Schools want their students to be able to go through life competently and want to provide them with the necessary basis for this. Due to the rapid social change we are currently undergoing, the term digital competence is increasingly becoming the focus of social debate on the topic of education.
Everyone understands “digital competence” to mean something different. It can therefore be assumed that if two people talk about it, they are largely talking past each other if this understanding is not clarified in advance. However, a broad mass of people think of digital competence as user skills, such as the ability to operate a device or to search successfully on the Internet. Accordingly, many schools break down the area of media and information technology in such a way that they want to teach just these partial competencies. iPads are finding their way into classrooms in series, teachers are being trained on them and digital management mechanisms are being installed in the background. The school is going fully digital and the future seems bright.
Now these competencies are indeed part of the spectrum of “digital literacy,” but they are only a small part of it. I understand digital competence to mean that someone is digitally competent if they can successfully make their way through life in the digital age. In order to understand what is central today, however, you first have to take a look at the driving developments:
The drivers of change
Computers have been undergoing continuous development for several decades now. Chipsets, i.e. the circuits inside the devices, are getting smaller and more powerful, while the software, i.e. the programs running on them, is being integrated more and more efficiently. Twenty years ago, my first computer had a processor with a 500 megahertz clock speed. So it could execute 500 times 1024 (500Tsd) instructions per second. The device was under my desk and took up quite a bit of space. Today, my smartphone is powered by a processor with 8 cores of 2.7 gigahertz each and can thus perform far more operations (8 x 2.7 x 1024 x 1024 = 22.6Mio). In addition, devices are becoming more and more networked. In the Internet of Things (IoT), they are designed to communicate directly with each other and thus be able to solve tasks together. This technological development is exponential because it is based on the binary system: a computer always switches with 1 or 0, i.e., power or no power, and thus builds everything on a kind of Morse code, which is then interpreted by software and displayed on a screen, for example. If now these circuits become ever smaller and finer, then an enlargement in the power (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 etc…) results, which the wheat grain legend illustirizes aptly. Thus the inventor of the game of chess Sissa ibn Dahir is to have demanded of the Indian ruler Shihram so many wheat grains as a reward, as the calculation results, if one puts on the first field of a chessboard a grain, then on the next two and in the in each case next field the previous number again doubles, until one counts at the end legendary 18.45 trillion grains. It is the same with computers. The law behind it is called Moore’s Law. Now there are voices that claim that this development is currently stagnating, but in fact scientists are pushing ahead with another innovation: the quantum computer. A device which, by extending the binary system by means of the so-called superposition state, registers neither 0 nor 1, but an indeterminate state in between, and can thus resolve even more complicated relationships.
We know with what possibilities the invention of the iPhone in 2007 made us happy. Only today, some twelve years later, is our society slowly learning to deal with it. We constantly hold the knowledge of the world in our hands. We no longer book cabs by making a phone call, and the latter has now also been made obsolete by Google Duplex, an algorithmized voice assistant that makes phone calls for us. Technological development continues to advance valiantly, bringing with it numerous innovations that we do not even dare to imagine today. This exponential rate of change is reshaping the world around us. The once extremely successful SMS service has been replaced by Whatsapp and Internet flat-rate subscriptions, people no longer buy CDs, series are watched more often than films, Exlibris is closing its branches and concentrating on online business. In his study “Change in the world of work”, Prof. Dr. Peter Kruse comes to the conclusion that high-ranking executives in the German economy are aware that in such a complex state it is no longer possible to steer in a linear fashion. They sail with their companies on sight and try to cope with the current challenges as agilely as possible. Agile leadership principles and the coaching of companies in this very area have been the blockbuster of recent years. Efforts are made to empower employees and encourage or better drive them to make their own decisions, as creatively as possible. Unfortunately, these attempts often fail these days. More and more often, companies realize that their employees cannot organize themselves. They have learned to follow instructions and to fit into the hierarchy. This behavior ultimately does not lead to agile self-organization. In addition, many people continuously act within their own boxes, do not see beyond the horizon and are incapable of recognizing complex interrelationships and solving them creatively. But why?
A look at the school system
In our schools, there is a clear practice of neatly separating subject areas and teaching them in 45-minute lessons. School- and apparently business-conforming behavior is trained in an externally controlled and isolated manner. A training system that excellently trains employees to find their way in the Taylorized production chain of an industrialized company and to do their part. This system was also installed for this purpose in the old Prussia and has so far only been changed by incremental micro-reforms. Now, however, we have digitalized precisely this part. These production chains and task areas are excellently processed by algorithms. They no longer need people. And more and more areas are falling victim to ongoing automation. So many, in fact, that in his TED Talk “3 myths about the future of work (and why they’re not true),” Daniel Susskind even says that the previously recognized “Lump of Work Fallacy” is itself a fallacy, i.e. a misconception. That automation does not lead to more jobs due to the decreasing reproduction costs and the higher demand, but that new jobs are now accessible to highly qualified employees, but that they disappear again within a very short time, especially since we are in an exponential development and ultimately practically everything can be automated. Everything except what people really like to do and what people want to do with people.
What helps us in times of constant change?
Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he would prepare for a tournament against IBM’s Deep Blue algorithm, and he replied, “I’d bring a hammer!”
So instead of declaring war on technology, we could also ask ourselves what makes us different from machines. Prof. Dr. Gerald Hüther’s answer pretty clearly encompasses what I mean by digital literacy:
- Intentionality, i.e. the will to do something → computers only execute what they are programmed to do and have no internal antireb
- Co-creativity, i.e. solving complex problems together → Computers do not make mistakes, they only evaluate data highly efficiently and give statistical answers. This can support co-creative processes, but is not in itself capable of co-creativity.
Another interesting approach comes from Astro Teller, Google’s Master of Moonshots, whose graphic was shown in the book “Thank you for being late” by Thomas L. Friedman.
He said that we are in such an accelerated situation that nothing is linear anymore. However, people are used to linear movements. The acceleration of a car, for example, is linear, but a head-on crash is exponential. In addition, we are stability-oriented. We always strive for stable conditions, which Peter Kruse also confirms. Now it is a question of achieving a new form of stability, a dynamic stability. This is like riding a bicycle: You have to pedal constantly to avoid falling over.
Digital literacy encompasses user skills on digital devices; since these are tools of culture, they are of interest to learners anyway and are naturally recorded. They must be made available in order to serve in problem situations, as tools. But it is much more about the ability to find creative solutions, organize oneself, be a team player, critically question what is given, know oneself, and maintain dynamic stability. In order to become competent in the digital age, schools have to expect instability from their students, and this to the highest degree. It is no longer necessary to separate subject areas but to enable co-creative experiences for the students. These cannot be controlled by others. Teachers must relinquish control and create learning environments that appeal to all children’s interests. Learning is free and completely mixed-age. Assessment can only be formative when learners explicitly ask for it. Report cards are a thing of the past and give way to an individual learning portfolio, for example in the form of a blog. The children get to know their individual potentials and value them mutually. Solutions are worked out together that no curriculum can anticipate. Social learning is the status quo, always. Competitive thinking is kept to a minimum; instead, hands reach out and support each other. Dynamic stability is the consequence.
You can read about how schools are changing in concrete terms in the article “Learning Instead of Teaching – Roles Change in the School System” and in the follow-up article “Learning doesn’t need walls – Do we still need schools?” from Philipp Zimmer