The Changing Face of Education

The very concept of education is changing for many kids, as they experience self-directed learning, mostly out of school, about things that interest them, and they see how different this kind of learning is from the ‘push it on you’ and ‘test you to death’ methods of formal schooling. Prensky, M. (2007:40)

Rapid social and technological change has had a big impact on the way that the world works. We find technology of various sorts everywhere today – in cars, fridges, ovens, television sets and telephones. Computers control the design and manufacture of everything from jet aircraft to bicycles. We use computers increasingly to shop on line, to watch television, to download and listen to music and watch films. The world wide web is our store of information and, increasingly, the place where we meet, communicate, share and manage information and compete with others, using applications like Facebook, Flickr and and fast, online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft.

Amongst the biggest digital consumers in this world are young people who have never known a non-digital world. Prensky (2001:1) calls these people digital natives, young people who “have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” As such, their view of the world and the way they interface with it is different to those of us who were born before computers were readily available. Prensky (page 2) says that “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work. ”

Prensky (2001) believes that the world of formal education does not really cater for this generation, given that it tends to be highly structured, linear and slow moving. He suggests (page 4) that it is important for teachers to “learn to communicate in the language and style of their students. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills. But it does mean going faster, less step-by step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things. ” *

Others have also written about the different way young people view life and work. According to Oblinger (2008:24) “today’s students use their computer as their notebook, locker, backpack and organiser. They expect technology to provide solutions for their wants and needs. Students say they want more ‘learning-on-the-go’ options and mobile device services to align with their mobile lifestyle.” Those of you who have recently finished degrees at university will be able to associate with these issues.

Recent research by Creanor and Trinder (2006) looked, inter alia,  at the nature of effective e-learners. Amongst other things, they believe that (page 26) “technology should be used to enhance their learning and are clear that they will not engage with it if they feel it is not to their advantage.” For many,  “technology is an integral part of their lives and they feel particularly strong attachments to their personal gadgets such as Internet enabled mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops, which they use to support their learning, often experimenting with innovative usage.”  They also take advantage of technology to fit learning into their daily lives, and are good at multi-tasking, with “the boundary between using technology for learning and leisure is becoming increasingly blurred.”

While much of the literature on digital natives has been focused at higher education institutions, it is important to keep in mind that primary school children are also digital natives. They are users of the same tools, with many having their own camera phones, X-boxes, iPods and computers. We need to reflect on the relevance of ICT for primary pupils and contrast this with the level of accessibility in the average classroom.

To what extent do primary schools and teachers understand the changing nature of the world we are living in and the impact of information and communications technology on society, learning and teaching? Do they know that many pupils in their classes are used to having broadband access and that they play fast paced games? Would they agree that the issues we are discussing are relevant to primary pupils and schools, or do they think that they apply only to teenagers? What are teacher’s beliefs about learning and do they understand that social and technological change must of necessity impact on the way we learn?

The importance that government places on the use of ICT suggests that they believe ICT is important for all school goers. However, while industry and business has been quick to embrace the power of information and communications technology, schools have not. This is not to say that they have rejected it out of hand. Schools have bought  computers, interactive white boards and other equipment and ICT is a required course for trainee teachers. Generally speaking, however, educators are always playing catch up as the potential of these technologies as educational tools slowly becomes apparent. There are a number of reasons for this, which I will discuss under the broad headings provision and placement and resistance to change.

Provision and placement.

Notwithstanding the support of government, computers and other ICTs remain expensive for schools as non-profit making institutions. A high level of personalisation is necessary for computers and other ICT equipment to be effectively used – basically, the equipment needs to be available as and when the user needs it. Ownership is an important aspect of technology use and ideally each child should have a computer. Instead, we have the situation where many schools still place computers in shared difficult-to-use suites, which need to be booked out in advance. This does not fit with the always-on always-available nature of ICT use in society, even with more and more schools are investing in portable and shareable laptops.

Resistance to change.

A large proportion of teachers are digital immigrants – the antithesis of digital natives. Born in a world before computers, digital immigrants tend to do things in traditional ways, even when using powerful technologies. As Prensky (2001:2) puts it – “As all Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past. The digital immigrant accent can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it.” Other immigrant habits include things like printing out emails to read and file, printing out a word-processed document to edit by hand rather than directly on screen, and bringing people into the office to show them an interesting website.

However, these people are at least are using information and communications technology. Some teachers do not, cannot and simply will not, mainly because they are embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of ICT and believe that they are too old to learn about complicated new technologies.

We need to have some sympathy for these teachers. The pace of change in the field of ICT is extremely rapid, and even so-called experts battle to keep up with every change and new development. In addition, there has never been an effective programme for training teachers. They have been expected to pick the knowledge up as they go along, which is difficult given the bureaucratic and other demands of the job.

