EPFL’s Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) was set up in 2018 to research and promote the use of digital technologies in education. The center is currently running a pilot project that looks at how teacher training programs in Vaud Canton prepare educators to teach computing and digital citizenship and to use technology in the classroom. As part of this initiative, the center has teamed up with the company Edit Change Management to design a series of fiction books to help teachers discuss the potential and challenges of the digital world with their pupils.
“We had planned to publish the books in September 2020,” says Prof. Francesco Mondada, academic director of the LEARN Center at EPFL. “But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and life went into lockdown, we realized that there was growing demand for age-appropriate stories to help parents and educators talks about issues such as isolation and social distancing with elementary-school children.” The trilogy of picture books, written by author Allison Ochs from Edit Change Management and her team specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, was ready for publication in few weeks.
© Illustration by Gozde Eyce from Turn off and tune in
The three stories, the first of which was published on 8 April, follow the lives of Oscar and Zoe, two children whose lives are turned upside down – and who spend more time in front of their screens – when their school closes because of the pandemic.
Each picture book comes with a list of suggested activities, such as games, recipes and craft projects, plus a set of questions to help families and teachers talk about issues related to the lockdown with young children – from why we all need to stay at home and how to use our time creatively, to recognizing feelings and emotions and using digital technology. “The trilogy is free to download,” says Grégory Liégeois, a digital education specialist at the LEARN Center. “The stories are currently available in English, French and German. We’ve also published an audio version of the French books for children who can’t read, aren’t native French speakers, or have other special needs.”
The stories are specially designed to provide a gentle introduction to digital education for younger children. They touch on issues ranging from fake news and screen time to keeping in touch with loved ones while staying at home – questions that parents may be struggling with in these uncharted times. The associated games and activities at the end of the stories cover subjects such as coding, encoding and algorithms.
The stories were created with expert input from psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, a member of the National Academy of Technologies of France (NATF) and founder and president of “Apprivoiser les Écrans et Grandir,” a campaign that promotes the 3-6-9-12 rule to help parents regulate children’s screen time. “These books are intended to prompt open discussion in families on the use of technology,” says Tisseron in an accompanying explainer video. “But they’re not designed for independent reading. Parents should read them with their children. I think it’s helpful to remind parents that children have their own worries and fears about the situation we’re living through. They tend to feed off their parents’ emotions. They need reassurance and support in these unprecedented times.”
More books to come
To date, the Oscar and Zoe books have been downloaded over 10,000 times – a good start that should spur the team on for the work ahead. “We’re hoping to publish around 15 other e-books for different age groups by the start of the new school year in September,” says Liégeois. “Our plan is to make the series available to teachers throughout Vaud Canton and, in the long run, to educators across Switzerland and beyond.” Since digital citizenship is an emerging discipline, the LEARN Center will also trial different ways of using the books in schools, deliver additional teacher training, and carry out further research into how stories can support technology education in the classroom.
Free Oscar & Zoe e-books to download: