July/August 1999 // Vision
Via Technology to Social Change!
by Alan Cummings
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Alan Cummings "Via Technology to Social Change!" The Technology Source, July/August 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Over the past few years, education and training programs have been subject to massive change. Technology not only has altered today’s information environment, but also has fundamentally redirected the course of the future. One likely and drastic result will be the unification of the worlds of business and education. Consider the following scenario, which shows what changes may result in 15 to 20 years from this union.

The Online Learning Revolution

It is now 2020. Two instructors—with distinct job functions and career structures—manage the classroom.

  • A class supervisor reviews computer-aided learning (CAL) software for currency, ensures that computers are working, delivers non-key or supplementary learning materials, oversees examinations, collates and reviews learning and attainment records, and fosters a learning environment within the classroom.
  • A highly qualified, highly paid, teacher delivers the key learning that is not available (or that is considered unsatisfactory) online and contextualizes learning materials against specific local culture or social norms. He/she also works with disabled or special needs students.

The teacher oversees the work of the class supervisor; the former validates learning and assessment records, evaluates the effectiveness of particular learning programs, and reviews the documents (e.g., attendance, performance, and funding records) collated by the class supervisor.

Schools are established on small premises near parents' workplaces or in converted houses that are within walking distance of children's homes. For children older than 10, daily attendance in schools is noncompulsory. Some of the older pupils attend school only twice weekly to get tutorial support from the class supervisor and instruction from the teacher. For the most part, pupils are encouraged to work online from home (like many of their parents) by using teleconferencing tools provided by corporate sponsors. Sponsorship became popular when state schools, underfunded and understaffed for years, became unable to keep pace with the scope of technological change and the requirements of industry. The government now encourages industrial sponsors (with tax breaks, etc.) to supplement state educational funding by providing vocationally-related teaching materials. Each child has to apply for sponsorship;there is fierce competition for support from "superior" patrons.

Students older than 10 must complete a minimum number of study hours per year; however, they may accrue these hours at home, in whatever way suits the family schedule. Because their study schedules are flexible, students can maintain regular contact and close relationships with friends, neighbors, and family. Moreover, they can log-on early or late in the day and join live classes in other countries. In order to ensure that each student is learning adequately, computerized audit software automatically monitors: (1) how many hours per week each student studies online, and (2) each student's learning materials and assessment activities. Reports are available to teachers and parents. Because sponsors reward academic success with prizes, job offers, and other perks, free access to online materials is capped. After a student reaches his or her weekly limit, a fee per module is charged—by the state for basic education materials, or by the sponsor for supplementary materials. Slow or special needs learners have unlimited, free access to special materials and live support.

The home-based, online learning revolution (originally facilitated by digital TV systems) has resulted in a rapid reduction of the number of old-fashioned "school factories." Colleges and universities also have disappeared or have partnered with industry and government units to provide online, post-compulsory education and vocational courses. These merged organizations now compete for a share in an international education market. Most of the old examination validation bodies are obsolete. Private companies, which provide global education and training with a brand name and market identity, evaluate their own products against governmental regulations and international standards. The boundaries of cultural identity no longer exist; they have been replaced with allegiance to a "brand" of educational products and to specific sponsors.

With the help of national attainment database records and analysis provided by artificial intelligence software, online "education brokers" select appropriate learning packages for students between the ages of 14 and 80+. Brokers use a search engine to filter the range of possible course products for any given learner. They then consult the national database, which cross-references every student's attainment records, known learning aptitudes, and educational preferences with required learning objectives and with the product data of participating course software providers. A "course product" might consist of one module from Microsoft, one from Plato, and two from Kellogg’s; in combination, these modules provide the desired knowledge and skills profile. They also produce fast learning outcomes because they automatically tailor themselves to the learner’s optimum learning profile.

Artificial intelligence software continually monitors the learner's actions. In the process, it performs two valuable functions: (1) the software identifies optimal learning conditions in order to generate similar learning situations in the future and to avoid learning strategies that prove ineffective; and (2) it notes areas of weak achievement or knowledge, then customizes the program to include remedial material and/or to adjust the nature and speed of the delivery of instruction. The software's analysis of learning patterns and assessment data shows marked differences in the learning strategies, problem-solving techniques, and stimulus requirements of males and females. It adjusts for these differences and thus, with newly developed gender-specific online teaching materials, improves the performance of all pupils.

The national attainment database (maintained by a company in India) uses what is called a National Insurance Number as an identifier; consequently, even if a student changes his or her name or gender, his or her profile will not be compromised. Educational and training software from every learning location feeds the database. The database even analyzes, categorizes, and records the strategic planning, problem solving, and creative thinking skills that a student utilizes while playing computer games. Because the student is unsupervised when producing game-based attainment data, it generally is used only for secondary (inference) analysis purposes—unless the data is supported by the repeated demonstration of learned responses within a broad range of situations.

Vocational Education

Adults access vocational education and training in the same way that children access educational materials. Most professionals learn online at home; for those who do not have computer access in their residences, a nearby learning center provides legal and financial advice, access to an enhanced job information database, and the social interaction and support that encourages skills updating. Regardless of whether a professional undertakes skills updating at home or in the learning center, he/she is always free to learn on his/her own time. Short-term contract employment is standard, and most adults therefore hold several jobs simultaneously (and endure occasional periods of unemployment). Employers routinely retest the knowledge and skills of their employees; this practice fuels the retraining industry and forces workers to continuously update their skills profiles and general abilities.

Employment brokers often work for the same companies that employ education brokers; they perform similar tasks for their clients. Employment brokers consult a national attainment database, which provides an analysis of the training needs, known learning aptitudes, and preferences of the worker in question. They compare this data with the product information from participating course software providers, then choose a course product that will enable the worker to attain his/her desired knowledge and skills profile. For a small additional fee, the worker can validate—with the appropriate assessment materials—any skills that he/she already possesses.

Business-Oriented Culture: The Pros and Cons

Small, disparate groups of entrepreneurs now dominate a dynamic, business-oriented culture in which qualifications matter greatly; social status, age, and gender count for little; and actual performance is everything. Most professionals use more productively the time and money they once spent commuting, and many people arrange their working lives around their social needs. The multi-skilled, flexible worker can be of any age; it is common for octogenarians to work to supplement their retirement income or savings. Because professionals work online from home, mobility is a bygone concern and commuter traffic jams are almost unknown.

To some extent, an equality of educational provision exists because everyone uses the same, or at least very similar, basic learning products. Ability is the main criterion of success, but money—from a major sponsor or private means—still buys a "fast lane" to education. The rich have always had, and will always have, a broader range of choices.

For technophobes, those unable to learn technology-related skills, and those unwilling to adapt to change, there is low-paid, unskilled work. A substantial number of people from all age groups are unskilled laborers, and theirs is a sub-culture that is alienated from mainstream society. Despite sustained political effort to eradicate this alienation, it remains a serious problem.

Many pundits express concerns about the involvement of industry in education and about the power that companies have over the young, the impressionable, and society in general. Multinational companies groom selected children for future employment via premium sponsorship; they distribute corporate "bounty" on the basis of commercial self-interest and promote their names through educational products and activities. Brand loyalty even has a political dimension, since companies try to convince their sponsored students and employees to support political parties that are "friendly" to particular industries.

Education has not, however, become merely preparation for employment. Many people consider learning a leisure pursuit. Moreover, many people use the online education system to communicate about commercial, social, and political issues with people in diverse fields. These contacts form loose, but often massive, partnerships of democratic decision-making.

Will This Learning Revolution Really Happen?

I believe that, to some extent, it already has. Schools, colleges, universities, and a very active private sector are now providing burgeoning volumes of online courseware and assessment tools for all levels of learning. See, for example:

  • The Computer Assisted Assessment Centre, a UK-based organization that pools knowledge and expertise about computer-assisted assessment in higher education; and the Education Resource Centre, a site administered by the University of Melbourne (Australia) that lists education resources on the World Wide Web.
  • A directory of online courses offered by educational institutions in Connecticut.
  • Online courseware materials from PLATO and Microsoft.
  • ZDU, an online community that teaches consumers how to use their computers more effectively and productively; Sysnet Education (Pvt.) Ltd., a company that provides multimedia and computer-based training (CBT) to network users, system administrators, and system developers; Global Knowledge, an independent information technology (IT) training provider based in the UK and Ireland; and Getting Online, a UK-based program that currently offers three free distance learning courses in information technology.

Virtual universities are rapidly taking shape. Check out:

Moreover, private companies are developing wide-ranging online vocational training offerings. Take, for example, two companies in the UK: Forte and Jarvis Hotels. Forte has spent £225K on computer-based training (CBT) for employees, and Jarvis trains 5,500 staff members with CBT (Training with Technology, 1999). On both sides of the Atlantic, colleges and training centers run by private companies are in operation. And groups of skilled professionals are beginning to establish, independently of training providers, standards for the specialized qualifications that they expect employees to have.

All this change is, at the same time, both frightening and exciting. Of course, some will benefit and some will suffer from the merger of education and business. I believe, however, that the technological future that I have envisioned will liberate and empower individuals much more than it will subjugate them—and that what we are about to see is true democracy develop. These changes will prepare us, and our children, well for the rigors of the new millennium.


Training with technology. (1999, April). Hospitality, p. 27.

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