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That’s it. I’ve decided to quit Twitter. Let me stop you right there, this is not a decision taken on a whim, because Elon Musk finally “set the bird free”[/efn_note]At the end of a never-ending saga, by the way.[/efn_note]. But the concretisation of a reflection that lasted more than a year, and materialised in the setting up six months ago of a strategy aiming at progressively reducing my dependence.
I’ve already explained the reasons for my departure in the two previous articles cited above, and they haven’t changed. The completion of Musk’s purchase of Twitter acts as a spark, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or simply as an excuse. Choose whichever you prefer. It doesn’t matter, because symbols, I believe, matter. It is also a political gesture, against yet another escalation in the privatisation of the digital public space. Finally, it is an opportunity to crack the wall of the network effect again1, to create an opening towards more friendly, decentralised and democratic digital alternatives. Like Mastodon and other Fediverse software.
Even though I never loved Twitter, leaving it is not an easy or trivial choice. I’ll quickly outline the reasons why. Then I’ll share with you the many more arguments that convince me it’s the right thing to do.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about lifelong digital literacy. I wrote a first article (in French only), defending a digital literacy that would treat the digital paradigm as a total social fact, eminently political, economic and cultural. And I encouraged a more committed, more critical digital literacy. On the one hand, with regard to the total digitalization of our society, without reflection or democratic debate. And the hegemonic domination of toxic platforms on the other.
I will continue to pull the thread by focusing on digital literacy in school education. My intention is the same as in my first article: I do not claim to have ready-made answers. But I at least propose to ask questions, and to contribute to the reflection.
This article is therefore primarily intended for national education stakeholders, and please consider that os was written in regards with the French context. If you spot some typos or weird turn of phrase, feel free to let me know 🙂
To conclude this year of 2020, I propose to take stock of some of the issues raised by the increasing use of technology, primarily digital, in education.
If this year of pandemic will have been busy from all points of view, it will undoubtedly have provoked a decisive leap forward for Edtech 1. For the better2, but also for the worse. As such a period of crisis is likely to favor a “shock doctrine”3, it seems more necessary than ever to (re)question the meaning and the place that these technologies should take in education. I will limit myself here to school and higher education, as I do not have enough distance and knowledge of the world of training.
I would like to make it clear from the outset that the aim of this article is not to be technophobic or to scare people. On the other hand, I am deeply convinced that the technological headlong rush currently pursued “because it is the direction of progress” must come to an end, as we are perhaps reaching the age of reason of the digital age. We now need to think not about what technologies might or might not do for us, but about what we want them to do or not do.
Before talking about the technological challenges of K12 education, I thought it would be useful to mention some notable features.
Thus, school teaching is carried out by adults, teachers and educators, who create the conditions for school learning: generating the necessary motivation, arousing attention, but also organizing the progress of the course, leading the group of students, thinking about evaluation (diagnostic, formative, summative), etc.
The main users of these technological tools are minors4. Several issues are therefore ultra sensitive. The issue of student data, for example, and what could be done with it. The ability to influence or even manipulate this young audience is also an important issue in education.
The main users of these technological tools do not have personal equipment. The vast majority of students in school are not yet equipped with personal equipment, or are not invited to use them to respect the principles of equality and free education. In terms of technological equipment, the stakes are not the same as in higher education or training.
Technological issues in school education
From there, what are the technological issues that arise in school education? Here are the ones I have identified, and grouped in three sections. Feel free to express yourself in the comments.
Issues on the teaching itself
Quite simply, the question of the right place of digital technology in K12 education is raised. Given the particularity of school learning mentioned above (notably the immense need for motivation and attention), we can see how much more important the human element is than the technological tools. What is the right mix? What is the right policy for equipment, training, and consultation with all the (many) actors involved? What is the right level to implement this policy?
As we can see, certain particularities of school education come up against certain technologies. For example, the importance of teaching with and through the group directly questions the temptation to individualize learning processes made possible by AI. The school form5, also greatly constrains the possibilities of technological uses, suggesting that before integrating technology, it is necessary to rethink pedagogy.
Economic, social and ecological issues
The place of private and commercial actors is also a sensitive issue. Indeed, young people who are fed with this or that equipment, tool and resource get used to it, and will end up using it in their personal and private sphere, not necessarily as protective as the educational sphere. For example, there is nothing to compare between a Google for Education account and a free personal Google account that sucks up data.
