Industrialised Teaching and Learning (1997)

Otto Peters


The impulse for the interpretation of distance education as an industrialised form of teaching and learning, or as the most industrialised form of teaching and learning, came thirty years ago (Peters 1967). Interest in this has never waned but on the contrary increased. In recent years, the discussion on this attitude towards distance education has even been intensified (Peters 1989, Peters 1994, Campion 1993, Farnes 1993, Raggatt 1993, Rumble 1995a, 1995b, 1995c). This discussion is therefore of some importance because the aspect of industrialisation is not found in pedagogical literature with regard to any other form of teaching and learning. The discussion underlines once again the special character of distance education.

Description of the concept

In the 1960s, when distance education was still being disregarded by pedagogics, in spite of the fact that it even then had a seventy-year long history to look back on, and was even terra incognita for research, it was difficult to take a look at this form of teaching and learning, let alone to make it the subject of academic research. However, in the face of the increasing interest it was high time that its pedagogical advantages and deficiencies were recognised and people made aware of its special features. Of course, it could be described using traditional pedagogical categories. But attempts of this nature (Peters 1967) remained unsatisfactory. Where was the gain if the restricted subject-matter, the special role of the media and, under the anthropological conditions, the advanced age and employment of students were considered? Or where was the gain if distance education was characterised by the separation of students from teachers and fellow-students, indirect communication by means of correspondence and the predominant use of the medium of printed material? It was always seen merely as a special form of traditional study, although it differs from this to a considerable extent.

To grasp what was special and "essential" about distance education, it was necessary to take a look at its structural differences. It was helpful here to examine the reasons for and circumstances of its creation. For example, the question might be asked why distance teaching had developed in the mid-19th century outside the institutions which the state had established for educating and training its citizens. Why was it able to gain in importance in the following decades although it was neither intended, nor desired, let alone planned, by those responsible for the nation's education? If we follow this line of questioning we come across the first indications of the different structural nature of distance education. In fact, we come up against a fundamental difference. In the case of distance education, funds were not to be applied, as is usual with state education, so that people could be educated and trained. People were supposed to learn so that the institute providing the instruction could make money or, in other words, make a profit. There were commercial reasons for the creation of distance education. Its pioneers were businessmen.

But there was yet another pointer: as businessmen, the first operators of correspondence schools in the age when industrialism began to flourish recognised the extraordinary opportunities available to those who were no longer satisfied with the traditional methods of teaching and learning. Private schools were prepared to use the new methods of industrial goods production in the teaching and learning process.

It is difficult to imagine how the complete change in teaching and learning methods could have been any more radical: beforehand, everything on the teaching side had been in a single hand, now there was division of labour. For example, planning, developing and presenting the subject-matter and correcting assignments was now done by different persons at different times and at different locations. The development of written courses before the start of teaching itself became more and more important, and corresponded to production planning in the industrialised production process, which was carried out by specially qualified experts. Where teachers had previously literally used their physical presence to present the subject-matter, this was now done on a mechanised (and later automated) basis. Beforehand, teaching had been individualised to a great extent by the personality of the teacher. Now it was standardised, normalised and formalised. If teaching had previously been at all times a unique "event" in the subjective experience of participants who were in interplay with a learning group, it was now objectivised, or offered to all participants of a defined course in the same way and could be repeated at will. The most important consequence of objectivisation was that teaching became a product which could be altered and optimised, and above all sold. And not just sold locally but, like an industrially manufactured product, anywhere. In fact, people began to advertise the product "teaching" and to open up cross-border markets to improve its sales results.

Because of these structural characteristics, distance teaching in the 19th century and distance education in the 20th differ in decisive points from traditional face-to-face teaching with a group of learners. Its organisers rationalised teaching to a much greater extent than was usual in traditional teaching. To do this they used machines - the printing press - to make use of the benefits of mass-production, as well as transport mechanisms, to distribute instruction, and they also aimed at acquiring as many students (as paying customers) as possible. In fact the number of students was regarded as a guide to success. All the special features make it obvious that distance teaching at this period is to be regarded as a structurally fundamentally different system of teaching and learning. This justifies seeing it, in fact, as the most (intensively) industrialised from of teaching and learning.

