Changing the System at a National Level

This past week, I participated in a conference hosted by the Technology Plan for Education Observatory (where I serve as an external expert on the Scientific Committee) in Lisbon.

Portugal has initiated an unprecedented roll out of computers in a device called the Magellan. Magellan is a small computer based on Intel’s Classmate – dual boot Linux/Windows XP – that costs each student about 50 Euro (~$65 USD). Parents who want an extra computer have to pay something closer to 300 Euro. Having distributed 470 000 Magellan laptops to grade one students over the last two years, the Observatory is tasked with researching the impact of these initiatives and suggesting ways forward with the Technology Plan for Education (TPE). (Portugal will also be providing 1 million Magellans to Venezuela).

Portugal is approaching at 2:1 computer student ration, though at younger levels, it’s closer to 1:1. Early research results aren’t surprising:
- Students are heavy users of computers, but not for education.
- Teachers make limited use of computers and other technologies in class
- Parents are limited computer users
- Teacher training is lacking in utilizing computers effectively in classrooms

I presented the following concluding thoughts to the Observatory at the close of the conference:

At the core of the discussion surrounding the future of education is a concern of how to navigate shifting power and control. What is the role of the student? The teacher? The school? The parents? If learners have the ability to do what educators have done in the past (access information directly), what role should the educator play?

Part of the discussion this week has been on the lack of computer use in classrooms. I’ve been thinking about this argument for several years. I’ve concluded that class time is not wisely used. It’s expensive to get educators and students together in a physical space. Perhaps classrooms are not the place to emphasize computer use. Perhaps face-to-face time should take on a different model than we currently utilize. We should do what we can with technology outside of classrooms. Then we wouldn’t need to meet in classrooms as often.

I mean, if I’m at a face-to-face conference and all of the sessions are online, why bother attending in the first place? It’s the classroom model that needs rethinking, not computer use in classrooms. Stop trying to bend and twist the technology medium to serve f2f needs. Sure, there are instances where searching or tweeting about a subject may help extend the conversation. But, depending on the age level of learners, I think we’re often further ahead to extend the learning process with technology (i.e. out of classroom) and focus our valuable f2f time to do things that we can’t do online.

The Portuguese Secretary of Education made an interesting opening remark during the conference opening: schools are the primary vehicle for addressing societal inequality. I agree. We need the function schools currently perform. I’m not convinced, however, that we need schools as we know them today in order to meet this vital obligation.

When we start crafting models that have a future focus, we need to find some premise for making our decisions. How will we decide if our choices are the correct ones when we don’t yet know of the impact? I suggest that a good choice today is the one that gives us the greatest range of future choices tomorrow. When we don’t know where the future is trending, we need to adopt a many-small-experiments model. We can’t bet everything on one approach. When we cannot anticipate, we must investigate. Small experiments are key.

Most of us in education agree on our needs today:

1. We want good teachers
2. We want good educational content
3. We want to give our learners a bright and hopeful future
4. We want school systems that are relevant to learners and to society
5. We want schools to remedy the social and cultural inequalities that other institutions of society generate

While we agree on the purpose, role, and need of education, we don’t agree on the way to fulfill these needs. We have a sense of the future we desire, but are adrift in conflicting views in how to achieve.

Five key areas are worth considering:


I often hear, as I have this week, that technology is neutral, that it is a tool that we select and use. I strongly disagree. Technology is not neutral. Each tool reflects certain philosophies and beliefs that are designed (or coded) into it. Software is a mix of constraining and controlling choices reflective of corporation or programmer goals and intentions. Technology is also actively promoted by a host of corporations and individuals who seek personal gain through this promotion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it just is.

Why is it that we are so certain about technology? Does anyone think we will be using less technology in a year? In five years? At what point do we pause and ask “Am I using too much technology?” or “How am I being changed by my reliance on technology?”. At what stage do we say “Enough. Here is my limit.”? Or is technology a limitless landscape that in inextricably bound to humanist ideals of progress?

I’m a huge supporter of technology. But I’m more and more interested in the boundaries – if any – we are prepared to place on its role and influence in our daily lives. Is there any other concept in our lives where we permit such limitless future influence?

And this is the irony of technology: Technology creates problems that can only be solved by more technology. Others have said this before. But it is quickly becoming an inescapable reality in our daily lives. The technology and innovations in healthcare that have extended human life and created modern cities have also contributed to population explosion. The only way to feed a world with 6+ billion people (a number only made possible by technology) is to rely on more technology: fish farms, GMOs, etc.

Technology is philosophy. Technology is ideology.

Many of the battles that humanity has fought in the past about human rights, societal organization, democracy, and the role of government, are now being renegotiated in the digital realm. A programmer is today’s policy maker: you can do this, but not that. Software companies are today’s property owners: this is my content, but I’ll let you farm it on my land (or site).

