Opinion: “Digital solutionism will not save the school”

This article was originally published on the Le Monde website (see the article). With their permission, I reproduce it on my site. It continues the reflection started in a previous article: What place should be given to digital technology in the “school after tomorrow”? [Feat Le Mouton Numérique]

The school did not wait to be confined before questioning the place it should give to digital technologies. However, the current period has strongly revived the argument that digital tools and resources are not only indispensable to schools, but could cure them of all their ills. We must resist this belief in a “digital solutionism” and take advantage of the next “Etats généraux du numérique pour l’éducation”, which will be organized in November by the French Ministry of Education, to (re)think the place of digital technology in schools.

What is the purpose of digital technology in schools?

Why integrate digital technologies into the school? There are at least three reasons. First, because the next generations must know how to use, create or program with digital tools. This is an employability objective, in the service of an industry that demands technical skills. Secondly, because digital technologies can enable “better teaching”. For example, a video is likely to capture attention better than a top-down speech, a collaborative tool can facilitate the implementation of educational projects, and learning software can sometimes better adapt to the specific needs of each student. Finally, because it is essential that every citizen receives an education in digital technology, which has changed every aspect of our daily lives. It is no longer just a matter of being consumers or users, but of apprehending it with hindsight, deciphering its stakes and regaining control of it.

These three reasons are relevant for thinking about the place of digital technology in schools. Unfortunately, it is often other realities that guide political choices.

First of all, there is the economic pressure of the industrial sectors. This was already the case in 1985 with the “Computing for All” plan, which aimed, among other things, to support French industry, which was in danger of losing out to the hegemony of IBM. This is how schools are massively equipped, from above, without always taking sufficiently into account the real expectations and needs of the field, especially in terms of teaching. Then there is the fact that investing in digital technology is politically lucrative. In France, it is the local authorities that equip schools, and each one more or less resists the temptation to seduce students and their parents by offering them digital equipment and solutions. Finally, there is the reassuring belief that digital technology will come to the rescue of schools, which is part of a more widespread phenomenon: digital solutionism.

Miracle solution

Little brother of technological solutionism, theorized by the American intellectual Evgeny Morozov, digital solutionism is the belief that all our political, economic, social, ecological and educational problems can and will be solved by technology, in this case digital. Whatever the field of application, this belief, often unthought of, can only lead to bad decisions.

Fighting against school dropout, renewing teachers’ pedagogical practices, giving more meaning to learning, reducing inequalities at school, providing better guidance, building a school of confidence, etc. In recent years, it is no exaggeration to say that digital technology has been presented as a miracle solution to many of the school’s problems. However, the problem with technological solutionism is that it focuses our attention on the often imprecise and inappropriate solutions that can be brought to a problem (with economic, political, and even ideological stakes), to the detriment of the treatment of the causes of this same problem.

In this case, certain structural difficulties in national education have long been identified by teachers and their unions, inspection reports and Ministry surveys. They include, for example, the need for teacher training, the lack of appreciation of their profession, the weight of hierarchy and contradictory injunctions, school segregation and overcrowding in certain classes.

To focus on digital solutionism is also to miss all the big questions that have been agitating the school for decades, and that have been raised again during the period of “educational continuity”. What is the role of the school? Which school form, which pedagogies to assume this role? What kind of coeducational partnership can be formed between teachers, parents and the educational community?

Which digital for which school?

Digital technology is a paradigm in which our society is now immersed, and schools must train future citizens to understand, question and even challenge it. But digital is also a set of technologies, and we know that they are not neutral.

We need to promote a sober, ecologically and economically sustainable digital economy. While one report after another shows the ecological impact of digital technology, it does not make sense to pursue a mad rush to equip without a real questioning of maintenance and programmed obsolescence of machines. It is appropriate to question public investment in energy-intensive technologies whose real educational effectiveness remains to be demonstrated, as is the case with artificial intelligence.

The school needs a digital system that emphasizes the collective, collaboration, sharing and openness. Not on an increasing individualization of learning, where each student works and progresses alone. The needs are not the same between using digital tools together for a collective project, for example a school newspaper, and doing exercises alone on an individual tablet.

The school also needs a resolutely ethical and transparent digital environment. In this respect, the national education services must be very clear with the companies that develop the tools and services, about the data they record and the algorithms they run. Individuals, and especially children, should never be subject to algorithmic predictions or calculations via artificial intelligence, or be dispossessed of their learning path. They lose their free will and their complexity.

The period we are living through has awakened many questions in the educational world. We have the opportunity to launch a serene reflection on complex issues, without which we would run the risk of getting carried away in a solutionist headlong rush. In a confined or normally functioning school, digital technology can never be anything other than a pedagogical environment at the disposal of teachers and students. Considering it as a “solution” will always be a mistake. Let’s take advantage of the Etats Généraux du numérique pour l’éducation to firmly defend this conviction.

Featured photo from stem.T4L on Unsplash

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