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E-learning and the Quality of Knowledge in a Globalised World

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Is knowledge for sale? It is likely, that a similar market principleas described above (entertainment industry) will also influence theselection of knowledge on the internet. Valuable knowledge mightbecome very expensive. Especially nowadays knowledge is distributedthrough the internet and the new distributors define `what is on theshelves'. Only an entrance-code, a credit card number, or anexpensive private training might give access to meaningful knowledge.


The posting below looks at the homogenisation of knowledge in the internet age. It is an excerpt from the article, E-LEARNING AND THE QUALITY OF KNOWLEDGE IN A GLOBALISED WORLD Dr Sylvia van de Bunt-Kokhuis, Vrije Universiteit (, Amsterdam. Published in: The Quality Dialogue, Integrating Quality Cultures in Flexible, Distance and eLearning, Conference Proceedings, EDEN Annual Conference, Rhodos, 2003, pp. 6-11. Also published in August 2003 on the CEDEFOP website, see section European eLearning Quality Forum Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Decline of the Guru

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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I. Introduction

E-learning is here to stay. Futurists expect that all facets of education will change due to the impact of the internet and globalisation. It is likely, in the future teaching will take place in a truly interconnected global and virtual classroom. The production and exchange of knowledge will be affected by this globalisation process. The safeguarding of the quality of the knowledge production and distribution process is far too important to be left to ICT specialists. In this paper the knowledge offered in the virtual classroom is considered, in particular in higher education. The homogenisation of knowledge in the internet-era is discussed in Paragraph II. To what extent are educational institutions free producers or users of knowledge? What are the ethical implications of commercial driven e-learning of higher education? To what extent are higher education institutions free producers or users of knowledge on the web and who defines the quality? In Paragraph III the impact of the internet on higher education is analysed. The article concludes with an outlook towards an ethical approach on globalisation (Paragraph IV).

II. Homogenisation of knowledge

What is knowledge? In this paper the concept of knowledge is discussed in its international and virtual context. The large amount of available information in various societies and on the internet provides building bricks for knowledge. Whether information is considered knowledge or not depends on the context where knowledge receives its significance. Knowledge can be legitimised from within the context of a certain organisation, e.g. research undertaken in a university. Research can create meaningful knowledge within and outside the context of the university. On the level of the individual person, knowledge is a composition of experience, information and skills. More often, knowledge is not explicitly perceptible and is rooted in the history and soul of a person. Implicit norms and values influence the personal perception of what valuable knowledge is about. On the one hand, knowledge is considered organised knowledge, e.g. in the setting of training and research. On the other hand, implicit or tacit knowledge supports the way knowledge is perceived.

Knowledge traditions endangered.

What counts as knowledge in higher education? This question has been raised decades ago by Foucault (1979, pp.27-28). He critically stated that we should abandon the traditional image that knowledge exists only where the power relations are suspended. We have to become aware that there are more possible freedoms and knowledge traditions than we can imagine. Foucault is interested in how individuals in modern western society become utilised by the state to live, to study, to produce and to consume. In this power process, people in the western society are dictated by the state or another authority such as companies or commerce. In such a society economic laws reinforce what counts as knowledge and what doesn't. The great challenge of current educators is to capture and further explore the heritage of knowledge traditions. This ongoing and challenging investigation has been described by Confusius (551-479 BC) in the following way "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is real knowledge".

Metaphor of the entertainment industry.

Will the increased globalisation lead to a homogenisation of available knowledge? The metaphor of the western entertainment-industry is illustrative here. For commercial reasons the music industry pre-selects the music people can buy in shops. The sales prospect is the leading principle in the selection process. Global distribution firms such as Virgin or HMV only adopt products that are commercially of interest in their world-wide shop-assortment. These distributors are highly dependent on producers such as EMI, Philips and Sony. The small music producer has to compete with the big producers and retail industry. Often, the small producer is excluded because his music is not of commercial interest. The end-customer does not know what one is missing because he never heard the music and he will never find it on the shelves in the music store. Similar pre-selection processes can be found in other entertainment branches e.g. in the theatre and film world. Artisans who try to sell their products locally are ignored by global economic trends. Barlow (2000,a) shows the cultural effects of China's inclusion in the WTO. China is bracing for the invasion of the American Motion Picture industry. Already the 10 American films allowed in every year totally dominate the market. Zhang Hui Jun of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy fears that the `unprecedented' USA invasion will induce Chinese producers to slavishly follow Hollywood's formulas at the expense of innovative Chinese productions.

Is knowledge for sale?

It is likely, that a similar market principle as described above (entertainment industry) will also influence the selection of knowledge on the internet. Valuable knowledge might become very expensive. Especially nowadays knowledge is distributed through the internet and the new distributors define `what is on the shelves'. Only an entrance-code, a credit card number, or an expensive private training might give access to meaningful knowledge. If the sales prospect becomes the leading principle for knowledge-selection, the same might happen in higher education. In the context of globalisation, higher education may no longer be considered a social activity. The ideal of 'Bildung' is replaced by the ideal of an efficient preparation for jobs. Higher education becomes a commodity and part of economic life. More and more companies will consider higher education as an investment in people to perform better and to improve the economic productivity in a particular region.

Commodification of education.

In the coming years, the spectrum of education on the web might change fundamentally, due to the international trade agreements formulated by supranational organisations. The objective of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is to make an agreement concerning the trade in public services, the so called General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS). GATS considers public services such as health care and education economic commodities. If the GATS agreement will be signed, a considerable part of the global society will become of business interest to companies. In western countries about 70% of the economy consists of various services. What will happen with (higher) education? Within the framework of GATS, educational curricula, content and ideas will be considered economic commodities. Currently, GATS negotiations are going on on liberalisation of education and health care. The United States, New-Sealand and Australia already proposed a further liberalisation of education. As a result of these developments, more and more schools and universities will be privatised and study costs will increase. The available content more often will be a selection of commercial `knowledge brookers`. It is unclear and difficult to foresee where the interest of the companies will start and the right on academic freedom will stop. Except for the United States where the corporate-school relationship has a history of many decades, in other countries knowledge was considered as a public domain, and not an economic unit with a price-label. Schools expressed democratic values rather than corporate values. Education was considered as a social, cultural and ethical process (see the earlier mentioned Bildung-ideal). Only the general costs were calculated. These values will now be replaced by an educational commodity system where students are considered `human capital'. In the commercial commodified courses students learn to choose. It is not a choice for values important in a society and to the fulfilment of a human being. More and more, it will be a choice for an efficient product to acquire an effective career.