The micro and macro approaches of ICTs in Education

During April 15th and 16th, 2010, the advisory board of the Horizon Report Latin America 2010 has had a meeting to reach a consensus on what will educational technology look like in the following years, after having been working online for several weeks.

Besides the debates on the technologies that have been mentioned along the online process and during the face-to-face meeting — collaborative environments, social networking sites, social media, open content, mobile technologies, cloud computing, personal learning environments, augmented reality, smart classrooms, the semantic web, gestural-based computing, etc. — one of the main take-aways I bring home has been realizing the huge chasm between the micro and the macro approaches of ICTs in Education.

Approaches in ICTs in Education

As a micro approach of ICTs in Education I understand the analysis of the impact of ICTs on the educational process — teaching and learning, that is, how methodologies and the daily work will change when ICTs enter a specific educational process. A simple example is whether the dynamics of the classroom will change if kids come in with their laptops, in what direction and what will be the extent of the impact (if any).

As a macro approach of ICTs in Education I understand the analysis of the impact of ICTs on Education as an institution (and/or its instititutions). In other words, how the arrival of ICTs will change the role of schools and universities and their teachers, their legitimacy, their added value and “business” plans, etc. A simple example is whether the abundance of (digital) information will reinforce informal education and render formal education out-dated and useless in the end.

In my opinion, most people share the micro approach, less people share the macro approach, and but a very few try and combine both visions. Ironically enough, both the micros and the macros see each other as technophiles, techno-optimists or techno-utopians.

Macros think that micros do not “think out of the box” and just look at the technologies and their role in the tiny universe of the classroom, while forgetting about the wide (socioeconomic) context outside of it, which is what is, in fact ruling all changes.

Micros think that macros forget about pedagogy — which is what the whole thing was about — and focus instead on cool and trendy lucubrations that have little to do with the real life of teachers and students.

Example: digital natives

Let us take as a first example the case of digital natives (for the sake of simplicity, let us use the term to describe a set of students that grew using technology usually and comfortably). A micro approach will consider digital natives worth being taken into account for several reasons: they might have new (digital) competences that can be leveraged for learning; they might be able to retrieve information quicker than the teacher himself (with the related legitimacy issues for the latter); the might have or develop different cognitive strategies, hence teaching methodologies should be revised; etc.

Macros will look at digital natives from a very different point of view: digital natives define their identities and their socialization strategies in new ways, thus affecting the role of all institutions (Education amongst them); their concept of success (enjoy what one is doing at work) might be different from baby-boomers (money and power) or generation-Xers (self-realization), thus requiring from education radically different roles and outcomes; they might have learnt new horizontal and networked communication techniques, then asking for horizontal and non-hierarchical relationships with peers, institutions and leaders (politicians, bosses, teachers…); etc.

Example: personal learning environments

The micro approach will probably compare personal learning environments with portfolios — or e-portfolios in the best case — and consider them a good thing for creativity, a good thing to track students’ progress, but a good piece of mess in the middle run and something that will require a good piece of effort on the teacher’s side to obtain digital skills and get monitoring tools. All in all, a practicality.

For macros, PLEs are the (punk) revolution. PLEs enable autonomy, the richness of non-hierarchical connections, the raise of informal education. Combined with social media and open educational resources, PLEs capsize not the classroom but the entire education system as we know it. Really.

Example: Smart classrooms

Micros find smart classrooms — from digital blackboards to remotely controlling a telescope orbiting the Earth — as the quintessence of ICTs in education. At last, “real” and “cheap” simulations are possible. Rivers of data flow into the classroom and can be managed at will. Is a teaching and learning experience on steroids, rich, visual, hands-on (without the inconvenience of things blowing up in your face or the expensive investments in bricks-and-mortal labs).

For macros, smart classrooms are, in most cases, but the perpetuation of the old-fashioned and out-dated way of teaching in a world that has changed (but in the classrooms). That simple.

Micros and macros

In the best of scenarios (e.g. digital natives), a technology or a technology-based trend or change is acknowledged by both sides. For different reasons, though, but there is an agreement on the importance. In the worst of scenarios, not only disagreement but opposition is found.

