Rethinking Online Education: Media, Ideologies, and Identities
reviewed by Karen Swan - March 23, 2015
Title: Rethinking Online Education: Media, Ideologies, and Identities
Author(s): Bessie Mitsikopoulou
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594519676, Pages: 232, Year: 2014
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Once I got past the fact that Rethinking Online Education has nothing to do with online education, its inherent value became clearer to me; what the book actually focuses on is detailed critical analyses of two websitesNewsHour Extra and Rethinking Schoolsthat provide classroom teachers with lesson plans and other educational resources on the Iraq War, the corpus of which was collected from the two portals in 2003, 2005, and 2010. Mitsikopoulou uses these analyses to compare and contrast not only the websites themselves, but more importantly, the ideologies and discursive identities embedded in two seemingly similar pedagogical approaches: critical thinking pedagogies and critical pedagogies.
Critical thinking pedagogies are represented by the NewsHour Extra resources on teaching the Iraq War, while critical pedagogies are represented by the Rethinking Schools materials. Both portals contain lesson plans and linked multimodal materials intended for classroom use; both are part of larger websites and media outlets whose materials they make use of; and both are somewhat similarly organized, with links to parent websites as well as different sections within the portals. For Mitsikopoulou, these formal similarities make the essential pedagogical differences between them all the more significant.
Chapter One deals with critical thinking approaches and the NewsHour Extra portal. Critical thinking pedagogies, Mitsikopoulou argues, tend to be skills-based, focusing on argumentation, evaluation of evidence, the identification of author intent, and the separation of fact from opinion and relevant from irrelevant propositions. Current events, she maintains, provide a rich source of materials to which such skills can be applied.
Mitsikopoulou classifies the NewsHour Extra website as conservative. As an American, I was surprised at this, seeing as the NewsHour itself falls on the liberal end of the major US newscasts, but the author provides ample evidence to support her claim. Most especially, she points to the shift in focus from the general issue of the decision to go to war to the specific current events within it, which, she argues, limits truly critical discussion; it implicitly supports the national agenda because it takes it as a given. This highlights a general strength in the book itself: because Mitsikopoulou is European, she brings an outsiders objective point of view to the analyses of the two US websites.
Chapter Two deals with the Rethinking Schools resource, and here the author contrasts its approach with that of NewsHour Extra. In doing so, she also illuminates the defining features of critical pedagogyasking questions to engage students in analyzing the general social milieu with an eye toward changing it, while empowering them to make their way in the dominant society. Critical pedagogy, Mitsikopoulou argues, is not neutral. It views education as political and teachers as transformative intellectuals. Specifically, the main purpose of the Rethinking Schools lesson plans is to change students attitudes toward the Iraq War in particular, and war in general.
The ideological nature of the support materials provided by the two websites is explored in Chapter Three. Mitsikopoulou argues that the NewsHour Extra materials highlight the notion of the war as a contest between good guys and bad guys, whereas the Rethinking Schools materials focus on war as suffering. In addition, she shows that although both websites are inherently ideological, the NewsHour Extra site maintains a pretense of objectivity. In this she provides a particularly powerful example of one of the problems with critical thinking approachesthe choice of which texts to analyze is itself an ideological act that is rarely acknowledged.
In Chapter Four, Mitsikopoulou considers the major element in both siteslesson plans for use in teaching about the warand compares the nature of those provided at each website. Here, she maintains that the NewsHour Extras lesson plans take a traditional, technical form. They are presented within a common template that includes objectives, materials and time needed, procedures, and correlations with national standards. The Rethinking Schools lesson plans, in contrast, are the narrative reflections of individual teachers on lessons they taught that were critical of the Iraq War in particular and/or war in general. Mitsikopoulou argues that these differences in form embody different conceptions of the teacher: the teacher as sophisticated professional vs. the teacher as transformational intellectual.
Chapter Five is titled Hypermodality, which the author characterizes as involving the possibility for non-linear access to materials presented using multiple media. This chapter brings to light areas where the book seems weak. To begin with, the lesson plans in both websites are meant to be printed and used in traditional face-to-face classrooms in a linear fashion, and while they both include non-text materials, these are not themselves hypermodal. Mitsikopoulou thus compares the hypermodality of the two websites in terms of the organization of the pages (hierarchical in both cases), the number of internal and external links that the pages contain, and the types of media to which they link. To my mind, these comparisons are superficialand in truth, both websites are highly conventional.
This brings us back to my original complaint: the book is not about online education at all, and is therefore mistitled. Online education is education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the internet (iNACOL, 2011). The two sites compared in this book are resource websites for conventional K-12 classroom teachers. There are so many things that hypermodal approaches can do, especially via student generated content and social networking that might be truly transformative and empowering. I was disappointed that these possibilities were not discussed.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book. I believe the grounding of the comparison of critical thinking vs. critical pedagogies in actual lessons and materials was most usefulespecially the comparison tables found in Chapter Six. The book clarifies the differences between the two approaches for people like myself, who can get confused about them; I found it especially instructive regarding why critical thinking curricula arent necessarily critical. The book also offers rich analyses of the contrasting websites for those who are more knowledgeable about critical pedagogy.
iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning). (2011). The online learning definitions project. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning.