We know that digital is not just a technology. It also and above all corresponds to transformations in our societies and our cultures, new “art of doing” and new ways of living. It offers opportunities for the personal development of each and that of the world around us. It also brings individual and social threats to employment, respect for privacy and democracy.
In France, public discourse on digital technology in education attests to these risks. In the last few months before the coronavirus pandemic, there was a lot of talk about the risks of addiction to screens and their corollary in terms of sleep debt, weakened attention and exposure to violence. The period of confinement and that which followed it shifted our gaze to what has been agreed to be called digital divides. It is often a discourse of caution and sometimes of fear.
We talk a lot about the risks but we talk less about the contributions of digital technology to the education of young people or the openness it gives them, to others and the world. However, it is precisely because we observe on a daily basis the way in which digital techniques are often put at the service of more alienating than emancipatory projects that our educational institutions must play their true role: to train responsible citizens who will know better than their elders, putting man at the center of concerns and technique at our service.
Reverse the point of view
In France, the first experiments around school computing date from the 1960s. The question asked at the time still underlies the essentials of digital educational policies today. We can summarize it as follows: what can we do with these techniques at school?
The question seems strange. She postulates that these techniques of processing information and communication are necessarily of interest for teaching. It is strange because it says nothing about the purpose of digital uses. These uncertainties are very uncomfortable for teachers. For 30 years, national plans have followed one another. They articulate with more or less happiness equipment, resources and teacher training. More equipment than resources, and more resources than teacher training.
Concretely, the education system is teeming with interesting initiatives, without this bottom-up innovation logic being translated into large-scale uses with good guarantees of educational efficiency. At the same time, students and teachers arrive at school with a smartphone in their pocket. It is not only personal, powerful, connected and mobile equipment that enters school, it is new habits, new activities, new behaviors and new expectations.
That is why it seems that we may not be looking in the right direction. No doubt we must ask the question of what we can do with digital in schools. But it is also imperative to ask yourself what digital technology does at school. How does it energize it as it transforms society? In short, the initial question must be reversed.
Digital techniques offer new tools, new services and new resources for teaching and learning differently . We can cite the contributions of new ways of representing information with immersive reality, the new possibilities of didactic interactions with artificial intelligence, the new possibilities of teaching and learning at a distance or the new possibilities of support students’ learning paths with learning analytics techniques . And many other possibilities…
However, many studies show that most pedagogical practices that use digital technology do so to instrument activities that could already be done without digital technology – sometimes more effectively. There are many reasons for this misuse – insufficient development budgets, virtual absence of initial and in-service teacher training, etc. However, what these studies confirm is that the interest of digital techniques in learning activities is based neither on the frequency of their use, nor on their duration, but on their quality and relevance.
Digital is also a learning object. This is digital education that goes from knowledge of the societal challenges it raises to minimal technological knowledge, passing through user skills that simple practice, as intensive as it is, is not enough to develop. Digital education is of course a major responsibility of educational institutions because it is essential for the education of the citizen.
Finally, the multiple and massive uses of digital technology have transformed and continue to transform our cultures. We no longer have the same relationship to information and knowledge, the more the same relationship to space and time, the more the same relationship to others and to ourselves, the more the same relationship, finally, with all our acts of production and creation.
It is a real acculturation of the school that should be operated. It probably requires fewer computers, tablets and networks – even if it is necessary – than reflections on school spaces and times, on relations between pupils and with teachers, on new activities. learning that promotes engagement and creativity.
Equipment and practices
For the past ten years or so, the policies deployed have focused primarily on the individual equipment of students. In France, two-thirds of public funds allocated to digital education are spent on the purchase of laptops and touch pads, or around two billion euros over the past ten years. That’s a lot of money ! It is even too much in proportion to the totality of the expenditure because it does not make it possible to acquire connectivity, resources or to finance teacher training. And this remains insufficient to acquire equipment for all the students and to renew them as they become obsolete.
Today, the equipment rate is around 8.5 students per work terminal in primary school, 3 in college and 2.5 in high school and it will be difficult to do better or even maintain these rates equipment over time. This means that we cannot afford a policy of systematic student equipment. We must rely on the equipment of students by their families and shift public expenditure towards helping to equip smaller families, reducing white areas, acquiring collective equipment, quality resources and towards teacher training.
The environmental cost of digital is very important. All the studies show that we have to react strongly and quickly. This means that we must also think of educational digital in this perspective.
We can do this in two ways. The first is to make teachers and their students aware of this issue of environmental sustainability of the uses of digital techniques and to indicate how each can have more responsible uses with a reduced environmental impact. The second is to question the usefulness of using digital education. When there is a real pedagogical or didactic added value, one should not hesitate to mobilize these techniques. Otherwise, it is better to give it up. It is a principle of parsimony.
On the other hand, the traces of the digital activities of the students constitute so much personal data which testify to the dynamics of their learning but also to their behaviors and the values which animate them. The same goes for digital traces of teachers who reveal their personality and detail their professional practices.
Great attention must therefore be paid, well beyond compliance with the general data protection regulations (GDPR), to the data collected, to whom collects them, to the conditions of their storage, to the uses made of them and to securing the whole. As we know, the question of ethics is most often asked when digital services already exist when it should be from their conception.
All educational uses of digital techniques are therefore neither desirable nor possible, for educational but also economic, environmental and ethical reasons. These are four constraints that we must integrate into our policies. We must not only ask ourselves what we could do with these techniques, only because they are available, because they are modern or because the educational markets fuel economic growth.
These are the primary objectives of the school which must guide us: the reduction of social inequalities and the education of emancipated citizens. It is therefore less a question of thinking about the uses of digital techniques in school than of rethinking school in the digital age.
Author Bio: Jean-François Cerisier is Professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Poitiers