Tablets for all: Can a plan to jumpstart tech skills with slates for every student succeed?

French president François Hollande has ordered "tablettes pour tous" (tablets for all) for the country's schools. But is there a concrete strategy behind this grand technology plan?

President François Hollande recently announced on TF1's 'En Direct Avec Les Français' show that the government will provide schoolchildren with "tablets for all".

Under the president's 'grand plan numérique' (big digital technology plan) for schools, from September 2016, all secondary school students in the 5ème - between 12 and 13 years of age - will get a tablet to enable them to learn about digital technology, including programming and IT.

The announcement has raised the question of whether 'tablets for all' is the most effective way to teach teenagers about digital technology. "We are pleased that the president is talking about digital technology as a key element for school. It shows there is a realisation of its importance," Loïc Rivière, secretary general for AFDEL, the French Association of Software Vendors, said. "The question that comes right after relates to tools and content. What tools for what content? That's where is becomes more complex."

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Hollande said the plan will not just be about giving out gadgets as that "will not work", but Rivière says the fact the president has chosen tablets seems to imply "a very specific usage".

"If this is about making cultural and informative content available to everyone, along with shared content and content coming from social networks, this is without doubt the best tool," he said. "If we talk about coding, or mastering office software, then it is probably not the best tool. The plan must not lead us to not think clearly about the educational aspect before it is rolled out."

With French newspaper Le Monde reporting that around 800,000 students in the 5ème will receive the tablets under Hollande's plan, there is clearly concern in these austerity-stricken times over whether the budget for the hardware can be justified.

IT for all?

The scheme is reminiscent of the Informatique Pour Tous (information technology for all), which ran back in 1985, when computers were introduced into secondary schools. At this time, more than 120,000 computers were installed in 50,000 schools at a cost of 1.8bn francs, of which 1.5bn francs was spent on the hardware itself.

A case study of the programme by Monique Grandbastien, of the Computer Science Research Centre at the University of Nancy in France, reveals that the "equipment phase" of the 1985 scheme took three years while teachers went from school to school demonstrating software packages and showing how to set up the hardware.

Once the kit had been installed, the project aimed to lead to "integration of the computers into daily educational practices". But progressing to that next stage was more difficult than expected: "It became rapidly evident to the education authorities that many things were lacking in order to come to the second step, and that specific research, support and training programmes had to be carried out," wrote Grandbastien. She added that the teachers designated to train others needed not only technical knowledge "but also personal practice of the integrated use of computers in full pedagogical sequences" - that is, the teachers needed help in creating a learning programme to help students meet certain education outcomes.

A big "digital debate" over the 'tablets for all' scheme, including teachers, book editors, and manufacturers, will be held in January next year, and could last between one and two months, according to Hollande. However, Rivière believes that going beyond the simple question of the hardware is vital. Parties must discuss digital technology in schools, including digital transformation schools and their equipment; the development of digital content for education; programming; and training in preparation for technology-related jobs.

He also thinks that "the development of an effective digital educational industry is key for the visibility of French culture and part of a long-term vision for e-learning in France" - an idea AFDEL has been pushing for some time now.

"Why not take advantage of that to bring out innovation and entrepreneurialism too?" he suggested. "Digital technology can bring all that."

Looking to France's future

At a roundtable discussion in Clichy-sous-Bois in September, Hollande highlighted that digital technology must become an important educational goal for France, so that children grow up to have the right technology skills to fulfil the future economy's needs.

"It's an economic ambition," said Hollande, "because it's about innovation and about France being the best in digital technology in order to have the best companies, big or small, on the operation and content of these tools."

One of Hollande's main goals for the digital technology plan is for it to inspire a desire to learn in schoolchildren, in order to improve the level of technology skills and "create teamwork projects that will, among other things, fight against inequality".

Rivière says that bringing digital technology and education closer is a win-win situation, as it will help to reduce inequality and aid social integration among young people. It's a particularly important goal outlined in the PISA rankings - a three-yearly global education report from the Paris-based Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED). France's educational system is listed as one of the most unequal in the world.

"The difference is not in the tools, it is in knowing how to use them," said Hollande.

A pilot scheme for the grand plan numérique is expected to run in selected schools from September 2015.

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