Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2020). Éduquer au numérique, Rapport sur l’état et les besoins de l’éducation 2018-2020, Québec, Le Conseil, 96 p.
In November, in the height of the pandemic, this very important report on digital education and literacy was published by the Higher Education Council of Québec. My French is not great, but I set out below my understanding of what’s in the report, which I believe to be relevant well beyond the borders of Québec. As there is no English version of the full report, this is a longer post (normally I would do just enough to get you to read the original, but this report deserves a wider audience than only francophones). However, there is an English-language report summary available here.
Conseil supérieur de l’éducation
The Conseil supérieur de l’éducation is an independent body separate from the Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur. The role of the Conseil is to advise the Minister on any education-related issues and consequently it must, at least every two years, prepare a report for the Minister on the state and needs of education. The Conseil may decide the topics and themes of its reports, and determine through its own internal regulations when and how they are made public.
This is its report for the years 2018-2020.
The digital age and its impact on education
The report emphasises the centrality of digitalisation in today’s world and the need for education to prepare learners for such a world. The report argues that it is not enough for educators to see digitalisation as merely a set of tools for teaching and learning.
Instead, the education system has new responsibilities to ensure that everyone has the necessary skills to not only make positive and reflective use of digitalisation but also to participate in its development/transformation. [Dorénavant, il faut surtout penser le numérique en éducation en fonction de responsabilités nouvelles afin de s’assurer que toutes les personnes ont, à un moment ou l’autre de leur vie, la possibilité de développer les compétences nécessaires pour évoluer dans le monde tel qu’il se transforme et faire un usage positif et réflexif du numérique.]
However, to meet this challenge, certain conditions must be met.
Online learning and distance education
There is a good discussion about the special requirements of online and distance education. The report notes that the switch to emergency remote learning often did not follow best practices in online learning (developing an online community of learners, instructional design, etc.), merely transferring in-class methods of teaching, particularly lecturing, to online, and that completion rates and student satisfaction suffered as a result. It notes that instructors need training, to ensure that the courses can be adequately re-designed for online delivery.
It also notes that those teaching online in Québec often do not have the same conditions of service as on-campus instructors and in particular do not always get adequate training in teaching online. The report also notes that in some circumstances, the same instructor is teaching both an in-person class and online students at the same time (‘classes comodales‘.) The report says that this kind of distance teaching can lead to much more work for the instructor, and do not always meet the needs of the distance students. Furthermore, those teaching at a distance or online are often treated differently from regular classroom instructors, and this difference is not justified.
The report calls for the ‘professionalisation’ of online and distance teaching, with proper training and the same conditions of service for instructors, and for ensuring learners are also adequately prepared for online learning.
The impact of artificial intelligence and big data on education
This report has one of the best analyses of the implications of artificial intelligence and big data for education that I have seen. It goes far beyond the applications to teaching, and looks at the need for a broad education in the use of data, a critical (but not necessarily negative) approach to automation in the workplace, and the consequences of the applications of AI for education and training.
Above all, the report calls for transparency in the underlying algorithms and data selected, to avoid bias and unsupported conclusions, and that AI should be devoted to improving the life of humans rather than just for commercial profit or greater efficiency/lower costs. This requires educating the public so that they are in a position to ask the right questions and take control of their own data and its use. ‘AI must not live in a black box for the population.’ ’L’éducation a donc un rôle à jouer pour que les systèmes d’IA ne demeurent pas une boîte noire pour la population.’
The report looks at several types of inequality associated with digitalisation:
- geographical access to broadband internet services – particularly in rural and remote regions of the province
- gender differences in the use of digital technologies (for instance, girls are less likely to take programs on programming, even though they generally perform better)
- ethnic differences (for instance, black, hispanic and indigenous students are generally under-represented in subjects relevant to digitalisation such as computer science, engineering and science – but not so far in Québec – and (some) AI algorithms have been shown to be racially biased)
The report recognises that digital access is less available to those generally disadvantaged and that good quality internet access everywhere is essential for education, and the education system must take into consideration that there is often unequal access and find alternative solutions for those who do not have adequate access to digital education.
