Explores the educational issues and goals that should be driving the trend and pace of technological change (c.2000)
IT IS IMPORTANT to focus on educational goals so that they drive technological change, rather than schools and school systems simply reacting to the latest products or funding availability. Or if this is too utopian, then at least the impact of technological change should be assessed against underlying the educational goals.
The difficulty is to distil current educational research and synthesise it into an educational target or vision that is relevant to the assessment of alternative technologies. Undoubtedly it will not be a static vision but one that evolves - though hopefully the principles are more permanent than the technological tools that may be used to strive towards them. It also needs to focus on core principles rather than risk being a prescriptive vision that implicitly assumes certain technologies. For example, the classroom model may well be thrown open to debate by the new technologies and may not be essential to good education - but it would probably be assumed by most participants in the debate.
Many aspects arising from research appear to be largely criticisms of the current system/ school/ classroom model. To give these a framework we need to start with a broad "first-principles analysis" of the goal of school education.
Goals of "school" education
To use "school" education as a starting point may risk inferring that schools as we know them need to be part of the answer. Perhaps we should better consider the goals of education for children once they have attained the capacity to learn outside the care of their parents/primary caregivers, through until they are mature and equipped enough to take an independent productive role in the community.
We have postulated five goals for education of children (in no particular order):
- Effective producers - To provide the community with skilled persons able to sustain and increase the community's capacity to produce the goods and services we rely on. (Sometimes poorly expressed as "producing the cannon fodder that industry needs".)
- Effective community members - To provide the community with socially capable, aware and responsible persons able to take their part, individually and collectively, in guiding the community in its structural decisions and actions to ensure the community adapts appropriately over time.
- Flexible life-long learners - To provide the individual person with the flexibility, capacity, skills and motivation to sustain and adapt their own skills to meet the changing demands of the community (the "life-long learner").
- Sustainable personal identity - To provide the individual person with the basis for a self-aware, integrated and personally satisfying self-identity.
- Appropriate cost to community - To achieve the above educational goals at an appropriate economic cost to the community.
The last postulated goal may warrant comment. It does not suggest minimum cost to the community - rather it seeks to find the appropriate cost in terms of impact on the community's future. Would money spent on education rather than in individual wealth creation be to the community's overall future benefit? The "economic costs" used in such an analysis would need to include non-financial costs such as the social costs of unemployable as well as direct financial costs.
Undoubtedly these goals will and should evolve, but they seem to capture the basic tension between functional approaches and the more "liberal" ideals. Consequently they seem to provide a reasonable basis from which particular contemporary educational issues and objectives can be judged.
Some of these fundamental goals are more affected by the opportunities and threats presented by new technologies than others. This will result in an apparent imbalance in the following lists of technology evaluations that are grouped according to these goals.
A. "Effective Producers"
To provide the community with skilled persons able to sustain and increase the community's capacity to produce the goods and services we rely on.
1. Students need to be comfortable with new technologies
Clearly stated in one of Australia's National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century (agreed in April 1990 by State/Territory and Commonwealth Ministers of Education) was that "when students leave school they should be confident, creative and productive users of new technologies, particularly information and communication technologies, and understand the impact of those technologies on society".
There are two parts to this goal, both of which are important. While students leaving "school" and entering the workforce should be generally confident with current technologies (the first part), it is impossible for them to be confident with all the technologies they will encounter through a normal working life. Consequently the second part of this goal is for children's education to leave them confident, creative and productive users of newly emerging technologies.
While the first part may often be dismissed as simply a question of sufficient funding, both parts, and particularly the second, are really more concerned with attitude and approach. If technology is causing businesses and whole industries to reinvent themselves then students should be experienced in this "reinventing" from their education - in other words "schools" should model the technological reinvention rather than endeavour to shield students from it. Students should be encouraged to try new technologies, to research technologies that fail as well as those that succeed, and to become technology and technology-hype aware citizens.
