Education & the information revolution: 25 years on is anyone listening?


This weekend I happened to come across a copy of this book, Open Learning in Transition – An Agenda for Action edited by Nigel Paine.  Published in 1988 it includes a series of articles that give an overview of open learning and future trends as well as some history around the formation of the National Extension College, analysis of open learning methods and action for the future.

With all the talk of MOOCs and the future of education, it’s interesting to read something that was published 25 years ago and reflect on whether messages being proclaimed back then were listened to and taken on board.  One of the articles that I’ve read so far ‘Education and the information revolution’, was written by Shirley Williams in which she considers the role of the teacher.  She says:

… Teaching in schools has mainly consisted of imparting information, much of it to be memorised by the pupil.  But information technology provides a prodigious capacity to memorise facts, and can provide up-to-date factual information on virtually any subject at the touch of a keypad.  So spending a great deal of education time on learning facts is wasteful.  That does not make the teacher’s role less important, but it does alter it fundamentally.  It is the tutorial role that matters now, exploring, assisting and inspiring discussion among pupils, not the role of the instructor.  Such teaching is more demanding, but also much more fulfilling.  The emphasis in examinations too must change, as it is beginning to do, away from regurgitation of factual information in a limited number of subjects, towards a broader foundation of knowledge, covering both the sciences and the arts, in which the pupil’s creative and critical faculties are developed. …

Fast forward 25 years and this was what I read in Times this morning was, ‘Who needs facts when our pupils can Google, say teachers’.

Times_newsThis piece reports on teachers having a go at Michael Gove’s new school curriculum for placing far too much emphasis on ‘hard facts’.  This is a view echoed by 100 educational academics who’ve recently written to newspapers highlighting the dangers of the new national curriculum proposals and how it could damage educational standards. Both pieces highlight, as William’s does, the need to develop creativity and critical thinking.

I think there’s a balance to be had in all of this, but I do agree with the need to develop creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills, I think these are essential.  25 years ago people were talking about the information revolution whilst it was in its embryonic stages.  We’re now living in the midst of it and the knowledge economy is a reality, but  has our educational system grasped how it needs to change so that we can equip young people with the skills and passion to be lifelong learners?  It’s somewhat heart sinking to see that 25 years on our educational system hasn’t fundamentally changed and it continues to be so driven by assessment and tests. With all the current talk of open education and MOOCs are we preparing our students for open lifelong learning?


  1. I think this reflects a genuine contradiction in the way education functions. Part of its role is to make sure that most people are obedient and generally believe in the mainstream values they are offered by elites and the media. Some “radicals” (like Shirley Williams) think that a healthy society also needs innovation, and people who challenge received wisdom.
    There’s no need to be too pessimistic about this. Today’s received wisdom was once a radical, challenging new idea too.

    1. I guess I’m wondering is this thinking today’s received wisdom? There is growing concern about students wanting to be spoonfed and I’ve mulled over before whether the way we used technology in higher education perpetuates this – I think I was just taken aback to see something that was written 25 years ago giving the same message I read in so many places today.

      1. What I meant was that it was once “radical and new” to propose any kind of publicly-funded schooling. I think you’ll find that, when it was introduced in Britain, it was explicitly stated that its function was to inculcate values like punctuality and respect for authority. Certainly not creative and critical faculties. The present UK government reflects what was received wisdom in the early 20th century (and not only on education), I suppose that’s why they proudly call themselves conservatives.

        1. Yes, sorry I see what you mean. In relation to your second comment about the present UK government I guess that’s part of the problem.

  2. There’s a balance to be struck, definitely, but on the whole I think we’re already mostly on the right track, and both the “more facts” and “less facts” brigade are missing one very important point: schemata.

    Schools, it is often said, teach us how to learn — I agree with that. There are things we learn in schools because we need to learn them, and there are other things that could be readily substituted with another subject without degrading the quality of the education.

    But note I said “subject”. A schema is a way of organising related information, and none the research on schemata has ever come up with a way of developing a schema in the absence of a concrete base of knowledge.

    In other words, it is only in the process of learning facts that we learn to process facts.

    So the kids need to learn facts, just not facts for their own sake.

    1. Thanks Niall, I can’t say I diasgree with you. I think the concern though is that children are being tested more and more. With assessment inceasingly driving learning perhaps the balance has swung too much one way.

