ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 10, Number 1 (January 2013)

Consumption, Sign, and Simulation: A Baudrillardian Perspective on Online Education

Joseph Cunningham
(Doctoral Student, Educational Studies Program, The University of Cincinnati, USA)

I. Introduction
With online courses gaining a foothold in the university landscape and multiplying at an exceptional rate, the educational value of Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy has increased. A perceptive and keen critic of technology’s influence on ontology and epistemology, Baudrillard’s theories now wield substantial educative power as facets of online education can be critiqued from several Baudrillardian perspectives, including those of the consumer society, symbolic exchange, and most notably, simulation. Online education is rendered within this paper as digital commodity wrought with symbolic properties that constrain epistemological and discursive initiative in favor of an educative simulacrum that places precedence on information consumption and production in lieu of human learning. Ultimately, Baudrillard encourages readers to forgo technologically-induced passivity and preserve the communicative acts that serve as a cornerstone to educational experience.

II. Simulations of the Educative Order
As one of the most outspoken critics of technological proliferation, Jean Baudrillard generated some of the most controversial and provocative theories regarding technology since Heidegger. Witnessing first hand the world’s transition into the realms of the digital, Baudrillard was among the first to issue responses of warning in the form of critical and prophetic texts that seemingly belonged to another a world. Yet, those who criticize Baudrillardian theory as indicative of science fiction neglect its keen relevancy for our current world in which the possibility of technology threatening our authenticity and understanding of the reality seems quite valid.

Like any number of fields, the internet has entwined itself within the interworking of education, reconceptualizing the educational process in numerous ways. Specifically, the rapid expansion of online courses, curriculums, and universities has created new markets for education as well as opportunities for study and research, and Baudrillard’s theories offer novel reversals in typical modes of analysis, unveiling different manners of thinking about the relationship between education and technology (Gane, 1999:78). From the internet’s influence on epistemology and educational identity to its reduction of educational experiences to commodity and non-referential signs to the notion of simulation as the final resting place for education, the application Baudrillard’s theories provide critical insights to the problems of moving the classroom into cyberspace. Ultimately, Baudrillard compels us to ask questions that penetrate through the passivity technological fatalism instills, questions that demand consideration as education progresses into digital territories without full account of what is sacrificed in this evolution.

III. To Speak and Listen in the Internet
One of the primary advantages of online education is the flexibility inherent in the digital environment. Distance is no longer an obstacle. Educational time is no longer limited to a few fixed hours within a classroom. However, this apparent increase in access to education can be analyzed from a Baudrillardian perspective where the limitless potential of the internet is “nothing more than the simulation of these significations, simulacra that perform a strategy of deterrence, holding back the realization of the spaceless, limited world of the code” (Nunes, 1995:314). This conception of the internet as a limiting environment diverges from many pathways of conventional thought, but Baudrillard speaks to the identity and discursive constraints that internet places upon us, constraints that outnumber those of the “real world” (Hegarty, 2004:130). One such constraint is the tendency to displace students’ sense of self and limit their discursive capability, so their reactions to course material congeal into an indiscriminate mass of like-minded quotations on a discussion board or blog (Walters and Kop, 2009:301).

Moreover, despite the internet’s potential for engagement, there is a greater sense of passive compliance as students “quietly absorb its content…not because they are alienated but because their own massification is the only strategy the totalitarianism…leaves them” (Wain, 2008:107). This passivity is indicative of the contrary relationship of speed that that Baudrillard describes in “Fatal Strategies” in which “against the acceleration of networks and circuits, we will seek slowness; not the nostalgic slowness of the mind, but an insurmountable immobility, what is slower than the slow: inertia and silence” (Baudrillard in Poster 1988:186). Such sentiments seemingly contradict the very nature of the internet, but even as the online course provides content and discussion at an accelerated pace, the actual progress is minimal, not merely because an online class is any less real than a face-to-face course, but because all educative discourse becomes amalgamated into the web.

The question of how one is speaking and listening in an online environment must become a focal point in any distance course, for although digital technology greatly increases the possibility for communication, there also exists the possibility for the “systematic destruction, reduction, simplification, and replacement of human relations” (Merrin, 2005:23). These strong words, along with much of Baudrillard’s theory, could be disregarded as overly cynical, dystopian, or nostalgic for simpler times, yet ignoring the “relatively more unleashed and unreliable” facets of computer-mediated communication is equally hazardous (Kazeroun, 2008:37). Communication is the backbone of learning experience; it is the lifeblood of one’s epistemology, and when such experiences are mediated through the internet or a computer, the experience and what is extracted from it become altered. For Baudrillard, this mediated experience represents a “vanishing point of communication,” the title of an article where he writes:

All our machines are screens. We are going to be screens, and the interactivity of men has turned into an interactivity of screens. We are images to one another, the only destiny of an image being the following image on the screen. And images don’t have to be asked for their meaning, but to be explored instantaneously, in an immediate abreaction to meaning, in an immediate implosion of the poles of representation (Baudrillard, 2009:20).

Baudrillard’s theories regarding technology transcend that of mere technological pessimism, but inhabit realms of time, space, and meaning. The form of the technology, that of a screen, one of continual acceleration, moves too quickly and erratically for meaningful interaction and reflection. When a student learns through the screen, the jarring immediacy of the image reduces meaning to a screenshot, dissipating as soon as the next screen is rendered. Moreover, online courses’ overreliance on text is just as problematic as an overreliance on image. With learning experiences reduced to textual exercises, we “have no access or visceral response to the pre-reflective, tacit understandings of another’s bodily being…here, textuality is the sole interstitial sight of meaning” (Manen and Adams, 2009:17). The interplay between words and images as representations of one’s identity and discourse dehumanizes the educational process, yet again, it is not solely the distance intrinsic to online education that creates this deficiency, but rather the additive constraint of the computer, acting as a sort of anchor, fixing us within the digital realm, but restraining true freedom of movement. As Baudrillard writes in “Screened Out,” the computer is “a true prosthesis. I am not merely in an interactive relation with it, but a tactile, intersensory relation. I become, myself, an ectoplasm of the screen” (Baudrillard, 2002:79). Does online education reduce students and learners to mere specters, floating adrift in cyberspace? Perhaps the question itself is ridiculous, but the process of disconnecting to connect, to silence one’s self in order to be heard as a mere line of code in the digitized masses, forces one to take such a question seriously. Educational discourse is compromised within online education, and even as the compromised communication spreads throughout educational institutions, there exists a frustrating transience of what is said and heard in online classrooms, for although these communications are “preserved” in saved blogs, chats, and discussion boards, they serve primarily as funeral markers to aborted, insubstantial thoughts, cold the moment they are released.

IV. Consuming the Weightless Signs
The moment an institu
tion removes the corporeal nature of the classroom and transposes it to an online module is the moment education goes from experience to commodity. The double edge of transforming a face-to-face course into an online course usually revolves around a process of simplification. Devoid of a need for a physical space, for people to physically interact with one another, and even for seemingly extraneous aspects of the educational experience like walking to class, distance courses become prepackaged spaces for telegraphed interaction, a commodity that is easily purchased and used. Jean Baudrillard’s theories regarding the consumer society have special significance for this phenomenon where “consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs” (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:22). While Baudrillard’s philosophy of consumption holds macro-level implications, the specific relevancy to education as a commodity under the auspice of the sign merits greater reflection in that online education closely adheres to several foundational aspects of his theory.

To what extent education has always been a product for consumption is debatable; however, online education signifies an optimization of education-as-commodity where our “meaning-making propensities are drawn ever more quickly into a symbolic order centered on consumption, it is through consumption that we participate in our disappearance” (Norris, 2007:162). Distance courses literally call for students’ disappearance in the learning process, but more interesting is how such courses fit into a symbolic network that seeks to adhere to a constructed consumer mentality. For Baudrillard, the consumer is a functionalized being whose needs are “controlled and monopolized, forming an unanimity of desire” (Flood and Bamford, 2007:91). With the constricting job market and the incessant emphasis on citizens receiving their education, online courses provide a seemingly magical portal into the educative realm, effectively eliminating a majority of “excuses” against one receiving an education, so that all that remains is paying the tuition and consuming courses. Moreover, online courses also correlate with Baudrillard’s theory of consumption from an institutional standpoint in that former constraints on “production” are now effectively eliminated and the educational market now becomes ruled by “an excessive productive capacity” (Norris, 2006:467). The obstacles of available instructors, class space, and enrollment caps are mitigated by online education, enabling a multitude of students to consume education in the infinite space provided by the internet.

