Let’s forget about innovation; problems are delicious – Switzerland

If ideas are the currency in academia, then Pierre Dillenbourg is a rich man indeed. If you search on his name, you will find his papers have over 1000 citations. Dillenbourg is recognized as one of the founders of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). He started his career as a primary school teacher, and is now a full professor at EPFL, which often ranks in the top three universities for Science and Technology in Europe, and top 20 in the world.

But when I asked him what his proudest moment was, his answer was unexpected:  “I was a primary school teacher in Brussels in 1980 – only for one year – but it was a great year. Twenty-five years later, those students I named ‘my kids’ found me on the Internet and organized a party with my wife, without telling me. We met in 2005, in the same classroom. They were all adults, with kids, etc. We even took the conventional class picture.  They told me nice stories about my influence on their life. So compared with this, the number of citations does not matter so much.”

Dillenbourg shared his thoughts on computer-based education, the future of learning
technologies, and what he thinks all students need to be successful.

How has your work in computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) changed the world of education? 

In 1985, the key slogan of computer-based education was “It’s a tool for individualizing instruction.” So when a few people (myself included) began talking about supporting team learning with computers, we appeared as crazy. Nowadays, the scientific community’s view on learning technologies is mostly about collaborative learning, because both the technologies and the learning theories have evolved in that direction, but at the beginning it was quite a change. For me, it was not a vision, just a good idea to explore. And, overall, it was not my personal idea. It emerged more or less at the same time from many scientists such as Claire O’Malley, Jeremy Roschelle, Stephanie Teasley, Richard Joiner, Paul Light, John Self, Gerhard Fischer, Alan Collins and many others. One thing I am happy with is that CSCL is one of the few scientific domains where the European community is as strong as the US community.

How can other educators facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through this project?

One key challenge in learning technologies is the low adoption rate. Despite 40 years of successful research projects, technologies remain largely underexploited in schools. As a community, we cannot be very proud of our achievement. We cannot prove that all the money invested actually improved the educational system in which we work.  My recommendations would be to focus on the daily life of teachers. A short example: why do kids have to login before using a learning environment? It takes about five minutes to get all kids in a primary school to be logged-in, which is 10% of a typical lesson’s time. Are we sure the extra functionalities enabled by the login provide a 10% increase of effectiveness? There is a new movement in learning technologies that focuses on “classroom orchestration” – basically, all these little details of everyday work for teachers, which may explain why learning technologies become a burden.

In our field, many people used the slogan “from the sage on the stage, to the guide on the
side” to emphasize the evolution of a teacher’s role as facilitator. But if you are a teacher, do you really want to be put “on the side”? I believe we should stress the importance of teachers as the drivers of anything that happens in the classroom, as teachers have expectations about kids and these expectations are the drivers. This is not about lecturing: lecturing is only effective at some points in a scenario. It’s about acknowledging that any constructivist method requires a very talented, very inspiring teacher, with strong leadership and high modesty.

What is the biggest obstacle educators face today?

Education has not one big problem; various educational systems have multiple specific problems. One common issue, though, is to help teachers maintain positive expectations about their students, even after many years of practice. I recommend sabbatical leaves for teachers – something completely different where they can renew their energy. Our university invites high school teachers to join us for a sabbatical.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I don’t know what ’innovation’ means. If I teach a math class with a ski helmet and barefeet, this is novel, but not so interesting. Too many colleagues believe that technologies per se  are innovative, that multi-touch surfaces are great innovations. I believe we should identify problems and then invent solutions. For instance, we found that paper-based interfaces facilitated classroom managment. Let’s forget about innovation; problems are delicious.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Less is more. Don’t try to invent something smarter, more powerful, bigger, something that predicts or guesses what people think or want. Instead, go for the simplest solution, something that can almost be unnoticeable in the classroom.  We call it ‘modest computing.’ Be minimalist.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?
An apple (to eat) 🙂


About Pierre Dillenbourg

Pierre Dillenbourg is professor of learning technologies at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL). A former elementary school teacher, Dillenbourg graduated in educational science (University of Mons, Belgium). He started to conduct research in learning technologies in 1984. He obtained a PhD in computer science from the University of Lancaster (UK) in the field of educational applications of artificial intelligence and is past president of the International Society for the Learning Sciences.  Dillenbourg’s work covers various domains of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), ranging from novel interfaces for face-to-face collaboration (interactive furniture, tangibles, paper computing) to more cognitive projects on dual eye tracking.

Birthplace: Brussels
Current residence: Givrins, Switzerland
Education: Primary school teacher, Master in Educational Sciences, PhD in Computer Science
Website I check every day: http://www.st-cergue-station.ch/index.php/ski-de-fond/ski-de-fond-etat-des-pistes (The place where I can go skiing before work)
Person who inspires me most: Jacques Brel
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Dubai
Favorite book: ‘La ballade de la Mer Salée’ (Corto Maltese)
Favorite music: Grand mere Ghetto” (Danièle Messia)
More information on Pierre Dillenbourg’s work: Some of Pierre Dillenbourg’s current work is described on http://craft.epfl.ch:
* Interactive furniture that supports teamwork: The Noise Sensitive Table and the Docking Lamp.
* The use of eye tracking methods for analyzing computer-supported collaborative tasks (NSF project on Mutual Modelling, project with IBM Watson Labs, etc.).
* Technologies for dual apprentice training (a leading house funded by BBT).
* Scripts that enhance collaborative learning: an authoring environment (manyscripts.epfl.ch)

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