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ICT and Trends in Life-Long Learning

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piet kommers
1 September 2009

ICT and Trends in Life-Long Learning  


Piet Kommers

University of Twente 


It may be clear that, seen from the perspective of the modernized ‘networked’ society, (Craven & Wellman, 1973), (Wellman, 1988) and (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978) we have high expectations from the further evolution of learning based upon ICT-saturated infrastructures as we have in the western world; European Commission (2001). At the same time the ubiquity of information and online human support triggers the question if the traditional epitome of “Life-Long Learning” can still be considered as “learning” as we tend to conceive in the context of formal- and vocational education. A complicating factor in answering this question is that regular education itself is tempted to revise its main paradigm, so that it is hard to find solid reference beacons for deciding who is changing most: School-based education or life-long learning for adults. Regular education attempts to evolve from a transfer- into a developmental paradigm. Life-long learning tends to migrate from “incidental-“ and “continuous learning” into “course-based-”, “institutionalized-” and “certificate-driven” learning. Its mutual comparison is like estimating the speed of two opposing trains without seeing the landscape. As overall characterization we may say that ICT has enabled learning to emerge constantly, everywhere and on demand; Instead of being limited by connectivity (in its social or technological sense) or by accreditation (limitation in terms of prerequisite certification) it is now primarily the person’s “interest”, “curiosity” and “perceived need to learn” that counts. ICT has made learning resources into a commodity; and more: Learning attitudes have become endemic to survive in modernized society. The question thus became if and what explicit orchestrations we still need, now that learning cannot be discerned as a goal in itself?  
Schools and training institutes are saturated by ICT infrastructure nowadays: Distance learning, blended learning, web-based learning support systems. It is hard to remember the situations from before the arrival of the web; not to talk about the situations from before the arrival of the PC, even if we have been subjected to it ourselves. The question will be touched if and how the essence of learning has been affected by the entrance of ICT? If regular education covers around 30% of our life span, and if the largest part of national budgets is spent to education, why then focus on the learning after that period? Is it because we expect ICT not to penetrate regular education? (Sánchez, 2008). Or is it, as we expect, ICT to affect (continuous) life-long learning in particular? (European Commission report on Lifelong Learning, 2008).  The most likely explanation is that we believe in its combination: “Great that ICT penetrated school education, but now, will it affect life-long learning as well?” (Thorpe, 2005). What is the state of the art situation on ICT for life-long learning? Initially persons mesmerized once they become alerted by the vast amount of information they can open via the web: be it professional-, entertainment or ideological information, both local and global sources for extending our understanding, taking decisions, finding experts etc. It leads to questions like: What conceptual frameworks, ambitions and search skills are needed in order to benefit from those sources? It may lead to the question “what do we still need to learn, if all this information is at the tip of your finger?” One step further is if and how we can learn from this information access; can we enlarge our professional and existential scope through being supported by having access to these almost infinite residues of human expertise on the web? As information access becomes so ubiquitous the questions may arise: “Do we still need to learn?” and “Should we assess learning outcomes while the learner is amputated from information resources when in daily life information access is abundant?” The notion of ‘distributed cognition’ has been coined to assert that in every-day life the expertise is between rather than in persons. So why not prelude on the new collaborative skills in educational settings as well? (Salomon, 1993). The mission of this keynote presentation is to find an answer to the question “if and how ICT influenced Life-long Learning?” Even more important: to make more transparent that the mere added value of ICT so far only penetrated in a particular part of life-long learning so far. In other words: there are potential added values of ICT that are only used for a minor part;

·         Which are they?

·         How can they be exploited better the coming years?

·         Which ICTs are currently used in life-long learning?

·         Which benefits are made out of them?

·         What benefits remain to be explored further?

·         What are the policy implications to allow for a broader use of these ICTs?


Whereas school-based education has served the transition from feudal- into urban- and into industrialized societies, life-long learning may be obstructed by institutionalized education. Irrespective from the traditional schooling paradigm it should grasp its own opportunities and responsibilities for learning in the ICT era. The overall message of this report is that ICT should be instrumental to learning; learning on its turn should be instrumental to societal ambitions at that very moment at that local social context. In order to trigger the a priori question for this report even more provocative: If ICT is the solution for life-long learning; then “What is the problem?”  And indeed we have to admit that both the paper and pen, the printing press, the radio, telephone, television and the interactive white board; they have not been developed based on a need in education; they have been permitted to enter education on the basis of curiosity and because no sufficient objection was available at that very moment; life-long learning nowadays is just an eye-opener as it interferes with orchestrated institutional learning that was a revolutionary solution in the mid 19th century.