But what are students consuming when they enroll in an online course? Baudrillard provides an intriguing response in the form of symbolic exchange in which people “receive their identity in relation to others not primarily from their type of work but from the meanings they consume” (Poster, 1981:469). Commodities such as online education represent not only a course where students exchange information for a quarter or semester, but rather serve as “a vehicle of communication, a Sign” (Mendoza, 2010:47). Sign exchange, as relates to consumption, goes beyond Marxist theories of use value in which the commodity, loaded with symbolic meaning, possesses little substance or worth outside of the system in which it is situated (Maran and Kendall, 2009:334). The theory of symbolic exchange holds special implications for online education in that students are presented with a commodity already immaterial, consisting of little more than signs that hold relevancy within the university system. Although one could argue that that distance courses possess loftier symbolic properties, as a mode of communication within a symbolic network, a distance course is ultimately reduced to a symbolic token, a credit that course fulfills on a student’s transcript. Naturally, face-to-face courses hold similar symbolic functionality; however, the material nature of the course, the physical nature of the classroom experience, and the human connection indicative of such a learning environment wields greater relevancy and permanence outside of the university network. Therefore, online education adheres more acutely to Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange theory than a face-to-face course in that such courses consist largely of messages reinforcing “the socioeconomic system and its values” (Palmero, 2002:93).

More specifically, the curriculum of online courses with a greater emphasis on convenience and adhering to the constructed mentality of the consumer, along with their frequent efforts to somehow substitute meaningful communication with message boards and blogs, corresponds with Baudrillard’s conception of socialization within the symbolic network. Baudrillard writes:

Socialization by ritual, and by signs, is much more effective than socialization by energies bound to production. All that is asked of you is not that you produce, nor that you make an effort to surpass yourself…but that you be socialized. All that is asked is that you acquire value according to the structural definition which here takes on full social significance only as a term in relation to others (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:131).

Online education is representative of Baudrillard’s socialization by signs. Devoid of the socialization provided by face-to-face interaction, students instead acquire a socialized commodity in isolation, a classroom credit or a degree, both valued by society as the means to enter the workforce, but possess little material significance outside of the system. Students are not necessarily expected to learn from online courses, but rather participate in them, but this participation exists in abstracted manner. Education as an “embodied and discursive practice of consciousness” as Kaye Cederman describes in “Education: A Renewable Course?” may be impossible in a world of “the virtual, the robotic, and the hyper-realised” (Cederman, 2009:23). Distance education serves as the manifestation of education as these technologically-induced tropes, and entrenched in this system, education as critique becomes increasingly unlikely as it is reduced to weightless signs floating in simulacra.

V. Education Online: Information Excessiveness towards Simulation
While seemingly at times hyperbolic, Baudrillard’s ironic rhetoric unveiled crucial contradictions in how one perceives communication and media. In “The Murder of the Real,” Baudrillard twists fundamental aspects of communication studies against themselves: “The excess of reality puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts an end to information, or the excess of communication puts an end to communication” (Baudrillard, 2000:66). These self-negating excesses warp our understanding of the world as humankind’s impulse to expose itself leads to our own disappearance. In terms of information, an integral building block to education, Baudrillard critiques how technology overwhelms us with an unending flood information, generating an “irreparable” uncertainty (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:210). The internet was once affectionately labeled as “the information superhighway,” but now the highway is backed up, all information, valuable and otherwise, is swept in an indiscriminate mass of code, situated on relatively equal footing, perpetually updating and contradicting itself. Among Baudrillard’s solemn warnings regarding technology (with information as its vital force), information is “directly destructive of meaning and signification” (Baudrillard [1981] 1994:79). This loss of meaning compromises the education process in a couple of ways. First, the online course, firmly rooted within the internet, becomes merely a heaping ground for information; once again, experience and meaningful interaction are sacrificed as all educative acts come in the rapid sharing, producing, and forgetting of information. Secondly, the online course is not purely a self-contained entity, but rather a simple resting stop in the internet, and thus an infiltration of information invades the learning process as students simultaneously produce information for the purposes of the course while often seeking the endless distractions that dominate internet usage. Students are replying to discussion board posts and watching videotaped lectures while looking at pictures on Facebook and watching music videos on YouTube, the glut of information production and consumption creating a virtual orgy.

