On his wedding day in 2004, Salman Khan, a financial analyst in Boston, found his grand-cousin a little depressed. She had just failed a math test. To help her, he decided to make videos on YouTube. Fifteen years later, the online courses of his “virtual university”, the Khan Academy platform, are seen by around 40 million users a month worldwide.
In June 2019, at the Innovation Fair organised by the African Union (AU) in Dakar, a 30-year-old Cameroonian woman, Blandine Angele Messa, presented EduClick. “We're building a web and mobile app from which our target audience can access professionally taught school curricula.”
Throughout the world, a plethora of innovative initiatives is gradually transforming education. With the digital revolution, which is transforming the economy and society, a wholesale redefinition of learning and teaching is occurring. “This change will require a complete rethink of the education system as a whole. All the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are working on this as part of the Education 2030 project,” said Éric Charbonnier, an analyst in the OECD's Education and Skills Directorate.
Learning to learn
The challenge is indeed major in a world where education is an engine of growth and development*. The United Nations has made it one of its 17 priority goals for sustainable development. In its Agenda 2063, the African Union believes that achieving a “prosperous Africa” requires “significant investments in education, in order to develop its human and social capital through a revolution in education and skills”. In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, there are questions about the new skills required by young people. Certainly, given the exponential pace of advances in technology, children in school today will live and work in a world radically different from ours.
French biologist François Taddei, co-founder of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (CIR) in Paris, is calling for “a learning society capable of continually evolving”. For him, “learning to learn, to question, to interpret is undoubtedly the major challenge of education today.” It becomes crucial to acquire these cross-subject skills that enable individuals to prepare for change. Over the next 15 to 20 years, the development of automation could lead to the loss of 14% of current jobs, and an additional 32% are likely to be profoundly transformed, according to the OECD.
(*) “Creating a Learning Society - A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress” Joseph E. Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald with Philippe Aghion, Kenneth J. Arrow, Robert M. Solow, and Michael Woodford. Columbia University Press, 2014.
Africa adopts mobile learning
Digital offers many opportunities to create an environment conducive to independent learning, creativity, cooperation and interaction. First of all, it is a master card in promoting the democratisation of access to education. It is no coincidence that Africa, with 50% of its population under the age of 20, has seized this digital revolution. Although the region has made significant progress in primary and middle school enrolment, some 50 million children still do not attend school, according to the World Bank. The disparities between countries, between rural and urban areas, and between boys and girls remain significant.
As Frédéric Oudéa, CEO of Societe Generale, recalled at the Women in Africa Summit in June 2019 in Marrakesh, it is imperative to promote women's entrepreneurship and human capital.
The Societe Generale Corporate Foundation is thus supporting nearly 100 African projects in 14 countries, particularly in the fields of education and occupational integration by combating discrimination.
At the same summit, Bruno Mettling, president of Orange Africa and the Middle East, points to the challenge of school infrastructure: “One million classes would have to be built each year to meet the needs of Africa, given its demographics. That's currently out of reach... So we need to change our way of thinking, and adopt digital tools to move forward(...). This will be all the more possible because today half of Africans already have access to a mobile phone.”
Mobile learning — education services via a connected mobile device — is therefore already in full swing in Africa, both at the initiative of large companies but also in start-ups and partnerships between NGOs, States and digital players. And their assets? Providing large-scale access to lowcost and update-able educational content, providing school support for students, improving teacher training, and addressing the lack of data for the management of the education system. There are many examples. In Kenya, the M-Sule app offers training that adapts to each child's learning pace. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and Nokia are developing the Primary Teaching Learning Program for in-service distance learning for teachers. In nine African countries, the distribution of e-readers by the US NGO WorldReader to 600,000 children has had a very positive impact on reading and on children's educational test results. In Nigeria, for example, the Mavis Pen, a digital pen associated with an audiobook, is able to play the corresponding audio recording when the pen touches the text or images of the book, thus helping thousands of children learn more easily.
Of course, mobile learning and, more broadly, ICT (information and communication technologies) in education will not solve all the problems of education in Africa alone, especially given the lack of resources, infrastructure and teachers, and the sometimes limited access for girls to education. But these technologies, as pointed out by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), can contribute to a profound transformation of skills acquisition systems. Digital technology appears to be a catalyst for renewing the education system by encouraging the introduction of innovative pedagogical practices based on interactive, playful and thought-provoking methods.
However it is not an end in itself, as the OECD 2015 study “Connected to Learn” clearly demonstrates. Filling a school with computers or tablets does not automatically improve academic performance. The introduction of digital technology must be consistent with new practices and serve educational needs. “Fundamental knowledge (language, critical thinking, calculation) remains relevant,” says Catherine Becchetti-Bizot, Inspector General of National Education in France.
"It is their transmission that must take new forms, in spaces redesigned and re-articulated around active, collaborative practice and project-based approaches.”* Initiated by the United States in the 2000s and further developed in Canada, the “inverted class” is typical of those practices that change the role of teachers and the relationship to the classroom space and time. Students learn the basics outside of school, at home, in a digital workplace, and perform the applied exercises in the classroom.
The strong point of this approach is the availability of the teacher to encourage interaction during the course and to accompany the students individually. Active pedagogy initiatives supported by digital technology are numerous. One example is the European eTwinning project, a free online platform for teachers that allows schools in 33 countries to work together on educational projects at a distance. Or again, Twictée, a collaborative online dictation device on the social network Twitter created by two French teachers, that is growing rapidly across the French-speaking world.
(*) Report “Rethinking schools in the digital age”, May 2017, Inspectorate General de l'Éducation nationale, France.