2. "Employability is more attractive as a descriptor than employment-related since it conveys a greater sense of an individual's long-term capacity to build a career and to prosper in a dynamic labour market. Employability implies qualities of resourcefulness, adaptability and flexibility, whereas employment-related suggests an orientation to the current state of the labour market. As such, employability has more potential as a term to signal the qualities needed for success not only in paid employment but also in other domains of life." (ACER 2001, p. 6)
3. Key competencies (required in addition to job-specific or technical skills)
- Collecting, analysing and organising information
- Communicating ideas and information
- Planning and organising activities
- Working with others and in teams
- Using mathematical ideas and techniques
- Solving problems
- Using technology
- Cultural understandings
(p.4, Employability Skills for the Future (March 2002) DEST Australia)
4. Personal attributes
- honesty and integrity
- personal presentation
- positive self-esteem
- sense of humour
- balanced attitude to work and home life
- ability to deal with pressure
(p.7, Employability Skills for the Future (March 2002) DEST Australia)
|Communication that contributes to productive and harmonious relations between employees and customers||
|Teamwork that contributes to productive working relationships and outcomes||
|Problem solving that contributes to productive outcomes||
|Initiative and enterprise that contribute to innovative outcomes||
|Planning and organising that contribute to long-term and short-term strategic planning||
|Self-management that contributes to employee satisfaction and growth||
|Learning that contributes to ongoing improvement and expansion in employee and company operations and outcomes||
|Technology that contributes to effective execution of tasks||
B. Effective community members
sense of community: (a) transactional distance (encourage dialog by assessing contributions), (b) social presence (must plan to be conspicuous), (c) social equality (encourage non-confrontational intros and maybe counsel aggressive or authoritarian contributors), (d) small group activities (augments relationships and different role taking), (e) group facilitation (practice of various group support roles as required), (f) teaching style and learning stage (matching teaching styles with learning stages as much as possible), and (g) community size (8-28 for active discussion with one teacher). (see Rovai, Alfred (April 2002) "Building Sense of Community at a Distance" in International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning)
C. Effective life-long learners
"...broad agreement that all young people need a set of personal attributes and skills that will prepare them for both employment and further learning. It is also recognised that the ongoing employability of individuals is dependent on them having a set of relevant skills, as well as a capacity to learn how to learn new things." (p.1, Employability Skills for the Future (March 2002) DEST Australia)
D. Sustainable personal identity
E. Appropriate community cost
Contemporary issues include:
Response to different learning styles
The existence of different learning styles seems to be accepted. Similarly it appears to be accepted that the effectiveness of a child's learning is improved when instruction or other educational resources are tailored to that child's learning style.
It also appears to be accepted that it is difficult for a single teacher to differentiate their teaching style to meet different learning style needs of their students within the majority of the current range of teaching practices based around the teacher/class/classroom model.
Special educational needs and inclusion
The existence of children with special educational needs, such as physical, psychological or cognitive learning disabilities and similarly of gifted children, appears to be generally accepted. The need of these children for tailored educational provisions, often involving specialist resources and trained staff targeting their needs, also appears to have been accepted. Advantage to the community and to the individual is also often seen in these students being included, where possible, with the full range of children in a learning environment.
The provision of specifically tailored resources to meet these special educational needs appears to be constrained by funding constraints and in many cases by concerns for equitable use of limited resources relative to other children.
The move in concept from the child as a passive receiver of instruction to an active constructor of relevant meaning appears to have been accepted as desirable and necessary, particularly on the grounds of establishing "life-long learners" (goal 3). It is not difficult to argue that this shift contributes to the second and fourth goals as well.
The shift towards allowing, facilitating and expecting autonomous learning is one of the fundamental drivers in change of pedagogy, that in turn is reinterpreting, and perhaps causing a revolution in, the role of the teacher vis-a-vis the learner. But the changed focus for the learner also needs its own preparation - assistance in understanding and reflecting on the process of learning: such as individual goal setting, progress monitoring, and reflection, as well as question framing, information gathering and evaluation, synthesis, community discussion and feecback, and presentation.
While the endemic problem of underachievement and its "roots" are complex, there appears to be support for a key factor being the student not being challenged in the early years of schools with this sending children the message that school is neither an exciting place of learning or even just a place they associate with being stretched. If this premise is accepted then there would appear to be a need for much greater differentiation and tailoring of early childhood education to meet the particular needs of different children.
