Embracing the Information Age

First published on The Mouse wiki, 2007.

A number of recent articles dealing with the changing nature of society, students and working practice highlight again of the difficulties we face with using computers and other information and communications technologies (ICT) in schools. In the UK,  Labour government initiatives based largely on a technicist belief that the use of technology will automatically improve grades, have been generous, providing funds for the purchase of computers, interactive white boards (IWBs) and a range of software. However, these initiatives are generally deemed to have had limited impact on improving children’s attainment at school, notwithstanding the clear potential of ICT to provide “powerful learning environments, rich contexts and authentic tasks” in which “active, autonomous and co-operative learning is stimulated.” (Smeets, E. 2005:343). In a study analysing the use of computers by 331 primary teachers in Dutch schools, Smeets concluded that the methods employed by teachers to adapt education to the needs and abilities of individual pupils were limited.

Findings in the United Kingdom and the United States are similar. Robertson (2002:403) found that, in spite of generous government  spending, “teachers have not embraced ICT within their core practice”. Wijekumar, Meyer, Wagoner and Ferguson (2006) report that the great expectations for improved learning have not materialised.

There are a number of reason for this, the most common being the limited number of computers, the placement of equipment in difficult to access suites and limited training for staff. There are others reasons, including the seeming inability of too many teachers to adapt to the new kind of world in which we live. Robertson (2002:403) speaks of a failure by teachers to “understand the complex cultural, psychological and political characteristics of schools.” The result is that schools, by and large, have been unable to responded to the information age paradigm or the need to embrace the powerful technologies it provides so as to provide relevant and meaningful context for today’s young learners.In too many schools, the Information Age stops at the school gate. The generation gap has never been wider.

Social and technological change has been especially rapid over the past decade, with changes not only in the way we shop, work, communicate and spend our leisure time, but also in the way that (especially) young people see the world and interact with it.

In an article in the Guardian in May 2007, David Puttnam remarks on a statement by a child at a digital education conference in San Francisco:

“Whenever I go into class, I have to power down.” That roughly translates as: “What I do with digital technology outside school – at home, in my own free time – is on a completely different level to what I’m able to do at school. Outside school, I’m using much more advanced skills, doing many more interesting things, operating in a far more sophisticated way. School takes little notice of this and seems not to care.”

In his seminal paper Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Prensky (2001) makes the point that “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” He speaks of massive change – a “really big discontinuity”, a “singularity” – “the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century” (1). These students, whose lives revolve around computer games, email, the web, mobiles and instant messaging,”think and process information fundamentally differently” (1). According to Berry (Prensky, 2001:1) it is likely that their brain structures having been changed due to the fact that their environment has been different, leading to different patterns of thinking. Prensky calls these people, who grew up in the age of technological change, digital natives. For them, computers and other digital technologies have always been around. As such, they are “native speakers” (1) of the digital language which abounds in the world of computers, digital games and the web.

The rest of us (teachers and lecturers) are “digital immigrants”, citizens of an older world where computers were figments of science fiction writers’ imaginations. As such, we speak “an entirely new language” which our digital native students struggle to understand. Says Prensky (2)

“Unfortunately for out Digital Immigrant teachers, the people sitting in their classes grew up on the ‘twitch speed’ of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They’ve been networked most of their lives. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and ‘tell-test’ instruction.”

Frand (2000:16) speaks of the Information-Age mindset which is becoming more commonplace in our educational institutions.These consist of “ten attributes reflecting values and behaviours.” These he divides into three groups, the first identifying “broad observations of change” the second addressing how young people do things and the last looking at “subliminal needs conditioned by the cyber age.”

The broad observations of change are described as attitudes which reflect the belief that computers are not technology, that Internet is better than TV, that reality is no longer real and that doing is better than knowing.

As to the first set, these indicate that digital natives

  • are at home with computers and other electronic gadgets and regard them as part of the wallpaper
  • prefer operating on Internet to watching television
  • are aware of the need to “believe none of what you hear and none of what you see”, referring to the need to be critical and aware of the power of technologies to manipulate reality, be it digitally manipulated photography or hoax emails
  • need flexible ‘doing’ skills which enable them to deal with complex and sometimes ambiguous information rather that ‘knowing’ lots of facts.

Digital natives do things differently to the rest of us. Thus, they

  • use trial and error to make things work rather than read manuals
  • multitask without thinking about it
  • type rather than write.

As to subliminal needs, natives

  • believe that staying connected is essential
  • have no tolerance for delays
  • blur the distinction between creator and consumer. We see this in the way that that we cut and paste and provide hyper-links to information rather that recreate it. Oblinger (2003) adds that “the distinction between creator, owner and consumer of information is fading… the operative assumption is often that if something is digital, it is everyone’s property” (42).

Frand (2000) challenges institutions to work proactively to address the reality of the new age. He provides a vision for higher education in which “we will combine the potential of the computer, communication, and information technologies with the pedagogical changes that need to occur in light of the prevalence of the information-age mindset” (22). He urges institutions to look at new ways of doing things, including the provision of access to both ‘distributed education’ which makes use of the benefits of both on-line and face to face approaches and on-line ‘distance’ learning. As to pedagogy, he suggests that a more constructivist process driven model as appropriate for today’s learners.

Oblinger (2003) raises the point that there is a wide range of age groups within today’s student population,including undergrad ‘millennials’, post grad ‘Gen-Xers’ and mature ‘Baby Boomers’ who might be taking a first degree after sacrificed university for marriage and childbearing in their youth. As such, they provide a differentiated set of world views and expectations which place different demands on universities and colleges. Providing for the needs of this varied group, some of whom are technophobic, requires careful management and open door policies, given that learners today “bring customer service expectations” (42) to the institutions in which they study.

