me. I am not a Luddite: no laptop-smashing here! I applaud access to learning through technology, not least because, across the history of mass schooling (say, since the 1870s), technologies like chalk and readers and globes and excursions and calculators have literally been instrumental in shaping more and better knowledge than every before – for more people. Broadbanded information technology, however, is much more powerful than these. It has turned the globe into the global. Local classrooms, unless they plug in to the global, are condemned not just to the local, but also to the parochial. Educational ideologies are moving with the times, too. Lifelong, self-directed learning is, we are told, soon to be available via flexible delivery. The missionaries have returned and they have seen the future. Nothing less than the complete transformation of the `learning industry’ is supposedly required (Norris and Dolence 1996). If this is so, higher education has been colonised by the new technology.

With all this as contextual background, I want now to critique what this means for the existence of teaching and the quality of learning.

Real Time, Real Space: Just Being There

Let us grant this colonisation. Let us grant, even, that such globalised colonisation is a desirable future. What, however, are the consequences of access to `delivery’ of learning where a major part of that access is now technologically unbound by real time and real space? In real time and real space, learners appear as embodied beings (in `synchronous interaction’; Berge 1995). However, in `asynchronous’ time and space, learners’ embodiments are educationally irrelevant. They need not `appear’ in learning at all. We know they are out there, but their interaction is mediated by technologised time and space. This must affect the quality of learning, and, as I will argue below, a phenomenon crucial to high quality learning is, due to flexible delivery, endangered.

Classroom dynamics and management have been a close focus of education research for at least three decades. Perhaps since the realisation in the late 1960s that Western society was becoming more diverse and that, in schooling, one shoe no longer fit all feet. Class sizes, gender- and ethnicity-related learning styles, teacher behaviours, activity-based and experiential pedagogies, assessment variables, and so on, have all been ingredients in debates about how just being there in a classroom as an individual learner-in-a-group improves one’s education (or perhaps impedes it). Diversity has emerged locally, classroom by classroom, as a fact of teachers’ and learners’ lives. Rather late in all this, new information technology has arrived, promising individualised (or self-directive) ownership of learning.

Now we can arrange learning environments through new technology which removes the need to `just be there’ – that is, in the room. At once, you may say, we have eradicated the pathology of the classroom: learners will no longer feel their very presence has generated an inscription on their bodies by others. Fat, thin, shy, squeaky-voiced, slow, boisterous, late, sleepy, hairy – the whole Seven Dwarfs roll call – will be irrelevant in the new virtual learning environment. Learners can log on and off in their time, arranging their learning program, without regard for appearances in real time or real space. And isn’t this a great advance?

Undoubtedly so. Yet at the same time as diversity and technology are engaging, our culture is coming to terms with a new emphasis on visual literacy. Perhaps the greatest cultural change we are facing is the shift from the primacy of the printed word to the primacy of the visual image. The English, we are told, wanted to see the signs of the Royal Family’s recent grief. The symbols were clear, compelling and populist. We eventually saw the Royals walking past the flowers sent for Diana, processing behind the coffin through the streets of London, standing in the street as it passed, and so on. These are strong visual signals, transcending the `withdrawal’ which was the traditional, more dour, style of mourning. The week after the death of Diana is one example, but a powerful one, of the `reading’ of an environment in which everyone involved was on a steep learning curve: the English learnt as much about themselves then as at any time since Churchill. And the reading was visual, right from the fury at the paparazzi (whose very existence is due to the primacy of the visual image – taking pictures we’ve all looked at) to the sight of the flower- strewn hearse heading up the motorway.

