Pierre Dillenbourg, pioneer of educational technologies

The future associate vice-president for education of EPFL – he will take office on January 1 – has not been a teacher for a long time, but he has contributed to changing the world, at least that of education, as a pioneer educational technologies. In Lausanne, it was he who, with his team from the Center for Education in the Digital Age (CEDE), launched the school’s first MOOCs, these Massive open online Courses, which are distance learning courses now taken by 2 million people.

He is also the one who set up the Moodle platform which brings together teachers’ courses and has been overused since. the switch to everything online at the end of October. He, finally, who is thinking about stunning new educational applications of artificial intelligence in his laboratory.

This EdTech specialist was one of the first to see how combining pedagogy, psychology and computer science could revolutionize education. In 1986. When only 10,000 computers were connected in the world, when the applications of the machine learning education barely emerged. “At the time, there were three of us.”


It all started in a school near Brussels. Precisely in the master’s room, with a remark from one of his colleagues seized on the fly by the very young teacher, he was just 20 years old: “Retirement soon” … “I loved my job, my students, but I said I was a bit young to ask myself. ” Well seen.

First in his family to have studied at university, Pierre Dillenbourg So decides to go back there, in evening classes, to learn more about what he discovered at random from books and magazines, and which immediately fascinated him: computer science applied to schools. Sent to a conference to present his master’s work in educational sciences, he had his text translated by an American, and listened continuously on his walkman to learn it by heart: at the time, he did not speak English. The stressful exercise was conclusive: he was invited to do his doctorate at Lancaster University, in a laboratory dedicated to the educational applications of artificial intelligence.

“We were working on how a computer teaches itself to choose for a student the best activity that would move them forward.” Far from imposing the same teaching on everyone, the idea is on the contrary that the machine assesses the strengths and weaknesses of a student, and offers him activities that adapt to his level and progress. What is called the self-improving teaching system.

When the University of Geneva offered Pierre Dillenbourg a position at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, he didn’t hesitate for a second. He will finish his thesis at a distance – nothing but very normal, if you think about it… From Switzerland, he only knew at the time that the Glacier Patrol, in which a friend had embarked it in 1988 almost by accident. We shudder, even if the university was running between 15 and 20 kilometers every day at the time. He even confesses to having been vice-champion in cross-country skiing in Belgium, which puts the performance into perspective, he agrees.

But in Geneva, the teacher and researcher ended up moping, dreaming of going faster, further. He meets Patrick Aebischer, the flamboyant boss of EPFL, in the process of hoisting his school into the big leagues, between new projects and partnerships. And it was love at first sight: “Aebischer was a seducer who set up a dynamic that there was not in Geneva.”

Pierre Dillenbourg leaves for Lausanne. He who discovered MOOCs during a sabbatical at Stanford – “I lived in the same street as Coursera!” – develops them at EPFL: success is immediate, with 50,000 enrolled in the first year. They now participate in the international reputation of EPFL: a third of those registered are in the United States, “but 90% of those registered for a MOOC do not complete, it is a reality”. Neither dogmatic nor idealistic.

Its Computer-Human interaction in learning and instruction laboratory (Chile) is full of promise. An application which allows apprentice carpenters to visualize the forces exerted on beams, another which simulates the evolution of a garden over time according to the seasons or the species planted, for apprentice gardeners: augmented reality can considerably enrich pedagogy. “There are tech-savvy gurus and others who are very pessimistic, research makes you modest, there are no miracles in education. We think too much of the computer as a TV, when what matters is the quality of student activities. ”

Among his prides: the Dynamico application developed in Chili lab, which detects dysgraphic children in about twenty seconds by measuring around fifty parameters such as the orientation of a stylus, the writing speed, the strength of the pressure, and which offers personalized rehabilitation programs.

“Always that taken”

This is what he pleaded in the working group which has been working in recent weeks on the modalities of future exams, a matter of concern for so many students in times of pandemic. What online assessments ensure fairness among students, prevent fraud and maintain a level of excellence that does not devalue the degree?

“In the United States, students sign a code of conduct, and not all classroom exams are even supervised all the time. In truth, it is the quality of the exam that protects against cheating. You can offer open book online exams by submitting small projects to be solved in a given time. This is what will await students in their future professional life. ” Contrary to what was initially announced, the vast majority of exams should eventually take place on campus, but “if 20% can take place online, that’s still the case.”

His dream today? A European “GAFA” for EdTechs, a giant platform that would give visibility to an offer that is currently very fragmented. In 2107, Pierre Dillenbourg launched a Swiss EdTech Collider with 30 start-ups, there are now 90.


1960 Born in Waterloo, Belgium.

1986 Master in Educational Sciences at the University of Mons, and personal best in the marathon (2h25).

1990 Joined the Training and Learning Technologies unit of the University of Geneva.

2002 Arrival at EPFL.

2012 Launch of MOOCs then, five years later, of the Swiss Edtech Collider.

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