Interactive Distance Education
for the Adult Learner:
What’s up next? What’s in it for the teacher?


The following is the main section of an email message written by Prof. Bruce Roberts of St. Olaf College, sent on 9/20/95.  His ideas are those incorporated into the outline of the presentation.

Date: Wed, 20 Sep 1995 10:06:57 -0500
From: roberts@stolaf.edu
To: Mark Warschauer
Cc: Lonnie Turbee
Subject: Re: Definitions of empowerment

**What are empowering processes anyway?
Defining empowering processes is not a particularly easy task if one just scans the literature.  In much of contemporary business writing, for instance, the use of the word empowerment tends to be understood as a form of power, or worse, “power-over”.  Even the books which discuss means for empowering employees talk about the importance for leaders to give empowerment to employees–as if empowerment, like money, is something that belongs to a leader who then distributes it to others.  Such language cognitively frames the way we think about what we do.  As we attempt to transfer understandings of empowerment to education, those hierarchical and
power-oriented conceptualizations of empowerment are not the least helpful. They suggest empowerment is a zero-sum-game, which means that as teachers empower students by giving to them some of what they had previously “owned”, teachers will be the “poorer” as a result.

Riger (1993) argues strongly that such conceptualizations are unhelpful. She indicates that in our multicultural society we can not afford to think about empowerment just in “traditional” terms like mastery, power, autonomy, conflict and competition.  In fact, we can not give empowerment
to others.  Empowerment entails a relationship of competence, ability, choice and control (Zimmerman, et al., 1988) that is undermined if we sense that others have done “it” for us, or to us (Bond & Keys, 1993).

Thankfully, empowering processes are increasingly being identified as involving an organizational climate of collaborative action and learning-oriented norms (Argyris, 1983) infused with a reciprocity of knowing, helping, linking and caring (Maton, 1987;  Roberts & Thorsheim, 1988).  Maton and Rappaport (1984) linked empowerment with a psychological sense of community and a commitment to others in the setting, and Thorsheim and Roberts (1990) reported on the importance of engagement of people together in activities and the sharing of personal stories of one’s own involvement in life as a key to empowering outcomes.  Such connection of
empowerment with a psychological sense of community is the antipathy of individualistic power.

**The skills of affirming the contributions of each other

There is a problematic silence in much of the literature on specific skills needed in order to create a climate in which people can feel empowered. Perhaps affirming others is seen as such an obvious and natural behavior that it hardly can be called a “skill”.  On the other hand, the research is
clear that such “simple” things as knowing and using peoples names, and asking people for help are empowering (Roberts and Thorsheim, 1987). Rappaport and his colleagues (1985), in an exhaustive set of studies with naturally occurring mutual help groups, identified such specific behaviors
as sharing information with another person, reading together about common problems, and being helpful to others as all associated with better life satisfaction, psychological functioning, and social adjustment.

In a number of informal studies Roberts and Thorsheim (See for example, 1987) have identified skills which facilitate an empowering community, as being actively involved with others in meaningful activities, noticing what others do well and commenting on those characteristics to them, active listening, using the ideas of others and publicly acknowledging them for their ideas, showing interest and enthusiasm for new ideas/projects of others, thinking aloud, using the names of others when talking to them, and asking for help from others.

There clearly are some quite specific skills, which if used by members of a community as they interact with each other, will assist in developing an empowering organizational climate.

—  —  —   —

Argyris, C.  (1983) Action science and intervention.  The Journal of
Applied Behavioral Science.  19, 115-140.

Bond M. & Keys C.,  (1993)  Empowerment, diversity, and deliberation:
Promoting synergy on community boards.   American Journal of Community
Psychology.  21, 37-58

Maton, K. & Rappaport, J.  (1984) Empowerment in a religious setting:  A
multivariate investigation.  Prevention in Human Services.  3, 37-73.

Maton, K.   (1987)  Patterns and psychological correlates of material
support:  The bidirectional hypothesis.  American Journal of Community
Psychology.  15, 185-207.

Rappaport, J. Seidman, E., Toro, P., McFadden, L. Reischl, T., Roberts, L.,
Salem, D., Stein, C., and Zimmerman, M.  (1985) Collaborative Research with
a mutual help organization.  Social Policy  (Winter), 12-24.

Rappaport, J. (1987)  Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention:  Toward
a theory of community psychology.  American Journal of Community
Psychology. 15, 121-144

Riger, S.  (1993)  What’s wrong with empowerment?  American Journal of
Community   Psychology. 21, 279-292

Roberts, B. & Thorsheim, H. (1986)  A partnership approach to consultation:
The process and results of a major primary prevention field experiment. In
J. G. Kelly and R.E. Hess (Eds.),  Prevention in Human Services.  New York:
Haworth Press.

Roberts, B. & Thorsheim, H.  (1987)  Empowering Leadership: A Brief
Introduction.  Grant supported publication at St. Olaf College.

Thorsheim, H. & Roberts, B. (1990) Empowerment through reminiscing:
Communication and reciprocal social support among elders.  In. H. Giles, H.
Coupland, and J. Wiemann (Eds.) Communication, Health, and the Elderly.
Fulbright Colloquium Series No. 8, Manchester England:  University of
Manchester Press.

Zimmerman M.  & Rappaport J. (1988) Citizen participation, perceived
control, and psychological empowerment.  American Journal of Community
Psychology. 16, 725-750.


Lonnie Chu, MA         last updated 7/26/01