The School in the Digital Age – Exchanging Best Practices

© 2020 EPFL

© 2020 EPFL

EPFL’s Education Outreach Department and the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences SATW hosted a conference dedicated to discussing the digital transition in schools. Nearly 200 teachers and people interested in this topic attended the event held at EPFL on Saturday, February 8, 2020.

A varied program with presentations, a panel discussion and workshops provided the framework to look at the topic from various angles. Not only were experiences from different European countries shared, speakers from fields ranging from education, industry, politics to the teachers’ union represented the different stakeholders involved in this digital transition in schools and thus provided complementary views on the same topic that led to rich discussions.

From letterpress to deploying computational thinking – same challenges, new approaches?

We are in the middle of the digital transformation that affects the whole society, which requires us to adapt measures along the whole spectrum, reaching from economy to education. With this thought Mr. Stefan Kölliker, state council and head of the education department of Canton St.Gallen opened the series of keynote addresses. He drew parallels to the introduction of the printed book in the 15th century showing that any systemic change should not focus on the medium (the book or the digital tool), instead on how we use it and what it means for society and economy.

What does this mean for the digital transformation of schools?

Two Swiss digital transition initiatives were presented, both showing different ways on how to tackle the same issue: how to prepare the students and workforce for tomorrow’s digital transition challenges our society will face. Mr. Kölliker presented the Initiative of Canton St.Gallen that looks at the full spectrum of education from obligatory school through to higher education. The canton analyzed for each group the needs and defined measures. For instance improving further education for teachers to strengthen the understanding of computational concepts, creating a digital competence center closely linked to vocational training and labor market integration, or creating a new university degree in Informatics & Management (Informatik und Management). These tangible actions allow an integrated approach, tackling the digital transition at all levels of schooling.

Mrs. Cesla Amarelle, state council and head of the department for education, youth and culture of Canton Vaud followed this line of thought and presented the initiative of Canton Vaud, that relays on the expertise of public institutions such as EPFL, Haute École Pédagogique (HEP), the University of Lausanne (UNIL) as key partners. It focuses on gradually introducing computational concepts from primary to high schools, and training the teachers on how to convey this knowledge in new forms to students. In addition, it foresees the introduction of “computer science” as a compulsory subject matter within the “’École de Maturité.”

As both speakers mentioned, it is key that each party takes responsibility in leading and executing their part to guarantee a successful transition. It is in this context that EPFL is working with the Canton of Vaud acting as expert to support the creation of dedicated pedagogical materials and to provide teacher training.

In addition, the human component is not to be forgotten. During the panel, Mr. Gregory Durand, representative of the teachers’ union Vaud, argued the importance of digital tools not becoming the center of attention. This transition has to be made relevant for students and teachers. That means keeping the subject matter in the center and strengthening the understanding of computational concepts and related didactic and not just providing digital tools for the classroom.

The Finnish experience – a base for life long learning?

These Swiss examples were complemented by the Finnish experience Mrs. Arja-Sisko Holappa shared. As a specialist in education development processes and the Leader of the Impact Programme of the Finnish National Agency for Education, she showed how in Finland the digital transition in schools focuses on a multidisciplinary learning model where “the digital is a topic in all subject matters” as she notes. What this means is that depending on the level, the subject matter and the pedagogical scope, computational concepts are taught as part of a subject matter to improve information and computer technology literacy within a specific context. So can computational thinking be applied to science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects where students for instance learn coding language and equally so to humanistic subjects where she explained that for instance in art classes students use 3D printers with the caveat that they first understand the concept and mechanism behind.

This model, according to Mrs. Holappa, is the basis for life long learning which showed to be a success so far in Finland. However, she also notes that this kind of change takes a long time and requires all stakeholders to look in the same direction.

And the stakeholders involved in the digital transition in schools?

Following these short portraits of concrete initiatives, three speakers, Mr. Gregory Durand from the teachers’ union Vaud, Oliver Crouzet from École 42 in Paris and Roger Wehrli from economiesuisse in Zurich outlined additional complementary arguments that were discussed in the closing panel with the six speakers that represented the major key stakeholders involved in this transition. Mr. Crouzet presented a teaching model, without teachers or class hours, that engages students to face challenges in which they must learn to verify information. Moreover, they cannot identify all the solutions on their own and are encouraged to exchange with their peers to progress. Objective: to create collective intelligence and value the trial-and-error approach. Mr. Wehrli in addition mentioned that from an economic perspective strong STEM /MINT (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) competencies, soft skills as well as the flexibility and mobility are key for a strong economy. Not to be forgotten that all these competencies and skills should be strengthened continuously to adapt to the evolving job market.

The panel unanimously agreed that the digital transition in schools has to be embraced. By doing so we move a step towards addressing a challenge, that affects the entire society, outside the classroom. For this reason, all parties have to work hand in hand which means funding has to be set aside, expertise on computational thinking has to be provided to support this journey.

It was thanks to the fruitful collaboration between EPFL’s Education Outreach Department and SATW that this opportunity could be seized and that the objectives of the conference were obtained to the fullest: To offer a platform for exchanges around good practices in the introduction of digital technology in schools, to compare several deployment models, and to provide the audience with expert advice.

Auteur: Education Outreach Department