In this sense, certain technological choices are real political issues for the school. What place should be given to which actor? How to justify huge contracts with private actors, often foreign ones? How to give (much) more weight to the French-speaking free software sector, which is nevertheless vigorous, as we saw during the confinement6.
Because of the number of students and teachers, and because they are not yet equipped, there is a major ecological stake in school education. A massive, individual equipment policy is currently being implemented, while we are in the midst of an ecological and climatic crisis.
Personal and learning data
The traces of children’s learning, if they were numerous enough and correctly interoperated, could be used to predict their future. It may sound like a scenario from Black Mirror or Westworld, but these are thoughts already in progress. I quote below from an article written by Jean-Baptiste Piacentino, head of international development at Humanroads:
Let’s take the example of Teo, 3 years old, who is entering kindergarten. The development of the use of digital tools at school leads us to believe that he will use more and more digital tools throughout his schooling. His drawings, his first writings, his first calculations, his language learning, his evaluations, his exams and all the traces of his school and university career will be more and more digitalized and less and less in paper format. […] Digital work environments (ENT), as well as third-party applications used as part of the pedagogical process, collect a large quantity of the student’s production (or even all of his production!) every year. This production tells us a lot about the student, his neurocognitive profile, what he has learned and what he has failed to learn, and how long it took him to learn it… All of the data that make up Teo’s learning path will then become an essential resource for informing his career choices and his lifelong orientation, for him and for all those who accompany him.
Finally, there is the risk of falling into a totally unbridled techno-solutionism: students equipped with sensors to control their attention, teachers constantly scrutinized and evaluated, AI-based exercise machines to make students work relentlessly as if they were workers in a factory, etc. You will be right to think that this risk is not very credible in France at the moment 7, but don’t forget that we are “very late”, and this delay only asks to be filled. To see what is already being tested elsewhere, see the video of the tweet below, it’s hair-raising…
In contrast to school education, students are much more autonomous adults in their learning.
Similarly, their level of equipment has nothing to do with that of the students. Instead, it is very much related to the economic resources available to families. This leads to great disparities among students, and even to a multi-speed education.
Since the vast majority of students are adults, the issues related to data or the power of influence of the private sector are not the same8.
For many of the reasons discussed above, students are much more concerned with hybrid or even fully online education since the COVID-19 crisis began worldwide. In France, most of them have not set foot in a lecture hall or classroom for much of the time since March 2020.
Technology issues in higher education
The specificities of higher education lead logically enough to shift the levels of the stakes, to crystallize on two major subjects: the rise of surveillance technologies and that of predictive algorithms for orientation, selection and evaluation.
The rise of surveillance technologies
The fact that higher education is moving 100% online has led higher education institutions to implement new technologies for monitoring students.
Still in the area of surveillance technologies, the pandemic has led to the development of specialized solutions for exam monitoring.
“Online proctoring” companies saw in coronavirus shutdowns a chance to capitalize on a major reshaping of education, selling schools a high-tech blend of webcam-watching workers and eye-tracking software designed to catch students cheating on their exams.
Again, there are a lot of immediate problems with these technologies. You share your workspace, you’re a cheater. Your internet connection is intermittent, you’re a cheater. Your camera has a problem, or you don’t have a camera, you’re a cheater.
But more fundamentally, these choices are once again a demonstration of a technological and security headlong rush. To deepen this subject, you can read the excellent Olivier Ertzcheid (whose writing has been very inspired during the lockdown) in his article Nos étudiants(e)s ne sont pas des délinquant(e)s.
Mais plus fondamentalement, ces choix sont une fois de plus la démonstration d’une fuite en avant technologique et sécuritaire. Pour approfondir ce sujet, vous pouvez lire l’excellent Olivier Ertzcheid (qui a eu l’écriture très inspirée pendant le confinement) dans son article Our students are not offenders (in French).
Selection and evaluation algorithms
Another very strong technological challenge in higher education is the growing use of selection and evaluation algorithms.