Epochal Trends and the Arrival of ICT in Life-Long Learning

Starting from “life-long” learning, it is inevitable to open a short review of what learning implies from a historical point of view. Initially learning intended to prepare yourself for entire life. It was one of the few protections against joining work from the earliest moment that it was physically possible; (Rousseau, 1762). In its romantic apprehension learning should address the essentials that prepare for entire life: “Long-Life Learning” rather than “Life-Long Learning”. Thinking of the idea that “learning never stops” would have been hailed as a nightmare; how can you establish a society if its members keep changing themselves?  Before addressing the question on how to conceive ‘life-long learning’ it is necessary to question human learning on general. As we discern phylogeny from ontogeny it is clear that the more humans create cultural habitats the load for ontogeny (the coping with changes, accommodate and learning in an individual’s life span) becomes more heavy as phylogeny (how the human species managed to cope with unforeseen situations) carries along fewer and fewer solutions. We may say that learning is the Lamarckian mechanism in order to make descendents to adapt to what ancestors already conquered before. (Egan, 2008). The main question to be answered is “How do we envisage human learning”? By tradition we have accepted learning to be successful as it allowed persons to adapt to certain new situations. In respect to the learning of society as a whole, it is questionable if this definition satisfies; its definition does not hold for societies to learn from past history. Neither does it satisfy the convergence of learning of a new generation. School-based learning can very well be understood as the socializing process in order to make the young generation ‘compatible’ to the older one. In a class-based-, modal- and stratified society the school-based education makes sense in terms of Lamarckian transfer: Allow descendants to benefit from ancestors’ struggles. The question is if learning in the postmodern networked society can still be envisaged as a convergence process. If not, how to imagine curricula, grouping the learners and how to define assessment criteria? Institutionalized education may become obsolete. However at the same time ‘life-long learning’ may be an ever more complex process to be orchestrated. Neil Postman (1986) in his “The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School” Postman suggests: “ … that the current crisis in our educational system derives from its failure to supply students with a translucent, unifying "narrative" like those that inspired earlier generations. Instead, today's schools promote the false "gods" of economic utility, consumerism, or ethnic separatism and resentment. Postman questions what alternative strategies can still be used to instill our children with a sense of global citizenship, healthy intellectual skepticism, etc.” Life-long learning in the epoch of the world-wide web can best be considered as permanent effort to let persons accomplish learning needs based upon continuous shifts in both the individuals’ interest and the societal focus. Centralized efforts to accommodate such a delicate and transient process seem to have failed already. The web with its potentials to make persons to find each other on any criterion like interest, ideology etc is a good candidate infrastructure for promoting learning in a non-centered-, networked society.  Where ICT has provoked education to focus on informational resources, we may meet biochemical- and sleep technologies the coming years. The nature and culture of learning will work together more closely than we did in classrooms before. In the case of life-long learning we need to distinguish two contrasting learning paradigms:

  1. Regular ‘school-based education’ implicitly targets convergence between learners. It also rests upon predefined goals, -methods and prior assessment criteria. One could say that the essential learning momentum emerges in its curricular conception; the roll-out of a course is just a matter of transfer from those who know to those who don’t know yet.
  2. Life-long learning: the continuous day-to-day learning in the manifold situations during work and leisure time. Life-long learning is mainly driven by its situational and existential motivation. Quite often is has been labeled as “just-in-time” learning: the learner decides when prior knowledge fails and additional expertise is needed. Due to the fact that persons arrive at careers, jobs and finally need to be retrained, L.L.L. (Life-Long Learning) is a vital process in preventing the person to suffer from adaptation rather than raise creative solutions and complement initial weaknesses.

In the last thirty years we saw that ICT failed to innovate formal education. We expect life-long learning to benefit more from coming ICT learning support. ICT has not only worked out as a smooth catalyst ingredient. ICT has inflicted the essence of learning; it has reformed learning from a transfer- into a process of development. The traditional approach is to see education as a process that transfers knowledge and experience from the elder to the younger generation. ICT in combination with emerging needs of knowledge economies has promoted learning that exceeds this transfer process; it relies on education that innovates existing disciplines and in fact develops new understanding. Surprisingly enough it is the traditional regular institutional learning that has been subjected most clearly with this paradigm switch. Institutions for life-long (adult) education still embrace the transfer paradigm: Facilitating learners to assimilate predefined curricular content and skills. It is just the versatile non-institutional learning that has benefitted most the real potentials of ICT through Web-based access to expertise and the utilization of social networks and web-based communities. The mechanism of inertia towards preventing education to benefit from ICT can be seen most clearly in societies that adopted schooling cultures from abroad like the former colonial countries. It can even be observed quite strongly in a country like Japan that was forced to adopt the British schooling system via the American intervention in the late 19th and early 20th century. Exactly as this enforced trend complicates its smooth gradual evolution. Most striking is that exactly Japan with its highly saturated and highly advanced infrastructure has the least penetration of ICT throughout education.

Applications of ICT in Life-Long Learning

Due to the shift towards knowledge-intensive economies, creative industries and ICT a new set of learning paradigms have evolved around the concept of incidental learning:

·         Embedded, problem-based and learning by doing, the main contribution of which is the acknowledgement that learning in isolation makes application in real life situations unnecessarily problematic (Kommers et al., 2004).

·         Distributed cognition is the notion that human expertise manifests between- rather than in persons. Many jobs demand team work and rely on several disciplines to merge before optimal solutions can be reached.

·         Collaborative- and constructivist learning methods have complemented the instructional repertoire. It implies a sharper focus on learning competences rather than ‘following’ predefined curricula. The core idea in constructivist learning is that understanding and application of skills and complex conceptual domains need a highly active and individualized process or mastery. Subsequently the role of the instructor differentiates in subject matter expert, diagnostic coach and facilitator. Cognitive learning tools are indispensible in this regard (Mayes, 1992).

·         Blended learning, based on the fact that both face-to-face and remote presence is needed in order to offer flexibility to the learner and its coach. Instead of uniform assessments the situation of blended learning will be evaluated with a learner’s unique portfolio that demonstrates all competencies required in order to function adequately in a certain professional layer.

This brings up an essential question for the debate around lifelong learning: If it is correct that incidental learning is more important than learning in more formal settings, does this imply that efforts which aim to increase adults’ participation in training courses and other structured and intentional learning activities should be abandoned, and that policy should rather concentrate on boosting chances of people to acquire knowledge through experience (such as “learning by doing” on the job)? This perceived antagonism between working, playing and learning can only be resolved as these three become recognized as various components of the same: both the person and the group need learning in order to cope with societal changes. Strange enough ‘learning’ has conquered its relevance too far; it has become a tool for overcoming social stratification and has thus become a goal in itself. Discussing “the right to learn” and “the duty to learn” has obscured the essence of learning. The genuine life-long learning can best be seen as the ideal way to both avoid “surviving by adapting” and “surviving by escaping”. Learning is the optimal combination of accommodation and assimilation; Its goal is to preserve the person’s identity by incorporating the essence of his/her surrounding.

