GENEVA - Sami, age 7, is puzzled. On the screen of his iMac, a small Darth Vader orders him to conjugate verbs in the future tense. The boy hesitates at the first question. "You... will likes?" Darth Vader squeaks. Wrong! Sami pulls his grammar book out of his desk, checks it, and corrects his answer to "You will like," then goes on to the next question.
In the class next door, Régane pouts: Peter from Oxford will not be teaching the English class this morning. Instead, Deena from London will be taking the class, but it seems that she speaks faster and less distinctly than her colleague. Deena and Peter are high-tech teachers. From their desks in Britain, they ask questions to their little pupils in Ile-de-France. The lesson is given over the Internet.
We are back in the year 2008, in one of the pilot high-tech classes in the town of Elancourt, west of Paris. The deputy mayor wants to get a head start on the school of the future. Since then, all the town's schools have been equipped with laptop computers, tablets and interactive digital blackboards, preparing the "digital natives" generation for a computerized future.
Today, when most students and teachers are active on social networks, own a smartphone, and surf the web at home, the schools of France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, to speak only of the pioneers, are undergoing their own digital revolution, with French classes on Twitter, drawing lessons on iPad, collaborative history projects modeled after Wikipedia, and courses on responsible social networking or how to conduct a discussion on online forums.
Even the schools of French-speaking Switzerland are starting to change. It must be admitted that in our schools, more than elsewhere, there is still enormous, complex and painful work to be done. The possible transformation raises many worries and questions among teachers, parents, and public education authorities. Do schools need to be completely transformed? What is the real educational value of these new technologies? How can they be integrated into the curriculum?
Preparing students for the real (virtual) world
The same questions are being asked about teacher training. "We have been procrastinating long enough," says Raymond Morel. "We’ve thought about it enough. Now it is urgent to do something.”
Morel, an expert from the International Federation for Information Processing and a member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, criticizes the lack of response by public school authorities to the challenges of the computer age.
"School is responsible for preparing students for the demands of the professional world," he says. "If they do not know how to use the new technologies, they will be excluded."
According to Morel, school authorities are "hypocritical" in their refusal to see that the world is changing. "The use of filters on school computers, a ban on Facebook or on sending out brochures to parents to warn them about the dangers of the Internet, none of that is useful. We need to start teaching what students need to know, or we will wind up with trainloads of unemployed.”
Stephanie Booth agrees. "Switzerland is burying its head in the sand, concentrating only on problems and misuses of computers." Booth, a former teacher in the Vaud, blogger, and now a consultant on new technologies, brings up Facebook and Twitter. “Schools blame social networks whenever there is a case of cyber-bullying. But refusing to teach good cyber-space practices is like letting young people drive without a license."
Starting from kindergarten
"This criticism is repeated with every new technology," says Olivier Maradan, General Secretary for the Inter-Canton Conference on Public Education (CIIP). “In the seventies, we argued about whether we should use television in the classroom."
Maradan, in his fifties, is computer-literate and stays connected everywhere, all the time, "even on vacation." He recognizes that "schools cannot ignore the rise of new technologies in society." They must understand the challenges they face and react to them. Since 2010, the CIIP of French-speaking Switzerland has gradually been introducing its "Swiss-French Study Plan" (PER), which combines instruction in media competence, images, information technology and communication (MITIC). Two-thirds of the Swiss French students have been using it since the beginning of school in 2012. The curriculum includes three cycles, from kindergarten to the end of required schooling, and will be updated regularly.
"Teacher! How do you write "Twitter"?" The question comes from Matteo, 13. It is Friday morning in Carouge. MITIC class.
The teacher, Ino Simitsek, is a bit overwhelmed. The questions pour in. She has to stop her student from surfing the web. "Facebook is much cooler than class," one of them murmurs as the teacher deals with the latest technical problems. Facebook is not allowed. Three-quarters of the class admit being on the social network.
