IT in Education - The Role of Government

Networks and Distance Education '98, Rio de Janeiro, December 1998

Johan GROTH, Ph.D. (
ISOC-SE and Groth & Groth Ltd.


There has been a rapid development of computers and computer networks during the last couple of years. Technical parameters such as processor speed, memory size, bandwidth etc. change almost from day to day signalling faster and more powerful machinery. Other parameters such as availability, areas of usage, price and user friendliness signal that more and more peoples use computers and computer networks in more and more different situations to a lower cost and with fewer problems.

All these new technologies imply new possibilities and new challenges to society. They imply changes in what we can and may do, not least within the educational sector.

This paper will focus on what changes that follow from the new technologies and how these changes may affect the educational sector. A brief account will also be made of how the Swedish government has worked with IT within the educational sector. From these experiences some general conclusions will be drawn about how IT should be introduced in the educational sector and what the role of government in this process should be.

IT and change

First, what do we mean by computers and computer networks? What are their important features in this context? In regards to the educational sector computers have two distinct and important characteristics. The first is the computer's ability to rapidly execute simple instructions such as sorting, transforming or copying information. In such tasks the computer is faster and more accurate than any human which in turn means that leaving these tasks to the machines give humans more time to do what humans do better than any machine, viz. imagine, invent and create. The second characteristic is the computer's, in practice, unlimited (both in volume and time) memory. As opposed to humans who (luckily) select, sort and forget information computers remember every little piece of information.

By computer networks we mean an infrastructure that makes it possible to connect computers to each other. This means that the connected computers can communicate and exchange information. The Internet is perhaps the most important computer network today. The Internet is actually a network of computer networks but the users experience the Internet as a transparent and open platform.

Computers and computer networks imply new ways to communicate and new ways to exchange information between humans, which in turn imply changes in how we live, learn and work.

Which are then these changes and how do they express themselves?

The first change is the transition from analogue to digital information. This is a direct consequence of the development of new technologies. Digital information is easier to store and distribute (compare a vinyl record to a digital sound track). Digital information is easy to copy without loss of quality. Digitally stored information is easy to present. It is also possible to use one machine (the computer) to present various kinds of information. When using analogue techniques different machines were often required to present different media formats. When information is stored in a digital format it also becomes easy to change the format of the information (e.g. from a table to a graph). The reason for this is that digital information can be seen as a sequence of numbers that can be manipulated by various mathematical algorithms. This is opposed to, e.g., a printed book or an oil painting that can not be operated on in such a way. A last aspect is that digital information makes it easier to supply meta-information, i.e. information about information. This can be useful e.g. when customising information to the needs and wishes of the user.

The second change concerns computers going from standalone machines to being part of networks. This change makes it possible to share resources and information between people. It also makes it possible to work together globally. One could say that the back of the computer has opened up and become a door into the world. It also becomes less and less important what computer you have on your desk and more and more important to what the computer is connected. Indeed, many would agree to that it is the network that is the computer.

The third change is the shift from a local to a global perspective. This change is closely related to the previous one in that that change makes this one possible. As the physical distance between persons becomes less important in regards to communication, exchange of information and collaboration shared interests become more important than closeness. We will see new communities develop, communities based on shared views and experiences. The members of these communities may develop a strong feeling of relation even though they may never have met each other.

The fourth change is about consumers and producers of information. Traditionally a majority were information consumers only. The production of information was the privilege of those who had the knowledge and resources to put up a printing press, a TV studio etc. Today anyone with a computer can become an information producer. This also means that we will all go in and out of the different roles, being producers within our fields of work or interest and being consumers otherwise. The computer has made it possible to access all types of information with one tool. It has made it possible to create information in any format. The networks in turn have made it possible for all of us to reach a worldwide audience.

The fifth change concerns the formats of information. We see today how the primacy of text is removed and how all formats become equally easy to handle. The dominant role of text is a legacy of the printing press. This new technology made it possible to create and multiply texts at a low cost per copy. Sound, images etc. have not been possible to handle in the same way. Computers treat all formats equally which makes it possible to use the format of information that suits the needs best. In a sense we are witnessing a return to pre-printing press times when text and pictures were equally easy (or hard) to make and copy. The beautiful, hand written books from medieval times illustrate a way of presenting information that has been lost and now is being reinvented.

The sixth change is about issues and what we may call concurrent publication. We are used to the fact that a piece of information is permanent in the sense that once it is published, as a book, a film, a picture, then it is impossible to change the information except if you publish a new version. What happens now is that we see "living" or dynamic pieces of information. Information, while available for the consumers, can change with time. It is also possible to change the information according to who accesses it or even with the specific user's needs.