Review of the literature on developing digital skills
This review attempts to look at what should be taught – and how – with respect to digital literacy (broadly defined). As this is an essential task, the report is quite detailed and comprehensive in its coverage. This is essential reading for those with responsibilities for ensuring digital literacy within both school (k-12) systems and post-secondary education (which is all of us, this report suggests). In particular it references the Québec Ministry’s Framework of Reference on Digital Skills.
There is a lot of good analysis and recommendations in this section. However, I do not have the time nor the space here to cover everything on this topic in the report, as important as it is.
My issue here is to what extent digital literacy should be seen as a separate, content-based discipline, or whether it is best embedded within the teaching of other subject areas. (My preference is for the latter, but that has enormous implications for teacher training/faculty development).
What’s happening on the ground
This is an interesting review of what is actually happening in Québec schools, colleges, and universities with regard to digital literacy.
Pre-school and primary (elementary)
Not much, apparently:
- from the child’s perspective, technology is absent in school: lack of equipment, poor bandwidth
- teachers are not comfortable using technology for teaching
- no incentives to be trained to use the technology
- lack of technical support
- not integrated within the curriculum
Similar problems, but less extreme, than in primary/elementary. Teachers struggle with the rapid obsolescence of technology, finding the students are often using different (and more current) technologies. It is necessary to increase teachers’ feeling of competency in using technology in teaching, mainly through short courses.
The college system has a fairly recent frame of reference for integrating digital skills into the curriculum, and this is still being implemented. There seems to be more acceptance amongst instructors of the need to teach digital literacy, but less enthusiasm for using technology for teaching.
Digital skills is one of the competencies in the list of learning outcomes for universities in Québec and is gradually being integrated into the curricula, especially following program reviews. As well as ensuring students are becoming digitally competent within their own subject discipline, universities need to do research on both digital technologies and their social impact.
There are also short sections on digital literacy for lifelong learners (noting especially the problems for those with low literacy and numeracy skills, and immigrants), and a section on problems common to all levels of education (such as lack of adequate technical support and too restrictive or inflexible security protocols).
There is a very interesting section which looks at the clash of values between technological innovation for profit/efficiency and the values in education about equity and human development. This can lead to an animosity towards technology by educators.
For educators to better accept the importance of digital literacy, the need is to focus on pedagogical innovation rather than technological innovation in teaching. This does not mean there is no role for technology in pedagogical innovation – quite the contrary – but it must serve and be seen to serve a strong pedagogical purpose.
At the same time, different pedagogical methods are needed for successful online and distance learning, and teachers/educators need to be technologically proficient if they are to develop digital literacy in their students. (This is a very truncated version of the discussion in this section).
The consequence of this is that the government’s Action Plan for Digital Literacy (Plan d’action numérique en éducation et en enseignement supérieur) is not being well implemented, because of these tensions. This requires more training of educators to bring up their levels of digital literacy and ensuring that their conditions of service do not deteriorate as a result of moving to online or distance learning.
Resources for digital literacy and the role of libraries
Again, an interesting discussion, especially about the role of libraries in encouraging and supporting digital literacy.
This is really important document. We need citizens who are informed and knowledgeable about the ways our lives are becoming or indeed have become digitalised. We need to ensure that the general public is aware and has as much control as possible over how digitalisation affects their lives. This report presents some essential, realistic ideas about how this can be done.
While I recognise that the report is directed at the Québec government I just wish there was a readily accessible English version, because it would be valuable for all provincial governments in Canada. It also has much to say to faculty and instructors. I have not seen anything comparable in the English language, at least in Canada. (Please correct me if I am wrong).
The report also notes that it is not sufficient merely to move standard in-person teaching methods online, but the teaching needs to be re-designed for the context in which learning is actually occurring. This applies just as much to k-12 education as to university and college teaching. The report also recognises that the emphasis on the use of technology as ‘innovation’ in education is counter-productive if it does not support pedagogical changes that result in better or more effective learning outcomes. And of course, we need more and better ways to train teachers and faculty in teaching in a digital age, so that they are confident and comfortable users of technology in their teaching.
I am still though not confident that we have a curriculum, or a teaching methodology, or indeed an system in Canadian education that will result in effective digital literacy. This is a responsibility for all levels of education and this document is a major resource for moving in this direction.