Towards Formulating Principles for Online Education: The implications of access to the World Wide Web

Samson Gunga, Educational Foundations, University of Nairobi

E-learning emphasizes the development of students’ self-study capabilities and habits. Based on constructivist theories, it is believed that a community of students can form learning teams able to share experiences online to achieve appropriate educational objectives. The scenario poses a challenge to curricula based teaching requirements, designed around instructional strategies, aimed at allowing students to learn certain things rather than others. This traditional approach is based on the assumption that not all learning experiences that students encounter are educative.
The World Wide Web (WWW) from which online education draws it content is a ‘network’ of all conceivable knowledge and ideas that encourage informal, non-formal and formal education practices. The merger of the three forms of education is a new phenomenon occasioned by the inevitable integration of ICT in education.
Since education is about acquisition of knowledge, skills and dispositions that are valued by society, its content is inherently selective. This study proposes that for e-learning to convert to online education, educators need to identify and harmonize principles that define online educational experiences.


Education is a valued concept. Societies depend on it for enlightenment of her people and general socio-economic and cultural development. Whether the process of education uses traditional or Internet based principles, its underpinning values remain relatively absolute and universal. Although education serves a number of social functions, its distinctive purposes are: generation of knowledge, acquisition of life's skills, development of appropriate dispositions and abilities for continued learning.

It is education that defines the principles of the ideal `good' that govern human interrelationships and harmony with the natural order. All people recognize some moral code (that some things are right, and some things are wrong). Every time we argue over right and wrong we appeal to a higher law that we assume everyone is aware of, holds to, and is not free to arbitrarily change (Craig, 2003). Just as nature is ordered and inherently observes measures of regularity (Foster, 2001), human operations are an effort to synchronize with this natural order.

In Aristotlelian concept of "phronesis" (practical wisdom or prudence), both teachers and learners help themselves to achieve concrete human judgment based of good reasoning as a prerequisite for attainment of the “Good Life”. The principle of phronesis in this regard refers to the ability to make right decisions in difficult circumstances (Arnkil, 2006;Smeyers & Hogan, 2005). The “Good Life” is based on an understanding of the idea of eudaimonia (the specifically human good) and praxis (action, practice). Aristotle identifies phronesis as one of the dianoetic virtues, that is, those intellectual virtues that characterize the well-ordered mind. Such virtues are: Sophia (wisdom of first principles or pure contemplative wisdom), episteme (scientific knowledge or true knowledge as opposed to mere opinion), and nous (intuition or understanding) (Kristjảnsson, 2005).

The perfection of practical rationality is a life of complete virtue of character guided by phronesis and culminates in universal harmony, that is, the common `good' that education is supposed to nurture. By contrasting the good and the bad and then emphasizing knowledge and practice of the good, an education system is built which equips an educated person with the abilities to fit in one or several of the institutions of the society in line with the principles of educatedness (Kohn, 2004).


Teaching, education and learning are diverse and complex activities. As infants progress from childhood through adolescence into mature adulthood, they learn from parents, teachers, institutions of the society, other adults, peers, media and the Internet. Consequently, the knowledge, values, skills and dispositions that ultimately inform an individuals' behaviour are, largely, a product of interacting experiences from the content and practices within the three forms of education. As a consequence of this interaction, while successful practitioners in disciplines such as law, engineering and medicine, for instance, are guided by specific knowledge bases when addressing practical situations, education stands apart in the overlap between the underpinning knowledge base and the domain of professional practice (Hegarty, 2000).

As students acquire independence from strictly teacher-guided behaviour, challenges related to counselling needs and identification of reputable role models and mentors arise. As societies continue to encourage attainment of individual liberties and rights, other challenges related to responsibility to one's self and to the society emerge. In essence, teacher education needs to be remodelled to reflect this demand. In addition, those charged with the development of WWW ought to put security mechanisms that separate educative content from those which have no educational value.

