Yolanda Gayol
Fulbright Fellow and Doctoral Candidate, Adult Education
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802-1303
(814) 867-0665

Fred M. Schied
Assistant Professor, Adult Education
305E Keller Bldg.
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802-1303
FAX (814)865-0128


On a global scale, computer mediated communication (CMC) is becoming one of the most important pedagogical sites for upper and middle class people. CMC encompasses all the existing forms of narration: conversation, speech, written and visual, produced either individually or in an industrialized form. CMC is more powerful than other media not only because it allows for a fusion of technologies and texts, but because it allows people to have instantaneous, decentralized and always available interventions. Thus CMC makes it possible to explore, manipulate, produce and distribute discourses all over the world. However, distance educators mainly address this total discursive environment simply as a highly specialized and disciplinary matter. Consequently, empiricist epistemologies and procedures derived from mainstream pedagogy serve as the basis for most distance education programs. Frequently, these models are used to produced educational programs delivered globally. Yet the ethical and cultural implications of this approach are rarely discussed in distance education literature.

The purpose of this study is to begin to develop a cross-cultural perspective on the cultural consequences of the global use of CMC. The paper argues that only by viewing CMC from a critical, anthropological perspective as a new cultural artifact can the impact of this new discursive practice be understood. The paper concludes by discussing CMCís possible consequences on global communities differentiated by their wealth, income and technical access to telecommunication technologies.

Characteristics of Cyberspace in a Global Environment

The term cyberspace refers "to the worldwide computer mediated communication (CMC) network where words and graphics are shared and friendship and power relations are manifested" (Kramarae, 1995, p.38). Cyberspace is a sophisticated ensemble of audio, visual, digital and communication technologies used to produce and deliver written, visual, audio, and occasionally kinesthetic narratives at light speed through fiber optic networks linked to satellite and computer systems. Some people use the term cyberspace and virtual reality interchangeably (Leary in Hiltz, 1994, p.38).

Cyberspace is used here as the environment artificially created through the assembly of technologies. Virtual reality implies the interaction among users with information or other users, immersed in cyberspace, using computers and telecommunication technologies. At this stage, virtual reality in computer networks is mostly a two-dimensional embryo of what it will be in the future: a fully developed three-dimensional cyberspace environment, an alternate reality made up of digital information. This material assembly of technologies brings in symbolic assemblies of discourses. What used to be autonomous sets of institutions, with specific narratives held in different locations in the real world, come together in virtual reality. The symbolic contiguity is set up as multiple, semi-permeable frontiers that change the meaning of what we view as separate spheres: public and private, time and space, the self and others. Thus CMC has the potential to permeate all social spheres (work, education, leisure consumption, interpersonal, sexual) all areas of knowledge ( economic, artistic, scientific, religious, political, technical), and all user characteristics (age, gender, ethnic origin, activity, location) while cutting across national borders. The cultural consequences of these interests and ideologies are envisioned by Baudrillard who declares that virtual reality "would be the radical effectuation, the unconditional realization of the world, the transformation of all our acts, of all historical events, of all material substance and energy into pure information. The ideal would be the resolution of the world by the actualization of all facts and data" (Baudrillard, 1995).

The technological assembly of artifacts and meanings creates personalities in permanent migration, in a continuum in and out of virtual reality. Users move daily from the real, concrete, immediate, heterogeneous "community" to the abstract, international, highly specialized virtual reality. This ambivalent plugging in and out of 'contextual' and virtual worlds becomes part of a lifestyle. The worlds influence each other and are integrated by the users into a whole. The technical qualities of virtual reality, to some extent, circumscribe the characteristics of the narratives. Consequently, virtual reality becomes a new source that contributes to the shape of identities.

