The Changing Face of Youth Education: A Historical Reflection on the increasingly Permeative Nature of Technology-based Teaching and Learning in Australian Schools


by Daniel Pitaro

Executive summary

  • Youth education in Australia always has generated much discussion amongst the public and with policymakers.
  • Difficulties associated with impementing new technologies in schools are highlighted by the Labor government’s recent ‘digital education revolution’ and its ultimate failure.
  • The rapid development of technology-based learning in the 1980s and 1990s drew scepticism from parents and teachers at the time , whereas children embraced it.
  • Our current ‘knowledge era’, along with Australian children and adolescents’ growing competence with new, digital technologies, has emphasised the need for teachers and schools to modernise education.
  • There is a disparity in the quality of technology-based learning between government funded and non-government funded schools, which often is followed by endless disputes after being sparked by the media.

Primary and secondary education have been, presently still are, and will continue to be the sources of one of the most hotly debated topics in Australia. At present, there are cultural changes in the manner in which youth education is being taught; namely due to the prevalence of digital technology. The issue has been thrust into the spotlight, as we have seen front page newspaper articles and recurrent television news stories involving the country’s leading politicians, educators, media experts and your concerned, everyday mums and dads. Yet the media storm need not be so worrying, and the changes to the traditional system should be embraced as part of the education department’s syllabus.

In 2007, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised to provide a computer with high-speed internet for every student in years 9 to 12. As recently as 2010, teachers and students praised the introduction of laptops in the education system. The Australian reported that teachers observed a new engagement and excitement from their students since Rudd’s promise to instate laptops into the classroom, with one teacher noting that ‘the kids have taken to the computers immediately’. At the time, it was said that Rudd wanted to ‘equip every high school student with a computer by 2012 as part of the federal government’s so-called digital education revolution’, although the state of affairs have quickly turned sour for some. In 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald revealed Rudd’s education revolution to be considered somewhat of a failure amongst parents and students. One parent, Yvette Vignando, said that she knew ‘kids just play on [the laptops] when they’re at school’, while her son, Luca, noted that the Labor government had distributed ‘slow and small’ laptops (actually netbooks) that did not allow for expensive and elaborate learning programs to be run on them. This example points towards the ever-transforming nature of digital technology, but also the government’s need to keep up with the changes and the demands of parents, students and educators.

We must go back to the 1980s and 1990s to examine when technology really began to emerge in education, and discover how it changed the face of youth education. As early as 1979, UK technology writer Christopher Evans proclaimed that ‘portable, personal teaching computers… will sweep through the education system of the western world’. Evans’ astonishingly accurate description was then exemplified by Neil Selwyn, who calculated that the proportion of US schools with computers rose from 18 to 98 percent between 1981 and 1991. The personalised feel that computers brought students, however, was not felt until the explosion of the internet in the mid-1990s. Suddenly, students had access to a plethora of information at their fingertips, which, no doubt, would have worried the predominantly non-tech savvy teachers who may have feared that technology-based learning could replace the idea of traditional schooling altogether. As Melbourne-based school principal David Warner suggests, today’s students are remarkable exploiters of technology and the multimedia society in which they live:

The skills they possess in these areas coupled with the enormous information they can access make them extraordinarily different from previous generations. There is confidence, a great sense of enjoyment, considerable collaboration with their peers, creativity and problem-solving capability. They can differentiate sub-cultures within their music and culture, can critique fashion and discriminate media hype and advertising. They have a fair handle on themselves and do not see too much wrong with being ‘me’ focused, but within the context of supporting their mates. They can distinguish between right and wrong and make informed choices when they want to.

Research studies throughout the 1970s and 1980s highlighted a number of technical issues with technology in schools. Most notably this included the difficulties of accessing computers in educational institutions, a lack of technical support when problems were encountered and the general unreliability of the hardware and software. Today, there are few difficulties for students in the developed western world, as access to computers is widespread, schools are staffed with numerous IT experts, and while hardware and software can still be unreliable they nonetheless are much more dependable than in the pioneering years. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Marc Rosenberg forecast that short product life cycles, hyper-competition, instantaneous communications, and the explosion of knowledge and ‘e-everything’ would change the way we work and learn, and that ‘old models’ of school delivery will no longer be adequate. Ten years later, all of Rosenberg’s predications have become reality, since schooling now surrounds itself around the internet and digital technology. Although, parents of school-age children can be commended, or condemned, for permeating the idea that the internet would be beneficial for their children’s learning and education.

By the mid-1990s, the uptake of the internet was particularly strong, due to parental beliefs that it would enhance their child’s education and life chances, and thus can be seen as contributing to the ‘knowledge era’. The globalised marketplace and the omnipresent development of information and communication technologies have contributed to this ‘knowledge era’ and all are facets that now envelop young people’s daily lives. Over the past five years, Generation Y has been exposed to and has had to deal with much more information than previous generations and is immersed in continual change. As a consequence, they are much more open to change, find it a more common occurrence, and are more readily adaptable to change. Neurologist Susan Greenfield points out that instant access to an infinite number of facts has shifted youth education, in a traditional sense, and more into marshalling information and turning it into knowledge. Digital information technologies have provided the source of this knowledge for those in the ‘knowledge era’, and have led to the routine for most Australian children and young people to use computers as an educational tool, both in and out of school. It is imperative,then, that these ‘digital natives’ and their schools are up to date with the latest trends in order to stay contemporary.