Life-Long Learning addresses both formal and informal aspects of learning. Formal education has met severe problems to assimilate and exploit the added value of ICT. At the same time we have seen the relevance of the web for learning in daily life. CoPs, “Communities of Practice” rest upon the notion of distributed cognition (Salomon, 1993) that allows professionals to instantly benefit from each other knowledge and experiences. Lave and Wenger studied the relation between enculturation in collaborative environments such as midwifes and sailors, where they identified the CoP. It was only later that this form of learning was also detected in ICT-mediated communities.  (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002). An academic question that arises here is if this mechanism of peer consult ‘promotes’ or ‘bypasses’ learning essentially? It is clear however that society nowadays cannot go without the knowledge dynamics via ‘instant’ peer consult. Salomon’s paradigm of distributed cognition pleads for a new learning culture that stimulates students to build upon each other understanding rather than promote an exclusive, individualistic and competitive learning climate.  It also pleads for assessment methods where students may use the full functionality of the web, inclusively the consult of experts around the world. “Web-based communities” have been signaled as ultimate agglomerations where joint interests and sharing understanding fuel a phenomenon called “just-in-time learning”. A skeptic view is that in this way the omnipresence of free consult in fact inhibits rather than promotes learning; If expertise is one click away it is not likely that community members may hesitate to invest in learning to solve the problem themselves.

Social Impact Analyses

In the search for “Social Impact of ICT” the sector of Education and Learning is quite relevant as it reflects how society expects ICT to prepare for the future. This study starts from the fact that education and learning have become a major factor in societal awareness. The elements of ‘social’ and ‘awareness’ have been supplanted by the notion of the ‘economical’ effects of education the last decades. In how far ICT affected the orientation of innovation in the educational sector so far? We see that ICT has entered our schools and has sped up earlier trends towards adaptation and differentiation and has been weak in re-establishing a balance between for instance expository-, problem based- and collaborative learning.  The key question here is if the entrance of ICT has shown its own agenda; in how far has it been an autonomous factor? Being in the middle of this process it is not easy to see where cosmetic effects gradually become a transformation or even an evolutionary factor. What indicators are there at the moment, that predict the direction and the magnitude of life-long learning via the web? From the analysis of ICT in regular education we may extrapolate and predict that the instructional, curricular and assessment-driven scenario should be avoided in order to keep the learning flexible, alert and vital. This report attempts to discern the catalyst- versus the reorientation effects of ICT in education. It is seen as an undisputed fact that mass media had an enormous impact on the emancipation and self efficacy of citizens in the sixties and seventies (Garnham 2002). It is now the question if ICT is instigating a new trend in education with a similar direction as the mass media before? The introduction of ICT in western society has affected the role and practices of learning dramatically. The fact that information access and consulting human expertise became a commodity rather than an upper class privilege is its most obvious phenomenon. Three unique relationships between ICT and learning emerged; ICT in schools became almost synonymous innovation to educational innovation in itself. Studying the dynamics of learning in communities of practice are still in its premature stage; We are still far away from understanding how best conditions for eliciting learning rather than just cooperation may look like.

  1. As ICT has been the quickest developing technological strand in the last two decades, it has been the field of learning and education that was called upon for making citizens “aware”, “literate” and “skilled” in this field.
  2. As in the preceding half century the underlying paradigm of learning focused on instruction (the systematic- and the guided transfer of information from the expert to the novice), there has been an excessively high ambition on the role of ICT in enabling learning as a dissemination rather than a developmental process. In its more rigorous shape, learning may cause sectors to diminish like the travel agent, or the job secretary. The typical mechanism here is that ICT suggests workers to incorporate earlier specialized skills in other professions. This migration is often seen as learning. It could better be called “supplanting” existing expertise domains, inevitably leading to erode specialized craftsmanship and later to reinstall this craftsmanship in full recognition again.
  3. The cybernetic role of ICT has been quite a welcome metaphor for learning as process that relies on external- rather than on internal control. Rather than empowering the learner as an autonomous learner it have been ICT advocates who recognized the merits of channeling learning into one of “process control”.

The Eurobarometer highlights “Learning or doing online courses” as favorite activity via internet: 35% of the Analysis of the Eurobarometer Data. It associates “Learning or doing online courses” closer to “Amusement” and “Consumerism” (.43) rather than with “Working” and “Investing” (.24). These data suggest that ICT has managed to transform the essence of learning from centripetal into centrifugal; learning via the web is generally seen as “relaxing” rather “charging”. If it comes to ICT users’ opinions, 74% expresses that internet has helped them to improve the opportunities to learn. In conclusion: ICT has been adopted as a welcome tool for sustaining instructional procedures in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time the learner nowadays recognizes the impact of the web and in fact enjoys the lack of instruction as the web and interactive programs allow the user an optimal freedom to navigate and branch all the time. It seems that the perceived ICT roles have been understood quite different by those who learn versus by those who teach. We may summarize that learning technologies have opened many possibilities to make life-long learning more “active” and “student-driven”. At the same time we see the ongoing trend to exploit facilities like distance-, virtual-, ubiquitous- and flexible learning for prolongating the “course delivery” formula far longer than actually needed. A striking example is the various national implementations of the British “Open University”: Though its admittance procedure has become opened, the overall contract is that predefined course content needs to be transmitted and digested; the contribution of the learners to the actual understanding of the topic itself is not targeted. The Open University as potential exponent in benefitting from ICT shows that its institutional trend toward consolidation dominates the potential to innovate learning as such. The paradox is that institutions who aim at the learning of others have a remarkable low tendency to learn themselves.

The more fundamental question arises if ICT as such promotes, inhibits or has a neutral position towards the further evolution of learning practices? As exemplar we may observe how travelers may learn from GPS technologies rather than memorizing maps and switching the lanes on the high ways. Indeed it is the case that after having learned how to use the GPS device the traveler can expand his/her manifested skills at a local scale to a world-wide one. So that we might conclude that learning to use ICT tools is a generic one that bypasses citizens to learn by heart the huge factual instantiations. At the same time it is the same technological commodities that encourage institutional learning to ignore the real impact of ICT. For example we see how educational publishers nowadays integrate GPS methods in school books now very quickly as instrumental skill for learning the traditional geographical goals even more stringent; rather than admitting that topography is now a matter of opening Google Earth they claim that topographical knowledge is now even more important than before as learner might get lost as soon as the GPS dies from batteries.


