Throughout history, new technologies related to literacy and communication have usually been greeted by both uncritical applause and almost paranoid suspicion. Often promoters and detractors both perceive the new technology as having the power to bring about a radical shift in social interactions and hierarchies and they react either positively or negatively to this prospect. Consider, for example, Plato's (1973) reaction to what was in his day the "newfangled" technology of writing: "Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on [it] to bring things to their remembrance by external signs, instead of on their own internal resources." Plato was also concerned that this technical innovation threatened to devalue all learning by democratizing access to knowledge.

Educators since the time of Plato have recognized the power of literacy to expand human consciousness. But they have also recognized that access to literacy involves access to power. Plato's view that literacy, as a tool for critical thinking, posed dangers to the established social order if placed in the wrong hands, or in the hands of too many, has been echoed ever since by those who controlled access to the power of literacy. The gatekeepers who have regulated access to literacy have ranged from scribes under the strict control of religious and political leaders to the enforcers of the pre­Civil War laws in the United States that made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write.

A particularly vivid example of the perceived need to control access to literacy in order to preserve the societal power structure is provided by John Willinsky (1991:128) in discussing the volatile debates that took place in England during the early part of the 19th century about extending schooling and literacy to the working class. As expressed by a Conservative member of Parliment:

However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the laboring classes of the poor, it would in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness... instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them factious and refractory... it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors; and in a few years, the result would be that the legislature would find it necessary to direct the strong arm of power towards them.

Politicians today are rarely as honest in justifying the rationing of literacy as their counterparts two centries ago. Yet despite the rhetoric of "mass education" and meritocracy, class differences in educational access and achievement are very evident in virtually all countries across the globe. In the United States context, for example, Jonathan Kozol (1991) documented the "savage inequalities" that still characterize educational provision for students of different income, class, and racial backgrounds. There is a huge disparity in per­pupil expenditure between rich and poor school districts in the United States and attempts to equalize provision are fiercely resisted by the privileged classes. This is a matter of ideology rather than strictly finance since these same privileged classes show no reluctance to support enormous government spending on the military, on building prisons, and on policing in general. It is hard not to conclude that access to literacy is still being rationed on the basis of income, class, and race despite the rhetoric to the contrary.

In reviewing the educational reform debates and initiatives that have been undertaken during the past decade in both the United States and Canada, we have suggested that the sociopolitical agenda underlying the impetus to reform is to preserve the societal power structure while accommodating minimally to the perceived need to upgrade national literacy levels. More specifically, the unstated goals are to (a) promote sufficient functional literacy to meet the needs of industry in an increasingly technological work environment; (b) promote cultural literacy and cultural identities that are in harmony with the societal power structure so that what is in the best interests of elite groups is accepted as also being in the best interests of marginalized groups; and (c) limit the development of critical literacy so that students do not develop the ability to analyze disinformation and challenge structures of control and social injustice (Cummins & Sayers, 1995).

The current debates on the potential impact and appropriate role of technology in education can be analyzed in the context of this sketch of how literacy and power relations intersect. We suggest that discourses that have emerged from both the right and the left of the political spectrum fail to respond to the changing realities of the 21st century. Conservative discourses in relation to schools and technology highlight the computer as an efficient transmitter of pre­programmed information and skills that reinforce societal priorities and values; in other words, information and skills that conform to the imperatives of the societal power structure. The computer thus serves to indoctrinate the next generation, restrict their social perspectives, and serve the function of "manufacturing consent" (Chomsky, 1987).

By contrast, the discourse emerging from the left of the political spectrum has tended to depict technology as yet another "corporate plot," to view the Internet or the "information superhighway" as the "disinformation superhighway" (Barlow & Robertson, 1994) and to condemn in blanket terms any infiltration of new technologies into the classroom (e.g. Noble, 1994).

We reject both of these emerging discourses and argue in this paper that certain uses of technology are integral to any coherent challenge to structures of inequity in our schools. Specifically, we draw on the pioneering work of the French pedagogue Celestin Freinet (1967; 1990a, 1990b) to highlight the contributions that computer­mediated cross­cultural interscholastic exchanges can make to the development of both critical literacy and intercultural understanding. To challenge coercive power structures, however, these "sister class" exchanges must be harnassed to a pedagogy of collaborative critical inquiry.

We first review in more detail the discourses of the right and left sketched above and then summarize several case studies that illustrate how computer­meidated interscholastic exchanges can act as a catalyst for collaborative critical inquiry in the classroom and for the development of critical literacy among students.

Discourses of the right and left

Business leaders and politicians tend to see the effective use of technology as one of the major means for improving education. As one example, John Snobelin, Ontario's Minister of Education has enthusiastically endorsed injecting 20 million dollars worth of computer equipment into the Ontario Education system at the same time as his Conservative government is in the process of chopping close to $1 billion from the system (out of a total education budget of $14 billion). Estimates have put the number of teachers who may be laid off at up to 30,000.

