Higher Education, Neoliberalism, Technology Enhanced Learning, E-learning, Critical Discourse Analysis, Policy Analysis, Education Policy
Both as discourse and as practice, e-learning in Higher Education (HE) is shaped by many factors, the most critical of which are the political motivations driving its adoption. In this dissertation I attest that e-learning policies relevant to HE issued by government departments and non-departmental public bodies in the United Kingdom (UK) between 2003 and 2013 were predominantly underpinned by neoliberal ideology. The enquiry is grounded in the Critical research paradigm’s intention to expose, critique, and ultimately overcome sources of oppression. Thirteen policy texts were analysed via two critical lenses. First, via thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) of the corpus I identified recurring themes. These were then clustered around a trilogy of master narratives: Marketisation, Instrumentality, and Modernisation. Through an ideology critique of these master narratives, I uncovered and unpacked the motivations underpinning claims made in relation to e-learning. My second mode of analysis was a detailed Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of each document. CDA sees the wider context as essential to making sense of a text (Bloor and Bloor 2007; Van Dijk 2008). My critique, therefore, considered each document within its historical and socio-economic context, and examined the extent to which the three master narratives were evident both over time, and across England, Scotland, and Wales. How policy is communicated and presented is as important as what is said (Barnett 2000). Indeed, ideologies can be both enacted and obscured by language (Jones and Stilwell Peccei 2004; Henriksen 2011). My analysis, therefore, also examined the role of visual presentation, lexical choices, and rhetorical techniques in communicating the policies. Taken together, the two prongs of my analysis demonstrate that − although there are variances in different contexts and at different times − overall, the policies considered were motivated by neoliberal imperatives aimed at placing HE within the realm of the market and enhancing the UK’s economic competitiveness. The policies also persistently reflect a deterministic and uncritical perspective towards technology. Furthermore, many of the claims made are exaggerated, unsubstantiated, contradictory, and even duplicitous, or are justified via reference to contested discourses. While neoliberal ideology is privileged and promoted across the corpus, alternative value systems are not. I argue that this problematic framing of e-learning is intensifying the negative impacts of neoliberalism on HE’s role as a public good, as well as exacerbating social inequalities. Furthermore, it is channelling e-learning into a restricted form that limits any possible pedagogical or egalitarian opportunities that the judicious application of digital technologies in HE teaching and learning might support. I reflect on the implications of this for HE and for society, and for the professional practice of Learning Technologists. Finally, I present an alternative vision for e-learning in HE.