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Ministers stress need for equal access to remote education

Image: European Union

EU shares tips to help disabled and disadvantaged learners access online tools amid Covid-19 pandemic

EU politicians have acknowledged problems with the bloc’s rapid shift to online learning following the closure of institutions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and pledged to support students and teachers still struggling to work remotely.

Speaking on 14 April after the second videoconference of EU education ministers since the pandemic hit Europe, Croatia’s science and education minister Blaženka Divjak, who chaired the session, said the main concern now was “to safeguard equity”.

“There are students but also teachers that may lack necessary skills to conduct online education,” said Divjak (pictured right of centre), also flagging considerations around learning disabilities and lack of internet access.

EU R&D commissioner Mariya Gabriel echoed the sentiment, referring to a lack of infrastructure at schools and universities in disadvantaged areas. “While teachers and trainers have shown their commitment and creativity and flexibility, not all of them are fully equipped or trained to deliver digital learning,” she said.

Efforts to tackle the problems focused on information sharing, with the Croatian presidency of the Council of the EU saying the session “provided an opportunity for education ministers to exchange practices on distance learning possibilities and relating issues”.

The European Commission is already marshalling resources, Gabriel said, pointing to its online forum for EU member states to share experiences and best practices and its website with free learning materials. She said the lessons learned during the pandemic would be “vitally important building blocks” in deliberations on the EU’s digital learning action plan.

Similar efforts are underway in member states. On 14 April Austria’s ministry of education announced a new platform listing e-learning infrastructures and offering services such as ‘buddy programmes’ for learning and social exchange. It is also distributing computers to those who lack them.

According to the presidency, ministers also exchanged information about national plans for the end of the academic year, assessment and enrolment.

Meanwhile, the Association of European Research Libraries (Liber) called on politicians, publishers and authors to remove copyright and other barriers preventing institutions using materials for remote research, teaching and learning.

Liber said it wants to “ensure that publicly accessible libraries and educational establishments are able to support the overnight switch to remote access” and use copyrighted works “without fear of litigation”.

“In normal times licences would simply not be needed as people could visit the library or attend the lecture in person,” it said. “We are now however in a time of crisis, and seeking rights…on an instance-by-instance basis is often not practical.”