Education “bricoleurs”

The multiplicity of tools and solutions offered today by educators and edtech entrepreneurs from around the world supports the vision of education in the hands of passionate “bricoleurs”.

The mother of all battles

Innovation in education has many faces – the faces of teachers and their students in Tallinn, Nairobi or Brooklyn; of researchers in a science education lab in Belo Horizonte or London; of refugees in a camp in Sudan… For each of these people, education is the answer to a question posed in a different way but with the same promise: that of a better, fairer and more sustainable world for all. The ideal, and idealised, vision of education spans the ages from Socrates or St Augustine to the digital age of generative Artificial Intelligence.

The images of hundreds of millions of children on their way to school and tens of millions of teachers who have made a commitment to train them, however, are still superimposed on those of closed schools and children deprived of education in towns and villages transformed into new battlefields all over the world. Despite all our efforts, education remains an uncertain response to vital questions.

Education is the mother of all battles, said the French prime minister – a former short-lived minister of education – at the time of his appointment. The language of war is required when it comes to mobilising parents, teachers, students, public authorities, unions, businesses. But for what purpose?

The countries of the world, in the same breath, have made access to quality education one of the objectives of our sustainable development, just like the protection of the planet or health and well-being for all. Are we close to the goal? Education is first a matter of measurement. What impact does education have on the lives of those who receive it? Does it really allow for better jobs, better salaries, more responsible behaviour, for a fairer life and a more cohesive society

Getting to school alive

Everyone has their own concerns, and they are all different. For students at MIT or Imperial College, education is the royal road to innovation in health. From the laboratories of these prestigious universities, for example, will come new drugs against cancer, as they did for the COVID-19 pandemic. But university education remains the privilege of a minority, while compulsory primary and secondary education face challenges of incredible diversity.

Getting to school alive is the goal of tens of thousands of children in Africa who cross roads without signs. Finding a free desk in the morning or afternoon shift in an overcrowded classroom of a hundred or more students is the daily life of tens of thousands of others. At the same time in Europe, it is priority to have a student–teacher ratio of less than 10 to fight against school dropouts in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods on the outskirts of large cities. In dozens of countries, 130 million young girls do not have the right to an education, and the integrity of millions more is threatened. Absenteeism is a recurring scourge in low- and high-income countries. For some children, it is a health problem, because intestinal parasites or the lack of distribution of school meals prevent millions of young people from going to school on a regular basis. For others, often thousands of kilometres away, it is unhappiness, anxiety about their grades, loss of family and social reference points, and dropping out of school.

The education divide

Since education is about measurement, we must rely on data collected around the world to assess the performance of education systems: PISA studies for OECD countries; data collected by the United Nations and the World Bank for low-income countries.

In the “richest” countries of the OECD, the divide between a “West” often in the process of an education regression and an “East” asserting its leadership in 21st century skills is accentuated. In short, the skills of students from Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Macau or Japan – but also from Shanghai and other Chinese provinces measured by PISA – would be far superior to those of their American or European counterparts in mathematics, reading and science. (The importance of effort in academic achievement also comes with a price for young people.) This gap has only been widening over the past 10 years, even if this divergence cannot yet be seen in higher education, which is still dominated by Anglo-Saxon universities.

Low-income countries continue to face endemic difficulties in accessing quality education: only one country in six seems capable of achieving the target of universal completion of the secondary cycle by 2030, and it is estimated that more than 80 million children and young people will still be out of school by that date and that around 300 million students will not have the basic numeracy, reading and writing skills needed to succeed in life.

There is indeed a two-speed education (at least two!) between countries of course – and the amount invested in education does not necessarily explain the differences – but also within countries where education systems often reproduce inequalities. In France, private schools, which are a minority, train elite students, who will attain academic and later professional success at the cost of an almost complete exclusion of disadvantaged social classes. In Brazil, state universities, on the other hand, are home to the Brazilian elite while private universities are left answering the needs of millions of disadvantaged young Brazilians. Many education systems find their own modus operandi to, ultimately, reproduce social inequalities.



