First Monday

Teaching as performance in the electronic classroom

New developments in online educational technology have a profound effect on notions of intellectual property. Theories of the social construction of technology explain the extremely unstable nature of new technologies. Walter Ong’s theory of the alphabet effect provides insight into the ways in which knowledge changes as media of communication change. Shoshana Zuboff’s ideas on how managerial knowledge is transformed by technology help us understand how certain kinds of knowledge resist being textualized. These ideas help us understand the effects of new teaching technologies in terms of a long–standing struggle between two views of knowledge: knowledge as performance and knowledge as thing.


Interpretive flexibility and new technologies
What is "teaching" anyway?
Textualization and performance
Intellectual property as a Gestalt switch
The struggle for the meaning of educational technology





Why do teachers sometimes become more possessive about their intellectual property when they develop online materials? How can we develop policies around courseware that accommodates the rights of developers without choking off the ability of courses to evolve and of educators to make use of other educators’ work? These are questions that take us beyond the realm of the legal into the realm of the social and the moral.

It is hardly news that electronic courseware is in a grey space between classroom practice and published material, or that the consequences of this fact are ambiguous, or that institutional policy on the subject is in an infant stage. "Who owns courseware?" is a frequently asked question that is typically answered by a rickety patchwork of makeshift practices. Circumstances usually force these practices to run a good deal ahead of any thoughtfully worked–out set of policies. This is perfectly normal: practice can seldom wait for policy to catch up.

Practice can seldom wait for policy to catch up.

But if we are ever to create a policy framework for educational practice that responds meaningfully to the complex forces at work here, we must go beyond basic notions of legal entitlement (though we will have to keep returning to them). We also have to go beyond looking at the technologies themselves and look at the network of meanings that clusters around these technologies, and who holds which meanings. Theories of the social construction of technology can help us here.



Interpretive flexibility and new technologies

"The social construction of technology" (SCOT) is a cluster of theories first developed in the 1980s as a new approach to the question of how new technologies are developed. One of the most well–known and influential works in the SCOT tradition is Pinch and Bijker’s "The social construction of facts and artifacts" (1987; 1984). Pinch and Bijker argued that new technologies have extremely unstable forms and meanings when they are first being developed and used. That is, their meaning is not in any way contained in the shape of the technology. Quite the contrary, the technical aspects of the technology are heavily shaped by a social struggle for its meaning. They called this concept "interpretive flexibility." Typically this struggle settles down to a large extent as the technology matures, but no technology ever moves completely out of contested space.

As a paradigm case, Pinch and Bijker used the struggle between the high–wheeled "penny–farthing" bicycle and the modern chain–drive bicycle. For a time, both forms of the bicycle existed simultaneously with a wide variety of variants. Neither had, for Pinch and Bijker, any overwhelming technical merit over the other. The eventual choice of technical shape was the result of a struggle between social groups over the meaning of the technology. For some social groups, the meaning of the technology centred on sport, manly activity and feats of daring — a constellation of meanings for which the fast but dangerous high–wheeler was admirably suited. For other groups, safety and efficient transportation were dominant meanings. The modern chain–drive bicycle, for Pinch and Bijker, represents not the domination of a particular technology per se as much as the domination of this latter set of locally contested meanings.

Figure 1: A penny–farthing bicycle.

Pinch and Bijker’s ideas have been hotly debated. Some have questioned the historical accuracy of their examples (Clayton, 2002). Others, such as Langdon Winner (1993), questioned the fact that Pinch and Bijker focused entirely on the innovation stage of technology, and wrote as if technology is more or less stable once it passes the early stages of development. Most important, Winner argued that Pinch and Bijker treated technology as more or less politically neutral, and that they didn’t question the larger political forces that shape it. In short, Winner would prefer a more moral stance on technology rather than simply a social view of innovation. This is an important objection, and I will come back to it in the conclusion of this paper. For now, I think that Pinch and Bijker’s idea of "interpretive flexibility," though flawed, is still a useful way to look at new educational technologies.

