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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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