By Anna Cristina D’Addio, Senior Policy Analyst, GEM Report, member of the Conseil d’Evaluation de l’Ecole, and mother of a teenage (lower) secondary school student in France.
France closed all schools, colleges, high schools and universities on March 16 to help stop the spread of Coronavirus (Covid-19). We heard this Monday that schools will start to open progressively from May 11, although upper secondary schools will remain closed until the summer. During these closures, the Minister of Education has called for “continuité pédagogique” (educational continuity). This means that “the link with school and learning should be maintained in different forms. It is important that every student, whether they have an internet connection or not, benefit from this continuity.” But how does it work?
Apart from the 20,000 children of frontline workers still being taught by volunteer teachers, the rest of the country has moved to distance learning. France was well positioned in one sense for this shift. In 2016, its digital plan for education, and its curriculum reform created banks of digital resources (BRNE). These included activities and lessons and enabled monitoring and evaluation of groups or students from the 4th grade of primary school to the 3rd grade of lower secondary school.
France already has a National Center for Distance Education (CNED). As soon as school closed down, it set up “My class at home” with online content for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary students. In addition to stock lessons, there are tasks to complete and lessons given by videoconference. The websites of both the Ministry of National Education and Youth and the Ministry of Higher Education also have a wealth of other material. ‘Digital workspaces” (“Environment Numérique de travail” – ENT) such as EcoleDirecte, ProNote, One, etc, which are intranets specific to each establishment, and via which students and teachers exchange lessons, exercises, and messages, also exist. All secondary schools have such spaces set up. Each Académie can also provide its own resources on their own sites as well.
Is educational continuity working effectively?
As with each of us, the CNED has needed some time to adapt to this new situation, seeing its role changing from supporting the education of pupils in difficulty to suddenly being at the service of the whole country. It has experienced connection issues because of the large number of users trying to get online.
Meanwhile, while one teacher made headlines by saying that the ENT worked so well that she will continue to use it even when school resumes, it did not work at all on the first day around the country, and in some cases did not work for days.
In general, the saturation of online education platforms, bugs and other server issues made media headlines. In many cases, home pages were accessible but personal spaces were not. Teachers also felt disempowered either because the tools were not accessible or because they needed training to be able to use them.
Teachers’ adaptability, clear communication and creativity matter
As the mother of a quasi-teenager college student I have personal experience of how well “educational continuity” is working. My belief is that school leaders and teachers are the key to its success. Their resilience, ability to understand and respond to the diverse needs of families are proving to be exceptional resources. So many are demonstrating innovation. One teacher in a college in Aubervilliers set up a thread with a colleague to chat with pupils through the ENT and uses a shared drive to distribute content. Another is using snapchat to join her class’ chat. Others are using YouTube channels to present lessons and homework. Teachers are using multiple different applications, including Google Hangouts and Drive, Discord, Moodle, @RocketChat. And they are taking part in training they would have seldom done before: 332 teachers from the Academy of Nancy and Metz took #Moodle training, for instance.
Many players are supporting the government with the task
In higher education, a webpage details 99 initiatives in place, listed by thematic areas, regions and actors (universities, libraries, CROUS, conservatories, Grandes Ecoles etc.). Academies throughout France have set up initiatives, including in Limoges, in Lyon and in Strasbourg. And within academies, GRETA (a group of local public educational establishments (EPLE)) is delivering training in digital tools for adults too.
Foundations, companies and NGOs are also getting involved. The Canope Network has developed a virtual library with plenty of resources for digital training. French EdTech companies have made their know-how available free of charge and without conditions through a solidarity portal. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks and media disseminate thousands of initiatives developed by students, teachers and parents. The YouTube channel “les bons profs“, managed by public education professors, with 180 million cumulative views is a popular learning platform. With the Voltaire project, teachers from college to high school can share their lessons with students upon request. The same solution exists for those who want to progress in mathematics, via KWYK. Most platforms have also made access free to students (e.g. Maxicours, Schoolmoov, Studytracks, etc).
Yet digital and territorial divides remain
However, the risk of social and digital divides during these closures is real. One estimate is that 5-8% of students have lost contact altogether with their teachers. Some are not equipped, others can’t connect or only have one device for the whole family.
According to a 2019 INSEE report, 77% of households in France were equipped with some form of portable device in 2017. But this depends on households’ income and location. Among the 20% of poorest households, 71% had ICT devices and 77% had internet, compared to 92% and 94% among the 20% wealthiest, respectively. In rural municipalities or urban areas of fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, 80% have access to the Internet, compared to 84% in urban areas of more than 200,000 inhabitants and 87% in the agglomeration of Paris. Broadband is also less frequent in rural areas than in urban areas with differences also depending on the size of the agglomeration.
High speed internet connection depends heavily where people live
The percentage of houses that have ICT equipment, by wealth quintile
The Minister of Education has detailed several ways to rectify this. An agreement has been signed with La Poste to allow teachers to send printed documents to students who are not digitally equipped or have failed to connect. Educational establishments are advised to contact families once a week by phone. Several actors, including NGOs such as Emmaus Connect; and foundations such as the Fondation de France are also helping distribute digital equipment where needed. The channels, France Télévisions, Radio France, Arte and the French educational staff are providing content on two educational platforms: Lumni (agenda below) and Educ’ARTE. The programs can be streamed or replayed, including as podcasts.
Commitment to education makes the difference
Even if some international surveys suggest that in France teachers’ pedagogical and technical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction is below OECD average, the reality shows that it is commitment by the whole educational community that makes the difference. Teachers’ creativity, competencies and adaptability, school leadership, and the involvement of parents and several actors at the national and local level have shown their true worth in ultimately preventing education from breaking down.
No doubt some will complain about the failures, but it seems important to highlight the lesson we will also have learnt from this along the way. This is captured by a sentence I read in a recent commentary that “each teacher is deciding what tools (s)he wants to use“. They are thriving from this flexible way of working, showing enormous resilience, and adaptability, proving that they can work with multiple tools to remain connected with students and showing that they are keen to learn more. This gives hope to France. If we can foster this spirit, it could really open doors for education to play its role and to transform lives.