Social Software

(Critical) history of ICT in education – and where we are heading?

The use of computers in education is much more a series of failures than success stories. I agree with Erik Duval that in general, in a large scale the impact of technology on the way people learn have been minimal. In open distant learning and military training (simulations) there are examples of success, but these models do not fit very well to school and university context. So, I wouldn’t call them “good examples”.

It can be claimed that from the learning perspective the only proof-of-concept cases of using computers in the school and university environments for learning, are the small-scale experiments with CSCL (Computer-supported Collaborative Learning) tools such as the classical CSILE (and Knowledge Forum), Belvedere and later the experiments made with web-based social software tools, such as Fle3 and blogs.

Why is the impact of technology on the way we learn so marginal, even though millions of dollars and euros has been spent on to develop educational computer technology? Could it be that there has been some principle conceptual bias and all the minor changes made in to it do not help much, as the principle is wrong?

With an analogy: if you are sailing somewhere in equator and take a course by mistake to south, even that you should go north, it does not help much if you every year fix your course 5 degrees. You will still end-up to Antarctica.

Let’s try to make a critical analyse of the history of ICT in learning. How the history will look if we try to pull down the mental models and educational thinking behind the promises of different times?

– click for larger image –

I see four major phases in the history of using computers in education. The fifth: the era of social software and free and open content is still to come – I hope. The phases are:

(1) Late 1970’s – early 1980’s: programming, drill and practice;

(2) Late 1980’s – early 1990’s: computer based training (CBT) with multimedia;

(3) Early 1990’s: Internet-based training (IBT);

(4) Late 1990’s – early 2000: e-Learning;

(5) Late 2000: Social software + free and open content.

From the history of media we know that new forms never replace the old one. TV didn’t kill radio and Internet didn’t kill TV. New forms of media rather complement the old once, but do not countervail them. This naturally leads to greater choice for people, but also causes fragmentation. Different media devices and formats also get mixed with each other and this way generates new forms that contain features from each of them. iPod is a good example of this. It is a kind of walkman of Internet era that can be used to have personalized radio shows (podcasting).

As noticed by my friend Pauliina Seppälä this seems to be the case with sub-cultures, as well. New forms of sub-cultures, such as youth cultures, are often considered to be some kind of fashion that come and go, but actually all the old forms seems to stay with us. We still have mods, punk rockers, pot- and acid heads with us, although we may consider them to be rather passé. They also mix to each other and formulate new forms of sub-cultures.

I think this is the case with educational technology, as well. All the old paradigms live with the new once and get mixed to each other. The old models just never disappeared but are present in a form or another in the new paradigms.

The old paradigms seem to get fashionable once in a while, too. For this reason we should not be surprised if many people are excited about the drill and practice exercises and quizzes online: they still live in our minds because we want to believe that the paradigm is right.

Lets have a closer look on the phases in the history of computers in education.

(1) Late 1970’s – early 1980’s: programming, drill and practice

This is the era when I got into computers in my own school. It was in the early years of 1980’s and our math teacher was teaching also the new school subject called in Finnish “ATK”. The abbreviation stand for “automated data processing” – and the name of the subject already tell you pretty well what it was all about. We were using Nokia MikroMikko. There were not many software at all, but there were the MS Basic for programming and naturally that was what the ATK lessons were almost all about.

The pedagogical reason to teach programming was not to train programmers, but the believe that it will develop students’ logics and math skills, as it most likely does. In some point there were some educational software running on the MikroMikko. I think they were written by the teacher or maybe she got them from some colleagues. However, the software were very simple drill and practice exercises for math and language learning. These exercises didn’t help much students to reach any deeper understanding, as they were mainly simulating students’ short term memory and “trial, error, trial, error, trial, past” kind of activity. Anyway these programs kept the wild children quiet (for a while) when teacher was teaching those who were more into programming.

(2) Late 1980’s – early 1990’s: computer based training (CBT) with multimedia

Same point when the multimedia computers, with advanced graphics and sound came to the mass markets it was presented a claim that the drill and practice exercises failed to teach much because they didn’t contain multimedia. It was said that students would learn if they could watch animations in colours, small video clips and then do the exercises.

This was the golden era of CD-ROMs and multimedia computers. This combination was seriously expected to have a huge impact on the ways we learn. The times were good for CD-ROM producers and of multimedia PC manufacturers.

The pedagogical mantra behind this phase was that human are different and some students learn better by watching movies / animations and listening audios whereas some learn better by reading or watching still images. The drill and practice component (now in colours) was kept in there, too, but now it’s role was more to control yourself if you learned what the multimedia was trying to teach you.

