Are we really dealing with a concept when we talk about Education in the Information Society? The term does not appear with its own drive and meaning, but rather tied to the rhetoric of the “information society” (IS), proclaimed to be the society of the future, of the 21st century. It does not have one single meaning, but exists side by side with many related terms without clear borders, evidencing poor conceptual, theoretical, and pedagogical development. As with the term IS, in Education in the IS, the ideas of information, knowledge, and, to an increasing degree, learning, have been fundamentally reduced to the so-called modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which, in turn, tend to focus on the computer and the Internet, thus creating new identities and forms of inclusion/exclusion: those who are connected to the network and those who are not.

technologies, serving what kind of educational project?

To approach the comprehensiveness and usages that Education in the IS has been adopting means to approach each one of its constituent terms: “information society” and “education”.

Traditionally, the term education evokes a school system, formal education, and childhood. Emphasis has been on teaching rather than learning. Very little importance has been given to learning, with quantitative indicators for access to and termination of grades and cycles prevailing. Learning is confused with assimilation and repetition of information. More importance is usually given to infrastructure and equipment than to teaching and learning conditions, to the point of view of the supply than to the demand, to results over processes. The schooling mentality has contributed to limiting the vision and field of education, separating it from the economic, social, and cultural within a broader context.

Seen since the history of education, the “modern” ICTs actually constitute the last wave of a continuum. Educational or instructional technology has been acquiring a high profile in the education field over several decades: in the 60s and 70s, radio and television; in the 80s and 90s, school texts, video, and the computer as an instruction aid; since mid-1990, the computer and CD-ROM dominate the scenario; and, in more recent years, the Internet, displacing “conventional technologies”.

At the end of 1980, UNICEF adopted the term “Third Channel” to refer to “all the available instruments and information, communication, and social action channels that can be used to help transmit basic knowledge and inform and educate the population regarding social issues”, assuming formal and nonformal education as the other two educational channels (UNICEF, 1990). The World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), organized by UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, and the World Bank, placed great hopes on this “third channel” to reach the six goals of basic education for all by the end of the year 2000. However, when 2000 arrived and the goals had not been met, they were reduced and the deadlines extended to 2015. Today, the goals for the countries in the South are no longer “basic education” (meeting people’s basic lifelong learning needs, as defined at Jomtien), but rather just “elementary education” (4, 5, 6 years of schooling). The “third channel”, before regarded as a broad channel shared by traditional and modern technologies, disappeared from educational goals and was reduced to ICTs. The Education in the IS discourse over the past years completely entered the virtual world, leaving behind the discussion on basic learning needs of the people and adopting as its central themes competitiveness and the new skills required by the market in order to “adapt to change” rather than impinging on it.

It is necessary to locate the “technological revolution” in space and time as well as the announcement of the IS and the “information age”. They all originate in developed countries, particularly the United States, to then be transported or rather appropriated by the “developing countries” (the South). They emerge in the decade of 1990, a decade that marks a turn in the history of humanity, when the neoliberal model is established in the world together with its great paradoxes: technological revolution with growing social exclusion, globalization with greater localization, concentration of political and economic power in fewer hands together with expansion and articulation (also global) of social protest and social movements. Largely inspired by the extended life span and by the expansion of ICTs, in the decade of 1990, the old utopia of “lifelong learning” reemerges, set up as the guiding paradigm for education, capacity-building/training, and research systems, thus contemplating the “school of the future” (Delors et. al. 1996; European Communities Commission, 2000). From this context and time, intertwined with powerful interests and conflicts, very different visions of the IS blossom: an IS understood as access to ICTs, which aspires to reduce the “digital divide” and attain a world “connected” to the network, and an IS “with a human face” that transcends ICTs, committed to lifelong learning and to the building of a new social paradigm with economic justice, equality, and well-being for all. Both visions are conflicting and were present at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva 2003; Tunis 2005).

Often the terms society and age, as well as information, communication, knowledge, and learning are used interchangeably, without the due differentiations. A clear example is the International Adult Literacy Survey - IALS, which in 1997 spoke of competencies for the “knowledge society” and in 2000, competencies for the “information age” (OECD/Statistics Canada 1997, 2000). The WSIS made the term IS official, opting for talking about society and information. However, the term IS is still questionable.

An information society that could serve to increase inequality

The term “education for the information society” does not have a clear or unique definition. In fact, it has not been incorporated in Glossaries for world bulletins on education or related themes. Parameters or indicators to reflect its feasibility, relevance, and quality have not been established. The Education Index, a component of the Human Development Index (HDI) calculated by the UNDP, continues to be built from fundamental data - registration plus the diverse educational levels and alphabetization rate - clearly insufficient at the present moment to capture the profile and educational requirements in any society.

Within the framework of the strong trend to reduce the IS to ICTs, Education in the IS tends to be simply understood as the use of ICTs for educational-schooling purposes (source of content, didactic reinforcement, individualization of teaching and learning, aid for training/capacity-building and teaching personnel, facilitator in the teaching of individuals with special educational needs, etc.), to use in school or to broaden the field of learning outside this area, to aid teaching personnel or to replace it. Today, “Education and ICTs” or “Use of ICTs in Education”, or “digital literacy”, are concrete modes of referring to this vision of Education in the IS. Many in fact confuse it with virtual or electronic education (e-learning), thus privileging the means and displacing the school system as the axis of education and systematic learning, more often than not reinforcing the strong current trend to privatize education.

