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A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr. Pedro De Bruyckere about digital education

Pedro De Bruyckere, A woman writing on a blocknote and watching a laptop

Pedro De Bruyckere is a Flemish educational scientist at Arteveldehogeschool in Gent (Belgium) and Leiden University (Netherlands).

Personalised education through technology has been a dream for a long time. What does science tell us about the results up until now?

Pedro De Bruyckere: Personalised education comes at a human cost. First of all, it takes an enormous effort of the teachers. Second, at present the physical infrastructure is often not good enough. And third, we see the inequalities actually growing. Students who perform above average, can do more thanks to the technology. But students who perform below average are confirmed in the position they are in, not because they are less clever, but because they have less prior knowledge or less good conditions at home. The intention of personalisation is good, but most studies show the opposite results.

Which digital tools do work well?

Pedro De Bruyckere: The effect size of digital learning in general is neither good nor bad. Until now it hasn’t shown to be of added value. The only digital tool that we know for sure works in general is personalised review. This is automatic assessment of how well students perform in exercises and adjusting new exercises based on individual performances. This tool has never shown any negative effects, which is already fantastic. For all other digital tools the conclusion up till now is: they may work or they may not work, depending on the specific context.

On May 5 a 13-year old girl wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled ‘Distance learning is better’ She argued that working at her own pace without classroom disruptions works much better. So, what are your thoughts about students who do benefit from digital education at home?

Pedro De Bruyckere: She does have a point, which I think is especially true for children who are more introverted. But she also forgets about some very important other tasks of education: socialisation and learning to live together. Her letter is more about some pain points in the present education than about the advantages of distance learning.

Thinking about the period after the lockdowns, can you imagine a hybrid solution of students going four days to school while on the fifth day distance learning from home?

Pedro De Bruyckere: I am pessimistic about that. If one thing has become clear during the lockdowns, then it is that countries which opened their economies before opening the schools encountered a huge problem. This has been the case in Belgium. Suddenly parents go to work, while children have to stay at home. Who then takes care of the children? In theory hybrid schooling sounds great, but in practice you run into problems of child care and also of whether or not children have a peaceful study place at home. This creates inequalities.

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