The multimedia CD-ROMs didn’t either get people to deep learning and understanding. They failed to be useful almost in all other study subjects than language learning where part of the study work of many people really requires hard practicing and repetition (vocabulary, grammar etc.)

(3) Early 1990’s: Internet-based training (IBT)

The third wave or hype of using computer in education came with the raise of the World Wide Web. The failure of CD-ROMs were claimed to be related to the challenges to update the content in the CD-ROMs. The promoters of the new paradigm claimed that information changes so fast that one should update it almost every day. The solution is here: the Internet and the Internet-based training.

At this point computer-based training was brought to Internet, but again without the multimedia. All you could do on Internet, that time, was text and pictures and some early experiments with animations, video and audio. Pretty fast it was noticed that clicking and reading e-learning course materials online didn’t make people very smart. And again some people claimed that the problem was the lack of multimedia. 🙂

The educational ideas behind Internet-based training were not pedagogical at all. The purpose and reason to promote it was the believe that it is cost-efficient as there were no more travelling to training or absence from workplace. Finally it was not that cost-efficient at all. In the end of the day there was very little under the bottom line – people didn’t learn much.

(4) Late 1990’s – early 2000: e-Learning

The Internet-based training got mature in late 1990’s and early 2000 in a form of e-learning. The hype around e-learning is a kind of classical example of creating needs. Thousands of websites, articles and companies made it clear for all somehow related to education that this is something you must be involved it. The IT managers of thousands of educational institutions and organizations were asked by the educational experts to come up with e-learning solutions and companies were happy to help the IT managers. The e-learning industry was build, even though it was not proven that anyone (except the IT managers) needed these products. The markets for e-learning courses and especially for Learning Management Systems (LMS) were created.

The pedagogical thinking around the e-learning is closely related to the computer-based training. The point is to deliver courses for students. Later on the learning platform developers has become more aware that learning requires social activities among the learners themselves and the learner and the teacher(s). Still the user interfaces of the LMS systems are at least implicitly telling you that you should first read the content and if there is something you do not understand you may ask your peers or your teacher.

On the otherhand the e-learning field is nowadays so wide that it is hard to say what is the pedagogical thinking behind it. E-learning is no more one. It could be said that all the earlier paradigms live inside the e-leaning plus some clues of the future: social software and open content.

(5) Late 2000: Social software + free and open content

I really hope that in the late 2000 social software and free and open content will make a real breakthrough in the field of educational technology. Blogs and wikis have already brought web back to its original idea: simple tool for your personal notes that are easily accessible and even editable by your peers and your potential peers.

Such projects as the GNU-GPL, Creative Commons, Wikipedia and Opencourseware have shown that free content benefits all – and that people are willing to contribute to the common good. Digital content is such that when you give it away you do not loose it yourself. This makes giving much easier for many people. 🙂

The pedagogical thinking behind the social software and the free and open content can be located to the social constructivist theory and cultural-historical psychology. “Any true understanding is dialogic in nature” wrote Mikhail Bakhtin and Lev Vygotsky wrote that “all higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals”.

Learning with computers is not about programming or drill and practice, nor about multimedia, nor about fast updating or cost-efficiency – it is all about people sharing ideas.

12 replies on “(Critical) history of ICT in education – and where we are heading?”

Draw a chart over your timeline, in which x is number of events and y is humans sharing ideas. You get a nice power law, in which we have a long tail of inactivity until we get to e-learning where it slowly starts to rise. When we enter the social software era, it just peaks.In nature, it is typical that power laws occur when we are in a transitory state from chaos to order. Liquid turning into gas, water freezing and magma turning into a rock: in these events all kinds of power laws occur.Either we are getting a lot smarter as a complex system or I'm just hallucinating…


Good point. On the other hand I would claim that the curve of the World Wide Web itself with these variables is more an U-curve than the power law. People sharing ideas used to be very high in the early days (early 1990's), then degreased when the media companies tried to make out of the web another "traditional one-way media" (late 1990’s). Now with the rise of blogs and wikis we are going up again. I hope the developers of educational technology don’t miss the second wave. It is also good to remember that the “power law”, with human related variables is not a Newton’s Law. With a group of people you can easily violate it. Alan Kay Quote: “Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn't violate too many of Newton's Laws!”