The Effects of Cyberspace in a Global Environment

The effects of virtual reality are obviously multiple and variable and sometimes ambiguous. An analysis of the global society must resist linear narratives that position the users in one perspective and read the world from that particular perspective. The integration between contextual, virtual and technological is processed and integrated within subjects and collectivities from multiple viewpoints. Although the way in which narrative is integrated is not transparent, awareness of how identities are shaped is one of the most important pedagogical needs of virtual reality. Particularly relevant is understanding how reality, media and cyberspace overlap and alter the quality of subjectivities. These three environments "compete" for the shaping of identities, values and practices. The existence of cyberspace also affects identities and cultures of non- users. Territorial spaces are intruded upon with material artifacts while the vast majority of people are marginalized, their "voices and experience are silenced, and omitted from the mainstream culture" (Casari, 1995; Kellner, 1987).

A review of the distance education literature suggests that there are four epistemological orientations to the impact of cyberspace on society: techno-rational,techno-utopic, oppositional, and critical. Techno-rational, the most common orientation, is an ideological neutral approach which focuses its highly specialized attention on technical issues and largely remains silent on societal and cultural issues. Techno-utopic has as its roots early optimism about technology creating a mythos of electronic revolution. (Quirk, 1989) Universal, democratic and athenangoric are qualities attributed to CMC. Vice-President Al Gore, corporate investors, and some distance educators mention only the positive consequences of the introduction of CMC in a "global" society. (Buell, 1993) Quirk argues that "despite the manifest failure of technology to resolve pressing social issues over the last century, contemporary intellectuals continue to see revolutionary potential in the latest technological gadgets pictured as a force outside history and politics" (Quirk, 1989, p.191). The oppositional case analyzes CMC in depth and within a cross-disciplinary perspective of society, history and technology. This approach expresses a profound concern about the negative consequences that technology has already had upon societies. It also recognizes the impossibility of choosing a destiny outside the technological one. Moreover, the likelihood of a disastrous future is predicted. Solutions to this situation variously described as technology "out of control" or tied to the "autonomy of technology" are not envisioned (Baudrillard, 1995; Ellul, 1990, 1964). The fourth perspective, critical, refers to critical perspectives focused on particular topics bur framed in global concerns such as gender, language dominance, nationalism, colonialism and culture, access, and learning (Carter, 1996; Freedman and Liu 1996; WWWDEV, 1996; Casari, 1995; Buell, 1993; Semesek and Stauh, 1988).

Most of the distance education literature is aligned with the techno-centered and the techno-utopic positions. Few have taken a critical approach. Considering the impact that cyberspace has on institutional and personal spheres of human life, it is important to contextualize CMC pedagogy within the notions of politics, imperialism, nationalism, cultures and identities. The present approach is an initial attempt to contextualize the discussion about CMC.

Culture and Imperialism: Beyond Linear Approaches

A review of the idea of culture in the ICDL database suggests that culture is generally encompassed within the ideas of nationhood or ethnicity. The identification of nations with culture means to work under an epistemic assumption of culture that admits "the myth of unitary subjects" (Mouffe, 1993, p.21). To accept the existence of a particular essence which lead cultures to a unity means to admit "the immutable presence of a homogeneous and substantial quality, unchangeable, which has to be respected and preserved to avoid imperialistic practices and loss of the authentic (Morley, 1996, p. 328). Culture defined within the modernist discourse as a set of traditions, costumes, ceremonies shared by groups generally attached to ethnicities, territories, or institutions "is built out of history and politics" (Quirk, 1989.).

The commonality of experiences tied to geography has supposedly created homogeneous identities. "Communities, express their uniqueness through language, knowledge, values and practices. This 'purity' must be preserved, so the argument goes, because it has the intrinsic value of being distilled from the past. From this perspective, there is little room for cross-cultural change. This epistemology, built upon abstract, univocal and fixed certainties, leads to the conclusion that the development of communication technologies and media have been seriously threatening the identities and values of "communities" and nations all over the world (Ellul, 1990). Within this linear logic, a non territorial "EurAm" imperialism coming from "developed" nations, is uni-directionally intervening in all spheres of human activity. Further, the spread of US values throughout the global market and global media is destroying culturesí languages and traditions and homogenizing societies throughout the world. From this perspective, such a homogenized future seems inevitable because the development of capitalist society has evolved to a level where interconnectedness is world-wide and touches the most intimate spheres of everyday life. The failure of the socialist model has aggravated the situation because there is no competing ideology to counterbalance this overwhelming power. From this perspective, CMC is a just a new technology that will intensify the imperialistic process of colonizing the minds of the so-called "third world countries.

