Special Report


By Andrew Trotter — May 06, 2004 9 min read
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School classrooms in many parts of Europe have been equipped with the latest computers, networks, and Web sites—yet educators are still unsure what to do with it all.

“The challenge is how to use it in your school,” says Joke Voogt, an education researcher in the Netherlands. “Most teachers have basic [technology] skills; but the next question is integration in their practice, in their subject areas.”

That challenge is not being met, according to a new study of secondary schools in 14 of the “most advanced” nations—which includes 12 from Europe—that are members of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Major investment outlays over the past 20 years have brought modern information and communications technologies, or ICT, into nearly all schools . . . but the extent to which computers are in day-to-day use in these schools remains disappointing,” concludes the March 2004 study, “Completing the Foundation for Lifelong Learning: An OECD survey of Upper Secondary Schools.”

The main reasons for underuse were the difficulties in integrating technology into classroom instruction, problems in scheduling enough computer time for classes, and teachers’ lack of ICT skills and knowledge. Schools also have severe trouble finding teachers with technology skills, no matter what subjects they teach.

Experts say such findings suggest that the strides Europe has made in giving schools access to technology are being undercut by teachers’ lack of know-how.

Goals for 2010

But far from turning back from ICT in education, Europe is bent on tackling the problems—judging by the panoply of studies, conferences, and joint projects. The simple reason is its national governments regard information and communications technologies as critical to the continent’s future prosperity and quality of life.

Those in Scandinavia, for example, see a future in which nearly all the region’s industrial jobs are high-tech, says Jari Koivisto, a counselor of education for Finland’s National Board of Education in Helsinki.“It’s very obvious in Finland—low-level work replacements are going to Estonia and China; many of our factories have moved,” he says.

For the high-skill jobs that will soon define the economy, Koivisto says, “it requires that all the children and young people be welltrained and know how to use the ICT.”

In 2000, the European Council, made up of the heads of state of the European Union, set a target of 2010 for Europe to form “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”

“European countries believe that ICT in education is part of the broad challenges raised by a changing society and consequent transformation of education systems,” says Corinne Hermant-de Callataÿ, the chairwoman of the European Commission’s expert “ICT working group,” which is developing strategies that include greater reliance on ICT.

The group’s latest draft report for the 2010 goals suggests that, by developing online learning systems, European nations can blend their high-quality educational systems with the latest digital information technologies to produce new and better learning products and services.

But Hermant-de Callataÿ cautions that the region cannot make this “knowledge society” its only focus. “There are other challenges,” she says, “which will constrain even more our education systems: coping with multiple and hybrid cultures; youth at risk, given the growing gap between socially advantaged and socially disadvantaged citizens; safeguarding the values of public services and of cohesive education systems.”

Robert B. Kozma, a researcher at the Center for Technology and Learning at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., says Europe looks more broadly at technology in education than does the United States, which tends to view it mostly as a tool to improve academics and prime students for the workforce.

By comparison, “in Europe there is also a sense of cultural enrichment,” and technology projects often aim to “make cultural heritage more accessible to kids in school,” says Kozma, who led a 2003 international study of the use of ICT that examined 174 school-based projects, many in Europe.

Plus, he says, another European priority—fostering regional unity—also dovetails with technology. “Many computer-based programs and other education-based programs ... have the emphasis of connecting schools in one country with schools in other countries, so as to create more social cohesion and build a more integrated entity,” says Kozma.

The Finland Model

Scandinavian schools boast many of Europe’s most extensive applications of technology, according to experts. Nordic wealth and enthusiasm for using technological tools and the Internet, coupled with high literacy levels, have made that region fertile ground for innovation.

Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland have used information technology to target specific problems, such as improving educational services for people in their sparsely populated coastline and tundra areas.

Kozma, like several other scholars, singles out Finland as “having made a significant national commitment to technology to promote their social, economic, and educational development, sometimes referred to as the Finnish Model,” which some other countries are trying to emulate.

Koivisto of Finland’s National Board of Education says that since 1996, his country has coordinated ICT development and teacher training across all levels of education. “The basic idea is to develop the educational system by giving funding for the schools and educational institutes so they can buy computers and install advanced networks,” he says, “and also teach in-service training programs, and methods development.”