In the United States, many Republican politicians and business leaders have gone further in suggesting that the private sector is better positioned than the public school system to use technology effectively. They argue for the privatization of education as a means of boosting student outcomes while simultaneously generating profits for private investors. Technologically based instructional delivery will require fewer expensive humans, thereby realizing profits based on the same per­pupil expenditure as conventional schooling. In Douglas Noble's (1994:65) words: "Corporate leaders view schools as the last major labor­intensive industry ripe for colonization and modernization. Public schools, finally, represent for them an expensive public monopoly overcome by bureaucratic inefficiency and abysmal productivity."

By contrast, progressive educators (e.g. Apple, 1993; Olson, 1987, and many others) have tended to be highly suspicious of computers and technology in general. Canadian educators, Maud Barlow and Heather­Jane Robertson, for example, express their concerns about what they term the "disinformation highway" as follows:

To reach young people, as consumers, as future workers, as the social architects of tomorrow, business is looking to the powerful medium­of­choice for kids, high technology. Information is increasingly delivered not by books and teacher lectures but by computers and telecommunications (which are less easily regulated to reflect the consensus standards set by boards, parents, and governments). Technology is becoming the way to bypass the system and go directly to students with a message. While this is as true for environmentalists, labor groups, and others trying to persuade young people to their view, no other sector will have as much financial access as corporations to ride the highway into the schools. (1994, pp. 89­90)

We share the concerns of many critics of the regime of technology. However, the dismissal of technology in general, and of the "information superhighway" in particular by many progressive educators ignores the fact that it is here to stay and will play a determining role in the life of every student who graduates in the next millennium. The same critics who dismiss the educational potential of technology as a "corporate plot" have no hesitation using the print medium (books, journals, etc.) to publicize their views and theories despite the fact that the publishing industry is likewise controlled by, and largely serves, the interests of the corporate sector. Rather than abandoning the field to narrow corporate interests, it seems imperative to us to articulate how powerful a teaching and learning medium the information highway can be when aligned with a pedagogy of collaborative critical inquiry.

We believe that the central issue is not whether or how much technology will be used in schools but the pedagogical assumptions that underlie that use. The major problem in the conservative discourse is not its advocacy of technology in itself, but its implicit endorsement of a traditional pedagogical orientation that assumes education should entail little more than transmitting facts, skills and values that will reinforce the societal status quo and the inequities embedded therein. The major problem with the progressive discourse lies not in its instructional or social goals but in its rejection of one of the most powerful tools to achieve those goals, namely the information superhighway.

Our perspective can be illustrated with reference both to contemporary interscholastic exchanges using the Internet and to the work of Celestin Freinet who pioneered the use of "technologies of the word" for the promotion of both critical literacy and intecultural exchange long before computers or the Internet came on the scene.

Global Learning Networks as a Catalyst for Critical Literacy

It is appropriate first to define critical literacy. Ira Shor's (1992:129) definition is comprehensive and clear:

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text,subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse.

In short, critical literacy reflects the analytic abilities involved in cutting through the surface veneer of persuasive arguments to the realities underneath and analyzing the methods and purposes of particular forms of persuasion. Clearly, the ability to think critically in these ways is crucial for meaningful participation in a democratic society. Experience from both long­standing pre­computer and contemporary global networks strongly suggests that these educational exchhanges can dramatically enhance students' critical literacy when the underlying pedagogy is oriented to collaborative critical inquiry. We define a pedagogy of collaborative critical inquiry as "an instructional orientation that encourages and enables students to work cooperatively across cultural, linguistic, racial, class, gender, and geographic boundaries in order to generate knowledge and insight relevant to understanding issues of social justice and resolving social problems."

As we have indicated, sister class exchanges through global learning networks are by no means a new phenomenon. French educator, Celestin Freinet, originated interscholastic exchanges in 1924 using the printing press to "publish" students' writings and exchange these writings together with "cultural packages" with distant classes. By the time of Freinet's death in 1966, the Modern School Movement, which he founded, involved 10,000 schools in 33 countries. These schools carried out collaborative projects using the regular postal service to exchange materials and maintain contact.

The pedagogical role of "distancing" in these exchanges is expressed by Gervilliers, Berteloot and Lemery (1977:29­30):

When we live very close to our surroundings and to people, we eventually come not to see them... But thanks to the questions sent from our distant colleagues, our eyes are opened. We question, we investigate, we explore more deeply in order to respond with precise verifications to the inexhaustible curiosity of our distant collaborators, based on a natural motivation. This gradually leads to an awareness of our entire geographic, historic, and human environment.

