The Spectre Haunting Online Learning

For this formal commentary assignment, I have chosen to expand one of the suggested questions about Ong’s approach, as I am particularly interested in the dichotomies that arise in psychology and in education. Two of the major criticisms of Ong’s work is that it is deterministic and dichotomous in nature. (Chandler, 1995) In other words, his theories are based on the assumption that there are causal relationships between technology and human development, and that the theories tend to be simplified and reductionist. I borrowed (and edited) this title from a blog post called “The Spectre Haunting Networked Culture”, by Bon Stewart. He writes,

“We live in a culture saturated with the idea that technologies are, effectively, things in themselves, in spite of the fact that they arise from and are utilized and therefore given meaning within particular social and cultural contexts. We tend to see technologies in terms of their “thingness” – their shiny gadget glory – rather than in terms of the affordances or action possibilities they enable in different societal situations. This separation of thing from context and possibility leads to determinism, or the belief that machines have the capacity to act on us and do things to us in and of themselves.”

One of the major faults of Ong’s work is that is in technologically deterministic in nature. As both Stewart(1995) and Chandler (2011) point out, a technologically deterministic theory presents that media and technology shape how people think, feel, act, and how our society operates as we move from one technological age to another. This way of thinking also assumes strong causal relationships, and presents people as being acted upon by technology. Other cultural, historical, and societal factors are ignored, and change tends to be presented as progress. Technological determinism tends to be reductionist and biased in nature. Oliver (2011) argues that cognitivism is one example of technological determinism in e-learning. According to cognitivist theory, the computer is a metaphor for how the mind works. Oliver goes on to state that the discourse on e-learning literalizes this metaphor, and that the danger is that we forget that it was a metaphor. He writes,

“As Friesen argues, the issue here is not that cognitive psychology has failed to provide lasting contributions to the field of education(p 85-6); rather, it is that an oversimplified account of their theoretical grounding results in a kind of determinism that appears nomological because it is, ultimately, self-referential.”

Another major criticism of Ong’s work is that it is a “great divide theory”, because it creates a dichotomy between oral and literate people. Dichotomies may be appealing because they help us to make sense of a complex and chaotic world. True dichotomies though, are rare, and perhaps only occur in science and math. For only in these contexts is it possible to rigorously quantify a term. As an example, we might consider “odd” or “even” numbers. Classifying things in this way is convenient, and can help to simplify convoluted information or to persuade others of a particular point of view. However, rough classifications become problematic when we try to simplify for complex phenomenon, such as people, culture, and learning. This is evidenced by the following popular dichotomies; “left brain or right brain”, “nature or nurture”, “digital immigrant or digital native, “gay or straight”, and “male or female”. At the very least, dichotomies are misleading. At the very worst, they are dangerous. Categories, especially when applied to people, may be imbued with power. Once they are divided into groups, people can further be categorized as ‘inferior’ or ‘superior’ in some way. One only need look at the examples of the sexual orientation or gender binaries (“gay or straight”, “male or female”), to appreciate how a dichotomy can create a dynamic of “us and them”. In Ong’s own writing on pre-literate people, he refers the pre-literate person as “the peasant”. Thus, there is a risk that readers interpret his perspective as being on the outside and looking down upon those from pre-literate or oral cultures. He may be uncomfortably close to referring to these people as savages.
Ong is not the only theorist to promote a false dichotomy. There are many instances in education, teaching, and learning. This is not an exhaustive list, but some other examples of dichotomies in education include:

  • teaching is an art or a science
  • motivation is extrinsic or intrinsic
  • learning is a cognitive process or an observable behaviour
  • direct instruction vs. student-centred instruction
  • classical learning or 21st century learning
  • ‘sage on the stage’ or ‘guide on the side’
  • hard skills vs. soft skills
  • classroom learning vs. online learning

These generalizations are problematic because they can lead to polarity in thinking. Rather than exploring issues with an open mind, people take a position in a two-sided debate. Thus, an open and accurate weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular issue become less likely. Furthermore, other options may be ignored as people divide themselves into camps on a particular issue. Blended learning may be a prime example of how educators are moving from a polarized debate to a more well-rounded discussion and application of the strengths and weaknesses of online and classroom learning. Rather than continuing the conversation about whether or not online learning is superior to classroom learning (or vice versa), educators have begun to appreciate the value and limitations of each, and they are employing them together. (US Department of Education, 2010)

Ong has made a substantial contribution to cultural and technological studies with his work, “Orality and Literacy”. However, as with any theory one should consider them through a critical lens, and take into account;

  • What are other equally reasonable ways to think about this issue or topic?
  • Are there other perspectives being omitted?
  • Why did this person choose to omit them? (Ignorance? Manipulation? Self-Interest? Inspiration?)
  • Do they acknowledge there are other equally reasonable perspectives?


Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved, 8 August, 2009 from

Oliver, M. (2011) Technological determinism in educational technology research:some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 27 (5), 373–384. Retrieved from

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

B Stewart. (2013, Jan 30). Connected Learning: Getting Beyond Technological Determinism. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Retrieved from practices/finalreport.pdf

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