Constitutive characteristics of Education in the IS usually include: the supply of flexible, diversified, individualized education, fit to the needs of specific groups and objectives. Concerns continue to be centered on supply, opportunities, and access (to the computer, to Internet) rather than on the relevance and the quality of content and methods, production and dissemination conditions of these contents, and in general, the question of what type of information/education and for what purpose (social impact). Hardware predominates over software technology and education itself, information over communication, knowledge, and learning. Even so, a passive and reactive focus prevails regarding the ICTs - seen as tools capable of disseminating information - over an active and proactive focus that perceives the subjects not only as consumers but rather as creators of information and knowledge.

From the first telematic networks (1980s), aimed at interconnecting schools at the national and international levels, we have passed onto macro policies and projects that propose to install computers in every school and, even more ambitious, make personalized lifelong learning a reality, among others with the aid of manual artifacts that fit in the palm of one’s hand and that are portable (see, for example, Harvard’s Handheld Devices -WHD- for Ubiquous Learning Project). In fact, never has the possibility of permanent learning been so close and at the same time so far away: nearby for the minority that today can access these and other means of learning; very far away for the immense majority of humanity, for the poor, for the illiterate (more than 900 million in the world), and for those who live on less than one dollar a day (1,200 million poverty-stricken), for those who today are being prescribed four years of elementary school, to be attended within the limits of the so-called “school age”. Concretely, this is what the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) propose for education today - objectives acritically adopted by the WSIS - together with gender equality in terms of access to elementary and secondary education, without a specific goal for adult illiteracy. We are then participating in a curious information age, where the right to education diminishes while the economic and social divide between the North and the South, between the poor and the rich, becomes larger.

Central themes for debate and reflexion

Here we enunciate several problems and dilemmas (of a conceptual, political, social, ethical, and pedagogical order) tied to the IS and Education in the IS within this framework.

- Education in the information society is a problematic enunciation, difficult to redefine its meaning, trapped in two terms: education (when learning is sought, learning to learn) and information (when the objective is to transcend data, to know, to comprehend, to learn, to create).

- The lack of differentiation between information and knowledge, between the IS and the KS, and the use of both as if they were interchangeable, with an emphasis more on information than on communication.

- The lack of differentiation between information and education, capacity-building and training, education and learning. From this lack of differentiation and these simplifications arise ICT attributions that do not correspond and even a few systematic explorations about the informative, communicational, and especially educational/training potential of ICTs and their varied uses.

- Modern ICTs placed at the center of information and communication, displacing traditional ICTs and key institutions such as the family, the community, the school system, mass communication media, the library, the workplace, etc.

- ICTs (and actual notions on information and communication) reduced to the computer and the Internet. In addition, the appellation of “modern” to classify ICTs is relative; there are other modern technologies, others came before and these will soon cease to be.

- ICTs between resistance and fascination, with fascination winning the battle. “Owning a computer and speaking English” have become expectations and false indicators of the quality of a school system, whether public or private, and in many nonformal educational offers.

- Between domestication and empowerment: the double edge of the ICTs, which serve both for globalization of the neoliberal model as well as for globalization of protests, solidarity, and the building of another possible world (World Social Forum).

- “Reduce the digital divide” established as an objective in itself, without paying attention to the structural gaps (political, economic, and social, between the North and the South, and within each country) that support it.

- Powerful interests and financial and political returns behind the race for ICTs remain hidden behind the IS rhetoric. The field of education has become a privileged market, disputed in politics as well as by private companies and large multinational corporations.

- Tension between the local, national, and global, with a strong devouring trend of cultural global ¬industries and powers, and an advancing lack of culture, increased homogenization, and one-sided thinking.

- Great expectations placed on ICTs as artifices of the awaited education revolution, diverting attention and resources from the essential conditions and structural factors that condition educational supply and demand: the economic model, social policies, foreign debt, international cooperation, the teaching personnel issue. A bad school with computers continues to be a bad school.

- The IS and the emphasis on information contribute to reinforce rather than avoiding problems of the old wide following of education and school systems, such as memorization, encyclopedism, learning without comprehension, hierarchies, asymmetries, and fixed roles between transmitters-teachers and receivers-students. The “banking education” has left the classroom and has expanded to a global scale.

- Reiteration of errors, disparaging the lessons learned. Countries and international agencies repeat the same problems and errors in the design and execution of policies and projects tied to ICTs and education.

- Double discourses and dual agendas for the North and for the South. In full emergence of the IS, the North adopts lifelong learning for itself and prescribes four years of schooling for the South, thinking globally and acting locally. The “official aid for development”, nor by its volume nor by its conditionality, does not resolve a historic problem of asymmetry, inequality, and growing foreign debt.

Towards universal literacy

We start out by ascertaining that the IS is an ongoing process rather than a given reality, and that the true aspiration is to build societies that learn, learning societies. On this road, education in and for the information society should be an education that:

- Ensures universal literacy and a basic relevant, and quality education, for the entire population, in the countries in the North and South.

- Promotes and aims to articulate learning in and outside the school system, in formal, nonformal, and informal education, in the family, in the community, in the workplace, in spaces of production, creation, and recreation, social participation, etc.

- Takes advantage of all the tools and technologies available - not only ICTs - in the framework of an integral communication and learning strategy.

- Teaches how to look for and use available information and knowledge selectively and critically; identify, produce, and disseminate information and knowledge; develop autonomous and complex thinking; actively participate in social action that transforms and transcends actual reality, in turn the source and process of knowledge and learning.

- Defends and embodies the right to education in its own practices, fundamentally understood as a right for all to learn, learning to learn, and lifelong learning.

9 January 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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