Although this imperialist-colonized perspective on culture has a surface radicalism, it is nevertheless it is deeply conservative. An overwhelming description of regional superpowers working intentionally against the weak and disabled communities paralyzes agency and reproduces the status quo. In the words of Giroux, "interrogating the forms is more constructive instead of blaming and targeting groups aprioristically" (Giroux, 1996a). Indeed, other more complex and cross-disciplinary approaches to interpretations of culture suggest ways in which one can allow for the possibility of change.

A cross-disciplinary approach to culture is important in order "to understand the links between texts, individuals and social formations" (Tudor, 1995, p.81). The frequently cited work of the British historian Eric Hosbawm is very useful in disengaged rationally and emotionally from the essentialist vision of culture. Hosbawm traces the development of traditions to show that traditions are not immutable essences of the past but practices continuously invented and reshaped. Hosbawm defines tradition as "a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past." (1987, p.1) Raymond Williams explains that traditions are selective and their survival depends on their expression of contemporary values. They are not merely representations of the past; traditions tend to correspond to interests of the present (Williams in Milner, 1994, p. 48) For example, Edward Said (1993) notes that by 1914 Europe held about 85% of the earth as colonies. He explains how British traditions, identities, values and knowledge were "naturalized" through the different spheres of culture. British literature, for example, helped to define identities conveniently adapted to the imperial interests. (p. 220).The ideas of nation and sovereignty that were definitive in the organization of revolutionary forces in colonized territories also are a very recent invention. Paraphrasing Hosbawm (1990), sentiments and symbols, specialized knowledge such as philology, literature, history and "the pseudoscience of racialism,Ñ were tied together to make nationals where they did not previously exist.

Buell (1993) lucidly describes how national, regional and global identities are invented, consolidated and transformed in very short periods according to the tensions occurring between the dominant and subordinated societies. In brief, a historicized notion of imperialism and colonialism allows the recognition that internal-external boundaries are imaginary ideas, conveniently enclosed and mystified. The supposed fixities respond to circumstantial interests found inside and outside ethnic, national or geopolitical spaces. In the history of societies there are (and always have been) multiple interpretations of religion, education, science, costumes, symbols and rituals (Said, 1993). The notions of tradition, culture, identity, nationalism are neither pure nor immutable but invented and re-figured, according to an "unstable balance of forces" (Gramsci in Hall, p.422). There is the need to regard these notions inside history and politics. This need is expressed by Giroux and Simon (1989) when they claim that " there is no popular culture outside the interlocking processes of meaning, power and desire that characterizes the forces of cultural relations at work at a given time and place in history".

This discussion has attempted to show that the notion of culture are not linear and unidirectional. The discourses on abstract communities become powerful pedagogic narratives that focus on immediate differences, such as language, and look for an abstract 'enemy' outside the boundaries of cultural values, thus predefining fixing identities. Those who embrace these determinist ideologies consider that crossing borders (disciplinary, territorial, cultural) results in a kind of cultural pollution and therefore argue for a politics that seeks to avoid this ñcontamination.However, the introduction of virtual reality in society, among other telecommunication media, breaks down the attempt to enclose people and societies.

Defining an Anti-oppressive Pedagogy in a Transcultural Environment

What is the alternative to an ideology of “inside purity" and “outside corrupting influences?" The immediate answer is the disclosure of the forms that create and naturalize identities. Deconstructing narratives that establish and consolidate inequity is one way to resist the growth of asymmetric relationships. Asymmetrical and unequal relationships have a material component that cannot be dismissed. However, unequal relationships are not only imposed through economic and political means, they are also produced and distributed through the sphere of culture. In this respect, Said (1993) declares " . . . imperialism occurs beyond the level of economic laws and political decisions, and by predisposition, by the authority of recognizable cultural formations, by continuing consolidation within education, literature and the visual and musical arts . . . " (p.12). Thus the cultural sphere is one of the most important sites in defining and regulating unequal relationships.

