Is digital education the right way for teaching new generations?
Will the world be the same after the coronavirus pandemic? Most people would probably answer: “No”; especially parents who have been wondering how to keep their kids engaged during the lockdown, teachers who have been struggling to adapt to online teaching, and government officials who have been trying to come up with adequate solutions. The pandemic has revealed the inconsistency of the current educational practices and shed light on the need for a new education model. Had education institutions embraced digital learning earlier, they would undoubtedly have shown greater agility in dealing with this unprecedented crisis. Digital education refers to the use of electronic devices and digital media to implement distant online learning or blended learning programs. Digital education enhances our ability to meet the challenges of the future because it has a higher potential to meet young generations’ needs, better integration into the digital economy, and greater environmental sustainability.
First, digital education has a proven ability to create a conducive learning environment, where learners can feel comfortable, empowered, and emotionally engaged. Young students are very comfortable with the use of technology. They love surfing the internet, chatting online, posting on social media, playing video games, and some of them have virtual friends. They often question the usefulness of spending several hours in the classroom listening to a teacher whose teaching methodology is incompatible with their mindset. To engage them in the learning process, we need to use educational tools adapted to their lifestyle and interests; we need to make learning fun. Videogames are considered by many educators as an excellent learning tool. According to the English psychologist Mark Griffiths, videogames have a high educational potential when they “are designed to address a specific problem or to teach a certain skill [ ].” There are plenty of examples to illustrate this claim: Mathmateer is great for learning math, HoloLAB Champions teaches chemistry, “StarCraft” helps develop problem-solving skills, and with CodeCombat you learn programming. Virtual reality and augmented reality tools are used to increase the attractiveness of video games and to design fully immersive lessons. Thanks to applications such as Unimersiv and Google Expeditions, students can find themselves strolling in the street of ancient Rome; exploring Antarctica’s landscape, and walking on the surface of the moon. In addition to its attractiveness, digital education permits greater learning flexibility. You can learn anywhere, at any time, at your own path and pace. Contrary to the conventional education system that addresses the needs of a whole class, digital learning is more personalized. By integrating technologies into educational systems, education will be more suitable for today’s students. Interactive and adaptive software can be adjusted to students’ interests and learning styles. By giving learners the opportunity to pursue their topics of interest, prioritize their tasks, and personalize their projects, digital education fosters their autonomy and sharpens their judgment. They can now feel empowered; they aren’t anymore the passive receivers of the knowledge provided by the teacher, but rather the main actors of their own learning. In short, digital education is a powerful engine for learning that drives learners’ motivation, unlocks their potential, and opens their horizons.
Second, the digitalization of education can also accelerate the integration of educational practices into the digital economy and prepare society for the rapidly changing 21st-century employment market. The jobs of the future are those generated by the digital economy. This emerging economy values task-oriented skills and requires greater job mobility. Artificial intelligence, automation, and digitalization are increasingly disrupting the world of work; and it’s becoming clear that tomorrow’s jobs will be radically different from today’s jobs. A report published by the American management consulting company McKinsey in January 2017 estimates that half of today’s work activities could be automated by the mid-21st century[ ]. Manufacturing and administrative jobs will probably undergo a significant decline. But, if the digital economy destroys jobs, it also creates new ones. According to the World Economic Forum, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist[ ].” Indeed, ICT jobs will continue to be in high demand. Most of the high-paying jobs will evolve from expanding new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), cloud blockchain, data analytics, and cybersecurity. In the new knowledge-driven economy, data has become the new source of wealth. Even low-skilled jobs will require a certain level of digital literacy. Hopefully, digital education enables learners to use a range of technology tools to find and assess information, collaborate with others, and produce and share content. By making learning collaborative and interactive, online Project-Based Learning (PLB) helps students develop their communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial skills. In the age of global transformation, the importance of these soft skills can’t be overstated. It’s also essential to provide workers with adequate tools to be reskilled every time they need to switch occupations. Gone are the days when one can dream of a long-life job. To ensure prosperity and maintain social and economic stability, nations should implement an agile and flexible internet-based education system that prepares citizens to learn new skills, not only when they are young, but also at all stages of their working lives. To sum up, tech-driven education helps students develop, not only the skills but also the resilience needed to meet the challenges of a world of constant uncertainty.
Environmental sustainability is an additional argument in favor of the digitalization of education. Many people think that online learning has a positive impact on the environment. If you join a virtual school, you won’t have to use any means of transport (car, bus, train) to go to a physical location every day. You, therefore, reduce your carbon footprint and, consequently, contribute to the fight against global warming [ ]. Virtual schools also eliminate the need to erect new buildings and, consequently, consume additional materials and energy or reduce green spaces. Replacing textbooks with e-books saves millions of trees every year and reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and the highly toxic wastewater produced by paper mills. According to the SMARTer2030 report delivered by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), “ICT has the potential to enable a 20% reduction of global CO2 emissions by 2030.”[ ]. In brief, digital technology aims at enhancing energy efficiency and reducing carbon footprint. We can therefore claim that digital education is more environmentally friendly than the traditional education system.
However, as with all internet-related activities, online learning prompts security and privacy risks. Identity theft, email harassment, cyber-stalking, indecent exposure, and phishing are the most common crimes that target online learners. Some social media and webinar tools are not privacy-protective by default and can therefore become invasive tools, undermining the privacy of an individual or of a household. Even in technically advanced countries, online learning platforms are not shielded against vicious cyberattacks. On April 10th, 2020, the Associated Press reported that Singapore suspended the use of the popular conferencing application Zoom after two hackers had used “Zoom-bombing” to interrupt a lesson and show obscene images to students. According to the same news agency, similar attacks targeted teleconferences and online classes in the US [ ]. While the seriousness of this threat cannot be ignored, there is clear evidence that these security and privacy concerns can be addressed if students, parents, and educators adopt some basic “cyber hygiene” habits.
Elementary school children should learn how to create strong passwords, and develop privacy awareness. Parents should use parental controls and monitor their children’s accounts to avoid any internet misuse. Teenage learners should learn how to spot phishing scams, distinguish positive and safe file sharing from oversharing, and adjust privacy settings when using an online learning platform. In fact, one of the main sources of cyber threats is negligence. Sharing access codes and other sensitive information on social media is a mine of gold for hackers. The Zoom-bombing attacks on video conferencing platforms previously mentioned could probably have been avoided if the users hadn’t shared the code to connect over social media. To sum up, a culture of cyber security awareness and adequate training in internet best practices can make online learning a safe and enjoyable experience.
In conclusion, digital education enhances learning efficiency thanks to its ability to customize learning and make it enjoyable and challenging. It also equips young generations with the skills needed to thrive in the knowledge-driven emerging economy, while protecting the environment. Overall, its most striking feature is its disruptive potential. The ubiquity of the internet has stretched learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom. It has become an open process that connects people in virtual forums, where participants develop, not only their factual knowledge but also the collaborative and creative skills that humans will ultimately need to confirm the supremacy of the human mind over artificial intelligence.