  3. One thing the likes of Google has done is spoil a pastime of some people who liked to engage in heated disputation and indeed betting on some particular fact. Some difficulty I have, is with the terminology used in the course – creative learning being one.
    “But … So spending a great deal of time…” in Shirley Williams’ piece, seems to me not to define several key phrases, such as, a great deal of time. But – tut toot – it doesn’t seem to me that her But and So follows from the information she supplies in the article.
    I am finding the course interesting BUT- to distinguish it from the other one – I find that, for me, too often are phrases used with little or no attempt to define them – perhaps that is the way of creative learning.

    1. I think part of the problem with the learning creative learning course is the way it’s been set up. Time has been an issue for me in terms of being able to fully engage with it but I guess the issue also boils down to how it is being taught and this I think relates to Shirley Williams’ comments about the tutorial role of the teacher. There seems to be a bit of a stampede to deliver MOOCs and online courses but how many are thinking about the pedagogy and support needed to deliver an online course. We’ve already seen one Coursera MOOC pulled after a week, will be interesting to see if others follow the same fate.

  4. The comment by Shirley Williams “..Teaching in schools has mainly consisted of imparting information, much of it to be memorised by the pupil”. is not the whole story of education. Those of us who teach, or have taught (as in my case) children know that we are hope to impart much more than “information”. A quotation from Robert H Shaffer is far more apposite, “We must view young people not as empty bottles to be filled, but as candles to be lit.” Enthusiasm for the subject, its ‘milieu’ and its ‘mores’ are all important. Skills also need to be learned but that’s for another blog

    1. I like that quote. I think it’s the skills that are the key. There’s maybe a growing concern that with so much focus on learning facts and testing that there is less time to develop these other skills that can help students keep the candle burning bright. If you blog about skills let me know as I’d be interested in reading what you have to say.

  5. Maybe the answer, not necessarily rational, is the one still used when asked why does the US still use English system of measurement when the rest of the world and all scientific disciplines use metric….it costs too much to re-tool…I have heard that excuse for 40 years. Re-tooling a Mindset?

  6. My early schooling was pre-digital, but not different in that encyclopedias, libraries, and dictionaries were repositories of facts. I was always under the impression, even as a child, that school was supposed to teach you how to think, prepare one to solve the complex problems of adult life..Probably about 10-20% percent of my teachers actually encouraged creative and critical thinking and that was probably enough. Daydreaming (creative thinking?) took place of distractions on digital devices.
    This is what I hear being discussed outside of academia, a shift in values of everyone including students and most importantly, traditional education is not helping people to be prepared for the modern global economy (outside of academia). I think that is the crucial point and a huge concern of many.
    A separate issue is MOOCs which are of crucial importance in the life long learning process that is required to survive economically. Is that not why we are here?

    1. Hi Deborah – that’s what school was like for me too, but I think it has changed since our school days. I wasn’t tested in the way that school kids are now, sure we had tests but not national tests in primary school. Whilst we did learn facts there was lots of opportunity to be creative and learn through exploration.

  7. I’m not 100% sure the job of school is to teach us to learn. By the time we arrive at school we have all already learnt a great deal. It seems to me that one of the main purposes of school is to allow the transition into society from the isolated world many inhabit with their parents and home circles; To learn to interact with other people and institutions.

    That is not to detract from the role of the school teacher though, or to say we won’t pick up new ways of learning during school. Far from it, through the people we meet in this context including (but not exclusively) teachers we can be inspired to engage with, and find out more about, all sorts of things. When this falls to subjects covered in the curriculum it works to the advantage of the system.

  8. I feel that you have a point about children arriving at the school with a battery of skills, many at a subconscious level to be met by teachers with a battery of skills, many at a subconscious level.Occasionally the skills conscious or subconscious are perhaps misguided.
    However, in my own ancient education there seemed little in the way of teaching something about how to learn – a guarded effort to do so might have been useful.
    I say guarded because so little is known about the ‘grey’ matter – try from one’s position of ignorance to help the pupils to achieve their potential, personal contentment and give them a sense of belonging.
    Above all if only one thing can be achieved be it that the child to adult transition – which is the school going years – is a positive one from the pupil’s point of view.

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