Education in the Information Society

Rosa María Torres
(ver texto en español aquí)

This text is part of the book Word Matters: Multicultural Perspectives on Information Societies, a collaborative effort of CMIC (Canada), FUNREDES (Dominican Republic) and VECAM (France), coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta. The book, published by C. F. Éditions in various languages, was officially launched at a special session at the World Summit on the Information Society; (Tunis, 16-18 Nov. 2005). Much has happened in the world since then and in the ICT field specifically. However, many of the facts and critical issues highlighted in this text remain valid and are challenges requiring further elaboration and action in the increasingly complex intersection between education, information, communication, learning and the Internet.


Are we really dealing with a concept when we talk about Education in the Information Society? The term does not appear with its own drive and meaning, but rather tied to the rhetoric of the “Information Society” (IS), proclaimed to be the society of the future, of the 21st century. It does not have one single meaning; it exists side by side with many related terms without clear borders, and with poor conceptual, theoretical, and pedagogical development. Both IS and Education in the IS tend to confuse information, knowledge and learning, and to reduce them to so-called "modern Information and Communication Technologies" (ICTs). ICTs have created new identities, forms and levels of inclusion/exclusion: the connected versus the not-connected, and huge differences within the "the connected" in terms of availability, modes and quality of access.

Technologies, for what kind of education project?

In order to approach Education in the IS we must approach each of its constituent terms: “information society” and “education”.

Traditionally, the term education evokes the school system, formal education, and childhood. Emphasis has been placed on teaching rather than on learning. Little importance has been given to learning, with quantitative indicators of access and completion dominating the scenario. Learning is confused with assimilation and repetition of information. More importance is given to things - infrastructure and equipment - than to people and to teaching and learning conditions, to the supply rather than to the demand, to results over processes. The school mentality has contributed to limit the vision and the field of education, conceiving it as a sector, thus separating it from political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. Also, education is traditionally viewed as a service rather than as a right.

In the history of education, “modern” ICTs are in fact the last wave of a continuum. Educational or instructional technology has had a high profile in the education field over several decades: in the 60s and 70s, it was radio and television; in the 80s and 90s, school textbooks, video, and the computer as an instructional aid; since the mid-1990s, the computer and the CD-Rom started to dominate the scenario and, in recent years, the Internet, increasingly displacing “conventional technologies”.

In the late 1980s, UNICEF adopted the term “Third Channel” to refer to “all available instruments and information, communication, and social action channels that can be used to help transmit basic knowledge, and inform and educate the population regarding social issues”, assuming formal and non-formal education as the other two educational channels (UNICEF, 1990). The World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), organized by UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, and the World Bank, placed great hopes on this “third channel” to reach the six Education for All (EFA) goals by the the year 2000. However, in 2000 the goals were reduced and the deadlines extended to 2015. Today, the goal for countries in the South ("developing countries") is no longer “basic education” ("meeting people’s basic learning needs", as defined at Jomtien), but "primary education” (completion of 4 years of schooling is the indicator set by the Millennium Development Goals). The “Third Channel”, originally viewed as a broad channel shared by traditional and modern technologies, disappeared from EFA goals and was reduced to ICTs. Over the past few years, Education in the IS rhetoric has focused on the virtual world, leaving behind the discussion on basic learning needs, adopting as central topics such as competitiveness and the "new skills" required by the market in order to “adapt to change” -- rather than to actively promote, redirect and control change.

It is necessary to place the “technological revolution” in space and time, as well as the announcement of the IS and the “Information Age”. They all originated in the North ("developed countries"), particularly the United States, and were later transplanted to and appropriated by the South. They emerged in the 1990s, a decade that marked a turn in the history of humanity, with the globalization of the neoliberal model and its great paradoxes: technological revolution with growing social exclusion, globalization with greater localization, concentration of political and economic power in few hands together with (also global) expansion and articulation of social protest and social movements. Largely inspired by the growing life span and by the expansion of ICTs, the old “lifelong learning” utopia reemerged in the 2000s and was proposed as the guiding paradigm for education, capacity-building/training, and research systems in the North and especially in Europe. Inaugurating the new century, an embrionary vision of "the school of the future”, "the school of the 21st century", started to take ground (Delors et. al. 1996; European Communities Commission, 2000).