Educational institutes tend to adopt ICT measures even to preserve its “main contract”: Learners are supposed to learn what has been defined as valid by authorities before. The larger portion of ICT application in schools nowadays is in the massive use of ELSSs “Electronic Learning Support Systems”; in essence not more than the emulation of the roster, the blackboard and the exercise book. ELSSs in Secondary and in Higher Education dominate the fuller spectrum of potentially contributive ICT tools. It cannot be ignored that to a larger extent ELSSs work out as a cosmetic tool in order to disguise the still dominant main contract between institution and the learner. Web technologies are recently exploited to mimic solid “Distance Universities” while in fact they are just administrative offices for brokering remote experts and students. Typically we see the ELSS Blackboard™ that reflects the overall interest of educational institutes to keep new ICT support as isomorphic as possible to the traditional artifacts and procedures in ‘lecture-hall-teaching’. Though web-based learning has contributed to make higher education accessible the last two decades, from a conceptual point of view it is not their merit that traditional institutes start to lose their hegemony.


Before entering the prime question if and how life-long learning may evolve due to new socio-technological constellations like “the networked society”, “web-based communities”,  “social software” etcetera, it is inevitable to look back in the last five decades and discern longer underlying trends.

The choice to articulate life-long learning as different from school-based learning is our prior intuition that the latter one may fail to cover citizens’ need for continuous change. The problem however is that life-long learning has split into two domains mainly:

  1. Life-long learning that obeys the law of the “overall contract” in the sense that those who want to learn need to open the mind for those who pretend to know already. A clear example is the “Éducation Permanente” and life-long learning as a repair of lost schooling chances. The efforts of our western “Open University” embodies this ambition.
  2. Life-long learning as an effort to see learning as endemic to life anyway. It acknowledges learning to be an intrinsic need and desire that cannot be orchestrated by third parties. It is just this second notion of life-long learning that benefits ultimately from ICT. It comes close to the notion that “learning has disappeared as it is always there”.

The first important step towards clarifying and explaining past  phenomena is to articulate clearly that except from monastic and early scholastic encyclopedic idealism, learning has always been regarded as a means to achieve other “more important” goals like: divine contemplation, conquering enemies, progressive migration along social-economical strata and finally to extend existential and exotic ambitions like we see in the academical efforts given by the elderly after they finish their career in western countries nowadays. Learning as apprehended in the feudal and industrial times was instrumental rather than autonomous. Its goal diverted from the time when learning was seen as a process to change yourself. Once the intellectual aspect was reified, learning and education became a strategic tool to accomplish emancipation, industrial success etc. “Instruction” became the ultimate arrangement to make learning more focused and more efficient. In parallel to the influx of learning “technologies” political and social ideologies discovered “learning” as instrument to escape from inertia. Typical for both school-based and life-long learning is that it has transcended learning from its instrumental nature: Adapt in order to survive. Since the early 20th century learning has become a goal in itself. We may say that learning in its intellectual sense has become a cheap way to emulate the erudite-driven interest by those who were freed from material concerns like noble- ,clergy men and academic scholars. Of course there is no way back; the romantic apprehension of learning as a complementary life-style can only flourish in a dual society of those who work versus those who think. In order to understand the dialectic nature of learning and societal development it is good to remind the early roots of “deschooling society”.

Already in the late sixties and seventies, the early precursor of the “networked society” arose. “De-schooling Society” is the epitome of reform pedagogies that had a critical stand on schooling institutes as mainly surviving for its own sake. As solution they promoted open knowledge sources and ubiquitous learning. ICT, and especially the web, has allowed citizens to access abundant information sources lately. Even the training of skills can be made via online games and simulations. Quite often it raises the idea that finally the web will bypass educational institutes. It would be too simplistic to say that ICT has enabled the process of “De-schooling Society” (Illich; 1971, Freire; 1972, 1995 and Reimer; 1971). At the other end it is fair to say that these authors would have been surprised to see that their apocalyptic forecast became so tangible within 35 years already. ICT has instigated learning to transform itself from convergence into a process of divergence. This can be seen in the informal-, non institutional-, non certificate-oriented aspects of learning that typically exhibit how the world should be understood. It is clear that the dominant textual format will be supplanted by complementary modalities like visual, voice, haptic and kinesthetic sensations and expressions. A decisive factor is if the learner finds a way to satisfy him/herself after having mastered a certain mental goal. In terms if ICT support we might easily overlook the role of chocolate, drink coke or social talk for the overall pacing of the learner. Once these prime factors of pleasance work out in the awareness of the student, it is hard to distinguish intrinsic from extrinsic motives during learning. The overall instructional approach focuses entirely on the external regulation. But in fact the crucial step is if learners manage to incorporate the external regulation into (internal) self regulation. Recently the role of internal speech in becoming an autonomous learner is considered more, (Agina, 2008). Even if learners are fully dedicated to master a certain knowledge or skill, still many rituals on ‘how to learn’ can be observed. Research determined only very few basic mechanisms on how to learn best. At the same time we must admit that human learning manifests in hundreds of types of situations. Theories on how learning essentially works have been subject to a natural science discipline to find out the first order essentials when and how learning occurs. This has led to the many attempts to reduce the essentials of learning. The most dominant ones are mechanisms like contiguity between reinforcement and desired response, the role of motivation, variation in methods and environments, etc. In other words: there is a significant mismatch between the theoretical and the situational aspects of the nature of learning. The typical result of laboratory experiments is that learning theories have a strong emphasis on elementary types of learning: rote learning rather than meaningful, reproductive rather than productive, intellectual rather than emotional, social and creative learning. Its result is that ICT as learning support has by and large focused on practice-and-drill, hierarchical and task-analytical domains. The penetration of media of any kind has a pervasive effect on the way we suppose the human mind works best. Education itself has become a media genre on how to prepare the younger generation for real life best.

