CULT

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Committee on Culture and Education (CULT)

With 60% of people reporting no experience with distance learning before COVID-19, developing and implementing the “Digital Education Action Plan” is a flagship priority of the current European Commission. Bearing in mind that 1 in 5 young people across the EU fails to reach a basic level of digital skills, and less than 40% of educators feel comfortable with digital technologies, how should the new Recommendation on Online and Distance Learning address issues of effectiveness and inclusivity?

aarni

Written by:

Aarni Rantanen (FI)

Topic at a Glance

Closed Captions
Hi friends! I’m Aarni, the Chairperson of the Committee on Culture and Education. I will be your guide on a trip to finding solutions to a problem most of you are facing right now alongside 100 million other European people: How to provide students everywhere around the EU with quality education while still enjoying the safety of your home full-time or at least partially. Here in Maastricht and the Netherlands, many are privileged because even primary and secondary schools often have the experience and resources to continue their education with online or distance learning, but this is not the case everywhere. 60% of educators lack the competence to create digital learning environments that work efficiently for them while also being motivating for the students. On top of this, many people suffer from a lack of sufficient equipment and assistance in using these devices. Taking all of these things into account, the European Youth Parliament can voice its opinion on what should be included in the coming Council Recommendation on Online and Distance Learning that will work as a guideline for many national decision-makers on what to do to achieve the goal of providing quality education that is both efficient and inclusive to everyone.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was the final push for a digital revolution in education. Forced to adapt to distance learning, institutions were overwhelmed due to a lack of competence and resources. This was felt at home with issues of accessibility for low-income and disabled people and families without digital skills. The European Union (EU) is now working on a recommendation outlining concrete guidelines for distance learning that works for everyone.

Context

Alongside the  establishment of the modern EU with the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, Europe saw the introduction of personal computers and digital tools as it grew. They quickly became essential everyday tools for many, but their possibilities were neglected in favour of traditional methods. However, their benefits in the digitalising society are undeniable regarding connectivity, accessibility, and innovative learning experiences. With digital education, more people can be educated regardless of distance and may determine their studying rhythm to their individual needs. These merits gained unforeseen importance when the COVID-19 pandemic saw 100 million pupils in the EU transferring to remote emergency education last year.

However, these benefits were not fully enjoyed as there are significant discrepancies between the levels of digital resources and skills present regionally and between different institutions. Educators are often unable to stimulate autonomy or motivation, and engagement is lacking due to the pedagogical shortcomings in distance learning. Sometimes teachers did not know of or have the tools that would have been needed to create them.

These problems were exacerbated by the lack of digital skills at home for students or even their parents. Peoples’ socio-economic background strongly affected families’ abilities to provide sufficient equipment and other stimulating activities for children at home. Furthermore, people with learning or developmental disabilities found themselves with no special assistance and facing education tools not designed for their needs.

Because of the digital revolution brought about by the pandemic, we now understand that ensuring adequate and equitable access to quality learning opportunities with digital education is essential to everyone and not only the concern of a working group of an educational department in each individual country. The right is outlined in the first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The EU must take action without delay to minimise the accumulating effects of the current shortcomings in education with concrete measures. When COVID-19 goes away eventually, many of these digital qualities of education are likely to stay afterwards, as seen in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: Use of distance and online learning before, during and after the COVID-19 crisis

Relevant Policy Measures and Legal Framework

Emphasising digital skills and their use in education is a relatively novel concern for the EU as its benefits were not understood, and the area lacked research well into the 2010s. The first notable action was the first Digital Education Action Plan (2018) that was adopted for two years. It mostly served to gather information and create and further develop a variety of useful tools for digital education, like Wifi4EU, SELFIE, Europass, and eTwinning. However, the 2018 Digital Education Action Plan could not put a serious dent into the work that could be done developing this area due to the short length of the initiative.

Ursula Von Der Leyen emphasised in her political agenda as the President of the European Commission the need to make the EU fit for the digital age. This led to the continuation of the Digital Education Action Plan (2020), this time for seven years and with much more budget, resources, and time. The implementation of the 2020 Action Plan was preceded by an extensive public consultation that recognised the need for a shared understanding of and guidelines for implementing effective and inclusive distance, online, and blended learning. This should happen at the European level and be targeted for ministries of education and training institutions. This consultation was used to recognise two main strategic priorities for the action plan: fostering digital education ecosystems and digital skills enhancement. One of the main actions to be taken to reach the former priority is the proposal of a Council Recommendation on Online and Distance Learning.

