Failure of School Digital Education


by Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The digital education provided by the schools of the world over the last quarter of a century warrants a strong F grade.

In educating the young for a digital society, it is imperative they have normalised the 24/7/365 use of digital technology, and that it underpins their learning and growth. Most schools globally have demonstrated for 20 plus years their inability to normalise the use of digital technology.

In 2016, 3.4 billion plus people globally were using their digital connectivity daily (ITU, 2016; Meeker, 2017). Near on a billion young people were doing so, from as young as two years of age (Futuresource, 2017). And yet few acquired that digital capability in a school.

Since the latter 2000s, the digitally connected families of the developed world have normalised the use of digital in every facet of their lives (Wellman et al, 2008; Lee & Broadie, 2017a). Digital technology underpins every facet of the families’ life, work and learning. But not in most schools.

Despite governments treating schools as the sole providers of digital education of the young, giving them a monopoly and investing billions of dollars, schools globally in 2017 markedly lagged the societal digital norm, falling ever further behind (Lee & Broadie, in press).

Since the launch of the World Wide Web in 1993, thousands upon thousands of teachers devoted millions of hours striving to provide the young the desired digital education. Many devoted their lives to the quest. The reality is that all were obliged to do so within a traditional, linear, hierarchical, Industrial Age organisational structure, with factory-like processes, mindset and culture. They were schools where the heads invariably had – and still have – little understanding of digital technology, and where the government, despite the rhetoric, attached little importance to every child growing their learning through digital means (Lee & Broadie, in press).

The authors saw far too many highly able and devoted teachers leave teaching, burnt out, disenchanted and utterly frustrated by ineffectual heads, bureaucrats and network managers who imposed inordinate, often irrational, controls on their teaching. With the advantage of hindsight, history reveals teachers were asked to provide a digital education for a rapidly evolving world in a dated, inflexible organisational structure, with their hands tied. They were expected to do the near impossible.

The level of control placed on teachers, and increasingly the school heads, by government, the bureaucracy and network managers, was crushing and counterproductive. While often working behind the facade of school autonomy, every aspect of the teacher’s work was constrained by the likes of hierarchical controls, professional disempowerment, the level of resourcing, working conditions, legal obligations, a mandated curriculum, external exams, buying procedures, auditors, national standards and the endless requirement to provide the ‘office’ accountability data (Lee & Broadie, in press).

Teaching of digital skills/literacy was invariably addressed in a discrete subject, highly structured, linear, sequential and regularly assessed and reported upon. It was done over the year, when scheduled, within the school walls and firewall, without regard to context, student need or indeed what student learning occurred outside the walls. Teachers were obliged to use a centuries old Industrial Age learning model to educate students on the application of exponentially evolving media.

Atop those constraints, network managers imposed their own, often unilaterally controlling every facet of digital usage. For most of the last 20 plus years, they employed a one-size-fits-all approach for K-12, deciding on the operating system, device, software the students would and would not use and the network controls, preventing the use of any student technologies.

While admittedly extreme, the following two examples exemplify the kind of controls teachers had to work within.

In Rhode Island (USA), the education authority mandated the following:

  • All 22 school districts with 1:1 programs require parents to acknowledge there is no expectation of privacy in the use of the device, even if the schools explicitly allow the device to be used by parents or for non-school purposes.
  • Eleven districts specify that they can remotely access a student’s 1:1 device at any time and for any reason.
  • Only six districts that indicate that they have the authority to remotely access state that such access does not include monitoring via the camera or microphone (ACLU, 2017).

It allowed the network managers to watch the young girls and boys in the privacy of their bedrooms. How this was supposed to enhance learning is difficult to deduce. One can, however, see why the American Council of Civil Liberties was concerned.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) education department, in its wisdom, decided to ban the use of all Apple technology in its schools, a ban still in place today. It was done at a time when the rest of society had long been technology agnostic, Apple was the world’s largest technology company and global digital leader, and one assumes in the belief it would enhance the children’s digital education. Ironically, it was also done at a time when the ACT government had won office on the promise of providing every child an iPad! One can but wonder why.

Since the emergence of the Net, while governments and schools globally have mouthed the right words and have spent considerable monies, the quest to have digital technologies underpin every aspect of children’s learning and development has rarely been a high priority. The focus was, like today, on the basics, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, maintaining the status quo and the traditional insular place called school. Examine the state/provincial priorities set by principals and one will not find digitally-based learning.

