Learning in a new era or an expensive trip to a "technology rich" educational wasteland?

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Or an expensive trip to a “technology rich” educational wasteland?

Nancy LAW

Centre for IT in school and teacher Education, University of Hong Kong


When governments all over the world are spending billions to move schools into the information age with an unprecedented urgency, do we know where we are going, and what the promised land is supposed to look like? Drawing on results from a study on IT implementation in Hong Kong schools, this paper describes four models of IT use for teaching and learning deriving from four philosophies of education, each with distinctly different choices of technology, different priorities in implementation, different pathways of teacher professional development and school development. These four models of IT use range from using IT (1) as an empowering advanced education technology tool for the teacher, to (2) as cognitive tools for the learner, to (3) as empowering productivity and communication tools for the learner, to (4) as a learning support environment to promote the development of metacognitive abilities involved in becoming an effective autonomous learner and to facilitate the development of a community of learners. The initial findings from the study indicate that while all the four models of IT use are present in Hong Kong schools to different degrees, the most prevalent mode is the first one, that of using IT as empowering presentation tools for the teacher, resulting in more presentation oriented, didactic classroom practices. Another observation is that there is no natural course of migration from one model to another as these are developments along different tracks. Thirdly, a general overview of current situation in schools indicates a picture of confusion, a picture of diverse understanding and aspirations without leadership. This paper ends on a cautionary note, warning that if Hong Kong does not pay attention to establishing and sharing a vision of IT in education that integrates the use of technology with preparing learners as knowledge workers of the 21st century, the huge amount of money spent on IT in education will only result in the creation of a “technology rich” educational wasteland.


Education reform, models of IT use in education, models of teaching and learning, computer supported collaborative learning.

Explorations with uses of computers in education have started very soon after the invention of computers. Such explorations have gone through a number of different phases of development, starting with models that essentially seeks to replace the teacher with the computer (tutorial programs, drill and practice and then later on intelligent tutoring systems belong to this category) to the use of computers as cognitive tools for learning, supporting learning in ways that would not be possible without the technology (for example simulation programs, modelling programs, visualization tools, etc). During this time, with the increase in the power and decrease in price of computers, the use of computers in education has also moved from being confined to top research universities to the ordinary school classrooms. The advent of personal computers in the late 70’s marked the beginning of computer use in schools in many countries, including Hong Kong. However, even in those early days, the economic situation of the day and the impact of information technology thereon formed the key considerations of decision-makers in funding those initiatives. At that time, the need for schools to prepare graduates who possess informatics knowledge and skills to satisfy a growing demand for IT professionals in the society was the main motivation and thus the key use of computers in classrooms in fact started with the teaching of informatics – computer basics and programming skills. The use of computers as pedagogical tools in teaching and learning slowly but steadily gained importance. However, the more or less ubiquitous urgency and importance placed by many governments on promoting IT in education in the entire school system is not primarily motivated by a desire to simply improved the effectiveness of teaching and learning, but a recognition of the society’s need for new qualities in the graduates from the school system in order to stay competitive in the information age. The publication of a comprehensive national IT masterplan is a relatively recent occurrence and an inspection of these plans reveal this same tenet of emphasis (President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997), (Singapore Ministry of Education, 1997), (Education and Manpower Bureau, 1998).

Given this much broader perspective of the role of IT in education, its effective implementation is paramount to a call for fundamental education reform in the system. However, as has been widely documented in both research reports on IT implementations in schools and in the wider education reform literature, effecting a reform is a long and difficult process. As highlighted in the IT Masterplan of the Dutch government (Plomp, 1996), achieving the goals of the plan will require an evolution of education institutions where ultimately an entirely new set of instructional methods and approaches is expected to be established. This is not a simple or easy process and, as the same report pointed out, requires both care and courage. Since we are not there yet, we cannot quite visualize how exactly the final form of the school or the classroom will be. This is a critical and important characteristic of the challenge that we are facing.
How do we know if we are moving in the right direction? Are we able to tell whether a school, an institution, or a classroom practice is moving in the direction of reform rather than away from it? It is argued here that a key yardstick for evaluating the value of any particular implementation is the contribution made by the use of technology to the following:

  1. empowering the learner,

  2. enhancing teacher-learner interactions,

  3. enhancing the interaction, peer support and collaboration of learners,

  4. enhancing the interaction between the learners and the wider community.