  1. The first stand is that we admit it is very hard to legitimate what content is most important to be taught.
  2. The second stand is to say that we just need any content in order to “learn to learn”.
  3. The most ultimate stand is to say that learning should produce new understanding rather than just incorporate the one of yesterday. ,

Institutional (regular) education will increasingly struggle in balancing these three stands. Life-long learning in the sense of existentially-driven learning need have no problem in this sense; it is the learner’s momentary motive to learn of to consult an existing expert. Still its main premise is that it is best to bring learners together in rather homogeneous groups and let them be taught about the topics by educationalists rather than by domain professionals. And again: It stays under the ‘basic contract’ that learning becomes more successful as it makes the learner more aware of the knowledge of the prior generation. As it is obvious that for life-long learning this premise does not work out, it is a challenging question on how regular education can make young learners sensitive for the more authentic and autonomous learning for life-long learning. If we see how web-based communities, in particular the ‘communities of practice’ enable large-scale learning among professionals, it becomes clear that ICT started to transform the learning culture drastically. The big question is: If, when and how education will adopt these methods. When will it blend its “main contract” with the more rich practices of web-based life-long learning? ICT has left only minor effects on school didactics.  Traditionally teaching modes have been built upon the various ways of learning the domain of learning and on a priori learning concepts/paradigms. (Kearsly, 2008). The trend from behaviorist via cognitivist to constructionist learning paradigms, education has managed to maintain its institutional nature. As will be summarized in the final conclusions it is the basic contract that prescribes learners to incorporate what has already been mastered by the elder generation. Subsequently we see that “the new learning paradigms” have little or even detrimental effects on the innovation of education as a whole; the introduction of ICT is taken as a cosmetic make-over for the traditional recipe. 

Empowerment and Participation

In 2008 the Horizon Advisory Board highlighted the growing interest for Creative Expression in teaching and learning comes forward. A good example of it is a tool like Google’s Mashup Editor[1] that makes it relatively easy to create applications, grab online data, organize it, and display it the way the author wants. ICT has enabled education to transform faster. And not surprisingly negative effects became visible more quickly than positive ones. Apart from sporadic initiatives there are no signs of education to incorporate the real potential of ICT. The main stimulus to take ICT seriously is the urgent need for active, creative and collaborative learners. If schools keep ignoring this challenge there is a chance that young learners consider schools as “social duty” and explore the web-based learning communities to access “more important” notions for life. An emerging awareness is that learners learn despite of the curricular regime; they already learnt how to cope with ICT opportunities and hurdles. They teach the teacher how to benefit from the web, and thus learn in a reciprocal way.

A significant term here is “regaining ownership of one’s learning”.  Web-based learning communities act as networked “self-help groups” in order to understand new phenomena much quicker. Their speed and versatility widely exceed curricular-based learning. Authority is taken as a derivative rather than an a priori. This process slows down as long as employers tend to rely on the status of certification rather than assessing employees’ acquired capacities like problem solver, team player, solidarity etc. themselves. In terms of “Finite and Infinite Games” (Carse, 1986), learning tends to transform itself all the time. However institutions prefer to consolidate the basic contract in order to reduce uncertainty. While promoting “quality awareness” throughout all levels of education, we see that information systems and its underlying “rational” jumped too easily on aggregating quantitative learning outcomes. Rather than asking “what qualities of learning” should be taken into account, it became attractive to reify what could be measured. The fact that date became available for managers and decision makers has helped to see learning as a transfer- rather than as a developmental process.  At the micro Level we see ICT tools like simulation and gaming to become subordinate to the instructional metaphor: optimizing the learning through optimizing external conditions. As soon as it comes to ‘learn to learn’ current educational innovations are typically incapable to accommodate pedagogical processes like self-regulation and moral development other than “prepare yourself for the test”. Teachers who fulminate against “new learning” soon fall back to “teach the test”. Optimist may say that classroom practice has changed indeed. The teacher is inclined to pose intriguing problems rather than lessons to be memorized to the students. Fine, that sounds great. The real obstacle is in the nature of assessing learners’ “outcomes”. First of all final examinations target grading students individually; group efforts and students’ talents to help others to learn are ignored. Even: during school-based examinations the altruistic nature of students to help others’ learning may fire back as their team mates are suddenly they competitors. In other words: The jewelry of improving learning practices is destroyed by assessment practices from earlier times. At the same time we see that these students’ employers look for team players rather than for soloists. So the message is: Schools, give up your traditional criteria; admit the change on societal needs.

At the meso level we see attempts to transform the “learning by transfer” into the “learning by development”. School leaders and institutional creeds advocate their students to become autonomous and authentic learners who have the attitude to excavate and even ‘create’ new understanding. Similar phenomenon at the meso level is the introduction of “competences” rather than knowledge and skills. Its implementation under the same basic contract however falls back upon a checklist for observing the learners to prove mastering “competences”. At the macro Level we observe policy makers embracing ICT as a way to monitor quantitative educational outcomes more and more. Incentives to get good national ranking stimulates institutes, teachers and students to comply with national tests primarily. Also this mechanism shows that ICT is instrumental to make students and teachers keen on ‘standards’ rather than diversity and authenticity. Again, an optimistic view is that teachers and students will not deprive their actual vivid learning modes by the test criteria to be expected finally. This might be case for some. However it is good to be aware that since the 1970ies the dominant cybernetic question has been formulated: What is the goal of your learning and lesson plan? This so-called “didactic analysis” has not been supplanted by an explicit alternative didactic design paradigm since then.

Institutional policies advocate the integration of “learning management systems” rather than learning support systems in education. Its effects penetrate the meso level. As it comes to the actual level of didactics and teacher guidance there are only sporadic effects of ICT in the learning methods. Its explanation is that the final account for successful teaching and learning is in the students’ score on centralized examinations. These ignore the more authentic learning achievements by learners. In other words: The incentives for teachers to apply ICT innovative learning methods are not there yet. In terms of policy recommendation this should be high on the agenda for the coming decade at least. Optimists will bring forward that the summative effect of ICT tools and infrastructures in learning are positive and we should embrace further technologies subsequently. This position may hold for policy makers at large. However if we attempt to understand, tune and predict one level further it is not enough to welcome this summative conclusion. In terms of next research agenda we need to understand more detailed why the major benefits of ICT are overlooked and ignored in learning practices. Is it the institutional inertia? Is it our fixation to traditional assessment methods? Or is it simply because we lack the didactic repertoire on how to accommodate the more active learner attitude?  