Dominant-subordinate relationships are not territorially tied; they have been established among classes, gender, ethnicities, cultures and regions. They are not immutable, but have transitional forms. They are also relational because one form cannot be defined without the other. Some of their qualities are embodied in the consciousness of the other. Finally, they are correlated and supportive of material inequities. ( Hall 1996; Said, 1993).

Identities are shaped and connected to the dominant-subordinated polarity through the sphere of culture. Oral and textual narratives, scientific and artistic discourses, and direct or mediated forms of communication embody relational identities. These relational identities are built within a range of texts that includes all levels of abstraction, from the particular to the universal. The same mutually exclusive pattern works to polarize and position individuals, groups, nations, regions or the "global" society. As Derrida points out, " . . . the constitution of an identity is always based on excluding something and establishing a violent hierarchy between the resultant two poles -- form, matter, essence accident, black/white, man/woman and so on" (Derrida in Mouffe, p.141). The self is centralized, and its qualities are magnified and naturalized. The emotional effects of those who are in the central position are generally of assurance, opposed to those defined outside the imaginary boundaries. Self-respect acts as a glue in the creation of abstract communities. The "other" is put in the margins. Their voices omitted or silenced from the mainstream culture; they are dehumanized and victimized (Dinez and Humez, 1995; Kellner, 1987).

There are many specific analysis of how displacement and negative valuing of the other operates in art, literature, media, and popular culture analysis (Giroux 1996b; Dinez and Humes,1995; Said 1993). One example related to distance education describes how a post colonial narrative may define an education policy of subordination.

In an evaluation of programs taught at a distance, John Barker lists the factors for the success of the Open University and the opposed failure in "developing" countries.

United Kingdom

  • Short distance, easy travel
  • Efficient postal services
  • Homogeneous population
  • Common languages
  • High general education
  • High literacy level, book oriented
  • Many good teachers
  • Established printing and publishing resources
  • Multiple radio/TV transmission channels
  • Radio/TV in every household
  • All households with electricity

Typical Developing Country

  • Long distances, difficult travel
  • Inefficient postal services
  • Wide social and cultural differences
  • Varied languages and dialect
  • Low general education
  • Low literacy level, not book oriented
  • Few good teachers
  • Limited printing and publishing resources
  • Limited radio/TV production
  • Single radio/TV transmission channels
    (if any)
  • Radio/TV in few households
  • Few households with electricity

In this dualistic analysis it is clear that the United Kingdom is positioned in the center, its qualities are magnified and compared trough a simple but corrosive reversal that undermines the 'other'. In Barker's discourse there is a politics of representation that is not innocent.

A democratic distance educator might argue that those negative aspects described by Barker make more urgent and necessary a distance education approach. However, his position as a representative of a dominant power allows Barker to recommend to international organizations an educational policy which denies developing countries the right to receive a sophisticated education. The conclusion of his “objective” diagnosis is that "the emphasis here is on the acquisition of skills rather than on academic knowledge. "...Developing countries have neither the time nor the money for such luxuries" (Barker, 1977, p.38).

A discourse such as this condemns peripheric countries to a permanent state of material subordination, culturally organized through the distribution of low-level education. Certainly the reproduction of subordinated relationships is in the interests of those self-positioned in the center. Being born in a "poor" country is associated in Barker's discourse with a structural loss of the right to choose how to be educated. He assumes that there is no harm in leaving behind the possibility of development for a whole region through the geopolitics of sub-education when he remarks that "they (Africans) are happy people because they live a simple life" ( p.36). The Rousseauean myth of the 'noble savage' underlying this discourse, is used to support the politics of patronage and exclusion.

