With schoolchildren across Europe adapting to distance learning while under lockdown, education policy is one area profoundly affected by the pandemic.
It is well understood that the state of digital literacy and education in Europe varies greatly between countries, but the crisis has made this disparity even starker.
It has also prompted a kind of ad-hoc digitisation, revealing those countries that had invested in digital teaching and literacy and were therefore able to adapt quickly and resume teaching earlier, and those where we urgently need to upgrade.
These differences in part result from the fact that the EU has few competences when it comes to education; these lie with the Member States.
For example, in Germany the education system is organised at federal level, with each federal state possessing legislative and administrative competences. As a result, the education systems of each federal state can be very different.
In France, meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Youth organises education policy centrally. Furthermore, there is no separate subject for digital education; instead digital components are integrated into other subjects.
“Teachers are crucial to the success of any educational reform and must therefore be supported and trained in developing their digital skills and competences”
For example, in mathematics and technology, students learn to create computer code using algorithms. Teachers are crucial to the success of any educational reform and must therefore be supported and trained in developing their digital skills and competences.
In Denmark and France, the use of information technology in education is a compulsory part of teacher training, while in countries such as Estonia and Finland, they are building on their existing development of digital education.
We must use these as models and make greater use of European initiatives to exchange best practices. At European level, we are working on a renewed Digital Education Action Plan as part of the European Educational Area.
This is an area of key importance, as education policy must be adapted to help parents and students learn at home, to increase digital literacy and to boost digital education structures.
With the renewed Action Plan in the pipeline, the European Commission is working on improving digital education systems and structures.
In 2018, when the European Commission adopted the first Action Plan, the European Parliament contributed a report on “Education in the digital age” in the Culture and Education Committee.
This called on the Commission to coordinate the funding of digital skills and to give special attention to teacher training. The report also insisted on measures to support development of digital skills for lifelong learning.
Above all, we argued for an extension of the scope of the Action Plan, so that not only formal learning but also informal education is included.
It is precisely in the field of digital education that further training in the context of lifelong learning is enormously important. That did not happen at the time and is now finally being made up for in the new proposal.
The new Action Plan, which is due to run until 2027, should extend the scope of action and set specific targets to address persistent gaps, for example in digital skills.
It also involves the inclusion of female students; the promotion of quality computer and IT education; support for better connectivity in schools; online learning content and tools, as well as digital literacy in schools and higher education institutions.
While the first Action Plan was an important preliminary step, we must now work on its shortcomings. The short timeframe of the first Action Plan limited its impact and visibility; three years is insufficient to make any real longterm impact.
A longer-term approach is needed to achieve effective implementation and to maximise impact. By broadening the scope, the new Action Plan extends support for digital literacy to communities previously excluded from it (youth, lifelong learning and industry).
Digital competences have been given the status of ‘key competences’ by the Action Plan. However, I believe it should also prioritise investment in digital infrastructure in schools and educational institutions, as well as in remote and rural areas.
“It is unacceptable that a child cannot participate in digital education to the same extent as others, simply because their parents cannot afford the necessary tools”
It should focus on media literacy education and digital skills from an early age, include informatics and coding in the curricula of Member States, include digital skills in teacher training and, as an overarching rule, change to a holistic approach to education, including formal and informal education and lifelong learning.
Another idea we will discuss at Committee level, and with the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, is the establishment of a European education platform, for the sharing of educational material and exchanging best practices, with digital education opportunities for specific ages.
We will have to learn from this crisis, looking closely at what went well and what did not go well, and take immediate action to finally tackle long overdue challenges. The issue of equal opportunities in education is also very much on my mind.
It is unacceptable that a child cannot participate in digital education to the same extent as others, simply because their parents cannot afford the necessary tools.
Above all, however, we need to improve digital skills for people who could responsibly promote, design and implement digitisation in education.
If we do not succeed in renewing and equipping schools and universities in such a way that they adequately equip students, teachers and staff for the digital change, all further measures will be void.
Because, even if all signs point to digital, change is made by people; investing in their education secures the future of our Union.