Teaching draws on a multiplicity of cognitive, affective and interpersonal elements. In education, even when there is a common goal of teaching, the learner may pursue the result in different ways and in the process may come across unintended content and hence achieve non-intended learning. How does, for example, a learner's activities in surfing the internet (looking for educational materials) be made to focus on curricular content areas instead of, for instance, accessing sites that have explicit violence and sexually related content.


While existence of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) has had positive impact in the business world, its integration with education is currently an ongoing process that has seen the emergence of Virtual Learning Environments and e-learning systems. Education is, therefore, one of the human systems that change dynamically with innovations thus occasioning reforms that are unmatched with current teaching forces and professional standing. It should, be noted that the introduction of technology in education without accompanying effort to integrate it with educative content and pedagogy may not lead to change (Koehler & Mishra, 2005). It is the way in which teachers use technology that has the potential to change education (Carr, Jonassen, Litzinger & Marra, 1998). The nature of content and accompanying practices that learners are exposed to greatly influence their aspirations and approach to life in an educational environment.

Although all institutions and human systems associated with welfare and nurturance of order in society recognize the difference between adult and non-adult environments, the creation and access mechanisms of the WWW and Internet do not seem to recognize this distinction. In spite of existence of elaborate security principles for regulating access to certain information, both adults and children share information that is devoid of educational value.


In Aristotelian philosophy, the concept of education subsumes the principles of societal ethos (McLaughlin, 2005). Because educators target publicly prioritised activities and values, it is important that special conditions for the way they are learned should operate (Silcock & Duncan, 2001).As efforts are underway to integrate WWW and Internet with education, it is important to re-consider the values that education is supposed to promote and the circumstances appropriate for doing so. It is, also, important to separate the kinds of learning that are educational from those that are not.

In the behaviourist's point of view, learning is a change of behaviour as a result of having gone through certain experiences. Wills (2004) defines learning by specifying behaviour modification that it occasions; an `organism is said to have learnt when it has increased its options for applying, to a specific set of circumstances, new or different behaviour which the organism believes will be to its benefit'. However, education is a directive process and does not require acquisition of just any experience left to the beliefs of the learners. An educated person is considered to have `improved' his/her perspective in line with established normative principles. This requires that what is learnt, how it is learnt and the experiences that influence the process ought to be constrained by specific rules of order.

It may be assumed that at certain stages of children's lives, some decisions have to be made on their behalf, as they do not yet have the intellectual and moral capacities necessary for processing information and making decisions. For instance, it is for a parent to decide which school his/her child should attend. Such a decision may not be left to the child since he/she is not equipped to know what to consider in choosing a `good' school. Considerations for the choice may be based on, for instance, security, financial resources, proximity etcetera that the parent can readily evaluate. For young children, education often takes the form of showing them appropriate ways of operating at various stages of their lives. Parents are expected to `bring up' their children assisting them to select and harmonize appropriate content from agents of informal and non-formal education. It is from such a guided choice making process that rules exist to constrain human behaviour so as to conform to the principles of educatedness. The foregoing concern requires that those who man the Internet and the WWW put security measures that regulate access to information. In this sense the youth would be made to access what they need only at specific stages in their lives.


The various forms of education namely formal, informal and non-formal are currently interacting in ways that have not been seen before as agents of informal education become dominant, numerous and uncontrolled within the ICT enabled environment. As societies become more urbanised and parents get involved in pursuing careers (Quek & Knudson-Martin, 2006), parental influence on their children diminishes. Parents are no longer the most obvious objects of identification. Their roles have been taken, in part, by superficially much more attractive film and television heroes and football stars, and therefore authority of parents over their children is on the decline (Wardekker, 2001).

