The school of robots

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« Sooner or later, Technology will claim to form collaborators who are devoted body and soul to its Principle, that is to say, who will accept without useless discussion its conception of order, of life, its Reasons for living. In a world entirely devoted to Efficiency, to Yield, is it not important that each citizen, from birth, be devoted to the same gods?

« To be informed of everything and thus condemned to understand nothing, such is the fate of fools. »

The  » Civilization of machines  » prophesied by Georges Bernanos in 1945 in La France contre les robots (France against robots) is very similar to the state of the world under Covid-19. The man deprived of humanity and exteriority under the effect of the confinement rushes on the machines  » to fill the skulls, to liquefy the brains  » and entrusts the totality of his life (professional, social, family, commercial, emotional, cultural) to the Technique. With all the less restrictions that anxiety generates a desire of regression and servitude and that by necessity the authorities have consecrated the digital work of public health, and even integrated the telephone shadowing for sanitary reasons in the official device of fight against the pandemic. It doesn’t matter that the anti-Covid applications turned out to be useless in the end, they will have allowed to put the Technique in the posture of the Savior. For the gigantic enterprise of capturing « available brain time » that is the digital industry, the GAFAM, this year of compulsive and lucrative connections will go down in history as the year of all conquests and all profits.

Among them, the world of education.

First of all, there was the University which was entirely converted to distance learning, a symbolic illustration of the hostage-taking of Science by Technology. But the school, which has difficulty integrating the digital codes, has been accused of having caused students to drop out during the school closure period. And summoned to convert to new technologies to operate in hybrid mode from now on. The death of yesterday’s teaching is proclaimed and the happy advent of techno-pedagogy(1). Under the impulse of the « digital-educational complex(2) », the implementation can be accelerated. In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the ASBL Educit has precisely a three-point program: equip all students with a Chromebook, train teachers, and set up a common platform. Any debate on the project is denied, since digital theorists share « thehe catechism of Silicon Valley [qui] consists of three propositions: technology is intrinsically good because it allows freedom to unfold; it can be perverted by malicious groups; and, in that case, the solutions are necessarily technological and cannot be political. « Dogmatism that Bernanos summarized in these terms:  » The Technique cannot be discussed, as the solutions it imposes are by definition the most practical.  »

However, reality seems to escape the theorists. In higher education, where the practice of distance learning has been forced upon students and professors, the  » massive dropout is real « (3). It is estimated at 60% according to the Federation of Francophone Students (FEF). It further amplifies the elitism of higher education. Furthermore, the distance assessments were estimated to be so reliable that universities eventually had to resort to face-to-face for the January 2021 session when the majority of courses had been taught remotely. Finally, it does not seem that digital technology has changed the pedagogy practiced, quite the contrary.

In secondary schools, we can also see that dropping out has other causes than the mode of teaching and precisely that before being a solution, digital technology is the problem that the school is facing. First, in terms of health. It is important to remember that according to studies, 5 to 14% of teenagers are in a situation of cyberaddiction, according to the criteria established by the WHO. Alongside these cases of pathological addiction, there is the average time of screen use estimated at 8 or 9 hours(4) per day among teenagers and an addiction that is declined in tolerance, compulsion or servitude.  » According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, American youth spend five and a half hours a day on entertainment technologies, video games, online videos and social networks and a total of eight hours daily on all connected screens(5). » The effects are felt both physically and mentally, because screen time reduces sleep time and quality, as well as physical activity. But « when sleep is chronically impaired, our entire cognitive, emotional and health functioning is harmed(6) « . Thus we observe that the level of physical activity and the physical condition of Belgian children and adolescents — a comparison possible since the tests have been the same for 50 years! — is so far down(7)  » that a child in 2017 runs 800 meters one minute slower than 50 yearsago(8).

