Viviane Reding: Entering the Information Age, "Club of three" conference, organised by the Bertelsmann Stiftung Berlin, 20 June 2002

June 21, 2002

Berlin, 20 June 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today and to have the opportunity to speak about the challenges that Europe faces on this journey towards the Information Age.

The knowledge-based society, along with wider economic and social trends such as globalisation, demographic change and the impact of the information society technologies, presents the European Union and its citizens with many potential benefits as well as challenges. Citizens have vast new opportunities in terms of communication, travel and employment. Taking advantage of these opportunities is reliant on the ongoing acquisition of knowledge and competencies.

We observe profound changes of such rapid pace that education and training systems are experiencing serious difficulties in keeping up with them.

We all know that education is a crucial factor in shaping the success of the transition we are discussing here today, and in this context we should address two fundamental key challenges.

The first key challenge, which I see, is the question of lifelong learning. With the acceleration of technological changes and the accumulation of "new knowledge" individual skills and qualifications become perishable goods. We have to continuously update our skills and qualifications and it is therefore clear that the responsibility and the challenge to adapt to the Information Age are not an exclusive task to the schools and universities.

However, today, less than one adult in ten has access to further education and training. This is clearly insufficient in the knowledge society we live in. The recent Commission Communication on Lifelong Learning adopted on my initiative seeks to respond to this important challenge. But, what is it we want to achieve?

We want to make lifelong learning a reality for all, going well beyond the 10% of adults who already have access to lifelong learning and who, more often than not, already are the most qualified. We want to reach out to those who have no qualifications, who are alienated from learning, and who are at risk of social exclusion.

We want to assist Member States in fulfilling their commitment to put in place real strategies for lifelong learning. It is for them to take the necessary measures and to adapt their education and training systems to the new needs and challenges.

And finally, we want to remove obstacles to mobility so that citizens can move freely between learning centres, jobs, regions and countries, making the most of their knowledge and competencies.

But lifelong learning requires even further decisions: especially with respect to the way we organise and innovate our learning and teaching methods so as to make learning attractive and within reach. We must look at the ways we recognise, certify and verify the quality of learning acquired in informal and non-formal settings.

We also have to discuss the roles we can give to regional and local communities. Local and regional authorities are closer to the citizens and can identify their learning needs and respond to those in collaboration with employers.

The clear message is that traditional systems must be transformed to become much more open and flexible, so that learners can have individual learning pathways, suitable to their needs and interests, and thus genuinely take advantage of equal opportunities throughout their lives.

A second key challenge is the question which basic skills and qualifications learners should acquire in order to thrive and participate in this information age.

It is safe to say that educational levels of the European population have never been higher. Today, more than 70% of the 25-29 year olds have reached at least upper secondary education. Germany and the UK are among the top EU performers and France is over the EU average. For the older members of the population (aged between 50 and 64), the corresponding figure is less than 50%. However, the results of the PISA study have shown that school attendance is not a guarantee for school success, and that in a number of Member States significant problems are encountered in that respect. And the fact that more than one young European in five prematurely drop out of school is a serious cause of concern. These people often find themselves at greater risk of exclusion from the labour market and society.

What does this mean for us, the policy-makers? It means that not only do we need to increase the overall levels of skills but we also need to tackle the growing gap between those who have learnt and those who have not. Between those who have the necessary package of key-competencies and those who don't.

It also means that we need to revisit the question as to what and how people should learn.

Let me ask you a question.

Is it really sufficent for young people to learn by heart the birth dates of famous Kings or the dates of historical events? Would it not be better to teach young people to use this kind of knowledge as a tool to sift through the wealth of information available to them on the Internet and elsewhere?

Education systems have so far been concentrating on the provision of knowledge. With the emergence of the information society, however, there must be a greater emphasis on the provision of competencies, too.

As we enter the information age, we also need to come to a common view as to what this necessary package of competencies should be.

The basis for all learning and the prerequisite for participation in every aspect of life is the ability to master communication in the mother tongue, be it oral or written.

In this context, it is absolutely essential to reach out to those who can't read. The extent of the problem cannot be underestimated. A recent report of the European Parliament estimated that between 10% and 20% of the European population was illiterate. The latest results of the PISA survey published by the OCDE confirmed this. In four EU Member States more than 20% of the pupils were at, or below, the lowest level (level 1) for reading literacy. These are mostly young men coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The survey then goes on to underline that these pupils will have fewer employment opportunities and less access to lifelong learning than most.

These young people should at all costs not be left behind. Efforts must be pursued to provide them with individual learning pathways suiting their needs.

Being able to do maths is also essential, not only in terms of developing people's capacity for reasoning, but also in a more concrete manner to deal with day-to-day activities. There are great disparities between EU Member States in relation to mathematical literacy, with the Scandinavian countries at the top of the league and countries such as Portugal, Greece and Luxembourg trailing behind.

