Q1. The EdTech Sector is crucial for the future of our children and Europe, and what could Europe do to foster the EdTech sector?
The sector was ripe for a revolution long before the global pandemic forced us all to go virtual. Turbulent times only accelerated the switch to online learning. Despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on economies, the demand for EdTech has seen an upward trend. All due to increasing demand for e-learning, virtual classrooms, and other digital technology solutions for a continuous delivery of education. The sudden adjustments in education systems and processes are pushing stakeholders to invest in modern technologies and adapt to the evolving technological landscape in the education sector.
I guess Europe needed this pandemic kick to really rethink what the future of education will be. We in the EU have supported The Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027. We need to build a European partnership for education, bringing together Member States, European institutions and different education stakeholders. At the same time, digital education is by no means there to replace teachers! It is rather a set of tools that can help increase the quality and innovativeness of education and learning in the digital age.
Q2. During Covid-19 home schooling often failed due to technology, and what are the lessons learned?
We have learned much during the pandemic often times the hard way, including about shortcomings we have not addressed enough or we have overseen for too long.
A large issue was the unavailability and lack of management of a technological infrastructure, and finding the right balance between screen and screen-free time. The pandemic has increased the divisions already existing in society, hitting those from disadvantaged backgrounds even more. Their lack of access to technology has hampered pupils’ access to education and governments were not ready to immediately meet these needs of pupils, being lost in finding ways of handling the pandemic and the health crisis. Even the work of the EU institutions was disrupted as not even institutions were prepared to go fully online for some time.
The Council in March discussed issues such as organizing virtual learning and teaching, upgrading existing IT systems, providing fair access to education and training without compromising on quality, and providing different types of tailored support to students, teachers and families. These things were supposed to be worked on long ago, as it was not possible to handle the pandemic, in parallel provide support, and upgrade systems in all European regions. Just an example: according to EUROSTAT, the EU28 had an average of 89 percent of internet access in households (the UK was included in the survey), but then you had regions like Bulgaria with only 79 percent compared to 97 percent in the Netherlands. In France, 5 percent of pupils have not had access to internet or computers at all. The digital gap between and within Member states has to be bridged faster and an equal access to technology should be prioritized. Many children have lost access to healthy meals and about 15,5 percent of pupils in the EU live in overcrowded homes where their learning process was not as easy. Parents were often times overwhelmed and overworked in balancing their home office and supporting their children in their education from home. This is why the EU child guarantee that we have supported should help in eradicating child poverty. Switching to home-schooling was not an easy exercise at all. The Commission has organized a pan-European Hackathon, Impact EdTech to boost innovation in education. The idea of a European educational platform was relaunched and ideas to find secure ways to take exams remotely are worked on. Member States as Estonia shared their best-case examples in remote career guidance, which they have championed even before the pandemic even though even then people preferred face-toface encounters, so they have just built on their existing programs.
Concretely, some exchange projects as the ERASMUS+ and European solidarity corps (ESC) were impacted heavily as both are based on living abroad. As I worked on the ESC file, we have made sure to make the next program more resilient, to have a force majeure clause and to enable students whose program was interrupted to resume it. We have learned the hard way from the pandemic, but we did learn many lessons. We always like to say we do not leave anyone behind. The pandemic has shown that the most vulnerable ones are usually lost in crises as this one was and we need to step up all our efforts to really leave no one behind.
Q3. Many countries are seeing another rise of Covid-19, and how could Europe prepare for the homeschooling during another potential lockdown?
A study by Public Policy and Management Institute has shown that resilient education system is one that can adapt and transform itself in the face of adversity. Since no Member State had in place disaster mitigation strategies for education, we should work towards a coordinated system that enhances collaboration and cooperation between relevant stakeholders. Meaning we need accessible flow of knowledge, practices and peer-learning with regard to the continuity of education in times of crisis. The planned European Digital Education Hub (presented in the Digital Education Action Plan) could serve as a platform for communication as well as for collaboratively developing new solutions and approaches that effectively combine online and offline education.
Schools, principals and teachers should start working by the principles of lean management, with a quick response and a great deal of flexibility and adapting to the needs of students. Success will largely depend on teachers and their willingness to adapt to appropriate pedagogical and digital skills, and their ability to keep students motivated and interested during the time of online distance learning. Nonetheless, we must promote and maintain the mental health of young people, particularly those facing inequalities.