The seventh, and last, change is of a somewhat different kind. It has to do with how we perceive the changes going on. It used to be that new technologies created a visible development of society, new factories were built, trains began to cross the countryside etc. Today's technologies lead to "invisible" developments. Services and products "move" into the computers and networks and become "invisible". This in turn makes it harder to explain what you are doing or what is happening.

IT and the educational system

The changes described above have all had impact on the educational systems of the world. Actually it appears safe to say that no other technology has had such an impact on education in such a short time as computers and computer networks (or with one term information technology or IT).

An explanation for this could be that to achieve its goals (which in most cases can be summarised as "to increase the knowledge of the students and improve their skills in various fields") an educational institution typically carries out activities that can be grouped into five categories: communication, presentation, information retrieval, use of tools and training.

Information technology provides, as shown above, a new and powerful infrastructure for working within the first three categories. If school also should prepare pupils for working life IT is also of use in the last two categories. Few things can in this way be used in all categories.

More directly, how do the described changes affect the educational sector?

For one thing new "doors" are opened between educational institutions and the rest of the world. There are many examples of how IT has been used to create new ways of communicating between students and persons from universities, government bodies, companies, organisations etc. The simplicity of sending an e-mail makes it possible for students to interact directly with students in other countries or with experts in different fields. The World Wide Web has made information readily available for everyone, information that earlier was hard or impossible to access.

It is also possible to see a change in what is taught in school and how. The new ways of handling and presenting information reveal connections between subjects, which tend to lead to that subjects change and merge. An example is that in many schools art and music classes merge into a media class.

The availability of information and the ease with which information can be collected from experts imply that the role of teaching materials changes. The most obvious change is that a common teaching material, used by all students in a class or perhaps even in a country, is replaced by individual sources of information collected by each student.

There are also changes taking place within the educational sector whose coupling to IT is less clear. However, experience show that these changes often occur in parallel with the introduction of IT and the direct changes that follow from this. One such change is a shift within education from results ("What is the capital of Brazil?") to processes ("How do we find the name of the capital of Brazil and why do we want to know that?"). Other changes include teachers working in pedagogical teams instead of alone with individual study plans for each student and 40-minute lessons being replaced by longer "working blocks". Interesting is also that whole schools are being rebuilt, from "factories of knowledge" to something that looks more like an ordinary workplace.

The Swedish experiences

The IT-development in the Swedish educational system has been very rapid. In 1994 only a handful of schools used computer networks, mostly simple BBS-systems or vendor specific systems like those available at that time from British Telecom and AT&T. Even though most universities were connected to networks the majority of students and staff did not regularly use what we today call IT. With start in 1994 a rapid development of the IT infrastructure took place.

Today, in 1998, more than two thirds of all compulsory schools (grade 1 - 9) have Internet as does over 90 percent of all high schools (grade 10 - 12). All universities and university colleges are connected to Internet and all students have an e-mail account. Most of the national and regional museums and libraries also offer Internet access and multimedia exhibitions. The libraries also often serve as the city's or town's IT-centre. Purely quantitative measures as those above are easy to measure and compare but they do not say much about if, when and how IT is actually used in the pedagogical work.

The quantitative development has, however, been accompanied by many interesting projects and activities where the possibilities of using IT in education have been investigated. Pedagogical development takes time and it is first now that we are beginning to see the effects of using IT.

The Swedish government supports, in various ways and at various levels, the IT-development within the educational sector.

One such support is the Swedish University Network (SUNET). SUNET is a department within the National Agency for Higher Education, which in turn is a government body under the Ministry for Education and Science. SUNET is in effect a state owned Internet provider for universities, university colleges, museums and libraries. SUNET is, however, also a national centre of competence in questions pertaining to computer networks and especially the Internet.

Another form of support is provided by the IT Commission. This is an advisory body to the government with a large degree of freedom. When it was set up in 1994, by the at that time conservative government, the commission was placed directly under the Prime Minister's office. Today it is organisationally placed within the Ministry for Growth and Development (a mix of the old ministries for work and employment, communication, and industry). The commission consist of various experts and is headed by a minister. The commission's task is to "monitor, initiate and support the development of a society in which IT is a natural and integrated tool for everyone". The commission organises seminars, hearings and round tables, publishes reports etc. The importance of the commission is that it signals a strong political support for IT.

At the same time that the IT Commission was set up the National Agency for Education (a government body under the Ministry for Education and Science) was given a commission: to gather and disseminate knowledge about how IT can be used within the educational sector and to initiate and support activities and projects that will support the first task.

