What does the digital revolution mean for education? This is the question that the Lifelong Learning Platform seeks to address in its most recent position paper Reimagining education for the digital age (available on http://lllplatform.eu/). Our goal is to raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities that the use of digital technologies presents for learning environments and processes of learning in general. We believe that digital innovation can be beneficial for education and lifelong learning if it is closely linked to the needs of learners, contributes to more innovative learning systems, involves adequate support for teachers and educators, and is seen through a holistic perspective on the benefits for society as well as the economy.
Learners first – the individuals behind the technology
Digital technologies have the potential to widen access to learning opportunities. By getting online, one is able to attain information and knowledge much easier than before, and this is especially the case for people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Barriers have likewise been reduced by access to digital technology in libraries, community centres and other public spaces. Digital solutions can therefore be an effective tool for narrowing opportunity gaps and, that sense, contribute to the pursuit of lifelong learning. However, this depends to a large extent on how they are integrated into the learning environment.
Firstly, in order to improve learning experiences and outcomes, the integration of digital technology must, above all, conform to the needs of learners. People are at the heart of the process and they should be able to actively regulate their own learning, training and upskilling without being reduced to passive consumers of technology. In this respect, investment in digital technology, and in its use for educational purposes, has to be closely accompanied by investment in people’s skills. This not only means that everyone, regardless of age or background, should have the chance to develop basic digital skills, but also that the importance of acquiring basic numeracy and literacy skills, as a foundation for more advanced competence development, cannot be forgotten.
Inequalities are another factor to bear in mind when it comes to opportunities for digital learning. Learners most in need of support – those with lower skills, likely to drop out of formal education or with least resources – are also those who are least likely to benefit from the digital age. Highly educated people are three times more likely to be using the Internet compared to those with lower educational levels (European Commission 2008). Furthermore, around 80% of learners on MOOCs already possess a university degree (Chen Zhenghao et al. 2015). This serves as a reminder that equal access to technology does not automatically lead to equitable learning opportunities. Hence, it is important to use digital solutions to support the less privileged and as a tool for alleviating inequalities rather than reinforcing them.
When we are considering the people behind the technology, we also cannot overlook the importance of safety and personal well-being. All individuals, but particularly minors and those guiding them – parents, guardians and teachers – need to learn about online risks and means of prevention. Furthermore, educational institutions, in collaboration with parents and health professionals, should strive to develop age-appropriate curricula, training people to become critical users of electronic media and encouraging them to make informed choices and avoid harmful behaviour. What is more, both adults and minors need to be encouraged to seek an appropriate balance between the use of digital technologies and other activities, such as sports or creative pursuits, and also adequate sleep. This is all key to ensuring that technology works for us, and not against us.
Promoting genuine innovation in education
Although digital technologies are changing the way in which we learn, education systems have embraced them to only a limited extent. If our education systems are to help form creative and innovative minds capable of addressing the challenges of modern society, they should themselves be at the forefront of innovation.
A crucial way to ensure this is to look into how digital solutions can create stronger links between learning within and beyond formal settings. In the age of rapid technological change, it is necessary to think beyond the conventions of classroom-based learning and the notion of the student as a passive recipient of information. Learners need to engage in innovative ways of creating knowledge through the merging of social, mental, physical, digital, virtual and mobile spaces of learning (Lonka 2012). This again brings us back to the central role of learners in the process – digital technology has the potential to empower them and give them the flexibility to learn beyond restrictive, pre-established models or categories.
In addition, the use of digital technology can bring fresh, innovative ways of approaching assessment. Through machine intelligence and learning analytics, for example, it can support new assessment methods, including self-assessment, that can complement traditional summative approaches and lead to a more personalisedlearning process. This is vital when it comes to adapting to life in the 21st century, rather than training students to be good at passing formal examinations.
Supporting educators and school leaders
Through careful integration, digital solutions can undoubtedly contribute to effective teaching. However, teachers and educators do not receive sufficient support or training in how to incorporate technology into their work. Combined with an increasing administrative workload, this results in both teachers and students not getting the full possible benefits of digital innovation. Concrete action must therefore be taken to ensure high-quality initial training and continuous professional development for teachers so that they can keep pace with and make the most of digital change. Moreover, the role of school leadership is relevant to promoting the appropriate and inclusive use of digital technologies in education. School leaders require support, training and self-assessment frameworks to turn their schools into dynamic learning spaces. In that respect, digital developments have to understood and supported at the strategic level.
Balancing economic and social concerns
Digital innovation is having an impact on the workplace and the way we do business in the 21st century. Understandably, it is thus closely linked to debates about economic growth and productivity. However, the Lifelong Learning Platform is concerned about the trend of bringing the provision of education closer and closer to the demands of the economy. This can be seen in discussions about the upskillingand productivity of workers, or the treatment of learners as consumers through the digital merchandising of education through companies such as Google and Apple. In the face of such developments, we must attach paramount importance to the needs and wishes of learners and to ensuring that everyone has access to digital learning opportunities and a stake in the digital advancement of society, not just companies and the privileged few.
The digital age has not yet had a profound impact on the world of education. The Lifelong Learning Platform believes that this impact can become more profound, in a positive way, if the needs of learners are prioritised and access to opportunities for both digital and basic skills development is guaranteed for all individuals, regardless of age, background or socio-economic status. At the same time, measures must also be taken to protect minors and disadvantaged adults from the risks and negative consequences of digitalisation.
Learning systems need to be flexible in their means of assessment and their approach to knowledge acquisition, while enabling closer synergies between formal, non-formal and informal processes of learning. Educators and school leaders have to be adequately supported, and the commercialisation of education and drive for economic competitiveness have to be kept in check by a more long-term, holistic vision of the benefit that digital innovation can generate for society.
Ultimately, we must recall that education is a public good and a human right. We must work to ensure that the digital revolution does not change this for the worse, but for the better.
The Lifelong Learning Platform (LLL-P) is an umbrella organisation that gathers over 41 European networks active in the field of education and training, coming from all EU Member States and beyond. Currently these organisations represent more than 50,000 educational institutions covering all sectors of formal, non-formal and informal learning. Established in 2005, LLL-P promotes a vision of lifelong learning based on equity, social cohesion, active citizenship and personal development. The Platform acts as a space for knowledge exchange between its member networks and uses their expertise to discuss and feed into EU policy-making, making sure that European citizens have their voices heard. LLL-P thus contributes to a better understanding and dialogue between the grassroots level and European institutions.
European Commission 2008. Commission Staff Working Document. The use of ICT to support innovation and lifelong learning for all – A report on progress.
Zhenghao, C. et al. 2015. Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why. Harvard Business Review 2015. Accessed 10 October. https://hbr.org/2015/09/whos-benefiting-from-moocs-and-why
Lonka, K. 2012. Engaging Learning Environments for the Future. The 2012 Elizabeth W. Stone Lecture. In R. Gwyer, R. Stubbiftgs,& G. Walton (Eds.) The road to information literacy. Librarians as facilitators of learning. IFLA.