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Barriers to progress

Norman E Willis
Independent Consultant

The future use of the new information technologies in education and training, and especially the establishment of high capacity international telecommunications networks, will take the barriers to their introduction onto a level more often societal than educational. This paper alerts conference members to some of these potentially serious barriers to progress.

All of us in this conference are enthusiasts for the use of new information technologies in education and training: we want to see them developed and applied in the most appropriate way to bring benefits to all our people, young and old alike. But I trust that we are also realists, who understand that the route from where we currently are, to where we would like our education and training systems to be, will be full of obstacles to be overcome or barriers to be broken down.

I want to discuss some of those barriers, but not, I stress, in any negative way. Whatever field you work in, there are always barriers to progress - and often the need to surmount those barriers leads to important modifications to the development concerned.

So my purpose is to share with you what I foresee to be some of the things which may, over the next decade or so, impede progress in implementing the new technology based learning systems with which we are all engaged. I want to do this so that we can all start thinking about how they can be overcome. Some of the matters I shall deal with were raised briefly in the Conclusions of my 1992 Report on the OECD Program on Educational Building's Seminar in Rochefort (Willis, 1992) others have arisen as a result of more recent reading and contacts in the field, most especially the case studies in Susan Stuebing's work for the OECD PEB, which I have been privileged to see in early draft form. I shall categorise the "Barriers to Progress" into two main groups: 1) those concerned with educational structures and methods, 2) those arising at the interface between technology, education and society.

1. Educational structures and methods

I propose to do no more than refer in passing to those problems which all of us involved in introducing new technologies to education have met (albeit in differing forms) over past years. These include lack of training of the teaching force, inadequate or too expensive software, unreliable technology, rigid course structures, inappropriate built environments, and sheer lack of money. In my experience, these were barriers to the introduction of language laboratories, and closed circuit television, just as they were in the early days of microcomputers. And they are just as important in relation to today's more advanced technologies. My reason for not spending more time on them is that if we, as educators, architects or administrators aren't already thinking about how to overcome them, then frankly, we should be ashamed, because they have been around for so long.

1.1 The "crusty rigidity of the status quo"

As I said in my Report, the weight of history and cultural traditions lies heavily on the educational and training systems of all our countries. It is expressed in the course structures: the funding patterns; the comparative status of various institutions; the rigidity of curriculum requirements and external examinations. Such things are not amended lightly. Yet in so many ways they are a barrier to the development of individualised learning patterns and of moves towards "just in time" learning. How, then, are we to ensure that the structures within which our education and training systems work are changed to accommodate the new learning patterns which information technology permits and encourages, without jeopardising the recognised curricular standards and systems of accreditation which have (in many cases) taken a long time to establish and become acceptable in our nation's life?

1.2 The problem of assessment

Allied to this first barrier, is the problem of how to assess the outcome of the learning process. When the inputs to the educational process are strictly controlled, assessment of whether an individual has "passed or failed" is fairly simple to achieve, but when that individual has a more autonomous learning program, different from that of other students, often worked on in collaboration with others, how is assessment to be achieved? Against what standards? Is the "pass/fail" concept still appropriate'? Before this particular barrier can be overcome, should we re-appraise our understanding of how learning takes place? Because it is already being suggested that some of the educational methods currently used are actually harmful, because they inculcate skills and methods of working that are opposed to those needed for life and work in an information based economy.

1.3 Personal responsibility for learning

If the power and flexibility of the new systems are to be used to the full, it is vital that individual learners know how to take personal responsibility for the work they do and for their progress in the education and training process. The ability to do this needs to be developed from a very early age. In particular, teaching of children in the Primary age range (say ages 5 - 10) will need to concentrate on developing, as quickly as possible, the fairly advanced skills and attitudes which underpin the more autonomous approach to learning, because without that sort of foundation, students will find a serious barrier to progress in later years.

We need also to recognise that the new technologies themselves militate against some aspects of this personal responsibility. It is very easy to accept without question, the concepts and (especially) the visualisation of the person who prepares the learning material (see also 2.4 below). The structure and presentation of a program can lull the student into an attitude of acceptance, rather than one of questioning. creating an educational version of the "couch potato". There is a danger, which we must recognise. that the power of the multimedia presentations in the new technologies might stop students from thinking for themselves, and in particular. stifle their creative imagination.

