Distance education is defined as a system that can provide access to people who – because of work commitments, personal and/or social circumstances, geographical distance or poor quality or inadequate prior learning experiences – do not have the opportunity to study full time (Badat, 2004). It is seen as a way to correct inequalities, improving access to higher education for poorer or disadvantaged students. However, though distance education is seen as a feasible approach to achieve universal access for populations that might not otherwise receive a college education this chapter argues instead that universal access is just a form of rhetoric by which cultural social class and inequities are reinforced and reproduced (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).
Distance education is a field which-represents the setting in which social practices take place. The content that is offered, especially across cultural boundaries is representative of the group that designed it and is not necessarily sensitive to the individual cultures accessing the content. Each field within society is structured according to what is at stake within it. For example, in the educational field cultural capital is accumulated in the form of academic qualifications whereas in the economic field individuals compete to accumulate capital in the form of money (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992 as cited in Makoe, p. 364). A problem arises, however, when the word universal is attached to the offerings of distance education implying a sort of cultural norm.
Bourdieu (1990) asserts that habitus shapes group thinking and it is this dominant group thinking that replicates social roles often determining the content of educational offerings as well as establishing who receives access to various types of credentials. In other words, the habitus of differing societal segments determines to what type of education that a person is given access. Understanding one’s habitus is crucial to understanding why it is so often difficult to effect change within the educational system regarding the economically disadvantaged and minorities. In addition, understanding the role of habitus is also a key to understanding the rhetoric of distance education which speaks of empowerment and equal access but in actuality the actual behaviors accompanying the rhetoric are often unempowering and traditional (Merriam, 2007).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Habitus: The surrounding environs (including work, family, social) to which one belongs.
Critical Theory: Questions what counts as knowledge in society and who controls the knowledge.
Human Capital Theory: The value of one’s work as capital.
Cultural Capital: The “money” or increment of worth of the societal sector to which one belongs (for example, credentials would be the cultural capital of the educational sector).
Equal Access: The ideal that everyone in the world would have equal accessibility to education.
Universal Access: The ideal that everyone in the world would have access to a form of distance education and hence; education.
OpenCourseWare: Pre-existing content that is made globally accessible (via the Internet).
Distance Education: Content that is delivered to the student via the Internet, video-conferencing, or mail (post).