Rethinking and Redefining ‘Schooling’ in a Networked World


Mal Lee


It is an opportune time, at what is in many respects a watershed period in the history of schooling to ask the most basic of questions, what defines a ‘school’ in a networked world?

It appears a human construct of the Industrial Age is markedly limiting schooling’s facility to better harness the technology in the desired education of the young.

A school is currently conceived of as a place, an institution the young physically attend to be taught and learn. In a digital and networked world, as the young who have long since normalized the use of the digital (Tapscott, 2009) (Lee and Finger, 2010) daily attest one doesn’t have to physically attend an institution to be taught and learn.

As evermore schools move at pace into the networked mode, make ever greater use of the technology, seek to provide a 24/7/365 education and adopt a fundamentally different operational form the stage has been reached where nations and their educational leaders ought get on high and rethink the purpose and form of schools.

While not for a moment suggesting that schools be disbanded it is important to take advantage of the rapidly changing scene and the growing necessity to shape the desired future to rethink the nature of the school in what is a fundamentally different environment to the one in which schools were shaped.

The current model of schooling was largely conceived in the Industrial Age and its form was strongly impacted by the teaching and learning facilities and technologies available at that time in both the home and the school.

As the place called school goes digital and experiences the same irrevocable transformation that all other organizations that have gone digital have undergone it is opportune for governments and school leaders to revisit and possibly redefine the concept of the school and in so doing to consider the appropriateness and effectiveness of the schooling provided by the nation to its 0 to 18 age group in an increasingly networked world.

The nature of schooling has remained basically unchanged for well over a century and the perception has naturally grown that its form is some how immutable.

It is most assuredly is not and in the last decade early adopter schools across the developed world and Australia have moved schooling from its the traditional paper based operational mode to one that is digital, and in some instances networked. (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) (Lee and Finger, 2010).

Schooling is evolving at pace, with virtually all schools in the developed world moving inexorably to the digital stage and as such from an era where constancy and continuity were the norm to a time of on-going, often rapid and uncertain change and evolution, where more than ever the desired future needs to be proactively shaped.

It is thus opportune to pause for a moment and to reflect on the current concept of schooling, its appropriateness for a networked society, to identify the current model’s shortcomings, to envision its desired form, to consider the implications of such a shift and to begin shaping the schooling appropriate for a networked world.

In examining the evolution of schooling over the past decade, and the profound impact the technology has had upon the learning of the young the author believes there are major shortcomings, and they have to do with the disinclination to revisit the reasons nations have schools, to ask what schooling should entail and to critique the established ways and as a consequence continue to perpetuate the lack of balance in the educative process, with the seeming inability or unwillingness of many vested interests to redress those imbalances and use very considerable untapped community resources.

While individual schools are moving at pace addressing these shortcomings there has not been from government a preparedness to take advantage of the shift to ask how best their nation should school its young in a world where learning occurs 24/7/365.

Why for example are the most important years in the education of a person, 0 to 5 not included in nation’s model of schooling? Why is ‘schooling’ provided during less than 20% of young people’s active time when we know they learn every moment they are awake? Why do so many authorities persist with a ‘one size fits all’ approach for all age levels in often vastly different communities? Why in a networked world is there such a wide and growing home-school ‘digital divide’ and so little use being made of the immense ‘teaching’ facilities of the student’s homes and the community?

One can continue.

It is appreciated a growing number of schools are addressing these issues but it might help if we ask what should constitute a school in a networked world?

What is a school?

John Goodlad in his 1986 seminal analysis of US schooling spoke of ‘a place called school’ (Goodlad, 1986).

A quarter of a century on society still defines school a place by its physical form. ‘An institution or building at which children and young people under 19 receive an education.’ (Collins, 2007). Wikipedia defines ‘a school as an institution designed for the teaching of students (or pupils) under the supervision of teachers’. (Wikipedia, 2011).

Interestingly the definitions focus is on the physical entity and not its form or indeed societal purpose, and while the Collin’s definition speaks of the under 19 we all know schooling begins at age 5 in most nations.

A Google search of ‘schools’ and ‘schooling’ will reveal little or no questioning of the concept, although clearly education authorities have been obliged to contend with and approve ‘virtual schools’ and ‘home schooling’, both of which stretch the traditional thinking. Moreover the form of the school in education authorities controlled by bureaucracies compared to that within the non-government sector where the school has that much more local autonomy is often pronounced.