Social Capital

Recent evidence suggests that incidental learning has a significant role to play in skill acquisition:

·         A US study of about 1,000 workers in seven companies found that roughly 70 percent of on-the-job-training received by employees is informal, and concludes that “informal learning was widespread and served to fulfil most learning needs. In general, we noted that informal learning was highly relevant to employee needs and involved knowledge and skills that were attainable and immediately applicable. [...] Workers constantly learn and develop while executing their day-to-day job responsibilities, acquiring a broad range of knowledge and skills” (Centre for Workforce Development, 1998).

·         In Germany, the “Berichtssystem Weiterbildung” reports that three out of four persons in employment state to learn informally for their job (Report by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung); see Dehnborstel, Overwien & Bernd, 2003.

·         Data from an the eBusiness Watch surveys shows that enterprises regard "learning on the job" clearly as the most important way to develop IT skills in the company. About 60% of enterprises say that "learning on the job" is "very important", much more than in the case of formal training schemes. This confirms results from the BISER survey targeted at workers. (EBusiness-Watch).

·         Livingstone, who conducted the first Canadian national survey on adults’ informal learning practices, found that adult Canadians spend on average 15 hours per week on informal learning (most of which related to paid or unpaid work), in addition to 4 hours per week spent on average on participation in training courses. 95% of adult Canadians were involved in some form of adult learning which they can identify as such. (Livingstone, 2001).


Despite of these findings, we must be doubtful about the ability of experiential learning to prepare people to learn (as opposed to coping with change) – something which has become vitally important in times when we all need to adapt much quicker to the ever-changing socio-economic environment. There is a wide-spread perception of lack of skills among workers as well as among employers – which seems to imply that even if the large majority carries out incidental learning, it appears not to be able to meet all skill needs. Anecdotal evidence would also suggest that more formal, purposeful learning, (especially if it yields a form of certification), provides benefits in the form of higher self-esteem and motivation. An overlooked dimension in this respect might be the effects of latent learning: It is the subliminal process where learners who deliberately target the traditional test scores, still pick up the values while they are confronted with curricular topics. As overall we may still condemn this situation as it resembles prostitution or colonial times: It is not good what we ask from you; but doing so you will still get something good out of it.

Therefore, we plan to underpin with empirical data that incidental learning with access to the Internet) has a major influence on the amount of skills a person is likely to acquire. The potential of ICTs for transforming the acquisition of knowledge and skills is, therefore, by no means limited to intentional and structured processes of education and training.

Information and Life-Long Learning

The question is whether lifelong learners will master these new learning skills as a large part of the older population did not learn to use ICT for learning at schools or work places. In so far as directly ICT-related skills are concerned, a distinction is being made between e-skills and digital literacy skills. E-skills themselves can be broken down into:

·         ICT practitioner skills: The capabilities required for researching, developing and designing, managing, the producing, consulting, marketing and selling, the integrating, installing and administrating, the maintaining, supporting and service of ICT systems;

·         e-Business skills: the capabilities needed to exploit opportunities provided by ICT, notably the Internet, to ensure more efficient and effective performance of different types of organizations, to explore possibilities for new ways of conducting business and organizational processes, and to establish new businesses.

·         ICT user skills: the capabilities required for effective application of ICT systems and devices by the individual. ICT users apply systems as tools in support of their own work (which is, in most cases, not ICT) or private life.


In addition to these directly ICT-related skills, there are skills of a more generic nature which are required to fully participate in a society which is increasingly dominated by knowledge- and information-rich environments and technologically mediated communication. These are often subsumed under the term “digital literacy skills”. For the conceptualization of the different kind of skills which make up digital competence, the categorization suggested by Steyaert and further developed by van Dijk (Van Dijk, 2005) is of particular value. They differentiate between operational (instrumental) skills, informational (structural) skills and strategic skills:

·         Operational skills are needed to operate ICTs (computers, software, Internet connections, mobile devices);

·         Information skills are required to search, select and process information from computer and network files, which implies the ability to structure information according to specific requirements and preferences;

·         Strategic skills denote the ability to take own initiative in searching, selecting, integrating, valuing, and applying information from various sources as a strategic means to improve one’s position in society. It often implies the continuous scanning of the environment for information which might be relevant to the four spheres of life: personal life, family life, work life, and community life.


Recent performance tests of these skills among the Dutch population have shown that operational skills are possessed to a reasonable degree but that performances of information and strategic skills on the Internet are far below expectations (for example of governments expecting that their citizens can use the Internet). This also goes for the youngest generation. (Van Deursen & Van Dijk, 2007). It is important to take into account that digital literacy is by no means limited to the utilization of the Internet. Any definition and operational definition of digital literacy needs to include the full spectrum of (current and future) ICTs, which include mobile applications and services which are expected to become much more dominant in the coming years. More generally, any definition of digital literacy must be open to new technological and market developments which will become relevant in the future. Against this background, it may make sense to define as the focus of digital literacy any ICT-enabled means with which to access, manage, integrate, or evaluate information, construct new knowledge, or communicate with others.


