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Trend 8 February Feb 2021 1105 8 February 2021

Education: from online provision by force to online provision "through choice"

Paolo Landri, senior researcher at the CNR-IRPPS (National Research Council at the Institute of Research on Population and Social Policies), explains how an informed choice is required in terms of using technology-based tools which are more suitable to educational requirements, without necessarily accepting platforms that are more widely available on the market, which have been created for professionals in the field and not for schools.

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The pandemic has forced all countries, including Italy, to rethink their technological approach to education. "Online provision was the only way to keep school opens," explains Paolo Landri, senior researcher at the CNR. However, the transition was not without some pain. When forced to switch learning online, this caused some problems not only for students and, by extension, for their families too, but also for teachers.

This is clearly illustrated by the data from the research carried out by Istat and Censis. During last spring's lockdown, 45.4% of students had problems with remote learning, while 12% of children did not have access to a PC or tablet. This figure rises to 20% if we look only at Southern Italy. Furthermore, the report entitled “Italia sotto sforzo. Diario della transizione 2020. L’Italia e i suoi esclusi” [Italy under strain. Transition diary 2020. Italy and its excluded] highlights how only 11% of schools involved all children in remote learning, while only 1% of institutions did not have to provide resources enabling children to attend lessons from home.

Finally, in addition to this data, 82% of school leaders pointed out that differences in technical knowledge and resources among both students and teachers created many problems for remote learning. According to 75% of headteachers, remote learning is likely to widen the learning gap among children even further.

"This is the reality of the facts from which we must start again," stresses Paolo Landri. "Everyone has made a great effort in the education sector to keep alive a vital area of our society." These efforts have paid off, but only to a certain extent. "It is clear that Italy has been significantly lagging behind in the digital sector in recent years and is still dogged by inequalities which make remote learning difficult. Some of the problems encountered include whether or not broadband is available and the ability to access the Internet from more than one device, to name but a few. Just think about how difficult it can be for a child to attend lessons on a smartphone for 6 hours." Italy's lag in this sector has been known for some time. The 2020 edition of the European DESI report has highlighted how Italy is in last place in Europe in terms of digital skills and twenty-fifth in terms of digitalisation of the economy and society. Only Greece, Romania and Bulgaria performed worse than us.

It is necessary to prevent digital technology from being rejected outright. It should be assessed critically, while being used in a purposeful manner.

Paolo Landri, senior researcher at CNR

This kind of forced transition to digitalization is likely to have a detrimental impact on the Italian education system. Just think about what it may mean to use these platforms for primary school pupils who are learning to write. "There is a risk that learning online will increase social exclusion, which has already made its presence strongly felt in schools pre-Covid," says Paolo Landri.

The dispersion data clearly tells the story: in 40% of schools the rate was already over 5% with peaks of 20% in southern Italy. It is very likely that this figure will now have to be revised upwards. This is why it is necessary to prevent "digital technology from being rejected outright. It should be assessed critically, while being used in a purposeful manner."

Nowadays, videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams are the most popular platforms used in education. "These systems are not suitable for teaching; they are designed more for the office environment. They have been tweaked for educational purposes and it is only now that they are beginning to be imagined differently," explains the researcher.

We therefore need a new "Education plan" capable of integrating teaching in the classroom with online lessons and able to overcome the rivalry between the public and private: "This is the only way we could initiate a kind of constituent phase where we can think about what the education system of the future will be like." It is clear what steps have to be taken. "Putting the education system online must be achieved "by choice", using the relevant technology-based tools in a purposeful and appropriate manner. The point is that, at the moment, headteachers and teachers are undergoing a form of training on digitalisation which doesn't help them use it critically. Teachers in particular have a duty to use the platforms best suited to the educational issues they face; otherwise, there is a risk of "quiet privatisation" of the education system, which is likely to impose the influence of the way in which the companies think."

Putting the education system online must be achieved "by choice", using the relevant technology-based tools in a purposeful and appropriate manner

Paolo Landri, senior researcher at CNR

This is why education and remote learning can be improved, starting from the actual platforms used. "Nowadays, turnkey systems are the preferred choice, where everything is already done and dusted. However, these platforms should be better designed and improved in a contextual way."

Far too little is being done with regard to open-source systems, which can be modified by users, thereby presenting the solution to the problem. "Italy invests too little in this sector, even though the European Union has also spent a lot to promote open education systems. It's a pity because they would allow students and teachers to have greater control, while still being well structured." But this would only be the start and other measures could be taken as well.

"The political establishment should get involved in the national digital plan, allowing the education system to initiate a constituent phase for defining its future." This is an important step, but not the only one. "'We need to invest in the infrastructure again. One example is broadband, which is still not available in much of the country and where little investment is still being made, as demonstrated by the lack of investment in Garr, the Italian network dedicated to the education and research sectors. However, it would also be important to invest in school buildings. This is an absolutely necessary and vital expense. In a place full of emotions but also of spaces such as schools, new structures will be required in the post-pandemic phase."

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