Case studies conducted in Hong Kong on IT implementation at classroom and school levels reveal that the model of IT use in the classroom as well as the pathway taken by a school in developing and implementing its IT plan are in general very consistent with the general educational aims and philosophy of the particular classroom teacher or school.


This section describes the four models of education identified in the various case studies conducted, together with the typical kinds of technologies that tend to be used, the likely professional development pathway for a teacher and the corresponding change strategy found in the school leadership for each of the models.

Transmission model – teacher as subject matter expert, expert presenter and evaluator
In this model, the role of the teacher is seen to be that of a knowledgeable person who presents the appropriate information in clear, well-organized formats for students to learn. Within this paradigm, a good teacher would be one who has up-to-date, strong subject matter expertise who presents information effectively and efficiently. This model assumes that the key to effective teaching lies in enhancing student interest through the use of attractive audio-visual aids to illustrate the concepts and ideas taught.

Within this educational paradigm, the role of IT as perceived and appreciated by the teacher would be that of empowering tools for the teacher to enhance effective and efficient delivery, and this includes:

i. Technology as an efficient and attractive means of presentation

ii Technology as the medium of collating, organizing and transmitting materials

  1. Technology as the productivity tool for the teacher – clerical, administrative, presentation, lesson planning, teaching resource and professional communication

  2. Technology as the assistant of the teacher to evaluate and monitor student progression through the curriculum

Within the transmission model of teaching, the model of a teacher of the information age is one of an expert presenter and knowledge arbitrator. A teacher, who operates within this paradigm, would go through stages of development in terms of technological competency and familiarity with various kinds of presentation and authoring technology (including hardware and software). A school leadership that shares a vision of technology as primarily one of providing empowering tools for teachers would give priority in its development plans to develop the technological infrastructure of the school and the development of technological competence of teachers. Evaluation of development would be made primarily on the basis of technological sophistication.

Facilitation model – teacher as a cognitive coach who guides the learner through the cognitive process, providing cognitive scaffolds
This is more or less the model of a good teacher that many will assign a “constructivist” label to and is similar to Scardamalia and Bereiter’s (1991) “knowledge-based model”. Here the teacher gives full recognition of the fact that deep, significant learning can only take place through the learner’s active participation in the “construction” of knowledge, in formulating their own personal understanding of the various information and sensory experiences that they are presented with. The teacher’s role includes “the setting of appropriate, knowledge and interests, activating prior knowledge, asking stimulating and leading questions, directing enquiry, and monitoring comprehension” (Scardamalia, 1991), p.39. A good teacher under this paradigm will spend a lot of efforts on ascertaining the prior concepts that students hold, design learning experiences and pose questions that will direct the students’ attention and stimulate them to think along the lines that will most likely bring about the construction of the desired and yet accessible conceptual understanding.
The role of technology that will be most valued within this paradigm are facilitative and enabling tools for the learner as well as tools that would enable teachers to monitor and evaluate students’ conceptual understanding and progress. Tools that would fit into these categories include:

  1. Knowledge-based intelligent tutoring systems;

  2. Simulation tools that allow learners to explore the relationship between different parameters in particular domain areas;

  3. Modelling tools that support the creation by learners and teachers models of reality in specific domain areas and to allow the learners to explore the consequences of different theoretical models.

Within the facilitation paradigm, the model of a teacher of the information age is one of an expert pedagogue who understands very well students’ interests and cognitive capability, can maker use of technology to gain a better understanding of the kinds of misconceptions and conceptual difficulties that the target group of students have in relation to the knowledge domain they need to master, and can choose appropriate IT tools to help students explore and construct an understanding of the subject domain as defined by the curriculum. A school leadership that shares a vision of technology as primarily one of facilitating students’ curricular learning would give priority in its development plans to source appropriate cognitive tools for learning and to set up appropriate technological infrastructure as necessary for different subject areas accordingly to maximize the effectiveness of facilitation activities. There would be an emphasis on subject-specific professional training to teachers that includes and anchors around developing a good understanding of the cognitive demands and difficulties of learners in the subject area, in conjunction with the introduction to various cognitive tools. Evaluation of development would be made primarily on the basis of student learning outcomes in various subject areas.