Along with these more traditional skills of "reading, writing and doing maths", the information age requires people to be equipped with a number of so-called "new competencies". They range from learning foreign languages, to developing interpersonal (such as team spirit) and civic (tolerance, respect for others) skills, acquiring basic ICT skills, and to learning to learn. I should also add entrepreneurship to this long list.

This naturally poses the problem of the overload of curricula and more fundamentally of the role and function of basic education. Given that skills and competencies increasingly become obsolete, we should ask ourselves whether the resources available to education as a whole should be redistributed across the whole learning spectrum to take account of new needs. This is admittedly a very difficult and politically sensitive question but one we should address as a matter of urgency.

This is a crucial challenge for the European Union as a whole to come along with answers and we have already started this important discussion with Member States. To do this, we would have to project ourselves into the future. We would have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want and which skills and qualification citizens should be acquired to create and sustain a "European model" of society. In 10 to 20 years the entire architecture of knowledge will look different and we have to start imagining and anticipating what the future holds. I'll come back to this point later on during this presentation.

As you know, there is a growing gap in Europe between an increasing number of employment opportunities in information and communication technologies and the number of qualified candidates to fill them. We also run the risk of creating a digital divide between those who know how to use ICT and those who don't, putting more people at risk of exclusion.

We also know that the daily use of computers is much more common in the United States than in the EU and the Internet is used more by Americans than by Europeans. The digital divide, however, is not just one between the US and the EU. Within our society there is another divide that we have to overcome. There are strong discrepancies between parts of society who use the Internet and those who do not.

Internet and new technologies are miracles of knowledge and information and will offer tremendous potential for growth as well as for social cohesion. New technologies can, for instance, offer entirely new ways of learning and studying and can potentially help us to combat some of the problems in our education systems, including those of school resignation and drop-out. They can also be of dignificant help to people with special educational needs.

E-learning is seen as an enabler for education, with increasing emphasis on the importance of informal and non-formal learning. New opportunities appear, as the technology becomes a facilitator for sharing resources, creating communities of learning and communities of practice.

For all these reasons, the European Commission adopted the eLearning initiative in May 2000. This was followed by the adoption of the eLearning Action Plan in March 2001 and we are now planning to take it forward by establishing an eLearning programme.

The eLearning Initiative has four action lines:

Infrastructures and equipment

Training at all levels

Quality contents and services

European co-operation and networking

These four action lines have been shown to be very relevant to the discussions on e-learning. They present a useful way to structure policy debate and progress monitoring.

1. Infrastructures and equipment

Remarkable progress has been achieved in the Member States in this field. Connectivity of European schools to the Internet is rapidly approaching 100%. Nine out of ten teachers in Europe are familiar with the use of ICT; six out of ten use the Internet with their pupils; seven out of ten have an Internet connection at home. However, broadband connections remain marginal, except in a few countries, and this is one of the reasons why there is still a relatively low use of Internet for educational purposes.

Co-operation with Member States, via the European Schoolnet and the eLearning Working Group has been intense, and the prospects for the years ahead are promising. A good pan-European policy overview will soon be available on the Internet. An important project for a 'European Observatory' has been selected from the Commission's recent eLearning Initiative call for proposals and, with the help of the European Investment Bank, it should become a reality.

2. Training at all levels

The Career Space project, supported by the Commission, involves a consortium of industry and universities in the development of ICT skills profiles. Two important Career Space reports 'Curriculum Development Guidelines ICT Curricula for the 21st Century' and 'Generic Skills Profiles future skills for tomorrow's world' have been published by CEDEFOP (The European Union's Centre for the Development of Community Vocational Training Policy) and were presented at a recent conference in Brussels.

Valuable work is proceeding in the field of teacher education. A number of projects are being funded, and three new pilot projects have been proposed under the eLearning Initiative call. In addition to this, a working group with key national initiatives has been started.

A specific network, TTnet (Trainers' Training Network) has been set up by CEDEFOP for a better understanding of the concrete contribution of ICT to the training of trainers and for the exchange of good practice. TTnet will provide a platform for evaluation of e-learning tools and methods for vocational training exchange. CEDEFOP's European Training Village web sites are also playing an important role.

3. Quality content and services

Discussions are under way on the needs of the education sector concerning access to learning materials, on the impact of Intellectual Property Rights regulation, and on the relevance of open source software. The launch of an e-learning Standards programme is an important step. These issues are also being explored in four strategic studies. A fifth one, on the competitiveness of the European educational multimedia sector, will be launched in the course of this year.

Three subject areas were identified in the eLearning Action Plan for special attention: modern languages; science, technology and society; and art, culture and citizenship. The Commission's recent Call for Proposals under the eLearning Initiative encouraged demonstration projects in these important subjects. The Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, IST (Information Society Technologies) and eContent programmes are supporting several projects in these areas.

A focus group on science education has been started, with a view to understanding better the use of ICT for science subjects at school, and possible interaction with science museums. A working group with Member States is considering these issues in the context of the follow-up to the report 'The concrete future objectives of education and training systems'.

