The digital transformed and individualised school – an economistic concept without any pedagogical foundation

by Dr Marianne Wüthrich

“Digital transformation is not a necessity for education policy,” says Jürgen Kaube, editor and publisher of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, and he adds the question: “What will be the contribution of the internet as teaching material, once the digital industry has done their good business with schools?” Kaube concludes his concise and accurate comment with the assertion that, as there is no scientific evidence for the benefits of digital transformation, there was no need for schools to be re-equipped: “And at a cost that should be converted into teaching jobs so that the dimension of the mischief currently regarded as a necessity in education policy, would become visible.”1
So much in advance from our German neighbours, as a kind of grounding, before we subject the arguments for digital transformation of school that can be read in the current dossier of the Swiss economic umbrella organisation economiesuisse, to critical scrutiny.2
As the umbrella organisation of 100 industry associations, 20 cantonal chambers of commerce and individual companies, economiesuisse represents around 100,000 companies from all sectors and regions of Switzerland with around two million employees and is therefore one of the most important voices in Swiss economic politics. However, in the present dossier on the digital transformation of schools, economiesuisse sees itself being entitled to accessing primary school and propagates ambitious plans to revolutionise it, leaving every educator’s hair stand on end. It does not render a favour, neither to our youth nor to Switzerland as a business location.
This said, the two people responsible for the dossier are not educators, but chief economists at economiesuisse (Prof. Dr Rudolf Minsch) and humanities scholar with many years of experience as a manager and board member (Dr Rudolf Wehrli). At economiesuisse, they are responsible for general economic policy and education, a combination of two disciplines that must not have anything to do with one other.
The dossier starts with the question how children and adolescents should be prepared for the future at the time of the “fourth industrial revolution”. As important factors for occupational success, the authors first list skills that are no new inventions but have always been central in Switzerland with its well-developed dual vocational training system, such as social skills, logical-mathematical thinking, perseverance and readiness for further education. (Chapter 1: Qualifications required in the labour market of the future, preparation for the unknown)

Switzerland is well-equipped thanks to the dual education system

The dual education system is the main cause of low youth unemployment and a low proportion of low-skilled professionals in international comparison, which is also noted in the dossier.3 The strengths of the Swiss education system are also confirmed by economiesuisse: good adaptability of apprenticeship to the conditions of the labour market, early self-employment of young people in working life, extensive vocational training and high permeability. Further adjustments of job profiles and more computer science teaching are required. (Chapter 2: What consequences does digital transformation have for the education system?)
It should be added that this positive assessment of the Swiss vocational training system will only be realistic if our children in elementary school learn everything they need for their adult lives. The elementary school is not to be an experimental laboratory. As an example, the planned revolution of language- and mathematic lessons according to the dossier – and according to the Curriculum 21(!) – will be scrutinised.

Digital transformation and individualisation leading to a two-class society

The fact that an increasing amount of our school-leavers brings a lack of knowledge in the basic subjects of German and Mathematics as a result of school reforms, the vocational schools and the trainers in the companies have lamented for a long time. Therefore, the school must first of all provide the necessary knowledge in German and mathematics and provide the necessary teaching time, as far as economiesuisse agrees with pedagogical experts. (Chapter 3: What consequences does digital transformation have for the school?)
So, how should this time be used? It needs a combination of “classroom teaching” and e-learning, according to the dossier. The fact that even at universities online courses lead to high dropout rates and moderate learning success shows the importance of social interaction for learning success.

“Social interaction” can mean many things   

Thanks to digital transformation, German and mathematics could be taught in a completely individualised way, according to their theory: “The use of digital teaching aids will be really significant if didactics and pedagogy change as a result. The potential of digital transformation for teaching is huge. For the first time, teachers are enabled to cope with a completely individualised lesson in terms of organisation. Individualisation is made possible, among other things, by the availability of real-time data on the learner’s behaviour, learning progress and solution strategies. “(Chapter 3) Thanks to the suitable software, each child can be kept busy according to their level, without the teacher having to prepare twenty different worksheets each day: “The heterogeneity or differences in the learners’ skills are too great for each  to be at the same level of knowledge at the end of the school year. Therefore it would be important, if teaching took this heterogeneity into account adequately. However, the necessary individualisation of the teaching failed in the past because the teachers amount of work exploded. They had to put together an individual learning programme for each pupil to monitor and document the learning success.”

Radical transformation of the teaching profession and of the teacher personality

The learning control is carried out by the software, here in the truest sense of the words “keeping an account”, whether and how the child learns and makes progress, everything is digitally documented and monitored, and based on it the child is served with the next digitally created learning portion. This is not really a lesson. There is no teacher at work here, but a supervisor taking care that everyone is busy.
On the other hand the profession of the teacher, involves something completely different: his high task is precisely to form a class community out of his “heterogeneous” crowd, working with the pupils and the pupils among themselves working on the subject matter and practicing in many different ways so that – whenever possible – every child can be taken along and reach the learning objectives. Admittedly, at times of integration and inclusion, sometimes this is hardly possible, and additional teachers have to be deployed in the classroom. For those students, who learn quickly and easily, additional tasks will always be found, or they can deepen their knowledge by explaining their neighbours the matter – we should not worry about them as much as it is usually done today.
Such teachers – real teacher personalities – are no longer desirable in the age of digital transformation with the string-pullers (but still with many parents and teachers!). The reorganisation of the teaching profession is busily prepared at the Swiss teacher training colleges, and economiesuisse unfortunately joins the chorus of those who are responsible for the demise of our good elementary school: “The teacher training colleges are required to have all teachers trained with the necessary skills in the area of digital transformation. This does not only involve the teachers in training. The already active teachers must also be made fit for digital transformation.”4 And under point 4:” The appropriate use of digital transformation in the classroom requires a rethinking of the teachers. They do not have to and can no longer have better knowledge everywhere than the learners. […] “As if the teaching profession were to play the know-it-all to the students!

