Interview to Alejandro Artopoulos. The Internet and education. Educational News Bulletin No. 55

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In the bulletin of July we carried out and interview to Magister Alejandro Artopoulos, specialist in the relationship between information technologies and communication and education. This time, we discussed the incorporation of the Internet in educational practices inside and outside the classroom. In that sense, we came up with the topic of virtual settings and mixed educational proposals that balance in-person and virtual knowledge construction processes.

_140294770727741900He is the Director of the Learning Technologies Laboratory at the Education School at Universidad de San Andrés. He is also a member of the Investigator course in the Comisión de Investigaciones Científicas of the Province of Buenos Aires (CIC). Sociologist graduated from Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), he owns a Master Degree in Technology Management (UBA) and a Master Degree and candidate to a Doctorate in Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento, of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). He is a guest professor at UBA and FLACSO. He was an advisor to the Conectar Igualdad Program and to UNESCO, ECLAC, IDB, UNDP, AACREA and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, as well as Provincial Governments.

 – Gabriel Latorre:- At a pedagogical level, you say that the implementation of the Conectar Igualdad Program lacks the conditions to guarantee Internet connection in the classrooms. What kind of pedagogical proposals could be developed under these circumstances?

-Alejandro Artopoulos:- Computing without Internet connection is like the computing we had in the ‘90s, actually the ‘80s. It is the informatics of the logo, of Excel. In that case, there was no point in taking computers to the classroom. We could have just kept the computing labs and updated them and that was it. The educational interest of computers is not an interest in the computer itself, but in the Internet.

-GL:- As a connection tool?

-AA:- Yes, but especially as a collaboration tool. When we speak about the Internet, what changes is more than just the means of communication or the instrumental connection to share a file. It is changing social bonds. We see that all the time thanks to cellphones. We use WhatsApp, social media, YouTube. Our social environment changes. The society pressures schools to incorporate that technology because of that change in social bonds.

-GL:- Wouldn’t it be more practical to use the devices that children bring to school, like cellphones, which are already connected to the Internet?

-AA:- Definitively. That paradox exists today. In many cases, kids have access to very powerful phones, which only need a Bluetooth keyboard and that’s it. But going back to the pedagogical topic, we have observed in our investigation about teaching practices in Conectar Igualdad (from the Learning Technologies Laboratory at the UdeSA Education School) that, apart from the technical connection difficulties of using a pen drive as a resource to share files, the application of technology is a mechanical application of old pedagogical strategies. They do not review their teaching practices.

-GL:- But that teacher, when he was a student, did not have those resources. He does not have a prior reference to replicate or adopt.

-AA:- Yes, but it is not mandatory that he was born with the device. We have also noticed that it is hard to confirm in the classroom the fact that digital natives are better than non-natives handling digital resources. Most students use really well Facebook, WhatsApp, and the video games and devices they use every day. But when they have to use that device to learn, the level of knowledge is always lower than the teacher’s. And I am not talking about an expert in educational technologies, just a teacher.

-GL:- When it comes to using Word or Excel…

-AA:- Yes, and also the browser, much simpler things. The teacher needs to take some time not only to train himself and update his knowledge about the use and capacity of the devices, but also to review his practice, reflect upon it and practice within a safe environment.

-GL:- What do you mean by safe environment?

-AA:- A safe environment is a classroom with a specialist in which the teacher can practice without being exposed to students. It is a space where he can experiment. For example, Conectar Igualdad overvalued the way of modifying teaching practices because there was no strategy to create experimental classrooms, no organic strategy to change.

There is a good project called CREA classrooms in ORT schools. Those classrooms have specialists, there is willingness, and teachers go there to develop contents and to think about teaching strategies with them.

If we believe that at the level of the ORT schools there are CREA centers, and we still see it is not easy for a teacher to incorporate ICT teaching strategies, we can imagine the kind of effort required to do it at a national level in every secondary school. That is what I mean when I say it is overvalued.

-GL:- Then, you see a tension between the search for inclusion and the improvement in the quality of teaching training to incorporate ICTs.

-AA:- No, it is not a tension. I believe inclusion is not guaranteed in Conectar Igualdad. The tension has already been broken because they included the social use of the computers at home, but not in the classrooms. This is hard to understand from a technical point of view because it is not a technological or a pedagogical problem. It is a comprehensive package that works or not.

-GL:- What does its functioning imply?