When I hear people talk about the neutrality of technology, I get worried. This ideology-blindness is disconcerting. We are controlled by what we’ve created as much as we control it. Technology is now more than an extension or augmentation of humanity. It is increasingly becoming humanity. Today, I view my iphone less like a device than I do as a part of my cognition. We need to surface technology’s hidden ideologies and philosophies. If we don’t surface these aspects, we dance blindly to a tune that we refuse to acknowledge, but still shapes our moves.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching and learning are the most important aspects of the TPE. Teachers will continue to play a vital role in the lives of students in the foreseeable future. Investments in building educator capacity are important. Children are whole beings; their understanding, their learning, and their knowledge do not segment the way our society is structured: home, school, play. TPE’s emphasis on evaluating family technology use and the out of class contributions of technology to learner development are valuable.

Alternative pedagogy – one that abandons the ideological tethering from previous eras – requires that we answer several questions: Which classroom practices does technology render obsolete? What changed roles do learners and teachers play in this game? What systemic inefficiencies need to be addressed? Which policies hinder, rather than enable, systemic adaptation? These questions are at the heart of educational reform.

We need to know what we are changing to, not what we are changing from.

Practical concerns exist. Preliminary research by the Observatory shows many students are helping teachers with setting up computers, using the whiteboards, and other technical tasks. Teacher’s use of technology is, I suspect, heavily influenced by confidence. Other concerns arise as to the physical set up of the classrooms. A point was made during the conference about classrooms now requiring curtains or blinds to reduce screen glare. Most classrooms are not equipped with sufficient power outlets for recharging laptops. Practical concerns of this nature cannot be overlooked in a successful national laptop roll out.


What will we learn in the future is largely irrelevant from the standpoint of today. How will we learn in the future is critical. In this sense, content is closely tied to innovation in teaching and learning practices.

Content has taken a beating over the last decade. First with web 2.0 and now with social media, focus has been on interaction and engagement. Obviously content has a role to play. The key question for me is whether we need content in order to start learning or whether content is the by-product of an effective learning experience. I’m somewhat partial to the latter view: engaged learners tackling complex subjects under the direction of a talented teacher will learn more than those who consume content. MIT’s decision to discontinue first year physics class lectures attests to this.

Content providers to education, after a long period of drubbing, are beginning to find their niche and to push their agenda: high value content, interactive content, well-organized and structured content. During the conference, we heard that publishers feel that we need them and that without their contributions, we are somewhat lost. Quality, structured content was presented as the means to solve education’s dilemmas.

While context is the primary determinant of how we balance content and interaction, I have a different view of content from what publishers promote. I’m not convinced that nicely packaged and structured content is what we need. Yes, I can understand how well structured content can lead to content personalization. But beautiful structures are of limited value when they fail to serve the needs of society. Properly tagged content, tied to learning objectives and learning profiles means nothing if it doesn’t assist in developing the learners ability to produce personal content (rather than being fed personalized content).

We can organize our content in two primary ways: technologically or socially. These methods have some overlap. Technology enables the social (folksonomies) and the social drives the technological (Facebook). There seems to be a drive to organize the worlds content in a type of digital Library of Alexandria. I think that’s a reasonable idea. But we have to ask ourselves how digital content should be organized based on what it is rather than on our assumptions of content organization.

If we were to build a library today, what would it look like? What would we include? How would we make sense of it? Do we worry about having too much? Or do we take a Google-like approach and dump everything, wherever, and apply intelligence at the point of search. Do we need organization applied at the point of content creation or do we need it applied at the point of use or search?

Quality of content is a genuine concern. A pure dichotomy doesn’t exist, but we can see points of tension: Apple App Store vs Androd Apps, Britannica vs Wikipedia. How much curation do we need? How will we determine quality? How will end-user feedback inform our actions?

The availability of open educational resources also changes the teachers role in relation to content. Teachers should use freely available resources wherever possible. If resources don’t exist on a subject, these should be developed collaboratively across school systems. In terms of content, learners should create, teachers should curate.


Technology is, possibly in a positive sense, a lever for change. The systemic innovation that many desire may not be possible through policy decisions alone. Large scale changes – globalization, warming, population growth, economics – provide fertile soil for change. Technology can be seen as the fertilizer that aids growth of the seeds we plant in this soil. Regrettably, many people have only a vague sense of the change desired.

Education is largely vision-less.

We adopt catch phrases from popular media pundits. What we need is substance – a vision and a means to discover the suitability of that vision. What we have, instead, is mental pablum, ill-informed anti-school rants, and general poor quality thinking. As Dan Meyer recently stated, the further a person is removed from the school system, the less encumbered they feel to see the reality of schooling in society.

