Digital transformation in schools – learning from experience

Digital transformation in schools – learning from experience

by Felice Pensatore

Once again, I sat down at my desk and worked my way through a stack of interesting newspaper articles. One of them was in English and almost two years old. A big photo from Silicon Valley graced the first page. I was amazed when I read the accompanying text. Parents were raising the question if the futuristic dream of a classroom equipped with iPads, smartphones and screens was really in the next generation’s interest. Even more amazing, these parents worked for the local leading high-tech companies. Their decision was based on independent (!) studies and experiences that dealt with the arguments for or against learning with the latest electronic equipment. And they came to the conclusion that they would rather send their children to a Steiner Waldorf School and spend a considerable amount of money on this every year. Accordingly, there is now such a school in the middle of America’s “digital center”, where the employees of Google, Apple, Yahoo, etc. send their children.1

“My skepticism grows from a love for computing, from a wish to make our technological world better suited for people, rather than people better suited for machines”

(Stoll, Clifford. High Tech Heretic, Why Computers Don’t belong in the classroom and Other Reflections of a Computer Contrarian . p. XIII)

What I read there was in contrast to a report from the tabloid “20 Minuten”, which said that the municipal council of Berne wants to equip all urban schools and kindergartens with WLAN. To this end, they applied to parliament for a loan of 1.576 million francs. The aim was for children to acquire the first basic functions required by the Curriculum 21. Therefore, a tablet was to be made available for every four children. Over a million francs would be necessary to comprehensively equip the 88 school and kindergarten buildings; the operation of the wireless infrastructure for five years would require another 500,000 francs. An additional five-year loan of more than two million francs is earmarked by the Berne municipal council for the network accessibility of school facilities.2 The city of Zurich has also come down handsomely and has, with the introduction of Curriculum 21 in the school year 2018/2019, granted 12.3 millions francs for equipping all fifth graders with a personal tablet (from this level, “Media and Computer Science” is anchored as a subject in the timetable, according to the new cantonal curriculum). At the end of the sixth grade, the mobile devices should then be returned. Here we have it as well – it already sounds like a mandatory boilerplate: “The aim is to provide students with broad media skills beyond the use of mobile devices.” The Zurich City Council also intends to upgrade childcare facilities in schools with computer technology, so that the increasing number of children and adolescents participating in these supplementary childcare services will have access to the necessary infrastructure – for example to do their homework or for administrative tasks. Accordingly, the support staff should be prepared for these new tasks in courses on the subject.3
Strange, I thought. Everyone here is crying out for digital transformation and lamenting the missed opportunities, while at the place where all this equipment is being developed, parents prefer holistic learning which involves head, heart and hand. Or is it rather about the chances the education industry missed? Do all the producers of computers, software, and other technical achievements, who praise their products as “pedagogically adept” really have the welfare of children and adolescents first and foremost in their mind?

A critic is not a machine-breaker or a die-hard

Then I caught sight of the title of a book in my bookshelf: High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. The author, Clifford Stoll, had written it around the turn of the millennium, when schools in the US had already had their experiences with digital achievements. As an astronomer and computer specialist, he had been involved in setting up the ARPANET, the forerunner of today’s internet, and was thus not an “enemy of technology,” no “die-hard” or “machine-breaker,” as critical spirits are often called. Yet he does characterise himself as having been and still being skeptical about computers, and he sees himself as being obliged to act against inflated, false promises and excessive exaggeration.4 With his books, he helped to launch a broad discussion on digital transformation in the education system in the US.5 It was, of course, a question of arguments that reappear in the same way today. I wonder why? Are we so little able to learn?

Independent (!) experts are warning

At that time, the Alliance for Childhood was also founded in the US. This not-for-profit organisation of educators, health professionals, other researchers and those interested in child development also addressed the issue of the then-booming digitial transformation of American schools, and at the turn of the millennium provided a detailed report of their research findings.6 Among other things they concerned themselves with the serious health risks associated with working on the screen (especially also on laptops). Possible associations were found with the increase of early myopia, excess weight and diabetes 2 as well as with the lack of ability to focus on anything. And also the common arguments used to promote the use of digital devices – improved future prospects, motivation, teamwork and creativity – have been refuted by independent (!) studies. In this research, particular emphasis was laid on the disastrous experience gaps of children who spend most of their time at school and at home in front of electronic devices.7 Wow! I thought, and we are promoting the increased use of electronic teaching materials in schools, because in this way, the children who spend most of their free time in front of the screen and already show addictive behaviour are supposed to learn handling electronic media sensibly. A strange line of argumentation, I thought. Have we learned nothing?


“But scholarship is not about browsing the internet – it’s about understanding events, appreciating history, and interpreting our world.”

