“School Prepares Future Citizens to Live in an Already Digital Society”
By Institut Montaigne
Ollivier Lenot (Director of the "ambitious and innovative territories" program at the Caisse des Dépôts and former Digital & innovation advisor to the former Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem) answers our questions.
It is often said that France lags behind regarding its digital investment in education, especially compared to other countries such as the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Is this really the case?
Data justifies this observation: the share of digital investment (acquisition of resources, services, personal and collective equipment) is always weaker compared to the acquisition of traditional teaching equipment for classrooms or paper resources like school textbooks.
However, France was able – one could almost say thanks to its relative delay – to rely on foreign experiences and on evaluations conducted at an international level. By taking a look at the 2015 PISA survey focusing on the digital sector (digital skills and the use of digital tools in classrooms), our convictions were reinforced by the conclusion that a massive equipment plan on its own is insufficient. This is the reason why the Digital Plan for Education (Plan numérique pour l’éducation), launched in May 2015 in France, is based on a number of pillars: teachers’ training, the provision of innovative digital content and services, and equipment for both teachers and students. With the Commissariat Général for investment (CGI), substantial funding was engaged in the production of banks of digital resources, the presentation and access to a corpus of over 5,000 digital resources, both public and private (the Myriaé portal), innovative research and experiments (the 22 E-FRAN projects, the innovation in artificial intelligence partnership, PIX, for a smart self-assessment of your digital skills), and the co-funding of 50% of the acquisition cost of digital equipment.
The Minister covers the total cost of teachers’ training, with the creation of a three-day digital training program for teachers and the reinforcement of the online training program, available on the ministerial platform M@gistere (360,000 teachers have already completed a training module).
The need to invest remains high in digital infrastructures, which are dependent on local administrations, as access to high speed connection is a necessary condition to the success of digital educational projects. This is also the reason why we have reinforced financial support to infrastructures of high schools and primary schools of rural departments.
You have closely monitored the Ministry’s digital development under the previous government. What were the main progresses you witnessed' What were the main objections and boundaries to such change?
The introduction of digital technology in school programs (digital culture, coding, algorithms) is now an inescapable reality. School prepares future citizens to live in an already digital society.
The method that was used was a key progress induced by the digital plan: the territorial and educational projects are the ones that determine the need for digital investment in the first place. This means that behind digital projects, there are teachers and communities engaged in the development of digital technology. Thanks to the funding of tools in the digital plan for education, all departments are now involved, and almost half of French high schools will be adequately equipped by September 2017. This threshold is an important turning point. As we have also shed light on primary schools connected to high schools, we are creating a continuum that will consolidate the existence of the third school cycle, that is grade 4, 5 and 6.
Other key points in the chosen method include innovative projects, the creation of resources, that of a framework of digital trust, of training and equipment. The digitalization of our education system would be incoherent were one of these dimensions to lack. This coherence was called for and politically led by the Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, alongside the entire educational digital community.
It is of course essential to analyze the difficulties that were met when we deployed this digital strategy, which was a long process. Challenges reported by school directors and teachers are often linked to the speed and quality of the internet connection but also to the stark need for training (in digital technology in new school programs, in teaching methods making use of digital technology in class).
Efforts must also be made regarding the communication and promotion of the existing offer to teachers, as it is rich and of high quality, thanks to digital editors. The use of such tools must be more widespread and teachers should be given the means to prepare and create their teaching sequences, and later customize and better assess these activities.
Finally, user experience – both teachers' and students' – must improve and become one of the core concerns of those in charge of implementing digital technology (communities, editors, the Ministry of Education). This can be done by equipping individuals, so they can extend their digital experience to their homes, and by making digital experience perpetually more smooth and secure, from the digital workplace to third party digital resources.
We know it to be the case for entire branches of our economy: digital technology can transform the ecosystems it penetrates, sometimes brutally and even radically. Is a disruption of the French education system a possibility? Is our system sufficiently well-prepared to support its 800,000 teachers, if confronted to such change?
I am always cautious regarding the word “disruption”, especially when applied to the French national education system, where reforms and innovations are continuous processes, and where expected revolutions have never been fruitful. Real disruption happens at the societal level: entire branches of the economy are indeed shaken, some are even shattered. All the more reason for schools to pass on not only fundamental knowledge, but also key skills identified as essential for all types of jobs and career paths. According to me, these skills include collaborating and learning to educate oneself, two qualities that digital technology can help foster.
If I connect these skills to teachers jobs, then yes, of course, their training and the support they receive are key issues. The proliferation of production and broadcasting channels of knowledge illustrates this well. I am convinced that there will always be teachers to transform a piece of information into knowledge. Nonetheless, the developments we are witnessing today occur so fast that we need to engage an unprecedented effort in initial and continuous training. Recently, François Taddei, Catherine Becchetti-Bizot and Guillaume Houzel led a very useful missio, "towards a learning society", whose suggestions ought to be implemented.
More specifically, training teachers to digital technology implies financial, organizational and HR challenges.
The financial challenge stems from the effort dedicated to professional development, which is currently insufficient. The organizational challenge from the issue that training programs rely on many stakeholders with different responsibilities (either the conception or the delivery of training programs). The HR challenge from the fact that the promotion of self-teaching practices is insufficiently taken into account in career development and in the recognition of different career paths. In the age of MOOCs and access to training contents produced by third parties, the French Ministry of Education, its operators and stakeholders of higher education (universities and teaching faculties (ESPE) ; the school for administrative managers of the higher education institution (ESENESR) ; CANOPE, which provides teachers with useful tools and training ; our Mooc platform, FUN-Mooc), as well as private actors of course, need to collaborate more, and better.