Discursive Web Constructions - A review

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Summary of

“Discursive Constructions of Web Learning and Education”

Boshier, R. & Chia, M.O. (2000). Discursive constructions of web learning and education. Journal of Distance Education. Available online: http://cade.athabascau.ca/vol15.2/boshieretal.html


The World Wide Web with regard to its impact on society can be compared to the printing press as one of the greatest innovations in history. Indeed, the social and political ramifications of both technologies are strikingly similar. While most celebrated and embraced the new information technology of the 15th century, many others harboured suspicions and resentment to mass reproduction of the printed word. Power struggles ensued (Jukes, 2005). Today, as in the days of first information revolution, knowledge and power are inextricably linked – those who hold the knowledge also hold the power.

Boshier and Chia (2000) explore the relationship between knowledge and power in distance education in their article “Discursive Constructions of Web Learning and Education”. As a professor in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC, Roger Boshier, Ph.D. ( Wellington ) has expertise in the areas of Adult Education and Educational Technologies. Chia Mun Onn is the President of the Singapore Association for Continuing Education, Singapore


In this article, the authors identify and analyze four discourses in Web learning and outline the influence that each discourse has on individual and institutional behaviour. They argue that there is no such thing as neutral education and that that web education “serves some interests better than others” (p. 2).

Discourses, as described by the authors, are socially constructed “truths” and “theories”. They contain rules that permit some discussions but forbid others, depending on whose interests are being served. As an example, two opposite discourses can be used to describe a guerrilla movement. One could be viewed as freedom fighters or the other as terrorists.

In the authors’ opinion, each discourse in Web learning contains an inherent agenda. The authors reveal the power structure imbedded in each discourse by identifying examples of their nature and manifestations in the contexts of Western and Asian countries.

Four Discourses in Web Learning

In this position paper, Boshier and Chia continually reposition themselves within the four discourses in Web learning: techno-utopianism , techno-cynicism, techno-zealotry and techno-structuralism . These discourses are identified by “ascertaining the extent to which people believe the Web leads to a concentration or dispersal of power” (p.3). The authors claim that most people love the Web for one reason or another depending on their own particular agenda.

The techno-utopians view Web learning as a panacea for many problems in education: lowering barriers and creating equal access, fostering greater interaction and participation, and encouraging collaboration. The authors conclude that this one-sided logic makes no sense in contexts where the internet is highly censored or difficult to access.

Techno-cynics , on the other hand, believe that the Web can only lead to a concentration of power by aggravating gaps between those who have access to the Web and those who do not. The authors agree that the misuse of the Web as a learning tool could lead to “the commodification of education” (p. 6), and the foisting of neocolonialism onto the learner. Boshier and Chia suggest that the backlash would only add fuel to the fire of anti-western sentiment that may lead to more censorship of the Web in some countries. This notion runs contrary to one of the fundamental tenets of distance education, that of equal access for the learner (Spencer, 1998).

For the techno-zealot , power relations do not even factor into the equation. They believe that technology has an inherent value irrespective of how it is used. The techno-zealots are typically consultants and academics whose only concern is the profit and progress to be made from the almighty Web. The authors reason that the techno-zealots are completely detached from the material realities that construct the lives of disadvantaged individuals everywhere (p. 9).

Finally, the techo-structuralists can be described as “sidebar academics” (p.10) who are willing to give the Web a try. They are neither for nor against the use of the Web in education. Instead, their concern focuses on how and in what social context the Web is being utilized: “who is doing what to whom and why?” (p.13). They believe that the Web is more than just a tool but has an associated deep structure that requires certain social arrangements. The techno-structuralists encourage us to examine whether the Web will promote democratic ideals or reinforce existing hegemonies in society.


Boshier and his colleague Chia make a compelling argument against the unrestrained use of the Web as a distance education tool. Coming from a critical, post-modern perspective, the authors believe that many educators have been blinded by the dazzle of the Web. These "web advocates" have abandoned their distance education roots – as they jump, en masse, onto the “distributed learning” bandwagon. After analyzing the four discourses and situating themselves within each one, the authors conclude that they embrace the techo-structuralists view. They are not overly concerned with whether web learning is good or bad but with where and why it is used.

In the true post-modern style, the authors’ quips and clever use of metaphor made for an interesting but difficult read. In this position paper, one must carefully navigate between the lines to understand the true intent of the authors, who definitely take issue with other discourses in Web learning. It is no surprise that Boshier would identify himself as a cautious optimist and perceives some negative social ramifications of Web learning. He is recognized for his role as a social activist and an extensive web search on Dr. Boshier revealed several links to his works and background.

The inherent value of this article is in the way it exposes the reader to the issue of social power related to the use of the Web as an educational tool. It prompts the reader to critically analyze the unrestrained use of the Web as a tool for distance education and cautions us to consider the power relations and politics involved. This article reinforces the notion that educators must remain vigilant on how their practice impacts the learner on an individual and global level.



Jukes, Ian. (October 2005). From Gutenberg to Gates to Google (and beyond). The InfoSavvy Group. Retrieved February 3, 2007 , from http://web.mac.com/iajukes/iWeb/thecommittedsardine/Handouts.html

Spencer, B. (1998). Distance education and the virtual classroom. In S. Scott, B. Spencer & A. Thomas (Eds.), Learning for Life: Canadian readings in adult education (pp.343-352). Toronto : Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.

Other Resources

Boshier, R. Educational Studies. Retrieved February 2, 2007 , from R. Boshier Professional Website: http://www.edst.educ.ubc.ca/faculty/boshier/

Harvey, D. (2005). Law and the Regulation of Communications Technologies: The Printing Press and the Law 1475 – 1641. ANZLH E-Journal. Retrieved February 2, 2007 , from http://www.anzlhsejournal.auckland.ac.nz/Harvey.pdf

Kilgore, D. W. (2001). Critical and Postmodern Perspectives on Adult Learning. In S. Merriam (Ed.), New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 89. San Francisco , CA : Jossey-Bass, 53-61. Retrieved January 14, 2007 , from http://www.fsu.edu/~elps/ae/download/ade5385/Kilgore.pdf

Scott, S. (1998). An overview of transformation theory in adult education. In S. Scott, B. Spencer & A. Thomas (Eds.), Learning for Life: Canadian readings in adult education (pp.178-187). Toronto : Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.