Computers, schools and equal opportunities

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The current health crisis has encouraged distance learning. Digital technology has taken an important place. Computers have become a part of everyday life in schools. Does it bring a certain emancipation? Nothing is less certain.

THE SCHOOLS

Far from being all equally equipped, schools are also competitive and unequal in their use of computers. A little more than a year before the Covid crisis, my academic authorities came to tell me, in a rather rare communication operation, that the digital divide no longer existed, that everyone was now connected. I almost fell off my chair! In my school, there were students who only had their smartphones to work with(1) and colleagues who were still doing it very awkwardly. I was asked to charge for paper prints. Only a few classrooms were equipped with computers, not always available to students, and the teacher’s lounge had only two workstations… The March 2020 lockdown revealed the reality of the situation!

STUDENTS, COURSES, SKILLS

At the time of the Internet explosion, a crazy idea was born in the world of education: since all knowledge is now within reach of a click, are we still going to teach it at school? Is it not more relevant to develop students’ skills and teach them to learn on their own? While this idea may seem appealing, it has a dark side. Indeed, this competency-based approach was essentially subject to the expectations of the world of work; it was above all a question of training students for an increasingly flexible and unstable market. Moreover, teachers were becoming scarce in some subjects, and replacing them with simple coaches who would accompany « digital methods » could be attractive… But the role of teachers is not limited to pouring knowledge into the heads of their students. What students are passionate about varies and does not specifically correspond to the knowledge needed to understand the world and look at it critically. Finally, a large part of the knowledge learned at school is not immediately useful, the role of teaching being above all to structure knowledge and to ensure its acquisition. Teachers spend much of their time motivating children and young people, arousing their interest in subjects that may seem daunting to them(2).

Finally, the expertise needed to find a job or become a critical citizen does not rely on superficial knowledge that can be found online, but requires having a large amount of organized knowledge in memory and making connections between this knowledge. To believe that it would be enough to learn to learn is an illusion. Digital technology is, in fact, both a tool for learning and a new subject to learn. But it seems that the promotion of the use of digital technology, in schools as elsewhere, serves above all the interests of the hardware, software and online services industry. Digital technology is a tool among others and must remain so. It would be detrimental to forget the chalk and pen.

PANDEMIC AND DIGITAL AT ALL COSTS!

Recent events and the health crisis have shown how essential the teacher in the classroom and collective work are for quality teaching. The need to keep in touch with students during the latest episodes of « distance learning » also reveals another face of computer use: teacher control. In some schools, we have seen the management count the number of hours spent on the platform, the number of video conferences given, the number of emails exchanged with students… An additional pressure that excludes the use of paper files or textbooks in order to continue learning. Thus, a teacher who would have chosen to give readings, photocopies to be studied in order to make a synthesis that could then be corrected and commented on was forced to use digital technology at all costs.

At the time of the implementation of this hybrid education (and already before), the reactions of the political world, of the various organizing authorities and directions go in the direction of the digital equipment of all the pupils. It is now a matter of providing a computer on loan to all students, with a spread of costs for parents. Assistance is provided for disadvantaged families. By way of a small dose of humiliation for the young people who are « charitably » helped. In the meantime, to facilitate distance learning, schools had to equip themselves with computers to lend to students(3). But chaos reigns: in schools with a low socio-economic index(4), the number of computers is insufficient and « publicity » remains confidential. Some parents, unaware of their right to a loan of equipment, have taken out a loan. Free education (already very relative) is seriously compromised by the all-digital world. Although, officially, the fees charged by schools are limited, the use of digital technology, the incentive to return printed files and to search on the Internet at home lead to expenses that are difficult to bear for some families. Equipping everyone will not solve inequalities. The problem of digital understanding arises: what if my computer crashes? How to download and install a program? How to use the material? Can we leave a 15 year old alone from one day to the next, without explanation, in front of a screen that also displays pornography and violence? Wanting to equip each child is a solution that is not very ecological, ultra-commercial and that participates in an accentuated individualism. Since the school’s objective is also to « make society », this implies choosing more collective and sustainable solutions.

A SOLUTION

On the eve of the lockdown, my school stated in its management plan that it had computer rooms available to students. This was not entirely true. When there were no teachers working there, these rooms were locked. Impossible to access outside of class hours. How to learn in such conditions? However, we would like to make schools and universities open to the whole society, making knowledge and research more common. Instead of equipping all students, shouldn’t we equip more schools and open them after school on Saturdays? Create new supervised « studies »? We could thus propose a more collective solution: a kind of « library » accessible to all, to the other forgotten people of the digital world (elderly people of the district, parents, precarious families…), schools that would become places where any citizen can find help, friendly schools for all.

Michèle Janss

Notes et références
  1. Depuis l’arrivée des smartphones sur le marché, les plus précaires de mes élèves n’ont plus d’ordinateur. Mon établissement est une école technique et professionnelle du croissant pauvre de Bruxelles.
  2. Benoit Galand, « Le numérique va-t-il révolutionner l’éducation ? », in Cahier du Girsef, n°120, mars 2020. Consultable en suivant le lien suivant : https://bit. ly/39wDre4
  3. La mesure vise à permettre aux écoles d’acquérir un stock d’ordinateurs corres- pondant à au moins 5% de leur population scolaire.
  4. Rappelons que nous avons, en Belgique, un des enseignements les plus inégalitaires d’Europe. Pour comprendre : https://skolo.org/2017/06/22/reseaux-inscriptions-filieres-financement-mecanismes-de-linegalite-scolaire
 
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