The Finns haven’t tried to focus technology on specific subjects, or as a subject itself, Koivisto says. Rather, the country has blended technology into a “working culture” of schools.

“The classroom situation must be changed so that the teacher is not the center of the event,” Koivisto says, adding that this objective has become a theme for professional development.

In the classroom, Finnish students do Internet research but are more likely to use online “learning packages” on specific topics. For instance, “if they are learning physics, they might find a package on waves,” Koivisto explains.

Norway followed a course similar to Finland’s, but with disappointing results, says Ola Erstad, the head of research for Norway’s Network for IT Research and Competence in Education. A unit of the country’s Education Ministry, the network is based at the University of Oslo.

“Access to technology is very good all over, but the actual use by teachers is not that interesting,” Erstad says. For many, she says, the computer “is an advanced calculation and typing machine.”

Norway’s third plan for technology in education—for 2004 through 2008—sets an agenda for tackling teaching issues, such as how educators might rethink the ways technology can be used in different academic subjects.

The first plan, which covered 1996 to 1999, assumed that if technology is placed in schools, “everything will happen in a positive way,” Erstad says. “That was quite naive.”

The second plan generated many pilot projects, notes Erstad. For example, students used the Internet to monitor two women, a Norwegian and an American, who were crossing Antarctica on skis.

Still, although the projects brought new experiences into classrooms, the successes didn’t necessarily scale up nationwide, she says.

Meanwhile, Britain also is shifting attention from its well-equipped schools to its underprepared teachers.

“It’s much harder to get teachers to change the curriculum than to get ICT skills,” David Hargreaves, the chairman of the board of the British Educational Communications Technology Agency, the government’s lead agency on ICT in education, told an international group of education researchers in Washington in March.

He faulted what he sees as his nation’s poor strategic leadership on technology and a “linear” style of educational research and development that lags behind the complexity and rapid change in schools and technology. A better model, he says, would be one in which schools were more experimental; he calls it “thinking laterally.” In other words, researchers would assess results as they occurred.

But to go in that direction, the British education system would have to become more flexible, Hargreaves suggests. “Curricular choice comes hard,” he says, “in a country that has led in curricular standardization.”

In Germany, the use of the Internet in schools has lagged behind some other European nations, despite a drive beginning in 1999 by the national government and German industry to pump money into putting computers and Internet connections into most classrooms.

“There was in Germany a panic” when statistics showed that students in certain European nations and in the United States were regularly using the Internet more than German students, says Thomas Schauer, a researcher at the Research Institute for Applied Knowledge Processing in Ulm, Germany.

Though the equipment gap has nearly vanished, usage is less impressive, partly because of Germany’s aging teacher corps, says Schauer, who was set to leave the center for another job at the end of April. A third of the nation’s teachers are older than 50, he notes. “They are conservative about changing teaching methods.”

In addition, Germans have become increasingly skeptical about the Web’s educational value. “Today, the Internet is used by the pupils mainly to copy their homework and download presentations,” Shauer says.

Playing Catch-Up

In southern and eastern Europe, many nations still struggle to pay for basic technology for classrooms. But even in those relatively poorer areas of Europe, many ICT hot spots can be found, thanks to targeted spending and support from national and local leaders, observers say.

In Catalonia, Spain, for example, children at five schools have taken digital cameras and tape recorders to interview people in their local villages, and record them singing folk songs. “Here are primary grade school kids, who are creating a cultural presence for the Catalonian language on the Web— to some extent preserving the culture of their Catalonian villages,” says Kozma. “They are doing a huge service.”

On the other hand, technology use in much of the former Eastern Europe and Russia is still shaped by a curricular focus on “informatics,” which is the study of computer and statistical techniques for managing information.

By and large, most of the Eurasian nations that were part of the Soviet Union, such as Uzbekistan, are on the wrong side of a yawning digital divide. The schools in those countries have suffered from lack of funding, receiving a smaller share of national budgets than they did during the Soviet era, says Luba Pfeifer, an education officer for Europe and Eurasia with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which supports several ICT projects in the region, including Uzbekistan.

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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