On the psychological level, in France, the Collectif surxposition écrans (CoSE) made up of professionals of childhood and adolescence supported by the President of the French Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Daniel Marcelli, was formed to alert the media and parents, in particular on the autistic delays generated by the overexposure to screens at a young age Among the signs of influence among teenagers, journalist François Saltiel has retained this impressive indicator  » According to a study commissioned by the IMCAS, which brings together health professionals, 18–34 year olds have more frequent recourse to cosmetic surgery than 50–60 year olds and this is a first in France « which he directly associates with the use of social networks and in particular Instagram, » theworst social media platform in terms of its impact on the mental health of 14–24 year olds(9) ». From then on, a question arises which the theorists of the digital school are reluctant to answer: up to how many hours of exposure to screens are we ready to accept the educational use of digital technology?

Secondly, on the educational and pedagogical level. To the question of time, some pedagogues will answer that the pedagogical learning of digital technology will form responsible teenagers capable of using it intelligently and creatively and not only recreationally. The tale is appealing, but the idea of a transfer to digital education is belied by the facts(10). How can you imagine that using a platform for math class or viewing a video vignette could distract from Instagram or GTA? With multitasking rampant, it is observed that unless very strictly monitored, both recreational and educational sites are frequented simultaneously. If not at school, (provided that the setting of inaccessible sites resists the students) at least at home. However, « any digital diversion (SMS, social networks, emails, etc.) results in a significant drop in the level of comprehension and memorization of the elements presented(11). « Hence the studies on the contribution of ICTE to school performance, revealing the illusory nature of the hopes placed in them. In this regard, let us recall the findings of the 2015 Pisa survey: » Countries that have made significant investments in information and communication technologies (ICT) in education have seen no significant improvement in student achievement in reading, mathematics and science .

The immediate consequence of using a laptop in class and at home is to require parents to provide their child with a permanent Internet connection and to prohibit them from restricting access to it. How then, for parents who are aware of their children’s excessive digital consumption, can they intervene to set standards? And prevent the risks of exposure to the dark side of the net? That of the  » cognitive apocalypse  » in the words of the sociologist Gérald Bronner. For example, do we need to remind you that  » the most watched videos in all countries, by far, are pornographic videos « ? That « in 2016, 49% of Germans between the ages of 6 and 13 said they had been accidentally exposed to pornographic content » and that « the side effects of this ‘porn-pandemic’ are disastrous for children and young adolescents(12).

Moreover, from a pedagogical point of view, although the digital medium may appear more modern, it is perfectly suited to the least interactive and most formatting-oriented teaching practices. The profusion of stereotypical school videos on Youtube illustrates this. And the possibility of outsourcing the school by entrusting the training of the pupil to media supports or to applications finally risks devaluing the school time to make it a place of playful animations. If the real class is elsewhere, in the virtual world, why wear out my spats and waste my time in a monitored space? But it also risks accentuating the socially unequal nature of our education. Not because of a digital divide due to a lack of equipment, as has been complacently repeated, but because of an unequal capacity for temperance to resist digital distractions. Sociological studies attest to this:  » The most modest milieus are also those who are most affected by screens and whose children have the most difficulty in postponing immediate pleasures(13) ». The digital divide is therefore not where we wanted to see it, in access to technologies, but in the ability to escape them.

Moreover, conceiving the class as a « community of learners » where each learner builds his or her own « learning path » with the help of platforms under the watchful eye of a teacher-coach is an individualistic vision that evacuates the affective and collective dimension of teaching. Can the relationship with matter be disembodied? Can the pedagogical relationship flourish in a technically mediated learning process? Doesn’t learning require empathy? Are not the co-presence and the sharing of a common time organized around a similar experience with all the uncertainties of a shared present essential conditions of a course?

Finally, we do not see how the pedagogical freedom to teach and to make learn by means of books and writing can be preserved from the moment when the digital tool takes its place in the classroom. How can we imagine that a system that imposes dematerialization can accept to cohabit with the book object and its culture? From then on, writing and taking handwritten notes, reading on paper, handling reference books (atlases, dictionaries, manuals…) are quickly doomed to obsolescence. And with them, valuable skills.

