Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Jo Moran-Ellis and Geoff Cooper (2000) 'Making Connections: Children, Technology, and the National Grid for Learning'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 3, < ellis.html>

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Received: 8/9/2000      Accepted: 17/11/2000      Published: 31/11/2000


Late in 1997 the UK Government launched 'Connecting the Learning Society' (CtLS) as the first concrete step in instituting a 'National Grid for Learning' which will connect schools (and other sites and institutions) to an 'information superhighway'. This paper presents a textual analysis of CtLS which examines the ways in which technology and the child are presented. We find that CtLS relies on conventional constructions of children as learners and future adults and that, in parallel with this, its treatment of technology is schematic and articulated with and in terms of 'the future'. The transformation of society, and the arrival of a new socio?technical future, are taken as certain. We argue, on the one hand, that a vision is propounded in which the Grid is seen as transcendent, in that it will have a major impact regardless of the social relations in the context of use; but on the other, that a careful reading of the text reveals a concern with generating alliances, enrollments and trajectories which act as a kind of infrastructure for this vision. We conclude with some thoughts on the wider set of cultural assumptions that frame the document and which help to buttress its plausibility.

Children; Determinism; Education; ICT; Networks.; Technology


Late in 1997 the UK Government launched a consultative document 'Connecting the Learning Society' (DfEE, 1997; hereafter CtLS) - as the first concrete step in instituting a 'National Grid for Learning' which will connect schools (and others sites and institutions) to an 'information superhighway' and make specific educational resources available to users. This followed earlier policy documents and reports commissioned by the Labour Party, both whilst in opposition and later in Government, which pinpointed educational settings and educational processes as key sites for the use of new technological networks (Bingham et al, 1999)[1]. Such developments paralleled those occurring in the USA under the Democratic Clinton-Gore administration and reflected a notion of schools as prime sites for effecting socio-technical change in particular directions. CtLS begins the process of implementation.

The 'National Grid for Learning', accessed through a Government department-operated website[2], is envisaged as

'a way of finding and using on-line learning and teaching materials. A mosaic of inter-connecting networks and education services based on the Internet which will support teaching, learning, training and administration in schools, colleges, universities, libraries, the workplace and homes' (CtLS, executive summary).
The timetable for implementation of the Grid proposed that services would be available on the Grid from Autumn 1998, and all schools would be connected by 2002. Although there was some slippage, the Grid is now up and running.[3]

Whilst the significance and value of this plan may of course be contested, it has been by any standards a major policy initiative. It aims to frame the institutional relationship between learning and new technologies, and it also lays out a political framework for the juxtaposition of education and electronic media. The document itself is a source of insight into how the Government envisages harnessing the rapid and somewhat unpredictable developments in new technologies for its own wider agendas.

The kind of initiatives set out in CtLS have provided a focus for a good deal of recent work within social science. Critical attention has been directed towards widespread assumptions about the relationship between children and technology that inform public discourse (Bingham et al, 1999; Facer, 2000; Buckingham, 1998), and regulatory discourse (Oswell, 1998). More specifically, Selwyn (1999) has examined the likely impact of an education 'superhighway' on schooling, contrasting claims made for it with characteristics of on-line learning that are often overlooked. Similarly, for studies of situated on-line activity in the classroom, the claims advanced have provided, at the very least, an effective point of contrast to the mundane realities and complexities of computer use (Valentine et al, 1998). Our approach has much in common with such work, in particular with the insistence that attention be given to the context of use, but our focus is slightly different: it is directed towards the text of CtLS itself. Our interest is in the associations, positionings of actors, and generally the social relations that can be read in or off this document rather than, for example, in its significance for educational practice[4].

We argue, on the one hand, that a vision is propounded in which the Grid is seen as transcendent, in that it will have a major impact regardless of the social relations in the context of use; but on the other, that a careful reading of the document reveals an interesting configuration of alliances, enrollments and trajectories which act as a kind of infrastructure for this vision. Thus the text can be read, in a loosely deconstructive manner, against itself to show that its idealised political vision of the benefits of technology for society that can be predicted regardless of the social relations in the context of use in fact implies or relies upon some rather interesting social relations. In part this tension results from the attempt, in a consultative implementation document, to reconcile the need to persuade via an optimistic vision with the limits of what is practically acceptable and achievable; but it also attests to the wider framework of assumptions intended, unexplicated or even contradictory that inform policy.

Our analysis of this text does not follow any one methodological or theoretical model. We started from the position that the text necessarily draws on conceptions of both children and technology in order to present its plans, and we were initially concerned with a deconstruction of those conceptions. This deconstruction was approached through Laclau and Mouffe's notions of articulation (Laclau, 1977; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). Articulation is the practice of 'establishing relations among elements such that their identity is modified' (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 105): thus a discourse or, as here, a single text can be read as actively forging certain connections and associations and, yet, presenting them as if naturally related. As the analysis developed, our attention was drawn towards the way the document attempts to establish other forms of connection. This emerging grounded analysis resonated with the work of Latour (1987) which also focuses on the ways in which connections are made but, unlike Laclau and Mouffe, sees connection in terms of the enrollment of heterogeneous elements and actors - including humans, technologies, institutions, texts into networks which, as such, can withstand challenge. These two approaches are radically distinct, the former occupying a theoretical space which they designate as post-marxist, the latter explicitly distancing himself from any such a project which is built on an Enlightenment notion of critique (Latour, 1993). For our purposes however they are complementary, helping to construct a conceptual framework for tracing the relations, associations and positionings which are forged within the document and which are crucial to its attempts to be persuasive.

Our argument is organised as follows. We begin by looking at the representation of the child, the main intended beneficiary of the initiative, and at the way in which s/he is positioned, and point to the relatively empty nature of this representation. We then focus briefly on the technological future that is described and note that, as with many attempts at technological projection, the significance and complexity of social relations are given insufficient consideration, the result being a deterministic vision (Stewart and Williams, 1998; Winston, 1998); further that the child serves here as an abstract cipher which is articulated with the future in an apparently natural and mutually reinforcing relation. Finally, we attempt to elucidate the infrastructure of current and projected associations that supports this picture, and consider its significance.


It might be presumed that a consultative document that is concerned with ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and education would spend some time considering issues relating to children and their use of new electronic technologies. However, despite several mentions of children as a group in the Foreword, CtLS has relatively little to say about children and technology, and nothing to say outside the conventional construction of children as learners and future adults. The main focus on children relates to: motivating learning via the Grid; particular issues for those children who have special learning or access needs; and examples of how children can complete homework by accessing resources through the Grid. The key concerns are educational: how to achieve standards of learning and how to ensure children use the Grid in an educational manner. The text positions all children for enrollment as learners and users in a new technological future, this being necessitated by the demands of a new (technologised) working environment:

'Children cannot be effective in tomorrow's world if they are trained in yesterday's skills' (CtLS, Foreword)

In many respects it is no surprise that the child is positioned in the document as a learner and a 'becoming' rather than a 'being' (Qvortrup, 1994) since these are the defining constructions of children in Western Europe. However, the dominance of this subject position in the document is striking. Children's use of and contact with technologies in other situations are not mentioned and the skills they may already possess play no part in this model of internet use. The contact children have with computer games, the internet as a leisure arena, the use they already make of CD-Roms for school and home work, their use of email, make no contribution to the vision the Government is mapping out. This is in contrast to popular stereotypes of children as 'natural experts' in the use of new technologies, stereotypes which are effectively problematised in recent social scientific studies (see for example Facer, 2000; Bingham et al, 1999).

The notable absence of the image of the child as an expert user may be less of an oversight and more of an inevitable exclusion. A substantial concern in the document is the need to train teachers in ICT skills and use of the Grid. Indeed, in the Foreword to CtLS, Prime Minister Tony Blair states that one of the main problems relating to the potential of ICT in schools is '...the need to train teachers...'. This need is cited as a '...a hurdle to be overcome before this vision can be realised'[5]. Discussions of expertise that children may already hold in ICT are not pertinent to the implementation of the vision since children are learners not knowers in the education dyad. Indeed, children's expertise may even be said to be incompatible with the goals associated with ICT use in education, since this would not fit with the normal and normalised distribution of knowledge and skills between teachers and pupils, adults and children.

Any discourse of the child at risk on the internet is also notably absent in CtLS. This silence over an issue which is given much prominence elsewhere (Bingham et al, 1999), such as in the media, may also arise out of an incompatibility with the Government's task, in this document, of positioning ICT as an essential component of education and the future. Giving prominence to such concerns in a document which seeks to paint an unproblematic picture of the relationship between ICT and schools would make it more difficult to maintain a construction of the Internet as a source of educational, and hence benign, resources[6]. The Grid that the Government is establishing is intended as '[a] way of finding and using on-line learning and teaching materials' (CtLS, Executive Summary). If the Internet is identified as posing risks (in adult terms) to children, this determinedly educational nature of the Internet becomes unstable. However, whilst the document does not dwell on the unpleasantnesses of the cyberworld, the Grid website itself carries a number of pages devoted to protecting children on the internet[7]. This tight controlling of the material that will be accessible through the Grid would seem to indicate an implicit acknowledgment of other encounters children may have, whether accidental or deliberate.

Whilst CtLS in the main treats children as a homogenous group, they are differentiated in the text in terms of their educational learning needs, with concerns centring around equality of access to the Grid as well as the perceived potential for ICT to enhance learning:

'Learners with special needs also stand to gain from the development of the Grid, providing their particular and individual requirements are taken into account from the outset. For example attention needs to be given to the requirements of learners with a range of visual impairments. The Grid has the potential to make available additional support for special schools, pupils and students with special needs within mainstream schools and FE...The Grid should also offer valuable facilities for very able children.' (CtLS, point 39)
'...It is already clear that the Grid must provide:....equality of access for learners, [including] those for whom English is not the first language; and those with special needs;' (CtLS, point 36)

Above all, children and ICT are brought together in this document in a singular relationship: that of learner subject and resource object. This articulation draws on dominant discourses of children which position them in constant relationship to both their and society's futures. Encounters between children and ICT take place in the here and now but are contextualised in terms of the future employability and usefulness of the individual, and future economic success of British society as a whole. CtLS draws from traditional conceptualisations where children are viewed as passive, and the materiality of technological objects is seen as asocial. In these formulations, new technologies are considered to be conduits for 'information' of varying value and legitimacy. Within this model, emphasis falls on 'skilling' children in the use of ICT. Such articulations of children and ICT overlook both the agency of children and the complexity of social relations between individuals and material objects. The contexts within which objects are located and encountered, structural dimensions of use and access, and the fluidity of ascribed and derived meanings are all vital in the constitution of the social relations in which any object is enmeshed. A key point which has been elucidated before in relation to other electronic media such as television is that the material presence and social configurations of such objects is not fixed. The contextual nature of electronic media was noted by Lull (1980) in considering that the social dimensions of television viewing rendered the television itself as variously and coterminously (amongst other things) an environmental resource within the domestic sphere, a regulator of everyday activities, and a means through which processes of dominance could be played out.

CtLS nominates a special educational position for ICT in the lives of children and young people. However, empirical evidence suggests that new technologies quickly become integrated and often subsumed into pre-existing interactions and social settings (Livingstone and Bovill, 1999; McNamee, 1998). In McNamee's study of video-gaming, she found that video games and computers were present or absent simply as artefacts in children's social worlds and sub-cultures, and only became positioned as 'special objects' in certain circumstances such as when they became the focus of power struggles between siblings or children and adults, or a tool that could be used to facilitate or maintain friendships. Thus CtLS's emphasis on the wonders of new technologies and their power to radically transform everyday life may be at odds with their locations in children's everyday lives.

Furthermore, objects may also be utilised for the affordances they offer in the achievement of social goals. An example of this is provided by Valentine and Holloway's ethnographic study (forthcoming) of ICT in the classroom. They found that ICT in the classroom was enrolled into identity performances alongside other objects in what they termed the heterosexual economy of the classroom. Within the school social settings Valentine and Holloway identified clear groupings of young people who shared particular orientations to personal computers and ICT in general. One such group were young people who avoided ICT use. These young people, mainly girls, were disdainful of the identities they associated with interest and competence in ICT use, and constructed for themselves an 'anti-techno' identity. Whilst this orientation to ICT was also observably bound up with practical technological incompetence and anxieties about the exposure of their lack of skills in lesson and at other times, these young people critically associated being interested in computers with being sexually and socially undesirable. In respect of interactive sexual and social identity work computers emerged as just one of many objects networked into such social interactions in the classroom, but at the same time ICT becomes a focus for fears and positionings around identity. In this regard, the homogenous positioning of all children as learners, which CtLS presumes and promotes, becomes untenable in practice since orientations to ICT arise out of a complex of social identities, networks and interactions as well as individual propensities.

Context, sub-cultural and wider cultural dimensions, and localised interactions shape the place and meaning of new technologies. Both user and use are contingent on not only the technology but also on the role and status it is assigned in any interaction with it. This contrasts with the traditional ideas that CtLS draws upon which see childhood as a period of life where one learns the social skills and rules that are essential for civilised adulthood and functional society. In this socialisation framework children's engagement with technology is considered in terms of what will be learnt and how the right learning can be promoted. However, such uni-dimensional ideas about the child-technology interaction obscures the dynamic, construing and contingent encounters that occur between children and new technologies which are central to these relationships.