Highlighting that the constitution of identities goes beyond the discursive intentions of labeling and positioning subjectivities is important. Oppositional discourses are not clusters read and accepted as they are presented. They mutually permeate the others view. Hall argues that the "text is never isolatable: it is always caught in the network of the chains of significations that overprint it inscribing it into the currency of our discourses" (Hall, in Grossberg, 1996, p.157). Dychotomic definitions such as North-South, male-female black-white or wise-ignorant are read and rewritten from different logics because the reader usually positions her or himself in the center. Undoubtedly someone who has suffered any form of oppression might be more sensitive to perceive colonial discourses or practices. However, this does not mean that the understanding of how oppressive forms work might be better comprehended by an insider rather than an outsider (Hall 1996, p.473). It is common sense to declare that subjectivities are not individualities but socially constructed beings. However, it is not so usual to acknowledge, in everyday practices, that socially constructed individualities are not a unity, but highly contradictory.

Educational institutions are not involved in the understanding of the forms and mechanisms of production and circulation of relational identities produced and used by media. Since CMC crosses the borders of institutional settings, it becomes important to consider that virtual education ought to be deeply involved in the understanding of how technology mediated discourses reconfigure and intervene in the shaping of distant subjectivities. Distance educators working internationally with virtual reality, might organize an anti-oppressive practice if they appropriate the conceptual tools of critical popular culture and media analysis and incorporate them in the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of distance education programs. Critical pedagogy might make a difference in the global environment because the internationalization of education would be regarded neither as a positive nor utopian encounter, as an unaware induction of a cultural clash, nor a set of practices to intensify social and economic disparities. The general awareness of and the resistance to textual forms that support all kinds of oppression, not only from those related to neo-imperialistic practices, might encourage in home and outside relations of equity, democracy and justice.

Towards a Critical Pedagogy in CMC Distance Education Programs

What practices might be added to what is already being done in international virtual education? We argue that what is needed is a more systematic disclosure of the underlying assumptions of CMC and distance education. Carter (1996) argues that "There is little, if any, recognition that computer networks and instructional materials delivered on computers and at a distance are sites of cultural imperialism, re-colonization, racism, patriarchy, or whiteness. In many cases these circumstances are unconsidered and unintentional results of course material design and development, but have the effect of exacerbating what is already ensconced (white folks) satisfied with, if not actively sustaining an hegemonic positionality" (p.16).

There is epistemic violence in many of the narratives and silences of virtual classrooms. Subtle hostility marginalizes nations, genders and classes. Content selection, visual design, central planning, language, teaching-learning routines, accreditation, academic prestige of the originating site, are all centralized textualities which might work together as an assimilationist or exclusionary pedagogy.

The activities below try to illustrate ( but not prescribe) some paths to creating a more democratic environment in virtual classrooms.

a) Contextualization and exposure to forms of marginalization

Because virtual education is a totally discursive environment, storagable and retrievable, it is possible to map open and subtle narratives in the interplay of discourses. Sociolingustics and popular culture have conceptual tools to render overt the discriminatory treatment among women and men, foreign and local, white and black. Centralization of discussions among equals(Gayol, 1995), or lurking practices (Wells, 1992) have to be considered not only as such issues as learning styles but also as problems of interactive positionality that affect the democratic distribution of knowledge and diminish the self of some participants. The recovery of the silent learners whose voices have disappeared and have been erased from the textuality leading to symbolic annihilation is a very important pedagogical practice in a totally discursive environment. Subtle practices of discrimination, such as not giving feedback to non-native English speakers may work to marginalize them. The creation of a safe environment that acknowledges differences and resist marginalization is crucial in developing virtual spaces for pluralities instead of for "communities."