Educational technologies, particularly online technologies, are currently in a state of high interpretive flexibility in a number of ways. First, the technical state of these technologies is certainly in flux. A wide variety of specialized course authoring packages (for example, WebCT and Blackboard) contend not only with each other but also with clusters of more traditional technologies such as newsgroups, Web pages and plain old e–mail lists. Courseware that emphasises synchronous and asynchronous discussion contends with courseware that depends more heavily on artefacts, including simple or complex Web pages, multi–media "textbooks" and various forms of video or audio steaming.

Moreover, essentially the same technologies can be applied in vastly differing ways. Video streaming, for instance, can be used for purposes that range from presenting case study material or simulations as fodder for discussion, to the projection of conventional talking–head lectures, with or without various embellishments. The current unstable state of the Internet, with its uneven penetration into the lives of various social groups and the ongoing contest between high–end and low–end technologies, also affects the different ways it can be used.

In this article, however, I wish to postpone discussion of the precise technical shape of these technologies in favour of a wider look at the social forces that are driving it. Technical shape is, of course, an important consideration, but in many respects it is the result rather than the cause of social forces. Technologies of education are not just affected by the possibilities of technology. Because these technologies are in a state of "interpretive flexibility," they are affected by our understanding of what education is. What we think it means to "teach" somebody will to a large extent dictate, for instance, whether more technological energy is put into threaded discussion tools or video streaming tools.



What is "teaching" anyway?

It can be easier to understand the immensely complicated set of contested meanings surrounding the concept of "teaching" if we simplify them into two basic ways of looking at teaching. One view emphasises teaching as a performance, and another emphasises teaching as a transfer of knowledge as a thing.

For most of the vast history of the pedagogical exercise, it has been no contest. Through all the intellectual storms of history, teaching has remained, above all, a performance art that unfolds in real time.

Through all the intellectual storms of history, teaching has remained, above all, a performance art that unfolds in real time.

In many ways this is one of the great mysteries of teaching, or has been since the invention of the book. In the old world of primary orality, procedural knowledge was passed by direct hands–on experience. More abstract knowledge — history, morality, the shared values of the culture — was embedded in folk tales that were recreated anew from pre–existing materials and pre–existing patterns for each new occasion and audience. Both were performative.

The new world of literacy was called into being by the phonetic alphabet and stabilized by what is arguably the world’s greatest communication technology, the printing press. In this new world, these oral forms of knowledge were largely subsumed by the power of the new linear, repeatable, cumulative, abstract thought patterns of high literacy. The "alphabet effect" theory of Walter Ong (1982) dates most of the taken–for–granted features of modern intellectual life from this great intellectual shift. Linear logic, cumulative science, individualism, and even discursive consciousness itself have been attributed to the shift from oral to literate knowledge. In this shift, knowledge changes from being an invisible and inseparable aspect of human activity. It becomes a separate, reified entity that can be copied and recopied, stored in libraries, contemplated objectively, and of course, bought and sold. As Ong put it, with literacy the knower becomes separated from the known.

Many of the details of Ong’s theories and those of his contemporaries (e.g., Logan, 1986) have been heavily questioned over the years. One of the most recent critics is Paul Grosswiler (2004). Grosswiler not only called into question some of the historical details of Ong’s theories but also his assumption that a fully phonetic script is essential to Western progress — an assumption that can be called everything from Eurocentric to downright racist. But Ong’s basic insight that textual literacy differs from orality in fundamental ways remains a powerful tool for understanding not only history but many facets of the present life world (Goldhaber, 2004).

One of the most useful concepts for understanding modern life is "residual orality." Ong pointed out that before the printing press stablized the effects of literacy, many aspects of society remained oral. Manuscripts were often read aloud, even by people reading them in private. Oral debates were a major way of producing knowledge. Witnesses were more important than documents. Now the printing press has made residual orality a much smaller part of everyday life. However, in many areas of life, oral performance has been remarkably resistant to being "textualized": that is, taken over by written or electronic texts. Teaching is one of these areas.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates complained that writing is inferior to interpersonal speech:

"Written words ... seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever." (Plato, 1956)

These misgivings are ironic, since it is arguably writing that made possible the long, abstract chains of reasoning that Plato made the hallmark of Western logic. On the other hand, in this passage he was not just defending oral reasoning. He was also defending the entire art of rhetoric — and by extension, teaching — as a fundamentally dialogic performance. He was resisting a tendency, only barely visible in his own day, to subsume this art to the monologic text.

