The In, and Out of School Digital Education

Digitial Education

By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

From the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1993, the young of the world have experienced two models of digital learning: that outside the school walls and that within.

Outside, the young and their digitally-connected families unwittingly employed the naturally evolving laissez faire model. Whereas, within the school, the young worked with the traditional, structured approach.

It is time the difference is understood, the global success and benefits of the laissez faire recognised, lauded, and built upon, and the serious shortcomings of the highly structured understood and addressed if the nation’s young are to receive an apt balanced and holistic education.

It is also time to face six stark realities:

  • While the laissez-faire model has enabled over a billion young people to normalise the use of the current digital technologies and accommodate exponential digital evolution, the structured model saw, in 2017, only a small proportion of the world’s schools normalise the use of the digital.


  • The laissez-faire model cost governments next to nothing, while the structured cost billions annually.


  • The structured model is only used in schools and like institutions, by students compelled to comply.


  • Governments, education authorities, and most schools, while they like to imagine they are in control of the learning with the digital, control less than 20 percent of the young’s annual learning time. The remaining 80 percent occurs outside, where the schools have had virtually no impact.


  • The only way back into the play in any substantial way is for the schools to embrace the laissez-faire model and support the families’ efforts.


  • The young and their digitally-connected families will continue using and refining the highly successful laissez-faire model regardless of the government or the schools, continuing to work apart if necessary.

Over the last 20 years, the two models have run in parallel, with most schools and governments showing little or no interest in the young’s out of school digital education.

Around 2010–12 the scene began to change when a handful of digitally-mature schools began genuinely collaborating with their families in the 24/7/365 digital education of the children. Those schools had reached the evolutionary stage where their teaching model and culture closely mirrored that of the families. They revealed what was possible with collaboration.

That said, it took time for that collaboration to take hold more widely and, for the most part, the parallel models continue in operation today, with the difference between the in and out of school learning with the digital growing at pace.

With the benefit of history, what the world saw evolve over the last 25 years was the young globally, from two to three years of age naturally adopt – outside the school walls – the laissez-faire model of learning with the digital.

Today, near 60 percent (Futuresource, 2018) of the world’s young use that mode of learning unprompted, on-trend to reach around 70 percent by 2022 (Ericsson, 2016).

History and research by Twining and his team (2017) also indicates that, in the global uptake, the digitally-connected families naturally and unwittingly observed five critical conditions:

  1. Ready access to ‘personal’, increasingly mobile technologies.
  2. 24/7/365 digital connectedness.
  3. Empowerment and trust.
  4. Largely unfettered usage.
  5. Self-directed learning, collaborating when desired.

All were, and are, interconnected.

None are observed in most of the world’s schools. The exception is those digitally-mature schools that have embraced BYOT, or normalised the use of the digital.

It is surely time for schools and the government to address the reality of the parallel modes and its retention.

But before doing, it bears reflecting on the main features of each, and the contrasting learning environments.

The teaching models

  • Laissez-faire

We’ve used the term ‘laissez-faire’ to refer to the approach to learning with the digital adopted by the young of the world since the early 90s outside the school walls, in that it is a naturally evolving model of, ‘letting things take their own course ‘(OED).

There are no controls, no one ‘right’ way. The approach evolves as the underpinning technologies become more powerful and sophisticated. That said, there are still some critical conditions.

The young are free to use whatever mode of learning they believe best fits the situation.

Critically, from the outset, even at the age of three the young naturally take charge of and direct their own learning with the digital (Chaudron, 2015), (Johansen, 2016), deciding what they want to learn, when, where and how. If they want to use their thumbs rather than index fingers with the iPad, so be it. Each child is free to learn how to use, and apply, those aspects of the desired technologies they want, and to draw upon virtually any resources needed. Each moreover decides what additional capability they need to acquire.

The learning is self-directed, individualised to a degree and form never before seen in schools. Each young person, like all of us, decides what they desire, teaching themselves when needed, drawing upon the technology, teaching resources online, the family, friends, peers and social networks, but rarely teachers (Purcell, 2012, p1).

Paradoxically, that highly individualised, self-learning is simultaneously very collaborative and collegial in nature, with the young readily drawing on the learning of others.

There is no common set of practices to be learned, but by the latter 90s, the world’s young had acquired a universal set of operational mores, and adopted a remarkably similar mode of learning (Tapscott, 1998), with the core learning remaining relatively constant throughout the period, even while the technology and the technological practices evolved at pace.

The learning has been invariably non-linear, integrated, discovery-based, just in time, and in context. That said, if the situation demanded, such as mastering a game or learning to write code, the young were willing to use the apt mode of learning.

The learning is intrinsically motivating, with no call for any type of assessment or credentialing to encourage the learning. The challenge continues to be curtailing usage.

From early 90s onwards, the young found themselves often knowing more about the technology in some areas than their elders – experiencing what Tapscott (1998) termed an ‘inverted authority’ – being able to assist them to use the technology.

You could well have experienced the situation and appreciated that the learning within a digitally-connected family is invariably highly collegial in nature, with all in the family contributing to and respecting the knowledge even the very young can bring.

The focus for most, from the very young upwards, has been on using the media required for the desired functionality, whether it was to watch a video, sound out friends, organise a meeting, find the information, prepare a report, or capture a special event. Most of the young – like most car drivers – have been primarily interested in being able to use the media, not how the ‘motor’ works.


One notes that over the last 20 years – even when the pace of change accelerated and the technology became increasingly sophisticated, powerful and convergent – the young of the world readily and naturally accommodated the change, and have always been to the fore as a cohort in using the current technology, be it smartphones, SMS, blogs, social media, AI, or multi-modal communication.

