Innovative, more participatory and personalized forms of learning are emerging. According to neuroscience, in some cases, these new approaches seem more appropriate and effective than traditional teaching methods. They are disrupting current models, regarding the role of the teacher, who will become more of a mentor than the traditional transmitter of knowledge; but also the notion of class, that thanks to digital technologies, exceeds spatial and geographic boundaries. Among these new forms of learning, two have acquired significant importance over the course of recent years: serious games, i.e. educational role games, and the new generation of online courses, usually grouped under the term MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), which also include some innovative initiatives of distance learning, such as the Khan Academy. Their main advantage is to allow a high degree of personalization in the learning process, a principle that has been long advocated by education specialists but that happens to be impractical in our “mass” educational models.

Serious games are sometimes not well regarded because of their connection with video games. According to the definition proposed by Les Serious Games, une révolution (“Serious Games, a Revolution”), a recent study published under the coordination of Yasmine Kasbi, a serious game is a “computer application that combines a serious purpose (training, learning, teaching…) with fun components from video games or computer simulations.” As explained by Belgian sociologist Pascal Balancier, coordinator of, “serious games allow us to rediscover that play is the oldest, most natural and intuitive way of learning and socializing.” Indeed, for as long as recorded history goes back, man has always played: to relax, to learn, to develop his social skills but also to resolve conflicts or overcome difficult times. Herodotus recorded that the Lydian king commanded his people to play every two days and eat the other, in order to survive a famine that lasted 18 years!

Stimulating neurons
It is no coincidence that play helps learning. First, biology and neuroscience show us that gaming stimulates brain development. Pioneer in research on playing and founder of the National Institute of Play, Stuart Brown explains that nothing stimulates the brain as much as playing. Knowledge is established more firmly and lastingly when acquired through playing. This has been confirmed by tests on animals and can be “reasonable assumed” for humans, based on the results of several educational experiments, as explained by Brown in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. This is particularly due to the fact that memorizing processes are very closely related to attention and emotional rewards. Playing creates new neuronal connections, it sculpts the brain and helps it develops in a safe environment that doesn’t imply any serious issue, such as survival. It has also been proven that, for mammals, there is a strong correlation between the frequency of play and the size of the brain. Playing makes the brain more adaptable, empathetic, creative and innovative.

When there is a serious goal at stake, playing has another advantage: that of staging the player. The latter experiments, takes control of his progress, his actions, his mistakes. He becomes an active player of his own education. Nothing like an active commitment to fix individual learning lastingly (see related ParisTech Review article Did neuroscientists find the secrets of learning?). With medical imaging, neuroscientists were able to verify that learning was optimal when alternating learning sequences with repeated testing – something the structure of play imitates very well. Moreover, according to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, experimentation and simulation allow the learner to retain 90% of the content, against only 50% for what is seen and heard and 10% for what is only read. The aim is to move from a transmissive approach based on the passivity and docility of learners, to a constructive one, where students plays an active role in their own learning process.

Games also increase motivation, as all children are naturally inclined to play. It can rekindle the joy of learning. Many educators have argued that education must start from the child’s interest centers – hence playing, which is arguably a child’s favorite activity. In his Essays, Montaigne emphasizes “that children at play are not playing about: their games should be seen as their most serious-minded actions” (Book I, Chapter XXII, Of custom: we should not easily change a law received). The application of play in learning goes also well beyond the scope of computer serious games. The Quest to learn school in New York is entirely based on play but this doesn’t mean that their students are spending their whole time in front of a screen. The curriculum was redesigned around scenarios that stage students in situations where knowledge is necessary to move on in the game.

Just like the new generation of online courses, serious games allow the customization of learning and especially, they can adapt to the student’s pace of progress, leaving him the choice of his actions and offering different routes to achieve the same goal (integrating a concept, learning a skill, etc.). Digital technologies harness the full potential of education theory, previously blocked by the massive nature of public education. This isn’t an educational revolution. “These teaching methods have long been known and their implementation is greatly facilitated by the technological tools at our disposal today,” says Pascal Balancier.

The Khan Academy is built on this principle of customization. Its aim is to provide free quality education to every child in the world. On this platform, courses are designed according to the pace of the learner, who can listen to some or all video lessons as many times as necessary to learn them. He cannot skip to the next level as long as a concept is not fully mastered: the system provides the student with exercises until he succeeds a dozen times in a row. Adapting to the pace of the student is crucial, because not everyone learns at the same speed, a truth that has nothing to do with one’s abilities and intelligence.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) also offer great flexibility in the learning process. Even if there is often a start and an end date for a more accurate dissemination of these courses, videos and exercises can be viewed and performed at the most appropriate moment for each learner. Paradoxically, this explains both the huge success of these courses: learners, whether students, workers or retirees, can fit them in their own specific schedule; but also their high dropout rate: only the most motivated students attend the course until the end, because of the lack of rigidity or control.

