What place should be given to digital technology in the “school after tomorrow”? [Feat Le Mouton Numérique]

The place of digital technology in education is a subject that has fuelled both specialised and generalist news in recent months. This article, co-published with the association Le Mouton Numérique, offers a first pass at thoughts following the contributory survey that we launched on April 7, 2020. This monitoring now includes nearly 300 articles from more than 10 countries. For those who are not familiar with the association, Le Mouton Numérique is a “sheep tank” of thoughts on our contemporary digital lives. Do not hesitate to follow it.

The aim of this article is to reflect on the place to be given to digital technology in the “school after tomorrow”. It is an invitation to thoughts, exchanges and contributions from each and everyone.

Other articles are planned with education stakeholders. If you are interested, do not hesitate to contact me.

This article is a translation of my original one in French. As English is not my mothertongue, please pardon my mistakes. Even better, contact me if you spot some!

Digital, this polysemous rascal…

It is impossible to talk about “digital” without agreeing on what it will mean in this article. Increasingly, digital means everything and nothing. You can read my other article on this: Digital literacy: what is it?

In this article, digital will therefore refer primarily to hardware, equipment (tablets, computers) and educational digital solutions. Clearly, there is a forward trajectory in these areas that deserves more thinking and debate.

I here  want to talk about the social and technical dimensions of digital technology. As Dominique Cardon says, if digital is a culture that we are shaping, it does not shape us any less in return. Ergonomics, design, affordance and captology guide our choices. The codes and algorithms inform and comfort us, but they also influence our tastes. We are in part shaped by the digital ecosystem that surrounds us. Here too, it seems to me that in the educational field in particular, there is room for further thought and debate.

It is an advantage here to note here that according to the actors in the educational field, the word “digital” does not always have the same meaning. Used by teachers, it means pedagogical uses, elements in teaching materials, tools for collaborative or non-collaborative creation, etc. Used by other actors, digital is more often reduced to equipment, solutions, “innovative” technologies (adaptive learning, chatbot, AI and so on).

Some players in digital education are annoyed when we focus on the digital. Since digital technologies are pervasive and permeate all parts of our society and our activities (Dominique Boullier), and since they represent a new paradigm, it would be pointless to invoke it as a separate component of education. It would be better to reflect on the school and the education system as a whole. I fully agree that to draw lessons from what we have experienced during the school lockdown by concentrating solely on the digital divide would be to miss the point. In this context, the French political decision to organise the “États généraux du numérique éducatif” (literally: “General assembly on digital education”), and thus focus on this specific digital component, may raise questions.

But having said that, I think it’s also time that we had a serious discussion about the place we want to give to digital technologies in education, and moreover to which of the many different elements of “digital tech”. Because all digital technologies, all applications, solutions, tools, resources, equipment, infrastructure are not the same. They do not have the same pedagogical and ideological objectives, do not have the same influence on learning, nor the same economic, political and ecological impacts.

In the face of the incredible “digital breakthrough” that the world has experienced in all fields, telework, telemedicine, distance learning, it is no longer possible to put off this debate. What place do we wish to give to digital technology in the “school after tomorrow”?

Thoughts on school are not limited to digital tech

If this article seeks to question the right place of “digital” in the “school after tomorrow”, it is also an opportunity to recall the many lines of debate, enquiry and disagreement that have engaged educational stakeholders for decades. These are sometimes overshadowed by the many debates, salons, and forums obsessed by the digital issue.

As the digital is “pervasive”, it criss-crosses, feeds and disrupts each one of these lines. Here are a few of them, which have particularly stood out during the lockdown and which raise questions for us:

  • What kind of pedagogy do we want to develop at school: active, interactive, constructive, transmissive, passive pedagogies (1)?
  • What is the role of school? To train employees, to prepare citizens? To educate, to instruct? To train for emancipation? To get used to rules and control?
  • What links do we want to create at school? A multitude of individuals (students) in front of the teacher, a collective space that for learning together?
  • What kinds of rules at school? A school as a place or as an institution that does without specific places? What are school rules? What kind of arrangement of levels and classes? What units of time, place and space? What relationship to the world outside?
  • What do we wish to develop at school? a formal curriculum, exclusively school-based, that transmits programmed knowledge? A taught curriculum, instruction that transmits knowledge and rules? An invisible curriculum, which allows the learning of interpersonal relationships, emotions, conflicts and friendships?
  • What relationship to space and time? Face-to-face learning (offline and online), distance learning, hybrids?