Modern life is now defined by digital information and communication technologies, hence the education system has attempted to stay abreast of such a society. The never-ending pursuit to enhance the quality, effectiveness, relevance and attractiveness of young people’s education means that the digital culture should be implemented into the classroom, so as to stay current. In the past, once schools realised the potential of having individual desktop computers as part of their curriculum, the pressure was then to adjust to a new dynamic between students and teachers. Initial reluctance from teachers was contrasted with students’ willingness to experiment with the new machines. Today, most teachers are not as reluctant to integrate technology into their lessons and students are not experimenting as much, seeing as they already know the ins and outs of the latest equipment. It has become clear that, due to their well-versed understanding of digital technology, students prefer to receive their education with input from technology-based sources. As a consequence, drastic measures need to be taken to improve upon the Labor government’s ‘education revolution’, by somehow keeping up with the ever-changing digital technology.

When comparing secondary private and public schools in regional Victoria, there is a clear difference in their approaches towards technology-based learning. Typically, parents are persuaded by the facilities on offer at private schools, which are invariably more impressive than those found in public schools. This is the case in Geelong, for instance, where in more exclusive private schools every student receives a personal laptop that is closely monitored through an intricate program by their teachers. In other private schools, only a select few year levels are able to own/lease laptops, however, this is expected to increase in number over the coming years. Textbooks still are required, although in the not-too-distant-future most work will be completed on laptops and submitted via the school’s intranet. Public schools in the region do not receive the same luxuries as their private counterparts, with only one or two or sometimes even no year levels getting laptops, instead being relegated to ‘archaic’ computer labs. So, there is an obvious disparity between private and public schools, which seemingly comes back to government funding. With this case study in mind, public schools are most in need of further funding or otherwise they risk falling behind in student retention rates and reputation as a consequence of not being up-to-date with the digital world.

Ten years ago, the belief of Australia’s Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs was that:

Across all States and Territories, the Commonwealth and non-government school education authorities, there is a shared vision of: improving student outcomes through the effective use of information and communication technologies in teaching and learning and supporting the progressive transformation of schools, their culture and practices within an evolving knowledge society.

While the government has always maintained a similar standpoint, over time the words have worn thin. Leading politicians often show their concern about improving education, which is usually followed up by some rhetoric drivel, and ends up with minimal outcomes or failed policies—again, Rudd’s ‘education revolution’ readily springs to mind. It is obvious, though, that as societies become more digital and technology becomes more commonplace, schools will call for increasingly more funding. According to Lee and Finger, schools ‘will want a far more secure source of funding, sheltered if possible from the whims of the short-term political life cycle’, although they also quote education advisor Bernie Trilling who considers that the ‘federal, state and local policies must help guide the creation of learning environments that serve all students’. At present, the Australian government provides an education tax refund for schools and parents (depending on their eligibility and how much they can claim), but still much of the funding comes from the schools and parents themselves. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Julia Gillard must somehow rectify her predecessor’s unsuccessful policy or devise a new one that is more sustainable.

In the past, educators and parents had their scepticisms about new technologies in schools, and while some still do it nonetheless is hard to look past the benefits they bring to the classroom. New technologies have brought about a greater sense of individualism for students, as their schooling has become further centred on accommodating their personal time and commitment restraints. Students are able to access learning programs via the internet—at home or in school, at any time of the day or night as they wish—and while this places the onus on the students themselves it also teaches them other learning skills such as time management and motivation. ‘E-ducation’ also enables parents to closely monitor their child’s schooling, while teachers and students are able to keep records and archives of their earlier work in a more controlled and environmentally-friendly space. The Rudd government’s distribution of netbooks/laptops to students across Australia helped some who hitherto had little access to a computer, and better accommodated some schools who were previously technologically ill-equipped. Nonetheless, one cannot look past the fact that it is difficult for governments to stay current with the continually changing nature of digital technology and provide adequate facilities for schools and their students within a reasonable budget.

Problems associated with using technology in schools may be part of the reason for the government’s reluctance to commit to any further funding or more concrete policies. There are numerous instances of physical pain that students have suffered as a result of carrying laptops to and from school. Some students are setting themselves up for life-long back pain, after having to carry heavy school bags, while postural problems are becoming apparent, due to some students sitting slumped over their laptops for extended periods. Long-term damage to eyesight, fatigue and headaches are reported, too, and may be further factors in the decisions of politicians, teachers and parents. Observational studies show that young people scan online pages very rapidly and find it difficult to assess the relevance of the materials presented to them. Teachers, then, must assist their students on how to best use the internet and find information that is suitable and trustworthy. Lee and Finger also highlight the issue of cyber-safety and media sensationalism, when:

a much publicised case of a 12-year-old British school girl who ran away with a US marine she met over the Internet was reported through television, radio, newspapers and online media and was cited as an example of the dangers of the Internet. This report and others like them focus on the shocking, and present singular events as typical online interactions and are therefore misleading.

Isolated events such as these should not deter parents and politicians from investing in digitally-based technology for young people’s education simply because the media chooses to sensationalise the news.

It is not surprising that the Rudd government’s education revolution ultimately failed, seeing as it is not easy to continually update technology in schools right across the country. Yet, history and our current reality tell us that there is a demand for technology to be used in schools, thanks to increasing competence in digital equipment and today’s so-called ‘knowledge era’.

Selected further reading:

Alexander, Titus and John Potter, Education for a Change: Transforming the way we teach our children, RoutledgeFalmer, New York, 2005.

Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Learning for the knowledge society: An education and training action plan for the information economy, Australian National Training Authority, Canberra, 2000.

Lee, Mal and Glenn Finger, Developing a Networked School Community: A guide to realising the vision, ACER Press, Camberwell, Australia, 2010.

Ohler, J.B., Digital Community, Digital Citizen, Corwin, California, 2010.

Rosenberg, M.J., E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age, McGraw-Hill, America, 2001.

Selwyn, Neil, Schools and schooling in the digital age: a critical analysis, Routledge, New York, 2011.

Warner, David, Schooling for the Knowledge Era, ACER Press, Camberwell, Australia, 2006.

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