Questioning the educational potential of digital tools with the whole educational community
In 2019, we carried out a study at Besancon, in the Planoise neighbourhood, to better determine and understand the educational and unifying potential of digital tools. That drove us to question the initial order, to broaden our field of study to replace digital tools with simple tools, to meet and bring together the diversity of educational actors in the district.
This article was originally published in French. Click here to access the original article.
The “E-education” survey is first and foremost the product of a meeting, that of the “Smart City” project manager of Besançon with the Ouishare team. It goes back to the exploration Capital Numérique (Digital Capital), a research-action that led Ouishare to the largest low-income district of Besançon: Planoise.
Our experience and our investment in the district, experienced during this research-action, provided a response to a need in the agglomeration: understand how parents are involved in the educational success of their children in kindergarten and primary school.
This need was part of the overhaul of the Digital Workplace (ENT) and was part of a large-scale program for the district, funded by ANRU +: “Planoise, district of digital excellence”. The objective of the program, which is still going on, is to use digital technology to encourage citizen participation, access to rights, educational success, local entrepreneurship, etc.
The moment when Grand Besançon proposed us to intervene in the “E-education” aspect of this large program, few actions were put into order. A sociological study was put into place in the district, a benchmark of educational platforms has been drawn up, initial specifications have been drafted, etc. All this, without a clearly defined horizon. Our mission? To start from the needs of parents and education professionals and their educational practices, to reveal the potential of digital technology where it exists, without presuming any utility in itself.
Staying on track while knowing how to welcome the reality
We started our on-ground survey, with many biases assumed from the start.
- Start from the field and its strengths. We are convinced that people on the ground (the parents, teachers, community leaders, educators, facilitators…) are the leading experts on these educational and digital issues. It is for this reason that we carried out 62 interviews by directly meeting and interviewing them at their workplace, after school, in squares, in parks or at the local community centre. We also choose to take the time to address multiple subjects during these interviews, sometimes going beyond the strict framework of our survey to question their relationship to education and family, school success, the neighbourhood/district, etc. We see these exchanges as privileged opportunities to better understand the situation, the concerns and the motivation of the parents and professionals that we interview.
- Confront different points of view. We parallelly carried out interviews with institutions, education professionals, local authorities, parents, researchers, etc. and cross-referencing these exchanges with many readings and listens. From the associations and squares of Planoise to the seminars of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), via the corridors of the Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire (CRI), we discuss with Manon, as well as with Karim*, a grandfather who looks after two of his grandchildren in Planoise. But also, with Faiza*, mother of three children who wears a hijab, she has a Master's degree in law and economics and has chosen not to work in order to devote herself to their education. She is very committed and demanding with regard to their schooling and is concerned about the environment and the bees. There were also people who were from Iraq, Syria, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Yemen, etc. non-French speakers, who are preparing the next event of their association dedicated to the valorisation of cultures and languages. The workshops that we organize in Planoise are an opportunity to provoke meetings between these people, and discuss their points of view.
- Remain flexible and open in our approach. We are keen not to impose a solution that we would have imagined but rather to reveal reality in all its complexity. Therefore, from the outset, we questioned the order and chose to broaden the spectrum of the investigation beyond the tools that are solely related to "educational digital technology". In a similar manner, during collective workshops, we leave room for exchanges between people and encourage the emergence of their ideas. We share with them our own feedback from the field and formulate benchmarks for action that we intentionally keep open and appropriate. We are convinced that the most sustainable solutions will emerge, not from recommendations made in-room, but from maturation and then from taking initiative anchored locally.
We have learned a number of lessons from this research, in terms of the content and the form of our approach.
Digitalisation and education: I love you, I love you not
- The parent’s expectations and representations, professional in the field and representatives of institutions concerned with education are out of step at all levels: vis-à-vis education and its ambition, to school and its mission, to digital technology and its potential. These observations are not specific to Planoise or to low-income neighbourhoods: parents' expectations and concerns transcend geography and social class.
- There is confusion between education via digital tools and digital education and between digital and screens. The result is that digital technology is rarely considered other than in its recreational role. Its potential for learning and opening up to the world is little used; its issues and codes are little taught.
- Digital technology (as an object and teaching tool) does not bring together the educational community (parents, professionals in the field and institutions). Due to a lack of training, time, tools or interest, the educational potential of digital technology is a little exploited.
The importance of meetings and interactions
- Activating the strengths and energies of a territory appears much more powerful and sustainable than prescribing solutions above ground. During this survey, we did not design solutions but created the conditions to favour their emergence by and for the local people and organisations themselves. In the end, an educational project was proposed by a member of the Délégation Académique au Numérique Éducatif (DANE), which bodes well for a partnership between the agglomeration and the rectorate. This project, thought of by a professional in the field and supported by his organisations, is by its very nature much stronger and more promising than any recommendation we could have made: it benefits from strong support and personal commitment.
- Mobilising residents for workshop time remains to be difficult. A contact or even an interview lasting more than an hour, with a telephone number and an e-mail address, is not enough. At a time when the injunctions to citizen participation are increasingly strong, there are two key elements that are brought to light from our experience in Planoise: pushing and relying on the local actors who have built trusting relationships with residents and focus on the long term, because trust is acquired in a gradual manner.
- Facilitating meetings between people who don't know each other helps to break down their representations and attitudes – so many determining elements in their ways of thinking and acting towards each other. Benefiting from work that crosses points of view, but also seeing, listening and talking to each other, are simple but life-saving tools for cultivating empathy, invalidating certain preconceived ideas, raising the unspoken and allowing us to move forward collectively in good understanding.
- Being a new and external actor, both to the neighbourhood and to the subject matter, is not necessarily a weakness. On the contrary to what we might have thought at the outset, the fact that we were outsiders to the neighbourhood did not discredit us. It allowed us to take a fresh look and to adopt a neutral stance towards the people we met, which often made our task easier. The fact that this was the first time we had dealt with the subject of education was not an obstacle either. After doing extensive research and monitoring, we were able to draw connections between this topic and other issues we deal with: digital, of course, but also communities. Finally, the report written at the end of the survey, based on our readings, listening and interviews, was well received by the academic world. Our findings resonate with much of the work in the field of digital education and digital literacy, and it reveals fault lines that are well known to experts in the field.
In the end, this study on such a sensitive and concrete subject, in a multicultural neighbourhood if ever there was one, has given us at least as much in terms of content as in terms of form. Banking on trust and time are the keys to building strong relationships with the people on the ground, which will ensure that the issues are taken on board and mobilised for the future. On these subjects of education through and about digital technology, we are convinced that the angle of educational communities is a promising area for reflection. Or how to open up education to all the players concerned - schools, parents, associations, pupils, etc. - by articulating the roles and responsibilities of each player. - by articulating the roles and responsibilities of each one.