Liberal co-construction model – teacher as providing an enabling physical and organizational infrastructure for knowledge co-construction & exploration, and acting as a partner in learning.
This model is underpinned by a strong educational philosophy that believes in and values the fundamental ability of students to learn and to see students’ self-directed learning activities as leading to the most significant kind of educational outcomes for students in the life-long context. This paradigm normally also treasure and value the establishment of a strong cooperative and collaborative culture within the student community. Teachers do not see their primary role as that of an expert but rather as someone who can respond to students’ interests and aptitudes and to provide as best they could the physical and organizational support that can facilitate the students’ learning plans. Teachers may also act as co-learners in the process but need not end up to be necessarily more expert that the learner.
The most important role of information technology within this paradigm is that of student empowerment. The school and the teachers will identify and provide as broad a level of access as they possibly could to tools and facilities that would foster the establishment of a strong student community that engages actively in various kinds of knowledge exploration and sharing. The school and the teachers will also try to reduce emphasis on traditional systems of assessment and monitoring progress, but rather to focus on supporting projects and initiatives that encourage autonomous, collaborative learning activities. The IT tools that would be most valued within this paradigm are:

  1. General office productivity tools and communication networks that are easily accessible to all students most of the time;

  2. A good network connection as well as the provision of a platform for the students to organize their own students’ communication network and to establish their own learning resource repository would be crucial as a basic empowering infrastructure (just as the provision of office space, appropriate facilities and resources are crucial for enabling the establishment of a strong autonomous student union);

  3. Other technological tools, some of which may be subject domain specific, to help and support students’ learning activities as the case may demand, depending on the specific interest and nature of the project engaged in by the students.

A teacher within this paradigm is like a good manager, encouraging risk taking and providing resource and infrastructure support. The main goal is to provide as good a supportive environment as possible within existing resourcing limitations. Such a teacher would go through different stages of development in terms of their ability to prioritize and make available enabling technologies as well inject/seed initial expertise to support the start-up stage of new initiatives. In fact, as resource and infrastructure support for students are essential in this model of education, it would not be implementable unless the belief and vision underpinning this paradigm is shared to a large extent by the school leadership. A school leadership that shares a vision of technology as primarily one of providing empowering tools for students would give priority in its development plans to improve the accessibility and connectivity of the school’s technological infrastructure and to foster the establishment of student societies and learning cooperatives. The criteria for success of such school IT plans would be the extent of student participation, the quality of their learning activities and outcomes, and the extent to which an autonomous student body has been established that is confident and capable of profitable self-directed learning activities.

Knowledge community model – learners as producers of knowledge and teachers as coaches to help students develop the metacognitive abilities required of members in a knowledge community
This paradigm is founded on an understanding of the challenge of the information age to education. Individuals need to have the ability as well as the affective capacity and orientation to remain effective in a fast-changing knowledge economy. Schools should thus not only facilitate learning, encourage autonomous, self-directed learning, but also to proactively and consciously develop the metacognitive abilities required to be an effective life-long learner. These abilities include: enquiry abilities, problem solving abilities, creativity, information skills and self monitoring and evaluation abilities as well as the ability to work cooperatively and collaboratively in teams. This model differs from the facilitation model in that while both emphasizes the active cognitive engagement of the learner, “most of the high-level control of the learning process remains with the teacher or the program. [The teacher] tries to be responsive to the knowledge, the interests and the knowledge needs of students but by this very effort retains control of the educational process.” (Scardamalia, 1991), p. 39. In this model, the teacher consciously and systematically turn over to students the high-level processes involved in formulating specific learning goals, activating prior knowledge, asking questions, directing enquiry and monitoring comprehension and progress, providing coaching and guidance on the way.
In implementing a knowledge community model of schooling, IT tools can and should play a very significant role. These may include:

  1. Concept mapping tools that help learners to organize their own ideas, focus on and make explicit their own understanding of the relationship between various concepts and to communicate that understanding;

  2. Enquiry support environments designed to support students in their knowledge construction process, sensitizing their awareness of the various knowledge processes during an enquiry (posing high-level questions, planning, goal setting, critical thinking, etc.) and to direct them to resources that can support them in the development of the requisite metacognitive abilities;

  3. Computer supported collaborative learning environments that support the group processes in knowledge co-construction through the provision of tools that support knowledge aggregation, group planning, cooperative pursuit of explanations and cooperative commenting, argumentation and negotiation.

