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On the Internet

Author: Hubert L. Dreyfus
Publisher: London: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: March 2004

 REVIEW 1: Geoffrey Cain

On the Internet by Hubert L. Dreyfus is part of the excellent "Thinking in Action" series edited by Simon Critchley and Richard Kearney. In it, Dreyfus attempts a philosophical critique of the Internet and distance learning, and warns of the "dangers" posed by virtual reality and "disembodiment." Any critique of the hype of the Internet and distance learning is welcome; unfortunately, Dreyfus' work is filled with basic misunderstandings about the use of technology and challenges only the most extreme arguments of the other camp.

Using the Internet as a means of publishing and distributing information in an educational context has been around for a while, but using it to actually teach and learn is relatively new. As with any new technology, there is the problem of misconception and of misapplication (McLuhan 1964, p. 158). On The Internet embodies the principle that each new technology must go through its "horseless carriage" stage where descriptions and conceptions of what it is and what its consequences and ultimate purposes are cannot be adequately visualized by those nursed on the old technologies. Dreyfus is representative of the attitudes that contribute to the misunderstandings of what distance learning is and what it can offer to the field of education.

One of the claims from Chapter Two for example is that "professional and cultural skills can only be passed on from body to body by means of apprenticeship" (96). He describes an idealized model from traditional education and contrasts it to a narrowly defined model of distance education of his creation. Naturally, his "straw-man" argument has predictable results; the new model does not achieve the results of educating students according to his definition of learning as well as his utopian classroom experience.

The model of distance learning that he defines and then criticizes in the book is hopelessly out of date. He uses the correspondence-course model of anonymous information consumers, ". . . just sitting alone in front of one's computer screen looking at a lecture downloaded for the Web" (91). His book does not address modern learning management systems and current online teaching practices. Learning Management Systems, which are online databases that manage distance learning, provide more than just lectures on the Web (even interactive lectures). They provide interactive technology tools such as synchronous and asychronous discussion, e-mail, presentation areas, whiteboards, and innovative assessment methods such as e-portfolios. The passive model of distance learning has been replaced by active learning methods that require the student to collaborate with other students in groups as well as with the instructor.

Marshall McLuhan once wrote of the medieval man who was so impressed with a book he had purchased that was printed with moveable type that he immediately took it out to the scribe to have it copied. Today, lab teaching assistants may be asked to publish a document on the Internet and then told by a professor or administrator still mired in the old technology to print out 40 copies for faculty or staff. Dreyfus' descriptions of uses for the Internet contain similar misconceptions and misapplications. He tries to evaluate the Internet as a learning tool in terms of print encyclopedias and naturally the Internet fails this test because it is neither "print" nor an "encyclopedia." I classify these arguments much along the same lines as an argument that criticizes a bus for not being a taxicab.

Dreyfus makes the following claims: that information is difficult to find on the web, that distance learning is not useful beyond basic skills teaching, that a "disembodied telepresence" is not the same as actually being in the same room with someone. On its face, this claim denies the role of the educator to provide students with critical thinking skills that will allow them to use the Internet effectively just as they would any other resource.

Dreyfus draws on, among others, the philosopher Merleau-Ponty for many of his suppositions. My interpretation of Merleau-Ponty contrasts Dreyfus' reading to a significant degree. Merleau-Ponty (2002, p.273) says that the "body is the seat or rather the very actuality of the phenomena of expression (Ausdruk), and therefore visual and auditory experiences." This would presumably include ALL visual experience including the use of computers the Internet. He goes on to say that the "body is the fabric into which all objects are woven" (273) and defines "objects" as not only natural objects but also cultural objects like words.

For Merleau-Ponty, there can be no experience outside the body and he would conclude that any warning about the dangers of disembodied experiences are pointless because such a thing is not possible. Dreyfus' warnings about "disembodiment" and the Internet can and have been applied to other "new" technologies, such as books or universal literacy, throughout history. His concerns certainly aren't original, but neither are they founded.

According to Dreyfus' model of distance learning, no special training is necessary in order to teach online because the best that one could hope for in online learning is a reproduction on the Internet of the offline lecture model. Current models of online learning, however, follow the constructivist model of active learning, which include high levels of interaction, group projects, case method, and collaboration. To do this effectively is not intuitive, and most faculty do benefit from additional training when they move to an online model.

Furthermore, Dreyfus claims that "universities are engaged in education and that education requires face-to-face interaction between students and teachers" (32). His arguments in his chapter on distance education presuppose that the lecture hall is the best learning environment for all learners. It has yet to be demonstrated that universities are "engaged" in education or that the lecture method is the best method of learning in this work or any other. Unfortunately, Dreyfus, while a brilliant scholar and author, does not have the depth of understanding of online learning theory required to sufficiently cover this topic.

McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: The New American Library, Inc.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. (Reprint of the 1962 edition). New York, London: Routledge Classics.

Geoffrey Cain:
Geoffrey Cain is a recent graduate of California State University, Hayward's MS in Education program emphasizing online teaching and learning. He currently works at Cabrillo College in the Writing Center.  <geoffcain@yahoo.com>

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