  • Structured digital education

In contrast, the school digital teaching model, with its Industrial Age legacy, has always been highly structured and focused on teaching a common suite of practices that the school or education authority ‘experts’ believe will provide the ‘appropriate’ digital education. Inherent is the belief that only schools and professional teachers can and should provide that education, with no interest in or recognition of informal learning.

The teaching of the digital has always been controlled, directed by the classroom teacher, with the students obliged to comply with the teacher’s dictates, distrusted and disempowered.

Invariably, all the five conditions critical to the laissez faire model have been absent, with the young obliged to use the designated school kit, to connect only when permitted through a censored network, and to do so when the teacher instructs.

The teaching employed linear, sequential ‘one size fits all’ syllabuses, with specified learning outcomes, that had to be continually assessed. Material was taught when timetabled, without regard to individual need or context. Assessment and reporting was all pervasive from the outset, with an ongoing desire to compare student performances.

Some authorities made the ‘subject’ compulsory, others made it optional.

The focus – in keeping with the other ‘subjects’ in the curriculum – has been academic, with there being little interest in providing the young the digital understanding for everyday life (Twining,, 2017).

As the program titles indicate there was and continues to be a strong preoccupation with technology. Program descriptors like computer labs, 1:1 laptops, IWBs, BYOD, iPads and Chromebooks highlight the focus on the gear, and rarely the desire to have the digital underpin and enhance all learning.

Somewhat symbolically in 2017 all the world’s Year 12 digital education programs – whatever title they carried – were assessed using paper-based external exams.

 The learning environments

  • Digitally-connected families

That of the families has been built around the home’s warmth and support, and the priority the parents have long attached to their children having a digital education that would improve their education experience and life chances (Meredyth,, 1999), (Allen and Raine, 2002), (Project Tomorrow, 2011). The focus has been on the individual learner – the child – with the children being provided the personal technology from the outset, and empowered to use that technology, largely unfettered.

As a small, self-regulating unit, with legal responsibility for only a few kids, the family can monitor and guide their learning from birth onwards, ensuring each had use of the desired technologies, and that their digital learning was apt and balanced.

The learning occurred within a freewheeling, highly fluid, dynamic, naturally-evolving environment, where the controls were those of the family, not government. The children were largely free to pursue their interests and passions, working at the cutting edge, and at depth if desired.

The young took advantage of the freedom given, innovating, being creative, inquisitive, learning by doing, taking risks and learning from their ‘mistakes’. Few have the adult worries about wrecking the technology.

Not surprisingly, from very early in life, today’s young normalise the use of the digital, using it – and critically expecting to use it – naturally and virtually invisibly 24/7/365 anywhere, anytime, with scant thought about the ‘old ways’.

The time available to learn with the digital is at least five/six times greater than that in the school.

Very early in the piece the family learning environment became collaborative, socially networked, global in its outlook, and with most young believing anything was possible.

By the latter 2000s, most families had created – largely unseen – their own increasingly integrated, sophisticated and powerful digital ecosystem, based in the main on the personal mobile devices, that connected all in the family to all manner of other ecosystems.

  • The schools

The digital education in schools from 1993 through to 2016 (Lee and Broadie, 2018) was provided in linear hierarchical Industrial Age organisations, employing Industrial Age processes, mostly working with an analogue mindset, readying students for text-based external exams. Highly inflexible in nature, most struggled throughout the period to accommodate the exponential digital evolution, according at best mid-level importance to the digital, with most doing their utmost to ensure the Mobile Revolution didn’t disrupt their traditional teaching.

The young’s learning was tightly controlled and managed with the children’s every move monitored.

This was particularly evident with the learning with the digital, where the school – and very often the system – ICT experts invariably unilaterally chose, configured and controlled the use of both the hardware and software, invariably opting for one ‘appropriate’ device, one operating system, and a standard suite of applications – and banning all others.

The school knew best. The clients – the parents and students – were expected to acquiesce.

The learning environment was insular, inward looking, largely site fixated, and risk adverse. There was little or no recognition of the out of school learning, technology, or desire to collaborate with the digitally-connected families (Grunwald, 2013) (COSN, 2017).

In reflecting on the school’s teaching with the digital between 1993 and 2016, there was an all-pervasive sense of constancy and continuity, with no real rush to change.

Significantly, by 2016, only a relatively small proportion of schools globally were operating as digitally mature organisations, providing a culture that would support the five conditions for naturally-sustained learning with the digital, and growing an increasingly integrated and powerful digital-based ecosystem.

While the learning environment of the digitally-connected families evolved naturally at pace, that of most schools changed little, with most lagging ever further behind the rising societal digital norm.

Many in 2016 employed the same approach to learning with the digital as 20 years before.

The way forward

What then is the way forward, after nearly a quarter of a century of relative inertia in schools?

It is surely time for governments and educators globally to:

  • recognise the remarkable success and contribution of the digitally-connected families and the laissez-faire teaching model in the 24/7/365 digital education of both the children and the wider family


  • understand the structured digital education model used in most schools today is an historic artifact that has – whether government likes it or not – been superseded globally by the laissez-faire model


  • fundamentally rethink the nature and effectiveness of digital learning in schools.

It is also time to finally recognise the core features and the remarkable global success of the laissez-faire digital education model, and to build upon its achievements.

A little over a century ago, John Dewey (1916) flagged the vital importance in providing the desired balanced education and of capitalising upon both the formal and informal education – particularly in a time of rapid technological change.

It would appear his warming has been forgotten.

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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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