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Rethinking education in the digital age

Written by Nera Kuljanic,

© Sunny studio / Shutterstock

The digital transformation is fully under way, transforming the European economy and Europe’s society as a whole. New technical and soft skills are gaining in importance both in the labour market and as a means for fully participating in society. As a result, traditional roles, content and methods of education are being challenged – today’s education needs to prepare students for continuously changing tasks and roles both in the labour market and as European citizens. At the same time, today’s adults need help in reskilling and upskilling to enable them to tackle tomorrow’s challenges. Rethinking education in the digital age therefore constitutes a prerequisite for Europe’s future global competitiveness and for safeguarding European values such as equality, democracy and the rule of law.

Education in the digital age includes but is not restricted to digital education. It also encompasses the transmission of technical, soft and citizen skills, and refers to both formal and non-formal education throughout the entire lifespan of European citizens.

This new STOA study summarises the current state of play of education in the digital age across Europe, and anticipates trends and emerging issues across four stakeholder groups: policy-makers and public administration; students; educators and trainers; and employers and employees. Departing from the current strengths and weaknesses, and the upcoming opportunities and threats, the authors derived policy options for (European) policy-makers.

Main conclusions of the study

For approximately the last two decades, policy work has often focused on ‘soft’ factors, such as teacher training, teacher and student competence building, as well as content development. From around 2015 onwards, policy approaches have often included ‘iterative’ and ‘organic’ approaches, i.e. small-scale experiments that can, if successful, be upscaled and mainstreamed. In terms of providing digital infrastructure, digital equipment in schools is generally at a good level across the EU, but with large disparities between regions and countries. Emerging trends are the provision of platform and cloud solutions for schools, open educational resources and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Students in Europe have high digital skills, although differences persist specifically according to educational background and country. Gender differences in skills are negligible among the young generation, but girls remain by far less likely to turn their digital competences into a career. In the future, soft and citizen skills such as computational thinking and entrepreneurship skills should be more strongly transmitted in European schools, and career guidance will play an increasingly important role.

Educators and trainers in Europe today frequently use digital tools, but it remains unclear whether they are sufficiently able to employ them in pedagogically meaningful ways. Furthermore, the vast majority of teachers do not, or only sporadically, participate in professional development focused on digital education. Teachers may, moreover, not be sufficiently prepared and/or not be offered the structural contexts for focusing their teaching more strongly on the soft and citizen skills that are urgently necessary in the digital age. At the same time, new teaching technologies could offer opportunities for personalising learning contexts, thereby improving student motivation and retention. When introducing corresponding teaching technologies, issues such as discrimination by algorithms and data protection will need to be discussed and solutions for them implemented.

Employers and employees increasingly operate in contexts of high work flexibility and a decreasing demand for mid-level qualifications. This influences education in the sense that today’s students need to be prepared for more flexible forms of work, a possibly more flexible labour market and more mobile and dynamic work biographies. At the same time, the existing workforce will have to undergo extensive upskilling and reskilling, increasing the relevance of lifelong learning and informal and non-formal education.

Options for policy-makers

The authors developed twenty policy options, out of which four are developed more in detail in the study:

  • Incorporating education in the digital age more strongly into existing and future research frameworks to further promote evidence-based policy.
  • Supporting the creation of a knowledge-sharing platform for education in the digital age to improve the dissemination and adaption of success models across Europe.
  • Simplifying and harmonising the recognition and validation of lifelong learning to increase both value and quality of non-formal education, accelerate reskilling and upskilling, and to better match workers’ skills with labour market needs.
  • Offering a harmonised, yet versatile cloud solution for the provision of (open) educational resources that can be adjusted to varying contexts (e.g. different countries, educational systems).

The study was carried out by VDI Technologiezentrum GmbH at the request of the STOA Panel, following a proposal from Eva Kaili (S&D, EL), STOA Chair.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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