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Tweet For Teacher: In Bits And Spurts, Schools Slowly Go Digital

iPads at school
iPads at school
Mehdi Atmani

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.

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