EU Member States should use COVID-19 recovery plans to drive new investment in education

The Coronavirus crisis may provide the impetus to reform our education systems and make them more relevant and resilient, writes Dace Melbārde.
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By Dace Melbarde

Dace Melbarde (LV, ECR) is vice-chair of Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education

11 Dec 2020

One of the best strategies for staying relevant in a changing world is by embracing the opportunities this era offers. Education is a prime example. The COVID-19 outbreak has repeatedly forced thousands of education institutions across Europe to close overnight. The results have not been encouraging, with the first wave of lockdowns vividly exposing how unprepared schools and universities were in ensuring teaching can continue outside of the classroom.

More importantly, education systems have not been geared towards providing comprehensive online learning as an alternative to, or supplement for, in-class learning. With few exceptions, at the outset of the pandemic’s outbreak, we witnessed a lack of even the essentials.

Many schoolchildren, particularly in the EU’s poorer regions, lacked access to wireless internet or a computer at home, or were forced to share these with their siblings. The lack of basic, let alone advanced, digital skills among teachers, combined with inadequate online teaching platforms and tools as well as content unsuitable for online lessons added to these difficulties.

“Many schoolchildren, particularly in the EU’s poorer regions, lacked access to wireless internet or a computer at home, or were forced to share these with their siblings”

All this led to largely subpar outcomes, even in the more affluent countries with greater resources at hand. While no one could have foreseen the pandemic, the education sector across Europe could have been better prepared. Various cutting-edge educational technologies are already available, thanks to record levels of private investment in recent years.

The rapid, and mostly hastily executed, attempts to move education online during the lockdowns could have been avoided. Education systems were in urgent need of improvement even before the COVID-19 outbreak.

It is not only the lack of online learning options that are the problem. As the world changes, education as a field also needs to change.

Some 42 percent of Europeans still lack even basic digital skills, and the past years have seen a dismal rate of reduction. Furthermore, the future of work is being transformed.

For an increasingly significant share of the economically active, it will be about having the right skillset and the ability to learn continuously that will safeguard their success in the job market. Having a profession for life will be an option for the privileged few.

Yet even now, the mismatch between the skills learned and those required by employers growing, with COVID-19 further exacerbating the situation. Blended learning is likely here to stay, well beyond the pandemic - as it should, given the benefits it offers.

This is not to say that in-person learning must be replaced or vastly reduced; if the 20th century approach was about standardisation, the post- COVID-19 era must embrace personalisation in education.

Various digital technology tools and AI applications are well placed to help modernise the system. Although there are fears that technology in the classroom will ultimately diminish the role of teachers, or even replace them, the opposite is the case. Just as the arrival of computers and ATMs did not render office administrators and bank tellers redundant, digital tools can help the teaching profession evolve.

AI applications and automation can take on mundane, time-consuming administrative tasks such as grading and keeping track of absentees. All of this will help teachers do more of what they enjoy doing the most - teaching.

Moreover, lockdowns and the need for parents to assist their schoolchildren in remote learning have cemented the case for the indispensability of teachers and the value of in-person learning.

The need for quality online education, powered by recent innovations, goes beyond the schools and the immediate challenges of the pandemic. To bring lifelong learning to the masses and, in particular, to reach those in remote and rural areas in lower-paid, long-hours employment, access to education must also be accessible outside formal establishments and set locations.

 “The need for quality online education, powered by recent innovations, goes beyond the schools and the immediate challenges of the pandemic”

To address some of these challenges and take advantage of the latest solutions, the European Commission’s updated Digital Education Action Plan and the broader aim for a European Education Area are steps in the right direction.

Among other objectives, the attempt to vastly improve both digital skills and digital literacy is a necessary precondition for enabling not only quality education but also helping Europe stay relevant on the world stage in forthcoming decades.

And while educational content is, and must remain, the prerogative of Member States, an EU-led approach for promoting open standards and interoperability as well as sharing of best practices should be encouraged.

The resolution on the future of European education in the context of COVID-19, adopted by vast majority of the European Parliament at the end of October, calls for Member States to drive investment in education through the recovery plans.

The pandemic has given the required impetus for reforming education systems, to make them more relevant and futureproof. It is high time the EU and the Member States delivered.


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