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?
Committee on Culture and Education (CULT)
Aarni Rantanen (FI)
Topic at a Glance
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 en 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.
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.
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.
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?