How reducing the digital divide can enhance inclusive education

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, inclusive education is more important than ever. Today, European governments are confronted to the challenge of securing high quality education and learning opportunities for all.

On 7 December, European Schoolnet brought together European ministers of education, policymakers, and industry leaders to discuss how digital education can make the world more inclusive, at its annual flagship event, EMINENT 2021.

Inclusive education in the post- COVID world

The current global situation and the increasing switch to digital technologies revealed both innovation and inequality.

In the current context, new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) are contributing to innovate and offer great opportunities for distance teaching and learning to schools, teachers and students. However, the crisis has also highlighted inequalities and showed important gaps on skills and competences.

"Continuous learning – life-long and life-wide – has never been as urgent as it is today. Digitalisation has an important role to play, especially when opening up new learning paths, regardless of the learners' life situation", - said Li Andersson, Finnish Minister of Education, during the Eminent 2021 opening session.

Before the crisis, the digital divide was usually perceived as a lack of skills and general readiness for the digital world. However, the crisis exposed the problem of outdated infrastructure, lack of connectivity or insufficient bandwidth at home, and shortage of devices for digital access in households. Primarily, it relates to vulnerable and unprivileged families who cannot afford to purchase digital devices or have a stable and fast Internet connection.

The need to reduce the digital divide for a more inclusive society is crucial for people with special needs. Modern technologies and methodologies can provide universal and personal learning design for each pupil or student. "It is my strong belief that ICT can make the biggest difference for pupils with special needs. For those students, technology can make the difference between a social life or isolation, between the ability to learn or a lack of opportunity", - said Jan De Craemer, Chair of European Schoolnet.

Digital Solutions

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies are becoming increasingly essential in our daily lives and it is essential to help people understand AI and its importance to develop teaching and learning opportunities.

Professor Rose Luckin at Learner Centred Design at the UCL Knowledge Lab in London, presented at the conference different examples on how emerging technologies can be used in current learning scenarios, such as language learning.

She explained that two key features of AI in the form of machine learning are: adaptivity and autonomy. The ability to adapt means that machine learning can learn how a student interacts with that technology and this learning enables that system to adapt very effectively to the individual needs of that student, based on real time data.

But Prof. Luckin in line with other keynote speakers outlined that technology should be seen as a helping tool and never as a replacement of teachers or real human interaction: "AI can provide quick analysis of where students need help and support. So, it can help teachers be the most effective they can be. But after all, the human teacher is certainly still the most important resource in any education system" she added.

At the same time, we should not forget to adapt digital technologies to each national context, looking at legislation, ethics, equal opportunities, personal data protection, and privacy.

Ulf Matysiak, CEO of Teach First Deutschland, noticed that there is a visible lack of learning materials related to digital education in languages other than English. Translation and releasing such materials in more languages could positively affect inclusive education and diminish digital divide.

Inclusion at the center of European policy

As highlighted during Eminent 2021, by the Slovenian minister of Education Science and Sport, Dr Simona Kustec, the Council of the European Union has adopted a recommendation on blended learning approaches to achieve the goal of high-quality and inclusive primary and secondary education. Blended learning can be defined as taking more than one approach to the learning process, combining school site and other physical environments away from the school site as well as digital (including online learning) and non-digital learning tools.

"In the past one and a half year, home schooling and distance learning became a new reality for many pupils, teachers and parents. While we all hope we can overcome this pandemic as quickly as possible we should keep some of the learnings of this period in mind when looking at the future of education. I encourage us all to explore how blending different teaching environments as well as learning tools such as face-to-face and digital learning can make our education better equipped for the future."

As Ministers of Education speaking at the conference explained, EU member states are already designing new initiatives and ambitious reforms to find new models of learning and have identified digital education as a strategic priority in their Recovery Resilience Facility plans, after the pandemic. But to implement those plans, European cooperation and in particular the support of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility Instrument will be crucial.

According to Georgi Dimitrov, Head of Unit "Digital Education" at European Commission at DG EAC: "Member States will need more dedicated support, guidance and leadership from the EC to continue investing smartly, while undertaking the necessary policy reforms in enabling effective and inclusive digital education."

To discover more about the new national reforms and innovative approaches proposed by the Ministers of Education from Croatia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, during the EMINENT conference during the EMINENT conference, click here and watch our conference:

Morning Session

Afternoon Session

About EMINENT: every year, European Schoolnet organises its annual EMINENT conference, an expert meeting in education networking bringing stakeholders from across Europe together to discuss the next challenges and potential solutions to ensure an innovative education for all. This year, the event was hosted online on 7 December 2021, generating great interest among a very diverse and wider audience; with more than 780 registrations from 35 countries and almost 1200 visitors to the virtual exhibition, who followed the conference.

Keynote speakers session

  1. Conclusions
  2. • Press release
  3. • Presentations
  4. • Conference Programme
  5. • Speakers