Education in a world of clicks

A friend sent me the famous quote, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”The quote is from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Message for American Education Week”, a speech given in 1938.

The message is just as relevant now, as it was then. It made me ask myself if we are up to the task today. Is democracy safe?

I say we, because learning starts at home. Do we teach our children to respect themselves and their fellow human beings; to take responsibility not only for themselves but for others, when need be? Do we give them roots, tell them about their heritage, teach them to believe in themselves, to work for what they want. Do we allow them to fly when it is time, and only when it is time? Have we done enough to ensure that they  get the best possible education?

Educational systems all over the world seem to have one thing in common today. None of them have fully addressed the challenges that digitalisation, the Internet, social media, and new forms of entertainment pose to education.

Modern day students – and an increasing number of parents – live in a world of messages, posts, tweets, comments, clicks, views, likes, linking and sharing. It´s a world of high visuality and interactivity, 3D games and movies, and virtual realities.

A world where true and false, real life and fiction, general and personal, likes and dislikes, appropriate and inappropriate, intermingle without clear borders. A global world without national barriers.

Above all, it´s a world of immediacy; it does not breed patience. It´s also a world without physical contact; it has none of the warmth and empathy of close human relationships. It is a world where you can distance yourself from accountability.

Educational establishments, both in the US and in Europe, are still desperately playing catch up with this new world. Even though many have online learning environments, and include computer studies in their curriculums, it is not nearly enough.

The technology is out there. The use of it is mostly a matter of funding and of understanding. The reluctance to use it stems more from a lack of guidance and skills than any basic unwillingness.

At a minimum, e-learning environments allow students, teachers, and parents, as the case may be, to communicate online regarding learning, homework and other school matters. But at their best, they allow teachers to totally redesign the learning process, and even to flip it around with regard to what is done at home and what is done in school.

Interactive textbooks, ebooks, web-based tools for presentations, interactive games that enable game-based learning, voice recognition; there are many ways to enhance  and personalise the learning experience.

In theory all of this should facilitate the ability to meet the needs of all kinds of learners. But in practice educational systems and teaching methods have yet to catch up with their students´ needs. There is a much bigger world out there today for students to cope with, and they need help.

By the end of the day, technology only offers an opportunity to change the educational system for the better. It is the teachers that have to make it happen, which is a tall order, however dedicated our guardians of democracy are.

Suddenly teachers have to become experts in the use of all kinds of new educational tools, and in the fundamentals of digital citizenship. The latter includes everything from protecting  your online identity and your devices and understanding copyright, netiquette, and cultural taboos, to identifying misinformation and handling online bullying. Because sometimes it gets NASTY out there.

More importantly, teachers  have to reinvent their teaching methods. Instead of teaching from the front and focusing mainly on the information needed to pass a specific exam or test, they will have to step down among their students and guide them to learn for themselves. The increased accessibility of information, materials, and instructions will relieve teachers of the need to be the only fount of wisdom, but it will also pose a challenge. Teachers will still have to retain their credibility as knowledgeable guides and trusted leaders in their classrooms.

All of these are things that most teachers were never taught themselves. Whatever reform guidelines the educational decision makers send out, and whatever tutoring and lifelong learning programs they may set up – all of which will be necessary- they will not be enough. This change will unavoidably come with an element of trial and error, if it is to come quickly enough.

To add to the difficulty of the task, there is more potential than ever for students to get distracted and for them  – or even worse, their parents too – to get so into the cyber world that they lose real life interactions with each other altogether.

It is clear that we run the risk of changing existing educational systems too radically for teachers to be able to catch up and ensure that the end result is good.

It seems, however, that the only thing that would be even more risky, would be to change the educational systems too little.

To succeed, it has to be a joint effort. Learning starts at home.