Recommendations submitted by the Vodafone Germany Foundation for the public consultation on the new Digital Education Action Plan
Education during the pandemic
The Covid-19 crisis has taken an unprecedented toll on education. In Europe alone, around 58 million primary and secondary school children were affected by school closures and did not have access to face-to-face teaching for at least several weeks from March 2020 onward. The lockdown led to learning losses across the board, because remote learning – as it was practiced during lockdown by the majority of schools – was less effective than face-to-face teaching and students overall spent less time with learning and were more distracted or stressed by the whole situation.
In addition to overall learning losses, the pandemic increased inequality in education and accelerated the digital gap already existing in European societies. Survey data from Germany illustrate this: While some form of education reached most school children in Germany the quality varied to a great degree. For example, 80 % of pupils in Germany received exercises and worksheets via e-mail at least once a week during school closures but only 7 % were taught via videoconferencing on a daily basis. Only a third of teachers reported that their school was well prepared to move to remote learning. Piling on existing differences in the education system, the upper tier of secondary schools in Germany (Gymnasium) was much more likely to offer teaching via videoconferencing and in general was better prepared and equipped to move to online teaching than all other schools. In the hustle to move to remote learning, many students fell through the cracks. Only one third of teachers reported that they reached all of their students with distance learning methods. Ten per cent reported to have reached less than half of their students or even none at all. More than half of all teachers were concerned that school closures increase the influence of parents on educational outcomes, putting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage.
Both – educational inequalities and an increased digital gap – will have severe consequences for economic opportunities, social cohesion and welfare systems long after the pandemic has ended and thus need to be addressed promptly.
While the sudden need to move to online teaching and learning was in no way predictable, it exposed a general lack of preparedness for the digital transformation of education in Germany and many other European countries. Lack of connectivity, hardware, software and digital skills especially on the side of the teachers hindered the effective delivery of distance learning during the pandemic. Looking forward, this also makes these schools ill equipped to convey essential skills for participating in an increasing digital labour market as well as a digital society.
Although national governments are the first responsible to prepare their education systems for the digital age, the European Union can make a vital contribution by coordinating, supporting and complementing member states efforts. The renewal of the EU’s Digital Education Action plan therefore comes at a crucial point in time. In light of its expertise on and experience with digital education in Germany, the Vodafone Germany Foundation proposes the following actions to be included in the upcoming digital action plan.
Establishing distance and hybrid learning as an integral part of education
The move to distance learning during the pandemic has been sudden and without much precedent and evidence to draw from. Learning from this experience is, first of all, vital in order to navigate the coming school year which will be marked by uncertainty and in all likelihood by temporary local, regional or even national school closures. However, quality distance learning mechanisms should not merely be seen as a patch during the pandemic but as an integral part of any resilient and future-oriented education system. The possibility to take part in classes without being physically present as well as remote access to all learning materials should be the new standard making education more flexible, accessible, inclusive and effective.