On the eve of the Chinese New Year, on January 25th, 2020 I was back in Turin from BETT in London, the most important European event of Education Technology: among the stands of the companies, many institutional presences from the Arab Emirates, Oman, Morocco, France, who invited to enrol in their schools, presenting the great investments in infrastructure – new schools, transport – to attract teachers in their countries: needless to say that the Italian school was not there, nor were there any startups or Italian companies in the sector.
About two months later, in the midst of an emergency that no one knows when it will end, the school is once again in the foreground for its “lack of presence”. The school that is not there has disrupted the lives of children and families: in Italys a sequence of ordinances and circulars first stopped the educational trips then classes were suspended and schools closed, expected to be re-opend first on March 15, then on April 13 and to date without a certain date for re-opening.
Since then, almost all teachers in Italy – each in his or her own way – have put strategies in place to continue “teaching”. Digital animators and in general, the most technologically prepared teachers have been working day and night to find solutions for videoconferences, manage distance classes and train their colleagues. In chats and socials, teachers ask for advices “better Meet, Classroom, Zoom, Jitsi, Edmodo”, “but we use the electronic register”, “don’t use whatsapp with students”, “for the first time I gave the mobile number to my students”, “no video conferencing lessons are needed, just give homework and then correct it”, “I was in charge of elearning already thirty years ago” while families tell of students invited to connect at eight o’clock in the morning to be interviewed at a distance, and inevitably the thought that goes to fragile children due to conditions of socioeconomic gap or health, learning difficulties or poor knowledge of the language.
I want to emphasize that this is a generalized situation and not Italian only: schools around the world are experiencing digital immersion, with some risk of drowning, inevitable with the method “I’ll throw you overboard, so you learn to swim”.
In the last ten years the Italian Ministry has provided funds to provide digital devices, such as interactive whiteboards, to train teachers, to provide new learning environments and enhance libraries, put in place fablabs and classes of the future and to support personal purchases for teachers and students.
Today the first things are coming together: teachers and students “do things” with digital, but in general they seem to be prisoners of an idea of “school” that is not and will no longer be the same. Papert’s famous anecdote, which compares nineteenth-century operating rooms and classrooms with those of today, finally no longer holds up.
One could not be prepared for this situation, totally unheard of in terms of size and gravity, but it is undeniable that digital technology at school has not yet taken root completely, even though it has been talked about in Italy since the 1990s. Papert used to say, in the 80s, that the computer was seen as a threat, for its revolutionary potential: that’s why maybe PCs are in the labs and smartphones have to be turned off, the teacher explains and pupils listen, then they repeat what they heard. And this is the model that many teachers are re-proposing these days, through digital. Generally, this mode reassures families, which in some cases are one of the barriers to educational innovation, also thanks to what Sonia Livingstone defined as “moral panic”, i.e. social anxiety about the effects of digital on young people.
Now we have an opportunity, a real opportunity, not an exercise to use digital at school in a different way, to do school in a new way, and this requires effort and commitment on the part of the government, schools, teachers, families and students.
The Italian government has provided for new allocations, with art. 120 of the decree Cura Italia provides for an increase of 85 million compared (link in Italian) to what is already provided for by law 107, for remote platforms, training, connectivity, devices: the reference to accessibility is excellent, but it would also have been nice to talk about interoperability and privacy. Of these resources, 70 million are earmarked to make individual digital devices available to less affluent students on loan for the use of the platforms and the need for a network.
In the DESI digitization index in 2019 Italy is at the 24th place out of 28 European countries: the index takes into account various parameters related to bandwidth availability, digitization of public services and businesses, digital skills. One person out of two does not know how to use online services: according to the AGCOM Digital Education (link in italian) reports we are the last in Europe for ability to submit online applications to the Public Administration.
The Italian economic system characterized by micro enterprises is not able to drive social innovation, nor is the public administration, characterized by fragmentation and overlapping skills, which slow down its operations. Just to talk about schools, there are fragmented competences on school buildings (provincial, municipal, district), personnel (state), allocation of resources (state, regional), territorial organization (regional, provincial, municipal).
