The digital college: learning from France

I have just returned from #Ecritech5, a major French digital education conference held in Nice. I was invited to give a presentation about recent developments in digital learning at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc).  For those who are interested and understand French, a video of my presentation will soon be available on the Ecritech site. I also gave a short video interview with Ludovia magazine, also in French, which can be seen here.

As the only non-French representative I personally ensured the conference was international. I found the whole experience fascinating and learnt a great deal, both in terms of the French approach to learning technologies but also in terms of their approach to educational change. This all made it worth my struggle to try and master the educational and technical vocabulary needed to communicate our work in a language I can speak but don’t use much.

I am very grateful to Jean-Louis Durpaire (a general inspector for national education) and Mireille Lamouroux (project manager for digital strategy at the ministry of education) for suggesting that I be invited and for making me feel so welcome. This came out of their visit to NewVIc a few years ago and the subsequent production of a training video for French colleagues about our learning resource centre. This itself arose from the fact that we regularly host French colleagues for a year at a time via the Jules Verne programme; a wondeful international mobility scheme which is fully funded by the French government.

It’s not possible to do justice to the whole conference in one blog. I would simply highlight 5 key questions which interested me:

  1. How are connected digital technologies changing learning?
  2. How are young people responding to e-learning?
  3. How do we promote equality and the central role of public education?
  4. How can we help students create their masterpiece?
  5. How does the French system support educational change and exchange?

1. How are connected digital technologies changing learning?

The introduction of digital technologies has followed the pattern of many previous technological changes. First, a phase of innovation with a few experts and enthusiasts leading the way and most people uninformed or uninvolved, the potential not yet widely understood. Second, a phase of universalisation, where the technology is widely available and many people are aware of its potential and are beginning to come to terms with its implications for their work. Third, a phase of ubiquity or banality, where the technology is so established and widespread that it is a normal, unremarkable part of life, fully integrated into everyone’s work.

Many speakers, notably Yael Briswalter from Grenoble, described the impact of e-learning on education as breaking with the “three unities” of the theatre of the classroom. This refers to the classical unities of drama developed by Aristotle and taken up by French dramatists such as Moliere and Racine in the 17th century. The unities are: the unity of action (one main plot followed throughout), the unity of place (one main location) and the unity of time (takes place within 24 hours). If one thinks of the classical classroom as the stage for a “theatre of teaching and learning” with the lesson content being contained within a specific, common lesson time and classroom location then e-learning has the potential to break with each of these unities. With on-line and particularly mobile devices, content can be drawn from multiple sources and learning can extend well beyond the classroom and lesson time. All this requires schools and teachers to rethink proximity, redesign learning spaces and the use of out-of-class learning.

Teacher-researcher Jean Francois Cerisier, from the university of Poitiers, concluded his brilliant and synoptic presentation with a quote from Marshall MacLuhan: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” to remind us that our relationship to technology is not unidirectional or unproblematic.

  1. How are young people responding to e-learning?

Jean-Francois Cerisier shared the findings of his research on young people’s views of e-learning. While some university lecturers are dismayed by the fact that their students use social media during their study time, it turns out that what they are doing is often complementing and enhancing their studies. His view was that connected students liven up classes by drawing on wider sources to challenge their lecturers. The young people he surveyed were quite discriminating about the e-learning they were offered and did not value resources which seemed contrived and didn’t make effective use of the technology.

His team’s research also found that as opportunities to socialise in safe public spaces have receded, young people value social networks as places where they can avoid constant adult oversight. Young people use social media to create and test their social identity and to become socialised.

All this was interesting if not particularly surprising. On reflection it seems that to fully benefit from social media, young people need to have well-developed pre-existing social skills in the real world. This probably applies to other transitions; for example to communicate effectively online, people need good real-world communication skills,

  1. How do we promote equality and the central role of public education?

French educators are concerned about existing digital divides and are determined to ensure that e-learning does not widen the gap further between successful students and those who are in danger of dropping out (the “decrocheurs”). All the speakers emphasised the need to use technologies in ways which promote equality rather deepening inequalities.

There was also an absolute consensus that the market must be kept out of education and the role of commercial suppliers strictly limited. For an English educator who has to operate in a marketised system, it was refreshing that the shared values of public education were a given. Everyone seemed to be aware of the risks of subordinating education to market forces and the threat to teacher professionalism of being seen as merely coaches or guides for learners in a world of commercial learning resources. In fact, Jean-Pierre Veran, an inspector from Monpellier, described his “nightmare” vision of the future as the Illich-esque (or Mitra-esque?) deschooled society where learners simply select resources from an online marketplace and use them with little guidance or cultural context.

Jean-Francois Cerisier reminded us that in the digital age, public schools are more important than ever; playing a central role as places which organise, select and give value to our knowledge, our culture and the social practices we want to pass on.

  1. How can we help students create their masterpiece?

Olivier Rey from the education institute of the Ecole Normale Superieure of Lyon (a higher education Grande Ecole) spoke passionately about the need for students to be proud of their school and what they do there and emphasised the need for school to provide the guidance and support needed for students to learn in depth and take a critical approach to knowledge – all of which requires greater effort than simply engaging with technology. Digital technologies will change our practice just as printing and universal literacy changed them.

I particularly liked his appeal for young people to produce at least one “chef d’oeuvre” by the time they leave school; harking back to the idea of the masterpiece which an apprentice produced to demonstrate mastery. Such a “masterpiece” would demonstrate their skill, represent their learning and symbolise their transition to adulthood by making a recognised community contribution. It would be more tangible than exam certificates and could clearly, but not necessarily, involve a digital product, although it should be more than simply an e-portfolio.

For me, this resonated strongly with our idea of using the extended research project, available in England, as a way of accrediting students’ independent research or collective effort, such as a performance or art-work. Sharing and celebrating these masterpieces could be an important rite of passage for school leavers and a powerful way to link school and community.

  1. How does the French system support educational change and exchange?

One can’t spend time with French educators without being impressed by their commitment to their national education system (“l’Education Nationale”) based on shared values (“valeurs republicaines”). Everyone sees themselves as being engaged in a joint national endeavour whose practices may be contested and debated but which ultimately is a common national project which commands popular support and cross-party consensus.

In particular, the role of inspectors is quite different to that of OfSTED in England. Inspectors in France are influential, committed civil servants who know the schools, the heads and the staff on their patch and work in partnership to improve the whole system. Their shared concerns and the whole tone of their conversation are about learning, disseminating best practice, solving common problems, promoting sustainable and equitable development. They are in the system for the long term and they take a long term view of the schools and professionals who depend on them.

Naturally, in such a system, there are hierarchies and bureaucracies and these can sometimes get in the way of progress. But the French are aware of these risks and seem to be creating ways to promote innovation and grassroots initiatives and speed up change.

I was left thinking how much more our “system” could achieve if it really was a system; a “national education service” in fact. Not fossilised or static, but focused on achieving nationally agreed objectives through public service values and without all the hierarchies and competitiveness which result from a market.

Wishful thinking? Utopian? Well, if the French can do it….

I hope to blog further about some of these issues soon and am also planning a glossary of terms for anyone who wants to try to break through the French-English education language barrier in either direction. I welcome comments in either English or French about any of this.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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