The concept of industrialised teaching was confirmed by the work of the distance teaching universities which have been founded since the 1970s, above all by the Open University in Great Britain (cf. 7.2). What was so spectacular in the work of these new institutions? The application of the principle of mass-production and mass-consumption of goods to academic teaching. It is no accident that distance teaching universities are among the largest universities in their respective countries; in some cases, they have to cope with hundreds of thousands of students (cf. 7.4). In this way they cooperate in the world-wide transformation process that is making academic education not just accessible to society's elite, as before, but to as many people as possible who are willing and able to study.

Peter Raggatt (1993, 21) characterised the working methods of these distance teaching universities using the example of the British Open University, which he knows well as he is a member of its School of Education. He regards the following features of industrialisation as being characteristic: restriction to a limited number of standard products, application of methods of mass-production, automation, division of labour to carry out specialised part tasks, centralised controls and a hierarchically structured bureaucracy. In Raggat's judgement, the teaching and learning process at the Open University has exactly these features. Here, the number of distance education course was restricted, as many as possible were then printed in a single printing run, which achieved the effect of mass-production (high volume, low cost). For cost reasons, these courses are used for several years, in fact, they often have a working life of eight years. Considerable cost savings through the increased production of longer standardised courses for relatively large homogeneous groups of students make a significant difference. Raggatt described this development stage of industrialisation as Fordism. All distance teaching universities work more or less in accordance with this form of industrialisation.

A controversy

Some authors have attempted to relativise the validity of this characterisation. David Sewart (1992, 229) pointed quite rightly to the application of principles of mass-production in today's mass universities in which there are certain forms of division of labour, specialisation and increasing alienation between teachers and students. And Nick Farnes (1993, 10) has even shown how the different phases of industrialisation had an effect on the overall educational system and enabled it to cope with the problems of mass. This was the only possible way to establish general primary school education on the basis of compulsory schooling, and from there to advance to the expansion of secondary education and tertiary education, a development that is culminating at present in efforts to establish mass higher education. Greville Rumble (1995a, 19) is also of the opinion that regarding industrialisation as typical of distance education is incorrect, because proof can also be shown of the industrialisation of teaching and learning in classrooms and group instruction. If trends towards industrialisation can be verified in traditional universities, these critics claim that the characterisation of distance education as industrialised teaching and learning loses its force. In addition, characterising distance education as the most industrialised form of teaching and learning is also regarded as out of proportion and criticised because it is claimed that this characterisation is obsolete because for some time now we have been in a post-industrialist age.

The effect of industrial methods at traditional universities as well cannot be disputed. Why should it be? These developments merely confirm once again how industrialised methods of thinking and acting penetrate all areas of life and work, infiltrate them and alter them. But the concept of industrialised teaching and learning no longer refers to the application of individual or even several principles of industrialisation, but to the analogy between the teaching and learning process and the process of industrial production. In both cases, all their constitutive features are concentrated and linked to one another in a systematic sequence. Industrialised teaching therefore means, and this must be repeated here, at the same time, careful prior planning on a division of labour basis, costly development, and objectivisation through media, all of which makes academic teaching into a product which can be mass-produced in the same way as an industrial good, which is kept in store, distributed over a wide area, evaluated and optimised. Where else in the academic world can a comparable form of teaching be found? Nowhere, even if professors responsible for a field demarcate their subjects from one another (specialisation), solve accruing problems with members of the middle hierarchy (division of labour), discuss with students on the telephone, transmit their lectures to other rooms via the university's own TV system if lecture halls are crowded, and drive to university by car (mechanisation). However, these effects of industrialisation remain external to teaching and learning at a traditional university. In principle they still take place in accordance with the same structural patterns that stem from the pre-industrial age. The objections therefore do not hold water.

In addition, as a reaction to these critical relativisations we can also point to the fundamental and far-reaching difference between teaching at a traditional university and at a distance teaching university. No matter how much technological and organisational effort is used to operate and maintain traditional universities, in particular mass universities, teaching itself is - oral - the same as in antiquity in India, Egypt and Greece. In distance teaching universities, on the other hand, it takes place in an additional coded and media form and only on the basis of a bundle of industrialised processes. Is this statement banal? Not at all! All it does is bring to the point the peculiarity of the most industrialised teaching which will be explained by means of a brief industrial sociological observation with recourse to Habermas (cf. Peters 1968, 62).

