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EU Commission’s digital education policy undergoes ‘reality check’

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During the closing event of the annual Digital Education Hackathon on Monday (13 November), debates were held on the EU’s lack of communication, protection of multilingualism,  support for digital education and innovation and EU competencies.

The Digital Education Hackathon, or DigiEduHack, is an annual, Commission-led series of events spanning a week. The 2023 edition was its fourth occurrence since 2019, since the 2022 edition could not be held.

This DigiEduHack event “is for us a kind of reality check”, explained Francesca Maltauro, deputy head of the digital education unit at the European Commission, eventually saying participants “tell us, [the policymakers], where the focus should be and where the direction of our policy work should go because they tell us where the problems lie”.

Indeed, a lot was said during the closing event that could inspire EU policymakers.

First, “there are so many European initiatives that people are not aware of, especially students,” stated Elena Tefa, former Erasmus+ trainee and current EU project assistant at the European Grants International Academy.

Arturo Caballero Bassedas, deputy director general at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, answered Tefa’s point, saying improved communication would be an important aspect going forward.

Supporting multilingualism

Secondly, Kelly Lilles, co-founder and CEO of ALPA Kids, an Estonian company providing e-learning content for kids in their native languages, stated that “most startups are founded by people who experienced some pain in their lives”, explaining that the purpose of her company came from her incapacity to find quality digital content in Estonian for her kids.

Now, her company has successfully managed to be available in seven EU languages and has more than a million Hindi users, the official language of India.

From this experience, Lilles warned of the challenges ahead, notably concerning artificial intelligence (AI) language tools: the large-language models, like ChatGPT, which could deepen the language disparities across the 7,000 languages spoken in the world. She suggested EU policymakers channel “funding towards language technology to keep up with big players”.

Innovation in the EU

On the topic of AI, the audience asked a range of questions to speakers, asking if the EU was not too slow in passing legislation or lagging in technological development.

Maltauro answered that the EU might indeed give the impression of acting slowly, but because negotiation processes were long and “taking into account the diversity of the continent” and an “open and democratic approach, taking into account the views of everybody”.

Peter Fagerström, founder and executive chairman at Educraftor, added that he did not believe the EU was poorly performing regarding innovation. He assured that “in Europe, we have the innovation, but we are not good at scaling it”. He eventually stated that one of the reasons why Europe was a good innovator is because it runs on a decentralised model.

Eventually, Julio Albalad, director of the National Institute of Educational Technologies and Teacher Training, said that he saw AI as a way to “personalise education for children and for the administration”, citing schools and ministries as examples.

EU competences

One of the observations from the audience was the importance of digital education and the need for further involvement of the EU institutions.

Maltauro detailed the different initiatives put forward by the EU executive, especially the Digital Education Action Plan from the Commission and the call from the Commission on the Council to adopt a “massive boost” in enabling digital education, which should end up in an adopted Council Recommendation soon.

Yet, she explained that “education is a Member States competence. [The European Commission] cannot impose, and rightly so, anything from Brussels on Member States concerning education”.

Albalad explained that this setup was similar in Spain, where education is a competency left to autonomous communities.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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