CONCEPTUALIZING THE VIRTUAL LEARNING SPACE(S) IN SAUDI ARABIA: A FOUCAULDIAN PANOPTIC APPROACH

Abstract

In a place-conscious culture where marked spaces define national identity and social order, the move from a teacher-centred educational system to the virtual classroom resulted in re-drawing the map of power relations. From the practices of the early Saudi classroom, the Halaga, with its panoptic circle structure, to the modern school classroom with its carefully-drawn rows and set of disciplinary techniques, the Saudi teacher had always exercised his authority from/as the centre. Yet, the educational phenomenon of the virtual-space-based distance learning has left the instructor feeling ‘out of place’. As the setting for the physical presence and the disciplinary gaze is shifted/cancelled in the online classroom, the balance of power has also shifted in favour of the student. This paper explores the hierarchical structure of the virtual space in the not-so-modern Saudi teaching practices and the position of the teacher which has (d)evolved into the power struggles of the 21st century modern ‘educational technological phenomenon’. Applying Foucault’s concept of the panoptic in educational settings, we posit that the traditional power and discipline the teacher used to claim has been transmuted in the reverse panoptic gaze of the students who are in control of the virtual classroom and its time and space. The invisibility of the students in the current distance learning setting, compared to their visibility as a disciplinary tool in the physical Saudi classroom, poses a serious challenge not only to the teacher’s authority, but also to his/her style and methods. On the other hand, some might argue that the students might gain more understanding of a subject via their ‘spatial freedom’ of the online material access. However, we hypothesize that the virtual space in distance learning needs to be teacher-friendly and visual contact between the teacher and the students should still be applied freely.

Keywords: Foucault, Saudi Arabia, distance learning, early Islamic pedagogy, panopticism, spatial freedom, virtual classroom, virtual space


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