It seems to be accepted that other key factors in underachievement, such as low self-esteem, dysfunctional families, teacher-student personality conflicts, also need to be addressed. While teaching has been progressively more and more concerned with such affective issues, it would seem to be readily accepted that the current teacher/class/classroom model and the school structure in which it operates, do not facilitate the focus and flexibility that addressing these needs requires.
Probably reflecting in part the above concerns for minimising underachievement and also providing a more tailored educational response to a child's needs, there appears to be support for more flexible progression of students through the range of educational provisions. Research supports faster progress by more able students achieving educationally (intellectually and affectively) under flexible progression strategies.
Concerns expressed about flexible progression are generally expressed in two ways: concern for the affective needs of a child moving ahead of his or her age-peers, and equity concerns for those not moving at the faster speeds. The first concern is not supported by the research which strongly supports the view that the affective needs of gifted children are better met by flexible progression and tailored educational provisions.
The second concern sees damage to the self-esteem of children who see others progressing faster. The extent to which this occurs is not clear. The research available suggests that children choose role models and self-evaluation references from similar children with whom they mix frequently (Schunk 1987, Allan 1991). On this basis it would seem likely that flexible progression would allow more realistic self-assessment and stronger self-esteem.
Perhaps part of the problem is the understandable concern of parents and others when faster progression is perceived to equate to economic or prestige advantages. It is an economic reality that some skills and levels of skills are rewarded in our community better than others. But there is no reason why this need be made any more conspicuous in a learning environment. The removal of status rewards or even student reporting in schools based on relative performance or "norms" would seem to be supported with this replaced with recognition of achievement relative to past "personal bests" or against objective outcomes ("standards").
Standards-based outcomes assessment
The advantage of the recent move to absolute and objective described outcomes assessment appears to be well accepted, with this endeavouring to avoid both the risk of gradually changing (falling) standards and of unnecessarily competitive relative or "norm" assessments.
Three dangers appear to be noted by some. The first is the issue of ensuring that the objectively defined standards do not nevertheless experience creep over time - either through consensus of what the defined standards entail or through the subject area changing and leaving the defined standards less relevant and even obsolete. Secondly there is the concern that differentiation, particularly amongst the better performances in the less well-defined subjects (such as the humanities), may be extremely difficult to define without significant subjectivity.
The third and most pressing concern is that any tendency to define an acceptable outcome level might become a lowest common denominator hurdle for students and teachers to aim at - leaving students capable of greater excellence unsupported.
Provided these dangers are minimised then standards-based outcomes assessment appears as positive and conducive to flexible progression and autonomous learning.
Optimal tailored learning
In line with a the general community-wide search for efficiency, learning environments are increasingly being analysed for potential improvement. Looking at how people (children and adults) learn best is accepted as critical to efficient and effective learning. Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the "flow channel" between anxiety and boredom and Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development" appear to be well accepted. These support gains to be made, for both individual and community, if educational provisions can be established that allow children to choose activities that allow them to learn at their own appropriate pace with this being challengingly beyond their current capacity but within their grasp. Clearly this will vary over time (not necessarily evenly), and certainly will vary from child to child.
While the desirability of learning at flexible pace in line with a child's current situation has been generally accepted, the financial constraints of current school funding and the institutional constraints of the current "teacher/class/classroom" model and of current school structures, which largely preclude such tailoring, have not yet been generally brought into question.
This is more than just a matter of level and rate of learning but also the nature of learning itself. As Aitken (1999) describes "Human 'knowing' is multi-layered and multi-modal-visual, emotional, anecdotal, factual, propositional, conceptual-and it does not translate easily to a verbal linear thread." Or to a single teaching style. What is needed is guided access to a range of multi-layered and multi-modal learning materials - which can now be made readily and individually accessible through technology.
Leaving aside the issue of whether current educational curriculum is appropriate, we are still left with an issue of how to most effectively impart the curriculum.
This would involve, amongst other issues, consideration of the advantages of being able to extend the reach of "best practice" teaching or self-learning materials beyond one classroom to classes and individuals across schools, systems, states and the entire planet. One of the sub-issues here is to ensure that learning materials can be accessed across different hardware and software environments. Attempts to standardise these materials have begun (see for example the IEEE Learning Technology Standards initiatives).