To take this further, the recent presentation by Maurice Tardif (in French), Professor of the History of Educational Ideas, is particularly instructive: Teaching and learning without school.

During the lockdown, the pervasiveness of the “digital divide”…

Photo de Drew Beamer sur Unsplash

During the crisis, the media have talked almost exclusively about the digital divide. And in the background, everyone has been working hard to find solutions to bridge this divide. This is an opportunity to recall that the term “digital divide” is no longer used in France by digital inclusion experts because it oversimplifies a multiplicity of much more complex situations.

Pedagogical continuity has, first of all, come up against the inadequacy of computer equipment and pupil connections, and even, for some families, an undeniable digital divide that goes beyond material problems alone.

Report of the French Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education (in French)

So, how do we plug this “divide”? By distributing more hardware, installing more wifi, offering 4G keys? The intention is good, but then what kind of maintenance are we going to imagine for all this equipment? What kind of durability do we expect? Who is going to be responsible for training in their use? Does this really answer the problem?

Once again, by concentrating on the digital, we miss out everything else. The fact that there may be 10 people living in a 50m2 apartment. Having only functional equipment for three children, which doesn’t equate with not being equipped. Having only one room, which makes isolation impossible. Not being able, as a parent, to help your children use computers. Not knowing the school format codes appearing on the screen: the learning management system, written e-mails, exercise instructions, etc..

On this subject, you can read for example Dominique Pasquier: Les familles populaires, le numérique et l’Ecole (in French). It seems obvious that the “digital divide” is itself very far from explaining the difficulties of distance learning, and that “plugging this divide”, in so far as it exists, will certainly not resolve these difficulties. On the one hand, it provides easy, politically attractive rhetoric, and on the other hand, it offers opportunities for those with economic interests. So why deprive ourselves of it?

Is an ultra-digitised, yet potentially unliveable world desirable?

When we look back at the successive publications of articles in chronological order (access to the watch), we can see that at the beginning, it was only about digital, about technical issues. Preparation problems, server problems, problems with solutions, equipment problems, wifi problems, etc., were all mentioned. Then gradually the rest (everything else) took over: what pedagogy to apply to distance learning, how to deal with dropouts, how to nourish children from poor or precarious families, what advice to give to parents, and how to work with them. The questions posed the “school after tomorrow” have also begun to move away from the emphasis on the digital: new school forms, new hierarchical relationships in national education, new forms of “co-education” including teachers, parents and the educational community as a whole.

An interesting development. And yet, in France, the Ministry of Education is preparing some “États généraux du numérique éducatif” for next November. In the teaching community in particular, the choice of words is important. So it seems that the institution has decided to dissect the historical moments through which we are living through the unique prism of digital technologies. This with a view to preventing, and even sometimes expressing a certain resignation towards future crises.

However, we should start by doing EVERYTHING we can to avoid having to relive this kind of crisis on a regular basis, whether it is due to a pandemic or a climate emergency, for example. I was already very struck by reading, including in the educational press, that we would have to get used to having to relive it frequently.

We should not resign ourselves to this fate. We can resign ourselves to the multiplication of these crises, and use band-aids to sustain them as well as possible (while being obsessed on digital solutions). Or we can also put all our efforts, all our collective intelligence, all our investments into designing a world that in the long-term is liveable and desirable.

Digital solutionism is not a good option for schools

Whatever the field of application, the fight against unemployment, protection against COVID-19, or the desire to improve our education system, technological solutionism is not a good option.

Digital solutionism, the offspring of technological solutionism theorised by the writer and intellectual Evgeny Morozov, is the belief that technology (in this case digital technology), can and will solve all the social, political, economic, ecological, educational problems we know.

  • Too much unemployment? We will find a startup that will develop an algorithm to better find THE right training for jobseekers, or better connect them with the right recruiters!
  • Bad results at school? Let’s add some digital gadgets! No more tablets, adaptive learning solutions that will adapt to each student’s background, gamified resources based on the latest discoveries in neuroscience!
  • Is the judicial system clogged? Let’s work on artificial intelligence that will help judges make faster and better decisions!

The examples can be multiplied ad infinitum. However, the problem with technological solutionism is that it focuses our attention on the often shaky solutions that we can bring to a problem (with, by the way, sometimes huge economic and political stakes), to the detriment of the treatment of the causes of this same problem.

