Building a learning culture for the digital world: lessons from Moscow

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

While people have different views on the role that digital technology can and should play in schools, we cannot ignore how digital tools have so fundamentally transformed the world outside of school. Across the world, digital technologies are creating new business models and opportunities for firms to enter markets and transform their production processes. They can allow us to live longer and healthier lives, delegate boring or dangerous tasks, and travel into virtual worlds.

Technology should therefore play an important role in education if we want to provide teachers with learning environments that support 21st-century methods of teaching – and, most important, if we want to provide students with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed.

In the health sector, we start by looking at the outcomes; we measure a patient’s blood pressure and take their temperature, and then decide what medicine is most appropriate. In education, however, we tend to give everyone the same “medicine”— we instruct all children in the same way – and when we find out many years later that the outcomes are unsatisfactory, we blame it on the motivation or capacity of the “patient”.

That is no longer good enough. Digital technology now allows us to find entirely new responses to what, how, where and when people learn, and to enrich and extend the reach of excellent teachers and teaching. Already today, digital learning systems cannot just teach you science, but they can simultaneously observe how you study and learn science, the kinds of tasks and thinking that interest you, and the kinds of problems you find boring or difficult. These systems can then adapt learning to suit your personal style with far greater granularity and precision than any traditional classroom setting possibly can. Technology can elevate the role of teachers from imparting received knowledge towards working as co-creators of knowledge – as coaches, mentors and evaluators.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is that it not only serves individual learners and teachers, but can also build an ecosystem around learning that is predicated on collaboration. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and fun; and collaborative learning, in turn, enhances goal orientation, motivation, persistence and the development of effective learning strategies. Technology can also build communities of teachers who share and enrich teaching resources and practices, and collaborate on professional growth and the institutionalisation of professional practice.

It is clear that if we continue to dump technology on schools in a piecemeal way, we won’t be able to realise technology’s potential.

There is another angle from which to consider technology in education. Data can support the redesign of education, as it has already done in so many other sectors. Imagine the power of an education system that could share its collective expertise and experience through new digital spaces. But throwing education data into the public space does not, in itself, change how students learn, how teachers teach or how schools operate. That is the discouraging lesson from many administrative accountability systems. Turning digital exhaust into digital fuel, and using data as a catalyst to change education practice, requires getting out of the “read-only” mode of our education systems, in which information is presented as if inscribed in stone. This involves combining data with collaboration.

We should ask ourselves why schooling is still so far from delivering on these promises, and it is clear that if we continue to dump technology on schools in a piecemeal way, we won’t be able to realise technology’s potential. Perhaps we should stop seeking the “killer app” or the “disruptive” business model that will somehow turn existing practices upside down. Perhaps we should instead learn how to identify, interpret and cultivate systemic capacity for learning with technology across the entire ecosystem of schooling.

In some places, there has been a silent revolution where exactly that is happening. The city of Moscow, for example, has in recent years digitised virtually every aspect of its instructional system. What differentiates the city’s approach is not any specific technology, but the support structures and incentives that have shifted the role of students, teachers and parents – transitioning them from consumers of educational services towards designers and co-creators of educational content and learning methods.

In the schools I visited, teachers used a digital platform to develop and share engaging instructional material. That, in itself, is not unusual; what made it unique was that the platform was not school-based, but available across the entire city, and that it was integrated with reputational metrics. Teachers who share lessons on the platform see their reputation improve the more that other teachers download, critique and improve them. Teachers have already contributed over 300 e-textbooks, 70,000 interactive applications and close to 40,000 lesson scenarios that  can easily be reconfigured and adapted in the classroom, since they are built around a common lesson structure. The teachers I spoke with saw themselves as proud designers of imaginative learning environments – as people who scaffold problem inquiry and help students see the value of learning beyond content knowledge acquisition.

Moscow is giving out grants to teachers and schools in order to encourage and support the development and curation of high-quality instructional material. Most of these are in the order of USD 700 to 4000 – not much, but enough to signal that teachers contribute value to the system. In this way, Moscow is creating a giant open-source community of teachers and unlocks teachers’ creativity simply by tapping into people’s natural desire to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for their work. Teachers can spend more time on this, as well, as technology continues to take over routine administrative and instructional tasks that previously took valuable time away from teaching.

When teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, and when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive teaching takes place.

This is how technology can extend the reach of good teaching – by  recognising that value is increasingly created horizontally, by the people we connect and work with, rather than vertically, through command and control. One teacher can now inspire hundreds of thousands of learners, and at the end of the school year, teachers see not only how well they taught their own students, but also what contributions they made to advance the teaching profession and the wider education system.

Most importantly, student learning is becoming personalised, adaptive and more engaging, with lesson scenarios that range from animated digital content to interactive tasks, and to virtual laboratories where students design, conduct and learn from experiments, rather than just reading about them. Digital lessons enable students to access specialised materials in multiple formats, and in ways that can bridge time and space. During my visit, I tried to configure the planets around the sun in a virtual reality-based environment, and although I failed, I can now remember and visualise their correct sequence – something my own teachers failed to teach me over many years. In this way, technology is enhancing experiential learning by supporting enquiry-based teaching methods, facilitating hands-on activities and delivering formative real-time assessments. And the e-school does not end with the school day, either. Students can access resources at home, complete their homework and other assignments, and assess their learning progress interactively.

Not least, the e-school is connecting parents with education, facilitating communication with teachers, helping parents understand and follow their children’s timetables and learning progress, and inviting them to educational activities in the city

I meet many people who say we cannot give teachers and education leaders this kind of professional autonomy because they lack the capacity and expertise to deliver on it, and there may be some truth in that. But simply perpetuating a prescriptive model of teaching will not produce creative teachers: those trained only to reheat pre-cooked hamburgers are unlikely to become master chefs. By contrast, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, and when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive teaching takes place. Technology is not the sole answer to this, but it is an essential part of the answer.

The city of Moscow hasn’t invented any of these technologies, nor it is the first to deploy them. All it has done is put the pieces together within a coherent vision and at scale, so that the various parts of the school system are moving in the same direction. For many other school systems, that still seems an insurmountable challenge.