There is another aspect of resistance to change which is important to look at, this one considering our understanding of what teaching and learning is about. Notwithstanding the lip service paid to the importance of using constructivist, socio-constructivist and constructionist approaches for learning, many teachers behave in a way which suggests that they are behaviourists at heart. As such, they see themselves as disseminators of information rather than facilitators of learning. Those who use ICT tend to use it narrowly and in a prescriptive fashion which minimises the power of the technology. Cartwright and Hammond (2007:390) analysed the use of technology in a primary school regarded as a good user of ICT over a two year period. Their findings were that  ” ‘fitting ICT in’, rather than ‘effective use of ICT’, provided a more accurate description of the complex decisions and actions that were made regarding ICT use in the school.” Smeets (2005) looked at the extent to which the potential of ICT was used by to develop powerful learning environments in 31 primary classrooms in Holland. He concluded that while many teachers applied several elements of powerful learning environments in their classrooms, the use of ICT generally showed characteristics of traditional approaches to learning. However, this is not too surprising given that, as far back as 1988 David Cohen and Larry Cuban argued that computer technology would have little effect on schools, predicting that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree that it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used” (Collins, 1991:28).

Prensky (2008:3) makes the point that for too many teachers, education is “a backup of old methods – ones that are useful only in unlikely emergencies” rather than one which prepares them for the world of the future. The irony is that schools seem incapable of understanding, let alone embracing, the Information Age paradigm which is the common currency of modern society. Too often, the information age stops firmly at the school gate, with pupils forced to power down and step back into an irrelevant past age where the pencil, paper and rote learning predominates and where powerful new technologies capable of facilitating children’s writing, problem solving, research, presentation, creativity and investigative skills are the exception rather than the rule.

Where do we go from here?

While many teachers may feel threatened by these rapid changes and the different needs and attitudes of today’s students, new technological developments characteristic of the so called Web2 environment, provide us with many of the tools we need to make education more exciting and meaningful for young people. More importantly, these are becoming cheaper (many are free), easier to access and easier to use. These applications, falling under the broad ‘social software’ label, are web based, making them available from anywhere at any time, given access to the Internet. Bryant (2007:9) states that we are starting to see “innovation on the consumer Internet translating into a new approach to the use of on-line technology in supporting both work and education…” with students and teachers “moving away from passive consumption of e-learning content to becoming active participants in their own relationship with technology…” This, he believes, will enable us to make educational systems “less prescriptive, target driven and centralised.”

Social Software includes blogs, wikis, podcasts, photo sharing, bookmarking, podcasting, vidcasting, micro-blogging and social networking applications. These Web2 applications have been embraced by young and old alike outside of school and have been shown to support more exciting learning and more effective teaching. Schools, however tend to be wary of them given the perceived need to protect children on the net.

Twist and Withers, (2007:35) say that “the shadowy perceived threats which follow in new technologies’ wake” include things like copyright infringement, identity theft, Internet fraud, and the dangers of grooming by predators who target children. This notwithstanding, Twist and Withers (page 28) point out that change is inevitable: “Traditional gatekeepers and hierarchies are losing grip as the only controllers of knowledge flows, communication, creativity and opinion. Blogs, podcasting and social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube have given people space to be creators of content in ways that are more innovative, direct and social.”

The biggest challenge for schools is recognising that the world has changed dramatically over the past decade and that they need to change with it if they are to remain relevant. This change will involve recognising the potential of ICT and embracing the learning potential that (mainly) online applications offer. The future lies largely with creative and imaginative young teachers like yourselves, who are are either digital natives or flexible enough to become successful digital immigrants. It is your responsibility to lead in schools as change agents, demonstrating the power of information technologies, supporting older teachers and working with parents to ensure that children can use the internet responsibly and safely, recognising the dangers which are there and combat them.  As regular users of ICT, you should understand the potential of technology to provide a more interesting, relevant, powerful and meaningful learning environment for pupils. It will be largely up to you to ensure that it does.

The video below comes from the Transforming Teaching Through Technology site, which has a number of useful tips about podcasting.

A vision of students today, from Kansas State University


Bryant, L. (2007) Emerging Trends in Social Software for Education. Becta, Coventry.

Cartwright, V.  and Hammond, M. (2007) ‘Fitting it in’: A study exploring ICT use in a UK primary school. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(3), 390-407.

Collins, A. (1991) The Role of Computer Technology in Restructuring Schools. Phi Deta Kappan, Sepember.

Creanor, L., Trinder, K., Gowan, D. & Howells C. (2006) LEX. The Learner Experience of e-Learning. Final Project Report. Glasgow Caledonial University.

Oblinger, D. (2008) Growing up with Google. What it Means to Education. Becta. Coventry.

Prensky, M (2001) Digital natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)

Prensky, M. (2007) How to teach with technology: keeping both teachers and students comfortable in an era of exponential change. Becta, Coventry.

Prensky, M. (2008) Backup Education? Too many teachers see education as preparing kids for the past, not the future. Educational Technology (48:1) 1-3.

Puttnum, D. (2007) In class I have to power down. Education Guardian.

Smeets, E. (2005) Does ICT contribute to powerful learning environments in primary education? Computers and Education (44) 343-355.

Twist, J. & Withers, K. (2007) The challenge of new digital literacies and the ‘hidden curriculum. Becta, Coventry.

Supplementary reading.

Downes, S. (2008) The future of online learning. Ten years on.

Paul, M. (2007)  Embracing the Information Age paradigm.

* The work of Prensky has not gone unchallenged, but I am loath to get into this particular debate here. Bennett, Moton and Kervin (2008:775) argue that “rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of ‘moral panic’ ” and call for a “more measured and disinterested approach” to investigate the supposed phenomenon.  My own experience is that ‘digital natives’ as described by Prensky are very thin on the ground. However, Prensky’s claims serve a useful purpose, providing us with a view of students of the future.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5). 775-786.


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