One of the key notions is the basic contract: learners need to incorporate what has already been mastered by the elder generation. Its typical consequence is that regardless of ICT sophistication and its “seamless integration” we see that “the new learning paradigms” have only little or even detrimental effects in ongoing educational innovation programs.  ICT by its nature already stimulates life-long learning and can offer even more support in the next coming years. Seen the momentum of formal (institutional) education it is inevitable to look as a curator to this wide societal and economical sector. The first symptom is that already students start building their web-based social networks. It will be hard for institutional players to build on them while keeping both the students’ enthusiasm and the institution’s need for robustness in tact. The most feasible approach in this is to instigate teachers to build and invest in professional networks inn order to support their day-to-day teaching. At least it will allow them to understand better the ways students learn from social networking. Besides the well-known factors like declining student enrollments and growing costs reports like included in Appendix 1 mention two problems explicitly:


  1. Incoming students do not necessarily master the needed ICT skills. Yes, there is an “ocean” of user-created content, collaborative work, and instant access to information of varying quality. However students lack the skills of critical thinking, research, and evaluation. Indeed the more fundamental underlying question is if this attitudinal aspect at the students can be ascribed to preceding educational stages.
  2. Students who enter higher education already are members of web-based social networks, its tools and its conventions and etiquette. Mobile devices, flexible software tools like voice recognition are fully integrated in their daily life. The question is how can higher education with its centrally orchestrated ICT infrastructure accommodate this large variety? 

One option is to allow higher educational institutes to build a thin layer of web-based facilities and leave it to incoming students to rely on their own connectivity. At this point we may expect higher education to explore all kinds of creative solutions and will be part of their marketing strategy.

Policy Implications

Life-long learning is an important application field for ICT; Learning is a vital element for the evolution of society and social awareness. Education and learners themselves are quite aware of the strategic value of ICT. Web-based “learning support systems” and even “web-based communities” stay behind in grasping the full potential of collaborative learning. Limiting factor for the full adoption of ICT in orchestrated education is the “Overall Contract”: Novices are supposed to learn what the experts already know. Testing and certification has become a goal in itself; Learning effects that are hard to assess tend to be ignored. Life-long learning is complementary to the majority of subsidized education; its goal is to embed the many types of learning in day-to-day life. Life-long Learning is a much more versatile practice; it is often a momentary “just-time-learning”. ‘Communities of Practice’ are pragmatic solutions for building upon the colleagues’ expertise and subsequently for retrieving one’s own experiences so that peers may benefit from it. Communities of Practice heavily rely on a combination of the best available technologies nowadays: Mobile, ubiquitous, collaborative, constructivist- and virtual reality for optimizing colleagues to complement each other. An important impact is the use of learning communities for teachers; Once a teacher feels robust (s)he can announce his/her role as mentor/mentee in order to find colleagues to spar with and find practical solutions. ICT has brought “social software” (the Web 2.0) and “web-based communities”. Seen the imperfect distribution of ICT skills it seems a good idea to orient teachers further on how to use the tools and methods that underly social software. This is the way to let life-long learning penetrate real life. For a long time (down from the early EU-supported DELTA projects in the early nineties) there has been the ‘believe’ that the integration of ICT in Education and Training is a way to vitalize these sectors as such. Now as urban societies can be considered as saturated by ICT, it is inevitable to

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piet kommers
10:52am 1 September 2009

Policy Implications

Life-long learning is an important application field for ICT; Learning is a vital element for the evolution of society and social awareness. Education and learners themselves are quite aware of the strategic value of ICT. Web-based “learning support systems” and even “web-based communities” stay behind in grasping the full potential of collaborative learning. Limiting factor for the full adoption of ICT in orchestrated education is the “Overall Contract”: Novices are supposed to learn what the experts already know. Testing and certification has become a goal in itself; Learning effects that are hard to assess tend to be ignored. Life-long learning is complementary to the majority of subsidized education; its goal is to embed the many types of learning in day-to-day life. Life-long Learning is a much more versatile practice; it is often a momentary “just-time-learning”. ‘Communities of Practice’ are pragmatic solutions for building upon the colleagues’ expertise and subsequently for retrieving one’s own experiences so that peers may benefit from it. Communities of Practice heavily rely on a combination of the best available technologies nowadays: Mobile, ubiquitous, collaborative, constructivist- and virtual reality for optimizing colleagues to complement each other. An important impact is the use of learning communities for teachers; Once a teacher feels robust (s)he can announce his/her role as mentor/mentee in order to find colleagues to spar with and find practical solutions. ICT has brought “social software” (the Web 2.0) and “web-based communities”. Seen the imperfect distribution of ICT skills it seems a good idea to orient teachers further on how to use the tools and methods that underly social software. This is the way to let life-long learning penetrate real life. For a long time (down from the early EU-supported DELTA projects in the early nineties) there has been the ‘believe’ that the integration of ICT in Education and Training is a way to vitalize these sectors as such. Now as urban societies can be considered as saturated by ICT, it is inevitable to reconsider this long-term believe. 

  1. ICT as information and communication facilities should no longer be seen as endemic to innovative learning. More urgent is the notion that learning is a social and an emancipator societal process that should not be delegated exclusively to institutions. The recommendation is to open the educational floor to more diverse players. Not by promoting further privatization of school-based learning, but by giving parts of the national educational budgets to any person who offers face-to-face tutoring to youngsters. The fee providing learning support is a voucher that gives the right for being taught yourself. The formula for the voucher tutor-tutee transaction equals: Qualification x time x learning-effect.  A trusted body should administer learning transactions and balance the voucher- against Euro equivalents.
  2. Teachers, both at the secondary and tertiary level, need to compete with the effects of “ambulant” tutors as described under the first recommendation. Vital precondition for allowing a more developmental learning in schools is that learning effects are no longer assessed by centralized uniform examinations. Instead of that learning should be evaluated on the basis of individual learner reports (portfolio dossiers) with authenticity, creativeness and societal/technological value as main criteria. Teachers should adapt their practices to the more unique learner profiles of their students.
  3. ICT is a vital (but not a sufficient) precondition for this evolution of the teacher role. Rather than bringing ICT to regular education it is now urgent to instigate new learning paradigms in the networked ICT society. Social constructivism is a promising paradigm for describing societal awareness and learning at the level of a community.