-AA:- For example, in England they are changing all subject designs regarding media literacy.

-GL:- Where do they put the emphasis?

-AA:- They are incorporating new subjects changing the language practice area completely. Establishing serious media literacy means repositioning language practices within a universe of multimedia discursive genres.

-GL:- What examples do you consider possible to adapt to our context?

-AA:- In the case of exact sciences, Argentine schools have a fragmentation of all contents. The chemistry teacher does not speak to the biology or the physics teacher. Nowadays, sciences progress towards an integration based on the molecular paradigm, in which sciences cannot be disconnected from one another. It is necessary to incorporate biotechnology.

Another issue is the incorporation of programming as an ability which is transversal to other disciplines, and not as a special subject only related to informatics.

-GL:- As regards programming, it implies working with languages to be able to understand how digital resources work and how we can interact with them from a place that is not prefigured (see Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be programmed.) Taking into account the netbooks are already present in the classrooms through different state programs, is there a framework of conditions to begin implementing it as transversal content?

-AA:- That is a bottleneck issue: the existence of specialists or not. If a provincial minister tries to implement it now, he does not have specialists, because computer science teachers do not know about programming. They teach about Word, Excel, the Internet, uploading and downloading files from the Web, YouTube videos, how to edit that, but they do not know about programming. And the other teacher in different areas where programming could be used to learn other contents, such as math or exact sciences, does not know about programming either. They do not know about the basic elements. Finally, the teachers’ training is the most important bottleneck.

-GL:- Why do you consider that a minister could try, in the medium or long term, to develop a plan to train teachers so they can use programming in education?

-AA:- Programming is an example. But if we focus in it, we would be distorting the problem. I believe the issue is related to other non-instrumental abilities.

-GL:- Such as?

-AA:- Basically, the problem is that the average secondary teacher does not consider that taking some time to incorporate new ways of knowledge is an important part of a meaningful learning. Teachers look for recipes to avoid losing time. In most cases, they do not have a professional training at a level that enables them to incorporate the issue of building knowledge. The most generic problem has to do with that: the countries that have made deep educational reforms have professionalized teachers. They have given teachers another level of training that enables them to think about incorporating the issue of building knowledge as regards education. Then, they can plan strategies that are disruptive from the previous teaching practices.

-GL:- When you talk about the building of knowledge as regards teaching, do you mean that the students should develop experiences guided by the teaching that result in learning, such as an investigation?

-AA:- Exactly, that is the issue, because the technology is not the problem. Nowadays, the chance to grow socially and the possibility to collectively have a more developed society is related to the production of knowledge. It cannot happen with an uncritical reproduction or a critical reproduction without aggregate.

Sometimes the international organizations pose this, as a speech about the construction or the transition towards a society of knowledge. But they do it in the worst possible way. They adopt the models of developed countries for underdeveloped countries without their own production of knowledge. International organizations promote this and think that to achieve that they should give a computer to each student.

Let’s imagine that all computers are working, they have a good Internet connection and the teacher has been trained to use them. Will we still do all right? I do not think so. For example, even if Conectar Igualdad works perfectly fine, we have not answered this question: Why have we done all this? What is the project of a country’s future that will take advantage of these computers in the classroom?

Computers are not necessary taking into account the current ideas of a country that we have. We should keep the model of an analogic school that we had ten years ago, because we are still going through the industrialist paradigm. When we go a factory, to the street or to a public square, it does not exist anymore because everybody is connected online.

-GL:- What does it imply? We should be a society of services and of primary production or what is the alternative?

-AA:- Well, that is the question. Of course this requires a social, political and economic preparation.

-AA:- The problem of the construction of a society of knowledge in underdeveloped countries exists because of a lack of contextualization. We imagine a society of knowledge in developed countries and we can give our opinion about it, if it works well or not, and we consider we still are in an industrial society and we have to develop an industrial society.

-GL:- That can be interpreted as a look from an old European cultural matrix.

-AA:- I do not know. We are still betting on dualities in service societies or industrialized societies. The problem is the triangulation

-GL:- In what sense?

-AA:- In the sense of thinking something new, dialectics, thinking there is something new to that binary opposition.

-GL:- In this context, from your position as regards education, if we had to plan a possible overcoming, a better synthesis, what would be the model to follow? How should the educational system and its proposals be rearranged?