Plato defended the entire art of rhetoric — and by extension, teaching — as a fundamentally dialogic performance.

Interestingly, teaching has almost entirely resisted textualization to this day. Whereas the book, the journal, the monograph have moved to the centre of the research process, the more performative art of teaching has stubbornly resisted being textualized. The textbook, the book of readings, the research assignments in the library, have remained on the periphery of teaching. They are usually valued as support systems but never seen as the heart and soul of the enterprise. Even professors who read their lectures verbatim remain in the classroom year after year, even though they could in principle write their lectures out and distribute them on paper, or videotape themselves reading them.

It is tempting to believe that this is merely the persistence of tradition, or the effects of strong unions. But with the printing press now over 500 years old, there has to be more at work than tradition or self–serving. People see the classroom — and not the book or the videotape — as the center of learning for the same reason that they stand in the rain for hours to buy tickets to a concert when they could purchase a technically better performance on CD for much less money. As a live performance, every class is slightly different. Even if the professor uses the same notes or even the same written lecture, the constant, living interaction between teacher and audience makes every performance a new event.

I’m going to pause right now before it’s too late and reassure you about where I’m heading with this. I am not going to lament the lost art of live classroom teaching, nor argue that online distance education will never completely subsume face–to–face teaching. That argument has been made often enough that you don’t need to hear it again from me. I want only to use this phenomenal persistence of the performative, after 500 years of technologies that could in principle have replaced it with textualization, as a reason to reflect carefully on what now seems to be happening to notions of intellectual property as online technologies promise increasing textualization of teaching.



Textualization and performance

We can understand the effects of textualization more clearly through the work of Shoshana Zuboff. In her book In the Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff (1988) recounted the gradual textualization of more and more aspects of the worker’s craft. At the beginning of the last century, Frederick Taylor began analysing a variety of tasks, writing them down, and rationalizing them into a series of steps. Workers could learn to follow these steps efficiently with very little training. Zuboff recognized that what characterized Taylorism is not just its emphasis on efficiency. The important part is the simple step of extracting knowledge and writing it down. This act of textualization allows hands–on experience to be translated into a series of explicit, and therefore easily followed, steps.

With the development of ever more sophisticated information technologies, an increasing number of jobs, including office jobs and middle–management co–ordination, could be textualized in this fashion. Such jobs moved from the realm of interpersonal tacit skill into the realm of the automatic — from the realm of "acting–with," as Zuboff called it, to the realm of "acting–on."

Despite this centuries–long trend, however, upper–end management skill has tended to remain in the realm of the interpersonal and of instinctive know–how. In this realm, information technologies have tended not to function as automating technologies, extracting human knowledge and enshrining it in more or less "expert" systems. Instead they have functioned as what Zuboff calls "informating" technologies. Informating technologies feed ever richer streams of data to human beings who still cannot fully explain their ability to sort, manage and manipulate this knowledge for managerial purposes. Managers perform their duties every day in ways that can’t be fully captured in text.

Informating technologies of course come with their own challenges, requiring new forms of sense–making in order to make meaning out of an ever more abstract stream of symbols. But the point of my analogy with teaching is that, like high–end management, teaching has tended to absorb and subsume each new technology into the ongoing performance. By treating these technologies as informating rather than automating, the teaching profession has resisted becoming no more than a set of text–based instructions.

Teaching has tended to absorb and subsume each new technology into the ongoing performance.

This is as it should be. All knowledge, or at any rate all knowledge worth having, is constructed, not just found. It follows that neither the textbook, the videotape, nor even the multi–media CD or Web page, is likely to subsume completely the act of constructing knowledge in a dialogic social environment, whether face to face or electronically mediated. In the new world of educational technology, the pattern appears to be fulfilling itself yet again. The self–paced tutorials and drill–and–skill programs of the early days are yielding to web–based course designs that feature threaded discussion and collaborative work. Again, teaching as performance appears to be winning the contest over teaching as thing.

