For many outside observers like myself, Lotta Edholm’s recent announcement that the Swedish government intends to pull back from Skolverket’s much heralded digitaliseringsstrategi comes as something of a surprise.

That said, recently-elected governments are often keen to roll-back policies that they inherit from their predecessors. Moreover – as seen in recent talk of mobile phone ‘bans’ – there is notable enthusiasm amongst conservative-minded politicians to push for the removal of digital technologies from school. 

Given all this, I suspect that the Tidö parties are happy to signal their commitment to a ‘paradigm shift’ in schools that promotes traditional forms of teaching that resonate with their core electoral base. Nevertheless, I also think that it would be a great shame if the debate around Swedish school digitisation is allowed to descend into a politically-motivated war of words.

‘Science’ does not have the solution

I have no personal stake in the Nationell Digitaliseringsstrategi as it currently stands, but scaling-back a nationwide commitment to making the most of digital education certainly seems to be a retrogressive step for a country like Sweden to take.

From what has been said so far, perhaps most alarming is Edholm’s apparent concern that Skolverket’splans are not  backed up by scientific ‘evidence’. This is a worrying line of argument, primarily  because there is rarely any clear-cut unequivocal evidence about how digital technologies contribute to learning.

On one hand, it is easy to find plenty of studies from paediatrics, neuroscience and psychologists (most of whom are not involved in classroom research) warning of the possible harms that can arise from excessive use of digital technologies. These studies lead on to concerns over children’s ‘screen-time’, and support for calls to restrict and ban access to devices.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other studies from pedagogues, educational technologists and media education experts illustrating the benefits that can result from schools supporting children to make creative, experimental and innovative uses of digital technology. These studies lend support for calls for schools to concentrate on developing new generations of citizens and workers fit for leading Sweden in a digital age.

All these different fields of research raise important points. With sound pedagogical planning, digital technologies can certainly often lead to powerful forms of learning. On the other hand, excessive use of digital technologies for no purpose is almost always of little or no benefit.

In short, while policymakers will always try to look for simplified answers to complex problems, the research around digitisation and schools cannot be boiled down to a reductive ‘what works and why’ agenda. How digital technologies can be best used in our schools is a complex issue that requires our sustained attention. 

However, any outcomes that arise from digital technology use in schools depend on an array of other confounding factors – teachers’ levels of preparation, students’ backgrounds, classroom conditions, and hundreds of other variables that lie behind the complexities of any educational situation. What works in a well-resourced classroom in Östermalm is not going to translate to a small rural classroom in Östersund. Crucially, then, there is no sure-fire ‘one-size-fits-all’ dictate about digital education. 

No simple answers … but plenty of important questions

Although psychologists, paediatricians and pedagogical researchers can give provide valuable background information, the surest way to develop an effective plan for school digitisation is to support the Swedish education community to work things out for itself. 

Rather than pinning their hopes of being told what to do by ‘scientific evidence’, the Swedish government should instead focus its attention on ensuring that all Swedish schools have the best possible access to digital resourcing and technical support.

The next more difficult step is bringing Swedish educators together to compare and contrast their collective experiences of how digital technologies can be most useful (and least harmful) in different situations.

A national agency like Skolverket should be in an ideal position to coordinate such developments. Indeed, if the Swedish state withdraws completely from this important area of modem education reform, then the narrative around digital education is likely to quickly be hijacked by ‘big tech’ corporations such as Google, private consultants and others who stand to profit from the continued digitalisation of education.

So, now is the time for the state to swing into action and support a collective effort to work out how to get digital technology into Swedish schools in ways that are inclusive, equitable and empowering for all.

Rather than turning to a narrow set of ‘scientific’ voices, the emphasis should be on allowing Swedish teachers and students to share best practices – outlining what forms of digital education work for them, and what might be useful for others in similar circumstances.

Rather than getting distracted by moral panics over ‘screen-time’, this approach requires politicians to engage in more complicated conversations around  the quality of what is being done on these screens. Rather than knee-jerk decisions to ‘ban’ devices, this approach involves a prolonged commitment to supporting students and teachers make informed choices over when it might be appropriate to be using technology, and when it might not.

Above all, this requires politicians like Edholm to resist the temptation to further distance themselves from a commitment to digitalising schools in the hope of short-term political gains.

I think that there is too much at stake for us to allow this to happen. Instead, I hope that Sweden is able to move forward, and initiate a new wave of nuanced and depoliticised discussions around how digital education might be supported to flourish within Swedish schools.