From my own experience — though generalizations are always wrong and cruel exercises — the micro approach is more often adopted by older generations, deeply rooted or interested in the hard-core parts of pedagogy and educational methodologies… and sometimes not mastering or even ignoring some of the technologies they are talking about. On the other hand, amongst macros I have mainly found younger people, tech-savvy or simply geek, and often not coming from Pedagogy but Sociology, Communication Science, Economics, Information Science which shifts them towards context because they are not knowledgeable of the core issues.

We absolutely need to bridge these two. In my opinion, the micro approach seriously lacks a good amount of e-awareness: they are many times refurbishing a ship without noticing that it is heading the highest waterfall. The macro approach sometimes surprisingly seems to forget the role itself of institutions and how these are many times more emergent systems than top-down designs, and as emergent systems, they are made of little pieces working with small but stone-written codes.

Daniel Jiménez writes a very interesting commentary on these thoughts of mine, adding very interesting reflections, insights and references: Una postura crítica ante la relación entre tecnología y aprendizaje (comentario crítico)

Also speaking about the advisory board meeting on the Horizon Report Latin America 2010:


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “The micro and macro approaches of ICTs in Education” In ICTlogy, #79, April 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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7 Comments to “The micro and macro approaches of ICTs in Education” »

  1. Pingback: Una postura crítica ante la relación entre tecnología y aprendizaje (comentario crítico) « djimenezelrn10

  2. Thank you for your clear and extremely helpful analysis of micro and macro approaches of ICTs in Education. I agree completely that we need to bridge these two. I am particularly interested in the issues around “A simple example is whether the abundance of (digital) information will reinforce informal education and render formal education out-dated and useless in the end.”

    I write from the viewpoint of someone from outside academia, but with an extensive and varied practical background in education (and training) and the use of ICT, especially the Internet. I welcome your analysis as I have been struggling to express some related ideas from the perspective of my own experiences of non-formal Internet-enabled learning with people who are mainly (but not exclusively) based in UK and Africa. (I am also greatly influenced by earlier work as a primary school teacher and also with pre-school children.)

    In joining in discussions about ICTs in education I had not thought to frame my thinking in terms of micro and macro approaches – although I knew that what I wanted to explore related to the wider questions of systemic change. I have also found it hard to connect with formal academia to enter into the debate. I think this may be related to your comment “..amongst macros I have mainly found younger people, tech-savvy or simply geek, and often not coming from Pedagogy but Sociology, Communication Science, Economics, Information Science …” I guess that in trying to connect with academia I should be looking for pedagogy, but find that I am making (informal) connections with academics in fields like Development, ICT4D, Computer Science, and Informatics.

    I have been struggling to explain things through anecdotes and tending to frame my observations in terms of a comparison of formal and non-formal learning. For example

    By formal learning I mean learning that is accredited by established institutions, and largely, but not exclusively, curriculum driven. The kind of learning where ICT is an add-on to a system that was functioning before the Internet.

    By non-formal I mean the information-sharing, user-driven, kind of learning that involves people from widely different situations (usually by not necessarily from various countries). This non-formal learning could not have happened before the Internet.

    I believe that, regarding the macro debate, it would be good if bridges could be built between academia and the kind of non-formal Internet enabled communities of learning that I know (even if we are very small we may have some experiences that are relevant). At present it is almost impossible to do build bridges “from my side” because academia expects input in academic ways (i.e. academic papers and peer reviews) and that assumes and requires knowledge of “the academic literature” which non-academics do not have.

    I am delighted to have discovered your blog, and look forward to exploring areas of overlapping interest.

    Pamela McLean

  3. Dear Pam,

    Yes, with my micro/macro approach I just wanted to widen the usual point of view and put some questions on systemic change, as you also did: I don’t think names matter that much ;)

    Re connecting with academia is being hard for me too. During the last 10 years I’ve been a practitioner for 5 years and a scholar for 5 more. With this background and being my field ICT4D, I find myself attending both types of events and reading both types of publications. And bridging these two realities (which they are) is usually not an easy thing to do.

    I’m not very optimistic in practitioners publishing as scholars and scholars actively engaging in hands-on projects: discourses and incentives are mostly incompatible.