Safe learning environments
The need to be concerned with physical danger and the various forms of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in schools is well accepted. Substantive reporting obligations have emerged in many areas as a means of combating these dangers. Less well-accepted is the need to address the institutional forms and structures that allow these dangers to grow, and may in some cases constitute abuse in the form of insecure children resorting to bullying and of teachers maintaining classroom and playground control.
Equitable learning environments - race, gender, disability, socio-economic etc
The need and capacity of education to offset discrimination, both by affecting children's attitudes and by affirmative action in compensating those who are disadvantaged, is generally well-accepted. Debate continues on the two obvious lines of tension: firstly the tension between individual rights and the need of the community to seek community-friendly attitudes, and secondly the debate about the extent of affirmative action policies, both on efficiency and equity grounds.
That education needs to have a positive pro-equity capacity is not, however, generally questioned. It is also generally accepted that this needs to include both open access to the educational provisions, and also the educational provisions making children aware of discrimination issues.
Real life engagement
An ongoing concern is that education remain relevant to real life needs, both for the community and for the individual. It is generally accepted that school education needs to be in a continuing state of renewal and evolution to keep in step with the post school life for which it endeavours to prepare its students. The obvious line of tension is to determine the balance between rapid change to mimic the change in the community/workplace and the preservation of unchanging core learning values and principles.
In the past change in the school education system tends to occur in a cyclical fashion - pressures build, a review is undertaken, changes are implemented according to political will as if they answer all present and future problems.
It is likely that the boundary between schools and the business economy will be greatly blurred. The capacity to access business services electronically makes the interface both economically and politically less problematic, at least on the surface.
Readiness for work
A frequently voiced concern (particularly by employers of school leavers) is that schools should ensure that their leaving students are ready for work. This includes both skill and attitude issues. While broader issues relating to a liberal education for a thinking person, and relating to life-long learning skills are also important, it is generally accepted by both community and individuals that a clear aim of school education is to prepare children for productive work in the community as it stands.
It is also generally accepted that the current approach of an end of school qualification (often based significantly on an end of school examination in) a limited range of courses is a blunt and inefficient instrument both for employers discriminating between school leavers and for students in gaining skills in particular employment areas. Many employers generally look for evidence of competence in particular areas at much lower detail level than offered in school leaving credentials.
The work environment, for which school leavers are meant to be ready, has changed and is changing rapidly. The need for "life-long learners" ready to reskill as needs and opportunities change is increasingly recognised, but the pace of change in schooling towards nurturing self-directed learners appears slow. More importantly as work environments refashion themselves via the use of communication and other technologies, school environment experience (as a workplace model) is becoming increasingly irrelevant - most technologically aware students gain most of their expertise from the home rather than school environment.
Even more fundamental is that basic workplace thinking skill needs are also changing. Aitken (1999) describes it thus: "Whereas machine technology gradually took over routine and repetitive physical labour, information technology is gradually taking over routine and repetitive mental labour. As information technology assumes much of the tedious task associated with information management there is a shift in the nature of human work and it correspondingly shifts the skill set we need to learn." and "[Information] being available does not guarantee authenticity nor reliability. Critical evaluation skills take on a new level of importance."
"Just in time" rather than "just in case"
We have a long way to go in moving from an information or content based curriculum to one that focuses on necessary skills in an information-rich but ever changing world. Aitken (1999) suggests:
"Instead of asking 'what topics do we have to cover we need to develop processes and approaches which ask ...'what are the powerful ideas and processes, captured in collective human wisdom, that we believe to be important for young people to learn'. If we truly value learning which is integrative and coherent then we will also be paying attention to ensuring that the learning and assessment is authentic-that it has genuine purpose in the lives of the students."
Evaluating potential educational change
These pointers to educational gains or criticisms of current educational practice provide us with a basic evaluation checklist by which we can begin to judge the educational benefits of what technological change might offer us.
Aitken, J (1999). Enhancing learning with information technology: Promises, pitfalls and practicalities. Curiculum Corporation 1999 Conference