Introduction: How have educators been coping these past months?

First of all, I like to express my empathy for my readers during the COVID crisis. COVID has affected us most destructively on a systemic and on a personal level – be it the fear of infection at the workplace (or dealing with its dire consequences), the challenges of homeschooling, the missing out on education, especially for the socio-economically most disadvantaged students, the lack of comprehensive safety-concepts for schools after the summer break; the list goes on.  

In the media, the ubiquitous advent of digital education was much reported on. However, when it comes to pedagogical progress, so the verdict among many colleagues, remote emergency teaching does not necessarily equate quality digital education. As expected, it has been a mixed review.

On a more positive note, I made surprisingly good experiences using synchronous team-communication software to connect to students more directly. Email communication, which is experienced as more distant (due to inherent time-lag and time-loss due to formatting every single mail) is no match for realtime exchange, especially within group settings. Since digital natives are used to social networking and more instantaneous feedback culture, synchronous communication was a huge success. Synchronous team-collaboration tools are most definitely a keeper. Other digital options are plain practical.

Blended Learning, for example, offers the opportunity to split classes in half and teach face-to-face on alternate weeks, offering online assignments in-between. This way, class sizes can be significantly reduced. One thing is for sure: By now, the world has learned how to conduct video conferences.

Do digital competencies suffice to achieve our educational mission?

In the back of my mind, I was wondering: During a global crisis that ubiquitously accelerates the use of digital technology, are digital competences still such a big deal, or do they become, in the meantime, commonplace? Digital access, or more precisely, the digital divide, still poses a major problem, like a lack of network bandwidth or missing soft-and hardware for students and schools. But these shortcomings pose underlying socio-financial problems, rather than a lack of digital competence. While competencies focus on what people can or should be capable of, the COVID crisis hurts the bonds between people. Social distancing translates into varying degrees of social separation, psychological hardship, and distress.

Don’t get me wrong. I dearly support EU’s DigCompEdu (European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators). DigCompEdu is, in fact, firmly integrated into our ‚must-have’ matrix of learning outcomes (or, fancier, our students’ ‚future skills‘). However, the most pressing issues that keep us from advancing digital quality education are rooted in achieving our supreme educational mission, such as developing the personalities of our students and building an open, diverse, and democratic society. Educational missions are realized by what drives people, in particular, mindsets, (the development of) social roles, as well as organizational and professional practice.

Competencies, by contrast, are commonly understood and framed as individual dispositions. They generally define what individual educators or students should be capable of, and therefore are rarely contextualized within social interaction.

Digital change is social change

International education consultant David Price caused many raised eyebrows when he stated provocatively at last year’s Canvas Con in Barcelona that ‚If a YouTube video can replace a teacher, it probably should.‘ Not only do we use new technologies, but technologies change our social roles and expectations, such as integrating formal and informal aspects of teaching. Roles are changing and teachers are no more sole providers of textbook-knowledge.

Future teachers flourish as empathic learning consultants as much as they are analysts, managers, and supporters of learning processes within digitally-designed learning environments. These essential human qualities are embedded in mindsets and corresponding social practice, but not solely competencies. Competencies are dispositions (or prerequisites) for taking self-organized social action. They do neither define the motives nor goals of social action. This is how we need to see digital competence in the context of motivational beliefs and social goal-setting.

Defining Mindsets

In my search for a deeper understanding of social innovation, I recently stumbled upon a paper by Dosi, Rosati and Vignoli titled ‚MEASURING DESIGN THINKING MINDSET‘, not so much for the quality of the study, but the relevance if its preliminary findings. Using Google Scholar as the sole database, the study’s small sample number, plus most of the participants being design-experienced students, but not full-fledged designers, disqualified (IMHO) the study as A-level type research. Still, from a philosophical standpoint, I do think that the study, despite its qualitative shortcomings, has its merits.

For once, it suggested an empirical definition of potential mindset-configurations. An informal survey among my students rated the effect of mindsets on learning as high as 0.8 (very strong effect). In research, prior knowledge is already an established factor for predicting better learning outcomes. The idea of a mindset goes even further (Carol Dweck needs to be mentioned here), so this is certainly a relevant area of future research.