Research exploring practices of marginalization in virtual reality is scarce. It is important to explore these unknown territories; otherwise, the reproduction of inequalities will continue to be considered naturalÑ and unavoidable. Thus critical pedagogy in virtual classrooms refers to making visible and acknowledging the plural, multi-class, ethnic, and gendered origin of the knowledge being taught

b) Resistance to linear interpretations

The disclosure of the poly-semantic nature of narratives is better understood when students participate in the de-construction of texts. For example, the idea of English dominance in CMC is frequently referred to as a neo-colonial practice that subordinates and homogenizes societies (WWWDEV listserv, 1996). However, in our view our view, English is also a language of empowerment because it provides access to all the centralized knowledge accumulated by Western cultures and it may be used as a mode of encounter and communication among democratic people of different countries.

The statement about English dominance could lead progressists educators to avoid engagement with “pro-imperialistic technologies” and work toward auto-exclusion. Autoexclusion means to leave an open space for local elites to continue to make a profit as exclusive mediators of their respective cultures through their use of their multi-lingual skills. A democratic practice focuses on the use of pedagogies that resist the annihilation of the native language when a central language is taught. There are highly specialized practices to encourage learners to appreciate and feel comfortable in a multi-lingual environment.

c) Decentralization of the production of virtual education

In the US and Europe, the widespread use of highly sophisticated technology, the privileged knowledge of English and the early pedagogical experience in CMC position distance educators in the mainstream of virtual education. Those advantages work in favor of the centralization of CMC pedagogy. Policies regarding organization, production, distribution, accreditation, evaluation are all centralized practices. There is a process of virtual reproduction of inequity dividing the educational sites between originating and receiver, producer and consumer, voiced and silenced. Definitions of contents, costs and participants are all centralized decisions. Widely spread ideas about the "EuroAm" and upper classes centrality as the sites of location of knowledge and high culture prevent distance educators from exploring policies of collaboration and partnership in the production and distribution of virtual education.

Some critical educators note that the places of innovation are not located in the dominant sites but in the marginal ones (Hall, 1996; Said, 1993; Buell, 1993). Thus, not only marginalized sites but also centralized sites benefit if an equal partnership is established to distribute the economic and cultural benefits of the production of high-quality virtual courses. Obviously, reading from a central position makes it difficult to unlearn deeply rooted cultural beliefs. Critical educators must be prepared to work in uncertain contexts, with many material constraints.

Resisting exclusions through the definition of policies and practices designed to open up "elite territory" to the oppressed and marginalized across classes, genders, ages, ethnicities, nations, might have an important impact on the search for "a fairer distribution of cultural and economic resources of our societies" (Dinez and Humez, 1995).

d) Reservation of virtual space for the growth of high quality, free education

At this stage in the colonization moment, it is estimated that education occupies .06% of the available cyberspace (Pavlik, 1996). The history of media shows that education is being constrained by the industries of entertainment and private communication, mainly because in any form of mass communication, space is highly profitable. To have learned from previous experiences means to work for the definition and reservation of virtual space to run educational programs. Practices that encourage the establishment of reserved and free educational virtual space could include encouragement to international virtual programs to offer virtual scholarships to marginalized groups and the establishment of policies to recycle computers to marginalized sites.

e) Empowerment of marginalized learners

Critical pedagogy attempts to open a democratic space in the sphere of contents, but it is more important to share expertise in order to allow marginalized groups to understand the process of being a virtual learner. This is the most complex and the most important example for working towards the creation of more democratic relationships. When societies make it impossible or difficult for members of subordinate cultures to become teachers and readers of socio-cultural signifiers, education is divided into those who have knowledge and those who receive knowledge. In such cases democracy and equity can hardly be achieved. Attributing agency to the marginalized groups in the global society, rather than positioning them as passive consumers or sources of profit, is an important in working for social justice.


The potential democratic and universal delivery of education by computer mediated communication technologies can be mitigated by cultural practices. In addition to the problems of access, cost, and regulations for network use, cultural narratives are sites of oppression working to produce relational identities. Discourses positioning subjectivities in a centralized-marginalized dychotomy reinforce similar constellation of principles used in other cultural spaces. Distance educators and other cultural workers might work against this oppressive practice by disclosing and resisting, through critical pedagogy practices, all forms of marginalization, including imperialistic forms.