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The Philosophy of Foucault, and Social Media Attitudes across Global School Settings

One of the chapters in Springer’s newly released academic volume Transforming Education is co-authored by IOE education innovation researcher Diana Koroleva. Entitled Coup D’etat in the Panopticon: Social Networking in Education, the paper has been inspired by a series of seminars in philosophy Diana was attending on her doctoral track at the IOE Graduate School of Education.

The conceptual groundwork of this study owes much to the seminars in philosophy that Dr. Alexander Sidorkin was delivering in English during my doctoral track at IOE. I remember, as part of our discussions of fundamental and contemporary theories, Dr. Sidorkin would often challenge us to try and deploy any theoretical proposition we’d learned, at our own choice, within a real research project. And this task seemed virtually impossible to accomplish until one of such sessions where we set about discussing Michel Foucault’s Panoptic power structure schema, which he describes in his Discipline and Punish.

Diana Koroleva, Director, IOE Center for Education Innovation

The Panopticon was originally proposed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a round building with a guard tower in the centre of an open space surrounded by an outer wall. The concept of Panopticon and Panopticism as a social theory were subsequently elaborated by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish.

Foucault views Panopticon as a symbol of disciplinary society and surveillance, where the efficiency of state power is maximized by placing everyone under conditions of constant and total visibility. Compulsory schooling had for decades relied on the Panoptic power schema described by Foucault, until the recent transition to the information society that significantly undermined the traditional power hierarchies in education, including teachers’ monopoly on knowledge.  

Diana Koroleva’s study came about from numerous discussions and interviews that she held with teachers in various areas and at different levels of schooling on how they perceived the progressive transition to the new ICT-assisted educational model, and namely their attitudes to social media.

Diana started interviewing Russian teachers when working on her doctoral project at IOE, but the data she could obtain at that stage was naturally limited in scope so as to gauge the situation in Russia only. “Head-spinning breakthroughs in the web and mobile technology, including cloud computing, have sparked a global surge in social networking. The boundaries between the real and the virtual are becoming more and more blurred, and the complementary nature of these two socio-communicative domains has been particularly articulate in modern schooling. So, as social media gradually evolved into a truly global phenomenon, I was more than thrilled to go beyond the Russian context alone, to see what American and European teachers thought about these transformations,” Diana comments.

It was the Future of School international learning forum in Prague, where she took part in the summer of 2015, which helped Diana fulfill this lasting research ambition. In the course of the event, she surveyed educators from multiple corners of the globe on their judgement about how digital networking has been remolding the society and what these processes entail for educational settings.

“Each new interview would turn out to further support the argument that most of the teachers feel rather cautious or even alarmed about the expanding penetration of social media. Many would say they were somewhat staggered or intimidated by the growing use of mobile devices by schoolers. Some claimed they wouldn’t much like to show up online and would feel rather puzzled and confused once faced with ‘friendship requests’ from students and peers,” Diana says.

While teachers mostly agree that social media are becoming an increasingly important environment for learning and socialization, they themselves still often hold back on going online as they fear possible negative experiences and evaluations they may encounter. This reaffirms many educators are just not yet in a position to recognize their virtual personas as important components of their identity and an increasingly inalienable part of today’s education and the social context at large.

“So, these empirical findings have become a good illustration for the philosophical theory by Michel Foucault we were once discussing with Dr. Sidorkin, and this is how the idea of this paper was conceived,” Diana notes.            


Contemporary compulsory schooling emerged in the nineteenth century for the needs of an industrial age. Compulsory schooling has always relied on the Panoptic schema described by Michel Foucault. In recent decades, the development of surveillance technologies has made Panoptic schemas in schools even stronger. Information technology and the transition to an information society have significantly undermined schools’ power structures. Teachers no longer possess a monopoly on knowledge. Students have learned to escape the teachers’ gaze and can lead virtual lives through their own smartphones inside and outside formal educational settings. One form of modern peer-to-peer interaction takes place on social networking websites that give users the option to be ‘hidden’, ‘passive’ or ‘inactive’ if they wish. To examine the influence of social networking on education we rely on the Foucault’s Panopticon theory. Whilst the traditional Panoptic regime may be crumbling, the social network phenomenon can transform modern learning environments for productive educational engagement. Foucault’s framework does not take into account the social networks phenomenon. Therefore, empirical evidence is required to articulate the nuances of the modern-day Panopticon. In this chapter we use interviews with teachers to illustrate the reflection of Panoptic logics and practices onto the social networks in classrooms. We explore the possibility for developing dialogically based and student-led pedagogies through social networking websites.

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