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COVID-19 showed us that adapting education and training to the digital age is a task for the whole society

COVID-19 showed us that adapting education and training to the digital age is a task for the whole society

Interview with Simona Petkova, Policy Assistant at Unit C4 –Digital Education, Directorate-General Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, European Commission

Simona joined the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission in 2017 and since then she has been working on innovation in education and digital education. She is part of the ‘Digital education’ unit, which is in charge of the implementation of the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027.

She spoke with us in the context of the EUDIGIT project, ahead of the first webinar “The Youth, the Digital Divide and Citizenship”, that took place on 25-26 February.

In the conversation, she outlined the goals and priorities of the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 that the European Commission adopted in 2020 and the process of its preparation.

Ms Petkova, at the end of September, the Commission adopted an Action Plan for Digital Education for 2021-2027. As part of the team that worked on this document, would you explain what made it necessary?

In 2020, we experienced the greatest leap until then in the use of digital technologies for social, communication activities, everyday practices. Education and training are no exception to this trend. Digital technologies were one of the few ways to ensure that education continues in these challenging circumstances.

This unprecedented switch, however, showed us that there is a lot more that needs to be done to ensure that digital transformation is truly and effectively integrated into educational and training practices, that education and training are adapted to the digital age.

In this view, last year, the European Commission adopted the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027. The Action Plan came as a response to the Covid-19 crisis and the challenges we faced, but it is also a vision for the next seven years and beyond, for the digital education we would like to have in Europe.

The Action Plan is part of the greater European effort for adapting to the twin transition, being one of the key vehicles to ensure that we have a Europe fit for the digital age, which is one of the six priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission. It also contributes to the EU’s COVID-19 Recovery Plan, supporting the objectives of the Recovery and Resilience Facility, which itself is the key instrument that the EU has put forward for that period.

With this policy document, we are not starting from scratch. Actually, this is the second European Digital Education Action Plan. We first tested the waters back in 2018, so now we are expanding the length to cover the next 7 years, reflecting our more ambitious vision for education and training in the digital age.

With the COVID-19 crisis, we witnessed great inequalities and divides, not only in terms of connectivity, but also the availability of equipment, which made it impossible for some families to continue their educational practices at home. Not only that – we also witnessed disparities when it came to digital skills and competences, among young people, but also adults. This only showed us that further support in this regard needs to be provided to member states and to the education and training systems themselves.

What goals and objectives does the Plan address?

In our approach we look at, firstly supporting the purposeful and effective use of digital technologies for better teaching and learning, ensuring that they are used, when they are needed and where they bring real value, as well as at improving the digital skills and competences of young people and equipping them for the digital transformation.

This comprehensive approach is reflected in the Strategic priorities of the Action Plan. With this policy we are going beyond formal education - we are looking at formal and non-formal education and lifelong learning.

The seven-year period allows us to have a better alignment with the Programme period of the EU, leveraging and seeking synergies among the different funding instruments, such as, Erasmus +, Horizon Europe, the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Inclusion and quality are key values in education and training, and this should not be any different when it comes to digital education, therefore these remain our guiding values for the way ahead.

Last but not least, the COVID-19 crisis experience showed us that adapting education and training to the digital age is no longer a responsibility only of the education and training community; rather, it is a task for the whole society.

Speaking of which, would you tell us how you involved the general public and stakeholders during the preparation of the document?

In preparation of the Digital Education Action Plan, the Commission ran an extensive number of stakeholder consultations between March and September 2020.

In particular, we ran a number of Targeted Stakeholder Consultations, with the education and training community, but also with civil society, the private sector, with national and regional authorities. For example, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel (Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth), met representatives of the Committee of the Regions to discuss what  challenges the regions had been facing when it came to ensuring that education and training were fit for the digital age.

Additionally, we held a number of Outreach Events, discussing the topic with citizens on different occasion. For example, in July 2020, the Executive Vice-President for Europe fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager met students in Copenhagen, at the only event that could take place face-to-face last year, all the others were online.

So, this is to say that our objective was to consult as broad a public as possible. And this effort was complemented by the Open Public Consultation, targeting the whole society. The Consultation ran throughout the summer and attracted more than 2700 replies and we were very happy to see a variety in the respondents, including local, regional authorities, education institutions, ministries, students and parents, from 66 countries.