Leadership can be somewhat attended to by the contributions of many. When we distribute control, we distribute responsibility. As I commented on NETP, grand schemes and plans benefit from contributions of individuals. Ideas of reform should be shaped by the voices of those who are impacted. Leadership in education should concern itself with creating spaces for vibrant discussion and use these spaces as a means to test their ideas of change. Ultimately, school leaders are accountable to funding agencies. While I’d like to rant against this structure, for now I’ll reserve my comments to the need for leaders to solicit input from diverse voices and to engaging on ongoing network (connected) discussions with systems around the world. Swanson has stated that (.pdf) undiscovered public knowledge can help to foster innovations and novel connections.

Leadership also faces basic tasks of managing supplies of technology, repairs, ensuring vendors (hardware and software) are held to established procedures and standards. It is difficult to establish the proper mix of pursuing innovation while addressing practical day-to-day details. Once Magellans are in the hands of students, the inevitable question of maintenance arises. What happens if hardware fails? What about new versions of the hardware or software? What about in-class technologies such as interactive whiteboards and LCD projectors? Initiating a project is often easier than sustaining it.

And then there is the difficulty of the social and organizational dimensions of change. Change management and incentive strategies can help move an agenda forward. However, leaders don’t need people who do what has been planned. Today, leaders need co-leaders – people who are active in experimenting and exploring future directions.

Leaders face a large scale rebalancing of education. They need to find new points of balance: between teacher/learner, planning/emergence, organized/complex, top-down/grassroots. The entities that will shape our future are already in play. It’s about new and novel combinations, finding new states of relatedness.


Portugal is in a unique position. What is being done with technology in schools is what many countries will do in the future. It is important for Portugal to share and publish work on this front. Many are watching and many will turn to the system as a model for consideration as they develop their own digital learning structures.

Research on the impact of technology can be tackled in four ways:

1. Good description: As Latour states, writing good descriptions of what’s happing is hard work, but very informative. I’m somewhat reluctant to use surveys as their value is limited and often provides little more than confirmation of what an active practicioner already knows. Writing excellent, thorough descriptions of what is happening can be very valuable in coming to understand the nuances of a phenomenon. This is especially true when multiple narratives are included in the final assessment.
2. Patents/innovation/entrepreneurs: How does a technologically literate populace impact society? Long term trends include raise in intellectual property through increased patents, new inventions, and new organizations or startups. Unfortunately, this impact requires clear vision and patience – an increasingly rare mix in an electorate accustomed to sound bites. However, Portugal will know this initiative has been successful if, twenty years forward, new companies and new innovations drive its economy.
3. Sustained, long term evaluation – determine not only trends and actions, but also changes in actions. If a group of learners use laptops for certain tasks, how does their use change over time? When does change, change. This is where it gets interesting. Long term observational and use studies can provide insight into new patterns of use.
4. Because it’s the way of progress – I have not seen any studies that evaluate the effectiveness of the iPod in listening to music. For end-users, it’s not an issue. They use it because it works. Perhaps research in educational technology should have a similar focus: use it because it exists, because it is a part of society, because it is used in other aspects of their lives. By this metric, simply have computers available and using them for learning is success enough.

I’m reminded of a statement: the easiest way to lead is to get in front of a parade. As such, I’m quite confident making the statement that national level technology and pedagogy changes – such as Portugal has initiated – will be common proclamations over the next several years.

Education systems have to start to change somewhere: if a technological basis of education is not developed now, it will have to be developed in the future. Countries collapse future opportunities to choices made today. The need, therefore, is to create national systems that have the greatest flexibility and options for future connections/choices. For all its shortcomings and failings, no approach offers the large (potential) array of future connections that technology offers. To embrace it at a systemic level is no longer a matter of choice. It is a matter of societal need.

10 Responses to “Changing the System at a National Level”

  1. Fernando says:

    Thanks George!
    It was a pleasure met and hear you in the conference and in the Scientific meeting of the Observatory. And it is a pleasure too read this well structured and rich thoughts about the issues present in the event and in the school’s discussion of our days.
    Best regards,

  2. Anke says:

    I will treasure your thoughts about leaving technology out of the classroom. That makes so much sense to me. Will think further on that road!

  3. José Mota says:

    Lots of food for thought. I’d highlight your statement that “It’s the classroom model that needs rethinking, not computer use in classrooms.” Schools have been struggling with the introduction of computers in the classroom partly, I think, because of this.

    I totally agree with your view of using technology to extend learning beyond classroom walls, not have every student with a computer working in class. For one, it’s a nightmare to get everything to work, and it’s a missed oportunity to do other things you can only do in a face-to-face environment.

    Class time should be used for modelling, tutoring, claryfing, organizing, reflecting together, developing good communication and collaboration skills, etc. One or two computers with an Internet connection, a digital board or a video projector are very useful in class, but then students should work online on their own or use a media lab.

