The Impact Of The Unintended On The Digital Education Of The World’s Young 1993–2016


By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The history of the digital education of the world’s young over the last 20-plus years reveals the natural unintended and unplanned enhancement has been far greater and far more effective than the planned.

The emergence of the digitally connected family, the global adoption of the laissez-faire model of digital education, the historic change in the nature of youth and youth education, the very young’s embracement of touch screen technology, the global move to 24/7/365 mobile learning and the facility for the illiterate young to use the networked world were all a natural consequence of the digital revolution.

The same natural unintended flow-on was evidenced throughout society. None of the developments were planned. All evolved naturally, were unintended and cost governments nothing.

In contrast, all the planned, highly resourced and tightly controlled efforts by governments and schools of the world to enhance the young’s digital education had miniscule impact (Lee & Broadie, in press).

None of the hyped national ICT or digital technology plans, or the plethora of politically motivated roll outs of the latest technology, or the billions spent on those initiatives go close to matching the enhancement brought by the unintended.

That said, the success of the unintended was markedly aided by astute individuals, singly, in families and organisations, who understood how to shape the megatrends to advantage, and the shortcomings of the totally planned were amplified by governments and schools that believed they were in total control and did not need to change or address the megatrends.

The prevalence of the unintended, the naturally evolving, is a new reality and a major variable that needs to be better understood by all associated with the education of the world’s young. While the focus here is on the megatrends, the digital revolution has impacted every facet of people’s lives, fundamentally changing the way all ages and organisations go about their daily business. That now begins with the opening of apps and not the newspaper. Not even schools can escape that impact.

In examining the digital education provided worldwide in the period 1993–2016, in and outside the schools it was those that simultaneously saw the megatrends, recognised the importance of going digital, and had the agency and the leadership that succeeded in shaping the evolving megatrends to advantage. This was evidenced in the digitally connected families of the world, those exceptional schools that normalised the use of digital and the digital masters in business (Westerman et al, 2014). They recognised the importance of digital underpinning all, of identifying and using the megatrends, of operating as self-regulating units and playing a lead role in shaping the desired future (Katzenbach & Khan, 2009; Helbing, 2014; Kane et al, 2017; Lee & Broadie, 2016).

Kane, in commenting upon the 2017 MIT Sloan study of digital transformation, observed, “The need for transformation won’t abate, even if you successfully transform. It involves ongoing scanning of the environment to recognize evolving trends, continual experimentation to determine how to effectively respond to those trends, and then propagating successful experiments across the company.”

Everyone understood the imperative of continually identifying, building upon and shaping the evolving megatrends, the necessity of continually adapting operations and accommodating the unintended in planning, and the importance of simultaneously accommodating planned linear enhancement and unintended non-linear developments (Thorpe, 1998; Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015). Moreover, they appreciated that most operations, particularly in organisations like schools and businesses, do have to be carefully planned, managed and measured, but that there are a growing number related to the megatrends that do not and should not, and that it requires an astute leadership to get the balance right and to optimise the desired unintended benefits.

The businesses of the world particularly recognised the imperative of getting that balance right and the very real danger of disregarding or resisting the megatrends. All were very aware of what Solis (2014) referred to as Digital Darwinism, “…the phenomenon when technology and society evolve faster than an organization can adapt”.

Over the last 20-plus years, as detailed in the forthcoming book, Digitally Connected Family, most governments and schools did not see – or opt to see – the megatrends, placed limited importance on the digital operational mode, and saw no need to distribute their unilateral control of digital education or to lead the way in shaping a mode of schooling for an exponentially evolving digital and socially networked society. As far back as the early 80s, Naisbitt (1984) wrote in Megatrends of the need for the likes of schools to look to, “…a network model of organisation and communication, which has its roots in in the natural, egalitarian and spontaneous formation of groups of like-minded people”.

Most chose instead to do what they had done for aeons and provide what they believed was best for the young, within the physical place called school, using a highly structured linear education where every aspect was meticulously planned and controlled. They believed they could, with the help of the experts, provide the desired digital education within the walls of the traditional hierarchical industrial age organisation.