Although computer and telecommunications technology dramatically facilitate interscholastic exchanges, the basic pedagogical underpinnings of global learning networks are no different than those implemented by Freinet many years ago using much less sophisticated technology. Students involved in both historical and current learning networks engage in collaborative critical inquiry and creative problem­solving. The issues they focus on have social as well as curricular relevance. Learning takes place in the context of shared projects jointly elaborated by participants in the network rather than from textbooks. Students at the present time also have access to the enormous range of informational resources available through the Internet and World Wide Web.

There are currently a significant number of national and international networks that promote student exchange and inquiry into issues of both social and academic relevance (Cummins & Sayers, 1995). In Canada, SchoolNet is in the process of establishing a national network that will facilitate communication among schools across the country. One notable project is the "Kids from Kanata" project which links urban and rural First Nations students (and teachers) with non­Native students (and teachers) across Canada to explore and share the experience of living in Canada from very different geographic backgrounds and cultural perspectives. Students and teachers participating in this network undoubtedly have far greater opportunity to develop an understanding of the roots of First Nations' protests in recent years than students who are not involved in this kind of exchange.

In the United States, one network which has prioritized issues related to linguistic diversity and social justice is the multilingual ORILLAS network. This project links students in the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada and Argentina on a regular basis (Sayers, 1994; Sayers and Brown, 1987). Within this network, sister classes engage in two kinds of exchanges: (a) monthly culture packages of maps, photos, audio and videotapes, schoolwork and local memorabilia, and (b) collaborative projects planned jointly by teachers in different sites that involve interdependent, cooperative activity in small groups at both sites. These collaborative projects fall into several categories: (1) shared student publications (e.g. newsletters); (2) comparative/contrastive investigations (e.g. surveys of each community regarding topical social issues such as pollution); (3) folklore compendiums and oral histories (e.g. collections of proverbs, children's rhymes and riddles, songs etc); (4) cultural explorations (e.g. students in the sister classes alternately playing the roles of anthropologist and cultural informant in order to explore each other's culture).

The common element of all networking projects that focus on social and cultural inquiry is the emergence of a community of learning that thrives on incorporating alternative perspectives in its search for understanding. Such networks potentially challenge the "cultural literacy" of socially­approved interpretations of historical and current events by virtue of their incorporation of alternative perspectives on these events. These alternative perspectives derive from both the sister classes and the use of a much wider range of sources for research inquiry than just the traditional textbook.

Among the social issues addressed in the case studies of global learning networks presented in "Brave New Schools" (Cummins & Sayers, 1995) are the following:

  • the impact of war and ethnic conflict on Bosnian refugee children and adults;
  • understanding the different cultural realities experienced by deaf and hearing children in Quebec and Maine.
  • confronting interethnic conflict between Latino/Latina and African American students in U.S. urban schools;
  • promoting intergenerational learning among children, adults and extended families;
  • exploration and critical analysis of proverbs from different cultures;
  • researching the Holocaust and other genocides as a way of furthering an end to intolerance;
  • promotion of global awareness through collaboration in raising money to build village wells in Nicaragua;
  • publication of an international students' magazine ("The Contemporary") that focuses on controversial issues of global importance (e.g. Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the case documented in the book).

In each of these projects, there was clear evidence of collaborative critical inquiry as the fuel that energized intellectually powerful and socially committed dialogue among the partner classes. Unfortunately, most societies are still afflicted by a strong ambivalence about critical literacy in general and in particular about the promotion of critical litreacy among marginalized and low income students. Privileged sectors of the society perceive accurately that widespread critical literacy potentially threatens their privilege. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the conservative discourse in relation to pedagogy in general and technology in particular has endorsed traditional forms of pedagogy that offer the best prospects of transmitting offical truths, values, and beliefs in their pure form from one generation to the next. To invite alternative perspectives on these truths, values, and beliefs into our children's heads either through cross­cultural contact over the Internet or through the reading of non­prescribed texts represents a clear threat to social stability. The subtext of current debates about the role of technology in schools lies in the potential threat that the Internet, allied to a pedagogy of collaborative critical inquiry, represents to power structures in the society in general (based on income distribution and political influence) and power structures within particular religious and cultural sub­groups whose long­term survival requires indoctrination of the next generation.


We have argued that computer and telecommunictions technology has the potential to act as a catalyst for the development of both intercultural understanding and critical literacy. The emergence of electronic communities of learning potentially threatens the hegemony of "official knowledge," as encapsulated in textbooks, because it is much more difficult to pre­script and neutralize the content of communication across cultural and national boundaries. Only issues that relate directly to students' lives and to the world around them are likely to sustain long­term meaningful collaborative projects. In short, global learning networks represent a powerful tool to deconstruct the sanitized curriculum that most students still experience within the classroom and to prepare students to function within a world where the prevalence of disinformation and indoctrination highlight the urgent need for a critically­literate population. In the absence of critical literacy, democracy merges into totalitarianism. It is for this reason that a politically progressive educational project must actively promote global learning networks that use sophisticated technology for purposes of educational and social transformation.


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