A gigantic network of pipes

We must therefore innovate to be able to educate and to be better, longer, anywhere, anytime. Education is first and foremost a public good, and states have taken the commitment to ensuring broad and equal access to knowledge « for all ». Most states have faced huge difficulties in fulfilling this mission. Innovation and adaptation seem contradictory to the very functioning of education systems. Significant resources are allocated in a gigantic network of pipes emerging from multiple mazes in the classroom. Managing such an infrastructure has proven to be increasingly complex; management tasks and evaluation needs have gradually encroached on education time and imposed an administrative burden deemed necessary to account for the impact of the enormous investment made on behalf of taxpayers. The teaching profession has gradually been devalued in many countries, with training, salaries and status that no longer make it possible to recruit the best individuals for the fundamental task of educating.

However, new educational models are emerging in certain countries in Europe and Asia that favour the autonomy of schools and teachers – and therefore less pressure from the central administration – educational solutions for the needs of each student, more social diversity, enhanced recognition of teachers through salary and status, and smart use of digital technologies.

Do we need more technology in education?

What about technology often presented as a primary driving force behind education reform? How can digital technologies contribute to solving the structural problems of education systems in countries which are experiencing a progressive deterioration of learning and teaching conditions – and help all those who suffer from inaccessibility to educational resources and tutoring?

PISA shows a positive relationship between the intentional integration of technology into school education and student performance, even if dependent on the time spent on these digital solutions. PISA tests show that digital resources and one-hour support in mathematics have a positive influence on performance. At the same time, prolonged use of these devices for leisure – for more than two hours at a time – has a negative influence on student performance, and the addictive nature of mobile phone use is a cause of distraction and increases anxiety.

Do we need more technology in school education? The whole point of edtech is to offer new digital solutions that meet a wide spectrum of educational needs and make it possible to improve educational resources, facilitate school management, better assess skills and, ultimately, promote lifelong learning. Edtech entrepreneurs constitute a community of teachers, parents, programmers, etc. driven by innovation and with diverse interests in education.

Let’s look at compulsory education – K12 in the USA. Edtech entrepreneurs often summarise the need for innovation in education via one image: a child asleep at their desk or yawning while waiting for the lesson to end. If education is therefore boring or unenjoyable, it would explain students’ disinterest, them dropping out of school, and the mismatch between the skills they acquire and those demanded by the job market. This image is not new. Photographer Robert Doisneau took one of his most famous photos in the 1950s, of boys at their desks, with one boy yawning.

Innovation in education would therefore consist of making education “stimulating”, “entertaining”, “participatory”, “personalised”. Teachers would have more time for direct interaction with their students, for creating easy but engaging educational resources and for real-time personalised assessment data that better meets the needs of their students. They would be able to communicate easily with families and students outside of school hours, and in one click respond to the administrative requirements of the school management. Digital technology would be able to revolutionise education and fulfil the dual promise of social impact and economic impact.

Innovators from the past

This plea for innovation in education was not born with digital technology. Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, democratic schools…  have all been at different times the proponents of an education “revolution”, where education had to be considered an “inclusive fabric” based on new learning practices. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, developed in the 1960s, sought to bring together “educator-learners” and “learner-educators”, who would dialogue together to develop new critical knowledge.

Technology has always been integrated into the thinking of education innovators. Célestin Freinet introduced printers into his schools in the 1920s. Maria Montessori built her pedagogy around scientific thinking. Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire encouraged educators to appropriate new communication technologies, including educational television. Seymour Papert even predicted a student revolt if they continued passively consuming pre-digested knowledge.

What have we done with their heritage?