This is the case in France with Parcoursup, the successor of Admission Post Bac, which is still the subject of much discussion. You can read Olivier Ertzcheid’s article on this subject. On the question of algorithmic governmentality (a huge topic), he quotes the law researcher Antoinette Rouvroy:
It is finally this lack of interest both in the singularity of lives and in their inscription in collective contexts [(group, communities, etc.)] that confers on this mode of government both an aura of very great impartiality but also a very great difficulty in contesting decisions that are taken on the basis of opportunity detection.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, decidedly still “ahead” of us, algorithms are even used to predict students’ final grades, based (with all the biases that implies) on students’ sociological data as well as their previous results (hello again Black Mirror).
In 2020, tens of thousands of high school students across the United Kingdom took to the streets to protest the use of an algorithm that predicted their end-of-school grades. The algorithm had lowered almost 40% of grades, meaning some pupils were no longer eligible for their chosen university or college. The algorithmic scoring impacted students from lower income backgrounds the most, despite warnings of the ‘potential risk of bias’, raised in a parliamentary education committee a month prior.
Again, this article is not here to bring us back to the candle (in this day and age, it seems we need to make that clear), or to scare us. It is here to remind us that decisions about implementing technologies are made all the time. But these technologies are expensive, and therefore substitute for another investment. They deeply shape our future, and it is often difficult or even impossible to go back (ratchet effect9).
I want to believe that we have reached the digital age of reason. And that we can now think and decide collectively (and if possible democratically) which technologies we want to develop, and which ones we want to put aside. Wouldn’t that be the real progress?
The rise of computers and the Internet have triggered two major revolutions in our computing capacities on the one hand, and communication on the other. It seems to me that concerning education, it is more through their communication capacities that technologies can really be useful (they already were during the first confinement). First, by allowing the implementation of rich educational activities, based on collective and contributive projects (in the classroom, between classes). Then by facilitating the relationship and collaboration between students, between teachers and parents, between teachers within a large educational community.
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.
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.
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.
According to UNESCO monitoring, 71 countries have announced the reopening of their schools. Of these, 12 have already reopened. 52, including France, have decided on a reopening date during the current school year, and 7 have postponed the reopening to the following year. 128 countries have not yet announced dates.
Why reopen schools? Which international organisations are involved? What are the differences in approaches between countries? This article provides a brief overview.
This article is part of a contributory watch, and I should point out that I am not a journalist.
If you spot an inaccuracy, or if you have additional information, please contact me, and I will add to this article. Thank you for your kindness.
Here is a second article on pedagogical continuity, as seen from several countries. The purpose here is to understand the similarities or differences regarding the reaction to the current crisis. And to start building collective intelligence around what is happening in the education world.
This international press review is part of a contributory watch, and a series of articles, that I have launched around the “pedagogical continuity” implemented in France and around the world.
For several weeks now, schools and higher education institutions have been closed in most countries of the world. UNESCO, which monitors the international situation, is keeping track of these impressive figures:
1,575,270,054 affected learners
91.3% of total enrolled learners
191 country-wide closures
While the French President has announced the “gradual” reopening of schools from 11 May, I propose that we look back over the last few weeks of “pedagogical continuity”, with a few lessons from the world… and finally many points in common between the countries observed.
This article is part of a contributory watch, and I should point out that I am not a journalist.
If you spot an inaccuracy, or if you have additional information, please contact me, and I will add to this article. Thank you for your kindness.
Schools and universities are experiencing a “pedagogical continuity” entirely dependent on digital technologies. Against those who would like to use the crisis to amplify the use of their solutions, it is important to remember that the situation we are experiencing is absolutely exceptional and should not be the excuse for a revived technological solutionism. In order to continue to think about educational digital technology with distance and critical thinking, we are launching a collaborative work to collect articles and reflections on the issue.
I recently had the chance to give a conference in Chartres as part of the Human Tech Days series. I was a guest of the Orléans-Tours and Centre-Val de Loire region’s DANE (Academic Delegation for Digital-based Learning), who were taking advantage of the series of events dedicated to digital in order to allocate one day to education.
The title of this conference was as follows: “An overview of the digital age and of its implications for education”. You can rediscover it under Creative Commons licence on this page.
So here are the 5 implications that I set out during this conference. It is evidently a highly subjective and non-exhaustive list. It seeks to open up a debate rather than give clear answers.