We don’t have large national cloud infrastructures, and maybe without the big American servers, would the school year have blown up? We do not have a public network connectivity infrastructure: the GARR that manages the Research network, has had a peak of use in recent days, increasing traffic by 60% and claims to provide connectivity to about 1000 schools, a number still insufficient since the secondary schools are more than 8800 and that all schools, including preschools are more than 57 thousand…
It is therefore a question of designing a distributed system that respects national indications and guarantees equity of access, adapting what is good in other systems such as the Chinese one, where the 230 million students have access to nationalized platforms for distance education that offer 24000 online courses on 22 platforms, but that have some drawbacks, for example each shared document must be pre-approved.
Connectivity for schools is a critical point: 23% of secondary schools have a connection at least 30 Mbps, 11.2% of secondary schools and 9 of primary schools have a connection at least 30 Mbps, and it should be stressed that this breadth of the call is still insufficient to have a rapid response time. The AGCOM report stresses that three factors are necessary to have a digital school: ” i) the existence of an ultra-wideband internet connection, ii) the creation of an efficient telematic network and iii) a maintenance and updating activity in order to govern the effect of technical obsolescence of the infrastructure” which means having budgetary resources to pay providers and skills to manage the network (Infrastrutture come fattori abilitanti per l’apprendimento a scuola, 2014 – paper in Italian). Simply the management of the network infrastructure for education cannot be left to individual schools: the only Italian region where schools have adequate connectivity is Emilia Romagna, which through LEPIDA, has systematically managed, through municipalities, the supply of broadband to schools.
The Compagnia di San Paolo School Foundation’s Riconnessioni project is another example of systematic infrastructural intervention of all schools at a city level that also requires schools to make a commitment to join the project by participating in the digital skills training provided free of charge. A virtuous model that must provide a sustainable way for schools to continue to benefit from connectivity services once the project is completed.
As already mentioned, the overlapping of competences in schools does not facilitate public intervention: municipalities have competence in the planning of the offer and the pedagogical coordination of the zero six system, but for all school orders digital education is necessary for families, children and teachers. In preschools digital is used to develop logical thinking and also creativity.
In times of health emergency, making children in kindergarten understand why they no longer go to school and don’t see their teacher, explaining what is happening, is a challenge that many teachers have taken up: in many municipalities teachers record videos with stories, nursery rhymes, describe games, send audio messages to children to let them know that even if they don’t see each other, the relationship continues… in Turin we called it “Didattica della vicinanza” (Pedagogy of closeness instead of remarking the distance) and we share on facebook #unagocciadibellezzalgiorno. In the next days will be organized, with the support of sensitive companies like Rekordata, online webinars to give also to kindergarten teachers a support on how to use digital tools at best.
In these days, the efforts of the municipalities are oriented to not burden families with costs for services not used, but surely such a long period of lack of service will have repercussions on the providers of canteens and transport and on the many operators that revolve around the school: educators, health workers, psychologists, cultural animators. Municipalities often operate with support projects for the most fragile categories: in Turin, the Provaci Ancora Sam project has been fighting school drop-out for thirty years, with a “system” approach involving the local administration, the Ministry of Education, schools and associations that follow and support students at risk. With new methods, the operators and schools are able to ensure their presence and maintain the relationship with the children and among themselves, to share doubts and anxieties also through regular meetings that take place online.
Cities can play the role of facilitating the meeting between those who offer services and those who need them: Torino City Love is the initiative of #solidarietàdigitale e innovazione aperta (digital solidarity and open innovation) to offer free resources, actions and skills to support citizens, businesses and schools during the COVID-19 emergency to which large operators such as TIM, CISCO and small companies such as MAIEUTICAL LABS have responded, offering free licenses for 30 days of adaptive platforms for digital teaching of Italian and Latin grammar and literature.
Schools are complex public bodies: on organizational aspects the State issues rules that for better or worse are followed by all institutions. This explains the coverage of the electronic register in 84% of schools, the presence of a digital coordinator in 70% of schools. Approximately 63% of schools have automated economic and financial management, while only 21.5% manage household payments.(data from Educare Digitale)
It is worth pointing out that the entry into service of many new School Managers in the year 2019-20 has improved the management situation in many institutions suffering from the lack of a proprietor. The new School Managers are generally very motivated and willing to introduce new organizational and teaching methods. As did Maria Stella Perrone, new director of the V.Alfieri Institute in Asti, expert and for years committed to educational innovation also with the use of technology. In her article (in Italian), the story of how the emergency response was organized in her institute – 1200 students, 140 teachers and 3 seats – starting from the first videoconference at the end of February, to the sharing of a map of resources up to the drafting of real guidelines that read “Didattica a distanza non significa replicare la didattica in presenza e mai la didattica a distanza potrà sostituire quella in presenza. The path of a teacher to implement a sensible use of new technologies is long, complex and gradual and requires a desire for renewal, adaptability, aptitude for continuous discovery, training and self-training”. The school has set up an internal task force to which everyone – students, families and teachers – can turn to to ask for technological support, educational design and more, by filling in an online form.
