The digital revolution and the ubiquitous presence of the internet, social media and new communication technologies has profoundly altered traditional forms of education and is undeniably shaping a new educational landscape. The conventional schooling system now needs to reinvent itself in order to adapt to a situation where students have instant access to news, information and ideas.

Whether locally or on a global scale, the formal education system is facing the universal challenge of remaining reliable and effective in this continuously changing environment. It needs to adapt to serve the needs of 21st century students.

Teacher and Student Dynamics

Students have largely been passive listeners or readers, placed in a closed environment and set to listen to a single holder of knowledge: their teacher. As the ultimate authority and reference figure, the teacher was the key to the successful functioning of the school system.

Today, the dynamics between teachers and students have changed. With the internet at their fingertips, students now take an active role in the search of information based on which they can question the teacher and build their own knowledge.

Tools and Resources

The digital age has yielded access to a vibrant, interactive and vast world of information compared to the static and rigidly defined nature of books, which remain the main teaching resource. However, students flooded by massive amounts of data poses yet another challenge for the education system, which now has to guide them through a confusing and cluttered informational landscape, teach them to discern between information and misinformation, differentiate between what is news and what is propaganda, and distinguish between scientific facts and uncorroborated claims.

Social media tools and resources present yet another challenge. Many would argue that it is only a recreational tool that can have a negative influence on students’ development, and therefore its use at schools should be restricted. But if properly leveraged, social media can play a vital role in providing students peer-to-peer support. Notably, thousands of Facebook groups are created by students for this or that course, or even groups that rally a whole grade, class or promotion.

Additionally, with these technological tools and resources so widely available and easily used, schools are now challenged to keep up and effectively use them to connect with parents and involve them in their children’s work, something which many local schools have been doing for quite some time. While this parent-teacher communication had been limited so far to generic channels such as emails, newsletters or blogs, it is now evolving in a more personalized manner to fit the lifestyle of busy parents. Indeed, an increasing number of teachers are taking advantage of free online and mobile apps to communicate and collaborate with parents, allowing them to easily track on a daily basis what is happening at school as well as their children’s performance.

This inclusive approach is also adapted to teachers: Social media is being extensively used by teachers across the globe and specialized online platforms and communities are enabling educators to connect with each other to share ideas, materials, teaching strategies and more.

Desired & Undesired Influences

By using new media, students today are learning from a wider, broader and more cosmopolitan circle than the one comprised of their immediate peers, parents and teachers. They are exposed to a new world of influences — both positive and negative — which the educational system must help them navigate safely.

From online privacy to access to explicit and strong-worded music videos, visually disturbing pictures of war and violence, dysfunctional perceptions of sexual relationships brought on by pornography and many more, the online world adds a layer of risk for children, which should be dealt with through education at school. Even cyber-bullying, an obscure concept only a few years ago, has become a major issue leading to suicide in extreme cases and even surfacing in our society with several cases brought to light and covered by the media lately.

Role of Students

Traditionally, teachers were used to monopolizing talking time in class. However, now that students are used to a culture where they can voice their opinions in the open through the internet and social media, they are no longer content with being receivers of information. And this attitude is spilling onto the education system in which the conventional relationship between teacher and student is being challenged.

Additionally, in the media world we live in, this new generation of “digital natives” is constantly juggling between different forms of media and always multitasking: talking on the phone, texting and surfing online and watching TV all at the same time. Another challenge in this “culture of now” is for teachers to hold the attention of their students, get them to concentrate on one subject at a time, and retain what they have learned.

More Questions than Answers

In view of all of these challenges, we ask ourselves many questions about what our schools are doing to cope with the changes. What is being done on the level of training teachers or reforming the curricula of teaching diplomas? What is being done to safeguard the main success factors of the educational system? With the internet being dubbed as the 5th wall of the classroom, how can schools and teachers capitalize on it to keep students engaged and interested?

Certainly, the educational system needs to take action in order to adapt to the changing landscape and reconcile itself with the current world we live in. But what is even more certain is that while massive amounts of information can be accessed through the internet, the ability to deal with all the above dangers cannot be learned digitally, nor can social skills or cultural integration. Technology does not do away with the traditional role of school and teachers, but amplifies it. The goal is to build a certain complementarity between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ and understand the limits of each. The ‘virtual’ facilitates access to information, interactivity and the rapid and effective access to real time information. On the other hand, the ‘real’ encourages conviviality, social ties, sensitivity, emotion and the exercise of the intellect, which are things that cannot be replaced by the online world and media. While the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ ought to go together in a certain balance, the educational system should bank more on the ‘real’ aspect — this is where its added value lies.

Michele Azrak, Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar