Publication: September 2020
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Author: Simon Broek; Bert-Jan Buiskool

Key findings
  1. Digital technologies are increasingly integrated in education, and the Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) 2018-2020 supported agenda-setting. Still, more action is needed to complete the digital transformation, now made more urgent by COVID-19.
  2. In terms of organisational challenge, the DEAP lacks a comprehensive vision on digital education, has too short a timeframe to function as a reference point for policy reforms, and fails to sufficiently ensure synergies between different EU investments.
  3. In terms of content-related challenge, the DEAP could reflect more on what digital competence means in a digitalised world, better ensure equal opportunities, pay more attention to adult learning, and support more strongly the continuing professional development (CPD) of educators.
  4. The most important considerations for the DEAP post-2020 concern:
  5. Developing a more holistic vision of the digital transformation in education; extending the timeframe; ensuring synergies across actions; and connecting digital education more strongly with for instance inclusiveness and greening.
  6. Strengthening the focus on quality infrastructure for digital education for all, also in the home; addressing the persisting barriers that hamper learners and educators in applying digital technologies; and focusing more on adult learning.
  7. Stimulating the further empowerment and CPD of educators in pursuing more advanced integration of digital technologies in education.
  8. Stimulating the further development of ‘whole-school’ approaches to digital education, by ensuring quality vision, leadership, infrastructure, guidance, assessment, and CPD for educators; ensuring collaboration with school stakeholders.
Introduction

Over the years, the issue of improving the quality of education and, in this context, the role of the ‘digital’, has come to occupy a high-priority status on the European agenda. Already in 2000, the Lisbon Strategy emphasised the need to modernise education and training systems for living and working in the knowledge society[1]. The role of quality education for innovation and smart growth was re-emphasised in the Europe 2020 strategy[2]. Within these strategic documents, ‘digital’ is referred to as a key aspect of modernising education. The Lisbon Strategy, for instance, called on Member States to ensure that ‘all schools in the Union have access to the Internet and multimedia resources by the end of 2001, and that all the teachers needed are skilled in the use of the Internet and multimedia resources by the end of 2002’. The role of the ‘digital’ in the economy and society is expanding, and the same is the case with its role in education, which now requires a more comprehensive European approach to its consolidation. The 2012 Commission communication ‘Rethinking Education’ affirms that the digital revolution brings important opportunities for education and that it is time to scale up the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in learning and teaching[3]. Furthermore, in 2013 the Commission launched the initiative ‘Opening up Education’ to boost innovation and digital skills in schools and universities, described as an action plan to tackle digital problems which are hampering schools and universities from delivering high-quality education and developing digital skills[4]. Later, in 2016, the Commission communication ‘Improving and Modernising Education’ promised to intensify work on identifying challenges and implementing best practices for digital education[5]. In the same year, the New Skills Agenda was published, presenting actions for redefining the key competences for lifelong learning (including digital) and improving the digital skills of the wider population, not just IT professionals[6]. In the context of the Education and Training 2020 (ET2020) strategic framework, the working group ‘Digital Education: Learning, Teaching and Assessment’ (DELTA) has been set up to examine the use of digital technologies and the development of digital competences for teachers and learners.

In this context, to place digital education centre stage, the Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) was adopted in 2018, setting out ‘how education and training systems can make better use of innovation and digital technology and support the development of relevant digital competences, needed for life and work, in an age of rapid digital change.’[7]. This three-year action plan consists of 11 actions, clustered under three priorities: 1) making better use of digital technology for teaching and learning; 2) developing digital competences and skills; and 3) improving education through better data analysis and foresight. As the DEAP comes to a close in 2020, the Commission is preparing a follow-up DEAP.

To provide the MEPs of the CULT Committee with expertise for an own-initiative report (INI report) on ‘Shaping digital education policies: reflections on the current DEAP and input for the new DEAP’, the objective of this introductory briefing is threefold, namely:

  • Providing a very brief overview of the state of digital education and related policies in the EU (Section 2);
  • Describing the weaknesses of the initial Digital Education Action Plan (Section 3);
  • Making concrete recommendations on how the EU, through the updated version of the Digital Education Action Plan, could mitigate the weaknesses mentioned above and draw lessons from the COVID-19 crisis in the field of digital education (Section 4).

The methodology used for this note mainly consists of: desk research of relevant studies and reports on digital education; analysis of data on the use of digital education; and a limited number of scoping interviews with the Commission.

