This digital that has a wide back!

In this opinion piece, Patrick Giroux, professor of educational technologies, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, Jacques Cool, educational consultant, speaker and trainer, and Stéphane Allaire, professor of educational practices, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, provide three arguments which can be useful in reaction to any position unreservedly condemning the use of digital technology in education.

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By Patrick Giroux, professor of educational technologies, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi;
Jacques Cool, education consultant, speaker and trainer;
and Stéphane Allaire, professor of educational practices, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi

Digital education is regularly the subject of disputes, even attacks. They come in various forms. A recent letter from the readers' mail (La Presse, January 17, 2022) attacks distance education specifically and digital more generally. She speaks of “the failure of virtual education”, stating that the tech-savvy approach has hit a wall and that digital is associated with negative effects.

From the outset, we recognize that digital education can only be associated with successes. Nevertheless, rather than throwing it out the window, we believe it is necessary to reflect on the situation, to analyze it as a whole in order to understand it globally, and to take a closer look at the scientific literature cited.

The potential of digital technology for teaching and learning cannot be reduced to tools or an analysis that ignores their context of use. Indeed, a classroom is a complex system that involves a few dozen brains in turmoil, in addition to organizational characteristics specific to each school service center and school. This system also involves interactions with tools, including digital tools, which have distinct characteristics and whose mastery varies from one actor to another. To add to the complexity, this system is currently immersed in a socio-politico-economic-sanitary context of unprecedented change. And, just to drive home the point of complexity, the actors involved can have legitimate emotional reactions, which are likely to have an effect on learning.

That being said, three arguments stand out against any position that unreservedly condemns the use of digital technology in education or any form of education that uses digital technology.

1. The school has the responsibility of educating young people and preparing them to live in today's world.

First, there is the essential link uniting the school to society and the school's mission. These arguments have already been developed by two educational advisers from RÉCIT (La Press, January 21, 2022). School is a melting pot of society, which has the particular responsibility of training young people and preparing them for life in today's world. Whatever may be said, digital technology is a key and transforming issue for 21st century society, as are other global phenomena such as climate and geopolitical change. The school has little to do with it, but can it ignore it and overlook a responsibility to educate about the possibilities, challenges and issues that come, in this case, with digital technology?

“In a context where digital is inducing major social, economic and technological changes, the development of skills takes on a broader and more complex dimension, because we must above all prepare for change, and not only respond to it. (Digital Action Plan, Quebec Ministry of Education, 2018)

2. The teacher has a key role to play, that of the architect who deploys the right strategies at the right time.

Secondly, there is the fact that the role of the teacher and other educational stakeholders cannot be ignored. For some reason, some interpret the situation as if they had little or no role to play! Because indeed, in the educational system described above, the teacher, in particular, plays the key role of the architect. He decides how the students will be put in contact with such content or challenge. He also decides how and when he will intervene and give feedback, as well as how to guide and direct the students. The range of strategies that the teacher can use is vast. A well-known one is the frontal and masterful approach. In a somewhat caricatural way, the teacher says that 2 + 2 is 4, asks the class to repeat and continues until it is firmly anchored in each brain. Without condemning it head on, we must recognize that we know the limits of this approach... So many researchers and school workers explore other strategies on a daily basis to offer different and richer learning activities, both in terms of motivation than learning.

Let's go back to the critique of distance education and digital technology. When an educator notices that online teaching has not gone to their satisfaction and concludes that the use of digital technology in the classroom must be reduced, they are making a logical error. Who decided to use digital like this? Has the digital tool imposed itself? In a class that uses a workbook rather than digital, if a student fails, is the workbook blamed? More broadly, who decided whether or not to offer training to the teacher regarding these tools? In what forms and with what recognition? Who financed the purchase of equipment? Who imposed the programs? The teacher works in an ecosystem that he only partially controls. But regardless, the search for culprits is unproductive and will do little for change and the improvement of education. It also risks demotivating key players in our society who work daily for the well-being and education of our children. Better to consider other courses of action.

3. Research should not so much study “if” digital technology contributes to learning, but rather “how” it can do it better. 

The third argument stems from the second and relates more specifically to research. We often quote this or that research that says that digital does not contribute to learning. However, there are also others who conclude that digital can contribute positively. Why? First, because we often forget or neglect the role of the teacher! The question to ask is not so much "does digital technology promote learning?" » than « how can digital technology promote learning? The digital does not have a will of its own. It is the great architect, the teacher, accompanied by other contributors, who decides whether or not to use digital technology, depending on the intended pedagogical intention. And it is therefore important that he knows how to do it! It is also important to take into account the organizational characteristics with which he must deal and which sometimes constrain the uses he (or his student) can make of digital technology. With this in mind, the reading of research works changes. We realize that in experiment Y, we tested the combination of context, tool and strategy XYZ and that this did not have the expected result, while in experiment X, we rather updated I tried the ABC combination of context, tool and strategy and this time it worked better. This level of detail is often drowned out in groupings of studies called meta analyzes or overlooked by readers. 

In our eyes, the conclusions to be drawn from the pandemic and the difficulties encountered with regard to digital technology and distance learning are all other than those that are akin to a condemnation. Can we first realize that many teachers were not sufficiently trained with regard to digital technology, and especially distance education, a very different context from face-to-face teaching where some digital tools are sometimes used? ? A number of research studies have taught us that before thinking about the appropriate educational use of technology, one must first acquire minimal technical skills, then integrate them judiciously into one's personal practices. To this end, a large number of teachers have had to make up for a delay for two years and, what is more, in disaster. They were nevertheless able to accentuate their mastery and their confidence in the face of distance learning and digital technology.

We must then realize that many young Quebecers do not have at home all the tools necessary for distance learning (Internet connection, computer, books, etc.) and that not all families could offer the same child support (because the parents worked away from home rather than at home, because there were four children at home and only two parents, etc.). Nor can we overlook the challenge for students to move, overnight, from a context of organized captivity (the four walls of a class where the majority of activities are timed by the teacher) to a context where they need to be more independent... 

The condemnation of digital is an easy way. It reminds those who were afraid of the consequences of the arrival of the printing press. The alternative, certainly more demanding, consists in pursuing actions to, for example, offer professional development to teachers, improve the organizational conditions that impact their work, pursue research in education to understand how to use the available tools effectively and work to improve the conditions of Quebec families.

Don't tell us it's the fault of digital! He didn't decide anything...

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