Delivering Visual Literacy

Does flexible delivery engage this new visual literacy? On-line courses can look very pretty, but their substance seems to be a prolonged involvement with printed text. Moreover, in the absence of a real-time, real-space classroom, learners require virtually all the directions in great detail lest, in their real time, they lose their way. On-line subject material is, in this sense, ambiguous. Hypertext links can leave a wide variety of sequenced, and randomised, informational pathways open to the learner. In terms of self-direction, this is exceptionally liberating. Smart minds can turn information into self-education, given half a chance. But in terms of socio-culturally significant information, even the smartest minds need to know, eventually, what their peers think, and even what the teacher thinks, about the information they have cut and pasted into their own `take’ on the world. Furthermore, everyone expecting to learn `on-line’ needs a distillation of the previous attempts to establish, structure and overturn what counts as worthwhile knowledge. The information-presenting function of on-line courses (as an example of flexible delivery) is unquestioned. But as knowledge-presenting functions, such delivery is ambiguous. Like a huge shopping mall, the technology in itself invites the learner to buy, but only to satisfy mindless consumption. We learn because we have a social curiosity. We want to learn because we know our own limitations, our own ignorance. Self-direction, especially in front of the WWW, looks increasingly capricious. In the face of this, flexible delivery needs, at the very point of learner experience, to be heavily structured. This is almost paradoxical. The paradox is compounded when we notice that the more divergent from printed text such on- line courses appear (the more they engage the visually-literate, perhaps), the greater they rely on traditional print literacy for navigation.

Of course, the new flexible delivery permits, and requires, feedback, I hear you say (I don’t actually see you say it, though, do I?). All manner of group-based networking, with and without the teacher, is possible, and assessment tasks can key in to these. This is true – and it is essential. But the more essential point remains. flexible delivery offers an excessively individualistic educational ideology, which, to avoid eccentric and idiosyncratic knowledge-claims emerging, structures masses of teacher input, in printed text format.

In contrast, this is not what classrooms provide, now, in real time, and in real space, with real bodies present. They provide something much more valuable. I will now outline what it is about classrooms that tends to generate high-quality learning, by concentrating on a phenomenon ignored by most aspects of flexible delivery.

The Eros of Learning

After acknowledging the pathological aspects of classroom learning, mentioned earlier, and pledging ourselves to remediate them, we are still left with what some in education call the eros of learning. This is not the pursuit of the erotic-as-sexuality, but the recognition of the wider notion of the erotic-as-pleasure, and it is to be found in the work of the best classroom teachers when they energise a class with a love for the content, and a love for learning in itself. This is a professionally-responsible characterisation of the enthusiasmos which inspires learners to learn more. It typically happens in real time in real classes of real embodied people. As one of the foremost researchers in the field, Erica McWilliam, writes:

In describing teachers and students as `bodies’ we are conscious that the reader may regard this descriptor as impoverished or demeaning of persons engaged in pedagogical work. However…this descriptor…is being reclaimed in a new area of social theorising called embodiment theory…[where] authors speak of a `lived body’…or a `mindful body’ …in ways that constitute a departure from the traditional Western `mind/body’ distinction. The `self’ is understood to be an integrated being in which capability is not ascribed to a decorporatised mind but in a body as a lived structure and locus of experience…This is an important shift for understanding how new forms of pedagogy are being experienced or `lived out’ when they demand the absence, removal, or semi-disappearance of the fleshly bodies of teachers and students from the university seminar room or staff room. (McWilliam and Palmer p164)

McWilliam nails home the point well. There is a strong and inevitably visual element in this environment: classrooms can tap our emerging visual culture – say, as performance – the way `asynchronous’ interaction could not even identify. Humour, anecdote, negotiation and spontaneity are hallmarks of this kind of learning, and of this sort of teaching. Putting out spotfires, seizing the moment, catching the nuance and making something unique out of human sensibilities as they are inevitably revealed are all part of this, too. You have to be there! Unfortunately, with on-line courses, all this is off-limits.

In curriculum terms, what is going on is not the `delivery’ of content, by processes which are `facilitated’ by a teacher or trainer, and `chosen’ by `self-directed’ learners. Instead, what is going on is the construction of content, by processes which are negotiated during that construction. The teacher has broad aims which s/he works towards within the class, but the energy generated on the way through is formative. There are detours, backtracks, byways, brick walls and many fallings-short. The point is that cues from all those who are bodily present are central to all that. These cues will be behavioural in the richer sense that involves the inference of meanings from `body language’, especially the visual – eye contact (and therefore the oral and the aural). These inferences actively transform the content and the processes in reflexive fashion, on the spot, to arrive at a unique curriculum.