The tools listed above are different in nature from the conventional educational software and are closer in nature to the knowledge management tools used in many corporate organizations. In a knowledge community, learning occurs at three levels: individual, team and community. The design of appropriate and effective technology platforms (generally known as knowledge management architectures (Borghoff, 1998)) to support the access, use, communication, and storage of such knowledge is recognized to be crucial to the success of knowledge intensive enterprises. The design of computer supported collaborative learning systems has been gaining importance in recent years and CSILE is amongst the best known of such environments (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1990).

Similar to the liberal co-construction model, a teacher working within this paradigm is also like a good manager, but conversant with knowledge management tools and works consciously to build up the students’ readiness (meta-)cognitively and affectively for effective participation in the knowledge society. S/he would devise mechanisms to encourage/reward the sharing of information, encourage and support the development of creative thinking, critical analytical abilities, problem solving and presentation skills. The fact that in the school context, participants in the knowledge construction community are mainly young learners mean that the task of the teacher would be different and may be more complex than that facing a corporate manager. The teacher need to develop a much better understanding of the processes involved in the growth of expertise (the metacognitive abilities described earlier) in collaborative learning and the conditions that lead to such growth. This is still relatively new terrain that is largely untrodden. Teachers who wish to lead students into learning for the new era within this new paradigm would need to be brave learners themselves, participating themselves in a community of learning teachers and experiencing this new mode of learning at work.
A school leadership that takes the school into the knowledge era would need the courage and insight to see that schools need to be re-engineered, re-invented, in order to deliver the kind of educational outcome demanded in the 21st century. A vision of IT in education that encompasses such a deep level of change fully recognizes the magnitude of the impact of IT on education. Such change goes far beyond that of any “education reform” that a school has ever experienced in scale and complexity. In fact, these changes are bound to bring about fundamental changes in the nature, function and organization of schools as an institution. Schools embarking on a journey of reforming and re-engineering itself would not view the establishment of a technological physical infrastructure in the school nor the technical competence (to feel comfortable about using technology as a productivity tool) of teachers to be the main hurdles. However, these two factors are fundamental enabling pre-requisites without which the transformation envisioned would be seriously hampered.


Obviously, more than one of the four models of IT implementation presented above may be present in a school. Further, specific implementations/classroom uses of IT may encompass may not be neatly categorizable into one of the four paradigms. However, these four models do describe the key possibilities in terms of the goals of IT implementation as well as the roles played by technology adopted by teachers and schools, as observed in the case studies made. Further, results from the case studies indicate that there is no natural course of migration from one model to another as these are developments along different tracks with different goals, even though the relationship between some of the models are evident.
Initial findings from the study indicate that while all the four models of IT use are present in Hong Kong schools to different degrees, the most prevalent mode is the first one, that of using IT as empowering presentation tools for the teacher, resulting in more presentation oriented, didactic classroom practices. This is in fact not surprising but extremely worrying. It is not surprising as there has not been a process of vision-building in the community on what are the expected outcomes from the massive push from the government on promoting IT in schools. All the focus and resources have been put into building up the physical infrastructure of schools and the technical competence of teachers. Even for the 20 IT pilot schools, the only public criteria for selection was “IT readiness”. It is not clear what these pilot schools are supposed to be piloting, what the program intends to achieve, and there has been no publicly announced criteria for assessing the success or otherwise of these pilots. Given such a lack of leadership and the current prevalent image of IT as advanced education technology for empowering teachers, one cannot possibly be optimistic about the current introduction of IT into Hong Kong schools as a process that would lead schools into “Learning in the New Era” as it appeared on the cover of the government’s five-year strategy (Education and Manpower Bureau, 1998). There is an urgent need for clear leadership for the implementation of IT in education in Hong Kong, which must include means to enhance the awareness and understanding of the education community on the meaning of “Learning in the new Era”. Without this, the whole movement will end up in the proliferation of “technology rich” but educationally poor schools and classrooms.


當今世界很多國家都樂於花費極為大量的金錢,以急速的步伐推行資訊科技教學,但到底我們是否清楚計劃中的目的地是怎麼樣的?我們希望藉此而達到的教與學情境又是怎樣的呢?一項仍在進行的研究顯示,香港學校現時在資訊科技應用的狀況甚為混亂,各自有著不同的理解和目標,缺乏領導和指引。本文從此研究及其他國家的經驗出發,提出驚剔, 指出此狀況很容易導致學校成為一所「高科技」的教育廢墟。

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