Traditional teaching is communicative actions which grew out of traditional oral culture and are therefore elemental. Distance education, on the other hand, is only possible on the basis of instrumentally rational and strategic actions which have to be imparted technologically. To underline the difference still further with some of Habermas' categories, which he used to describe the industrialised society, the communicative structure of oral teaching can be described as follows: it is determined by reciprocal behavioural expectations and societal norms, it brings about the internalisation of roles and uses an intersubjectively divided language of communication. In distance education, the communicative structure is completely different: the actions of teachers and students are determined mainly through technical rules, it is a question of skills and qualifications and a context-free language is used. This difference is decisive. And it is the result of an industrial process.

Let me stress once again: work processes at the periphery of teaching and learning can be industrialised to a great extent at traditional universities. In distance teaching universities they must be. Rumble refers above all to these work processes - printing, despatch, etc. - because he is interested in the management of teaching and learning systems. As pedagogues, however, we must concentrate on the process of interaction between teachers and students. If we do this, we can only classify oral teaching at traditional universities as pre-industrial on the basis of the criteria of the concept presented here; and, with regard to distance education, we must regard the set formula of the most industrialised form of teaching and learning as illuminating.

New concepts of industrialisation

It should be borne in mind that Peter Raggatt did not refer to these Fordist characteristics to eulogise the Open University but to criticise it. According to Raggatt, the Fordism of the Open University, and of course, of other distance teaching universities, is an obsolete model. He is not alone in this opinion but finds support from authors such as Campion (1995), Campion and Renner (1982) and Farnes (1993). In their opinion, distance education must adjust itself to the fundamental changes which all industrial societies are experiencing at the moment. Today, work is often organised and carried out in a completely different way to that of twenty years ago. The new problems facing distance education cannot be solved with the obsolete methods of rationalisation through mass-production, and new concepts must therefore be developed for its future developments. Approaches are already being discussed: neo-industrialised and post-industrialised forms of teaching and learning in distance education.

Neo-industrialisation (or neo-Fordism) has led to many changes in working life. The characteristic slogans here are high product innovation, high process variability, but at the same time, low degrees of responsibility for employees (Badham & Mathews 1989, quoted by Campion & Renner 1992, 12). The endeavour to achieve product innovation and process variability is a reaction to the development of the market and the changes in demand. It is possible at present because on the one hand the demands of consumers with more spending power have become higher, more specific and more varied, and on the other hand production and distribution of goods have been adapted to meet this because they have to a large extent been computerised. The aim is no longer to produce the same goods of the same quality at the lowest possible price for as many consumers as possible with the same needs. As we know, Ford sold more than 15 million copies of the same car model. This method of production led to a great equalisation of consumption. The problem now is to address many very specific consumer wishes. Goods are therefore produced in smaller volumes and constantly adapted to new requirements. In contrast, and this is typical for this concept, work is still being organised on the lines of the concept of industrialisation. This means: hierarchical graduations of responsibility and centralised control with the help of a bureaucratised administration.

If distance teaching universities wished to meet the challenges of neo-Fordism they would have to stop offering their courses, developed at great expense, standardised and produced in large numbers, which become more outdated from year to year in spite of all good intentions regarding course updating. Instead of this, they would undertake targeted efforts to adapt them rapidly to the new requirements and to "consumer wishes", which in this case are the different requirements of their students. According to this, what is no longer needed are "large-scale" courses for as many students as possible, but a variety of courses with low numbers which are constantly being updated (cf. Farnes 1993 on this).

With post-industrialisation (or post-Fordism), the same aims can be found as with neo-industrialisation, namely high product innovation and high process variability. But in addition, and this is decisive, there is a radically different direction in the organisation of work sequences, because the aim now is "high labour responsibility".

Considerable changes had to be made to achieve this. Goods are no longer mass-produced in the same form and kept in stock with the help of computer. They are now manufactured on demand and just in time. Even the special wishes of smaller consumer groups can be satisfied in this way. At the same time, the organisation of work itself is changed in this phase. Division of labour is limited and, if possible, done away with completely. Instead, smaller working groups with more qualifications and greater responsibility are formed. Hierarchical forms of organisation are replaced by horizontal networks of relationships. Instead of semi-skilled workers trained to operate machinery, there is a smaller number of more highly qualified and more flexible and versatile employees who can be complemented by a varying number of employees who are engaged on a temporary basis only to carry out current tasks. Cost savings are the first commandment to increase productivity, which is why companies aim for lean design, lean production and lean supply.

