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Learning with digital tools is possible. Boundaries are moving.

How can we adjust digital tools kids education in the school of the future? Fact: the digital world, embodied by smartphones, evolved at the same time as it modified our daily lives. And the least we can say is that it is a success. Given this momentum, smartphones could impact education, even though they haven’t been initially designed for kids cognitive development. The question now is how can we shift from tools that are “perfect for gaming” to “perfect for learning”?

School cannot be preserved from digital technologies

“If you kids are awake, they’re probably connected”, stated the New York Times in 2010. Since then, more than two billion of smartphones were created and spread worldwide. It is an epidemic that changes everything that is in its path and challenges traditional stakeholders. According to me, there’s no reason why school should be preserved.

But we got some work to do. How does the digital world can impact education? Have we already monitored some benefits brought by digital tools in education? Are we, like some innovators and educators seem to believe, at the edge of a revolution?

No one can provide a definitive answer. The digital world is constantly changing, hence urging us to innovate, to develop new apps and tools that are yet unknown, in short, to create digital environments that will be used by children… or not.

Learning fast, anytime and anywhere

Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University.
Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University.

Learning fast, anytime, anywhere: an utopia? In fact, this process is well underway. For instance, in health and sport, “Fitness Trackers” devices and apps allow us to learn more about ourselves than never before, thereby producing millions of data collected by Google. But Google, Amazon, Apple or Facebook do not aim at developing kids’ cognitive capacities. Isn’t it Steve Jobs who, in a conference held in 2010 on the iPhone’s microsystem, said that this latter was “ perfect for gaming” but not “perfect for learning”.

However, there’s no reason to think that digital technologies cannot be used to learn as it is used to play, take pictures, or chat on social networks. This is what Sugata Mitra, a famous educational researcher who won the 2013 TED Prize, believes. His research have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they’re motivated by curiosity and peer interest. Based on these findings, he created The School in the Cloud, a digital learning environment that connects children and volunteer mediators and is based on a combination – seen as positive – of digital technologies, autonomy and kids’ willingness to learn.

Gaming to solve equations

Dragon Box: Undercover Algebra
Dragon Box: Undercover Algebra

If Steve Jobs were still alive, we would ask him to create a phone that is « perfect for learning ». In his absence, other people will have to give it a try. But who, in the digital world of nowadays, is innovating for tomorrow’s education ? Not the national educational systems, that’s for sure; open-mindeness and creativity is not exactly what characterizes them.

The example that is coming to my mind is the Center for Science Game de Zoran Popovic  that created the famous citizen science game Fold It, a crowdsourcing computer game enabling players to contribute to important scientific research.

This center collaborated with the franco-norwegian startup WeWantToKnow to produce DragonBox, an app that teaches kids algebra in an entertaining way. The kids resolve equations with the help of a little dragons hiding in a box. It is incredible to see an eight years old kid resolve equations that are supposedly beyond his reach. As Mark Twain once said « he didn’t know it was impossible, so he did it ».

Changing views

Following these successful exemples, I decided to run a project with the University of Grenoble and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research that aims at developing a new digital environment, called iMecaProf. a software that can be used together with smartphone to teach experimental aspects of basic mechanics at university: pendulum, rotation, spring/mass oscillation…

To be honest, it might not be as entertaining as Dragon Box, but it enables students to play with physics AND their smartphones during classes. What we try to do is to move the frontiers between acquiring knowledge at school and playing outside, but also to underline that smartphones can be used as scientific and educational tools.

To conclude, I would say that yes, using digital technologies to teach and learn has clear benefits. After all, Steve could even have been right. His “perfect for gaming” may be the condition to drive digital towards “perfect for learning”.


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