The role of open, distance and e-learning in serving social justice

I recently attended the 14th Cambridge International Conference on Open, Distance, and E-learning in Cambridge from Sunday 26 to Wednesday 28 September 2011. The theme of the conference was: “Internationalisation and social justice: the role of open, distance and e-learning”.

I must confess I was somewhat disappointted. Not only was the issue of ‘social justice’ not really interrogated – but most of the papers assumed that if we increase access to higher education then we also serve social justice. And although social justice includes increasing access, social justice in higher education is much more than just increasing access.

Many of the papers also uncritically proposed that using Web 2.0 technologies and decreasing the digital divide will necessarily result in a decrease in equalities and injustices. This constitutes a major untruth and does not take into account the complexities, paradoxes and challenges, as well as the fact that education and technology have always been used to serve the interests of dominant discourses and the powerful. The so-called “redemptive” role of education and technologies becomes debatable amidst the ‘debris of utopian projects’ (Gray 2008) and consideration of various unsuccessful attempts to export Western liberal democracy as exponents of social justice.

It is crucial to distinguish between serving social justice and the belief in the “universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama in Gray 2008). The convergence of the broader discourses on social justice with attempts of the universal cloning of western liberal democracy (Gray 2008) and neo-liberal beliefs that the market is and should be the primary ‘producer of cultural logic and value’ (Lynch 2006) requires a careful and very sober reflection on the relationship between education, the use of technologies and social justice.

In following Gray (2004), I believe that there is no basis for the wide-spread belief that progress in knowledge and science will necessarily result in a more just and compassionate society. Gray (2004) warns that knowledge and science cannot (and will not) “end the conflicts in history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide”.

I also want to assert that no education ever was or will be neutral. All education stands in service of particular ideologies, promises and claims. The choice to unashamedly serve social justice is therefore a legitimate one. However, such a strategic choice brings about unique responsibilities and, potentially, also liabilities…

Accepting that “knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be used as much as a curse as a blessing” (Gray 2004), I soberly accept the impossibility to achieve universal and lasting peace. Equally impossible is to accept the status quo of inequalities and injustices as permanent.

Education and technology can serve social justice; but can also serve selfish human interests. ‘Just’ providing access to education or the Internet does therefore not automatically serve social justice.

Almost throughout the conference, a nuanced approach to exploring social justice and education was sadly lacking. Papers and discussions grossly misrepresented the relationship between social justice and open, distance and e-learning as uncomplex.

If the papers and discussions at this conference are a ‘true’ reflection about the state of our thinking about the relationship between social justice, education and technology, we are in trouble.  


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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1 Response to The role of open, distance and e-learning in serving social justice

  1. Laura Kapp says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly! We need to consider that of the many pitfalls of globalisation, the attempt to universalise values and institutions probably does developing countries the greatest disservice. How can we meaningfully interrogate social justice in Higher Education when we hardly interrogate it at all with any reference to context? Technology also has wildly different menaings and implications in different contexts. We need to understand and take into consideration so many factors. In our context then, there are so many factors to take into acccount. The issue is exceedingly complex and in this case an oversimplification can lead to catastrophic failure.

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