“Digital technology is a catalyst for renewing the education system by encouraging the introduction of innovative teaching practices based on interactive, playful and thought-provoking methods.”
Countries that drive change
While these innovative initiatives are now spreading around the world, some countries are certainly at the forefront of driving the change. And they are generally in the top rankings in the OECD's International Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) — the world's largest survey on the skills of 15-year-olds. “Countries like Finland, Canada, Singapore, South Korea... have each implemented reforms that promote observation, experimentation, trial-and-error learning and cooperation,” says Taddei. They are investing in educational research and teacher training.
In Singapore, teachers are recruited from among the top graduates and are entitled to 100 hours of training per year. Two thirds of schools host research collectives that enable them to work on known success factors, improve practice and share what they have learned.
Through Lesson Studies, groups of teachers in Japan use this approach to define what the ideal session would be for a particular teaching point. “Finland — a country that has become synonymous with excellence in education — has made education a sought-after career with corresponding high social status,” says Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD's Directorate for Education and Skills.
In this highly decentralised school system, the teacher enjoys great autonomy. First and foremost, it is the teacher's role to guide the pupil and stimulate them through positive feedback. In Estonia, where schoolchildren are introduced to the program from the age of seven, the focus is also on teacher training. As Margus Pedaste, professor of educational technology at the University of Tartu, points out, “the teaching of digital skills takes place in a broader context of renewal of the learning framework and pedagogical methods”.
On the other hand, insufficient teacher training is one of the key points that explain the somewhat middling assessment of the “public service for digital education" launched in 2013 in France. The vast majority of teachers are convinced of the benefits of digital technology in schools to diversify their teaching practices. Yet at the same time, the 2016 Profetic survey of practices in this field shows that 51% of them consider they have received insufficient or no training at all in the pedagogical use of digital technology.
The promises of adaptive learning
At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is opening up new opportunities to improve knowledge, quality and monitoring of learning methods, the role of teachers is more decisive than ever. Advances in AI will lead to the development of adaptive learning systems capable of tracking students' engagement and progress, and adapting their content. “Teachers will have more resources that ever before and will be able to meet the needs of each type of student directly in their classroom,” says Nandini Chatterjee Singh, Cognitive Neuroscience Researcher at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Development (MGIEP) at UNESCO.
However, the collection of learners' data raises important ethical and legal questions. “We will need to adjust existing regulatory frameworks or adopt new ones (...) It is also important to raise awareness and facilitate open debate on issues related to AI ethics, privacy and data security (...)”, stresses Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division for Policy and Systems at Lifelong Learning at Unesco. The UN organisation has just held an international conference on AI and education in May 2019 in Beijing, China, a country that has announced the creation of 50 research centres on AI and education, according to François Taddei.
“What kind of future do we want in our schools? Schools where technology companies are responsible for the use of AI, or rather schools where students and teachers are able to interrogate and constructively influence an enlightened, responsible and ethical approach to our technology-rich future,” says Thierry Karsenti, Professor at the Faculty of Education Sciences of the University of Montreal1.
On the other side of the world in Australia, Leslie Loble, Assistant Secretary in the New South Wales Department of Education, concurs, insisting educators need to “retain final control”. “It is up to teachers and school leaders, (...) trained for this purpose, to clearly define the place of AI in the classroom," she says. "Students must also be involved in decision-making (...) It's their future that will depend on the policies and approaches we adopt today.”2
(1) “Artificial intelligence in education: the urgency of preparing future teachers today for tomorrow's schools” in Training and Profession, 26 March 2018. - (2)“Unesco Courier”, 2018.
2 questions to Eric Charbonnier
Does the introduction of digital technology in education require a new relationship between the public and private sectors?
The use of digital technology certainly fosters the emergence of private actors in the education market. This is a trend that we are seeing in all OECD1 countries. And the actors are certainly diverse: publishers, who are diversifying by offering e-books, IT players, such as Microsoft, for equipment; and large search engines such as Google, which are looking to establish themselves in schools as has already been seen, for example, in Japan and Korea.
There is strong competition among these players, and the situation is prompting states to consider how to avoid the creation of monopolies. In general, governments still fund a high proportion of investment in education, but the private sector is becoming increasingly important for some levels of education. For example, in higher education, the private sector accounts for about 31% on average of total expenditure in OECD countries2.
Many governments are struggling to raise the funds needed to finance mass education at this current level. Public-private partnerships are developing in a growing number of countries where companies are investing in research and equipment within universities. This movement is most marked in Anglo- Saxon countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. Many companies are involved in the financing of university courses with the idea of hiring the best graduates.
For them, it is a matter of meeting the needs of the labour market. With this in mind, Xavier Niel, founder of the Iliad Group, created École 42 in France and later in many other countries, which train developers whose computer skills are in great demand by companies.
Will digital technology encourage privatisation in education?
The generalisation of digital in schools will not necessarily translate into private development if the public sector offers quality education by putting digital tools at the service of innovative pedagogies. In France, despite the creation in 2013 of the “Public Digital Education Service"3, inequalities between regions persist.
Many disadvantaged schools remain under resourced with computer equipment. In this case, the private sector may have a role to play in addressing public shortcomings. But it's not inevitable. For example, the case of the United Kingdom is interesting: charter schools — schools run by the private sector but with public funds — have developed with a particular focus on disadvantaged children.
This competition has been beneficial for the public school system, as it has fostered a renewal of policies focusing on developing teacher training and providing a quality pedagogical environment.
(1) Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. - (2) “Education at a Glance 2018”, OECD. - (3) Inscribed in the French National School Reforms Legislation of July 8, 2013.