Factored as key properties of a design thinking (DT) mindset were identified items such as Tolerance for – Being comfortable with Ambiguity – Uncertainty, Embracing Risk, Human centeredness, Empathy, Mindfulness and awareness of the process, Holistic view / consider the problem as a whole, Learning-oriented, Team Working, Open to different perspectives /diversity, Experimentation or learn from mistakes or failure, Abductive Thinking, Envisioning new things or Creative confidence.

I was wondering if these mindset qualities are indeed the key ingredients for 21st-century education that we are currently looking for. The initial question could be reframed as: Are digital competences sufficient to create the social spaces of the future?

Thinking Out Loud: What kind of social spaces do we want? Where and how do we want to learn, live and work?

In creating new digitally-supported social spaces, we need to normatively manage these spaces. There is no such thing as a normatively empty or neutral social space. The notion of cultural and economic power hierarchies, in particular within Silicon Valley tech giants, implies that we need to define the desired qualities of new social spaces, the modes of communication and interaction. Before arbitrarily applying tech, we need to ask: What kind of world and society do we like to live in? How should and can technology support our ideas? Which kind of socio-digital spaces scaffold the learning experiences of our students?

The definition of underpinning norms, values, and constituting frameworks to support human agency, to use Albert Bandura’s term, are necessary to transparently clarify the standards against which a social space should be measured.  As a consequence of self-imposed accountability, such an explicit understanding enforces a self-critical and reflective assessment of standards.

The current tech landscape: Not my world, not your world, not our world

The problem of large commercial social networks is straight forward. Because they have subscribed to the smallest common normative denominator of their global clients, like ‘free speech’, any competing (or diverging) ethical perspectives, such as communal and social responsibilities, had to surrender to the smallest denominator.

As unwanted side-effects of social networks, such as social aggression and disintegration surge, user populations diversify and the social costs of connection seem to outweigh social benefits, such monopolized network-models seem to have exhausted their developmental potential. Digital tribalism and the endless (re)production of polarizing information have become a business model driving huge networks.

Until today, hate speech, severe personal insults, and even online murder threats only get acted upon by authorities in the most severe cases – if at all. None of the large social networks feel obliged to hand ID-addresses of criminals to authorities. To this extend, Facebook is a great example of how future social spaces should not be designed – as much as Amazon or Google are splendid examples of how we do not wish future markets to be monopolized.

As educators, we need safe spaces for our pupils and students. We need trusted spaces to build rewarding and deep relationships. We need our learning communities to navigate within trustworthy institutions. It makes therefore no sense to educate young people in safe spaces but let the public sphere be ruled by the separate right of tech monopolies. Cybermobbing, Cybergrooming and other forms of cybercrimes have, as most sad examples, not been invented and tolerated by schools. Schools have been left alone to deal with problems that are created, in the first place, by large social networks.

Future educators are agents of social change and innovation

We need not withdraw to the thin arguments of digital competences. Instead, we need to question the institutional readiness to support digital access for all, to build adequate digital infrastructure, support new social roles, opportunities for professionalization, as well as new jobs in dital education. Teachers will, e.g., not have the time to produce sophisticated Open Educational Ressources (OER). Communal media centers need to be established for that matter to support schools and universities. Schools need to be networked to share and optimize resources. In this light, digital competence is, far from being an individual problem, a social, economic, and political challenge.

Mindsets, social relations, and institutional practice form the pivot points of future education as they holistically encompass central aspects of professional and personal life. Digital competencies make only sense in the context of these pivotal factors. How would teachers without a growth mindset ever give digital media a try? How would educational leaders find the courage to set up media-professionalization and -creation centers?  How would young start-ups find interest to invest in education-tech?

Rather than focussing on digital competence in isolation, we need to regain the perspective on creating the schools and universities that we like to teach and learn in. This entails that we have to connect the dots. Digital competencies need to be seen in the context of social motivation and goal-setting for realizing desired futures.

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