Thirty-five plus years after the personal computer surge of the 80s, schools globally still employ pen and paper exams in every subject, including symbolically all Year 12 digital education courses. The fact that today’s young are a digital and not a paper and pencil generation, or that none could apply for a job with a hand-written note, is conveniently forgotten.

Brian Solis, a leading authority on the digital evolution and transformation of organisations, talks of Digital Darwinism, “…when technology and society evolve faster than an organization can adapt” (Solis et al, 2014). That succinctly sums up the situation with most of the world’s schools.

In the last 20 plus years, the world moved from an analogue to digital base, with all the associated ramifications. It affirmed the inability of inflexible, Industrial Age organisations, with factory-like processes, mindset and culture – and particularly those like schools also tightly controlled by government and bureaucrats – to accommodate exponential digital evolution.

As the vast body of digital transformation literature (Westerman et al, 2014; Economist, 2015; Forrester, 2015; Accenture, 2016) and the closure of thousands upon thousands of analogue industries attests, unless organisations can move to a digitally operational mode, operate as agile self-regulating units and create an evolving tightly integrated digitally-based ecosystem and culture that accommodates the rapid ongoing change, they will fall ever further behind and eventually close (Lee, 2015).

Most schools have been unable to make that move. In marked contrast, the young of the world and their digitally connected families have, since the advent of the Web (Lee & Broadie, 2017a), readily accommodated that rapid change and have used the current technologies and practices since 1993. In many respects, their success accentuates the schools’ failure.

In believing digital technology to be vital to their children’s education and life chances, in buying the current technology and empowering the young to use it largely unfettered 24/7/365, the digitally connected families of the world did what the schools failed to do – ensure that digital underpinned every aspect of each child’s life and learning.

Moreover, in adopting the laissez faire model of digital education to learn how to use and apply the evolving technology outside the school walls (Lee & Broadie, 2017b), the families went a long way towards ensuring the young would not only take control of their digital education but would do so for the rest of their lives.

As the authors delved further into their research, it became apparent that:

  1. The 3.4 billion users globally of the technology acquired their digital understanding using the same laissez faire model of digital education, outside the learning institutions.
  2. The dated model employed in the schools was the odd one – and not the norm.
  3. Unwittingly and unseen, the people of the world have for nearly a quarter of a century naturally grown their digital education, with the trend for billions more to soon do so, and to do so lifelong.

Critically, the highly successful laissez faire model employed by digitally connected families of the world:

  • cost governments nothing, and was employed without any government effort
  • will continue to grow, evolve and be used by the peoples of the world, regardless of what governments and schools opt to do. Without knowing, governments globally have long since lost their control of digital education of the peoples of the world.

In contrast, the structured model of digital learning used in the schools that ran parallel to the laissez faire model cost governments billions for limited returns.

In commenting on the success of the digitally connected families and the laissez faire model, it is not to be said that all is perfect, or cannot be improved. There are many areas for improvement, not least of which is the need to lift the digital capability, but the reality is that 3.4 billion plus people have already proven the effectiveness of the model.

The structured, tightly controlled Industrial Age model used by schools has, after a quarter of a century of concerted effort and investment, not only failed to deliver, but shows few signs of ever doing so.

The Way Forward
It is surely time for nations to fundamentally rethink the role of schools in the digital education of the young, and the continued investment therein. The track record of governments and schools would suggest that most will continue with the status quo, regardless. The hope is that some will recognise that since 1993, the digital revolution has transformed the world and the lives of its people, with the nature of youth, and youth education, having fundamentally and irrevocably changed.

Globally, there are exceptional schools that have successfully normalised the use of digital, which are genuinely collaborating with their digitally connected families and that have shown what is possible. Such schools are empowering young people to learn independently and collaboratively, and are progressively adjusting their curriculum to complement the learning that happens outside of school. But they are having to do this despite governmental and education authority bureaucratic control and within official accountability and assessment systems that ignore the realities of the digital transformation that has happened in society.

The hope is that some governments and education authorities will recognise that in the last 20 plus years, the digital revolution has transformed the world and the lives of its people, and that since the advent of the Web the nature of youth and youth education has fundamentally and irrevocably changed. But even starting to recognise this requires schools, governments and the bureaucrats to be willing to do a major rethink.

For a full list of references, email

Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

Roger Broadie has wide experience helping schools get the maximum impact on learning from technology. He is the Naace Lead for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award. In his 30-plus years of working at the forefront of technology in education, he has worked with a huge range of leading schools, education organisations and policymakers in the UK and Europe.

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