But it is far too soon to announce a winner. To return to Pinch and Bijker (1987; 1984) and their more or less tippy bicycles: the new educational technologies are currently in a state of extreme interpretive flexibility. The contest between education as performance and education as thing is far from settled. Indeed, it has been pushed into a new state of uncertainty by technologies that blur again the relatively settled boundaries between performances and things.



Intellectual property as a Gestalt switch

Some representative anecdotes can help us out here. Recently I oversaw the development of a fully Web–based version of a long–standing Communications Studies course. This course uses a number of brief video clips to provide a foundation for threaded online discussion. One of the instructors who has been teaching this course face–to–face for some time has routinely used popular movies for exactly this purpose. It seemed to me that, since she had already identified some useful clips, it would make sense to ask her to share these with the online course developer rather than reinventing this particular wheel.

The instructor’s response was "That list is my intellectual property." She didn’t mean that the movies were her intellectual property, of course, but she that she owned the list of them, the particular organisation of them keyed to topics in the course.

In hindsight I should have seen it coming. The organisation of pre–existing information is still a hotly contested area of intellectual property (IP) law, but certainly it has a claim to being "property" of a sort. At the time, though, the effect was like that of opening a window on a sunny day and getting a bucket of cold water in the face. After all, she had given me exactly that list several years before when I taught a face–to–face section of the course. I had used some of her ideas, not used others, passed a few new ones back to her — that’s what I have come to expect of teaching. It’s a living art in which people trade ideas freely to improve their courses.

But under the influence of textualization, something had happened to the concept of a course. As a result, a list of useful ideas that others might borrow had undergone a Gestalt switch. Like an Escher drawing, background became foreground through nothing more or less than an act of perception, and the relationship between performance and thing abruptly reversed.

Once that list had been used as a basis for construction of an online course, it would have been welded into place as part of an entity that has an eerie semi–permanence. It would have been quite different from a face–to–face course which, for all the text that surrounds it, ceases to exist in any meaningful sense at the end of each hour of class.

Incidents of this kind can be repeated ad infinitum with different social groups involved in different notions of "property." A colleague of mine at another university poured a year of effort into developing an online writing course — arguably one of the most difficult areas to textualize successfully. The essence of the course, like all good courses of its type, is performance, not text. As I see it, the "real" course, like a story in an oral society, is created and recreated each year in the complex guided interaction that occurs around the constellation of texts that my colleague created. Aided by a battalion of graduate students to help her read and respond to the students’ texts, my colleague re–performed the course each time it was offered.

The essence of a course, like all good courses, is performance, not text.

You can guess what happened. The guided interaction by graduate students was judged to be so successful that my colleague was no longer needed, and the course now runs more or less on its own without her intervention, like a giant wind–up clock. The texts at the centre of the course have been treated as being the course, and the activity surrounding those texts treated as secondary.

My point here is simply that the interpretive flexibility of courseware is still wide open. Despite encouraging signs that the performative aspects of education are resisting conversion in the latest wave of educational technology as they have in the case of every previous technology, the distinction between performance and thing is far from settled.



The struggle for the meaning of educational technology

I got into this discussion by referring to Pinch and Bijker (1987; 1984), who showed us how to ask not, "What is it?" but "What does it mean to whom?" Who, then, are the social groups in struggle over the nature and meaning of educational technology at the moment? Who contests performance and thing?

It’s tempting to divide these groups into those who stand to make a lot of money and those who don’t. This is the general burden of countless diatribes against the technologizing of education, such as David Noble’s Digital diploma mills (2001; 1998). If we went with this obvious cleavage, university administrators and software companies would probably end up in one group, and educators and students would probably end up in another.

Certainly this economic analysis makes a lot of sense. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, university administrators persist in acting as if online education will deliver truckloads of cash to the door. So do some course developers, being academics with little hope of ever doing anything else that will pay off the mortgage. At least they do the first time they attempt to develop good courseware, before they realize the incredible investment of time required for the most meagre trickle of revenue.

