Battle in Print: Is ICT transforming learning?

Keri Facer, 4 October 2007

The quick answer to this question would be: ‘No, ICT is not transforming learning, it never has and it never will.’

But the reason for this answer will not be because information and communication technology (ICT) doesn’t have the potential to play a role in transforming education, but because ICT in and of itself just can’t make that sort of difference. If we know anything from the last quarter-century of introducing computers to schools, we know that the sort of thinking implied in this question - the sort which suggests that ICT can ‘do’ the transformation on its own - is fundamentally mistaken and misleading because it gives technology a power that it just doesn’t possess without the social structures, practices and ideas to support it.

Let’s be clear, however. While ICT doesn’t, in and of itself, transform learning, it does bring into play a whole range of new potentials for education that couldn’t be achieved in other ways. Let’s consider a range of random examples: ICT include tools for creating narratives that would be impossible to conceive in other ways - Machinima, for example, is an emerging art form in which films can be shot in the virtual reality of a games engine using the resources of the game, such as backgrounds, characters and levels, and tools such as camera angles, editors, texture generators and reference sites. When this is combined with online games, you have the potential to co-create films with players from around the world as your actors and the backdrops of various fantastical and rich worlds as your mise en scne. Alternatively, we can look at blogging tools or YouTube, currently being used to provide rapid, instantaneous and diverse responses to the US presidential campaigns. And while these may be being manipulated by those same campaigns, there is no doubting that they offer new forms of interaction between voters and candidates from that on offer in the broadcast era.

Then there’s the use of the internet as a space for scientific analysis and collaboration - the human genome, the particle accelerator research at CERN; neither would have been conceivable without massive processing power and interconnected computers. Let’s also consider tools now so familiar we take them for granted: the word processor, for example, offers the opportunity to produce and revise text in ways that simply would not have been possible with paper and pencil. Or, finally, let’s look at the sorts of playful environments that offer the opportunity to get the beginnings of a feel for what it might be like to have different ‘senses’, like the multiple eyesight of a fly, or the enhanced smell of a dog.

Quite simply, these tools allow us to potentially do many, many things we couldn’t do only 20 or 30 years ago. They offer the potential for new forms of experience, interaction and collaboration, and for new ways of engaging with and contributing to knowledge. They are exciting, exhilarating, delightful, disturbing - they offer the potential for new forms of friendship, new types of identity, new ways of working and living. As such, quite clearly, they hold massive potential for transforming education.

This is not the same, however, as saying that they should, will or do transform education (footnote 1). Quite clearly, these remain latent potentials and possibilities unless the social contexts, structures, practices and values into which these technologies are brought are amenable to and supportive of the new forms of human activity that they offer.

When we consider the formal educational context of the last quarter of a century, it’s clear that ICT has primarily been seen as part of a ‘retooling’ process for formal education - in which it is introduced to ‘do the same things faster and more efficiently’ (in theory), rather than being introduced to enable new and different things to be done in education. If we think about the National Grid for Learning (remember that?) it was introduced in a fanfare of ‘modernisation’, but alongside a commitment to the traditional goals of ‘raising standards’ in literacy and numeracy. If we think about ICT in the National Curriculum, computers are frequently cited as a new information source (a more modern library), but exams are still expected to be written by hand and without the use of new tools to support expression, research and idea development. In this context, it is unsurprising that ICT has not transformed education. This is because, quite simply, no one has really wanted it to.

Until and unless we are interested in honestly asking the question how should education change in the context of new technological capacities and new socio-technical economic and cultural contexts - and until the answers to these questions are translated into changed goals, values and practices in education - ICT will fundamentally not transform education, it will be corralled into the existing educational objectives of the current time. Which is fine, if these objectives are the ones we all, as a nation, value.

But this is only one response to the question ‘is ICT transforming learning?’ Another response might be to ask why on earth we would think that ICT can transform learning. Why would we think it powerful enough, in and of itself, to make radical changes in practice and outcomes? What is it that makes the idea of technology as a force for change such an attractive one to so many?

One answer to this is that there are many people who would greatly wish ICT to make that sort of difference on its own, and because there are significant industries that are predicated upon selling the idea that, in and of itself, a new technological system, gadget, interface, widget will transform educational practice.

When we look at our education system today we know that it faces massive changes - we are seeing significant numbers of young people at both ‘ends’ of the ability spectrum who are disaffected with and disengaged from the learning that is on offer. We are seeing the emergence of new challenges (and opportunities) for schools as populations become more mobile and diverse. We are seeing the beginnings of a shortage in trained and qualified head teachers and significant difficulties in recruiting and developing governors. And we are seeing the emergence, particularly in London, of private economies of tuition and competition and the increased marketisation of educational practice. In this context of complexity and challenge, what wouldn’t be better than a technological system that offered to transform learning on installation; what couldn’t be easier than introducing technologies and instantly ‘modernising’ educational practice?

In this context - faced with the complexity and real intricate day-to-day challenges of educational practice and policy - it is all too easy to want to believe that technology will transform learning, and all too easy for technology companies to sell the idea that this will be possible. The most extreme example of this was a stand I saw at BETT this year. BETT is the world’s biggest education technology trade show. It runs for four days in January each year in Olympia and attracts thousands of teachers, advisors, consultants and others to view the stands set up by a whole range of different ‘technology providers’ and policymakers. This year, a particularly prominent stand on the ground floor had banner posters saying ‘click and teach’, ‘turn up and teach’, ‘no preparation required’, ‘quick curriculum delivery’. It was the epitome of the idea that educational problems and complexities could be ‘solved’ by rapid technological quick fixes - in this case, the sale of sets of slides with curriculum content already included in them. It was mobbed by teachers every day.