    There has been a very livey discussion about the merits of the Magellan project, as you might guess, especially since it’s geared towards very young students. My impression is that the results are way too low for the investment made. I count myself among those who think that applying it to equip schools and train teachers would foster much better results. Of course, we still would need to change a lot in the way most schools and teachers view learning, cutting lecture time, having more workshop-like activities for students, more individual tutoring, more learning connected to real-life experiences (and the list goes on).

    On a side note, it was great to finally have the opportunity to chat with you at Futurália, where Morten Paulsen and Paulo Simões were presenting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend this great talk you gave right next door.

  4. Keith Hamon says:

    George, thanks for the provocative call to action. I was most intrigued by your almost tangential reference to the mechanics of large-scale policy making, which strikes me as still a serious problem. I think that we still do not trust the wisdom of crowds and the kinds of decision-making, problem-solving processes made possible by Web 2.0. Do we not still rely too much on the elected official of whatever party and the designated expert in whatever field to make our decisions for us? I don’t think we yet believe that in fact we can gather electronically and make large-scale decisions that affect our lives and cultures.

    I’m most encouraged, however, by our youngers, who do indeed believe that they can make just such decisions and who are just slightly befuddled and even more frustrated that we olders can’t.

  5. Linda Peplar-Chambers says:

    Learners need technology! They are bombarded with technology on a daily basis. We should say that they are technological natives. We, the adults, on the other hand shy away from the use of technology. We should say that we are technological tourists. How can an educator educate a learner using only talk, chalk and the occasional technological devise and expect to inspire/challenge a learner who multi-tasks with technology 24/7!

  6. Anna Varna says:

    An excellent article. In my country( Greece) there is a similar to Portugal’s introduction of technology in schools, at a smaller scale though. Technical problems are soon overcome but pedagogical one are still burning.

  7. Etelberto says:

    I´m happy for Portugal being inspiring your steps towards a new learning. In the moment that Europe is designing a new strategy EU 2020, focusing on Education & Training concerns, your notes leave an impressive call for our reflexivity on the future of learning. (european initiative to be discussed next May and promoted by the IPTS/JRC from Sevilla (you remember Christine Redecker).
    My humbled thougt is for the COntext and Environments, specially concerned with riched moments for envolving learning leaders and teaching/training professionals. Technology has that effect but the instructional (pedagogical) designer must have always in mind that requiremet.
    I will share your script within our Lisboa Learning Working Group for a i 2011.

  8. Janet.Rangou says:

    Thanks George,

    This article was very inspiring to me. I could not agree more to the fact that systematic changes are needed for tertiary insitution to take into consideration technology now and for the future. Our educational systems must be aligned to societal changes.

  9. George, thanks for this article. What I really like about what you do is that you link through your blog, and through the way you set up your page, to a world of additional information that anyone can read and expand their learning on the topics you write about. You model what a teacher/facilitator might do help people learn to learn.

    I would offer a couple of ideas for this discussion.

    First, we need to segment our thinking about distribution and uses of technology between high poverty areas in a country, and the rest of the country. In high poverty areas access to technology in the home, and the school, along with the resources to maintain and constantly upgrade the technology, and mentors in the family and community to model uses of the technology, is far less than in more affluent areas.

    Second, I think you point about the cost to sustain uses of technology being higher than the initial costs of acquiring it, it really important, especially as public funds for eduction become more and more difficult to expand. I would propose a solution that is a step beyond your suggestion that technology not be integrated in the classroom. I would suggest that an effort be made to use the technology that is in the business community, but not being highly used in the after work and weekend hours.

    How many organizations in the geography of a school use computers for work, and constantly invest in the upgrade of their technology, because of it’s business applications? Imagine if kids were able to spend a few hours on a weekend, or an evening, with a business volunteer, at a computer workstation. If the volunteer were trained to facilitate learning, and coach the youth to use on-line content created by professionals, their own practical experience using technology might be a greater motivator for student learning than that of a classroom teacher with little experience of applying technology beyond the classroom.

    If such a partnership were developed it could dramatically lower the cost to the school of obtaining and maintaining the technology, and provide relevant associations between learning and work that might motivate more kids to become more dedicated learners.

    I’m sure there would be many obstacles to this, but the potential benefits and cost savings should not be overlooked.

  10. Patricia S. says:

    Thanks George :)
    I´ve enjoyed very much the ideas that you share here with us.
    I´m taking the Open Course on Future Trends in Education, and making connections with the connectivism i found these jewel. Do you speak spanish? My english is well , but no sooooo good. I´m trying, sometimes that´s a limitant in flavoring all the sustance of your super ideas.
    I want to continue investigating around education and how to improve the f2f socialization so students get more involved in their learning process, for me they are the stars of the story.
    Thanks again
    Paty :)