According to the AGCOM “Digital Education” report, 47% of teachers use technology in their training activities, which means less than half, but if we go into detail the situation is even more dramatic, read in the light of today’s facts: 1 in 5 use collaborative work at school and 8.6% – less than 1 in 10 manage project activities at a distance.
This data is another of the truly critical points of the Italian digital school. OECD data from the 2019 report “Thriving in a digital world” underline a lag in digital skills for Italy, which, together with Greece, Lithuania, Slovak Republic and Turkey, is part of the tail group. And there is a call to strengthen the formal and informal lifelong learning system. Italy has never had a policy for lifelong learning and open education. A big hole that became even more evident with the advent of MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses: while in the US the offer of these online courses is entrusted to universities and private companies, in other European countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal, Catalonia is precisely the large “open universities” that are the promoters of lifelong learning. In Italy, despite the great success of the first MOOC on Coding, with more than 30 thousand teachers involved in 2016, promoted by Prof. Bogliolo on the EMMA platform, no measures in this sense have ever been launched: a great plan, in concert with the large employers’ and trade unions’ organizations, for digital skills is increasingly urgent every day.
This is a good time to do courses online, for those who know English, the offer is very wide, you can take a ride on Class Central you have to find the list of the best MOOCs including for example Learning to Learn, one not to be missed or MOOC-LIST or those offered by the Politecnico di Milano, designed for teachers in English and Italian.
What advice should you give to teachers who are trying their hand at distance learning? Ask and ask colleagues, on facebook there are many groups managed by experienced colleagues such as Teachers, Teacherduepuntozero, Online Teachers, Distance Learning. Read the operational lines issued by MIUR on distance learning and ask for help to the territorial training teams. The main advice is not to exaggerate.
Rightly there are those who complain about the overload of tasks that should give the students stimuli to express themselves and explore: do you know the challenges? This is an example. #RoundTheWorld_ChainReaction … , film it and conduct it and to liven up Kahoot you can also use it remotely.
It has already been said that there is a lack of infrastructure and digital skills: in many families these days there is the problem of parents having to work from home, while students have to attend classes and then compete for the PC. We hope that the support measures announced for the purchase of devices will be made operational as quickly as possible and measures to free up available bandwidth have already been announced by NetFlix and Youtube. In these days we have the opportunity to be more together: let’s take advantage to play together, get to know better the video games that fascinate them, let’s now worry about building a digital education for our children, from three years old and older they are not young, for example starting from the resources of Parole O-stili. Let’s use the online resources together: there are whole online museums to visit and many free books online that you can find collected for example on the page #ioleggoinerete or subscribe to services such as the Digital Civic Library and let’s remember that in families where you read, also read more children.
Teachers and teachers tell about girls and boys need normality even more than adults: having an appointment at a given time, getting ready to meet with their classmates and teachers from one rhythm to the day. Then they are the ones who explain to the parents how to do it, they respect the shifts in speaking autonomously. Even the older ones are generally correct and positive. However, not all teachers are inclined to do videolessons in synchronous mode and not all children give up the possibility of disturbing and therefore the platforms are adapting according to the requests they receive.
It is important to underline once again that distance learning does not mean replicating the school of before: the frontal lesson does not work and as it has always been, technology is not saving itself, it is necessary to establish a connection between the online and offline world it is important to talk about what we are living, with attention to the relationship but also giving a value to what we do. And precisely the aspect of evaluation is still one of the open points under discussion in these days, so that this aspect is also brought back to the context we are living and therefore we are oriented to formative evaluation and self-evaluation.
Distance schooling is a global issue, according to UNESCO on April 4th there were more than 1,5 billions of student at home in the world, 91,3% of the student population: we hope that all the governments of the world, in addition to managing this emergency in solidarity, will unite in a reflection to design the school afterwards.