Hi Teemu,Very interesting. Two years ago I wrote an article (in Dutch) about the history of e-learning (…). In my opinion the raise of Internet technology and the increasing critique on the current educational system lead to a lot of attention for e-learning. I used Gartner's hype cycle of emering technology to describe this history. In the first fase (overenthusiasm), technology was dominant and there were high expectations about the possibilities of e-learning. In the second fase (disillusionment) we realised that a lot of e-learning was about replacing current ways of learning (instead of improving current pedagogy). Financial issues (ROI) are dominant. In the third phase (gradual improvement) pedagogy will be dominant. E-learning will be used in a more social-constructivistic way. We still have not reached this phase.


What is perhaps interesting is that, as you mention, at each stage, there were people touting the current technology as the solution… while I agree with your conclusions, it seems to me that real emergence, as in changing things in education at grassroots (rather than just successful pilot projects) will require two things: one, for the technology to become increasingly ubiquitous, and as "invisible" as a light bulb (for many teachers any kind of classroom use of ICT remains exceptionally daunting) and that may take a generation, and two, for educational administrators and policy-makers to find ways to accomodate the implications of the learner-centredness involved in P2P, open content, blogs and wikis. There is much going on now that is highly positive, but real emergence in education of this next stage may be further away than we would like to believe. It seems to me that this is now really a political issue rather than a technological one. We have the technology, but is there the will to ensure it is adopted?
My impression at present is that the situation varies quite radically from country to country, and that is without mentioning the millions who have as yet little or no access to these technologies.


Hi Nick, I fully agree with you. To become really useful in school / university context ICT tools should be ubiquitous. This is actually why I have been interested in the educational use of simple mobile phones and other network devices. However we must keep it clear in mind that technology is never value free, but reflects our values and dreams. Even ubiquitous technology is always designed by someone with some kind of picture of “our way of living”.I love to make my trips with trains and bicycle and I am very happy that in many places where I travel there is ubiquitous technical infrastructure for this. We shouldn’t take it granted. I also agree with you that we need simultaneous small steps (to the right direction 🙂 development in all different sectors: teachers, parents, pupils, students, school administrators, politicians and technology designers. Both the pedagogy and the technology should be come ubiquitous. Maybe I’ll write another post about this matter.


Hello all,Here in Australia, broadband services have only just become affordable, and mobile technologies are steadily being taken up. Both of these technological/infrastructural developments in this country are having an impact on the ways we use Internet technologies here, culturally, in the home, politically, at school. Also, I fully agree with the analogy you made that suggests the need for a complete turn around in the directions taken by education in the fields of eLearning, and I think that the clear interest at the grass routes in open content, blogs, wikis etc is forcing that very issue. Where as when eLearning was first introduced, it always struck me just how disproportionate the amount being spent was to the amount it was being used. Very early on it should have been very apparent that something was wrong with the direction, but noone was willing to talk about it.This poor direction comes as no surprise given that educational organisations (in Australia) are typically quite large, publicly funded, bureaucratically overwhelmed, stooped in tradition, and drawing on human resources who are poorly equipped and lacking appropriate motivation and direction to take up new paradigms in teaching and learning. Basically, while technology in some aspects of the market place may move quickly, the time it takes for collectives, cultures and institutions to change to suite is remarkably, but not surprisingly slow by comparison.Now that the seed money has been spent, much less public funding is available (in Australia) for eLearning, and educational organisations are starting to be pressured into supporting their own 'eLearning' projects. I fear that that seed money was misplaced and that the change seeds have not been adequately planted. I'm concerned that the current generation of managers and directors in our educational organisations have not seen the benefits, do not understand the changes still required, and are certainly not willing to look at the possibility that they are off course and have been since the very get go! They will retract to 'core business' and the continuing investments in the development of staff skills in ICTs will not be made. Organisations will remain with their proprietary operating and management systems… basically schools will remain schools – lock ups with very little connection to the outside world, and hardly ever reflecting real life!There is still hope. The new wave of free and open source, social software etc, makes the new directions cheaper, and in the hands of the grass routes. Now if we can just find a way to motivate all those boomer teachers to take up the new ways and think less about their retirement…


Technology plays an important role in education. Therefore we may use technology such as computer application software (e.g. power point presentation etc) in the class. Still the teacher is need to be as guider and facilitator


I agree that the impact of technology on education has been minimal – but I disagree that OER is the answer. Rather the opposite.

The key to education is *activity* and *conversation* with authoritative others, not the communal sharing of ideas. The former requires the development of activity-driven software ( and adaptive systems ( This is expensive and requires commercial business models. OER has consistently produced low quality resources ( So we continue to identify “technology” with things not developed for education, with all the education-specific stuff being done by the equivalent of the local boy scout modelling club.

The main advocates of OER are the people chasing a slice of the extensive government subsidies which are required to keep the show on the road.

References are to my blog, where I make the argument at greater length. Thanks.


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