In A French Test School, Where Digital Education Aims To Touch Every Subject

Exploring new pedagogical methods through digital technologies, like interactive whiteboards
Exploring new pedagogical methods through digital technologies, like interactive whiteboards
Séverin Graveleau

YUTZ — Use a digital tablet in gym class? You might smile, but in room A101 of the Jean-Mermoz Junior High in northeastern France, the visitor today is Luc Di Pol, whose job title for the regional education authority is digital supervisor for physical education.

Here in the mostly rural French department of Moselle, Di Pol has come to explain to the Physical Education teachers why it is also now time for school athletic to go digital. Video recordings, smart stopwatches, 3D modeling of acrobatic gymnastic moves … In front of the wide extent of new possibilities, Michel Guirlinger, the school’s principal, reminds everyone that they must not lose sight of the pedagogical importance and repeats tirelessly: “Digital technologies are and must remain a tool, not a goal.”

His school, the region’s second largest public junior high, is one of 20 pilot digital schools that were chosen by the national Ministry of Education to explore new pedagogical methods through digital technologies. Vincent Peillon, the French Minister for Education, had announced a digital plan in December 2012 as part of a major educational reform. Launched earlier this year, the Ministry’s “digital strategy” aims to combine existing initiatives with the development of new tools for teachers.

But Jean-Mermoz Junior High wasn't sitting around waiting for the education ministry to enter the digital era. “Since 2003, when the school was rebuilt, digital technologies have always been a priority,” Guirlinger explains. Since the start of the 2012 school year, a new digital workspace enables pupils to access a variety of software, during lessons or at home. The pupils' homework, their grades and, for the most fortunate, their digital textbooks, can be accessed online too. It is the same curriculum as in any other French school, but powered by digital technologies.

Motivational brain candy

In one of the computer rooms adjacent to the huge red and yellow hall that crosses the building, sixth-graders are in the middle of Mr. Benarous' math class. Connected to his digital workspace, Loïc Marion, 11, is answering a quiz about what he learned during a traditional lesson. The idea is simple: “If it’s green, it’s correct, if it’s red, I have to try again. Everyone goes at their own pace, and it’s fun.”

At the back of the classroom, Benarous follows his pupils' results live on his computer. Individualized follow-ups, self-assessment by the pupils, the possibility to rework an exercise with parents: The tool, which is free, has many benefits. “By using other connections in the brain, digital technologies allow the pupils to approach and grasp what they learned in class in different ways,” Benarous explains.

Peggy Polkowski, another math teacher, notes that even struggling students volunteer to use digital technologies. "It’s a motivational tool,” she says. Much to her surprise, Quentin, one of her eighth-graders, just raised his hand to go up to the board, the interactive "smart board." With a digital pen, he adds details to the right-angled triangle in front of him. The software is available for free on the Internet.

In math, but also in history, geography, English, Latin and biology, Michel Guilinger wants to show that his teachers use the digital tools efficiently. The equipment, he says, has won over nearly all the teachers.

But in the late afternoon, during a roundtable meeting, a few questions rise. “We don’t know, we’re experimenting, we talk about it among us,” French and Latin teacher Seebald de Lamper says.

One of her colleagues, an English teacher, is generally happy to have the new tools. “All-digital is very good, but we don’t always know what to do with it. I think we should be trained in this field.”

The principal reassures them, announcing that he asked that every team receive new training for the 2013-2014 year. "At a rate of at least one day per subject,” Guilinger says. To have access to more software than the free ones, which are sometimes quite basic, the team is waiting for the fulfillment of the education minister's promise of creating a public service for digital technologies.

Jean-Mermoz, as a pilot digital school well ahead of the curve, is only now starting to see how digital tools can bear real pedagogical fruit. It's a reminder of how far a typical French school has to go to begin taking advantage of technology.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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