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The school system must educate digitally

As the pandemic stretches out, school staff are adapting to the new reality of teaching that can switch to distance at any time and is acquiring many skills. This experience will influence the perception of digital tools in the long term. Aware of the difficulties currently experienced in this direction, the Higher Education Council shares in this article its vision of digital in education.

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by Nadine Forget-Dubois
Research and transfer agent
Higher Education Council

Unveiled in May 2018, the Digital Action Plan in Education and Higher Education (PAN) wanted to make the Quebec education system "an agent of change and innovation". Two years later, digital tools suddenly turn into lifelines in order to continue teaching despite the closure of establishments. Suddenly, the pandemic has highlighted the concrete obstacles to the integration of digital technology in education: lack of devices, insufficient training in their use, inadequate Internet connections. In addition, teachers had to take up the challenge of transforming their usual practices in a very short time to adapt them to distance education. As the pandemic stretches out, school staff are adapting to the new reality of teaching that can switch to distance at any time and is acquiring many skills. 

This experience will influence the perception of digital tools in the long term. Aware of the difficulties currently experienced in the education system, the Higher Education Council shares a vision of digital education for the present and for the future.

This concern is not new. Twenty years ago, the Council saw the use of technology as a means of foster desired changes in education, or the shift from the teaching paradigm to that of learning. Since then, digital technology has crept into all areas of our existence, raising new issues. If education through digital tools is more and more anchored in practices and will be more so in the future, the Conseil believes that the school system must now educate in digital. He lays the groundwork for this change of perspective in his most recent report on the state and needs of education. 

New responsibilities for the education system

Digital education means providing the means to live and thrive in a digital world. The education system now has the responsibility of training enlightened people in the use of media and technologies, in order to go beyond the mere consumption of digital. This education first of all includes a set of skills to be developed in young people from the start of schooling to prepare them to learn and exercise their digital citizenship with discernment. For teachers, this means using digital tools to achieve learning goals, teaching digital literacy across disciplines and, finally, assessing this new literacy. To achieve this, they must be able to appropriate digital resources to use in class without constraints. Students should also have access to common tools, such as word processing and language correction software.

Risks to prevent and benefits to cultivate

In addition, the use of digital tools involves certain risks, in particular those of an ecological and social nature. The production of rapidly obsolete devices comes at the expense of the environment and the poor workers who make them. Other risks can be reduced by education in good lifestyle habits. It is about instilling in students ethical values in their use of digital technology and preventing unhealthy uses that lead to neglecting physical and social activities. Finally, digital technology can accentuate social inequalities. The education system must create fair conditions of access, but also of use. It must also create an inclusive culture, especially so that girls feel welcome in the IT field.

Despite everything, digital remains essential to adapt to the reality of the 21e century. In particular, it offers greater flexibility to the education system in crisis situations, as we have seen since last spring. Digital tools can also make it easier to meet the needs of students with difficulties. With time and the development of artificial intelligence, these tools will come to be modulated at the rate of each student.

Voltage values

The Conseil also stresses that values are attached to digital technology and that those of teaching staff do not always align with those conveyed by official speeches. The PAN, for example, presents digital tools as implicitly carriers of educational innovation. The concepts of innovation and efficiency have a commercial sounding that can run counter to humanist values. Different values influence the deployment of digital technology in education and the way in which teachers take ownership of it. Reconciling visions and gaining the support of the school community will be necessary for the integration of digital technology into programs. 

Succeed in digital education

To begin the transition to digital education, the Conseil is proposing three major orientations that can be adapted to the reality of each level of education. First, it is imperative to set up the material and administrative conditions necessary for the smooth use of digital tools. Bandwidth, the capacity of the electrical system and the lack of devices should no longer be obstacles. Beyond the basic needs, the school teams would benefit from carrying out a common reflection on the place of digital in education and on the roles of each in digital education. Finally, better collaboration between technical and educational services would achieve a judicious balance between network security and educational needs.

The second orientation proposes a better alignment of curriculum, learning and assessment. The essential character of digital competence should be embedded in curricula, taught across academic disciplines, and assessed in an authentic context. This orientation involves defining what students must master in order to move on to the next stage of their education. After compulsory schooling, students should be equipped to continue learning throughout their lives.

The third orientation proposes toupdate teacher training programs and meet continuing education and support needs teaching staff. This orientation is based on the proposal to rethink education as a collaborative task, in which the teacher acts in concert with other professionals to support the students in their learning. At the same time, initial training programs must make more room for digital technologies, ideally by becoming models of a collaborative approach and the integration of digital into learning. Practicing teachers also need training and time to experiment. They must also be supported to develop their professional skills, including digital ones.

The rapid migration to distance education due to the pandemic has exacerbated both the negative and positive sides of digital in education: frustrations linked to the lack of resources and training on the one hand, opportunities for educational innovations in education. somewhere else. In the turmoil and after, let's not lose sight of the role that digital technology should play in education: developing skills. Educating digitally is necessary, but insufficient. Digital education will help ensure that today's students become responsible, critical citizens aware of the pitfalls of technologies and the benefits they bring. This responsibility of the education system cannot be exercised without winning the support of teaching staff and all stakeholders.

Higher Education Council (2020).  Digital education, Report on the state and needs of education 2018-2020, Quebec.

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