In parallel with its treatment of the child, the document's treatment of technology is schematic at best and articulated with and in terms of 'the future'; a future for which technology provides the means of access, the defining framework and the most telling symbol. The transformation of society and the arrival of a new socio-techno future are taken as certain, and what the policy sets out to do is equip children to deal with it:

'Technology has revolutionised the way we work and is now set to transform education. Children cannot be effective in tomorrow's world if they are trained in yesterday's skills.' (CtLS, Foreword)

The inevitability of transformation warrants the manipulation of tense and temporality in the text which enables the description of existing practice as that of 'yesterday'. It is clear that 'technology' here, and throughout the document, functions as a symbolic marker of modernity, and thus of a Government which is forward looking. An indication of the extent of the Grid's symbolic role in this regard can be gleaned from occasional references to the intention to link it to the Millennium Dome. (We have not been able to find an explanation of the functional significance of this). Similarly, terms such as the 'Information Age' are used liberally and uncritically throughout to signify a specific and distinctive social state into which 'we' are moving[8]. In many ways this is unexceptionable: for example, one critically astute commentator sees the intensification and circulation of information not merely as aspects of modernization, but as 'in some way the centre and the very sense of this process' (Vattimo, 1992: 14-15). Such terms however entail a number of assumptions which should be treated critically.

It has been widely noted that the current Government position on the importance of technological development represents in many respects a clear form of technological determinism; MacKenzie and Wajcman,(1999: xv) for instance, assert that the Government 'seems to see its task as riding a predetermined wave of technological advance' and as such, as we argue, underplays the significance of the inter-relation, or even indistinguishability, of technical and social factors. The rhetorical effect of this document is heightened by equating technological with other futures. The child occupies a key place in this respect, representing, through their incomplete since yet to be developed identity, the future. As Sefton-Green (1999: 2) has commented, children and new technology are terms which are frequently 'yoked together in discussions about the nature of social change, precisely because they both embody similar teleological assumptions about growth, progression and development which underpin late modern society' [9]. However, this signification is in some ways complicated by the notion of the 'learning society', an emerging state in which all are incomplete, as we shall discuss below.


As is often the case, the technological determinism of the document goes hand in hand with a striking optimism about the likely benefits of the technology, once implemented[10]. There is, for example, no reference to arguments about the possible limitations of educational software or computerised distance learning; problems are seen simply as obstacles to full implementation. Moreover, the widespread availability of information is seen as an unquestioned good.

For example, one rationale put forward for the Grid by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is that it will :

'ensure that schools do not have to "reinvent the wheel" in key areas of teaching, allowing them to try what works successfully elsewhere' (O'Leary, 1998).

A transformation of social relations within and between schools is discernible here, but its significance is radically underplayed: the transformation stays textually out of focus because, here and elsewhere, the gaze is directed towards a democratised future in which information is open to all, and shared between all. It is a vision of a 'transparent society' as outlined by Vattimo, in which a description of increased communicative possibilities becomes a normative and romanticised ideal of a society in which community is achieved by unrestricted communication (Vattimo, 1992: 20).

A key part of the claim being made for the democratising function of the Grid is the provision of equality of access. The Grid will

'Remove barriers to learning, ensuring opportunities for access for all, including those in isolated areas and those with special needs' (CtLS, Executive Summary)

Information, per se, is valuable and barriers which prevent equal access to it must be removed. One barrier, as indicated, is geographical location which will be solved by the provision of the technical infrastructure. Another is lack of 'computer literacy', a term whose problems have been widely noted (see for example Dutton, 1999)[11]. The effect of this emphasis on barriers is not just that it reinforces the unexplicated assumptions about the empowering value of access to information, but that it constructs users as a homogenous set of ready made consumers who are eager to make use of the information on offer if the barriers to access can only be removed. As we have noted, studies of the situated use of ICT in the classroom suggest that this assumption merits critical scrutiny (Valentine & Holloway, forthcoming).

The rhetoric of empowerment, a familiar trope within discussions of ICT use (Cooper and Bowers, 1995) is widespread throughout the materials we have looked at. Its rhetorical character is underlined by a certain vagueness about what the Grid will actually contain. On the one hand there is said to be a 'wealth of content' on the Internet (CtLS, Foreword), but on the other the Grid is intended to provide a subset specifically designed for schools; in its prototype form, one writer calls it a 'glorified website' (O'Leary, 1998). More significantly, there is ambiguity about whether its principal empowering value derives from the information that can be accessed, or the acquisition of accessing skills themselves. Just as lack of computer literacy constitutes a barrier to access, so access, made possible by full implementation of the Grid, will ensure that the goal of 'our children .. leaving school IT-literate' (CtLS, Foreword) will be achieved. There is an element of apparent circularity here, the notion of 'the learning society' (see below) providing its underlying logic[12].

So, in CtLS children and technology are unproblematically positioned in relation to each other through a linkage which circumscribes children's interactions with technology, and the Internet, within an educational context in which children are motivated to learn, and encounter stimulating and useful resources, and the ICT functions as a gateway (carefully controlled by the Grid) to those resources. The child-technology interface is articulated as essentially skilling and educating. The subject position demarcated for children is not simply a product of the employment of the traditional construction of childhood we have identified earlier, but is also generated (as necessary and inevitable) by its articulation with a particular construction of technology and its trajectory.


We have suggested that the document confidently outlines a set of outcomes, its confidence deriving in large measure from its lack of attention of what Bromley (1997: 115) calls 'the pre-existing social dynamic' of the educational setting , its empty representation of the child, and its teleological construction of the relation between technology, child and future. However, the document does not describe technology and schooling in a vacuum: on another level it addresses the wider nexus of people, organisations and institutions necessary for ICT and education to be brought together in practice. It assembles a cast of players, prescribes their roles, and sketches out a set of relationships between them in order to achieve the articulations which are seen as key for ensuring a technological future centred around education and learning, and strongly orientated to Britain's economic success. We refer to this as the infrastructure of associations which underpins the document.

Consideration of the amount of attention paid in the text to the role and position of different players suggests that the text is not simply a description of the networks and relationships needed, but is designed to be persuasive to its audience; in effect the text is rhetorically and discursively constructed so as to bring about enrollment and positioning of players. Furthermore, the striking disparities in the amount of space devoted to different players implies that some need more work to enroll and position them correctly than others, for the purposes of the policy being proposed. The document frames and positions each of the players into a network that is both commercialised and 'educational-ised'. This makes it possible for the Government to bring into alignment players such as schools and businesses which traditionally have not shared much common ground, especially in a mercantile sense.

Who specifically are the players? A first examination of the document identifies a range: teachers, schools, businesses, further and higher education, parents, technology, children and the future are all present in specific constructions, with their networks and relationships (and potential networks and relationships) mapped out. As we indicated earlier however, the positions delineated for children and technology are simple, traditional and consequently warrant little attention in the document since they are apparently uncontentious. In contrast the text pays a great deal of attention to the relationship between schools and industry; learning and the future; and the role and skills required by teachers to bring about the goals laid out in the proposal. In the next section we focus on the positionings of commerce and explore their mutual articulation[13].

Commerce and Schools

The document makes explicit a multi-valent link between education and industry. The direction of the link varies, with education being both a supplier of educated, skilled workers, and a consumer of the products of technology-related businesses. Over-arching this dual relationship is an emphasis on Britain as the key player in a European, and at times world, market. The Grid and its accompanying paraphernalia (software, websites, computers and on-line connections) are seen as providing, if not enforcing, the opportunities to learn skills that are directly of importance to industry.

The link between education, ICT and work is explicated in these senses but also within other more indirect domains, for example in relation to learning whilst in work, and Government responses to individual unemployment:

'It [the Grid] must also contribute to a wide range of educational, lifelong learning and social initiatives including the University for Industry and our Welfare to Work programme' (CtLS, point 6)

In these ways the Grid is constructed as having a use that relates to the industrial/economic sector and indeed its design is stated in terms of it providing 'a link between many diverse spheres of life including commerce, culture and sport, education and lifelong learning, health, charitable endeavour and politics' (CtLS, point 36).

The Grid is also seen as something that needs to be controlled: '[t]he Grid must be useful...It must produce learning gains' (CtLS, point 36). It must be effective as an educational resource; there is a danger that it could be frittered away. To avoid this calamity, the Government proposes:

'setting challenging targets for ICT in education and lifelong learning to help ensure that as a resource the Grid is not wasted' (CtLS, point 65)

Thus a functional output measure of learning is set up to delineate proper use of the Grid and the utility of learning.

The seal is set on the close relationship between education and industry through the alignment of the needs of children and the needs of industry, appealing to commonly held values:

'We believe this strategy [National Grid for Learning/Connecting the Learning Society] will be good for our children and our companies' (CtLS, Foreword)

Indeed, the implication is that the nation's future 'health' depends on the policy that is outlined. The struggle to be competitive in European and world terms is taken as a central goal for Britain, with education and technology combining to give the UK the edge. The purpose of the Grid is explicitly stated as being to raise educational standards and improve 'Britain's international competitiveness' through lifting 'educational standards in Britain to the level of the best in the world' (CtLS, Foreword).

