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Point and partnerships in contemporary education

Bruce King
University of South Australia

In formal educational provision, from school to university level, both the point of the exercise and the nature of the partnerships which sustain it, have been largely taken for granted in our practice, if not always in theory. This paper argues that changes in computer and communications technology are now challenging that practice on such a scale that not only our delivery arrangements but also the assumptions we have about the point or purpose of formal education will have to be changed.

One way forward is to recognise that the education industry has increasingly more in common with other industries than educators may understand. Its increasingly fragmented and defined industry sectors make new partnerships discernible. Our delivery practices will be transformed on a scale which a decade ago seemed unimaginable. The test will be whether we can put new partnerships into place between the education and information technology industries without losing important dimensions of the traditional purposes of education. The paper draws on important new work by Anne Forster in developing its argument.

This paper considers the impact of developments in information technology on the business of teaching and learning. It argues that formal educational provision has been characterised by largely taken for granted assumptions about its purposes and the kind of partnerships necessary to bring those purposes about. These assumptions are being challenged by technological developments and practices are changing, but not uniformly, across the various sectors of education. The rate of such change is likely to accelerate to a point where the force of tradition, so long a shaping influence in educational practice, will be simply overwhelmed. To preserve what is valuable in current provision means that such change must be both anticipated intelligently and planned for by teaching institutions. This may mean significantly reconceiving the nature of the teaching and learning enterprise and the partnerships which make mass provision of education possible.

It is worth making some observations about partnerships in education. First, it is accepted here that education is a collaborative activity, primarily between parties directly engaged in the teaching and learning process, ie teacher and student. It also involves significant others who exercise discretion or attempt to have influence over the substance and forms of interaction between those direct participants. These others, inappropriately but pervasively referred to as the stakeholders in any given educational program, may include government, parents, employer representatives, formal community agencies such as the church, and informal but possibly wellorganised pressure groups. The categorisation of the latter two groups will vary between societies.

Second, educational institutions are also partners to the processes of teaching and learning and may exercise significant influence over their shape and direction. The degree of influence society expects such organisations to have varies. For example, schools in the public system stand as agencies of the state, particularly its educational bureaucracy. Other agencies, like universities, have tended to be granted more autonomy.

Third, partnerships in education can operate asynchronously. We know this, of course, from the separation of teacher and student in distance education programs, but it is also true in the situation of the lone individual who picks up The Republic and grapples with Plato's argument.

The point, or purpose, of education has been debated since antiquity and I have no wish to rehearse the arguments here. What I would assert is that in the formal provision of education, whether at school, community or vocational college, or at university the point of most teaching and learning situations has been the transmission of information and development of associated skills. I think this holds whether the educational program in question has been general or vocational in nature, including some combination of both, and despite the commitments of teachers concerned to permit and encourage degrees of active student engagement with the subject matter involved. There is a level of student engagement in any successful teaching/learning transaction, of course, at least involving some minimal compliance with the process.

My contention is that in schools and colleges over the past century, the fundamental point of educational provision has been pretty much the same; students have gathered to receive information and acquire skills determined and imparted by an authority figure  the teacher. In other words, the dominant paradigm in education has been information transmission. While this is changing, and in schools the trend has been evident for some years, it is still predominantly the approach to undergraduate university education. There are admirable instances of other kinds of educational practice in almost any university, but if you doubt that they are more than the exceptions which prove the rule, reflect on the assumptions about teaching and learning embedded in the architecture of university teaching spaces, particularly lecture theatres. Further, I suspect the transmission model is still alive and well in a number of school classrooms.

Does this matter? I think so, although it should be clear that for me there is no educational merit in change for change's sake. What is wrong with the information transmission model centres on two issues. First, it is at odds with what most educators claim to be the point of their activities. Second, it is increasingly impractical. These are both elaborated below.

The aims of educators differ but tend to cluster around attempts to realise either the liberating potential for the individual of general education or the economic and societal benefits of vocational preparation. In Australia, there tends to be acceptance that mass education requires some combination of both and practice in the years of post-compulsory schooling demonstrates this. In universities, sometimes considered to be the bastion of general education in its purest form, there has been a longstanding tradition of vocational preparation for professional fields such as law, medicine. dentistry, engineering. teaching, architecture, etc.