One of the most common trends has been to dismiss these pedagogies as “alternative” or marginal. The resistance of education systems to change has long prevented the transformations dreamed of today by edtech entrepreneurs. Ironically, the founders of the digital giants in Silicon Valley send their children to Montessori or Waldorf schools, where mobile phones are banned…

Are edtech entrepreneurs more qualified or more visionary than their illustrious predecessors? The difficulties they face in imposing their solutions in schools and colleges reveal the persistence of administrative burden and resistance to change but also sometimes their own lack of vision. Of course, large digital companies (GAFA) have massively penetrated the education systems which have equipped themselves with digital solutions. Start-ups have succeeded in imposing innovative products, and at the same time investors have committed to supporting them. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the merits of distance learning systems in this extreme health crisis, although videoconferencing is not an educational tool by nature.

The investment necessary for edtech entrepreneurs needs tangible results to be sustained over time, and it always takes a long time to obtain results in education. The small revenues generated by most digital solutions are today out of proportion with the financial valuation desired by the shareholders of these companies. The marriage between public good and private interest proves difficult as compulsory education remains a “public good”. Funding is decreasing, and start-ups are learning to deal with the long term. Many of them then turn to companies to continue their development: workforce management and training or employee well-being become priorities for edtech start-ups.

Artificial Intelligence: pivot of change?

Is technology really the pivot of the hoped-for change? David Edgerton, historian of science and technology and professor at King’s College London, tells us about technology that we are too ready to believe – that we know everything about it and its effects but, really, we know remarkably little. He says it is extremely difficult to answer to what extent invention has played an important role in the transformation of our world. We do not have an inventory of inventions. We also do not have an inventory of the importance of these inventions.

This debate on the role of technology in innovation in education has rebounded in recent months with the emergence of ChatGPT. Generative Artificial Intelligence – which is not associated with a particular educational theory – seems, according to its creators (who remain unnamed, unlike the educators of the past), to expand the capabilities of education systems and make it possible to generate better educational resources at lower cost; better evaluate students’ achievements and measure their needs in real time; and free up teachers’ time by providing them with the data that will allow them to take care of students with the greatest needs, while knowing they can count on chatbots serving as tutors for more routine tasks. Of course, Artificial Intelligence opens the door to large-scale plagiarism and a biased use of sources, but these flaws will, say the “experts”, gradually be erased by more accurate developments, as will the problems of data security and intellectual property sources be resolved over time.

The dominant position of OpenAI on the Artificial Intelligence market, the cost of the service, the illusion of freedom of access, the computational costs, the energy costs of these computing powers, and the toll organised around one or two unique sellers are some of the issues that question the compatibility between large-scale use of AI in school and the search for public good. The hidden costs of generative Artificial Intelligence are starting to be better documented. They resemble the exponential server costs for streaming platforms once AWS or Google or Azure have ensured you will be using their services exclusively.

The choice made by companies such as French startup EvidenceB to favour research and the long term with a proprietary solution shows there is a path beyond GAFA to provide truly innovative responses backed by a detailed understanding of the needs of learners and teachers.

Edtech tinkerers: the new education “bricoleurs”

This is the whole point of edtech incubators like MindCET today or the Open Education Challenge a few years ago – to allow edtech entrepreneurs to take stock of the problems that arise for education professionals so they can validate their solutions and at the same time educate their investors on the specificities of return on investment in education. The latter learn quickly, and some become enthusiasts and experts in education.

The finalists of the Global EdTech Startup Awards (GESA), whose 2024 final has just been held in London, demonstrates the diversity, talent and passion of edtech entrepreneurs.

Among these finalists, Eneza Education, a Kenya-based social enterprise, offers digital educational programmes running on basic phones at a price of $0.10 per week. More and more social enterprises are fighting on this front of accessibility, such as Kajou, which was created by the NGO Libraries Without Borders. At the other end of the spectrum, NOLEJ and Storywizard offer teachers the opportunity to create their own educational resources using generative Artificial Intelligence.

Edtech entrepreneurs are education tinkerers, always busy devising or repairing learning activities and making their mark, their distinctive style. Bricoleur is a French word described by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in ‘The Savage Mind’ as “someone who works with his hands, using devious means. His universe of instruments is closed, and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’”.

The multiplicity of tools and solutions offered today by these entrepreneurs from around the world supports the vision of education in the hands of passionate “bricoleurs”.

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