Another digital divide – Interview at UOC

This is a cross-published interview elaborated by Àngels Doñate at the Open University of Catalonya.


We were already familiar with face-to-face learning, distance learning and e-learning. In Barcelona last week, though, we were introduced to a new concept, invisible learning, which takes place 24/7, in 3D and through 360°, by Cristóbal Cobo, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and expert on digital skills. Co-author of Aprendizaje Invisible: Hacia una nueva ecología de la educación [‘Invisible Learning: Toward a new ecology of education‘], Cobo took part in the most recent Debates on Education event, where he advocated a rethink on educational institutions and spoke of the need to ensure the recognition and assessment of knowledge acquired in non-formal settings.

Nowadays, youngsters learn 24/7, in 3D and through 360°… or at least they should.

The dimensions in which we move in the knowledge society are huge. It is thus necessary to acquire knowledge in different contexts and to combine formal, informal and non-formal learning. Children and teenagers are constantly learning (24/7), acquiring knowledge that transcends formal education structures (in 3D) and doing so in different contexts (through 360°). That is invisible learning, a form of peer-based, collaborative learning with no preconceived technology use.

Face-to-face learning, distance learning, e-learning… and now you are telling us about a new model, invisible learning.

Invisible learning is an invitation, an open-source idea. I think it is important to consider the implications for education and learning of swapping the stability of the 20th century for the fluid knowledge and fuzziness of the 21st. There has always been knowledge outside classrooms, but now it is more important. We have to think about how to raise the profile of the ever-so-effective forms of non-formal learning, how to come up with instruments for assessing and recognising them. The notion of invisible learning encompasses many authors’ theories. It is a mosaic of approaches for the context of today.

One of the roles that schools and universities have played throughout history is that of preparing children and teenagers to be professionals and members of society in the future. Are they currently preparing youngsters to face the challenges of the 21st century?

There is an interesting case of schizophrenia. It would be unfair to say that they do nothing to that end, because if any sector of society acts responsibly in that respect, it is research and formal educational institutions. The problem, though, is that transformations are taking place too quickly for institutions that have not previously been noted for their versatility in processes of change. I therefore believe that there is a certain discrepancy between the professionals who provide education and the market for which they do so.

What should contemporary educational institutions be like?

As Hugo Pardo has said, educational institutions should be thought of as laboratories rather than hotels. Many programmes continue to prioritise memorisation over flexibility and to place emphasis on accumulating knowledge. Additionally, curriculums do not cater for every need. We need to devise ways of hybridising subjects, skills… and to go a step further. There are skills and abilities which are important in this century but are not covered by formal learning structures, such as empathy and leadership. They have strategic value where employability is concerned.

Should we be looking to make the acquisition of such skills more visible?

Yes, and we have to create new mechanisms for assessing them. It is not a simple matter. How do you measure the capacity for creativity or innovation? At the institutional and national levels, we need to implement new instruments for recognising knowledge and skills acquired in informal contexts. According to Marcia Conner, learning can be formal (e.g. classes), unexpected (e.g. social media or surfing the internet), intentional (e.g. coaching) or informal (e.g. playing). How can we raise the profile of the invisible forms of learning, which are so important? Researchers from the University of Bristol compared learning that takes place at school and learning that takes place at home. For instance, activities are chosen by teachers in the former case and by students in the latter. In classrooms, there is insufficient time for exploration and learning is the intention. At home, there is enough time for exploration and learning is incidental.

Educational institutions ought to draw some conclusions from all this. Should they change their role? What challenges are they facing?

I think there are similarities with the situation of the media, which have lost their monopoly over the truth because their audiences now have direct access to it and can establish their own version of it. The case of educational institutions is the same, in that they are no longer the only source of knowledge. Students have parallel sources of information. With basic infrastructure, they can look for information themselves.

By basic infrastructure, do you mean a minimum technological structure and guaranteed access to it?

Not just that. Technology has been adopted very emphatically. Decisions to speed up social change through greater access to information have been made at various international summits in recent years. The idea was to make technology more accessible to achieve greater equality of opportunity. The problem is that another digital divide has been found to exist, besides the one based on access to technology. According to the OECD, a second digital divide separates “those who have the right competences and skills to benefit from computer use, and those who have not. These competences and skills are closely linked to the economic, cultural and social capital of the student”. So it is not just a question of access. Any help, such as where infrastructure is concerned, is welcome. ICT alone are not capable of magic, however. Another interesting point in relation to the use of computers and the generation of added value is that computer use at home is a greater factor in performance in PISA tests than the frequency with which computers are used in schools.

What role should teachers play in the learning process?

The role of translator, in my view, expressing certain information in other words and transferring it from one context to another. Teachers do not transmit knowledge, they are not students’ sole focus of attention. They are intermediaries, offering guidance in analysing and contextualising sources. It is important for students to have IT skills, but also for them to be able to choose sources and filter information. That puts paid to the advantage of digital natives, to the notion of children having a greater innate understanding of digital technology. They are adept at interacting with devices, but that is like driving a Lamborghini with wooden wheels. Their world ends where Google ends.

So, how should those children be educated?

Based on what we have said, digital proficiency has to be taken into account, but so does the ability to use and understand information, something known as e-awareness, although the term ‘e-‘… is used a great deal now. What will such children’s future society involve? Working in different languages, virtual bosses, dealing with a less linear knowledge control process, etc. It is also necessary to educate them from a political point of view, to contextualise everything that happens. That is where teachers play their role.

What challenge does a rapidly and constantly changing society pose for professionals?

That of opting for permanent learning, of re-establishing the idea that students are ignorant when they leave university but capable of managing their own learning process. You have to keep on learning. Nothing and nobody can guarantee that the knowledge you have acquired will not become obsolete. You cannot spend your entire life at university, but you can go on learning. At present, we need diversification with regard to forms of education and of applying knowledge in contexts other than schools and universities.