In both general and vocational education, there is now widespread acceptance of the importance of students being able to engage with, question and reflect upon the content and context of their studies. In Australian practice, the elitist distinction between education and training, where the latter is assumed to be mere training in the sense of vocational indoctrination, no longer stands up to scrutiny. Finn[1], Mayer[2] and Carmichael[3] have seen to that. In short, the aims of both general and vocational education stress the active cognitive involvement of the learner and emphasise those higher order skills which are the components of intellectual judgement. This necessarily involves a view of the educational process in which learners might for good reasons come to different perspectives or understandings on the same matters. Such a view is logically at odds with a transmission model of teaching and learning whereby students are directed to particular knowledge and specific interpretations of it.

Secondly, the transmission model is simply not up to the task of teaching beyond elementary levels. The sheer volume of information now available on any non-trivial matter makes its channelling through a single individual's presentational capabilities necessarily result in content which is partial, selective and more or less idiosyncratic.

The two points are inter-related. The point of educational practice identified above increasingly requires of learners that they become information literate. That is, our students should develop growing competence in understanding how society orders, stores and retrieves information. They must be able to identify what information they need, understand how it can be located and accessed, in order that their understanding and judgments might be shaped, tested and confirmed by its application. It is simply anachronistic to order teaching as though such competence can be achieved by students relating to the knowledge and understanding possessed by a single authority figure. The test of good teaching must become less a matter of transmission of information which, by some relevant test, is accurate and relevant and more one of supporting students in accessing and using information from a range of sources. Inevitably, because of the sheer volume of information now available on any subject and the time required to access and process it. being a successful teacher or student will increasingly depend upon familiarity with. and skills in using, information technology.

Information technology is not simply a faster route to conventional wisdom. Because of its almost unlimited potential to bring information sources together, it enables the generation of new understandings formerly the prerogative of the privileged few. The implications for teaching are significant. Students now can become more expert on a given subject than their teachers and it is the new obligation of teachers to encourage and support that end.

To summarise: the point of education has moved from a concern that students access the specialist knowledge and understanding of another person - the teacher - to their having the tools and skills to access whatever information they need to make informed and comprehensive judgements on any matter. Increasingly, the tools will derive from developments in information technology.

I am aware that the scenario developed thus far caricatures both educational theory and practice. My intention is not to trivialise the issues but to present them as starkly as possible, in part to challenge the conservatism, even complacency, of so much contemporary teaching practice. I have another purpose. If the point of education is changing, should we be considering the partnerships that support its practice? In reflecting on this, it is useful to distinguish between partnerships concerned with purpose and partnerships to facilitate delivery.

It does seem to be the case that in determining the purposes of much conventional education, form has followed function. In other words, the partners to the shaping and direction of the educational process have been those necessary to allow teachers and lecturers to act as authority figures on behalf of society or some subset of society, eg a vocational or professional group or the practitioners of a discipline. So, secondary students are taught a curriculum negotiated by government officials, university academics, parent bodies. and sometimes powerful pressure groups. The point of such negotiations is to establish common ground between the various participants on the question of what knowledge and related skills students should be expected to acquire. There are further influences from publishers, possibly television or radio broadcasters, the available capital infrastructure, specialist providers of technical equipment, and sometimes donors of money or equipment. The curriculum thus derived is then markedly shaped by the ability, personality and training of the teacher involved. In coercive societies, such personal influences are subject to scrutiny and constraint; course content is explicitly determined, including the interpretation to be placed upon given matters. More liberal practices involve the identification of broader areas of knowledge, the determination of key competencies, and allow teachers greater flexibility in bringing their own perspective to the course content.

I do not see this kind of partnership changing very much in the near future. Indeed, the attempts by governments to take greater control of the national curriculum agenda in schools, the move to prescribed competencies in vocational education, and the quality assurance interventions in higher education make it quite clear that those groups who see themselves as representing national and vocational interests are determined to assert their participatory, even determining, role in setting the purposes of education. If anything, the contribution to determining educational purpose of the Australian professional teacher or lecturer has diminished over the last decade, mirroring practice overseas. This is substantially due to the pressure on national resources available for human service agencies and the determination of governments and the community at large that there should be greater accountability for expenditure of the taxation dollar and that a cost benefit analysis of specific developments should be patent.

