After more manual tasks, "automation is now pushing its way into intellectual processes as well."

By May 02, 2014 2 comments
Emmanuel Davidenkoff

A lack of digital evangelisation and ongoing training in the digital field among the teaching profession is weakening the ability of the education system to face up to the coming digital tidal wave. This is the thesis put forward by Emmanuel Davidenkoff in his latest book Tsunami numérique (Digital Tsunami), published by Stock. He explains.

Interview, on the sidelines of the L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast on the BFM Business channel, with Emmanuel Davidenkoff, chief editor at the student-oriented magazine L’, and Education correspondent at 24-hour all-news radio channel France Info.

In March you brought out your book Tsunami numérique. Éducation, tout va changer! Etes-vous prêts? (Digital Tsunami, Everything will change in education. Are you ready?), published by Stock. What exactly do you mean by a ‘digital tsunami’?

Emmanuel Davidenkoff: There are two aspects. By "digital" I mean that today – and in fact this has already been happening over the last three years – especially in Silicon Valley, researchers, entrepreneurs, financial investors, university people, and state and private research centres have all been resolutely focusing on the education field in a bid to reinvent education the world over. When I went there a year ago I saw that Moore’s law is having a truly exponential effect in this field.

And "tsunami"?

‘Digital Tsunami’ is a term that was used in an article two years ago by the President of Stanford University. Today we’re just feeling the ripples. In a tsunami however there’s also a tidal wave which comes in at full speed, and that’s what we’re facing today in education. In higher education worldwide, including France, there are lots of new approaches, innovations, many small signs that the revolution is on its way. And the day the tidal wave hits, it will cause havoc in the same way a tsunami does.

And what sort of impact will it have?

The impact will be pedagogical, economic, political and, yes, one can say philosophical. First, the philosophical aspect. We have invented an educational system which is based on a set of characteristics, which are now threatened by machines. Today, algorithms are practically able to draft legal clauses where it would normally take five years of university study in law to be able to do so. We’re now used to machines, robots, automation taking over manual tasks. But these days automation is now pushing its way into intellectual processes as well, which up to now have been shielded by the fact that you had to study at university to be able to carry them out.

The effect will also be pedagogical because people are going to have to be both able to design these machines and work with them, and also really understand and decide which aspects of each job will remain entirely human. As for the economic impact, digital will enhance our ability to innovate and transform everything we come across – markets, products, goods and services. Lastly, as regards the political aspect, this digital tsunami will call into question to some extent the way we organise our society. The digital world of tomorrow will be a collaborative world, more ‘horizontal’, interconnected. There will be a kind of ‘instant democracy’, a culture of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, where you won’t be able to run politics or administer a country the way it’s done today, i.e. in a compartmentalised, vertical, hierarchical manner, where there’s a strong ideology that the survival of the structure basically take precedence over any individual objectives.

In your book, you talk about the Minerva Project in California. The principle there is that a group of international students live together, move city every semester and follow exclusively online courses. In the long term, will digital replace some types of education? Or will we have to learn to use it as an adjunct?

No, I don’t think that the various ways of learning provided by digital will actually replace face-to-face teaching. That would be an absolute catastrophe. On the other hand, our current education methods will need reinventing so as to put emphasis on the experience, creating a good learning experience for students. A teacher could for example record his/her classes which would then be broadcast as a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] so the teacher would then have more time to devote to his/her first year students. S/he could do what s/he usually does only with PhD students, i.e. individual, tutorial work.


It would also be a total catastrophe if we were to replace the most stupid aspects of our current teaching, i.e. teaching by rote, learning things by heart, multiple choice questions, etc only in order to duplicate and automate, taking away the human side of teaching.

And tomorrow?

I think the school of tomorrow will embrace what is being called ‘blended learning’, i.e. a mix of techniques, using the best of digital where digital can best be used to carry out certain tasks and keeping people for what they can do best. This is what the teaching profession ought to be moving towards.

So, to the teacher: what about his/her professional training? Are we ready?

No, we aren’t ready at all. It’s really scandalous. There’s no guarantee that the schoolteacher to whom parents entrusts their children has made any effort to train him/herself up and keep up to date with the latest work in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, the science of education, educational sociology or educational psychology. Some do, but our state education system doesn’t make it obligatory. Ongoing teacher-training in this country is a disaster.

And even when teachers do get themselves trained or set projects in motion, their initiatives are ignored. Our education system reminds me of Kodak. People laugh at Kodak for missing out on the digital revolution, making losses of $10 billion and going from 150,000 employees to 8,000. In 1975, they filed a digital patent, but they never developed it. However that wasn’t Kodak’s only sin. The company failed because it had a single highly profitable business model and just wasn’t willing to contemplate any other way of doing things. Our state education system is very similar. Inventors, like the inventors of Polaroid, Xerox and all the digital devices, are out there right now in our schools, our colleges and universities. But we simply don’t get the best out of them. We don’t encourage them. Simply giving them some encouragement would probably go some way to solving this major problem of ongoing teacher-training.

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Excellent. Very true that digital and education programs must blend. Since the system includes some that will resist, this will hamper progress.


Submitted by Antonio (not verified) - on May 04, 2014 at 01:53 am

The word digital is a clue to how out of touch the academic establishment is. We first encountered digital 31 years ago with the launch of the CD. The idea that anything "digital" is cutting edge is ludicrous.

Printing broke the hold of the hoarders of information - the church. Suddenly you could buy information and own your own copy instead of having to go to where it was held. Suddenly you no longer had to be a friend of the church to learn.

The internet has done the same. This time the information hoarder was the academic community. They sold us access by allowing us to apply to go to their establishments. They sold us the idea of being "alumni" - members of a club who kept the good jobs to themselves.

Just like the church, corruption was part of their downfall. Professors held a holier than thou attitude, even though innovation and research moved to companies. They sucked in ever more money from governments while providing less and less. The focus this century is no longer aspiration for the best in the land to become even better, but simply selling the myth of Western Education to emerging countries.

Education no longer has to be three years or more out of our life. No longer do we need to believe the myth that after that we never have to learn again. No longer do we have to endure old men indulging decades old ideas and treat them as cutting edge knowledge transfer. No longer do we have to put up with the sneers of "Harvard or Oxford men".

There is still a need for learning. But it can happen where and when we want it. It isn't "digital v face-to-face", it is both as and when we need them. Instant access anywhere to more information than any academic ever had - the only stuff left locked up is because academics won't let us have it (that needs to change).

And the focus is no longer on individual knowledge, but a personal eco-system - a matrix of people who share ideas and inspire eachother. We can create our own "alumni" style groups - sharing enthusiasm around a subject, helping eachother and building networks to achieve tasks too large for one individual.

Academics were once the answer. Now they are the problem.

Submitted by Peter Johnston (not verified) - on May 04, 2014 at 05:09 pm

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