-AA:- I believe the problem of education today, and the problem of schools in particular, is that they are isolated. They are shut up from society.

The impossibility of connecting them to the Internet is probably an indicator and even a metaphor. But it is not only that. Social connectivity is not only about electronic connections, but about the relation between schools and the environment.

-GL:- And the community…

-AA:- Yes, that is the fastest and easiest answer. They should take kids out to their community so they get to know it, experiment and learn to have a critical sense of knowledge about their local environment. But the deeper question is about knowledge.

To what extent are schools willing to put a strain on knowledge, to doubt knowledge? To what extent schools and teacher are willing to connect to the limits of knowledge, for example, to connect with a scientist, with scientific knowledge, with critical and scientific thinking and with the university?

Nowadays, the problem has to do with the institutions, with the authority given by the institutions to social order. Schools shape social order, they train citizens and people so they can fit into society. The problem of schools is that they are facing a postindustrial, postmodern scenario, an uncertain one, in which knowledge loses authority all the time and everything is relative.

-GL:- Institutions of knowledge have less authority. They are put a strain on, for example, through the students’ practice of connecting to the Internet with their phones and accessing sites, like Wikipedia, with information about the topics they are searching.

-AA:- Or scientists themselves are rebuked because he responds to economic interests.

The problem is that schools, so that they fulfill that basic function of training citizens and fitting people into society, have to work hard regarding the autonomy of individuals to establish a social bond. It seems we keep social bonds by limiting the autonomy and reducing the criticality of knowledge.

-GL:- What example can you give to complete that definition? What do you mean by “limiting”?

-AA:- I mean that secondary students do not have the chance of accessing to critical and scientific thinking. That kind of thinking can be accessed through informational knowledge. The old Enlightment method is not enough.

For a person to graduate from secondary school and be able to distinguish the information found online from useless information, he has to be a media literate. He has to be able to distinguish languages, to know the production processes in the media and, especially, to understand how algorithms work even if he is not an expert in informatics. Otherwise, Facebook, Google and other technology companies will package him, put him in a bubble and limit him digitally. That is the problem. And also teachers are limited. Teachers access Facebook and Google and they do not know how to get out of that bubble they create.

-GL:- What kind of bubble do you mean?

The bubble is that the algorithms, in which those sites are based, create a personalized environment to sell us things. You just have to change the account user to see how the environment of the site changes. Behind that there is a programming language, an algorithm that suggests recommendations for friends and products.

-GL:- It is enough to see that the advertisements on the side of our mailboxes are related to the topics we talk about in our messages to understand that conversations are not private.

-AA:- They are not private at all. In a world like that, in which not everybody can understand when they are being sold something from when there is something spontaneous and emergent, it is very dangerous to leave citizens at the mercy of those manipulating machines.

-GL:- Are those the ties?

-AA:- Yes, the ties are political and economic. Those societies that cannot generate knowledge to add an economic value are going to be poorer and have more inequalities. Medium to small size countries do not have enough population so that the value of work continues to be a resource and an argument for economic development, unlike Brazil or China, which have a high population density. But Argentina cannot afford resorting to the labor force of industrial societies. Thus, this issue of narrowing the digital gap is an oasis, because it is easy to give a computer to all the kids. The hard part is that these kids learn how to distinguish in the Internet what is knowledge from useless information or a commercial offer. Furthermore, it is hard for them to create languages and new aesthetics, products or services with what they find online and earn a living with that.

-GL:- During a conference at the International Conference of Teachers during the Feria del Libro 2014 (Book Fair), Juan Ignacio Pozo said it is necessary to encourage the development of an hermeneutic mind to address the reading of different texts found in digital media. That is the previous stage before producing one’s own texts. It implies the ability to distinguish what fragments and what content of that text are useful to build what I want. That process requires a critical reading capacity. Pozo stated that based on this question: Do we know what our students read? Do we know how they read it?

-AA:- I agree with that. But I think it is unsatisfactory to address the issue only in connection to reading and the capacity to create new texts. I believe the problem lies in the authority of modern knowledge. Nowadays, teacher who want to rebuild the authority of knowledge do not have many resources, because the idea of authority is not respected, it is not a resource itself. The authority is no longer a tool teachers have to incorporate attractive and encouraging knowledge inside the classroom.

-GL:- Then we are talking about the role of teachers, how they build their bonds with the students. Is there horizontality or verticality in those bonds? When?