This was the starting point of the Swedish Schoolnet. The term "net" should here not be interpreted as a physical network connecting schools to Internet but as an infrastructure for systematic co-operation between teachers, students, administrators, teacher trainers, researchers and educational institutions in Sweden.

The work was based on the strategic decision that the government would support the educational systems IT-development through information and good examples and not by simply providing hardware and access to computer networks.

In line with the chosen approach four services were immediately set up on Internet. These were 1) a database of Swedish schools with Web and/or e-mail addresses, 2) dedicated conferences (news and mailing lists), 3) a list of selected links, and 4) examples of projects and good practices of using Internet in school. The next step was to gain more knowledge about how Internet could be used in schools. This was done through an open process in which schools were encouraged to take part. The interest was overwhelming and in the end 40 pilot schools were selected. Contact was also made with the, at that time, four major ISP:s (Tele2, France Telecom/Global One, Telia and Dialog). They were offered a role in the project, which would provide a good opportunity to learn more about the schools and what type of services they needed. Software and hardware companies like Sun Microsystems, ICL (now Fujitsu) and Microsoft also took part on similar conditions. The pilot schools were to use Internet in ten pedagogical projects of which the first was to make a school home page on the Web. The other projects all involved other partners, e.g. an author of children's books, the Youth Environment Parliament and the Swedish Military and Civil Defence. An interesting aspect of these projects was that the schools in a natural way collaborated with expertise outside the schoolhouse.

Drawing experiences from the work with the pilot schools the project prepared general information material about Internet and the project that was distributed to all schools. The project members also spent many days travelling through Sweden talking to teachers, school leaders and decision-makers. This part of the work, being "missionaries" and doing a lot of down to earth footwork, was very important in order to distribute knowledge and information on a national, and yet personal, level.

Another important task was to create more, for the educational system useful, content. This was done in two ways: contact was made with various content providers and new content was created directly by the project group. The content providers were found among organisations, government bodies, museums, companies etc. In some cases (like newspaper archives) the providers possessed plenty of content but were unaware of what the educational system needed or wanted and/or of the development of Internet. In many of these cases a meeting started a process that led to more content being made available on Internet. In other cases the content provider was involved in a collaborative project where schools were encouraged to take part. An example of this was the Historic Museum in Stockholm who, together with the pilot schools, made a Web based multimedia teaching material. An example of how new content was created is MusikNet/MediaNet, a private foundation that works with how IT can be used within the subjects music and media. Medianet initiates many different activities together with different partners. The foundation was created as a joint effort between the Royal University College of Music, Shortlist (a company working with music and media), the Swedish broadcasting company and the National Agency for Education. The role of the agency was to initiate the collaboration and provide it with a very modest initial funding.

Today the Swedish Schoolnet is an integrated part of the Agency's work within the field of school development. Its resources are readily available to anyone with an Internet access and an interest for Internet as a pedagogical tool. The project continues to spread information about the IT and Internet in schools through an electronic newsletter and the magazine "Classroom on-line" which is available both in digital form and on paper. The National Agency for Education is also active as the co-ordinator of the Swedish activities during European Netd@ys and as a partner in building a European Schoolnet.

Two more recent government efforts to support the use of IT within education are SAFARI and "Tools for learning". SAFARI is an attempt to make all state funded research available on the Internet. SAFARI consists of two parts. The first is a specially designed set of meta-data (based on Dublin Core) that the universities, university colleges and all other state funded research institutions are required to use to index their information. The second part is a data harvester, a "robot", that regularly scans the sites of the research institutions and collects and sorts the information on the sites. Through SAFARI the government hopes to make up-to-date research information available to a broad audience. This is an important task in an open and democratic society.

"Tools for learning" is an initiative by the current social democratic government. The Ministry for Education and Science will during three years spend approximately 1500 million Swedish crowns on a number of activities. One is further education of teachers within the field of IT and education. All teachers that complete this education will then receive a computer to use at home. Another activity is an extra economic support to schools to pay for their Internet access. Yet another activity is an e-mail address to all teachers and pupils. Last, money will be allocated for special efforts for children with special needs.

The role of government

We will next try to draw some general conclusions about the role of government when introducing IT in the educational sector. As we see it there are two principally different approaches: the material approach and the content driven approach.

The material approach to introducing IT is characterised by that the state supplies hardware, Internet access etc. for the educational system. In general this approach takes very little consideration of local conditions. It is hard for the central authorities to take all different local situations into account. Coupled to this is a risk for unsuitable choices of techniques. A small primary school in the Swedish north is very different from a university outside Stockholm. The material approach also has weak couplings to pedagogical, organisational and administrative changes. This is once again due to the central initiatives inability to spot the details of the processes going on at different educational institutions. To the author's knowledge there exists no successful examples of use of the material approach.