But the question of who is making how much money for whom is only part of the question, and in some ways it is on its way to being resolved as universities develop clearer policies on intellectual property. For me, the more interesting problem resides with what the law calls "moral right." This issue centres on the question of revision, which in turn relates to the ways in which a course evolves. It is here that the struggle among social groups for the meaning of textualized teaching becomes profound.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, university administrators persist in acting as if online education will deliver truckloads of cash to the door.

Unless an instructor is uncommonly strong–willed, traditionalist or lazy, face–to–face courses evolve through a natural process of adding things that work and discarding things that don’t. The overall outlines of the course main remain reasonably constant, but the details change continually. This is the process which Ong calls "homeostasis." For Ong, an oral culture is like a living entity. Its body of performed knowledge anchors it and keeps it stable. However, this is a dynamic stability, not absolute stasis. The culture alters this or that set of values and beliefs in order to remain in balance with its environment, and its stories do too. In an oral society in which all knowledge is performed, stories change gradually and often without being noticed, in response to political, historical and moral forces. Characters are added, incidents change their meaning, plot lines are elaborated or reduced, slowly but in tune with the gradually shifting forces of social history.

Likewise, a course evolves as a living entity. Without my ever having consciously thrown out my notes and begun over, it is clear to me that the courses I teach now are very different from the courses I taught ten or fifteen years ago. Every year I change the assignments and course outline — the anchoring texts of the course — in response to what worked and didn’t work last year. As the course unfolds, the responses of the students to each class are different, and each class is performed a bit differently from the previous year.

In an online course, much more is textualized. Once the main body of material is established, the use that is made of that material must necessarily differ from year to year. The students will be different, and the discussion that surrounds the material and gives it life will be different. But in order to make any substantive change in the body of texts that anchors the course — texts, Web pages, CDs — someone has to go in and do a "revision." In this way, the act of revision changes from a relatively natural process of evolution into a series of identifiable versions with identifiable authors.

Or possibly it doesn’t. The online course, once created successfully, has the potential to run by itself without substantive revision for a number of years. Eventually inadequacies build up sufficient tension to force a complete, and probably expensive, re–visioning of the course. Generally, though, such revisions happen all at once, in the same way that textbooks are revised, rather than gradually, in the way that face–to–face courses evolve.

Aside from the profit–making issues, this raises the question of who has the right to re–develop a course, as well as the even more interesting question of how to build in incentives for doing so. As I was overseeing the development of the Communications Studies course mentioned earlier, I consulted the University of Calgary’s lawyer for clarity on this point. I received a written response that is partly helpful, partly alarming:

"With respect to moral rights, the Policy is silent. Moral rights are the personal rights of the author to control the use of the work; they can be waived but never assigned and remain with the author even when the copyright is assigned to another. With respect to the rights of revision, the present Policy is also silent but the University may, in its use of any work produced by the creator and the University, make revisions to the product so long as the moral rights of the creator are not offended."

This is pretty foggy: there appears to be no clear way to know when the moral rights of the creator are being offended or what to do about that. However, the opinion goes on:

"When the revised work is substantially different than the original work, the creator of the original work cannot claim any copyright or intellectual property rights in the original."

As an administrator in charge of making sure that teaching happens, I interpret this to mean the following. I can ask someone else to take over the administration of the course from the original creator, and I can ask that person to make smaller or greater revisions in it as they see fit. If the course shifts enough that it is clearly a different entity from the original, then the originator’s moral rights as well as right to profit have effectively been extinguished.

This is clearly no help at all in determining what we need to do about rights to courseware. Yet I find it strangely helpful in defining the social groups who are contesting the meaning of educational technology.

Although the point is seldom made in precisely this way, the cleavage seems to occur between those who want a course to be alive and those who do not. I had an extended argument with the developer of the online Communications Studies course that I described above. She didn’t want to teach the course a second time. However, she flatly refused to let anyone else have access to her materials and develop the course further. According to the university’s intellectual property regulations, I would have been within my rights to take it away and assign someone else to teach it, but the policy on moral rights suggests that I would have had trouble allowing someone else to modify it without the developer’s permission. Effectively, the course is now dead, unless someone else starts from scratch and develops a new one.

