Radical digital inclusion
It is not often that you hear ‘radical’ being used in the same sentence as digital inclusion and education.
But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been extensive discussions about the role of digital technology in education, how it was applied during the pandemic, and what needs to be done going forward to ensure more inclusivity. And for this to happen, there needs to be a radical adoption of digital inclusion across the board.
“The concept the European Training Foundation (ETF) is trying to push forward as much as we can, and formally, is one of radical digital inclusion. Otherwise, if we want to only marginally increase digital inclusion it will take a long time and the private sector may take over,” said Fabio Nascimbeni, Human Capital Development Expert at the ETF. It is like counting your carbon footprint - when it becomes a habit, it changes mindsets,” he added.
As an EU agency, the ETF helps transitioning and developing countries harness the potential of their human capital through the reform of education, training and labour market systems. This includes coordinating the digital component in projects, which became a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic and has retained importance post-pandemic in relation to better learning experience and outcomes for all.
Digital education reform
While the ETF issued its first comprehensive document on digital education in 2018, Digital skills and competence, and digital and online learning, at the end of last year it released its Digital Education Reform Framework. Developed within the Creating New Learning initiative, the framework aims to support policy makers in ETF partner countries and beyond to design, implement and monitor effective and equitable digital education policies that are tailored to the dynamics and characteristics of contemporary digital ecosystems.
“We plan to use the framework when talking with policy makers about digital inclusion initiatives, to advise them on where to focus. Infrastructure is one aspect, but there are many more dimensions connected to inclusion,” said Nascimbeni.
The ETF along with experts widely discussed what digital inclusion means, and how it can be radically implemented at the Digital Inclusion Summit in 2021, which led to the production of a book on the topic. This was followed by a session at the European Development Days in Brussels in 2022.
To Nascimbeni, digital inclusion needs to be human-centric, which means thinking about how to include everyone. To do so, the ETF and the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation developed the website DigitallyExcluded.org.
The website has a set of challenges to make people feel excluded, and therefore empathise with the digitally excluded. When university students used the platform at its launch in Turin, there was the expectation that it would be easy as they were familiar with technology. “The students failed the four challenges, and were very disappointed. The website is a way to make people think about exclusion, and that it can mean many different things,” said Nascimbeni.
The platform highlights the shift away from focusing on infrastructure and equipment to improve digital inclusion by having more sophisticated discussions about accessibility. “It is not just about a link and the opportunity to connect, but about user interface (UI) design and the user experience (UX),” said Alessandro Brolpito, Digital Skills and Learning expert at the ETF.
At the core of this is the concept of the personalised learning experience. “This is not just for impaired students. We have to think how inclusion applies to each of us,” he said.
This does not necessarily require hi-tech solutions. “Low tech solutions for personalisation are possible as long as it gives the opportunity to be more inclusive and accessible to everyone, and to find and choose material solutions that best suits a person’s brain and capacity. We do not need virtual reality or a Metaverse type of environment,” added Brolpito.
ETF country support
An example of adopting a technologically feasible approach is in Kosovo, which is working on educational reform, that puts inclusion of minorities and different ethnic groups as one of the three key priorities, relying on digital education to reduce barriers and favour inclusion . “In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, we have been defining low-tech, bottom-up solutions to make this happen,” said Brolpito.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ETF has been supporting a state-wide initiative for basic digital skills. “We have helped prepare the terms of reference that take into account diversity and the need for inclusion,” said Brolpito.
In Armenia, a national school mentor project has been launched where schools with more advanced digital capacity provide support in STEM education to schools in rural areas. “We want to help the digital capacity of mentor schools, such as through the SELFIE tool, to improve inclusion and quality of online learning in rural areas,” said Brolpito.
Looking forward, a digital inclusion mindset needs to be adopted to implement the right policies to ensure human capital development, which is the ETF’s mission. “When designing and thinking of policies, it is more expensive and takes more time to include everyone, but the more people that are included, the more a policy will have an impact,” said Nascimbeni.
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