Friday 28 June 2019

Le numérique à l’école : la grande (dés)illusion

In 1913, Thomas Edison declared in an interview with the New York Dramatic Mirror that books would soon be obsolete in schools and would be replaced with school pictures. He emphasised: “Our work proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in […] branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from textbooks, plain and clear to children.” The world of education has always had a rather special relationship with technology: while it is regularly disparaged, it is still considered a miracle solution to improve pedagogical practices and the quality of learning. Under these circumstances, many schools invest in digital tools and require their teachers to keep up by digitising their practices. Unfortunately, the magic is slow to happen, because the users do not receive sufficient guidance and training, leading schools to become rapidly disinterested and get rid of these new objects.

Barring for GAFAM(1) and other sellers of magic wands, the debate on the pedagogical effectiveness of these tools is not the most important thing we should be focusing on. Today schools in primary and secondary education in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation no longer actually meet the legal requirements, i.e., “to prepare all pupils to become responsible citizens, capable of contributing to the development of a democratic society”. The digital skills of children and adolescents are no longer sufficient to enable them to become citizens who are capable of understanding their environment and acting consciously within this society. Must they all become developers then? No. Again, the large tech companies that rely on them as human resources hope that this will be the case. Today’s citizens must however have a wider range of digital skills: information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, creation of digital content, security and problem-solving (2). The absence of such skills is currently generating a digital divide, which is no longer solely defined in terms of a lack of access to equipment but of social-cognitive disparities. This is notably illustrated by the “lack of basic skills and knowledge to use digital technology and exploit its content”. (3). Scientific studies have observed a growing segregation of the population, with people being incapable of making adequate use of digital technology and understanding the related challenges. The myth of digital natives who have taught themselves their digital skills is exactly that, in other words. A myth.

In this framework, the Pact for an Education of Excellence and the reform of the basic training of teachers have given rise to a number of promising initiatives, such as teaching digital skills from third primary onwards or strengthening the basic and continued digital training of teachers. Nonetheless, as is the case with every political document, the practical implementation of these commitments has already raised a number of unresolved fundamental questions: who will train the current and future teachers, teaching them the required skills to develop those of their pupils? What will we teach the thousands of children already in schools who will not have had almost no digital training by 2032? Who will evaluate how effective the practices that were put in place to gradually improve them?

For educational stakeholders, digital technology is like a sword of Damocles above their heads. Politicians constantly insist on the need to “get on the digital train”, but they do not provide the people in the field with instructions, funding or practical, hands-on responses. The main actions that are implemented are often the result of the desire of a number of isolated figures – teachers or headteachers. The main challenge therefore consists of moving beyond these individual initiatives and developing a consistent and systematic approach, aimed at a conscious, chosen and reflexive autonomy of all the pupils. We no longer need to know whether it is worth learning this technology. Instead we must urgently develop the conditions for learning all about it, for a relevant and well-thought-through usage of digital technology throughout our life.

(1) GAFAM is the acronym of the ‘big five’ tech companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — (which were founded in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the early 21st century) that dominate the online/digital market. They are sometimes also called the Big Five or the Gang of Five.
(2) European framework for digital skills for citizens (DigComp) :
(3) Brotcorne P., Valenduc G., Construction des compétences numériques et réduction des inégalités, SPP Intégration sociale, Brussels, July 2008.

By Nicolas Roland
Chercheur en Sciences de l’éducation, Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
Learning Experience Designer, Caféine.Studio