The other, content driven, approach is characterised by that the government supports local initiatives through information, examples etc. This approach builds on local development and priorities. By providing information government shows what is available and what can be done. The educational institutions can then, each one according to his special needs, wishes, priorities, etc., choose how and when to make use of the new possibilities. This approach has the advantage that dynamics and flexibility will be included in the technical solutions chosen. If the material approach as its trademark has "technology push" then the content driven approach has "content pull" as its trademark. If the content driven approach is used there will also be a strong coupling to other changes. The development within the Swedish K12-schools is a good example of the advantages of the content driven approach.

One could say that there are three competing parameters when introducing IT: scalability, acceptance and speed. You can chose two but not all three. The material approach combines speed and scalability, i.e. it is possible to rapidly introduce solutions that in a technical sense may be used by all within the system. However, the approach may not lead to the degree of acceptance among the users that could be desired. The content driven approach combines scalability and acceptance. However, the process may take some time. In this model a third approach is also possible, combining speed and acceptance. This would be the situation if all educational institutions without communication with each other or any central authorities or institutions tried to find their own solution on how to use IT. This, today rather unlikely, scenario was more common a couple of years ago when very few persons worked with IT within the educational sector.

Summary and conclusions

During the last couple of years we have witnessed a rapid change in the use of computers and other forms of information technology within the educational sector. The most obvious change, and this is true for almost all countries of the world, has been an increase in the number of computers and the degree to which these computers are connected to different computer networks.

Even though these changes are the ones that are easiest to see (and to quantify and compare) they are by no means the most interesting or important ones. The most important changes are instead how the new technologies affect or interact with other aspects of the educational sector. It is quite clear from the experiences gathered in many countries that changes are also taking place in what is taught, how teaching is carried out and how the educational sector is organised. Sometimes it is clear that these changes follow directly from the new possibilities presented by the new technologies. Sometimes it is less clear why these changes take place right now since they have no obvious coupling to the new technologies (e.g. the use of individual study plans and problem-based learning).

It is still too early to draw any conclusions about if IT actually helps to create a better education. On the other hand there exist many examples of where IT has had a positive effect and improved the learning situation. At present we may conclude that IT can be a powerful tool to support communication and co-operation and that it opens up many new possibilities for the educational system.

Having said this how should IT be introduced within the educational sector? We believe that it is of primary importance to start with a pedagogical idea and a vision of what it is that is to be achieved. One should then realise that nothing is technically impossible. The pedagogical perspective must thus lead the way. It is vital that technicians, who in many cases lack sufficient knowledge about new technologies, are not allowed to stop development by setting old techniques before pedagogical ambitions. From this it follows that IT-plans should specify function and not hardware. Of an allocated amount of resources the greater part should be spent on training on how to use the new technologies and a lesser part on buying more hardware. It is better for a class to have one computer and a teacher with training and ideas then to have 30 computers that no one knows how to use in a pedagogical manner.

The introduction of IT is most likely simplified if the educational system is decentralised with most of the responsibility at the local level, with the teachers and educational leaders. Acceptance of the new technology is easier to build in this case. It is also probably an advantage if the curriculum and syllabi are goal oriented leaving the actual realisation of how to reach the goals with the teachers. Such a framework leaves more room for experimenting, something that is needed when IT is introduced.

However it is done, the introduction of IT will meet with opposition. We divide these into three different types. The first are real, and often technical, problems. Such problems will always be solved faster and simpler than one can imagine. The second are related to the experience and knowledge among the users. How does one present a new pedagogical tool to someone who doesn't understand the words you are using? The third type has to do with lack of visions. Many are those who say "access is too expensive and bandwidth is too small". Such pessimism has always turned out to be unnecessary. Hardware and software become more user friendly and cheaper. The bandwidth increases steadily. The most effective way to meet the opposition is to show that there are gains to be made for that group.

In conclusion, government can play an important role in introducing IT in the educational sector. It is our opinion, which is supported by experiences from Sweden and other countries, that government should focus on enhancing awareness, gather and present information and good examples, and show its support for local initiatives and activities. If many different processes are allowed to develop and interact they may support and inspire each other. Thus, in parallel with the work carried out by the government educational institutions, organisations, companies etc. will all contribute to the introduction of IT in a decentralised process with, in most cases, a bottom-up approach.

Links and suggested reading

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Senast ändrad den 4 december 1998
av Johan Groth