Computers & Texts No.13
Table of Contents
December 1996

Pedagogy, Power, Politics

Literate Practice Online

Peter Stokes
Tufts University

William Stokes
Lesley College

What are the social implications of computer-literacy and what might be the future of computer-based distance education? This article examines the questions of literacy, pedagogy and the consequences of computer-based communication. The authors detail a case study of online collaborative writing and the implications for the relationships between readers and writers.

An already impressive literature on the future of online education is quickly amassing. Like many sites of rapid and large-scale transformation, the future of online learning has been cast in terms that are alternatively utopian and catastrophic; and that's not altogether surprising given the Internet's historical relation to post-nuclear defence systems - a technological apparatus which has, historically, precipitated a similar oscillation between extravagant hope and profound uneasiness.

At the utopian end of these speculations, for example, there is Rick Florek, who argues in 'The Future of Technology in Schools' that someday blackboards 'may be replaced by flat screen monitors that can connect classrooms all over the world' so that 'interactive learning sessions may be conducted with other educators, scientists or leaders around the globe' (Florek 1995). Telecommunications technologies, the US Education Secretary, Richard Riley, recently argued, will 'extend teaching and learning across district, state and national boundaries,' will 'move learning beyond memorizing ³facts" like the periodic table, to inquiry-driven, online, interactive sessions, such as discussions with NASA researchers, collaborations with oceanographers, or writing reports using images downloaded from the Voyager satellite', and will even 'help create an environment in which the preconditions for drugs and violence are minimized' (Lane).

An obvious problem with these claims is their sheer scale: they never explain under what circumstances NASA researchers will participate in ongoing classroom activities or by what means; nor do they detail how computer networks might prevent drug abuse or violence. More importantly, these sorts of claims never explain why learning across national boundaries via inquiry-driven searches and interactive discussions will improve education. Instead, we're encouraged to believe that wonderful things will just happen - spontaneously - and that the world will become kinder, closer and easier to access.

At the catastrophic end, there are others who contend that a 'computer-literacy' of this sort will function in far less egalitarian ways, and actually serve to defend and preserve the status quo, as well as the substantial inequities built into it. A recent advertisement from the World Future Society, for example, claims that '"Electronic immigrants" may soon become a hot international trade issue' as these 'cross-border telecommuters. . . compete against workers in affluent countries in a wide variety of occupations' (Cornish 1996). And in 'Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital,' Richard Ohmann claims that 'this age of technology, this age of computers, will change very little in the social relations - the class relations - of which literacy is an inextricable part' (Ohmann 1985, 687). As Ohmann's essay goes on to indicate, the concept of 'literacy' has a history of functioning in just such a way as to divide those who have from those who have not. Literacy is not a term that is necessarily consistent with liberation politics. On the contrary, Ohmann argues, from the time it first gained currency, 'the term "literacy" offered a handy way to conceptualize an attribute . . . which might be manipulated in one direction or the other for the stability of the social order and the prosperity and security of the people who counted' (677). At issue in the present moment, then, is the capacity for a new technology (computers) and a new term (computer-literacy) in a new setting (computer classrooms, distance learning environments) to reproduce these unequal relations of power, and even to widen the gulf of opportunity between different social groups catastrophically.

Undoubtedly, networked computers are already reproducing rather traditional disparities in opportunity. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, points out that users in the United States account for 73.4% of all the activity on the allegedly world wide Web, and it is estimated that '90% or more of the content on the Web is in English' (Frost 1996). Ohmann may well be right to argue, then, that 'the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been the hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset' (Ohmann 683). In a recent interview with the online magazine Cybersphere, Jean Baudrillard takes an even dimmer view of this advancing technological horizon. Baudrillard is asked whether electronic modes of communication are likely to 'modify the attitudes and behavior of those who use them' (Thibaut 1996). He responds to this question, with characteristic perversity, by asking another question: 'doesn't information kill education?' The problem with online communication, in Baudrillard's view, is that 'the network, rather than the network's protagonists, is given priority.' While electronic communication invites us into a world of surfaces, of virtuality, it takes back, Baudrillard maintains, 'the density of things, their meaning.' Ohmann at least allows that technology 'does have liberatory potential. Especially in education,' he writes, 'we have something to say about whether that potential is realized. But its fate is not a technological question: it is a political question' (Ohmann 685).