Those who are following this development must ask themselves whether requirements in the world of academic education and continuing education have not increased as well and become more varied and whether they can be satisfied with the previous methods of - industrialised - distance education. If the answer to this question is no, then we must consider whether distance teaching universities should not also attempt to recognise rapidly changing demands for education and continuing education and satisfy them by means of courses that can be drawn and amended easily (product innovation).

This itself would force distance teaching universities to alter their working processes. Instead of a centrally controlled system of development and production on the basis of a division of labour many smaller decentralised working groups would be formed who would be responsible themselves for the development of their own teaching programmes and would therefore be more autonomous - as against the outside world as well. But what is even more important is that the classical forms of teaching and learning in distance education (standardised courses, standardised counselling) would have to be replaced or complemented by forms that were much more flexible with regard to curriculums, time and location (variability of processes). Slogans such as autonomous learning, independent learning in the digital learning environment, teleconferencing, intensive personal counselling, contract learning and the combination with and integration of forms of traditional university teaching indicate the direction the development might take. It would be equal to a revolution.

Pedagogical consequences

In the context of this work the importance of the concepts of industrialised and post-industrialised teaching and learning sketched in here depends on whether and how far they are helpful for the planning development, control and interpretation of distance education.

This question is often put by sceptics who are unable to see how concepts that work with terms from industrial sociology - or, even worse, from the field of industrial production itself - can comprise pedagogical circumstances and reproduce them. To them, what happens in factories and lecture halls seems utterly disparate and incommensurable. In fact, it does appear to be difficult to derive starting points from these concepts, for example for the selection and evaluation of learning aims and contents, which is a main concern of humanist pedagogics. The clarification of genuine pedagogical or adult education questions using these concepts also appears to be difficult, if not downright impossible. The horizon of values does not become visible in theories of industrial production, if we disregard those with an instrumental mentality such as productivity or efficiency. At the same time, deeper analyses lead to interesting insights.

First of all a general assessment: many decisions that are taken in the planning, development and revision of teaching and learning systems in distance education in compliance with and taking account of criteria of industrialisation, may first of all serve as the control of the overall process, but can at the same time have an effect on the ways and means with which university teachers teach and students learn. Thus, questions of pedagogics in the narrow sense come into play once again. The systematic connection between teaching and learning systems which are interpreted or developed in accordance with concepts of industrialisation, and modalities of teaching and learning is given from the very start because education and training of students is the "product" that is to be produced. All measures that enable students to learn, make it easier to learn or improve learning are pedagogical from this very intention, no matter which criteria of industrialisation or post-industrialisation accompanied those acting pedagogically. The mixture of economical, technological, organisational and pedagogical motives, which can of course be verified in every event organised in traditional university teaching, is simply more obvious in distance education. Because the pedagogical consequences of the three concepts sketched here, which are derived from forms of production, are naturally different, we will be examining them separately.

The concept of industrialised teaching and learning

The following specific pedagogical effects can be seen above all here:

The concept of neo-industrial teaching and learning

If this concept were realised the range of courses offered by distance teaching universities above all would be changed structurally, because "major" courses with long service lives would be replaced by short-term "minor" courses which can be amended and renewed quickly and are directed at many different learning interests (product innovation). This must of course have an effect on the way in which students learn. Because students must at this stage make their study wishes known, so that they can be considered, it is necessary that they become clear about what they really want to do and about the study programmes that can be most useful to them in their particular situation. This should activate them considerably. This forces them to abandon receptive learning in stretches. By itself, this would already be pedagogical progress. Because the multi-faceted courses must be adapted to the special learning situations of students and their study objects, they must also be student-oriented.

Distance education courses would still be developed centrally on the basis of division of labour, but mass-production would be considerably restricted. Organisation of teaching would be local, would be moved to study centres, for example, which would have more face-to-face phases than is possible in industrialised learning. The task here is to develop different forms in teaching (process variability). To achieve this, the establishment of mixed mode universities is aimed at in which comparatively small groups of students work because support for very large groups is neither planned nor possible any longer. The teaching and learning process finds support through more social contacts and more communication.