Tellingly, from the outset of the digital revolution until today, they implicitly believed they could control, and if need be, resist the global megatrends, and decide which aspects should be banned and prevented from disrupting teaching. This was particularly evidenced in their choice of ‘appropriate’ technologies, the banning of all others and their rejection of the mobile revolution. In 2016, judging from the inordinate level of control imposed externally and internally on most teachers’ use of digital technology (Lee & Broadie, in press), governments likely believed they had total control of the young’s digital education.

Ironically, they lost control 20-plus years ago. They were slow to, or did not, understand that at least 80 percent of the young’s learning time annually was and is spent outside the school walls. While they unilaterally controlled the artificial world behind the school walls, they had long been dealt out of the main game.

Young people and their families have long taken control of digital education from near the beginning of the children’s life onwards (Chaubron, 2015; Lee & Broadie, 2017c). From the 90s, all within digitally connected families naturally adopted the laissez-faire model of digital education, using it unwittingly 24/7/365, continually enhancing their capability. It is a new global norm that goes hand in hand with the ubiquitous use of personal mobile technology.

The other new but now long-established norm is that children from two to three years onwards will, for the rest of their lives, take charge of their own digital education, learning how to use what they want when they want (Chaubron, 2015). It will, on the experience of the last 20-plus years, be a highly individualised digital education, where each person shapes the evolving technology as desired.

The only way governments and schools can effectively impact the digital education of children is to recognise the global use of the laissez-faire model and work to complement and enhance that model.

The Implications

The implications that flow from the natural evolution and the unintended on the digital education of children are profound and on trend to grow. As the exponential nature of Moore’s Law kicks in, so the unintended impact of the digital revolution will accelerate and widen (Helbing, 2014).

The implications for governments, education authorities, schools and education researchers are particularly profound. Those who have worked in education, and particularly educational administration and research, will be aware of the belief by those in government, the bureaucracy and school leadership that all operations must be planned, documented, reported upon, evaluated and quantified, with nothing left to chance. Allied was the premise that all change had to be linear in nature and controlled. There was – and is today – no place for natural evolution, unintended benefits or non-linear development. Those who have prepared a grant, innovation or research bid will be aware of the mindset, the detail required and the underpinning idea that every outcome can and must be identified.

There was also the assumption that the school was a unique, stand-alone, gated community unaffected by the wider digital and socially networked world. The global impact of the unintended and natural evolution has shattered that convenient illusion.

While mention has been made in previous articles on the natural evolution of the digitally connected family (Lee & Broadie, 2017a), the laissez-faire model of digital education (Lee & Broadie, 2017b) and the pre-primary digital normalisation (Lee & Broadie, 2017c), it bears reflecting on another very recent unplanned development that is already on trend to be another game changer. Largely unnoticed in the developed world, all the main mail and messaging services have in the last couple of years taken advantage of the developments in artificial intelligence, voice recognition and video compression to provide a simple-to-operate, multi-modal communications facility. One can dictate a note with 95 percent accuracy (Google, 2014), send a text, audio or video with a couple clicks. All these facilities are available on a US$22 smartphone in Nairobi.

Overnight, the illiterate or semi-illiterate young of India, China, Africa and the Americas found themselves able to use their verbal and visual intelligence to communicate with the networked world, using YouTube and the like, without having to use text or the keyboard. They suddenly had, in a US$22 smartphone, an educational tool that took them into a digital world that would enhance their education, literacy and life chances – regardless of schools or government.


Over the last 20-plus years, the young and the digitally connected families of the world have taken the lead in the digital education of the young, and indeed the wider family, having normalised the whole-of-family use of digital technology for at least a decade (Lee & Broadie, in press) and being part of the 3.4 billion plus (ITU, 2016) connected people using digital every day. Critically, they have done it naturally, successfully, efficiently, at no cost to government and without any grand plan. Schools and governments have played little or no part in that natural unintended evolution.

As is argued in Digitally Connected Family, governments and schools could play a significant role in enhancing the digital capability of children and go some way to redressing the shortcomings of the laissez-faire model, but it will require a major rethink on the part of governments and their educators. They will need to acknowledge the natural unintended evolution, recognise they can only ever shape the megatrends, acknowledge they are part of a networked society and appreciate that if schools continue as stand-alone insular institutions, they will continue to be dealt out of the play.

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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Mal Lee
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.

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