This is the `hot action’ of the classroom (Beckett 1996). It is, if you like, the erotification of learning in the sense that the dynamics of such classrooms play out the curriculum intentions presented in planned and accredited documents. Competency-based training minimises the chances of this occurring – and that is another debate to have. But so does `flexible delivery’ when it is just a pseudonym for information technology which virtually (sic) reduces the learner to disembodiment. And that, dear reader (not viewer!) reinstates the Ghost in the Machine: all mind plus mechanistic body (Ryle 1949, Schon 1987). This dualism, rightly criticised by Ryle and Schon, has constructed and justified elite education of all kinds, for centuries, in grammar schools and Oxbridge, and, yes, amongst senior secondary credentials like the International Baccalaureate, and its equivalents around Western schooling (the academic mind reigns supreme). The consequence of this for vocational education and training has been to keep it in its lowly place – as mechanistic, instrumental and `mind-less’ learning.

Nevertheless, VET, perhaps more so than other emphases in higher education, is rightly serious about bodies and what they can do, especially at work, and about identifying this with thinking. It was John Dewey who brought to our understanding the significance of technology to the coalescence of both working and thinking, in his `philosophy of enquiry’ – true vocational education. I can only allude to the richness of this in passing. Larry Hickman (1990) is well worth reading here. Taking as central, Dewey’s breadth of interest in technology (beyond the material, to include techne– productive skill, in the ancient Greek sense), Hickman writes:

Active productive skill…took its place in Dewey’s thought as a means by which he could, in his role as opponent of unresolved dualisms of all sorts, place human experience in medias res. Active productive skill offered Dewey a key to understanding the place of human beings within and at the cutting edge of the activities of nature…Nowhere is Dewey’s treatment of technology more insightful than in his radical reconstruction of traditional theories of knowledge and his replacement of them with a theory of enquiry (Hickman 1990:19).

Here, as for McWilliam, the dissolution of the traditional (that is to say, `modernist’) mind/body Cartesian world, with its privileging of the `pure’ mind, is Dewey’s main project. McWilliam wants to bring the body back into educational experience; Dewey wants to bring skilled work back in to those experiences. Taking these together, we may say that it is the working body which learns– in activity, some of which is mental, some of which is physical. The point is these activities are experienced holistically, by people in daily life, in social inter-relationships, and often through the leadership of good teachers, who track through these inevitably embodied experiences with the learners. In this sense, learning is written on the body, rather than ascribed to the Cartesian mind in the machine.

In the light of what we may call a `post-modern’ conceptual shift, the new material technologies in education, of which `on-line’ delivery is the most prominent, look a little arcane. They have written off the body! More ominously, to the extent that these new technologies discount teaching in favour of the `delivery’ of learning, they impart an instrumentalism which enshrines the old Cartesian dualism between mental labour (thinking) and manual labour (doing). In VET this is particularly pernicious – it has in the past held the field back from serious consideration as significantly vocational experience (in the Deweyian sense). Yet VET is where the high technology action is! I can only conclude that, despite the marketing push towards greater access, `flexible delivery’ does little to assist VET re-orient itself towards a more socio-culturally sensitive model of learning. This is despite renewed and diverse interest, in education and society generally, in human embodiment as the site of lived – that is, meaningful – experience.

Thus the irony: pedagogically we are more than ever `writing on the body’; technologically, however, we are writing off the body. Disembodied learning, in my view, will be a poor substitute for classroom teaching. It will however, be very widely available. It will provide access to more learning opportunities. But in doing so successful learning may be elusive. If there is a foot to be shot in (all that’s left of embodiment?), flexible delivery may well do the maiming.


Bauman, Z. (1997) Education, under, for, and in spite of, postmodernity. Invited address (pub. in Papers): 31st Annual Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, April 4-6 New College, Oxford.

Beckett, D. (1996) Critical Judgment and Professional Practice. Educational Theory 46: 135-150.

Berge, Z. (1995) Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations from the Field. Educational Technology. Jan-Feb: 22-30.

Hickman, L. (1990) John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Norris, D. And Dolence, M. (1996) IT Leadership is Key to Transformation. Cause/Effect 19: 11-20.

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. Hutchinson, London.

McWilliam, E. and Palmer, P. (1996) Pedagogues, Tech (no)bods: re-inventing. postgraduate pedagogy. In McWilliam, E. and Taylor, P. (Eds.) Pedagogy, Technology, and the Body. Peter Lang, New York

Schon, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Copyright 1998 Electronic Journal of Sociology