Digital transformation poses challenges for schools

Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Practically every week, I hear of another public school in Switzerland that has begun to provide a personal electronic device for each of its students. You would think that this is a reason to celebrate, since it means that our schools are in the process of becoming more digital.

However, a closer look reveals that schools are interpreting digitalization to mean two different things, within the legal framework.

The first approach, namely integration, appears at first glance to be the easier one – and it is also the most common. Teaching continues much as in the past, with digital devices taking the place of traditional classroom tools. Arithmetic problems are solved on tablets, and children receive immediate feedback. Digital devices are used for practicing English vocabulary; what is new is that the children can listen to the words and memorize the correct pronunciation as they work independently. An ingenious algorithm determines which words need to be repeated, and when. In addition, sometimes a class will establish a relationship with an English-speaking class that allows students to exchange emails with one another.

Children use their digital devices mainly when instructed to do so by their teachers; otherwise the devices are tucked away under their desks. Some teachers upload their teaching materials to a shared server; others do not.

Even this seemingly simple process of integrating digital resources into the classroom poses major challenges for schools. The devices and the entire infrastructure need to be fully functional, and an effective support system (technical and pedagogical) has to be in place. Teachers must be relatively confident navigating the digital world.

It is only the next step that truly deserves the term “digital transformation” – and unfortunately, I have rarely seen schools take that step. It focuses on school improvement, but also takes into account the entire organization. School improvement is guided by the following questions: What do we mean today when we talk about learning and teaching? What do we mean by education? How can we equip children to deal successfully with the modern world? How can we strengthen their social skills and their ability to empathize with others? Does it still make sense for students to switch subjects every 45 minutes? Should we continue to assign children to classes based on their age? Isn’t it important for children to learn how to decide for themselves when – and when not – to use a digital device?

“Team culture is crucial: How can schools develop the necessary mindset for coping with uncertainty and changed roles?”

These are not questions that can be answered quickly or by taking a top-down approach. They require teachers and other involved parties to think seriously about their profession and to critically examine their own values and attitudes. Team culture is crucial: How can schools develop the necessary mindset for coping with uncertainty and changed roles?

In the business sector, a culture of learning from failure plays an essential role in these kinds of agile, digital transformations. For schools, however, this poses a dilemma: When it comes to its students, can a school afford failure?

In addition to focusing on curriculum, it is important to take into account a school’s entire organization. Here communication and cooperation are critical. As they embark on a digital transformation, many schools fail to communicate adequately with parents and the public at large. Unfortunately, this can have disastrous consequences.

Everyone in Switzerland has some experience with schooling, and even if those experiences were negative, people tend to cling to a certain image of what a school is. If changes are to be successful, it is necessary to communicate with the broader public and enlist their support. Cooperation is becoming increasingly important. All who work in schools, whether they are teachers, administrators or therapists, must learn to collaborate more closely – within each school as well as with a wider range of involved parties.

“Parents and students have long been living in a world that functions differently, and they will not accept this dissonance for much longer.”

Why do I say that integrating digital equipment into the schools only seems, at first glance, to be the easier course? The simple answer: This approach will not continue to work over the long term. Tensions between teachers and students and between parents and administrators will steadily increase. Parents and students have long been living in a world that functions differently, and they will not accept this dissonance for much longer.

It is an arduous task to make changes that affect every level of a school’s development, and it takes time. But it is worth the effort.

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