Turning away from the human right to education and equal opportunities – IBM and Bertelsmann make it possible

Enlightening are the sources to which economiesuisse refers (in chapter 3 of the dossier) its in no way pedagogically justified advice for elementary school:

  • a Swiss private school which has been using software developed jointly with IBM Switzerland for some years, with completely individualised employment of the students and total supervision of their doing.
  • a book of Jörg Dräger and Ralph Müller-Eiselt “Die digitale Bildgungsrevolution. Der radikale Wandel des Lernens und wie wir ihn gestalten können” (The digital transformed education revolution. The radical change of learning and how we can shape it). Main thing in mind of the two authors is the business with schools, because both belong to Bertelsmann Foundation, Dräger as board member, Müller-Eiselt researches for the Bertelsmann Foundation, how the digital transformation changes our society, tweeting and blogging [...] about the education of tomorrow.
  • The New York project “New Classroom”, presented by Dräger/Müller-Eiselt as 2-minutes-youtube-animation, is apparantly very important for the economiesuisse authors. On its lean base they paint a picture, what will happen in our elementary schools in future – without having any experience and idea about the teachers profession and teaching: In these subjects [German and mathematics] students shouldn’t participate according to their age, but according to their skills in learning groups. For example the students would be taught between 8 and be taught in groups between 8 and 10 o’clock in order to return to their former class. […] A teacher could teach, for example, the second class and at the same time group B in mathematics, where pupils from the first, second and third class are sitting together. In this setting individualised lessons can be combined with common introductory lessons or group work. […] The educational remedial teachers would at the same time take over those children, who need special support.”

An eerie vision of the future! Our elementary school may not be an experimental field for inexhaustible ideas of economists, who believe that lessons are possible as a fully automated “setting”. Especially oppressive, if such an attempt with living people is already planned with small children at the beginning of their school time. First grader, who don’t find their way in the digital transformed learning world, get cheated concerning their human right on education and equal opportunities and are sorted out from the beginning: even in the digital organised 20:80 society one needs still bad paid auxiliary staff.
One more word on the school language German: language can only be learned in relation: with common reading and talking, with writing, getting corrections and improve, with grammar and building sentences, with spelling rules and vocabulary exercises and with reading, reading, reading … that’s for sure. Surely not with individualised cloze texts and “creative” spontanous writing without teacher corrections, as planned by Curriculum 21 and apparently also by the authors of the dossier.

Opening of Swiss elementary school for Public-Private Partnership?

Finally, following requirement of economiesuisse has to be mentioned, namely the intervention of private companies in the public elementary school: “Open the classrooms! A teacher does not have to cover all aims of the curriculum alone. […] An opening of the classroom should be considered too: Lessons on computer science could be done by relatives or acquaintances of the teacher or students [as unpaid auxiliary staff?] in cooperation with the actual teacher. […] Also elementary school should be more open concerning Public-Private Partnership. In order to force the introduction of computer science in the classroom, cooperations between private companies and schools can be useful.(Chapter 3, point 5)
Here the circle closes: Finally here every reader should realise whose interests have the priority in this dossier – not those of the children and adolescents, not even the apprentices – what actually could be expected by economiesuisse – but those of Apple, Microsoft, Bertelsmann & Co . Economiesuisse, posing as Swiss economic umbrella association, does not only have to represent only a few globalised companies, but primarily the numerous in Switzerland rooted SME (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) and also bigger companies. These are urgently looking for appropriate graduates from a scholastic and human point of view who are capable and ready to cooperate and to be guided. The total digital transformation and isolation of the children in elementary school is a conceivable bad recipe for the preservation of the good Swiss business location.•    

Note to the footnotes:    

As a “contemporary” online essay the dossier “Digitalisierung – Herausforderungen und Chancen für die Schulen” doesn’t contain any page numbers, but only 4 chapters and a series of statistical diagrammes. Therefore, the indication of the cited parts is only about possible.

1    Kaube, Jürgen. Grosser Unfug. Digitalisierungskommentar. Faz.net from 31.3.2018
2    “Digitalisierung – Herausforderungen und Chancen für die Schule” from 9.2.2018. https://www.economiesuisse.ch/de/dossiers/digitalisierung-herausforderungen-und-chancen-fuer-die-schule
3    comp. graphics 2 of the Weltbank 2016 in chapter 1
4    “Digitalisierung – Herausforderungen und Chancen für die Schule” from 9.2.2018. In chapter 3 point 6: “Verändert die Digitalisierung die Lerninhalte der Obligatorischen Schule?”
All quotations translated by Current Concerns