Literacy and Power

This is, then, a particularly critical moment for those of us interested in the cultural implications of new modes of literacy and the development of distance learning and online education programs. Before we invest much faith in these utopian or catastrophic points of view, though, it will be necessary to investigate in some detail what online learning can really accomplish, and it will be equally crucial to map out the practical limits of this new medium for education. Our argument is that in its capacities for defamiliarization the computer serves a critical function in education and opens up a space for generally rethinking the potential of education to liberate.

As Paulo Freire has argued, in Pedagogy of Hope, literacy is always connected to power. This is true whether literacy is viewed as the competence to participate in social practices which are culturally constructed and historically situated and that entail the use of texts, or whether literacy is viewed more broadly to encompass the epistemological, social, political, and cultural consequences of reading and writing. When we talk about computer-literacy and defamiliarization, then, we are talking about a nexus of concerns that require us to think critically about pedagogy, power and politics. If we hope to empower learners in electronic environments, we will need to prepare them for the difficult task of negotiating this complex network of relations. If we are successful, we can indicate the manner in which reading is already a kind of writing, as well as the manner in which writing - in our culture - constitutes a particularly powerful mode of agency.

Freire argues that it is 'never possible to separate reading words from reading the world [and it is] not possible also to separate reading the world from writing the world' - that is, writing the future into existence through action, including both concrete political action and the critical construction of knowledge (Freire 1997). Reading that is characterized by a critical engagement with texts is agentive and is thus a re-writing of what has been written. In this sense, all readers are writers. Conventional pedagogies assume that there are few writers, those who make meaning, but there must be many readers, those who will be consumers of the knowledge produced by others. Freire challenges this asymmetry and practices a critical pedagogy that joins serious dialogue (the immediate speaking and listening) with the more reflective practices of reading and writing.

A Case Study

Early in January 1996 we began an informal, three-way conversation via email with a third colleague of ours at Stonehill College, George Branigan. Our informal 'talk' addressed questions of literacy, pedagogy and the consequences of new modes of communication made possible by access to personal computers and the Internet. Soon several more friends and colleagues joined the discussion. Roughly a month into our electronic dialogue, ten students - first year undergraduates at Stonehill College - entered and the number of participants grew to 17. These undergraduates were enrolled in George Branigan's course entitled 'Literacy.' This online 'experiment' was entirely voluntary and ungraded, yet for these students it provided an important supplement to their activities in the traditional classroom.

Over six months - from January to June - we collectively authored a 'text' that exceeds some 900 pages. Never before had any of us experienced such an extensive collaboration; and never before had any of us been urged to read a text that was not already written, already completed, and authored by someone other than ourselves. This was the first occasion any of us had ever read a text as it was being written and to which we were contributing writing of our own. For the students, this was a particularly empowering lesson. They saw first hand how the relations between readers and writers were capable of being reshaped. Those who had been regarded as consumers became producers of texts, meanings, and knowledge in the virtual spaces of this electronic medium. What began, then, as an informal and heuristic conversation around a shared set of concerns, quickly evolved - spurred on by the facility for speed permitted by the very technology which was the subject of our discussion - into an increasingly formal and self-reflexive investigation of a new 'cybergraphic' practice.

This spontaneous experiment culminated in an eight person panel presentation at the 1996 Mid-Atlantic Alliance for Computers and Writing at Virginia Tech. Five of the eight panel members were students from Stonehill College, and together they wrote a reflection on their online learning experiences that was very well received. As a result of their participation in the conference, they were invited by a graduate student instructor at Virginia Tech to build their own web pages and to publish their paper on the web.

Immediacy and Delay

What we learned from these experiences is that the possibilities for critical dialogue created among speakers engaged in genuine conversation can be extended to writers who engage in a critical, reflective exchange in ways that restore a greater symmetry between writers and readers, and in so doing repositions the relations between readers and writers by merging aspects of oral and literate practices.

Our six month online dialogue required each of us to attend to multiple threads or selectively attend to just those of interest. The email exchange permitted and encouraged freedom of response, including multiple, roughly simultaneous, messages that would be 'travelling' between sender and receiver at any given moment in this complex matrix of participation. We noticed, however, that as a consequence new difficulties arose. We were compelled to read 'fractally'. The reader and responding writer needed to recognize the order within the seeming disorder of the temporally contiguous but non-contingent messages. Yet, the months long exchange succeeded in remaining a complexly coherent conversation with multiple participants.