Reinventing the class
All these forms of learning that stem from the digital revolution are disrupting the education sector in the same way the digital whirlwind has already reconfigured both culture and media. Specifically, they call into question the class as we know it, i.e., this grouping by age invented in Jesuit schools of the sixteenth century, where teaching is a vertical process from the teacher to the students. This system overhaul is is the consequence of two opposite forces: the individualization and mass extension of learning (in the case of MOOCs, for example).

For some experts, who have been critics of the notion of class for a long time, this challenge is good news. It doesn’t necessarily imply the end of this framework but rather, its transformation. The founder of the Khan Academy, Salman Khan, advocates to transform classes based on levels into larger, more heterogeneous groups, mixing children of different ages, surrounded by a team of teachers. Small groups form and disappear according to the activities and lessons offered. A less radical solution, “reverse school” – where students learn about the lesson beforehand (via online videos) and do exercises with their teacher during class – transforms the classroom into a more interactive ecosystem, by favoring a horizontal, participative structure, rather than a vertical, hierarchical one, by stimulating exchanges between teacher and students and among students themselves. It’s the model that has long prevailed in prestigious universities such as Oxford, where students meet with their teacher in very small groups to discuss their readings or their works.

Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine a world with 100% virtual teaching using digital tools, with no human contact other than through discussions on forums or during video conferences. Thus, in many cases, participants of a same MOOCs decided to meet physically, in a café or some other public space to share their learnings. Similarly, large platforms specialized in MOOCS begin to open their own spaces to allow this kind of encounters between students. Taking this logic to the extreme, Gilles Babinet, head of digital economy for France at the European Commission and author of L’Ère numérique, un nouvel âge de l’humanité (“The Digital Era, a new age of humanity”), wonders whether universities will still be necessary and if they shouldn’t undertake building coffeehouse chains – something like Starbucks – to provide students a space dedicated to exchanges with their classmates.


And what about teachers?
All these changes in the field of education not only question the class but also the teacher’s role and his relationship with students. There is no danger of seeing teachers disappear, however. Digital tools will never replace the teacher, far from it. Instead, they will transform the teacher’s role. Vertical and transmissive pedagogy gives way to a more horizontal and constructive pedagogy, where the student is active and co-constructs his knowledge hand in hand with his teacher and classmates. The role of the teacher will shift from that of a pure knowledge transmitter to that of a “guide,” a facilitator, mediator, similar to a musical conductor.

Digital tools such as serious games or online courses stimulate the teacher to “change his role, from being a knower who transmits knowledge to being a tutor who guides learners, helping them use fresh knowledge acquired or used in group work,” as he detailed in Les Serious Games, une révolution (“Serious Games, A Revolution”). This book also highlights the obstacles and reluctance concerning this transformation, especially regarding the implicit contract between teachers and students according to which “learners expect their teachers to provide assessments to obtain a diploma” and “teachers expect learners to work and carefully listen during class.”

These conceptions of teaching are far from new: many educators already advocated that teachers should act as guides, and many already apply these techniques. But technological developments have significantly accelerated this trend. This development also increases the value of teachers. According to Salman Khan, the teacher “becomes even more important once students have been introduced to a concept, either through videos or exercises. He can then devote his time to helping students; he can leave aside his lecture and become a true mentor that opens the minds of his students.”

The results of the survey on “The School in 2030,” conducted by 645 international experts prior to the World Summit for Innovation in Education WISE 2014, validated these transformations of educational structures and methods. An overwhelming majority of experts (83%) believe that in fifteen years the content of lessons will be individualized, reflecting the needs of each student. Another key finding supports the evolution of the teacher’s role towards that of a facilitator of learning (73%) rather than a lecturer who simply transmits knowledge.

Experts of the WISE community predict that the school will evolve into a “learning network” where online resources and technologies will support peer-to-peer exchanges, facilitate dialogue and promote a shift towards more collaborative learning. As summarized by professor Yasar Jarrar: “the future educational system will be hybrid, divided between online content and global learning networks that provide most resources and interactions; and real schools that will ensure the quality of teaching standards and and guide students in their learning process.”

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