In this context, intertwined with powerful interests and conflicts, very different visions of the IS have emerged: an IS understood as access to ICTs, aiming at reducing the “digital divide” and ensuring a "connected" world “; and an IS “with a human face”, that transcends ICTs, committed to lifelong learning and to the building of a new social paradigm with economic justice, equality, and well-being for all. Both visions remain in conflict and have been present at the World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS: Geneva 2003; Tunis 2005).

Often the terms society and age, as well as information-communication-knowledge-learning are used interchangeably, without due differentiations. A clear example is the International Adult Literacy Survey - IALS, which in 1997 spoke of competencies for the “knowledge society” and in 2000, of competencies for the “information age” (OECD/Statistics Canada 1997, 2000). The WSIS made the term IS official, thus choosing to talk about society and information. An ongoing and much-debated decision and terminology.

An Information Society that increases inequality

Education for the Information Society” does not have a clear or unique definition. In fact, it has not been incorporated in international Glossaries related to education. Parameters or indicators referred to its feasibility, relevance, and quality have not been established. The Education Index, a component of the Human Development Index (HDI) calculated by the UNDP, is limited to adult literacy rates and enrollment rates for the three education levels (primary, secondary, tertiary), and is clearly insufficient to capture the educational profile and status of any society.

Given the dominant trend to reduce IS to ICTs, Education in the IS also tends to be reduced to ICTs and ICT potential for educational and learning purposes, in and out of school, to assist educators and/or to replace them. “Education and ICTs”, “Use of ICTs in Education”, “digital literacy”, are some of the names adoped by this vision of Education in the IS. Many confuse it with virtual or electronic education (e-learning), often romanticizing it while undermining the credibility and relevance of the school system, thus reinforcing the trend towards privatization and/or towards the elimination of the school system altogether.

Characteristics attributed to Education in the IS usually refer to the greater flexibility allowed by ICTs, thus allowing greater diversification and individualization/personalization, all of them old dreams within the education field. However, concerns continue to be centered on supply, opportunities, and access (to the computer, to Internet, and more recently to bandwith) rather than on the relevance and the quality of content and methods, production and dissemination conditions, and in general what type of information/education and for what purpose (personal and social impact). Hardware predominates over software technology and education itself, and information over communication, knowledge and learning. There is a rather passive and reactive approach to ICTs - seen as tools capable of disseminating information - rather than a more active and proactive approach where individuals may see themselves not only as consumers but also as creators of information and knowledge.

From the first telematic networks (1980s), aimed at interconnecting schools at the national and international levels, we have moved into macro policies and projects that propose to install computers in every school and, ideally, to ensure one computer per student. Many believe that ICTs will be able to make personalized and  lifelong learning a reality, with the help of the many mobile devices and gadgets that continue to emerge.

In fact, the possibility of lifelong learning has never been so close and at the same time so far away: close for the minority that can access and take full advantage of the learning possibilities of ICTs; far for the majority of mankind, the poor, the illiterate, the millions around the world living on less than one dollar a day, those being prescribed four years of primary school for the “school age” population. This is what the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) propose for education today - acritically adopted by the WSIS - together with gender equality in primary and secondary education;  no goal for adult education. We are thus participating in a curious Information Age, where the right to education shrinks while the economic and social divide between the North and the South, between the poor and the rich, grows.

Key topics for debate and reflection

Some problems and dilemmas (conceptual, political, social, ethical, pedagogical) linked to the Information Society (IS) and to Education in the IS (EIS) within this framework may be summarized as follows:

- "Education in the Information Society" (EIS) is a vague term, difficult to grasp, trapped within two problematic terms: education (in times when learning becomes a key word, together with learning to learn and lifelong learning) and information (when the objective is to transcend data, to build, advance and use knowledge).
- The weak or nonexistent differentiation between information and knowledge, between Information Society (IS) and Knowledge Society (KS), and the use of both as interchangeable, with an emphasis on information rather than on communication.
- The lack of clear differentiation between information and education, capacity-building and training, education and learning, and even teaching and learning. These confusions often attribute ICTs characteristics and roles that do not correspond. It is essential to differentiate the informative, communicational, and educational/training potential of ICTs and of each of them in particular.
- Modern ICTs associated with information and communication, ignoring the role of traditional ICTs and key information/communication institutions such as the family, the community, the school system, mass media, social networks, the street, the workplace, etc.
- ICTs (and actual notions on information and communication) reduced to the computer and the Internet. In addition, the use of “modern” to classify ICTs is relative; there are other modern technologies, others came before, and these will soon cease to be such.
- ICTs between resistance and fascination, with fascination winning the battle so far and maybe for a long time to come. “Access to a computer and to English teaching” have become expectations and false indicators of the quality of a school, whether public or private, and increasingly also in many non-formal educational programmes.
- Between domestication and empowerment: the double edge of ICTs, which may serve both for globalization of consumption, competition, and other values permeating the neoliberal model, as well as for globalizing knowledge, protest, solidarity, and the building of a different world (World Social Forum).
- “Reduce the digital divide” established as an objective in itself, without paying attention to the structural gaps that explain and support the digital divide (political, economic, and social, between the North and the South, and within each country).
- Powerful political and financial interests behind the race for ICTs remain hidden behind the IS rhetoric. The field of education has become a privileged marketplace, disputed by politics as well as by private companies and large multinational corporations.
- Tension between the local, the national, and the global, with a devouring trend of global cultural industries and powers, resulting in increased homogenization and "one-size fits all" in terms of thinking and doing.
- Great expectations placed on ICTs as artifices of the much awaited "education revolution", diverting attention and financial resources from essential conditions and structural factors that condition education supply and demand: the economic ans social well.being of the population, basic rights being served, and a highly professional and well paid teaching force for all levels of free public education. A bad school with computers continues to be a bad school.
- The IS and the emphasis on information contribute to reinforce rather than to alleviate old and well-known problems of the school system and culture such as memorization, encyclopedism,   superficial and fast reading,  reading to get information rather than to enjoy knowledge and good writing, fast writing, Internet quick searches confused with research, copy and paste, etc. “Banking education”, in sum, has left the classroom and is being expanded on a global scale.
- Reiteration of errors, ignoring lessons learned. Countries and international agencies continue to repeat the same problems and errors in the design and implementation of policies and projects linked to ICTs and education. Purchase and distribution go first, teachers - as usual - go last.
- Double discourses and dual agendas for the North and for the South. In full emergence of the IS, the North adopts lifelong learning for itself and prescribes 4 years of schooling for the South. "Think globally and act locally" seems also part of this scheme that divides thinkers and doers. The “official aid for development”, nor by its volume nor by its conditionalities, by no means resolves a historic and structural problem of asymmetry, inequality, and growing foreign debt.

Towards universal literacy

The Information Society (IS) is a new and ongoing process. The true aspiration is building Knowledge Societies, and Learning Societies. In this framework, education in and for the information society should be an education that:
- Ensures universal literacy and basic, relevant, and quality education, for the entire population, both in the North and in the South.
- Promotes and aims to articulate learning in and outside the school system, formal, nonformal, and informal learning, in the family, in the community, in the workplace, in every space where there is production, creation, recreation, social participation, etc.
- Takes advantage of all tools and technologies available - not only ICTs - towards integral communication and learning strategies for all and for all ages.
- Teaches a critical approach, selection and use of information and knowledge; to identify, produce, and disseminate relevant information and knowledge; to develop autonomous and complex thinking; to actively participate in transformative social action.
- Defends and embodies the right to education in its practices, understanding the right to education fundamentally as the right for all to learn, to learn to learn, and to learn throughout life through all available means.

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Web sites
@LIS: Alianza para la Sociedad de la Información entre Europa y América Latina
Commonwealth of Learning
Cumbre Mundial de la Sociedad de la Información (CMSI)
EduTec - Revista Electrónica de Tecnología Educativa
EDUTEKA - Tecnologías de Información y Comunicaciones para la Enseñanza Básica y Media
Europe’s Information Society
Education and training for the knowledge society
European Union (EU) documents on education and training
European Commission / E-learning initiative
E-learning Europe
Finland - The National Strategy for Education, Training and Research for the Information Society (1995)
Harvard’s Handheld Devices -WHD- for Ubiquous Learning Project hdul/
iEARN - A Pioneer and Leader in the Field of Educational Telecommunications
Instituto Fronesis
Learning Development Institute
Mistica - Ciberoteca
OEI-Biblioteca Digital, Educación y Nuevas Tecnologías
OEI-Programas Educación y Nuevas Tecnologías
SITE-Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education
UNESCO-Education for All (EFA) website
UNESCO-Learning without Frontiers: Constructing Open Learning Communities for Lifelong Learning

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