ETUCE welcomes the plan to address the digital gap and increase digital literacy

© The European Commission

The European Commission has published its Digital Education Plan 2021-2027. ETUCE welcomes the Commission’s position on the need for quality and inclusive education and its plan to develop and promote digital skills, setting ambitious goals on a 2025 horizon. ETUCE nonetheless regrets the prevalent role given to the private sector and the lack of inclusion of social partners.

ETUCE has consistently noted that, teachers and other education personnel, as well as social partners in education must be at the centre of  policy design and implementation if the European Union is to bring forth policies that ensure that no one is left behind. This position is also supported by the CULT Committee of the European Parliament. ETUCE deplores the absence of any mentioning of social partners in the new Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP). Education trade unions and social partners are not visible in the descriptive presentation of survey respondents. Social partners should be involved in the actions outlined by the European Commission, namely the strategic dialogue in preparation of a Council Recommendation on the enabling factors for successful digital education, the Council Recommendation on online and distance learning for primary and secondary education, and the development of the European Digital Education Content Framework.

The Commission’s statement that educators should be empowered to adopt innovative solutions, defending the professional autonomy of teachers, is a move in the right direction. We must nevertheless beware that teachers and other education personnel can only be truly autonomous if they contribute to shaping the environment in which they teach.

ETUCE welcomes the first guiding principle adopted:  High quality and inclusive digital education, which respects the protection of personal data and ethics, needs to be a strategic goal of all bodies and agencies active in education and training. The new DEAP sets up a comprehensive plan to tackle digital equipment gaps and proposes ambitious digital literacy and skills level targets, through more computing courses. These rely mostly on private actors and thereby cannot be trusted to aim at universal education. ETUCE believes, as stated in our 2018 response to the DEAP, that digitalisation should provide a platform for inclusion and be devised to the benefit of students. The sole goal of the DEAP must not be to reply to labour market needs but the purpose must be to prepare students for life in a modern and fast changing world and for lifelong learning.

The education technology market is worth $187bn and has a growth rate of 15%. Education represents one of the largest industries in the world, making it a prime target for large corporations. In this context, we must be careful of financial incentives and ensure that digitalisation does not become the trojan horse of privatisation. It is thus deeply regrettable that the European Commission’s new DEAP overly relies on the private sector at every step of the process.

The Commission further writes that “Respondents said that educational institutions should [invest in infrastructure, digital skills, digital literacy, and secure online environments (platforms/ tools) with high-quality content] by making the most of innovative solutions offered by private education providers and technology developers.” Yet, the descriptive analysis of responses to the survey does not allow to draw such conclusion. This finding is likely derived from an automated textual analysis. Considering the inherent limitations of such methods and the non-representativeness of the sample, one cannot derive such generalisations. We remind that ICT businesses and industry can only play a supporting and secondary role as private sectors’ influence may contribute to indirect privatisation and commercialisation of public universal education.  

The Commission rightly considered the need for equal access to digital skills and learning as central and plans to launch a study on the feasibility of creating a European exchange platform to share online resources. Addressing the digital skills gap should be a priority. We relay ETUC’s call on the Commission to consider, in conducting this study, the dangers of replacing courses that lead to full qualification by short courses. These can be found in our joint statement with ETUC on micro credentials.

As the pandemic crisis taught us, and as reminded in the ETUCE statement on The Road to Recovery from the COVID-19, online education cannot replace face to face education. The new DEAP does not mention the irreplaceability of teachers and aims at anchoring online teaching practices beyond the crisis, wishing to “mainstream” hybrid mobility into the Erasmus+ programme. Such generalisation of online teaching is not compatible with the stated first guiding principle of the Plan, which is to ensure quality education.  Education is a human right and a public good. Alle students, regardless of their socio-economic background, should have access to quality education.