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Education under the Digital Era, with Sophie Pène

For some weeks now, politicians are ripping apart in France, arguing about school reformation. Sadly, the introduction of digital technology in classrooms does not seem to be the major concern, debates being overflowed by program changes. Yet, the question of whether school should go digital or not is important and fortunately, some experts are working on it. Sophie Pène is one of them. Professor in information technology (IT) at Université Paris Descartes, she is also in charge of the ED TECH master at the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) in Paris. In her capacity as French Digital Council expert, she led a team that delivered a report called “Jules Ferry 3.0: building a creative and fair school in a digital world” to the French Ministry of Education in 2014. As a pioneer of digital technologies in school, she gives us her vision on the future of Education in a digital era.

OpenLab
The OpenLab based in the CRI, in the pure spirit of digital education.

Why is it important to introduce digital technology in education?

Well, for me it is not even a question of whether or not it should be “introduced”. This word has no sense since kids already use digital technologies by themselves. It is simply about avoiding a break between school, private life and social community. There is an old tradition in France, thinking school should be out of the world, like a paradisiac place where each individual could develop himself, one discipline after the other. This whole vision has been built under the idea that we have a choice, as if school and kids could be disconnected from society…

Considering access to digital technology is not equitable, depending on family social standards, isn’t there a risk to bring this inequity at school?

The longer we wait to develop digital technology in schools, the bigger these inequities will be, precisely because access is different depending on families. Schools could balance this issue. Digital is an answer to problems.

How is it a problem solver?

When you say digital, I don’t see a tablet. I see a social answer to network informatics technologies. I see new ways of being together, a horizontal society, knowledge spreading, break in the economical model. Digital is an answer to the elitism protected by conservatives. The potential in digital networking is huge. For instance, Sugata Mitra gave a TED talk on his project called “hole the wall”, which consists of developing new educative ways using a single computer. Another teacher, in Mexico, watched it and got inspired to develop a similar project. This is digital: a potential for empowerment.

Digital seems inevitable in school, but how will it reach the educative system?

There are three possibilities. First scenario: school is overflowed under alternative educative tools, such as MOOCs, Khan Academy etc. This is kind of the dark possibility, in which all data are out from public school, and parents are seduced by profiled offers for their children. Second scenario: editors find their way, develop digital supports, thereby shutting down start-up activities. It is not ideal because young enterprises join bigger platforms like Google, and the educative system is still ruled by editors in a top-down approach. In the end, it would not be an answer to new possibilities of building knowledge. Last scenario but not least: teachers carry the change, they get more independent and schools are rethought in a local, regional way. In this case data would be kept inside the system, adding value.

sophie pene talk
Sophie Pène, talking about a creative school in a digital world.

Because the risk is data use by external actors…

I don’t think conservatives have understood that the institutions could also be “uberized”. Right now, online educative tools’ value is essentially on data, not on content or materials. In the same time, school does not value data, essentially privileging content and materials. This is a problem: if we keep letting the whole mass of data going outside, institutions like public school will be bypassed.

In your mind, teachers seem to have a whole different role, haven’t they?

They already have a mission that is different from what we know or think we know. Today they are not part of a normative school anymore. The main question currently is “how to learn?” not “how to teach?”. Teachers try to create patterns for the student to be involved in learning. The mission of a professor is to trigger curiosity and to make his students develop soft skills, like empathy. Knowledge content is important, for sure, but if it were the only value of school, our kids would be eclipsed by artificial intelligence.

So, digital and teachers to develop soft skills: that is the magic mixture?

Well, not necessarily. Soft skills will be more and more important, for sure. But in the other hand, someone with great empathy but who does not know trigonometry rules is as useless as someone without soft skills. It is a question of balance, between soft skills and knowledge content, but also between digital and classic school. For example: does a Fablab or an app add value when it comes to teach trigonometry? Maybe not. Or maybe digital technology is great in the specific field of repetitive learning. Digital may be good were it is not expected… But we can combine digital and classic school. Personally I am for “soft digital”: creating class spaces with tablets, dictionaries, blackboards, where the student can use, under the teacher’s control, the right tool for the right task.

Seriously, aren’t we expecting this silver bullet for too long now?

In the 60’s people were already seeing modifications in knowledge transmission. It takes a long time to see changes, not only one generation. Invention of printing is considered to be a main catalyst of the Renaissance. But its first social consequence, which is the apparition of “I”, singular form of the first person, has been dated 150 years after. Maybe we should be patient after all.

Written by Benjamin Vignard

I graduated in molecular physical chemistry from the Université Paris Sud. In 2014, I started a cursus in scientific journalism and communication at the Université Paris Diderot. I am very interested in connections between sciences and society.

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