Behind the educational and technology issues lurk the ever present financial and political constraints. (c.2000)
- Public educational funding (under tight constraints)
- The "Digital Divide" - a social policy issue?
- Use of (or collaboration) with business services
Public education funding contraints
There are constants that seem to affect school education in all developed countries as well as factors that vary according to the circumstances and customs of each country.
There is normally a publicly funded and run school education system, for the majority of students. This system is generally funded from general revenue rather than a specific tax or levy. In line with other "social" expenditure, this has been under tight constraints during the past two decades when cutting back on government and its role in the economy has been "de rigueur". Politicians, responsible for this sector, appear to be driven by best appearance of good education while accepting inexorable financial constraint.
In Australia and the United States there is also the overlay of federal funding for school education, generally with strings attached. There may be a clash of political ideologies, but there appears to be a common element of ongoing financial constraint.
There is also a private school system for those who do not wish to be restricted to the state school system. This includes a wide range of alternative schools including "charter" schools with their own ethos or underlying principles, religious schools (such as the Catholic systemic schools in NSW) and expensive up-market reputation schools. Home schooling which accounts for some 1.5 million US children can also be considered an alternative schooling option. This sector is both ideologically and economically driven - with the economic drivers varying between the "school as service business" model and the even more fundamental "consumer would do it, provided its affordable" constraint.
The interesting issue here is what the new technologies available to education might do to its fundamental economic model, and secondarily what it might do to the marketing image of education (both for the alternative schools and for politicians responsible for public education).
A growing political issue is how to address the emerging "digital divide", that seperates those who have the technological literacy/self-confidence and the financial wherewithal to participate in new technological developments and those who are being left well behind. Those of working age and children in education can suffer particular disadvantage as their prospects are increasingly marginalised, and the gap in opportunities to live satisfying lives in the new millennium is exacerbated.
The digital divide is not just a matter for schools or indeed education in general.
It is a national issue that affects all aspects of life and work, and all members of the family.
It is a question of whether a nation genuinely wants to give all its citizens equal life chances or to devolve itself of that responsibility and allow the market forces to create a permanent under class - with all the concomitant ramifications. The responses received from a request that was sent to each of the state and territory ministers of education would suggest that most Australian governments still do not see the digital divide as a major issue.
... Michael Hammer, in Beyond Reengineering, (1996) suggests 'We may be witnessing the birth of an economy with no bottom rungs on the ladder of success'. (Hammer 1996:260)
In less emotive language the National Office of the Information Economy notes:
Access to computers and the Internet, and the ability to effectively use this technology are becoming increasingly important for full participation in economic, political and social life...
While Australian Internet use overall is increasing very rapidly, disparities in online access do exist. People on low incomes, without tertiary education, living in rural and remote areas, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, with disabilities, with a language background other than English, aged over 55, and women are less likely to use the Internet.
For those unconnected Australians, the barriers they face in achieving online access are very similar to those experienced by the disadvantaged in other developed industrialised countries: set-up and access costs; lack of physical access; disinterest; security concerns; lack of skills and training; a perceived lack of relevant content; and illiteracy. (NOIE, 2000)
The boundary between schools and business is blurred with electronic delivery. There is less apparent economic or political issues in school accessing and even collaborating with businesses who target the education provision sector.
Textbooks and video resources have long been commercially provided and used in schools. What is different now is the extent of the interactive guidance provided to the student in web and multimedia education products, that can eat into the traditional teaching role.
A key distinction needs to be made between the advantages and disadvantages of the technology that delivers the material and the commercial and legal arrangements under which it is delivered. The technology issues are handled elsewhere. Here we are only concerned with the commercial/legal aspects and their social, economic and political ramifications.
Business, motivated by the chance of significant profit, is likely to:
- be quick to capitalise on electronic technology innovations
- be quick and effective in achieving economies of scale through electronic delivery across geographical and national barriers
- take commercial risks in achieving the above (that is there are likely to be many commercial failures along the way of the successful businesses demonstrating the above)
- be less interested in meeting the needs of narrower targeted audiences such as minorities or special needs
- be interested in legally obtaining captive audiences over a period of time, often in return for putting at risk the capital required to establish a technology infrastructure in an uncertain environment
- be interested in controllable and often proprietary technologies that maintain ongoing dependence on a supplier that may therefore be able to charge higher prices
- be interested in obtaining the endorsement or collaboration of educational providers with credibility amongst their target markets
- combine "free services" with advertising or sponsorship or sale of audience information - all of which have their "costs"
It is not useful to paint business as either saviour or ogre. Subject to controlling the risks of being caught in a long term commercial or technology dependence and of maintaining one's educational goals without being compromised, schools are likely to benefit from utilising business provided services based on new technologies, at least at the pilot or trial stage, in order to be able to evaluate the new services' educational value. It would seem to be important, however, that an exit path be always maintained, both commercially and technologically.