As the youth enter into formal education, the experiences they have acquired from the non-formal and informal education sectors dominate the learning environment. The teacher is expected to build on such experiences by harmonizing the learning goals of students so as to contribute towards achievement of the overall objectives of the school curricula. This is on the assumption that the diverse experiences learners bring to the formal education environment are not contradictory to either the teacher's instructional objectives or individual student's personal expectations and aspirations. Since the influence of informal education is not within the teacher's control, his/her efforts will be either rewarded by `positive' learner experiences or hampered by the `negative' ones. Since the teacher's role is to support learner capacities appropriate for the achievement of specific objectives (Bennett & Lockyer, 2004), the teacher has to attend to the individual students whose expectations are at variance with the goals of a group.

The process of education is further complicated by current trends where the distinction between children and adults is fast disappearing (Olmsted, Crowell, & Waters, 2003). It should be realized that one of the most motivating ideas in life is what one looks up to in `future'. The process of transition between childhood and adulthood defined in such scenarios as play and exercise, dependence and independence are some of the factors that motivate the non-adult person to long for attainment of adulthood. The youth need to be made aware that they have things to look forward to when they become adults and this acts as a motivator for them to traverse the path that leads to adulthood.

A child engaged in `adult environment' practices may not have clear motivators in his/her efforts to attain future goals since there may not be anything new to look forward to. Children are increasingly treated as miniature adults as societies change from authority to negotiation based ones (De Swaan, 1982). The distinction between adults and non-adults is blurred as adults emphasize human rights without mention of the corresponding human responsibilities.

In the name of democracy (Mahony & Moos, 1998) and non-authoritarianism (Knafo, 2003), adult peoples environment is unleashed onto the youth and a culture of liberalism in education is promoted as democratic. Further, the extent of parental influence and control is increasingly related to the values of a specific parent as children get multiple influences and value messages from several sectors of the society (Padilla-Walker & Thompson, 2005). There is little or no rule governing access to the content emanating from most agents of non-formal education, informal education and the Internet. Consequently the negative experiences the youth get from these settings interfere with their initiation into formal education.

Since research has proven that access to `inappropriate' sites on the internet affects behaviour of the youth negatively (Byoungkwan & Tamborini, 2005), rules should be formulated to ensure that such sites are not available to them until they either become adults or their circumstances change as stipulated. Negative behaviour emanating from such private practices contravenes secular law. The young culprits normally get undeserved punishments since adult members of the society fail to provide guidance in this regard.


The educational promise of the Internet is real. The current efforts at integrating ICT in all sectors of the society have elevated the influence of both non-formal and informal education. The cluster of technologies that constitute the Internet powerfully reinforces and extends some of the most effective traditional forms of teaching. The impact of the Internet in education is more dynamic and pervasive than that of any previous breakthrough in information technology. Consequently, the teacher is not the only driving force in the class. Students have a chance not only to learn on their own experimenting with various learning styles, but also collaborate with fellow students globally. The integration of ICT and the WWW in education has the possibility of encouraging intra-institutional networking for a globally managed learning forum.

As education through WWW evolves, its design should be made to include both self and collaborative learning styles with appropriate security measures to regulate access. The place of the teacher as a guide, mentor, counsellor and facilitator needs to be enhanced. There is a need for identification of the required content and selection of useful sites that provide unambiguous information to the learner. While the student is free to search for relevant information on the Internet, a clear basis for appropriate information retrieval needs to be put in place. The learner should have the freedom to discover his/her preferred learning styles and to determine the pace of learning within the limits of acceptable rationality consistent with the pursuit of the “Good”. The teacher as the custodian of the socially approved curriculum holds a prominent position in the identification of `appropriate content' from the World Wide Web.

It is imperative, therefore, that while information should not be concealed from the youth, globally monitored security mechanisms ought to be put in place to regulate access to WWW and the Internet. While there may not be any reasons for restricting adults as they rightly take legal and social responsibility for their actions or inactions, undue exposure of the youth to `non-educative' adult environments ought to be regulated. While many influences from the WWW and the Internet are positive, the effects of negative influences normally have a lasting negative effect on the behaviour on the youth.


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