A Review: Dreyfus: On the Internet

It seems to me Dreyfus is making a distinction between embodied and disembodied nature of the World Wide Web, not the Internet, especially in relation to hyperlinks. He is also romanticising the era of thinking that gives prominence to the idea of Cogito ergo sum, that thinking and existing is related, and also the mind controls the body.  And in relation to learning, his reference to Rousseau implies the importance of the child interacting with the physical environment. Hence the emphasis of embodiment in his critique about online or distance learning.

Certainly philosophers for a long time have debated about the relationship of the mind and body. When we take this to a new level, in relation to Distance Learning, where the written word become the prominent medium of communication, Dreyfus is suggesting that the absence of the teacher aka the human body, only partial communication takes place. He takes it so far as to conclude that because the heralding of the new era of leveling the field in education through digital technology has failed to happen, twenty years on, it has failed.  And that it has failed because online learning cannot replace human face-to-face contact; that it cannot teach mastery of a subject, as learning has to be a progression from learning from the master as an apprenticeship, where you are physically present and immerse yourself in the job, to learn from the contact of a human master to master of the subject through practice; and if has failed because distance learning can never create the same mood of a physical classroom; that it is without the risks that pertain in an embodied situation, and it cannot achieve the same effect without the teacher and learner’s emotional attachment to the learning experience; and it will not work as the spoken word, expressions, gestures cannot be attained by exchanging written text on the cyber world.

I think the premise of his assumptions is so much rooted in the past. Innovation is usually rejected strongly by traditionalists, as there is a tendency to compare an apple with an orange: both are different and so direct comparison is probably the wrong premise to begin with.  His critics, have more or less, torn down his assumptions, noting ‘Dreyfus’ failure of pedagogic imagination’, his oversight of what happens in reality in other domains especially in relation to his stages of learning, and the functionality and possibilities of asynchronous and synchronous communication afforded by technology in providing a sense of classroom, community and contact; his misconception of anonymity in Distance Education, when this is not the case in reality (Blake, pp380-2,2002).  The teacher-centredness approach has its time and place, and probably for a specific age group.  As the world evolves and ‘the embodied teacher is no longer considered indispensable to learning in higher education’ (McWilliams Taylor, 1997) for reasons of economy, changes in the culture and delivery of Higher Education.  From reading Lockhard and Pegrum’s Brave New Classroom, 2007, the idea of the embodied teacher is indeed fast becoming a relic of the past: historically, university education catered to creating a community of scholars, and to the elite few, presently, with the World Wide Web, and elearning technologies, newer, and sometimes more suitable pedagogies have developed, to meet the new challenges, needs culture and economy. With the neoliberal view, the discourse in Higher Education is shifting from Dreyfus’s premise of “creating good citizens with skilled in various domains” to “producing knowledge workers need to increase economic productivity and to engage in scientific and technological areas that feed high-tech productivity” (cited in O’Sullivan and Palaska, pp42, The New Discourse of Education, 2007).  The teacher, which used to be the content expert, has to adjust and incorporate the role of a facilitator, helping and directing the management of learning of the students instead.  In this new context, the learners take ownership for their learning (O’Sullivan and Palaska, p45, 2007).

Traditionalists, who believed in the power of the embodied teacher, go so far as to call for an urgent awareness to lecturers to fight their corner or risk losing their jobs but I think one cannot fight for the sake of fighting.  Technology in university is at the stage where it is becoming inescapable first due to the investment already poured in over the last fifteen years, and secondly, contrary to Dreyfus’ dichotomy of the embodied and the disembodied, embodiment in the cyberworld is different, or reconstituted using Land’s terminology (Land, 2004).  Dwight (2004) has put forward a cogent discussion challenging Dreyfus’s dualism, of seeing things in ‘fixed essence’, instead he promotes the idea of fluidity and interdependence between a machine and human beings.  It is no doubt, learning online, although has been hailed as the leveling tool to enable more to access higher education, providing more access to information and learning, and all the wonderful conveniences of learning anywhere, anytime, have not quite achieved all that it says it will do (Goodfellow and Lea, 2007; Lockhard and Pegrum, 2007).  However such big changes take time, astute management and the breaking down of myths of what constitutes good learning.  It is now another option available to distributing learning, and having this option is something that educators will need to enhance university education in the new context. (see footnote 1)

Ultimately, I think there must be a balance: the need to ensure a well designed distance learning course, and redefining and empowering the role of the teacher to one of facilitator, one that would teach the learners how to fish, and not giving them the fish; the reliance on self-motivated learning, organisation and charting one’s own path, but more importantly as suggested by Mc Williams and Taylor (1997), that “getting the pedagogical rationale right in the light of more compelling theories of the body and of technology… which will not happen by relying on the current advocate of high technology as a solution to all things, or being in an either or camp but “we would be better served by examining the state of impoverishment of the pedagogical principles that underlie such simplistic thinking.” (McWilliams and Taylor, 1997).  I tend to agree with Mc Williams and Taylor’s conclusion.  We need to dig deep and look across disciplines, theories and technology and really understand them, in order to begin to even think of what is important and what works.



1. I am not forgetting to mention the technological diversity that exists amongst students from different age groups, geographical locations and social classes.  There are also issues regarding distribution and who actually gets to access Higher Education, but I think this particular topic is really not about a utopian ideal of Higher Education via technology, but more of looking at where Dreyfus is coming from and what are some of the more compelling discussions about the posssibilities of technology, and how we can harness the use of this, rather than seeing the two as contesting entities.


N. Blake “Hubert Dreyfus on Distance Education: relays of educational 
embodiment” Educational Philosophy and Theory (2002) v. 34, no 4, pp.379-385
Burbules, M (2002) ‘Like a Version: playing with online identities’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol 34, no 4, pp.387-393
Champion, E. M. (2004) ‘The Digital Society and Its Enemies: A Critique of On the Internet’, Computers and Society, 32, 8
Clark, A. (2003) Natural born cyborgs: minds, technologies and the future of human intelligence, Oxford: OUP chapter 1, ‘Cyborgs unplugged’, pp.13-34
Dall’Alba, G. and Barnacle, R. (2005) Embodied knowing in online environments, Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol 37(5), pp.719-744
Dreyfus, H. L. (2009) On the internet, 2nd edition, London: Routledge chapter 2, ‘How Far is Distance Learning from Education’, pp.25-48 (e-book)
Dwight, J. (2004) ‘Review essay: On the Internet’, E-learning, 1, 1
Goodfellow, R and Lea, M (2007) Challenging e-Learning in the University, A Literacies Perspective, The Society of Research into Higher Education and Open University Press
Gresham, John (2006) ‘The divine pedagogy as a model for online education’, Teaching Theology and Religion, 9 (1), pp.24-26
Land, R. (2004) Issues of embodiment and risk in online learning. Proceedings of ASCILITE 2004
Lockhard and Pegrum, ed (2007) Brave New Classrooms, Peter Lang Publishing, NY
McWilliam, E. and Taylor, P. (1997) ‘Teacher im/material: challenging the new pedagogies of instructional design’
O’Sullivan and Palaskas, ‘The Political Economy of the New Discourse of Higher Education’ in Lockhard and Pegrum, ed (2007) Brave New Classrooms, Peter Lang Publishing, NY


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