The overabundance of information creates a crippling paradox for online education. If obtaining or interacting with information is a primary goal for education, then an online model represents an optimal model for many students, but this “perfection” of education as an activity towards information accumulation effectively “deconstructs” the education system (Baudrillard, 2000:78). What is left behind in this digital obliteration is simulation, an educative simulacra that operates as the real thing while bearing only a passing resemblance of the original entity (Merrin, 2005:52). In “Simulacra and Simulations,” Baudrillard charts the progression of simulation first as a reflection of reality before moving to the masking of reality and later its absence on route to its final stage were “it bears no relation to reality whatsoever” (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:170). This progression, in some sense, mirrors the progression of online education. Initially conceived as a digital reflection of face-to-face education, distance courses, mutated with Internet amendments, have masked the elements of unreality, allowing for artificial communication and learning experiences until finally entire degrees and universities serve as replacements for the real collegiate experience. Furthermore, it is important to note that educators will less and less recognize the distinction between online courses and face-to-face courses, but instead technology will establish a convergence between the two spheres, and face-to-face courses will bear an increasing resemblance to distance courses, to the simulations. As online courses, programs, and universities are further empowered by technology to instill a sense of reality, immersing us in the manufactured real, the more likely organic educational experiences are lost to us (Hegarty, 2004:49). This is the ultimate conclusion of simulation according to Baudrillard. Education mediated through simulacrum results in pure simulation in which “we are only able to imagine this…anterior to simulation in terms of simulation itself” (Butler, 1999:43). This unbreakable binding to simulation holds numerous problematic implications, including the loss of the real, but also generates an impenetrable ambiguity. Baudrillard writes:

What was separated in the past is now where merged; distance is abolished in all things: between sexes, between opposite poles, between stage and auditorium, between protagonists of action, between subject and object, between real and its double…With abolition of distance... everything becomes undecidable (Baudrillard, 2000:176).

When distance is bridged by simulation, the rift between reality and unreality is obscured. Simulation overtakes content and becomes simulated content, its falseness masked as people passively consume it. Education, as means of learning and unveiling, becomes a double-gesture towards further concealment, a consumable simulation of a purely symbolic order. What is learned, what is lost, and what is experienced will swirl about in ambiguous winds, their final destination left only to pointless conjecture. This is educative simulacra: education as a casualty in the genocide of the real.

VI. Conclusion: Baudrillard Teaching
The line between technological critique and Luddism is a blurry one, similar to that of rational technological support and one of passive compliancy. Depending on one’s opinions regarding technology, Baudrillard’s theories either seem prophetic and resonating or cynical and easily dismissed. Moreover, despite the attractiveness of Baudrillard’s texts, their application is precarious. Online education isn’t going anywhere. Technology’s pervasiveness and the markets dictate its permanence. If the time isn’t already now, there will come a time when nearly every waking moment, educative time included, will be spent manipulating a piece of technology (or technology will be manipulating us). Does such a reality, simulated or otherwise, render Baudrillard’s philosophy irrelevant?

Unheeded warnings serve as the foundation for more structured critiques. As institutions continue to implement technology in their courses and digitally bridge the distance between their courses and prospective students, more thoughtful critique of these nascent endeavors will be needed, and Baudrillardian theory certainly serves as one of the more provocative branches of such critique. The conception of the student – what a student is, what and how a student learns, and how a student interacts with other students and faculty – is being reconfigured, and while we can only presume the implications of this continual alteration, Baudrillard provides a necessary voice in the discourse, one that argues that progress does not naturally yield progress. Rash movements in new directions can lead us backwards.

Baudrillard’s theories, while criticized as being nostalgic, are those of preservation. Technology, as an aggressive, self-perpetuating entity, has provided us with innumerable capabilities, but has also rendered facets of our lives obsolete, and reclaiming those sacrificed elements from the scrap heap seems all but unthinkable. Applying this to education, greater emphasis in the utilization of technology will inevitably cause students to miss out on aspects of the educational process. Baudrillard insists that we to not so hastily discard these components – these materials, experiences, and interactions that were once fundamental to learning. While considering how to utilize technology more in the classroom or transpose a face-to-face course to an online format, educators should also reflect on how to preserve the essence of a face-to-face course that many now take for granted. For once lost, not even a Google search can retrieve it.   

Joseph Cunningham is currently working on his dissertation, which will consist of employing Marxian and Baudrillardian theory to examine college graduate underemployment. Additionally, he is an adjunct instructor of English at the University of Cincinnati-Clermont College and works as Instructional Specialist of English within their tutoring center.


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