1.4 Information overload

Another, and related, barrier we need to overcome is that of information overload. Most of us, and especially the young and the old, find difficulty in dealing with too much information. The fact that, through the new technologies, students have access to virtually all publicly available information from anywhere in the world, creates for them a serious problem of over choice. That can lead to a "crash" in their own ability to make a decision - something similar to memory overload on a computer. Again we shall need to teach people when to stop looking and start deciding!

1.5 Education's cultural context

Here I must stress that I speak from a UK background, although my limited experience of education in other countries leads me to believe that the situation is similar everywhere. If we are to achieve the maximum benefit from the new technologies - and especially their openness to inputs from outside the controlled world of education and training - we need to change much of the cultural context in which education in particular takes place. Sam Cassels, at the Rochefort Seminar described many existing educational buildings as "Prisons of Learning", with the implication that the inmates were working out the sentence put upon them by the state. Somehow, this image of the process of education must be changed. The size and siting of educational buildings also needs to be questioned. Is it true that huge buildings with students numbered in thousands are necessary to the educational economy.

Teachers and lecturers have their classrooms to themselves. How do we expect them to react to their students having access to a "second opinion" from teachers or other experts outside the building - or even outside the country? Or to sharing the teaching process with other professionals - media producers, information specialists? How do we ensure that not only teachers and lecturers, but educational administrators and politicians gain a full understanding of the place the new technologies should be taking - for their present culture does not naturally see new technology as being central importance.

2. The interface between technology, education and society

All our recent discussions have demonstrated that, as we move into the 21st century, it becomes increasingly less tenable for education to be seen as a separate activity from the general economic life of a society. The interfaces between information technology, education and society at large will produce new areas of friction which, if allowed to overheat, will stop, or at least slow down, progress. I suggest a few of these for consideration.

2.1 Established funding patterns

Gross changes are already taking place in the funding of education. There is a shift from capital to current expenditure. Less on buildings; more on equipment and materials; a smaller proportion available for teaching staff. Private funding is being sought to add to that from the state. In my country there is a move towards schools and colleges becoming self controlled independent of local government - with central government encouraging a "market oriented" attitude. Added to the shake up of how money is provided, there must also be the question of how that money may be spent. Can it be spent on courseware - or even complete courses - from another country? (see below 2.5)

2.2 The speed of technological advance

One element of this particular barrier is simply the cost of keeping up to date: part of the funding problem just mentioned. Another is the problem of the new technologies' reliance on commercial success. Capital sums involved in developing and operating new systems are very large and providers, naturally, concentrate in the main on their commercial markets for a rapid return on their investment. Education, therefore, tends to ride on the back of commercial developments: do we, then, get what we need or take what is available and make the most of it'? However it needs to be said that if education and training move further and further into new technology based systems, they will in themselves become a very large and attractive market and their power to influence developments will increase accordingly.

A very serious element in this barrier is our intellectual and creative ability to keep up with the power of the new media. All too often in the past we have seen teaching materials and software of poor quality produced by commercial concerns who know how the technology works but have inadequate educational understanding. Similarly, we have all experienced materials produced by educators which fail fully to exploit the power of a new medium. Somehow we must ensure that a new generation of people arise who can combine an understanding of educational requirements, with artistic and creative ability and an understanding of the special attributes of each new technology.

2.3 Copyright and intellectual rights

This is a very serious barrier which has both commercial and moral elements. The very openness of international telecommunications and satellite systems, which for education and training is one of their major advantages, is a major problem for those who create the courseware and software we all wish to use. How do we ensure that a person's creative work is properly rewarded financially, without at the same time creating a bureaucratic nightmare for users (like that produced by existing copyright law) which will encourage the continuation of what is actually theft, through the avoidance of licensing arrangements.

2.4 The danger of manipulation

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the materials produced for the new technologies can become methods of control. The person who writes the software, in very subtle ways, controls the thinking of the user (see also 1.3). How many of us know what parameters have been set within a program' How many of us know how to find out? How many of us realise that knowing could be important, From time immemorial, of course, educational material has been biased: it must be, because it reflects the view of the person or people who have prepared it. But, especially in computer software - and I suspect even more so when powerful artificial intelligence programs come into use - these biases are hidden from the user. The high cost of producing these new materials inevitably means that a few major producers are likely to supply much of the market. Great power to influence thinking will lie in their hands. safeguards will be needed to ensure that that power is not abused.