Therefore, I class this instructor in the social group that values textualization over performance. This distinction cuts across other cleavages between administrator, educator and student. It puts in one group administrators who do not want courseware to be frozen, and want it to remain the common property of those who would revise and extend it regardless of who profits from it. This group also includes instructors who continue to have a personal investment in the performing and re–performing of knowledge in the constructivist atmosphere of the virtual classroom. These are the people who continue to treat the work of monitoring and responding to threaded discussions as the central business of online education. Even if they delegate much of this work to teaching assistants, they continue to take an active part in the ongoing social life of the course long after their role in designing the courseware is over. And of course it includes students who see the business of participating in online discussion as more than a chore.

It puts into another social group another highly varied group of people. This group includes, of course, administrators who would like a course to be simple so that it can be a cash cow. It also includes students who think that education is merely the transfer of knowledge through texts. These are the sort of students who regularly ask me at the end of a face–to–face class why I can’t put my course notes on the Web so that they don’t have to come to class. Alas, it even sweeps up course developers who are so concerned about their moral rights to a course that they prohibit further revisions by others. Though their reasons vary, these groups have one thing in common: they have yielded to the textualization of the educational experience. They have abandoned its age–old status as performance.




In criticizing Pinch and Bijker’s (1987; 1984) version of the social construction of technology, Landon Winner (1993) was particularly critical of their apparent disregard for politics and values:

"I believe it is necessary for social theorists to go beyond what positivists used to call value neutrality and what social constructivists call interpretive flexibility. One must move on to offer coherent arguments about which ends, principles and conditions deserve not only our attention but also our commitment."

In this article I have tried to move beyond simply explaining different views of teaching and of teaching technology to set the stage for some moral choices. For over 500 years, teaching has resisted the technologies that would turn living performance into dead text. The technologies of literacy, from books through photocopies, video and film, and finally the computer, have remained mainly supports to the act of teaching, even though they could in principle take over from it, and often do when appropriate (for instance, the correspondence course or the self–help manual). Online learning, a set of technologies that is still in a high state of interpretive flexibility, represents a new site for this age–old conflict between performance and textualization. These technologies can support performance, providing the backbone for an educational experience that evolves constantly as students and teachers re–perform it through threaded discussion and constant interaction. Or they can support a complete surrender to textualiation, creating static entities that, like my colleague’s online course, cease to evolve and become static collections of texts.

The future development of technology, in turn, will be influenced by which social group wins this struggle over the meaning of technology. If the group that values teaching as performance has the most influence, we will put more energy into developing flexible courseware that promotes social engagement and interaction. We will also develop intellectual property laws that support revision while respecting the rights of creators. If the group that sees teaching as textual has the most influence, we will develop more elaborate technologies for delivering courses as online texts, emphasising the role of the student as audience rather than as participant. We will develop increasingly restrictive intellectual property laws that protect the course as text from being changed or copied. We will also continue to develop elaborate schemes of digital rights management to protect our investment.

This may sound moralizing. I intend it to, for the struggle for the meaning of educational technology has far more moral implications than the struggle for the meaning of a bicycle. My analysis is, of course, a simplification, as is any grouping that lumps together such widely different types of humans. I think, however, that it tells us something that we should not forget as we develop and evaluate educational technologies. In the distinction between performances and things lies the difference between texts animated by human interaction, and texts that are separated from those whose knowledge they represent. This is a struggle over meanings and who gets to assign them, and how those meanings get acted out in front of real students in real time, however virtual the course may be in space. This is a moral difference if anything is. End of article


About the author

Doug Brent is a Professor in the interdisciplinary Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He researches and publishes on the social aspects of information technologies and on interdisciplinary teaching practices, particularly writing across the disciplines. He is especially interested in the social effects of electronic texts. He is co–editor of the electronic journal EJournal (
E–mail: dabrent [at] ucalgary [dot]ca



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Editorial history

Paper received 14 July 2004; accepted 18 March 2005.
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Teaching as performance in the electronic classroom by Doug Brent
First Monday, volume 10, number 4 (April 2005),