In this case, regarding our school system in France, we could begin by recalling some of the difficulties encountered by teachers:

  • their initial and continuing training, which is largely insufficient in many areas
  • the vocational crisis  which leads to a shortage in certain disciplines
  • the burden of the institution itself and of contradictory injunctions
  • the contempt that is too often shown for them by their superiors, their colleagues, and society in general
  • overcrowding of students per class
  • school segregation (ghettos of rich or poor)

Rather than seriously working on the causes of many of the school’s problems, thinking about remedies, we prefer to focus on digital band-aids.

What place for digital in the “next school”?

By Jean Marc Cote (if 1901) or Villemard (if 1910)http://publicdomainreview.org/2012/06/30/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/ – A reproduction of the early 20th century, scan / Репродукция, скан бумажной карточки, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15852242

Here is my opinion and a few thoughts. I am not a teacher, but I have mixed with them and admired them for 8 years. I am not pro or anti Edtech, pro or anti digital. But I want us to leave digital tech in its rightful place, and stop trying to “fill the void” with digital, simply because it’s convenient intellectually and politically attractive.

Let’s talk again about the real school issues, listed above, which experts can pick up on. Let us tackle the causes of the problems facing our education system. These causes are known; it is time for us to get to work collectively.

Let’s allow schools to benefit from the best that digital technology has to offer: an ecosystem where curiosity has no limits, where information is free, where collaboration is borderless (look at Etwining!). Let us leave digital technology in its rightful place, at the service of the teacher and his or her pedagogy, at the service of the student and his or her interest in discovering and understanding this dimension of our world.

Let’s think about a low tech, straightforward, ecologically and economically sustainable digital environment. A history teacher recently defended the idea that teachers should all be equipped with computers and be able to change them every 4 years. This demand is understandable, but equipping all teachers and students with computers is not sustainable or desirable. Other solutions must be found.

As Bruno Devauchelle wrote on the Café Pédagogique, “it is not enough to equip. You have to think globally. To do this, there must be multiple scenarios, with or without digital technology, but above all we must seek a social, human and also economic balance. »

Finally, let us cultivate a digital environment that promotes collective learning, not one that reinforces our temptation to be individualistic. A digital system that is profoundly ethical, that does not manipulate us, that is transparent through its technical or algorithmic functioning. Let us develop a digital system that is economical with educational data, that does not seek to sell them or use them to create individualised pathways for learners, who thereby would be deprived of some of their free will and of the elements which makes them as individuals so complex. Let us give a real place to the digital commons, to free software, to emancipatory digital technology.

Which role for which Edtech?

The school will always need partners and suppliers. But I think it is important that some of the voices of Edtech change their discourse towards the educational world. There is also the question of the legal form and the investment model. In education, the startup model, with significant fundraising and the logic of hypergrowth, is more than questionable.

On this subject you can read this article: Edtech: Does school education need a champion? (in French)

Edtech must stop treating education as a sick old person that only it can cure. Once again, words have meaning. When an entrepreneur who has just graduated from business school, proclaims in his pitches that his mission is to “hack the education system” with his digital solution, it is very violent for the education system as a whole. A little humility wouldn’t hurt.

The school is a tremendously complex institution, the product of a complex history. The project of educating its entire population is a great idea. And a permanent challenge, in turn constantly challenged by the times. The complexity of this idea and the difficulties that accompany it are by no means unique to France; they are experienced and shared throughout the world (access to the watch).

A big thank you to the friendly teachers, as well as to the members of the association Le Mouton Numérique for their proofreading, their advice, and our always nourishing exchanges. And as always, a big cheer for the teachers for everything they did during this crisis!

You can access the contributory watch at this address.

Some technophile and “pro Edtech” articles and opinions

Some technocritical and “anti Edtech” articles and opinions

Some other articles

Notes de bas de page

(1) Here is how Chi and Wylie (2014) proposed to distinguish 4 levels of learner engagement:

  • Passive: when students are focused on and receive explanations, they pay attention to them.
  • Active: when students selectively and physically manipulate learning materials.
  • Constructive: when students generate information beyond what has been presented (e.g., they understand more than is explained to them).
  • Interactive: when two (or more) students collaborate through dialogue in a co-construction.

Featured image by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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