The pandemic showed us that there is lack of available tools for online learning, and lack of skills regarding the use of digital technologies. We need to have investments in technological infrastructure and innovation which should support the closing of the digital gap and ensure access to education for all families. Funding on the EU level needs to be reconsidered and reprioritized. Funds from Recovery and Resilience Facility can be used also for digital transformation of education systems, but it is up to Member States plans if they will use the means for education sector. They should!
Q4. The US and China are investing vast sums into technology, especially EdTech, and can Europe still compete in the EdTech sector and is our Education system competitive?
There are many challenges on the path of innovators and EdTech companies that need attention so that Europe could produce more high-quality solutions to better support its learners and teachers. One of the challenges is that each country’s education sector is pretty small and each country’s education system works differently. There are public and private systems, with different exams. Education is still in jurisdiction of each country in the EU. The chances that this field could be unified as it is in the USA or China is small. Instead of achieving approval once as in the USA, EdTech company in Europe would need to be authorized over and over again. This is a massive block for anyone looking to make a truly broad impact.
EdTech sector requires proper support and investment to flourish. I read that last year, less than 3% of the total global education expenditure was on digital. This is predicted to rise to just 5% over the next five years, according to HolonIQ. Meaning that there is significant room for improvement! Europe can compete in the EdTech sector because European EdTech companies have to think and act internationally from day one. One cannot become unicorn without scaling internationally. A unicorn is a private company that is priced over 1 billion dollars. The term Unicorn is majorly attributed to startups. So European startups and companies have to begin this process right at the very start of their long journey. Whilst their US and Chinese competitors focus purely on their home market, European EdTech’s think bigger. They can think global and play the vast market to succeed in the long term.
It is certainly still the case that our overworked teachers love products that save them time, but the real value from technology comes from its ability to help students and adults learn more and learn faster. Whilst students are usually not the direct buyer of education technology, governments and corporations are becoming increasingly aware that technology can accelerate learning. For that reason, in 2019 the European EdTech Alliance was formed, which aims to work collaboratively to increase crossborder cooperation and innovation in education in Europe to reach better quality, more holistic and accessible education for all.
Q5. You just have a new born baby, and how do you imagine the future of Education for your own children in Europe?
I have a newborn baby that teaches me much about life and the world every day. For her, I would wish the same as to all the children today: that your birthplace does not dictate the quality of education the child will get and their career prospects for the future.
The EU should have more competences when it comes to education that it does now. I believe that some good lessons were learned from the pandemic, so that we can for example keep one day a week for pupils to stay at home and follow their curriculum, and maybe have some creative tasks with their relatives at home. Human contact can never be replaced and I am sure that children grow much socially in classrooms, in direct contacts with other children. This is inevitable for their socialization and prepares them for life in the society.
I wish for a unified curriculum of European citizenship education where technology will be used to have talks with pupils from around Europe and exchange knowledge, skills and ideas. Digital skills should be fostered from an early age, as the child’s creativity has a very important place to be fostered to grow one’s personality. I am a fan of languages and hope that more languages will be taught in schools, as language diversity is one of the beautiful things of the Union. ERASMUS and the ESC will still be popular and every pupil will have an opportunity to learn abroad and see and live first-hand what Europe means. Knowledge and education must be accessible to all and it must not become the exclusive domain of those who could afford schooling. I hope that we will keep a focus on lifelong learning, vocational skills, exchange programs, reskilling and upskilling while keeping education as inclusive as possible for all.
Q6. If you have a wish that you could change one thing in the EU, what would it be?
I would choose two things that regard the functioning of the Institutions: I would get rid of the unanimity principle in the Council and have a single seat of the European parliament.
The problem of the unanimity is that many important decisions are blocked because of one or two illiberal governments or small political issues within Member States. The single seat would save us a lot of time and money that could be used for other purposes.
Q7. Based on the title of our Magazine. What other Visions do you have for Europe?
More Europe and less nationalism, in brief. We have seen with the pandemic how a single State cannot cope alone with global challenges. Together with joined efforts and knowledge, we have created a strong response. I hope for less inequalities and a Europe that is a world leader in growth, opportunities, innovation and progress and a happy and safe place for everyone to live in. My vision is a more united Europe that has a stronger voice in the world. The Western Balkans will hopefully also be part of the EU so to finish the European project successfully and together to cherish and celebrate our diversities and learn from each other. A Union that is closer to its citizens and where policy makers are true representatives of their citizens. The Conference on the future of Europe is a step in the good direction, but much remains to be done. I am hoping for more young political leaders as new ideas and energy are needed to lead the European project. I am hopeful that by daily working together we can achieve a better Europe for us all.
European Parliament, Committee on Culture and Education.