The EU commission should encourage its member states to diminish state-financed Higher- and Vocational Education. They should subsidize the experts, brokers and moderators of informal life-long learning; Not for the sake of so-called ‘stimulating market-mechanisms’, but rather for the sake of acknowledging that networked societies need a much more versatile learning than we have seen in learning institutions during the last two centuries. The Web 2.0 provides ample facilities to let learning-minded citizens to find each other and recruit experts rather than teachers. The voucher mechanism should be formalized as a tokenized currency expressing someone’s credits for allowing others to learn rather than “learn” in a solistic way.

piet kommers
10:53am 1 September 2009


Web-based Documents

·         Eurobarometer

·         European Commission (2001) Communication: Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality. Available at:

·         European Commission report on Lifelong Learning (2008): Education and Training policies; Coordination of Lifelong Learning Policies. ‘Education & Training 2010’ Main policy initiatives and outputs in education and training since the year 2000

·         Horizon Reports: See

·         OECD report “Education at a Glance, 2008 Report”

·         OECD report Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society: Thematic Review of Tertiary Education (2008) ISBN 92-64-04652-6

·         URLs: See ;

Paper-based Documents

·         Agina, A.; Towards understanding self-organisation: How self-regulation contributes to self-organisation? In: International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Life-Long Learning 2008 - Vol. 18, No.3  pp. 366 - 379

·         Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF)(ed)(2003) ‘Integrierter Gesamtbericht zur Weiterbildungssituation in Deutschland Berichtssystem Weiterbildung VIII’, Bonn: BMBF.

·         Carse, James P. (1986). Finite and Infinite Games. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-34184-8. 

·         Craven, Paul, and Barry Wellman. 1973. "The Network City." Sociological Inquiry 43:57-88;

·         Dehnborstel, Peter, Molzberger, Gabriele, Overwien, Bernd (2003): Informelles Lernen in modernen Arbeitsprozessen Dargestellt am Beispiel von Klein- und Mittelbetrieben der IT-Branche, BBJ Consult, Berlin

·         Deursen, van & A. and van Dijk, J. (2007) ‘Measuring digital skills, Performance tests of operational, formal, information and strategic Internet skills among the Dutch population’, Paper submitted to the 58th Conference of the Informational Communication Association, Montral Candada, May 2008.

·         Deursen, van A. & J. van Dijk (2007) ‘Measuring digital skills, Performance tests of operational, formal, information and strategic Internet skills among the Dutch population’, Paper submitted to the 58th Conference of the Informational Communication Association, Montral Candada, May 2008.

·         Dijk, van J.A.G.M. (2005) ‘The Deepening Divide – Inequality in the Information Society’, Thousand Oaks, London and Delhi: SAGE.

·         Egan, Kieran (2008) The Future of Education: Re-imagining the School from the Ground up. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

·         Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

·         Freire, P. (1995) Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.

·         Garnham, N. (2002) Information Society as Theory or Ideology: A Critical Perspective on Technology, Education and Employment in the Information Age Digital Academe (W. Dutton and B. Loader, eds), pp. 253–67. London: Routledge.

·         Hiltz, S. Roxanne and Murray Turoff. 1978. The Network Nation. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

·         Illich, I. (1973a) Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 116 pages. (First published by Harper and Row 1971; now republished by Marion Boyars).

·         Kearsly, G. (2008) Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory into Practice Database.  and

·         Kommers, P.A.M., Luursema, J.M., Rodel, S., Geelkerken, B. & Kunst, E. (2004) ‘Virtual reality for training medical skills’, in: International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Life-Long Learning, 14(1/2):142-166.

·         Livingstone, D.W. (2001) ‘Adults’ Informal Learning: Definitions, Findings, Gaps and Future Research’, NALL Working Paper # 21, Toronto: NALL.

·         Postman, Neil, (1986) “The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School” Random House.

·         Mayes, J.T. (1992) ‘Mindtools: A suitable case for learning’, in Kommers, P.A.M.,Jonassen, D. & Mayes, T. (eds) ‘Cognitive tools for learning’, Heidelberg: Springer. Centre for Workforce Development (1998) ‘The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge’, Newton, Mass.: Education Development Centre.

·         Reimer, Everett, School Is Dead: An Essay on Alternatives in Education. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin. 1973. (ISBN: 0140801693) Mass Market Paperback.

·         Rousseau, J.J.: Émile ou de l'éducation, 1762

·         Salomon, G. (1993) Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. (ISBN 0-521-57423-4) (Cambridge University Press).

·         Sánchez, Joan-Anton; When ICT Policy In Education Does Not Have The "Power" Of Transforming Schools. ECER 2008, 16. ICT in Education and Training, Session: 16 SES 03B

·         Thorpe Mary  (2005) The Impact of ICT on Lifelong Learning. Chapter3 in Perspectives on Distance Education: Lifelong Learning and Distance Higher Education. Christopher McIntosh, Editor; Zeynep Varoglu, Editorial Coordinator. ISBN 1-894975-21-9

·         Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W. 2002, Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

 Wellman, Barry. 1988. "Structural Analysis: From Method and Metaphor to Theory and Substance." Pp. 19-61 in Social Structures: A Network Approach, edited by Barry Wellman and S.D. Berkowitz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;          

piet kommers
10:55am 1 September 2009

Key Trends by the OECD- and the Horizon Reports

The 2007 OECD study based on Norway shows in Table 1 an overall trend of about 15% increase in internet use per year. Age is a relevant factor; youngster in the group 16-24 y.o. make use of internet for about 100 minutes per day. The age group from 9-15 is an outlier and typically spends less time on internet. One of the potential explanations may be the pressure of homework at the start of Secondary Education. Becoming familiar with internet at earlier ages causes the younger generation to spend about double the time on internet compared to the average user.



Besides the peak in high-level computer skills in the age group of 16-24, its skewness in gender is quite remarkable. Analogue to the pressure on gender bias in Mathematics and Physics, we may face the need to have both sexes working with ICT independently in order to avoid unnecessary negative transfer on the self image of girls. Four measures of ICT inclusiveness were presented, (Lagesen & Sørensen, 2008):

1.    Access to and use of the internet

2.    Computer skills

3.    Higher education graduates in computing

4.    The ICT workforce


Both the OECD and the HAB (Horizon Advisory Board) signal the same key trends in the practice of teaching, learning, and creativity. In its 2007 report the HAB mentions six trends that may show a significant impact in education in the next five years.


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