One of the most striking features of our email exchanges was the merging of what we identified as immediacy and delay. The technology provided a vivid sense of the immediacy of connection, of receiving and sending messages. Messages easily flow back and forth in a matter of hours rather than days. Unlike oral conversation, however, where all participants are present and follow the immediate unfolding of comments in 'real' time, the email exchange entailed intricate delays between the writing, sending, receiving and reading of messages, and further delays in responding. Although this contributed to the discontinuous, asynchronous complexity of the exchange, it also permitted the privileges of delay. Even those who might be reluctant to claim a turn to speak in an oral conversation, were free to construct and send their messages. All of the expectations of prompt, spontaneous response in oral conversation are transformed. The participant, as writer, has the privilege of choosing the time, length and deliberateness (revised, edited, polished) of a message - some may be immediate, brief and most informal, others may be delayed, lengthy and formally crafted.

This merger of oral and literate practices has implications for the repositioning of readers and writers, as can be seen by a brief inspection of educational practices. In conventional, traditional schooling, teachers speak and students listen, books by 'authors' are assigned and students read. When students do speak or write, their actions are subject to immediate evaluation for their correctness, accuracy, cogency and thoroughness in relation to some criteria established by the teachers. The speaking and listening are not collaborative - there is no mutual engagement in the social construction of knowledge. The reading and writing do not form a correspondence - they are hierarchical and unidirectional. This is what Freire called the 'banking' concept of teaching and learning (Freire, 1970). Students are presumed to be ignorant and teachers are supposed to deposit knowledge in them. Under these conditions, students are not permitted to acquire their own voices as speakers and writers, unless they conform to expectations encoded in evaluation procedures.

Our explorations of cyber-literacy challenged these conventions. The written conversation that unfolded merged essential characteristics of oral conversation and written correspondence. The number of participants, the processes of defamiliarization, the unusual sense of immediacy and delay, and the nature of the text itself as it grew, all contributed to an informal, collaborative exchange that enabled every reader to be a writer - to participate in our shared investigation of literacy without regard to who was a professor, a student, or another interested person.


Much of the hype surrounding the 'net' and the 'web' is centred on access to information. The genuinely transformative nature of cyberspace lies not with access, but with the potential for the production of knowledge and for new modes of collaboration and communication that can subvert and invert established author-ity relations, allowing the emergence of a democratizing literacy. In Freire's terms, once again, it is a question of power, the power of speaking and writing, and the creation of pedagogies of possibility.

Literacy is the capacity to think critically about discourse, to seize the tools of communication and enter in the conversations that mark our lives - to make meaning and in the process remake our culture and ourselves. Cybergraphic communications provide powerful tools for taking up this familiar task once again in new ways, and online learning provides us with a unique opportunity to reinvestigate familiar problems - problems not, as Ohmann observes, of technology, but of pedagogy, of power, and of politics.


We would like to thank George Branigan, Danielle Gerrior, Katy Boucher, Christine Brady, Jennifer Mitchell, and Jennifer Lombardi of Stonehill College for helping us think critically about these issues.


Cornish, Edward. (1996). 'Social and Technological Forecasts for the Next 25 Years.' World Future Society. Bethesda, Maryland.

Florek, Rick. (1995). 'Chapter Seven: The Future of Technology in Schools.' An Instruction Manual: Setting up and Running a Computer Workstation in the Classroom with Little or No Money. (December).

Freire, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, Paulo. (1994). Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, Paulo. (1997). 'Response as critical dialogue.' In Mentoring the Mentor. Ed. James W. Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon and William Stokes. New York: Lang Pub.

Frost, Robin. (1996). 'Web's Heavy U.S. Accent Grates on Overseas Ears.' Wall Street Journal. 26 September.

Lane, Carla and Sheila Cassidy. 'Reform and Technology: The Role of Technology in the Systemic Reform of Education and Training Part 9.' Distance Learning Resource Network (DLRN) at Far West Laboratory. \

Ohmann, Richard. (1985). 'Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital.' College English 47:7 (November): 675-689.

Thibaut, Claude. (1996). 'Philosophy: Discussion with Jean Baudrillard.' Cybersphere 9 (March).

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 13 (1996), 4. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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