This class' subject is more pragmatic - how to insert a video into a text document. Ino Simitsek connects to YouTube and opens a video tutorial on the subject. Her finger slips and two videos start at the same time. The class snickers. The teacher pays no attention. She tries to close one of the windows. "On the top right, madame," Lucas corrects her. "The volume is here.” Ino Simitsek sends him a grateful but irritated glance. “Yes, I know, Lucas. Thank you!”
The plan aims at a broad approach to new technologies through various subjects. It includes, among others, media education and courses on digital responsibility, or how to behave in cyberspace. The plan does not specify the number of hours of additional teaching, and the teachers can choose how to integrate the subjects into their classes. "Not all of them do it.... yet!” Maradan admits. They don’t all have time, the technical resources, or the expertise. “The use of new technologies in the classroom is still dependent on the personal initiative of the teachers."
Among the teachers, there are atheists and true believers. Although most teachers use new technology to prepare their courses, not many of them integrate it into class.
The digital divide
“This asymmetrical relationship between private life and school cannot go on forever," says Lyonel Kaufmann, a professor and trainer at the canton of Vaud Haute Ecole pédagogique teachers’ college. In the future, if parents want to send their children to school with tablets, I don't see how the school could stop them." The day when the teacher was the ultimate repository of wisdom is over. With new technologies, students have access to many more sources of information. They are no longer simple apprentices, but also providers of information.
This change of status makes many teachers anxious. "Do my students know more than I do?"
Technology is a new player in the classroom. It can warp the teacher-student relationship. “It is very disturbing for some teachers," Kaufmann says. He believes that the real challenge will be to provide the technology to all students, or risk creating a digital divide between social groups: the wealthier students and the others.
Nicolas Martignoni is a director of Fri-Tic, the skills center for the canton of Freiburg. He is in charge of helping schools and teachers integrate the new technology. “The goal is to train future digital citizens, preparing them for the information society," explains Martignoni.
Since 2003, the center has trained teachers in new technologies, offering teaching assistance and technical support. Thanks to Fri-Tic, the canton of Freiburg is a pioneer in integrating computers into the classroom. The other Swiss-French cantons are rapidly catching up. Geneva, for example, has just equipped more than 450 classrooms with interactive blackboards instead of good old overhead projectors.
Connected to a computer, these boards can allow all kinds of digital media to be used: Google maps, notes, videos and animations. Along with this, teachers have been trained in the new technologies. “It is urgent to equip all the schools in the canton-- 70 000 pupils,” says Manuel Grandjean, director of the Schools and Media service within the DIP. The canton is also experimenting with guided use of digital tablets. The policy is expensive for the canton.
In the private schools, the financial question is less problematic. The International School of Geneva has gradually equipped all three of its campuses (4300 students) with interactive digital blackboards, iPads and IBM ThinkPads. "Not because they're in style, but because they're useful," says Conrad Hughes, director of education. "This is a necessity if we want to prepare our students for the 21st century, developing their skills and their critical thinking as they learn to filter information, as well as their creativity.”
But do students learn better?
Going beyond the eternal public-private, old-new debate, do students learn better with information and communication technology? Here again opinion is divided. Independence, development of critical thinking, and better content for teaching, say some. An impoverishment of basic skills and subservience to digital tools, say others.
In any case, the digital transformation of schools has been a boon for businesses that produce content or resources, like Apple and Microsoft. The state of Geneva uses free software to avoid coming under their yoke. The danger of putting a price on education is still far off, but real.
In Ino Simitsek's classroom, the stir has given way to a religious silence. The YouTube tutorials have stopped. Intrigued, the students watch the flow of tweets on the school's Twitter account. Some of them already know about it, but most of them are just discovering the micro-blogging site. Abi takes the plunge. He types “@mySchoolMITIC “I edit the pearltree.” True, the tweet is a bit mystifying. But it is a successful first step into the Twitter sphere.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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