Anyone working in higher education is well aware of the shift in the power balance between students and teachers. Providing an effective service means that teachers have to act proactively to provide for student expectations. Communication between student and teacher have never been more important. Luckily, computer mediated communications service these expectations well, be it via email, telephone, text or instant messaging.

One might well ask what the findings of higher education institutions have to do with primary schools and their practice. In a word – everything. Oblinger (2003) points out that “the younger the age group, the higher the percentage who use the Internet for school, work and leisure. This comfort with technology often leads to the perception that the use of technology in schools in inadequate” (38). given that their clientèle is the current crop of millennials.

The question is whether schools can change to provide a service more relevant to the needs of today’s young people. My own experiences of working with schools is that this is unlikely until the following conditions are met.

Firstly,  our notions of what learning and teaching is needs to be looked at in the light of what we know about the information age.

Schools are naturally conservative institutions which prefer to surround themselves with safe, clearly defined routines for each and every eventuality. If schools are to change, they need to be freed from the tyranny of micromanaging government departments, providing more freedom to teachers to try out new approaches. Organisations like Ofsted need to be restructured to provide support, guidance and training, rather than rigid inspection regimes.

Secondly, as Frand (2000) has pointed out, process is more important than product, skills more important than facts. I am not sure that schools have really bought into this. There are a number of reasons why, one being the demands of the monolithic national curriculum which tends to discourage teachers from working imaginatively and taking risks, not because it forbids it, but because bureaucratic testing, form filling and reporting regimes leave little time for these approaches. The time constraints that these demands place on schools provide little space for individualism. Planning tends to be done in year groups, with older year group leaders dictating both approach and pace.

Thirdly, the potential of ICTs will only be freed up when a critical mass of younger and Internet savvy teachers are entrenched in schools. Attempts over the years to ‘train’ existing teachers have been patchy and ineffective. Teachers tend to teach as they were taught, rather that as they were taught to teach.

Fourthly, computers and other ICTs need to be available to all students at all times, in flexible, ICT friendly ‘learning spaces’* designed to maximise movement, discussion and ICT use. The information age is about learning on the move (M-Learning – St George, A: 2007), ubiquitous technology, collaboration and access to powerful tools. At present, most schools provide limited hands on access to computers for children to use as writing, problem solving, creative, presentation and research tools. As far back as 1990, Hawkridge raised the issue of the power of technology to change the way we work and learn in discussing what he called the catalytic rationale for their use in schools. However, he concluded that, while the catalytic rationale was powerful, it “promises a Utopian future that will never arrive… schools as they might become, if only computers could be present in enough numbers, with the right kind of software to enable children and teachers to change… move away from rigid curricular, rote learning and teacher-centred lessons, by giving more control to children of their own learning.” (3). My personal view is that the power of modern technologies can help us realise this rationale. What is missing is the will to do so.

Fifthly, there needs to be a clearer and more equitable relationship between institution and client. Unfortunately, children, because of their age, are too often disregarded as ‘clients’ who deserve the very best that the school can offer, such as an modern, up-to-date learning environment which provides access to effective learning technology and the powerful tools which are part of our daily lives. The reality is a preponderance of pencil and paper approaches, more akin to learning in the 19th century than it is to the 21st.

Finally, some of the problems we face in the information society such as the illegal copying of music, disregard for intellectual property, the importance of citation and referencing, are probably best taught at an early age when children are more open to heeding the advice with regard to respect for the property of others. However, for this kind of lesson to be meaningful, a working context, rich in ICT, needs to be in place.

Cost has, and always will be, an issue for primary schools. However, developments in technology could help solve this issue. Portable learning tools of the modern age are readily available and relatively cheap. St George (2007) speaks of the importance of mobile technologies as learning tools. These have taken off in colleges and secondary schools in the United States, but could well be utilised at primary level.. According to St George (2007), the University of South Dakota began issuing new students PDAs preloaded with calculators, reference books, course organizers, and word processors as early as 2001. Since 2003, complete courses on handheld Pocket PC devices have been offered by Coastline Community College. Today, colleges and universities are giving incoming students iPods preloaded with campus registration forms, policies, maps, organizations, class schedules, and library hours and many institutions are using MP3 technology to provide students with access to course information and lecture recordings. While some of these applications are not relevant to primary schools, the technology would seem to offer applications (word processors, calculators, spreadsheets, web access) which are.

The burning question is whether our teachers are ready to accept these challenges.

Learning places need to be different to current classrooms, providing areas for ‘play’, and movement, for group work and discussion and for the use of computers, interactive white boards, digital still and video cameras, electronic microscopes and the many other information and communications technologies which are yet to be developed.


Frand, J.L. (2000) The Information-age Mindset. Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education. Educause, September/October. 15-24.
Hawkridge, D. (1990) Who needs computers in schools, and why? Computers and Education, 15(1-3). 1-6.
Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials. Understanding the new students. Educause, July/August 2003.
Puttnam, D. (2007) In class, I have to power down. Education Guardian, May 8.
Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (NCB University Press, 9(5).
Robertson, J. (2002) The ambiguous embrace: twenty years of IT (ICT) in UK primary schools, British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(4). 403-409.
Smeets, E. (2005) Does ICT contribute to powerful learning environments in primary education? Computers and Education, 44(3). 343-355.
St George, A. (2007) Imagining tomorrow’s future today. Educause, November/December. 107-127.
Wijekumar, K.J., Meyer, B.J.E., Wagoner, D. & Ferguson, L. (2006) Technology affordances: the real story in research with K-12 and undergraduate learners. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2). 191-209


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