Digital Europe: Challenges and Opportunities for Education | Conversations for the Future of Europe 2020 | experimental session

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Under very different circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the second instalment of the 2020 edition of the Conversations on the Future of Europe resumed—via videoconferencing— on May 6. The organisers were especially grateful to our speakers, Dr. Cristina Costa (University of Durham),  Dr. Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow), Dr. Guido Reverdito (Smith College, CAPA), and our discussant, Dr. Sarah St. John (Robert Schuman Centre) for agreeing to also discuss the topic of Digital Europe and Education with a special focus on the dramatic shift towards online teaching presently undertaken by many institutions in the education sector due to the pandemic.

In her opening presentation, Cristina Costa recapitulated the EU’s digital agenda 2020 and highlighted both challenges and opportunities for education stemming from digitalisation. Stressing that 90% of all new employment opportunities in Europe require some digital skills, she described the EU’s commitments to digital participation and initiatives such as digital wellbeing and the tackling of digital inequalities. One of her key takeaways was that the present pandemic reinforces existing digital inequalities and underlines the need for access to digitalisation to be considered a fundamental right.

Mark Murphy’s and Guido Reverdito’s contributing remarks each consisted in detailing a case study, namely respectively describing their institutions’ responses to Covid-19. Murphy sketched Glasgow university’s experience of swiftly moving to remote/online teaching over the past weeks. One concern that he raised was the impact of this ’new normal’ on the student experience and teacher-student relationship. His main take away was that recent weeks have drastically accelerated an ongoing trend towards online teaching and that changes made now are unlikely to be reversed, even if the pandemic recedes. Reverdito explained the impact of Covid-19 on the situation of foreign, mostly American, students in Italy, and emphasised both the difficulty that some faculty have with adopting to remote teaching, and, moreover, the complications of maintaining contact to students abroad.

Our discussant, Sarah St.John, took the discussion back to the macro-level, wondering whether Covid-19 and its consequences demonstrate that, by and large, the higher education sector still has not made a sufficient leap into the digital age. Moreover, she raised the important question whether the ongoing challenges of e-learning are best seen as temporary adjustment issues, or whether they point to more deep-seated problems with online learning in general. Following Costa’s remarks, she also stressed that inequality in economic conditions translates, and often magnifies into, inequalities in digital access in higher education. The ensuing discussion revolved around the question of how digital education could me made more equitable across Europe, and how present adjustment experiences may hold important lessons in store for the higher education sector more generally, for example in relation to online student experience, continuing teacher education, and the reputational consequences of online-only teaching.

In his closing remarks, Philippe van Parijs reflected on the European dimension of the present push for digitalisation in university education. He too assumed that the current shift is unlikely to be reversed, even once the pandemic has receded. But what specific challenges does online university education hold in store for the EU? One first question van Parijs raised concerned ERASMUS and its indisputably positive effect on the European project: will online education render studies abroad superfluous? And what consequences would this have for the EU a a whole? Second, he emphasised, like other before, the potentially dramatic negative effect of digitalisation on inequality across education in Europe. In order to reduce these inequalities, the EU should monitor and coordinate policies (similar to the open method of coordination), and should proactively engage in technology transfer between institutions and countries.

The next instalment of the Conversations for the Future of Europe is scheduled for May 13 when George Papaconstantinou (EUI) will reflect on “Whatever it Takes? How to Move Ahead in Post-Crisis Europe”.

The event’s announcement can be found here.

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