(Stoll, Clifford. p 18)


For example, in the USA around the turn of the millennium, various branches of science were examining the often-heard benefits and future-oriented opportunities of computer learning. The learning process, too, was carefully studied. Independent (!) researchers came to the conclusion that the usual, for the most part visually enhanced multimedia learning programmes do not greatly increase the learning effect: to be sure, computers do give the impression that the children learn and are actively involved. The skilled use of computers may then impress, but it does not yet bear witness to intelligence. The children and adolescents are also fooled about their learning success. It is true that the quick answers and the feedback programmed into the given tasks can trigger a “rewarding” short adrenaline rush. However, the patience and the desire to try things out, which is needed for successful learning, are stifled and thus a sustainable learning process is prevented. The result is mental inertia instead of understanding and critical thinking. The goal is wrong, because learning is about inspiring students and not just about entertaining them. The key components of a successful learning process are lacking – perseverance, effort, diligence, a sense of responsibility, clear thinking and cooperation, and all this integrated into the relationship between teacher and child. Ultimately, this will result in a deep satisfaction, a personality-strengthening experience as an opportunity for development and rejuvenation for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, up to date the critics have not been given the audience due to them! The view of many has been obscured by their enthusiasm for technical frills. They hope to invent better technology to solve the problems created by precisely that technology. The American educational misery testifies to this, and today the Alliance for Childhood is resisting the inordinate testing in American classrooms that inevitably comes with digital transformation.

“Learning isn’t about acquiring information, maximizing efficiency, or enjoyment. Learning is about developing human capacity.”

(Stoll, Clifford. p 22)

The attraction of the big profits

But the advocates of digital transformation did not sleep at the turn of the century either. It was the time of strategic planning. In Vancouver, the first “World Education Market Forum” took place, and at the education meetings of the G-8 countries in Cologne in 1999 and in Okinawa in 2000, technology in education was the main topic. The drafting of the rules for the education market was on the programme for the Millennium Round of the World Trade Organisation WTO. At a special European Council meeting in Lisbon in March, EU heads of state and government set guidelines, which were concretised by an action plan in Feira in June. It was about building e-europe, which would make Europe the most capable e-economy in the course of the next fifteen years. The Global Alliance for Transnational Education8 organised annual conferences for representatives of employers’ organisations and transnational corporations (OECD, WTO, UNESCO, World Bank, etc.)9 Business was enticing! In any case, even at that time the market in education was valued at 27 to 50 trillion francs!

Déjà vu or experiences which might make us wiser

Why do we not seize on US experiences? Why do we so little talk about the use of investing huge sums in the digital transformation of schools? Or is the sudden rush part of the enforcement strategy: it is easier to command without discussion?
This is not just about the taxpayers’ money being cast before the education corporations. There are those who use the technology as a back door for completely different goals. They want to transform the schools against the background of a biologistic concept of man imported from the USA. This paradigm shift means seeing the child as a self-organising and self-optimising control system, and turning schools upside-down using appropriate constructivist teaching concepts and skill-based content. According to the system theory they should be freed from their “stagnation” and become “living organisms”. This concept permeates the Curriculum 21. Correspondingly, children should be able to work on the required competencies, as well as have them checked, at the computer and with the aid of computer-generated learning units and exercises, in an open-plan school. Is this the perspective we offer our children and adolescents?
“Want a nation of dolts? Just center the curriculum on technology – teach with videos, computers, and multimedia systems. Aim for highest possible scores on standardized tests. Push aside such less vocationally applicable subjects as music, art, and history. Dolts are what we’ll get.”10
What luck that human nature cannot be simply bent out of shape. Increasingly, parents are refusing to make their children available as guinea pigs for die-hard school pilot projects; and children and adolescents express their wish for exciting lessons, together with their colleagues and with a teacher to instruct them – and no laptops. Are only they really able to learn?    •

1     Tablets out, imagination in: schools that shun technology. In: «The Guardian» of 2 December 2015, accessed on 10 December 2017
2     “Alle Berner Kindergärten mit WLAN” (All kindergartens in Berne with WLAN). In: “20 Minuten” of 7 December 2017.
3     Zurich buys tablets for schools. The City Council has approved funds for the further expansion of computer sciences in schools. And for that it spends a lot. In: “Tages-Anzeiger” of 20 December 2017., accessed on 26 December 2017
4     Stoll, Clifford. High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian, Doubleday, 1999
5     Ibid.
6     Cordes Colleen/ Miller Edward. Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. Alliance for Childhood (ed.).
7     cf. Felber Ursula / Gautschi, Eliane. Die Trojanische Maus. Computer in den Schulen – Lernen für die Zukunft (The Trojan Mouse. Computers in the schools – learning for the future). Zurich 2002, pp. 17
8     abbreviated GATE, supported by companies such as Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Bertelsmann, Hewlett Packard, Siemens, IBM, Merill Lynch
9     cf. Felber/Gautschi loc. cit., pp. 73
10     Stoll, Clifford,  p. 6

“The latest results of the study ‘BLIKK Medien 2017’ indicate that excessive media consumption affects the health, concentration and language development of children and adolescents. Nevertheless, business associations and IT representatives are calling in unison for digital technology and programming languages to be taught in primary school so that pupils are prepared for the digital future. The educational advantage of digital media in the classroom remains questionable. Ralf Lankaus’ thesis: We have to reflect on our pedagogical task and ensure that media become what they were in classroom teaching: didactic aids.”

(from the book’s blurb, ISBN 978-3-407-25761-1)

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