What conclusions did you derive after these consultations?

These rich consultations informed us greatly on the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on education and training and also on the stakeholders’ vision for the future of the European digital education.
If I could summarise the consultation, I would focus on two particular key findings – first, our stakeholders were very conscious of the deepening social inequalities and of the creation of new divides.

Second, they saw that digital literacy and digital citizenship related skills, such as being safe online, distinguishing facts from fiction, filtering and managing large amounts of information – were the most needed ones for the 21st century.

You mentioned the Strategic priorities of the Plan. Would you elaborate on these?

All the evidence and views we collected reflected very closely the focus the Commission had adopted in the Action Plan. We took an integrated approach to digital education – on one hand ensuring that we have a high performing digital education ecosystem in place (meaning that all the conditions are in place, such as infrastructure, equipment, content); and on the other, that we have digital skills and competences  adequate for the digital transformation and taught in an inclusive and lifelong learning manner.

These two priorities are complemented with our ambition to have stronger coordination and cooperation at EU level when it comes to digital education and in view of this the Commission is launching a Digital Education Hub, as a dedicated space for cooperation and collaboration in the field.

While looking at the first priority, we would like to focus on ensuring that all necessary conditions for digital education are in place. For example, the Commission will launch a Strategic Dialogue with member states on what makes digital education truly effective and what the key enablers are for that. In this Strategic Dialogue, we look at ways to address the inequalities and gaps I have previously mentioned.

Linked to that, we are going to support connectivity in schools. There have already been successful initiatives, such as the WiFI4EU voucher scheme for municipalities. During the new programme period, the Commission will enhance these ambitions and promote higher speed and gigabit connectivity in schools.

During the Covid-19 crisis, we received a lot of feedback from teachers and public authorities, saying that there is such an abundance of learning content online, that it is really difficult to actually understand which is of high quality is and which does not meet good standards.

So, the Commission will put forward a European Digital Content Framework as a set of guidelines to promote multilingualism, high quality, European created content, accessible and certified content, for the use of teachers.

Last but not least, we believe that any successful digital education starts with the teacher and with good planning at the institutional level. Hence, this is something we are going to support through Erasmus+, the Erasmus Teacher Academy, cooperation projects, as well as with a new tool aimed to help teachers assess where their digital skills stand.

As regards to the second priority, it looks at digital skills and competences. Here, firstly I would like to focus on digital literacy and tackling disinformation. The Commission truly believes that these skills and competences are fundamental to what makes you a citizen in the digital age – being able to navigate safely online, to make informed civic and political choices and have a good understanding of the information in front of you. Hence, digital literacy is an area where education and training play a key role. A recent study from Germany actually shows that students also expect more support from educational and training institutions in this regard, so what we are going to do is put forward a proposal for common guidelines for teachers and educators on how these skills could be developed through education and training.

Closely linked to that is also our understanding of new and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and data. Skills associated with these technologies are no longer considered specialised. Everyone should have an understanding why online platforms suggest to us specific videos or songs over others.

As such, what we are already doing is updating the European Digital Competences Framework (DigComp) to include digital skills that are linked to AI and data understanding.

In addition, we are going to work towards better provision of digital skills in education and training, including the exchange of good practices. One of the areas we are going to look into is computer education.  This is a good foundation for young people to gain understanding of how the world operates.

Finally, our work to towards closing the gender digital divide will continue and this will be done through specific workshops for digital skills for girls and young women, as well as by proposing an update to the idea of a STEM curriculum, to include an arts aspect, as a way to attract more women and girls to those studies and professions.

To conclude, please tell us more about the Digital Education Hub you mentioned earlier.

The Digital Education Hub is one of the flagship initiatives of the Digital Education Action Plan. With the Hub, the Commission aims to enhance cooperation and collaboration on digital education at all levels, including local, regional and national, and provide a common space for exchange of good practices, knowledge, and the search for synergies and opportunities for cooperation.  As a first initiative under the Hub, the Commission will create a network of National Advisory Services in digital education. We know there is already a number of good examples in Germany, Slovenia and other countries, therefore our aim is to link them together and foster structured dialogue. The ambition of the Hub is high, and the Commission will work intensely in the next few years to achieve its goals.

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