Notwithstanding while the literature abounds with calls to change schools I’ve been unable to locate any that suggests varying the traditional concept.  It is appreciated it may well exist but at this point in the history of schooling it is not coming to the fore.

What might be a school in a networked world?

Lipnack and Stamps in their Age of the Network, while commenting on work places in general tellingly observed in 1994;

‘Work rolls continuously around the world, following the sun, yet it is instantly accessible all the time by everyone whenever they need it. Boundaries are conceptual, not physical, in the virtual workplaces and need to be completely reconceived so that ‘physical site’ thinking is no longer a limitation.’ (Lipnack and Stamps, 1994, p15)

The ‘physical site’ thinking is still limiting the view of many about the nature of schooling in a networked world, and ought, as it was with industry several decades ago ought be consigned to history.

There is much to be said for defining schooling in the networked world by its function and purpose, and as a concept that opens the way for schools to fulfill their national obligations while at the same time having the wherewithal to cater for their particular networked community and age/client group/s.

A definition like – a school is a legally recognized organization designed to provide the young in its community with an appropriate, quality balanced education for life and work – would provide that flexibility.

Most importantly it provides schools working within the networked mode the agility and flexibility to continue to respond rapidly and astutely to the ever-changing world.

It would for example enable a school not only to teach students but also to use its educational expertise to wider advantage such as preparing others like parents, grandparents, community elders, coaches and older students to assist in the holistic ‘teaching’ of the young from birth to graduation 24/7/365.

The old definition of school that was related to physical attendance at a place or institution worked well in an era of constancy and continuity but in a networked world of rapid and uncertain change and evolution it is an unnecessarily limiting construct.

The reality is that pathfinding schools across the developed world are already operating within the revised definition mentioned above.  All the Australian and international case studies analyzed in the writing of a new work on Leading a Networked School Community have long left behind the traditional concept and are seeking to provide an apposite 24/7/365 ‘schooling’ even to the extent of providing significant support for the parents ‘teaching’ the 0 to 5 age group.


As you look to shape your school for the desired future pause, reflect and ask if you are being unduly constrained by a model of schooling designed for an ancient past and do you need to shift to a concept more appropriate for a networked world.


Collins 2007 Australian Dictionary HarperCollins Glasgow

Lee, M & Gaffney, M (eds) 2008, Leading a digital school: Principles and practice, ACER Press, Melbourne.

Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) 2010 Developing a Networked School Community: Guide to realizing the vision ACER Press Melbourne

Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) In press Leading a Networked School Community

Lipnack, J & Stamps, J (1994) The age of the network: Organizing principles for the 21st century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.

Tapscott, D 2009 Grown up digital. How the net generation is changing our world McGraw Hill, New York

Wikipedia (2011) ‘School’ Wikipedia  viewed 11 March 2011




About Mal Lee

Mal Lee is an educational consultant and author specializing in the evolution of teaching and schooling from the traditional paper based mode to one that is digital, and in turn networked, and the impact of the technology on that evolution. Mal’s is a macro focus examining all the elements associated with the development, leadership and operation of schools operating within a digital, and increasingly as networked school communities. Most importantly his is a positive approach that envisions how educators and school communities might best use the ever-evolving, ever more pervasive technology in the home, on the move and in the classroom to provide an ever better schooling for the full range of students. Mal is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and a member of the Mayer Committee that identified the Key Competencies for Australia’s schools. A Fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Administration (FACEA) Mal has been closely associated with the use of digital technology in schooling, particularly by the school leadership for the last two decades. A historian by training Mal has written extensively, particularly in the Practising Administrator, the Australian Educational Leaders and Access, Educational Technology Guide on the astute use of technology in the development of schoolings. Mal has released four publications with ACER Press. In 2008 Mal and Professor Michael Gaffney edited and had published Leading a Digital School. In 2009 he co-authored with Dr Arthur Winzenried The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools – Lessons to be Learned, and with Chris Betcher, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution – Teaching with IWBs. In 2010 Mal joined with Associate Professor Glenn Finger (Griffith University) in the writing of his most significant work yet for ACER Press on Developing Networked School Communities: a guide to realizing the vision – on the next phase of schooling. Copies of the books can be obtained from the ACER Press website at -
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