At this year’s Futur en Seine digital festival in Paris, Econocom presented the “classroom of the future” , a four-day workshop where visitors could experiment with digital text books, digital whiteboards and tablets, technology which is set to revolutionise teaching as we know it all over the world.

Yet the central question remains how to use this new technology to impart knowledge? How to use digital tools to reinvent teaching methods and better address both teachers and students’ needs? Here’s an insight into how digital technology is changing education and the advantages it can bring.

Photo ©Benjamin Boccas

Are schools lagging behind the digital revolution?

Schoolchildren sitting their secondary school diplomas this year will have seen the birth of Wikipedia in 2001, Facebook in 2004, Youtube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, not to mention the explosion of video games, laptops, smartphones and tablets in a hyper-connected world.

Because these technologies have completely transformed use, learning and knowledge, they play a vital role in education: intelligence is now collective, the culture of images has replaced that of the written word, and people now work and communicate via networks.

It is therefore totally unrealistic to think that schools can remain bastions of pre-technology, immune to these influences: students use the technology in their everyday lives, and are bewildered by the discrepancy between their school and personal environments:

“Our children have digital limbs, we cannot amputate them at the front door of the school,” says Brendan Murphy, who specialises in integrating technology in schools

Denying this new culture means pupils will be left to their own devices – literally: there will be no monitoring of their use of technology, no ground rules, nothing and no one to help them tackle such issues as: what happens to my private life online? How can I protect my identity? What can I and can’t I say?

Keeping technology out of education also means of course that students will be inadequately prepared for the job market. Working as part of a team, searching for information, being creative, being selective and focused when faced with oceans of data – all these are skills that have to be learned. Teachers seemed to have grasped this: according to a French government survey, 97% of teaching staff believe that digital tools can help to improve the quality of their teaching, although only 21% actually use technology at least once a week.

Digital in the classroom: how does it work?

There are numerous examples of applying digital technology in schools and colleges: in France, classes in one school use Twitter to learn how to read and write, whilst another uses online help for their homework. Students at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, USA, use social media in English classes, along with more traditional material.

Meanwhile, some schools believe simple calculating should be left to computers so pupils can focus on resolving more challenging and interesting mathematical problems, whilst others see it as an opportunity to focus teaching on the students: thanks to a multi-format approach with tablets or e-books, whereby pupils can write, watch videos, record their lessons, browse for interactive photos, all at the same time, and thus actively participate in their education.

Photo ©Benjamin Boccas

It also raises a number of new issues, such as how to assess students who are allowed Internet access during their exams? According to Gavin Dykes, an independent international education consultant: “If your students have access to the Internet during exams what questions are you going to ask them? In that one simple move you start to take on elements of 21st-century learning.”

The digital age offers endless new possibilities for education, but, as psychologist Tanya Byron points out, “The technology itself is not transformative. It’s the school, the pedagogy that is transformative.” 

John Palfrey, former director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Nativeagrees:

“Television didn’t transform education. Neither will the Internet. But it will be another tool for teachers to use in their effort to reach students in the classroom. It will also be a means by which students learn outside of the classroom.”

The idea of no longer reducing learning to the confines of the classroom between is the basis of EdX, an online higher education project launched by MIT and Harvard and available for students all over the world: yet another example of how digital technology can bring education into the 21st century.