European Elections Special

Open access

Breaking down rigid environments and supporting new education systems are the imperatives of a change that will soon become a constant.

We live in a fast-changing world where technology continually affects the way people work and interact. It is no longer a myth but a well-established fact that 90 percent of future jobs will require ICT (Information Communications Technology) skills. The challenge goes far beyond that: how can we plan educational provisions for skills and jobs that do not yet exist? How should students and learners plan their educational path in such a world?

Soon, people will no longer merely need to know how to carry out a particular job. They will also need to have transversal skills that allow them to up-skill and adapt to new working conditions. Change will be constant. As such, increasing both the quality and relevance of learning is essential if Europe’s citizens are to actively contribute to its future.

Rigid environments are preventing innovation

In parallel, the demand for education is increasing. To satisfy the increase in worldwide demand for higher education alone, large new universities would need to be built on a weekly basis. Increasing access to education is vital for our societies. This means ensuring that more people can go to university, that they can upgrade their knowledge regardless of age, and that high-quality resources are not a privilege for the few. In short, we need access for all – open education.

Open education has the potential to increase the effectiveness, equity and efficiency of the provision of education. It is for this reason that the European Commission launched the “Opening up Education” initiative, a strategy for innovative teaching and learning through new technologies and open educational resources (OER). It focuses on three main areas:

1) Creating opportunities for organizations, teachers, and learners to innovate as well as encouraging educational institutions to promote innovation. For example, teachers must be equipped with the right training and skills to make the most of technology in personalized learning. I know from my visits to schools, colleges and universities that many teachers are passionate about embedding new technologies in their teaching practices and want to work closely with their counterparts in other countries. But, in some cases, rigid environments are preventing such innovation from taking place.

2) Open educational resources (OER): these are teaching and learning materials, frequently created by teachers themselves, made available through an open license. This allows other teachers to not only use these materials, but also to adapt them either to local contexts or to allow for recent developments. A more structured use of OER could simplify the educational process, allowing teachers to focus on what should be their core activity: supporting students in learning. Open licenses will contribute to widening access to learning opportunities. For example, adults who are currently employed but don’t have the time to return to formal education to upgrade their knowledge and skills can now sign up for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) without being formally enrolled in a university.

3) Connectivity and innovation: we need to ensure proper infrastructure to connect educational institutions. Schools need to have the right equipment, and they need to be able to tap into the vast potential of open educational resources and new pedagogies. They also need to be connected to the rest of the world. Far too many schools still have no or only slow Internet connections. There are ways to bring technology efficiently and flexibly into the classroom. For example, a “bring-your-own-device” policy might be the quickest way to enable new forms of learning, but this requires interoperable tools and materials in formats that work across devices.

A call for action

The potential of open education does not come without challenges. We can see certain trends which should be considered by EU member states and educational institutions when revisiting their education systems and organizational models:

MOOCs and certification: students can now acquire knowledge without being enrolled in an institution, for example, through MOOCs. This creates a challenge as regards the validation and recognition of such learning.

Personalized learning: in ICT-rich learning environments, a teacher can have access to more accurate information on what each individual student is learning. Different learning materials can be provided, in real time, to different students to better meet their learning needs.

Quality assessment and transparency: students must have transparent information regarding the quality of different MOOCs and OER to decide how relevant they are to their needs; peer-based reviews are now being explored by many institutions as a possible solution. The openness of these resources also brings increased transparency and makes it easier to monitor the quality of the resources.

Education is the most valuable investment that our society can make for its future. During my mandate as European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, I have had the privilege to contribute to the process of modernizing and reinvigorating Europe’s education systems. I am proud of what we have achieved and I know that the Commission will continue to ensure that open education remains a priority for the future of the European Union.

Read more in this debate: Peter Scott.

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