Briefing Note: Updated Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) - A question of education and participation or competitiveness?

On 30 September 2020, the European Commission has revealed its updated Digital Education Action Plan, which is set to ensure the coordination of the digital transition between 2021 and 2027. The update comes after the previous Action Plan finished its cycle (2018-2020) and after a public consultation in which SOLIDAR Foundation took part.

SOLIDAR Foundation is pleased with the acknowledgement of its comments in the public consultation related to the long-term vision of the plan, which does not narrowly focus only on the COVID-19 situation, but draws from the issues revealed during these months to build up a multi-faceted response to gaps in digital infrastructure and skills across Europe. Such gaps reinforce the current state of social injustice in Europe, as they have prevented many learners to access their universal right to education, while also placing Europe in a precarious position in relation to the needed digital revolution. SOLIDAR Foundation deplores the overtly optimistic approach to AI and the prioritization of labour market and business interests in relation to upskilling and reskilling that are promoted in the Action Plan.

The Action Plan acknowledges the digital infrastructure and skills gaps, which SOLIDAR Foundation revealed in its Monitor even before the start of the pandemic, and is structured on two strategic priorities:

  • fostering the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem
  • enhancing digital skills and competences for the digital transformation. 

The tenets of making education fit for the digital age

The Action Plan clearly understands the need for all stakeholders to be involved equally in the process of digitalization, ensuring that everyone obtains the basic digital skills. Moreover, it is supportive of the involvement of parents, learners, CSOs in ensuring high quality, accessible and inclusive digital education and training are a reality for all. Active citizenship is presented as an end-point of digital literacy, placing great importance on the effective participation of citizens in the digitized society, and on the need to prevent widening the unjust gap between those most disadvantaged in society and those with sufficient resources to engage in digital skills development.

As mentioned above, there is a concerning business and labour market orientation to upskilling and reskilling efforts that misses the point for citizens’ needs in the digital age. The sustainable competitiveness of VET in this context is mentioned, while the encouragement of business actors to participate in the digitalization of education detracts from the fact that digital tools should not preclude from an education focused on fostering the personal development of all learners.

The steps towards digital transition

SOLIDAR Foundation commends the upcoming 2022 Council Recommendation on the enabling factors for successful digital education, which has proposals ranging from developing digital pedagogies to ensuring accessibility to tackling equipment and connectivity gaps. However, SOLIDAR Foundation insists on the need to consult parents, teachers, learners, CSOs and non-formal education providers on the best way to implement those, rather than propose top-down solutions that would put more burden on those directly engaged in the process of digital education. As the COVID-19 crisis has shed a light on the inequalities in access to education across Europe, there must be an acknowledgement for the essential role of non-formal education providers in supporting those most disadvantaged in society to close these gaps, and support everyone to meaningfully participate in society.

The support provided by the Action Plan to teachers and trainers, especially via common guidelines to foster digital literacy and tackle disinformation through education and training, is welcome but insufficient given that the knowledge sharing among teachers on digital pedagogies and tools via the Erasmus Teacher Academies (a proposal which is part of the European Education Area communication) would further increase their workload and put the burden of upskilling on them.

SOLIDAR Foundation raises the alarm over the inclusion of AI-inspired learning and teaching in education, and on the development of AI-related knowledge as this seems to benefit more the interest of tech actors rather than of learners. The current lack of basic digital skills among European citizens does not warrant a focus on AI, and even more so as the risks associated with its introduction in education are significant. The age of surveillance capitalism must be combatted and not further included in the education sector, an idea which SOLIDAR Foundation’s AI Policy Paper presents in detail.

In the same vein, the update of the European Digital Competence Framework in order to include AI-competences is unnecessary, as the Commission should focus more on ensuring that the soft skills and the protection mechanisms which already are present in the Digital Competence Framework are properly developed at national level. This is an issue that our Monitor has identified but the Commission has chosen to ignore in order to focus on a type of digitalization that aims to offer a business competitiveness to the EU. The role of AI and supercomputers in the digital revolution is undercut by glaring inadequacies in terms of digital infrastructure.

SOLIDAR Foundation identifies the same issue in the Digital Education Action Plan as in the European Education Area Communication, with very limited explanations on how the funding sources are to contribute to the goals of the Action Plan. Moreover, how would these funds cover the needs for the upcoming year if in the current negotiations for the Multiannual Financial Framework the budget for education is low relative to the challenges ahead?

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