2.5 Resistance to internationalism

I see three elements to this problem. First that of resistance to "interference" or competition from other countries' educational institutions. It is already possible for student's in the UK to take courses offered by American universities, through course materials provided on video or by satellite. Not all our universities and colleges welcome what they see as direct competition. I notice that OTEN (The Open Technology Education Network) in New South Wales "offers TAFE accredited programs to all states in Australia and overseas": in the not too far distant future, the technology would make it possible for a British student to register for. and complete a TAFE accredited course whilst remaining resident in the UK. Would our Further Education colleges welcome this? This situation could be multiplied many times over across the world. The second element of the problem, related to the first, is the fear of cultural domination. This is already showing up in Europe in relation to broadcast television programs. where attempts are being made to restrict the proportion of "non European made" programs shown in some countries. How much stronger will this feeling be if it is educational material which is being "imported" from another culture - affecting children at their most impressionable age? Thirdly, there is the element of straightforward political control by a government of its nationals' access to information from foreign countries. The government of China is already expressing concern about Western television reports reaching its people by satellite. One can imagine many other countries who might not welcome their students having uncontrolled access to information direct from other countries, let alone being enrolled in educational courses in other countries. Perhaps we should be looking for some international agreement, similar to GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) relating to information and education transfer?

2.6 Technical standards

The problem of differing technical standards between countries is being addressed to some extent by cooperation between manufacturers of systems, and the production of software to aid automatic conversion to different standards. But again, some countries may wish to defend their own cultural boundaries by retaining standards specific to themselves. A similar barrier lies in the processes by which governments allocate scarce wavebands in the electromagnetic spectrum. As one small example, it appears that the bandwidth currently used by some continental European manufacturers for their wireless networks for computer connection, is allocated by the UK government to our Armed Forces - so there is no way that equipment could be used for UK schools.

2. 7 Intensification of societal differences

There is little doubt that the massive use of the new information technologies by the most highly developed countries will intensify societal differences both within and between countries. The gap which will develop between the "information rich" and the "information poor" will surely serve to exacerbate the differences between the financially rich and poor. Leaving aside the important moral aspect of such a state of affairs (and you will recall how much stress was put by those at the OECD PEB Seminar in Rochefort on the need for equity in provision) the increasing awareness of these societal differences is likely to lead to agitation amongst the "information poor" to catch up. You will recall that there were many who said that the trigger for the fall of the communist regimes in the former Soviet Union was the access by the citizens of Eastern Europe to Western European television programs, showing the tar higher standard of living available to them.


Of course, in this paper, I have not raised all the barriers which there are to progress in developing the application of the new information technologies to our education and training systems. I readily recognise that some of the barriers I have identified may not apply to all countries or all education and training systems.

What I do suggest to you is that everyone who has an interest in this field needs to be aware of these potential barriers, and to work in whatever is their most appropriate way to overcome them. I say this because it is, in my experience, often the case that the various separate groups who are coming together in this great new enterprise - teachers, educational administrators, computer and telecommunications specialists, architects, local and national politicians and administrators - all will feel that some particular barrier is someone else's problem. "My job is to teach, not to worry where the money comes from" may be a too crude representation of the attitude I have so often met - but it will do to make my point. We are all, no matter what our specialism, involved directly in overcoming, circumnavigating, undermining or frontally assaulting the barriers I have outlined. In this, as in all the other matters concerning the new technologies in our future society, we have to get used to working cooperatively with groups of professionals who we are not used to working with. We have to share and (horror of horrors) even amend, some of our time honoured views and practices. But we shall only make the most of the awesome power of the new information technologies to improve the education and training - and through that, the lives - of our people in the forthcoming century, if we do so.


Willis, N. ( 1992). New technology and its impact on educational buildings. Paris: OECD.

Author: Norman E Willis, Independent Consultant, (formerly Assistant Director, Council for Educational Technology for the UK), 19 Hurst Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 6AB, United Kingdom. Telephone: 08 1 504 7955.

Please cite as: Willis, N. (1994). Barriers to progress. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 357-360. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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