The new magicians

Technology in the classroom could pretend to transform learning into an almost magical process connecting teachers and learners between them and to the knowledge they need.

The edtech entrepreneurs present themselves as the new magicians that push back the frontiers of learning, introduce new algorithms to predict how, what and when any person will be ready to learn.

They strengthen the importance of learning for life achievements and at the same time completely change its meaning. Learning for them is not only an aspirational concept but a core component of their business plan. Many of these new magicians just would like to transform learning into gold!

The GESA (coorganized by the israeli incubator Mindcet and the Open Education Challenge (created by P.A.U. Education) is the global stage where the new magicians from all around the world present their most recent tricks. One thousand applications from 70 countries and six continents offer the education analyst a vibrant panorama of the current state of the art in learning innovation.

Some applications have already a taste of “déjà vu”: taking 20 bites of contents, 50 bytes of technology and mixing them up… Others introduce augmented reality for learning purposes, creating a white rabbit that speaks like a teacher… They haven’t succeeded yet in transforming learning into gold and their startups are still struggling to define a viable business model.

Magic doesn’t work for all. But the best magicians have realized that it takes much more than magic to succeed. Their genuine ambition is to respond to real needs and serve real people living in real life. Their commitment is with the learners and the teachers and they are ready to postpone their money making dreams until they will have created genuine value and measured impact.

GESA finalists believe in the magic of words and crafts, of music, books and toys. They understand the social challenge that lies behind each learning innovation. They don’t establish a business model out of the blue but aim at connecting with the learners and make a difference for them.

The best education magicians don’t pretend to transform learning into gold. They simply believe in people’s aspirations to learn more and have a better life… They have understood that an edtech entrepreneur has to reconcile social aspirations and market opportunities.

They are prepared to bring evidences of their impact. This will be truly magical!

Magic in the classroom

Changing education nowadays is often seen as resulting from an almost magical process where technology will have the power to improve the learning experience, i.e. the relationship between a learner and what and with whom he or she learns.

This magical moment simply never happens because of or thanks to technology but the need to change education remains.

Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in his essay «  Propos retardataires sur l’enfant créateur » that what makes (education) reform relevant is not that traditional (teaching) methods are bad, but that the social, cultural and economic context has changed.

“New Millennial Learners” are the symbolic representatives of a new context: their skills and expectations aren’t properly taken into account by the education system. Digital natives are not technology-driven. They don’t claim for more computers in the classroom. They simply have a different way to access knowledge, make inquiries, and connect to one another. The way they live outside school seems often to them too far away from their practice at school.

The teachers are usually made responsible for this situation and are said to represent the main obstacle to innovation in the classroom. It would be their fault if so many students drop out or fail to find a job. They simply would be unable to speak the language of their students. Their lack of technological skills would condemn them to turn their back to their students and develop their teaching in an empty nutshell.

Too easy don’t you think!

Most of the time, teachers are left alone in the process of change and are having a hard time figuring out what to do with digital tools. A reason could be that they don’t have themselves sufficient digital skills even if teachers’ surveys confirm on the contrary that they are proficient users of social media in their private sphere (see my blog). We are left with a situation of “décalage” (mismatch) and with an apparent contradiction between their public and private practices that is reviving the debate about the very meaning of teaching in a digital natives’ context.

This is where most edtech innovations pretend to make a difference, enabling the teachers to overcome this contradiction by using tools that will (re)create a one-to-one relationship between the teacher and his student. The teacher will be able thanks to a software or a device to personalize his/her teaching and adapt it to the needs of each student.

There is a new paradox between the one-to-one dimension of the technological device and the signification of one-to-one “referring to a situation in which two parties come into direct contact, opposition, or correspondence”. The classroom experience enables a unique direct contact between a teacher and the students and between the students themselves that no technology can substitute. Going to school is part of a huge socializing experience that should promote collective learning and collective achievements: learning together, helping each other…

The teacher developed for centuries a singular one-to-one learning relationship;  the class was considered as one despite the differences between students. The “one teacher to one class” relationship helped to overcome the students’ individual differences and enabled the acquisition by the multitude of an homogeneous set of knowledge… And there was apparently no magic in it, no devices…


one to one

Until an in-depth assessment – PISA and others – revealed tremendous disparities. These disparities could also be observed by just sitting in the classroom at the beginning of a school year. Out of 30 students in a class, 10 will move forward almost with no help, 5 had already resigned any ambition from day one and could be considered as potential dropouts and 15 are still hesitating on the way to take depending on the school’s climate, good or bad influences…

Teachers’ illusion to respond – almost magically – to the needs of a full classroom collapsed as it was clear they had no time to attend so many different individual needs and no magic skills to maintain the illusion of the classroom considered as “one”.

Time appears to be the teacher’s main constraint.  The “right” technology may help them achieve a better time management and make possible new types of one-to-one relationships such as:

- a teacher paying personalized attention to the students that most need it during the class (and voluntarily ignoring the ones that best perform)

- students paying attention to each other with another type of one-to-one relationship based on friendship and mutual learning

Which technology will the teacher chose and how will it be used?

… (to be continued)



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