The COVID-19 world of digital education – an inclusive world?

By Prof. Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou* and Dr. Josephina Antoniou**, experts of the SHERPA project

*Professor of European Law and Reform, School of Law, University of Central Lancashire, Cyprus campus

** Assistant Professor in Computing, School of Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, Cyprus campus

The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Ms. Xenia Kalatha, summer intern, UCLan Cyprus

In this blog post, the authors look at how the increasing use of technological tools has been supporting student education over the last decades, including during the coronavirus pandemic, and how fair the world of digital education is for citizens in times of COVID-19 public health crisis. Europe has been slow to catch up with continuous technological evolution and calls have been made to examine the reasons behind this as well as to propose solutions. The COVID-19 public health crisis has triggered the urgent incorporation of specific digital tools in lesson delivery and assessment methods, for the smooth continuance of education. It is now clear that digital innovation needs to be further incorporated into the educational sector, to the benefit of all. This blog post sets out some avenues for an inclusive world of digital education in the context of the pandemic, impacting EU policy-making.

Challenges to the COVID-19 world of digital education entail the need to reposition teachers’ roles and leverage students’ learning capabilities. This can be achieved firstly through the promotion of modern digital competencies as new learning objectives for both the teachers and students, and secondly through the setting out of a responsible educational action plan addressing equitable principles in upgraded educational approaches. The plan must provide access for all teachers and students, so as to be inclusive in terms of gender, diversity, socioeconomic aspects, urban and rural characteristics of the teaching and learning populations.

Digital competencies, educational technologies, and digital pedagogies

Given the increasing need for new skilled professionals to support the needs of the IT sector, it is essential to provide better infrastructure and promotion to technology-related learning with new digital resources. Such digital resources may include e-learning platforms, serious games used in education, simulation tools etc. In the context of education, digital innovation needs to consider the integration of important technological skills with social considerations, such as responsibility and gender equality, to establish a set of necessary socio-digital skills, essential for modern EU citizens.

Digital citizenship education which is the effective, responsible, and safe participation of citizens who use digital technologies, in different aspects of everyday life, should be a core consideration for education. The Council of Europe has highlighted the need to educate citizens, regarding their rights and well-being online, and has proposed their empowerment, so as to become healthy and responsible online citizens. Hence, it is crucial that digital citizenship education becomes an integral part of digital education and that it incorporates an active discussion of digital safety, identity, security, cyberbullying, and information literacy.

Given the new ground paved by the digital resources landscape as a component of formal education, it is essential to emphasise the inconsistency across Europe regarding the quality of digital pedagogies used to design such resources. To support these modern education ecosystems and such digitally-enhanced learning, it is crucial to investigate the best practices across Europe, such as the example of the city of Oulu in Finland where systematic use of technology, with equipment available for every student, had been in place long before the COVID-19 pandemic. By examining these case studies, it is possible to propose a de minimis set of pedagogical elements necessary to inform the design of a software, in order to ensure critical pedagogical quality. The pedagogical quality evaluation must consider the need for socio-digital competencies and how effectively the selected learning resources support responsible, gender-inclusive digital pedagogies. Such evaluation of existing resources can subsequently support the development of new or updated pedagogical schemes and educational technology designs.

Learning to be inclusive: equity in digital education

Equity refers to gender inclusive access, socio-economic inclusive access, and urban-rural inclusive access for all learners across Europe. Highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis, the necessity for promoting such competencies, through an inclusive approach that considers equity for all, will be a pillar for future societal advancement by ensuring responsible, ethical learning, social interactions as well as mitigating the potential rise in early school leaving. Equity however must be considered as early as the technology conception and design phases. The consideration of responsibility and gender-awareness in the design and use of digital pedagogies will positively impact the adoption of better-designed digital strategies within schools across Europe, especially less technologically advanced schools.

The European Digital Competence Framework, DigComp, was formulated to help citizens with self-evaluation, setting their learning goals towards becoming competent digital citizens, identifying training opportunities and facilitating job search. The framework lists twenty-one competences towards becoming safe, responsible, and respectful participants in today’s digitally connected culture, and offers a useful indicator of progress to policy makers. Schools are a key setting for building social, emotional, and behavioural outcomes because students spend a substantial amount of time there (physically or digitally). Schools also provide a socialising context in which students can learn a range of life skills. A whole-school approach will raise quality and standards across the entire school by providing learning opportunities for students in every aspect of their lives. For this approach to be effective, schools need to identify and address the needs of the school community and engage in continuous, cyclical processes for improvement while engaging all the members of the school community. The European Commission has facilitated the provision of feedback on the effectiveness of the approach through the updated version of SELFIE where every interested school can receive feedback from students and teachers on strengths and weaknesses when using digital technologies.

Impact on EU policy-making in digital education and beyond

In the context of the EU, a renewed approach – the whole school approach – is required so as to comply with the right of freedom of movement, which includes the free movement of data and privacy, combined with a strict interpretation of the principles of non-discrimination and social cohesion. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the right to education cannot be restricted to school premises but extends rather to an inter-connected ecosystem. The closure of school premises aggravates inequalities and threatens the right to access education. Such inequalities have no place in a European connected digital space where the duty to provide education extends to all. Discrepancies in the European education landscape due to the public/private nature of the provision or to constituent/geographical restrictions should find no objective justification in Europe. The whole school approach offers an opportunity to rethink the right to education and schooling in an equitable and connected environment. The focus should not only be on the delivery of teaching and learning but also on the digital personal and material remit of the education ecosystem as part of an EU Action Plan, of vital importance in times of public health crisis. As recommended by the Council of the EU, when developing the Digital Educations Action Plan and the Updated Skills Agenda, particular regard ought to be paid to the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic so as to reshape digital education and training systems. Amid the start of the 2020-21 school year in Europe, it is high time to draw lessons from the current public health crisis for immediate implementation.