-AA:- I do not think the teachers’ social abilities can solve this dilemma, because the legitimacy of knowledge is given by the connectivity. If the classroom is not connected to the Internet, what is inside it is no longer validated.

-GL:- Why are you so categorically?

-AA:- Because kids assign to the Internet a higher value than the one they give to the knowledge inside the classroom.

Nowadays, students spend more time searching videos on YouTube at home or texts to solve problems than studying.

The motivation and the playfulness of knowledge have to be taken seriously. Schools have a complete library about the playfulness of knowledge. The kids’ love for videogames should be taken seriously. Teachers do not know how videogames look like, or how to play them. Teachers should do a course about videogames, for example: Get to know what a videogame is.

-GL:- It would be like entering in the logic of an aspect of the students’ cultural world.

-AA:- There is a cultural gap between students and teachers. They are like two tribes that cannot talk to or understand each other. Part of the common language has to do with the Internet. If you analyze anthropologically the time spent by teacher in virtual environments, it is very little. Teachers mainly use computers offline.

-GL:- This can put a strain on, for example, proposals such as the postgraduate degrees in Education and ICT carried out but the Instituto Nacional de Formación Docente (National Teacher Training Institute). More than 70,000 teachers from all over the country use a virtual platform complemented with onsite meetings.

-AA:- Well, but the problem of solving a change in teaching practices to incorporate virtual environments in their everyday lives require physical presence. The physical presence cannot be solved from a centralized institution.

-GL:- That strategy is usually articulated with the provinces. Going back to the incorporation on the Internet into the classrooms, what are the difficulties you find apart from the technical ones?

-AA:- Internet inside the classroom allows the development of other pedagogies by incorporating other voices to the classroom, for example, a scientist. It is still utopic to have a Skype conference at schools, even in private schools with high budgets, because the main problem with Internet is not technical but moral. For example, I have found that schools with a budget to have Internet in the classrooms do not do it because they do not want trouble regarding Internet misuse, whether it is legal or disciplinary (access to porn, for example.)

But it is contradictory, because kids have their phones connected to the Internet below their desks.

But parents cannot sue schools because their son is watching porn in his phone. That is part of the private space. But when they are officially using Internet to teach, problems begin inside the institution.

-GL:- That involves other regulatory mechanisms inside the institution.

-AA:- Well, in that case the responsibility belongs to the pedagogical side, to the person legally responsible for the school. In a private school that person is the owner, and in a public one that person is the principal. So the main problem of taking Internet to schools is not a pedagogical one, but an institutional one. How do you institutionalize the use of Internet? It is a great question.

-GL:- How has it been solved in other countries?

-AA:- It has not been solved. In the US there is not a massive use of Internet at schools. For example, President Obama decreed in February an initiative to summon all social players and engage the State in a three-year-plan to connect all public schools to high speed Internet. They did this because they say that in the US 70% of schools do not have a connection that can be used in class. The only data they give is that only 30% of schools have a high speed connection to use in class. The solution they found for that 30% is that parents sign an authorization stating that their kids are going to make the best use of the Internet. Thus, parents are committed with the educational use of the Internet at school. It is a way of prevention and of engaging parents in their kids’ education.

On the other hand, there are educational platforms that limit certain features. For example: Google has a platform called Google Apps for Education which does not allow the use of the social network Google+ until the age of 14. When they install Google Apps in the institution, they have a private network and kids cannot use that social network. They can use Google Drive, Google Docs and the sites set by the school.

-GL:- An Internet access would allow the use of personalized environments in each school.

-AA:- Yes, that is the point. One of the ideas I am trying to introduce in the community of educational institution officials is that schools are not meeting one of their historic goals: Creating a safe environment and content for students in the virtual environment. Historically, schools did that in the physical environment, but now there is a virtual one. That is the challenge for the next couple of years: How to control virtual environments at schools to educate kids in a virtual society. In fact, the society is in-person, physically and virtually, digital. The problem is that the digital part of society is under construction. If you go to a company or a public organization, you can find a private virtual environment, an intranet. But in that sense, schools have not progressed.

-GL:- Why do you think secondary schools have not had that progress?

-AA:- Especially due to technical issues, for example: the fact that each institution has a technical referent, although they are usually computer assistants that know about Office but do not manage a Moodle platform. Sometimes the technical referent tries to keep his power in front of the official who does not know about technology and tries to deceive him all the time. It would be necessary to carry out training courses for officials to manage virtual environments. The problem would be to train those officials so that they have authority in computing inside that school.