There is an issue here of just how explicit purpose can be in a context of rapidly growing information sources and similarly increasing student capacity to access and manipulate those sources. There are likely to be two approaches to resolving this. First, participants in determining educational purpose will increasingly be driven in the direction of generic rather than specific skills and understandings. The Mayer competency strands which establish a basis for measuring achievement at year 12 level and for equivalent students in pre-vocational education are a case in point[4].

Second, participants faced with an information overload will have recourse to very conservative strategies for managing the achievement of the purposes they desire. In particular, they will seek to constrain the capacity of teachers and students to vary educational purposes by manipulating other aspects of their programs, eg content and assessment. The move to rational curriculum planning in the United States during the 1950s and the introduction of competency based education in Australia i n the 1990s are obvious examples.

I want to turn to partnerships in program delivery, for it is here that developments in information technology are likely to produce the most dramatic changes. I do not intend to provide a catalogue of particular technological innovations being applied, or with the potential for application, to educational provision. First, that is not my area of interest and, second, there are more than enough opportunities at LETA to explore such matters. Rather, I want to take three small examples and use them to highlight the changing partnerships in the educational processes involved.

Consider the case of the isolated elementary school student, dependent upon educational delivery from a School of the Air, whereby printed materials and a range of other learning aids are provided to the student's home, contact with the School is through a relatively brief radio link to a teacher and other students each day. and most of the interpretive work of teaching, explaining, demonstrating and monitoring the student's performance is the responsibility of a parent, typically the mother, or a governess. With the advent of computer linked two way, synchronous video conferencing connections between teacher and groups of students, much more of the interpretive teaching role will be centrally provided. Further, more powerful and immediate access to other students will alter the patterns of socialisation and peer group interaction in the educational transaction. In a delivery situation where there are really only four immediate participants - the teacher, the individual student, the parent, and other students - the introduction of relatively simply and already available technology dramatically shifts the responsibilities and influence of the partners to the process.

Equally simple is the case of the TAFE lecturer who commits a significant part of course content to an interactive multimedia package. Students are able to access subject matter, have their learning monitored and tested, practise skills and gain reinforcement for appropriate learning by sitting at a terminal. Their mentoring relationship may shift from the course lecturer to the computer technician who provides immediate assistance when there are difficulties with the terminal or software. Less student time will be in the classroom and more in the computer lab. Patterns of attendance at the college will vary as they seek to avoid their classmates who also want to use the limited number of terminals provided. As other lecturers adopt the same technology in their teaching, the college will soon be under pressure to extend its opening hours, at least for computer access and obtaining library resources. Canteen staff will find patterns of demand change and the student association will press for greater provision of automatic vending machines for hot and cold drinks and test foods. There is no need to labour the point: the introduction of currently available technologies impact on the partnerships which underpin current educational delivery.

More dramatic is the recent Commonwealth Government intervention to create the Open Learning Electronic Support Agency (OLESA), due to commence operations in March, 1995. This company will provide electronic services for fee to both students and institutions. Initially, its focus will be on students taking university courses through Open Learning Australia (OLA), but this rapidly will be extended to include other higher education students, those in TAFE programs, and ultimately upper secondary school students. The services will cover all those typically enabled by access to email and the Internet as well as interactive voice mail. Course advisory information, enrolment and fees payment, access to study skills advisers, bulletin boards, email with tutors and other students, computer conferencing and other services will be progressively introduced. What is critical for my purposes here is that none of these services need involve contact between the student and the university or teaching institution providing the course content and assessment. There are precedents for this in the central services provided by OLA and the partnerships which underpin Australian university education have already been significantly altered. I believe that few academics have any real understanding of how their world is about to alter.

The point I want to make in this paper is not just that the impact of information technologies on education changes the both the point and partnerships which underpin teaching and learning but that the role of eductors should be more than simply reactive to this process. It is our task to reconceive the delivery of education and determine what best arrangement of new partners will be most supportive of our students. Further, we must look to our own role, part of which must be to reflect on, analyse and provide critical commentary upon the purposes of education in our society.

