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Reproduced from 1980 Conference Proceedings, pp

Reproduced from 1980 Conference Proceedings, pp. 14-16 ã SCUTREA 1997


Education, society and technology in the 1980s

Geoffrey Hubbard, Director, Council for Educational Technology

I The new technologies

The new technologies which are most discussed at present are those based on microelectronics - and particularly the microcomputer - information technology - also, in the main, computer-dependent - and developments in communications technologies such as the use of satellite transmission and applications of fibre optics.

There may well be other new technologies not far ahead, such as biotechnology, which will have equally far-reaching implications. The essential characteristics of the new technologies, what marks them out from the earlier technologies, is that their requirements for material and energy are very modest, they have a low labour content, and their adoption tends to reduce the number of jobs in existing industries or to create new industries, products and services which themselves do not call for a large workforce, and where the workforce is often of an untraditional pattern with a preponderance of highly skilled and professional posts.

II The effects on society

The direct effects of the new technologies need to be seen in the context of other social changes which may in themselves be more significant.

Thus, we are now fairly launched into a major recession, triggered by rising energy prices, and fuelled by international political influences. Since the economic and social fabric of western industrialised society was created on the foundation of cheap energy, the strains which the current change in the relative cost of energy is producing on that economic and social fabric are considerable. It is not unreasonable to suggest a comparison with the effect of the Black Death, which radically changed the price of labour in the fourteenth century and by doing so probably brought about the end of the feudal system in Europe.

The worst strains are apparent where industry is dependent on massive energy inputs, high raw material consumption (which often also represents a high energy consumption) and a large labour force. The present plight of the UK steel industry is a significant example.

The growth areas in the economy tend to be those relying on the new technologies and hence not likely to offer employment opportunities corresponding to those being lost in industries in decline.

The current level of unemployment, together with the lack of any prospect of jobs for most of the two million likely to be added to those seeking work over the next few years (simply as the young people resulting from the last baby boom come out of school), is not to any great extent the consequence of the new technologies. By and large, UK industry has yet to adopt the new technologies on any significant scale, and by and large we are not yet suffering very substantial erosion of our markets by competitors who have adopted the new technologies. But if our present position and immediate future prospects are not the result of the application of new technologies, it is nevertheless fairly clear that the adoption of new technologies is not likely to solve the problem of massive unemployment, although without solving that problem it may contribute to a more expansive economy. The choice could be between being a rich country and a poor one, in either case with a high level of unemployment.

III The consequences for education

First, consider the requirements which the new technologies and the consequent social changes may give rise to. The education and training system may be called on to produce

i. the very highly trained specialists;

ii. adequate numbers of suitable design engineers, production engineers and associated technical support to produce the products using the new technologies;

iii. managers and professionals who will understand the new developments and adapt to and adopt them;

iv. an informed general population, capable of appreciating the options open to it, choosing wisely among them, and living positively and rewardingly with the outcome of that choice;

v. teachers and trainers capable of achieving the above.

Specialists are not an acute problem - there is an immediate problem for those faced with revising courses and designing new courses to know what they should put in and what they should leave out, but this is one thing higher education is good at.

The problem of engineers - the Finniston Report is only the latest in a long line - suggests the defect is deep in the heart of the education system, in discussions of core curriculum that get as far as science for all but do not see the essential difference between science - concerned with acquisition and organisation of knowledge - and development - concerned with problem-solving. There is a need for a strand right through the curriculum for all, concerned with how things are made, how things work, and how to make things that work.

More than that even, we need familiarity; we need to ensure that all pupils use the new technologies in their everyday activities, hence:

a) Computers in the curriculum, as demonstrated by the National Development Programme in Computer Assisted Learning and the Schools Council Computers in the Curriculum Project - we need to use microcomputers as an element in teaching and learning a wide variety of subjects, and to break the restrictive association between computing and mathematics.

b) Electronic information services - CEEFAX, ORACLE, PRESTEL, BLAISE, DIALOG.

c) Microprocessors as data capture devices in the laboratory.

There are also certain specific skills which all pupils should acquire - generalised keyboarding, input and output techniques, information seeking strategies.

Some have spoken of an information-rich society; it is worth pondering the new dimension of deprivation involved in those who lack information-seeking skills in an information-rich society. Further, the way this country responds will depend on how well informed the people are, and the extent to which they are helped to think clearly about what is possible and what is not.

This is not a matter primarily for schools (though schools must not neglect it) but a challenge for adult and continuing education. Education for leisure (voluntary or enforced) may become a major concern, but whether that leisure is voluntary or enforced, the form the second ‘industrial revolution’ takes may depend on the effectiveness of the public debate. It will have to be a process of mutual education.

Fortunately, the new technologies also offer some help as well as some problems. They offer the resources of the various information systems referred to above, and in current experiments teachers are showing exceptional imagination and versatility in using for educational purposes the existing information base in, for example, PRESTEL, none of which has been put there for overtly educational purposes.

There are also interesting possibilities in the extension of open learning systems, particularly through the use of the communications and information systems to deliver computer-assisted learning programs. It is worth considering the potential of the home as a learning place, in the fairly short-term future. Major multinational firms are embarked on policies which involve selling microcomputers to a substantial proportion of the general public, if not as such, then at least in a thinly disguised form as a TV games compendium or some form of home management system.

Given a microcomputer, a TV set, a telephone and a keyboard, the individual would be able to determine the availability of a computer-assisted learning package on a subject of interest to him, call it down from a central store, and work through it in his own time. This opens up the possibility of learner-determined learning, where the teacher can no longer interpose or control. It is an imaginative and exciting prospect; it raises in an acute form the question of whether the organised education and training system, and particularly those concerned with adult education, will recognise the challenge and establish a new role for themselves.

If the teacher is no longer the mediator, there is nevertheless a place for him, helping students to refine their own perception of their education and training needs assisting them in locating the necessary learning materials helping them to improve their study skills. This new role could be both more valuable and more rewarding.

CEEFAX, ORACLE, PRESTEL - videotext services provided by, respectively, the BBC, IBA and Post Office.

BLAISE (British Library Automated Information Service) is a currently available computer-based bibliographic service covering British books since 1950.

DIALOG is a computer service run by Lockheed Corporation and covering 87 databases.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 May 2003