Let’s consider some of the things that make this sort of sales pitch possible:

* First, it is dependent upon an idea of teaching as standardisable, simplistic, portable and packageable;
* Second, it is dependent upon an idea of teaching as the delivery of a fixed knowledge which requires no modification or alteration in response to local contexts or student groups;
* Third, it is dependent upon a concept of teachers as deprofessionalised ‘deliverers’ of pre-determined curricula, whose function is to ‘be present’ to communicate knowledge and skills that have been determined elsewhere.

Let’s compare these assumptions with Lee Shulman’s research into teacher knowledge (Shulman 1987). Teacher knowledge, Shulman argues, is complex and sophisticated, it comprises: ‘knowledge of subject matter (content knowledge), pedagogical content knowledge (the ways of representing subject knowledge appropriately for learners), knowledge of curriculum (grasp of the materials, resources and ‘tools of the trade’), general pedagogic knowledge (broad understanding of management and organisation), knowledge of learners and their characteristics, knowledge of educational contexts (ranging from groupings, classrooms, schools, education authorities, national policies), knowledge of educational aims, purposes of values’ (Fisher et al. 2006).

But supporting teachers to engage with these different elements of their practice, and enabling the sorts of development and teacher education required to develop and nurture this level of professionalism, is complex. The same issue emerges at a national level - education is complex, sophisticated, problematic, reliant upon local and specific actions, and contingent upon a diverse range of factors. In the light of this, who wouldn’t want technology that promised to simplify and deliver? It is, quite simply, easier than tackling the complexities of the issues that fundamentally face education. Reciprocally, in the light of this complexity, what company wouldn’t sell technology as a solution, but more modestly as only one element in a wider range of strategies and tools that would be required to rethink, tackle or transform some of the problems education might face in the future?

While this ‘overselling’ relationship is comprehensible, it feeds a number of problems, namely: 1) it encourages a relationship with educational problems that oversimplifies them and fails to tackle underlying challenges; 2) it both oversells and undermines the potential contribution of technology to educational practice by presenting it as an efficiency solution rather than a transformative resource; and 3) it builds a barrier between ‘consumers’ of technology for education (those for whom ‘solutions’ have been prepared) and ‘producers’ of technology for education (those who are able, through advanced technical skill, to cut through all the difficulties of educational practice).

What is the alternative to a ‘selling’ relationship between ICT and education? What is another way, perhaps more modest, of conceiving of ICT’s potential role in transforming education? If we consider that this selling relationship assumes a lack of professionalism on the part of educators - and is predicated upon a view of education as a set of simplistic mechanistic relationships - what would an alternative relationship look like? This is hard to conceive of at a time when ICT in education is seen fundamentally as a relationship between producers and consumers, between ‘supply’ side and ‘demand’ side, and indeed when these relationships are taken as fundamental principles in BECTA’s conceptualisation of the business models that underpin ‘the market’.

If we are to fully understand and exploit the potential that ICT may have in transforming education, we need a different relationship between educators and developers. We need to respect the professionalism of educators and technologists, to consider them both as stakeholders in the design, not of new technologies for learning, but of new learning environments - environments which respect the complexity and contingency of teaching and learning relationships, which exploit the diverse resources we have on offer (both technological and not) for developing new human relationships with knowledge and with each other, and which involve a co-creation of new educational goals based upon the shared knowledge and skills of educational and technological disciplines. This is a fundamentally different model from a ‘supplier/client’ model and reflects a commitment to acknowledging that if we want to transform education today, we need to engage all the stakeholders in the education community in that process from the earliest stages. We need to move from a position of evangelising for pre-designed ICT to deliver pre-determined goals. We need to stop flooding schools with technologies and stepping back to ‘see whether it makes a difference’. Instead, we need to move to a position of co-development of new learning environments by educators, technologists and, arguably, learners and communities.

There are models emerging of this new form of practice in Free, Libre and Open Source movements; in increasing interest in shared knowledge production through Creative Commons; in emerging social software tools and cultures; in the development of ‘FabLabs’ (fabrication laboratories), which are community-based projects focused on equipping participants with the skills to develop tools and resources for themselves; and in the development, usually on a small scale, of co-design projects between educators, researchers and technology companies in academic contexts. In some cases (too few) the BSF programme is also offering educators, technologists, architects and others the opportunity and resources to co-create new educational goals, resources and practices (the Faraday programme run by DCSF is one example).

Only through this sort of collaborative innovation and experimentation will we even begin to understand the question of whether ICT can ‘transform learning’.


Keri Facer is Research Director at Futurelab, the not-for-profit ‘think lab’ for innovation in education.


1. Incidentally, I’m using the word education rather than learning advisedly, in order to foreground the distinction between learning - which we do all the time as humans - and education, which is the structured and intentional process by which a state seeks to intervene in the learning of its citizens. This is because I feel we have a right to debate education and to make changes to it, but I’m not sure we are either currently able to, or should want to, intervene in ‘learning’ in all its settings and forms. But this is subject for another debate…


Fisher, T., C. Higgins and A. Loveless (2006). Teachers Learning with Digital Technologies. Bristol, Futurelab

Shulman, L.S. (1987). ‘Knowledge and teaching: foundations of the new reform’. Harvard Educational Review 57(1): 1-22.

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