[1]        European Presidency (2000), Lisbon European Council 23 and 24 March 2000 Presidency Conclusions: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/summits/lis1_en.htm
[2]        European Commission (2010), Communication from the Commission – Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth COM(2010)2020: https://ec.europa.eu/eu2020/pdf/COMPLET%20EN%20BARROSO%20%20%20007%20-%20Europe%202020%20-%20EN%20version.pdf
[3]        European Commission (2012), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes (COM(2012)0669): https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/communication-rethinking-education
[4]        European Commission (2013), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources (COM/2013/0654):  https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:52013DC0654&from=EN
[5]        European Commission (2016a), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on Improving and Modernising Education (COM(2016)0941): https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:52016DC0941&from=EN
[6]        European Commission (2016b), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on A New Skills Agenda for Europe: Working together to strengthen human capital, employability and competitiveness (COM(2016)0381): https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52016DC0381
[7]        European Commission (2018), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the Digital Education Action Plan (COM(2018)0022), p. 1: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM:2018:22:FIN

Overview of the state of digital education and related policies in the EU

For digital technologies to improve education, specific conditions need to be met, including: having equipment and infrastructure in place; providing support, both technical and pedagogical; having a supportive school vision and showing leadership on using digital technologies; and providing policy structures and support. Research shows that without those conditions being in place ‘general programmes on using digital technologies in education are at risk of having no effect on students’ outcomes or – even worse – have detrimental effects on their academic achievements.’[8]

[8]        Escueta et al. (2017). ‘Education technology: An Evidence-Based Review’. NBER Working Paper; OECD (2015). ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA’. European Commission (2019), Education and Training Monitor 2019, p. 86.

In many Member States policy reforms have taken place for the integration of digital technologies in education

The 2019 Eurydice report on digital education in primary and general secondary schools in Europe[9] concludes that digital competences across Europe are consistently defined as key competences. Furthermore, half of the European education systems are currently reforming the curriculum related to digital competence (see figure). In vocational educational and training (VET), between 2011 and 2018, almost all EU countries adopted and started implementing policies that promoted digital competence in VET[10]. Policies on digital education in higher education and adult learning are less widespread, also given that these sectors usually do not have centralised or national curricula, in which (through policy initiatives) digital competences could be embedded. Policies, however, can relate to using ICT in education, or to better equipping educators with digital competences.

[9]        Eurydice (2019), Digital education at school in Europe, p. 9.
[10]        Cedefop (forthcoming), Key competences in VET.

Ongoing curriculum reforms related to digital competences in primary and general secondary education (ISCED 1-3), 2018/19
Integration of digital technologies in education is taking place, but with large differences between countries and education sectors

The ET2020 monitor 2019 concludes[11], on the basis of research, statistics and reports[12], that while progress is being made in terms of integration and effective use of digital technologies in primary and secondary schools, there is still a need to mobilise education staff and stakeholders in embracing digital technologies in education. In most Member States (two out of three), digital competences are considered as an essential competence that teachers are expected to have[13]. Nevertheless, teachers also report that ‘ICT skills for teaching’ is one of their greatest training needs. In terms of equipment and infrastructure, significant investments are being made, but still many schools in the EU lack access to high-speed internet. The Commission’s study entitled ‘2nd Survey of Schools: ICT in Education’ calculated that the average cost (per student, per year) of equipping and connecting an average EU classroom at ISCED level 2 (lower secondary education) is in the range of EUR 224 – 536[14]. Finally, as concluded by the ET2020 monitor 2019,’digital technologies can support a variety of assessment methods – aimed at different educational purposes – and they are increasingly adopted for national testing purposes. Still, capacity-building for digital assessment is needed for learners, teachers, schools and education systems alike’[15]. For vocational education and training (VET), a recent Cedefop study concluded that digital competence is offered in all VET programmes to some extent and that in half of the programmes digital competence is integrated in other learning outcomes and subjects. There are, however, differences per economic sector. Digital competence is, for instance, less likely to be included in the construction sector as compared to the accommodation and food service sector and the manufacturing sector[16]. In adult learning, a recently developed Index of Readiness for Digital Lifelong Learning (IRDLL) shows, on the basis of available statistics and experts’ assessments, that there are clear differences between Member States, that progress is uneven and that all countries have room to grow. The study further concludes that digital learning can only really take off through a serious national approach that is inclusive to all and ensures that both privacy and individuals’ interests are protected[17].

To compare Europe in the global context, the analysis of the 2018 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that European countries are generally among the top achievers when it comes to student access to the digital world and preparedness of teachers and schools. However, there are large differences between European countries, for instance related to schools’ reported internet bandwidth being generally sufficient in Denmark, Lithuania and Slovenia and less so in Germany and Portugal[18].

[11]        European Commission (2019), Education and Training Monitor 2019, pp. 85-86.
[12]        Such as: European Commission (2019), 2nd Survey of Schools: ICT in Education.
[13]        Eurydice (2019), Digital education at school in Europe, p. 11.
[14]        European Commission (2019), 2nd Survey of Schools: ICT in Education; Objective 2: Model for a ‘highly equipped and connected classroom’, p. 10. ‘This cost range includes costs for digital technology equipment (91 EUR – 150 EUR per student per year), network requirements (48 – 226 EUR per student per year), professional development of teachers (55 EUR – 110 EUR per student per year) and costs for access to content (30 EUR – 50 EUR per student per year). It is important to note that setting up the physical infrastructure in terms of high-capacity networks (e.g. fibre networks) is not included in this overall figure.’
[15]        European Commission (2019), Education and Training Monitor 2019, p. 86.
[16]        Cedefop (forthcoming), Key competences in VET.
[17]        CEPS (2019), Index of Readiness for Digital Lifelong Learning: Changing How Europeans Upgrade Their Skills, p. 14-15 and summary.
[18]        OECD (2020), Education disrupted – education rebuilt: Some insights from PISA on the availability and use of digital tools for learning; in: OECD Education and Skills Today, 1 April 2020: https://oecdedutoday.com/coronavirus-education-digital-tools-for-learning/

COVID-19 and the transition to digital education

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated ‘great lockdown’, from early March 2020 education and training institutions in all sectors were closed (prohibited from delivering face-to-face courses). Simultaneously, institutions made a ‘shift’ to digital learning as a safeguard to ensure that learning continues in some form[19]. From the beginning of May 2020, in many countries education and training institutions gradually opened again, but the situation triggered developments in educational institutions in all educational sub-sectors, from primary education to VET and from higher education to adult learning. Institutions are getting organised online at a pace that was never imagined before. As indicated by the World Economic Forum, there are currently more than 1.2 billion children worldwide affected by school closures due to the pandemic (in 186 countries). As a result, ‘education has changed dramatically, with the distinctive rise of e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms. Research suggests that online learning has been shown to increase retention of information, and take less time, meaning the changes coronavirus [has} caused might be here to stay.’[20]. For adult learning, an inventory by the ET2020 Working Group on Adult Learning found that, across Europe, ‘the sector faced challenges in getting organised online, reaching out to adult learners, and ensuring that adult educators have the right skills and equipment to continue providing adult learning online.’ It further found: ‘Adult learning systems have largely managed to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges posed, making a swift transition into online delivery. The immediate responses from the adult learning system show a weakness in the ability to reach those that matter the most: specific vulnerable groups. Also, on the longer term, there is a need to substantially improve the quality of the online and blended delivery and increase the financial resources for the sector.’[21]. This means that the adult learning sector needs financial resources to allow it more substantially make the shift to online and blended modes of teaching and learning in a qualitative manner, in order, especially, to support those learners who are most vulnerable. The issue of a rise in dropouts and learners who have ‘fallen off the radar’ is also reported for VET and general education during the COVID-19 situation. The crisis has widened the divide between those learners who have access (in terms of equipment, skills, (parental) support and time) to education through digital technologies, and those learners who have no or limited access. Those who do not have access, often owing to their disadvantaged socio-economic status, hence fall behind on their education pathway[22].

[19]        See, for example: https://www.wmca.org.uk/news/adult-education-providers-adapt-training-to-help-learners-during-covid-19-outbreak/; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/education-schools-coronavirus.html and https://www.rolandberger.com/en/Point-of-View/Three-scenarios-for-how-Coronavirus-may-affect-economies-and-industries.html
[20]        WEF (2020), The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. This is how, 29 April 2020: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-education-global-covid19-online-digital-learning/
[21]        European Commission (forthcoming), Adult Learning and COVID-19: state of play and future orientation: A Report from the ET2020 Working Group on Adult Learning (WGAL), cited from the draft conclusions.
[22]        See for example, Cedefop (2020), Digital gap during COVID-19 for VET learners at risk in Europe.

The Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP) 2018-2020

The initial DEAP (‘DEAPI’) has been a good ‘first step’[23], given that it was the first instance where the various Commission Directorates-General (DGs) that work on digital education themes cooperated on the topic[24], thus contributing to the agenda-setting and coordination of the topic in this fragmented field (e.g. by establishing a culture of ‘working together’). Furthermore, the (pre-) existence of EU frameworks that support the digital education field (e.g. the European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens (DigComp), the European Framework for Digitally Competent Educational Organisations (DigCompOrg), and the European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators (DigCompEdu)) have also contributed to the momentum of the DEAP. Some of the actions included in the DEAP have become highly visible, such as the SELFIE tool (reaching more than 650 000 users in more than 7 300 schools from 57 countries)[25], the EU Code Week, the Europass Technical Framework for Digitally Signed Credentials, and the European Big Data Hackathon.

[23]        European Parliament (2018), European Parliament resolution of 11 December 2018 on education in the digital era: challenges, opportunities and lessons for EU policy design (2018/2090(INI)), Committee on Culture and Education, (A8-0400/2018), p.11, paragraph 46.
[24]        More specifically: DG Connect, DG EMPL and EG EAC, as well as other EC bodies, such as the JRC.
[25]        https://schools-go-digital.jrc.ec.europa.eu/

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