The official needs technological knowledge due to his role in the institution and his teaching knowledge.

-GL:- That would imply his understanding of concepts in the two fields, the technological and the pedagogical one. Thus, they would be able to develop projects to integrate them.

-AA:- Yes, the incorporation of the technology in the Web in the field of education is being solved in a different way. For example, they are using Internet free services provided by companies like Google. It would good for the State to provide the services the companies do not provide, like Moodle platform. Many countries are already doing that. In Finland, all schools have a group of virtual classrooms with the Moodle platform.

-GL:- At a national level, as regards teaching training and the Instituto Nacional de Formación Docente or INFOD (National Teacher Training Institute), each institute in the country has a node with virtual classrooms, a website and a blog for free to be used by all the players in the institution. In that way, the classes and their extensions are present in the e-learning platform through a customized virtual environment.

-AA:- There is a documentary online in which a Harvard teacher goes to Finland to study their education system. He witnesses classes, interviews teachers and authorities. It is called The Finland Phenomenon. You can see there that the use the Finnish do of informatics is not exacerbated. They are focused on the building of knowledge, a constructivist approach. To sum up, in a Finnish classroom you can find two things: a projector (which Conectar Igualdad never put in the classrooms and it is very important for the web contents to enter the classroom) and a Moodle platform for all the teachers. You can see radically different pedagogical proposals.

-GL:- What do you mean?

-AA:- For example, if you work in learning virtual platforms, like Moodle, the extension of the proposals changes. The sense of time changes because it is not measured in class hours but in processes that can last weeks. As you can work with an open classroom, the teacher can develop the project for five weeks. Then, the teacher can explain the task in the classroom, work in the virtual classroom in the time and space of the physical class, at home, at the library. But there is also a space for onsite inquiries. Thus, the teacher does not need to be in front of the class. He has to accompany the process and channel the inquiries.

What you can see in the video about education in Finland is that the teacher counts with the online distance environment. From the point of view of the system, students are given the chance to study in a close way than the one they are used to in their daily lives. It also prepares them for a world of work that is going to be both onsite and virtual.

The conditions for the incorporation of virtual environments to solve logistic and economic issues of the education system are about to be given. In the US, when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the education system collapsed. Many of the public schools then found virtual environments were their ally to start functioning again. While studying the Conectar Igualdad program, I found there were secondary students who got pregnant and had a netbook. The teachers told them to keep studying through virtual means, but they could not do it because changing to a virtual modality was very difficult and took one year. So they ended up losing it. That was not a technological problem, but a bureaucratic one. The proposal of virtual platforms to the teaching training institutes should be extended to secondary schools.

-GL:- That proposal was structured from a specific national body for teaching training, the INFOD, for all the provinces. There is not such an organization at the level of secondary schools.

-AA:- No. The transformation can be generated by combining virtual and onsite education. Virtual education has exhausted its possibilities of innovation. But it can contribute if it fits structurally at an institutional level in a hybrid way. This would imply it can be implemented in a relevant way, depending on the circumstances to solve specific issues: a project, a sick kid, a pregnant student or a crisis situation. For example, a few years ago in Argentina there was an outbreak of influenza and schools had to close. There was not a structure to implement a complementary virtual model.

-GL:- There were particular alternatives in which teachers used a blog or Facebook or simply gave their students homework. This gives us a framework of conditions to assess these experiences and think about an institutionalized plan.

-AA:- That is great for the teacher to become familiar with it, but it does not solve the institutional problem. The problem is to build a protected virtual space. All those options like a blog, Facebook, or platforms like Edmodo are not institutionalized environments that can be managed but the school authority. Those are little para-institutional experiments that are all right, but do not solve the institutional issue.

You said e-learning has exhausted its possibilities of innovation. What do you mean by that?

I mean it in the sense of its social positioning. E-learning began strongly in the ‘90s and it consolidated with flip teaching and now with the MOOCs. But it has always reached a prestige ceiling. It has always been considered class B education that cannot get to the level of a good onsite education. That modality progressed as an alternative for adults that could not attend onsite courses or postgraduate courses. They do not overlap with other courses given by the education so they do not cannibalize their enrolment fees.

The change lies in the combination of onsite and virtual education with an Internet connection available in the classroom.