So, the Grid, which is characterised as 'a mosaic' of networks, services and resources, is placed at the heart of the political goals of revitalising the British economy in world terms, and providing workers with the rights skills for that to happen. The contribution that technology will make to this goal is central and is presented in terms of facilitating general learning and education as well as learning related to technology use. The place of children in this is as the workers that make the achievement of this meta-goal feasible. The child's future, enabled by technology, will ensure the nation's future.

A further tying together of education and commerce comes through the extensive treatment given to the provision of software and hardware for schools, and the customer-supplier relationships. Again, in a utopian future, schools stimulate a substantial sector of industry through their need for equipment, connections, expertise and technological products. This is seen as an opportunity for developing software and technological industries and providers through the stimulus of opening up education markets. Out of this comes economic potential for Britain:

'We have great strengths in this area - with some world-beating companies from software to broadcasting, from films to computing. We have the asset of the English language. By pioneering this market at home, we aim to create markets for our companies abroad'. (CtLS, Foreword)

With education as a customer of business, and home redefined as a key educational site comes a notion that the home could also be stimulated to be a customer which again would be beneficial economically:

'We propose that...consortia would be encouraged to develop home learning centres (packages of equipment, connectivity, software, services and support which would be marketed to parents and individuals as compatible with the Grid)....The advantage to the industry would be an increase in sales.... (CtLS, point 60)

Thus, the Grid is constructed in the abstract as a major catalyst for growth in Britain's domestic and international economy.

The nation's future is evaluated (at least in part) in terms of commercial competitiveness. The equation of business and education works at different levels; they are in a complex relation of reciprocity with respect to the provision of a new form of service, in that both can be seen as resources for, and beneficiaries of the other; and the envisaged benefits are seen as equivalent.

The Learning Society

The proposals in CtLS are extensions of, and intrinsic to, the Government's ideas for the generation of a Learning Society[14]. In the learning society, all adults become perpetual learners in a variety of situations and at a variety of sites. Proposals for the Grid emerge as central to this project as evidenced both by the extensive rhetorical use of 'the Learning Society' and by the attention given in the document to repositioning the work place, and the worker, as an educational site, and suggesting a change in relation between individual learner, institutions and access to information. Indeed a whole nexus of such sites is proposed where the confinement of education to schools is overturned:

'This paper explains the Governments proposals for securing the benefits of advanced networked technologies for education and lifelong learning...helping to bring about our vision of the learning society.' (CtLS, point 1)
'We intend that all learners should be able to benefit in the medium to long term, whether at school, in further education, in higher education, in training, in - or seeking - work, and at home' (CtLS, point 6)

The proposal for the Grid is also strongly linked to home-school policies[15], accomplished through constructing the home (and parents) as a remote terminal for the Grid. Practically this will be made possible through electronic networks which 'extend in an effective way to the same way that public utilities like the telephone are now universally available.' (CtLS, point 2). Parents then become beneficiaries of and collaborators with the Grid as evidenced in some of the examples given of how the development of the Grid will:

'enable pupils at school or from improve their literacy and numeracy... children doing history or geography homework to gain access to worldwide sources and data ...enable parents to access general school information, and send messages to the school; and to participate more fully in their parent-teacher associations' (CtLS, point 41)

A vision emerges of even the most recalcitrant homework doer, and the most non-participative parent, having their lives transformed by the Grid and all that it gives access to with democratic participation becoming inevitable. A number of socio-institutional transformations are envisaged as both the result of and the necessary context for the Grid to function. The boundaries between school and work and home will be bridged by the Grid network to create a nexus of educational sites and out of this will come increased economic activities of various types with a global context.

Interestingly, alongside the vision of these transformations, is a litany of reassurances about the foundations of education: literacy and numeracy. Attempts are made to assuage fears that a revolutionary or radical transformation of skills and learning will take place. Emphasis is placed in the text on the importance of literacy, numeracy and subject knowledge, and the role of technology is presented as being to support learning and standards in these areas, not to replace them. Indeed, 'Standards, literacy, numeracy, subject knowledge - all will be enhanced by the Grid and the support it will give to our programme for school improvement set out in the White Paper 'Excellence in Schools'' (CtLS, foreword)

And for those who are still sceptical or anxious, the overlap between ICT skills and traditional skills is spelt out:

' literacy [is] the capacity to use electronic networks to access resources, and to communicate with others. These elements of network literacy can be seen as extensions of traditional skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. This is of central importance and provides a link with the Government's focus on improving standards of literacy' (CtLS, point 21).