    But I would at least expect both sides reading and listening to the other side’s explanations. This is neither happening and would help much!

  4. Dear Ismael

    Thank you for your rapid response to my initial comment on your blog. I am glad that you know first hand the differences in the two cultures (ie of academics and of practitioners). I agree completely that “bridging these two realities (which they are) is usually not an easy thing to do”. If there are to be any bridges it seems we have to be active bridge builders.

    I feel that, like you, I am sometimes in one culture and sometimes in the other, and at present my journeys between the two realities have to be made without a bridge. My connection is more like a ferry-boat between the two worlds. Maybe together we can find ways to make a bridge that is so visible and robust and well signposted that others (who cannot be tempted into the ferry-boats) will cross back and forth easily and often.

    For now it seems it is a matter of travelling from one culture to the other and trying to raise mutual awareness through “making friends”. I feel that for now I am simply trying to bring gifts, and the gifts that I bring to academia are gifts of information. Sometimes I feel like a new ambassador who is bringing precious gifts to a superpower and is trying to find the right gift (and the right way to present it).

    I am looking for gifts that will best serve to interest/attract/intrigue/impress the superpower so that we will build a useful relataionship between the cultures. But most of the time it seems that I am an ambassador from some tiny “off the map” little country that the super-power in not interested in connecting with. It is hard to make the right meaningful connections.

    Perhaps the ambassador role model is inappropriate, perhaps I should try to be a trader. Maybe I need to look more precisely at what “my culture” has that the academic culture would value, and what the academics have that people in “my culture” value, and then see what win-win deals we can strike. Once we are “trading” (collaborating in win-win ways) maybe then there will be a growth of understanding, opportunities for informal discussions, a chance to exchange ideas, compare cultures and actually look together at things like systemic change in educational systems.

    As you say, at present,”discourses and incentives are mostly incompatible”. It took me quite as while to understand this. For a long time I had the naive idea that research and practice went together in a natural symbiotic way, especially in ICT4Ed and ICT4D. I thought researchers studied practice and then published in order to inform practitioners (I did not realise that they published in to inform each other). I could not understand why the research that I read was irrelevant to me as a practitioner, even when the titles of papers seemed to suggest that the researchers were addressing issues dear to my heart.

    I am grateful to individual people in PRADSA and at London University (at Royal Holloway College, at the London Knowledge Lab, and at the Centre for Distance Education) for repeatedly welcoming me to their workshops and discussions. Through them I have come to better understand these issues of cultural difference and the challenges we need to overcome in order to collaborate. There are other online and F2F discussions and events where I have been able to stumble around, inadvertently kicking sacred cows and using words that I thought I knew the meaning of – but later discovered that I didn’t. I appreciate everyone who has supported, or tolerated, me in my cross-cultural learning journey.

    I am encouraged by the “flavour” of ICTD2010 and have uncharacteristically put in submissions for running workshops there. It seems to be an environment where academics and practitioners are to be equally welcome. I hope it will help me to establish better connections with academia (and other practitioners) by increasing the visibility of Dadamac through demonstrating what we offer, and the kind of practical collaborations we can enable.

    Are you planning to attend?

    By the way I will also publish this comment, and the links to “ICT4D Blog » The micro and macro approaches of ICTs in Education” on my own blog (or posterous so our discussion is more easily shared with the Dadamac community.


  5. I will definitely attend ICT42010!

    And I certainly believe that the field of ICT4D is a rare exception to the usual chasm existing between practitioners and academia, in part due to people at the Royal Holloway, University of Joensuu, TASCHA, TIER, Microsoft Research India and many others living in the thin line that separates the academy from the rest of the world.

    Not all hope is lost ;)

  6. Pingback: algarabías » Tecnología y aprendizaje. Apuntes para una lectura crítica

  7. 4. Having realized the existence of the two approaches, try a wiki on the first example the writer used in discussing it. Once there, type in the complete detail of the smartphone mentioned on your professor’s facebook timeline. You will be messaged afterwards for the next instruction.

    If the message you sent is wrong, you will not receive any, by then follow the instruction on the ICT wiki.

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