Certain qualities should be noted about the recommendation mentioned above: It is only targeted towards primary and secondary institutions in the EU and shares the same goals outlined in the consultation. More importantly, according to Articles 6 and 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the EU holds a supporting competence in education, so it cannot make legally binding decisions for the Member States. That is why the proposal is a recommendation, a non-binding legal act and a useful guideline targeted at all Member States for achieving a specific policy goal, but not binding in any way. This means that possible approaches instead of legislation are the sharing of best practices, creating tools, and elucidation of current opportunities. Almost all Member States already had an ongoing digital education strategy before COVID-19, either on their own like DigitalPakt Schule in Germany or as part of a larger sustainable development framework like in Poland. There is minimal EU harmonisation in this area. The pandemic revealed flaws in all of these strategies, and every Member State is currently working on improving them. This highlighted that setting a common vision for this topic is important to continue this process efficiently.

In terms of implementing the Council Recommendation on Online and Distance Learning, many existing European programmes and institutions can be useful/will benefit from it. In addition to holding great importance in the Erasmus+ funding programme, digital education is one of the leading investment points of the Recovery and Resilience Facility after the pandemic. These can be used to provide resources for distance learning facilities. The EU already has various tools in place or development that can be used for distance learning, many overlooked by the Directorate-General for Education and Culture under the main policy heading of Education and Training.

Topic Analysis

Individual

Individual people are the ones most affected by the sudden introduction of distance learning. When the extensive emergency remote education began, many institutions were not on a digitalisation level that would have allowed them to adapt to the new situation on the standard it called for. Courses were simply adapted to a virtual form, which was a quick fix for a bigger problem: merely enabling people to be lectured now and then synchronously does not replace contact teaching. Many of the other functions of schools, such as the social aspects, development of practical life skills, school meals, school services, and personalised instruction, were removed from the equation. While teachers were interested in efficient asynchronous teaching and not adapting their methods too much, this led to such momentous changes in students’ learning environments for many to sustain motivation and healthy studying habits. Many students also lack the necessary digital skills to operate computers or sophisticated learning software, as shown in Figure 2. Furthermore, low-income parents found themselves having to use an insurmountable amount of effort in assisting their children than high-income ones that could invest in tutoring and better studying facilities. Many of the hastily developed online learning platforms were also not suited for students with intellectual or physical disabilities who now lacked personal and technical support. Also, many tools lacked features made for people with impaired senses or difficulties using a lot of time concentrating on a screen. Unsurprisingly, all of these factors led to never-before-seen highs in drop-out rates from institutions.

Fig 2: EU students’ digital skills

National

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Member States’ ministries of education had to quickly draft guidelines and purchase the required digital software infrastructure to allow for online education, as seen in Finland. However, there was not enough time to develop the contracts to buy these services from private sector companies. Consequently, these partnerships could be further developed to be affordable and tailored to the needs of educators. Furthermore, many teachers and teaching facilities lacked the hardware infrastructure to allow educators to access innovative education tools due to a lack of broadband or personal computers. Member States with generally lower levels of income, such as Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, also struggled at supporting more impoverished families with the tools to join education. Furthermore, many countries had not previously trained their educators on online learning or did not know of such possibilities or tools to alleviate the issue. This was especially evident in student assessment, practical skills teaching, and planning of asynchronous activities.

European

There had been some action taken to further digital education on the European level, but it was not enough to meet the pandemic’s demands. The EU attempted to quickly gather open educational resources to a hub for teaching during COVID-19. However, many of these tools were not specifically tailored for the educators’ needs during the pandemic or lacked language accessibility. Initially, there also was not enough funding opportunities for Member States aiming to improve digital education. This was slightly rectified as the situation continued. The EU had also not had time to implement well-functioning micro-credential programmes for transparency of educators’ digital skills or concrete guidelines on best practices. It is in the interest of the EU to be digitally fit for the future as this has been shown to boost employment levels and welfare.

Further Research and Questions

With this topic, it is easy to get too specific. Keep in mind that you are not experts in pedagogy and teaching methods and should not spend hours researching the specifics of this. Instead, look at what can be done to provide national actors with the guidelines, tools, and best practises to discover and implement the pedagogic methods needed for distance learning, whatever those may be. Some more general suggestions on forms of education and methods should be made. Similarly, when it comes to individuals, do not give them learning tips but rather research the schemes that could be set up to provide them with those tips and allow them to study better. This is a political and not an educational committee, even though it makes decisions related to this area.

You are encouraged to think about the following five questions when researching this topic:

  • What guidelines do your school, municipality, and country have on distance, online and blended learning, and what opportunities do they utilise to implement them and do the opportunities work well?
  • What relevant opportunities and tools does the EU already offer to implement these types of learning, could they be improved, and how can they be made accessible to everyone?
  • What are the types of general guidelines and tools that the EU can feasibly hand over to national stakeholders for them to be able to act both efficiently and in an inclusive way, and without being too constricting on them?
  • How can digital skills and equipment of peoples and institutions be improved or maintained to the extent that they can participate in digital learning in an equal way? Note that equality here can mean disabilities, economic opportunities but also the type of education, be it practical or theoretical.
  • The EU and third parties have conducted a lot of research into the effects and methods of digital learning, some used as sources of this overview. What were their findings, and how could they be translated into guidelines for Member States?