There is also a sense in which the teacher's role may be expected to change if, as the document suggests, part of the function of the net is to enable the exchange of information between schools; for this implies changes at an institutional level. That such changes are envisaged, but their implications not addressed, is evident in passages such as the following where all the emphasis is placed upon the empowered individual learner.

'The Grid will make available to all learners the riches of the world's intellectual, cultural and scientific heritage. Because information can be distributed virtually free over the Internet, the Grid will open up learning to the individual and take it beyond the confines of institutional walls' (CtLS, point 6).

The specificity of the school in its role as some kind of source, provider or controlling point of access to information seems to be partially eroded in this kind of formulation. Information is to be shared between schools in a new way, and information is to be available in a way that bypasses schools. It is also notable in this respect that evidence cited for the value of ICTs in education includes the success of the JANET and SuperJANET networks in Higher Education, and the fact that, as the Dearing Report says, 98% of academic staff connected to JANET use electronic mail at least once a week (CtLS, point 9); there is no distinction made here between different kinds of learning institutions.

Citizenship is itself reformulated as learning. As Chris Yapp, of computer services company ICL says, in the course of reflections upon the role of education

The question is: what do you need to become an active citizen in the global economy? (Walker, 1998: 14)

The answer it would seem is, above all, the ability to access information. 'The Learning Society' is one in which global, economic and technological imperatives require that learning is no longer confined to the early years of life. The child must learn how to learn, for learning is the defining pre-requisite of modern citizenship. We find Fuller's critical comment on 'informationalism' (a set of ideas to which these texts subscribe) pertinent in this respect. Commenting that the drive to more widely disseminate skills devalues the latter's value in the employment marketplace, he states that

'informationalism's openness to 'lifelong learning' backhandedly acknowledges the inability of even the best schooling to shelter one from the vicissitudes of the new global marketplace. Education, although more necessary than ever, appears much like a vaccine that must be repeatedly taken in stronger doses to ward off more virulent strains of the corresponding disease in this case, technologically induced unemployment' (Fuller, 1999: 164).

The 'Learning Society' and lifelong learning become positioned as the inevitable and desirable outcomes of the access to information that the Grid will afford, and at the same time the 'raison d'etre' for comprehensive investment in educational ICT. The implication, and at times explication, is that Britain's future as an economic power rests on such a society-wide transformation.


CtLS sets out a framework which attempts to reconfigure the roles of a variety of agents in pursuit of a utopian vision of a technological future in which Britain has a place on a commercial world stage. Little attention is paid to the child or the technology in this document because the traditionally available positions and constructions (child as learner, technology as non-social object) that are employed are unproblematic in the context of the policy the Government is pursuing. Indeed these traditional positions are essential to the development of the new socio-technical future that the Government predicts and argues for. Thus, little work has to be done in the document to enroll them into the proposal.

Whilst the use of these rather one dimensional representations of child and technology contribute to a lack of attention to the social relations of learning and of technology use in situ, at the same time an infrastructure of different social relations is discernible within the document. Much more attention and detail is given over in the document to the problem of enrolling into the network those actors whose construction is either usually seen as counter to that of the purposes of education, or who are difficult to control. They are repositioned through the document into roles and relationships that will support the development of an educational configuration of the Internet. In this respect the task is bigger, less reliable in its outcome, and in need of much greater definition. Similarly, a process of institutional reconfiguration can be read in the margins of the text, raising questions about the autonomy of the school, the role of the teacher and so forth[16].

The text can be seen as performing enrollment at a further level: attempting to enroll the reader by speaking to or implying a community of responsible readers from which one would be reluctant to exclude oneself (cf. Cooper and Woolgar, 1996). The Grid is associated with, indeed serves as a cypher for the future, toward which all forward thinking people must be oriented; the Grid is a key step towards modern citizenship, toward which all responsible people, parents and others, must aspire; and the Grid and all that it facilitates is a vital component of a thriving information-based national economy within a changing global market, the importance of which is self-evident to any realist. The articulations and linkages that we have noted are effective in closing down the possible positions from which criticism can be made. Objections can be made but, given the articulation of discourse that the documents have effected, are easily dismissed as the blinkered response of change-resisters and so forth. Thus, in the assembling of key players and networks and the orientation of them to the roles and articulations they need to fulfill for the proposal to be fulfilled, we the readers are also positioned. The network then is complete, and the comments that a consultative document such as this invite are to be addressed to the how, not the why[17].

How is it possible, one might ask, that such an implausibly transcendent vision of unmediated and beneficent technological effects achieves credibility, notwithstanding the widespread and oft rehearsed criticisms of technological determinism within and beyond the academy? In part, as we have tried to suggest, it is achieved by the text itself and by some of the powerful articulations (such as technology/future/child) that it effects. However, these articulations are made not only within the document itself but within a wider framework of discourse with which the text resonates. Notions of networks and connections are increasingly fundamental to the ways in which we conceptualise sociality[18], and thus a conflation of technical and other senses (social, epistemological) is easily achieved, and forms a key element of the exclusion, or settling by fiat, of any questioning of value. Who would not want to be connected to what is going on, to be in touch, to have access to the latest information, to be ready for the future? Who would claim that such connectivity was not absolutely central to true learning and knowledge, to contemporary citizenship?

This impulse to connectivity was identified by Baudrillard, in an article that predates the technology in question, as a definitive feature of contemporary culture: what he terms, after Kant, the 'categorical imperative of communication' (Baudrillard, 1988, 26). He suggests, in one of his characteristic and contentiously quasi-historical formulations, that 'we' have passed through certain stages which can usefully be described by means of 'metaphors drawn from pathology' (ibid: 26). Today, the 'perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks' constitutes a key element of a form of social schizophrenia which can be characterized as an 'absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things', a state in which people are open to everything, cannot produce the limits of their own being, and live in confusion (ibid: 27).

There are many reasons to be wary of Baudrillard's argument including its uncertain empirical and historical basis, its deployment of problematic notions of social pathology (metaphorical or not), and its questionable (in terms of pertinence and taste) use of schizophrenia as analogy. Yet, for all that, it indicates a set of assumptions which have considerable resonance with those which animate CtLS and which, we suggest, help to give the document its aura of incontestable common sense. These might be summarised as the idea that connectivity, immediacy and transparency are self evidently worthwhile ends in themselves; construed in this way, they become compulsive forces. To the extent that CtLS is effective, it is so as a result of, on the one hand, the way in which it connects elements (players, institutions, categories, domains, technologies) and, on the other, its unquestioning endorsement of the unmediated value of being connected. We suggest that both the connections made and the underlying ethos of connectivity merit critical scrutiny.


1The intention to establish an educational superhighway is laid out in the White Paper on education, 'Excellence in schools' (web address < >).

2The Department for Education and Employment. Website address: <>

3The Grid can be accessed at <>

4The authors' respective fields of interest are the sociology of childhood, and science and technology studies. For an indication of the range of issues arising in this area, see Hutchby and Moran-Ellis (forthcoming).

5Harvey (2000) has noted the recurrence of this problematic formulation in which the desired technological outcome is taken as given, and particular categories of people as obstacles to its realisation.

6Oswell (1998) documents the rather different constructions of the child within policy discourse focused on the regulation of internet: the three constructions that he identifies in that context, are all related to issues of danger.

7See for example ->

8See Webster (1995) for a general overview of some of these issues.

9Thanks to Nicola Green for directing us to this article.

10There is of course no necessary link between determinism and optimism; indeed, as both Buckingham (1998) and Bingham et al (1999) have argued with respect to children and new technology, positive and negative views of likely 'effects' are frequently framed by common deterministic assumptions, thus mirroring each other.

11This is just one of an increasing number of literacies and cognate competencies which are deemed to be requisite features of modern citizenship, one of the latest being financial literacy; see Cameron (2000) on the reconfiguration of talk as a set of educable skills.

12This leaves to one side the question of to what extent the technology can be said to transform the nature of information and indeed knowledge; see for example Kittler (1990).

13A key theme in examinations of technology in education has been the undesirability of over-reliance on technology, and the assertion that this is based on the false premise that information and knowledge are equivalent: see Roszack's (1986) critical argument on this. Although this is a vitally important issue, it falls outside our remit in this paper.

14See for example < 16.htm> and < gt;

15See Edwards et al (2000) for an empirical exploration of recent Government policy on home school relations.

16These issues can be related to other developments in education, such as the increase in standardised curricula in western societies (see for example Tyler, 1999).

17See < ml> 'The Grid - Your Views' for the comments that were received.

18Indeed, it is not absent from the analytic apparatus of this article. Castells (1996) provides perhaps the strongest (ontological) formulation of the network/society relation: 'Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies' (Castells, 1996: 469).


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