In an extraordinarily insightful analysis, Anne Forster[5] has argued that we need to recast our view of the education industry as an industry, to identify the components it shares with others already impacting on educational provision, and look to a re-allocation of function which maximises the contribution and benefits deriving from the specialist expertise of all partners across a range of activities. In the diagram in Figure 1, which is a composite of her work, Forster identifies the various sectors, products, services and suppliers of an education industry which incorporates the full capacity of information technology. She calls this the 'Flexible learning industry'.

Sector ProductsServices Suppliers

Hardware and equipment PCs, whiteboards, TVs, VCRs, optical storage media Expertise and design in the development and production of...
Maintenance and training in the use of hardware and equipment
Manufacturers, retailers, distributors
Enabling application software Authoring, word processing, graphics, conferencing, integration, management Software engineering,
Systems analysis.
Training in the use of...
Design and development of software.
Software engineering firms, universities and colleges
Content and learning program Course manuals, instructional TV, CBT, CD-ROM, audio cassette programs Student support, learning management, registration and administration, design and production, instructional design, media design and production Commercial trainers, colleges and institutions, TV production groups, publishers
Telecommunications and electronic delivery systems Voice and data services, satellite systems, switching systems, cable systems, bulletin board, information and communication networks Planning and design of systems, collaboration to develop applications suitable for users.
Maintenance and technical assistance
Cable and phone companies, TV and radio broadcasters, network management companies, satellite space resellers
Learning settings Ergonomically designed furniture, room design, screen interfaces, lighting, sound and visual design plans Planning and development of designs.
Architectural designs.
Adaptation of space and surroundings.
Architects, educational planners, training companies
International education and training Certificates, diplomas, degrees, training programs and materials, instructional systems Student support, learning management, instruction, library resources, course information and registration Commercial trainers, colleges and institutions
Industry specialists Strategies, policies, reports, implementation plans, project management guidelines Consultancy advice, research and evaluation, training, professional development Consultants, universities, colleges, schools, private companies

Figure 1: The flexible learning industry

For me, the most powerful aspect of this is the identification of the partners to the educational process. Its power derives from the starkness of this changed perspective on how we educators conceive our industry to be organised and its lack of congruence with who, in our conservative practice and conventional wisdom, we continue to regard as our principal partners.

Two other matters need emphasis. First, the construction of the flexible learning industry is already under way. The issue is whether educators are going to take some responsibility for managing the process or simply allow it to occur in an ad hoc fashion. The consequences of that seem to me that there is real danger that the role of educators in determining the point of the exercise may be overtaken. There are plenty of commercial operators out there ready and willing to assume responsibility for major elements of the content and purposes of mass education.

Second, there is the issue of how interactions with other participant industries are best managed. There is a tendency at present to create brokering agencies to act on behalf of mainstream educational providers across the various levels of schooling, vocational education, and university provision. There seem to me three dangers in this. First, the link between purpose and delivery can be broken by such arrangements, as decisions about the two are taken by different groups. Second, educators can abdicate professional responsibility to such brokering agencies simply by allowing them to move from provision of sound information as to possibilities to prescriptions for action or decision. Third, the need of such brokering institutions to maintain viability introduces commercial considerations which may impact negatively on the way they conceive their role and the advice they provide. The development of a flexible learning industry which is socially and educationally defensible is not the same as a relentless quest for outsourcing.

The challenge for educators is to recognise the changing point and potential partnerships in educational provision and to take charge of this revolution in their industry.


  1. Finn, B. ( 1991). Young people's participation in post-compulsory education and training, Report of the Australian Education Council Review Committee, AGPS, Canberra.

  2. Mayer, E. (Chair) (1992). Key Competencies. Report of the Committee to advise the Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training on employment related key competencies for post-compulsory education and training, AGPS, Canberra.

  3. Carmichael, L. (Chair) (1992). The Australian Vocational Certificate Scheme. Employment and Skills Formation Council of NBEET, AGPS, Canberra.

  4. Mayer (1992). op. cit

  5. Anne Forster is an Australian education consultant working in Canada. The material presented here is drawn from commissioned but presently unpublished work. The author is prepared to refer inquiries to Ms Forster.

Author: Assoc. Professor Bruce King, Director, Distance Education Centre, University of South Australia

Please cite as: King, B. (1994). Point and partnerships in contemporary education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 146-150. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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