The concept of post-industrial teaching and learning

Decisive changes to teaching and learning behaviour would also take place under the influence of post-Fordism. The following scenario should make this clear:

Because advanced division of labour is withdrawn and decentralisation is aimed at, classical course development teams have the ground removed from under their feet. Instead, variable and short-term courses are developed by small working groups in the faculties and departments on their own responsibility. Professors and lecturers belong to these small working groups, which are now responsible for everything to do with their courses, not just for planning and design, but also for production, distribution, evaluation and continuous course care. They would also have to familiarise themselves with production technologies in the field of printing and video, but this has been made much easier by modern technical media for DTP, electronic publishing and media publishing (Kaderali et al. 1994) which are extremely user-friendly. Up to now, technical media have brought about a division of labour more in teaching and development work can now be concentrated again with the help of these new media. However, the responsibility of the teachers is restricted, because chairmanship of the group revolves among group members and representatives of students, tutors and other participants in the teaching and learning, or those affected by it, are included as partners. It is no longer expected that participants in course development are specialised experts but that they are in possession of broad and multi-faceted competence. With regard to curricular work, university teachers would no longer be expected to pass on the results of their research in the form of courses but to find out exactly the learning requirements of defined groups of students and make every effort to satisfy these requirements as quickly and effectively as possible.

This also has an effect on learning behaviour. The traditional relationship between teachers and students is altered in that learning is determined much more by students themselves. The post-modern awareness of life makes a more continuous communication and interaction, (as in life) within the group into a focal point of distance education and allocates a rather attendant and supplementary role to learning in isolation with structured texts. In this way, the previous relationship of the two learning forms to one another, which is a consequence of the concept of independent learning, is turned on its head.

In order to be able to achieve this kind of distance education, supporters of post-industrialised learning are also aiming at the establishment of the organisational form of the dual or mixed mode university. Mixed forms consisting of a distance teaching university and a traditional university would lead to a considerable diversification of the teaching programmes for both groups of students and reduce the cost of studying (cf. Campion and Renner 1992, 11). In this kind of institution learning in small groups would be favoured, which means that the aim of mass higher education would become less important. On the whole, according to Campion at least (1991), distance education would in this way become "more decentralised, more democratic, more oriented to co-determination, more open and more flexible", which means that this teaching and learning would be differentiated from that of industrialised distance education from the point of view of pedagogics as well, because it would also provide better conditions for socialisation.

Two tasks for distance teaching pedagogics

Firstly, the validity and binding nature of the concepts of neo-Fordism and post-Fordism would have to be examined. The analogy conclusion that has been indicated might just be unfounded and may even be incorrect. Along with Greville Rumble (1995b, 26), many observers will not believe in an automatic adaptation of the methods of distance education to the latest structural alterations of methods in industrial production, particularly when they only become clear in some sectors and are exemplified above all in just a few branches, for example, motor vehicle production. If in fact there continue to be correlations between the methods of the industrial production of goods and those of industrialised teaching and learning, they are certainly not as unheralded as this has been shown. Some of the analogies presented are astonishing, if they are in fact correct, just as those which led in the past to the development of the concept of industrialised teaching and learning.

Secondly, post-industrial models must be worked out and experiment carried out with them in practice, if the feasibility of the post-industrial concept is to be verified. These models would have to correspond to the theoretical premises referred to as well as absorbing the concepts of open, autonomous and communicative learning. Above all, however, they would have to make use of the new opportunities made available by digital teaching and learning. We may then be able to see the outlines and structures of a university of the future (cf. 8.2).

Doubts and misgivings

During discussions of the two post-industrial concepts of distance education some critical points are encountered which up to now have not been included sufficiently in the calculations. These are:

Perhaps these misgivings will become without foundation when the digital revolution thoroughly mixes up the areas of distance education and traditional university education and forces both to new methods of working. But until then they will continue to play a part in relevant discussions.


The concept of industrialised learning obviously provided many distance education experts and practitioners in the sixties and seventies with an explanatory pattern that made clear to them just how their actions are and must be different from those of their colleagues in traditional university education, and not merely accidentally, but structurally. It starts, as they could see, from other premises, follows other laws and provides in part enormous opportunities which people were able to substantiate logically. Those among them who thought pedagogically were able not only to recognise the particular strengths inherent in distance education because its industrialised structure but also to substantiate them theoretically. At the same time it was easier for them to accept its not inconsiderable deficits as in-built. Above all it could be seen just how unsuitable the widespread habit is to evaluate the conception, working methods and results of distance education with the help of criteria that were developed in conventional academic systems and correspond to pre-industrial criteria.