Because the Technique transforms us and uses us for its own advent. What does it matter if the digital student trained by techno-pedagogy loses skills as long as he becomes a user of technical progress! Whatever the cultural and intellectual cost, its adaptation to the « use of digital tools » is essential to ensure its dissemination and extension in the near future according to the process of « self-development of technical progress » described by the philosopher Michel Henry in La Barbarie. Maryanne Wolf’s recent work on reading is enlightening in this regard. A neuroscience researcher and director of the Center for Reading and Language at Tufts University, she recently published a book on the evolution of reading in digital media(14). However, she observes that the medium induces a different mode of reading and, beyond that, a different mode of being to oneself and to others.  » We are what we read, how we read and what we read about .  » Sflying for information is our new reading habit. What is missing are the deep reading processes that, until the last decade, were embedded in the fundamental neural circuitry of the expert reader. These more sophisticated and time-consuming deep reading processes take years to develop in a child and milliseconds to unfold in an expert reader. They include our ability to connect what we already know — our background knowledge — to new information and draw inferences, make analogies, examine the value of truth — critical analysis — and, importantly, suspend our thoughts and feelings to adopt the perspectives of others — the basis of empathy(15). « Gold » Digital media benefit fast processes, multiple activities, and are suitable for skimming large volumes of information. Indeed, researchers interested in eye movements note that many of us scan information on a page by making an F or Z, in order to get the broad strokes, but potentially missing important details such as the progression of a plot or the beauty of a style. […] The pandemic will not only worsen the decline in our children’s reading levels, but the excessive use of digital tools could also worsen the decline in deep reading in all of us. « However, it is likely that the digitization of education will soon extend to primary education or even kindergarten. The use of tablets is already starting to spread.

Finally, from an ecological standpoint, the model proposed by the digital school completely contradicts the aspirations expressed by the « Youth for Climate » movement, whose demonstrations marked the school year before Covid. Continuing to operate in an educational manner that is harmful to the planet beyond the pandemic would contradict the climate awareness efforts undertaken by youth and supported by FW‑B. However, if the volume of greenhouse gas emissions has decreased since the beginning of the epidemic, it is because of a forced and temporary economic slowdown. It is more than likely that once vaccination is assured, an increase in consumption will occur and result in a pollution peak. What part will digital technology play in this, knowing that  » on a global scale, the pollution linked to our digital uses was equivalent to some 1,400 million tons ofCO2 per year in 2019, or nearly 4% of global emissions, according to the latest report by the expert group(16) » and  » at this rate, experts estimate that digital pollution could account for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030(17) » ?

Christophe Duffeler

Notes et références
  1. Soraya Ghali, Ces leçons pour l’école, Le Vif, 27/08/2020.
  2. Raffaele Simone, Est-ce l’avenir de l’enseignement ?, in Le débat, 2014/3.
  3. « Le risque d’un décrochage massif est réel », tribune d’un collectif d’universitaires, étudiants et professeurs parue dans Le Monde, 30/12/2020.
  4. Alain Malchair, Le bon usage des écrans, CHU de Liège, 2018.
  5. Bruno Patino, La Civilisation du poisson rouge, Grasset, 2019.
  6. Michel Desmurget, La fabrique du crétin digital, Seuil, 2019.
  7. Baromètre de la condition physique, Thierry Marique (UCL) & Christian Heyters (ULB).
  8. Jean-François Lauwens, « À bout de souffle », in Le Vif, 06/10/2017.
  9. Étude britannique de la Royal Society of Public Health de 2017, citée par François Saltiel dans La société du sans contact, Flammarion, 2020
  10. « Un nombre sans cesse croissant d’études [l’auteur en mentionne 15] montre ainsi que l’introduction du numérique dans les classes est avant tout une source de distraction pour les élèves et, par la suite, un facteur significatif des difficultés scolaires. » in Michel Desmurget, cit.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Sabine Duflo, Porno-pandémie : à quand un vrai geste-barrière ?, CoSE, 15/11/2020.
  13. Gérald Bronner, La Grande table des idées, France Culture, 11/01/2021.
  14. Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home. The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Harper, 2018.
  15. Extrait de l’interview de Maryanne Wolf paru dans L’enseignement à distance crée de la résistance, de Cédric Enjalbert, in Philosophie magazine, n° 42 septembre 2020.
  16. Christophe Leroy, Les clés pour réduire la pollution numérique, in Le Vif, 19/11/2020
  17. Ibid.
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