The prospects for valuable results from the above activities are very promising.

At school we are seeing greater emphasis being placed on the quality of e-learning products and services, and in the pedagogical context for their use. We are moving beyond questions of connectivity and infrastructure, to ones associated with content, teacher training and organisational implications, including new social interactions inside and beyond schools. In many cases, ICT fosters the opening of the school to other sources of learning, such as multimedia libraries, museums, local community resources, research centres, and trans-national co-operation. It may also foster new relationships and new roles for pupils acting as researchers, creators, designers, etc.

As regards the training of teachers and school management, there is a tendency to focus less on the 'e' of e-learning, and more on the 'learning' component of the process. Successful use of new content and services depends to a large extent on the quality of teaching and the commitment of teachers. In more advanced cases, teachers learn to collaborate, to design educational resources, to assess their own teaching, and to use technology as a tool for enhancing their approach to learning and teaching. In this respect, the pedagogical context is very important, and more needs to be done to understand the success factors for best practice.

Universities are using e-learning as a source of added value for their students, and for providing off-campus, flexible, virtual learning through web-based resources. Some universities are entering into strategic partnerships and adopting new business models, in order to respond to the changing education market and the challenges posed by global competition. The most successful players to-date, however, remain the well-established and prestigious institutions rather than new ventures which have largely failed to develop sustainable business models or maintain high standards of learning.

In the workplace, greater emphasis is being placed on cost savings and on flexible, just-in-time education and training, which empowers the worker and provides the necessary skills and competence for rapidly changing business needs. In this context, e-learning is proving to be very popular as a cost-effective solution (e.g. up to 60% of the training needs of key players in the ICT sector is now provided by e-learning), and "corporate universities" are amongst the most advanced players in this field. The recent Commission communication on the e-Economy emphasises the urgent need to tackle ICT and e-business skills shortages and, in this context, to promote the development of e-learning solutions.

The global market for e-learning products and services is expected to grow strongly in the coming years, providing both a challenge and an opportunity to European education systems and to the private sector, multimedia publishing for example. However, recent downturns in the ICT sector and consolidations in the market for e-learning products have shown that the transition may not be as quick or as smooth as originally expected. Especially in view of recent world events and the recession that is now being felt in many quarters. Whilst the market is still expected to grow considerably, analyses are now adopting a longer-term perspective.

4. European co-operation and networking

The eLearning Initiative has had extensive support from European networks, considered as the backbone for European co-operation and exchange of good practice, in the debate on key e-learning issues.

Some examples of work which reinforces European education and training networks in this field in are:

Strengthening and improvement of co-operation with the European Schoolnet (EUN), which brings together EU Education Ministries, schools, teachers and school managers.

Reinforcing co-operation with the Open Distance Learning-Liaison Committee, an open and flexible structure bringing together the main European University and Open Distance Learning associations. Its members will be active partners in the organisation of a major conference on "European Virtual Universities" this year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you know, the ability to communicate competently in all old and new media, as well as to access, analyse and evaluate the power of images, words and sounds, is one of the fundamental skills for every young European citizen. For these reasons, in the framework of its eLearning initiative, the Commission decided to address the above issue with a specific operation on Image Education and Media Literacy with the aim to give young people the necessary instruments and knowledge to distinguish between information and advertising, between fiction and reality and between «virtual» and «real».

To achieve this aim, the first step is to provide the citizens of Europe with the skills to use with confidence the new tools for accessing knowledge, leading to the widespread development of a "digital literacy".

Furthermore, there is a need to promote media education in order to foster a more critical and discerning attitude towards the media (i.e. all forms of photography, visual and audiovisual packaging of images, including the newest forms of technological transmission and exchange of data such as Internet). European citizens should be encouraged to make their own judgements on the basis of available information instead of relying too confidently on the media and image conditioning of such information.

Media Literacy and Image Education concerns us all, including children, parents and teachers and it may not be reduced to school only. Media Literacy and Image Education is being envisaged as a life-long process requiring a co-ordinated approach which may involve grass-root, non-governmental organisations as well as media professionals.

Action lines of the European Commission

The European Commission has recognised that there is a need to map existing practices in media education and in any related field. Therefore, further to the recent workshops organised in Brussels on Media Literacy and Image Education, it has decided to map out existing practices in this field, as a part of its effort to facilitate the programme development and to stimulate and deepen the discussion on Media Literacy and Image Education in the Member States. The study which is under way addresses the following issues:

Reflection on the power of images in the society as a means to shape values, social codes and stereotypes including gender identity and citizen responsibility;

Media pedagogy inside the educational systems;

Media pedagogy in environments outside the formal educational systems, such as cultural centres, cinema schools, life-long learning programmes, on-line discussion groups concerned with ethics in the media, advertising and the press;

Experiments with a view to involving school and college students in a hands-on approach to image education;

Teaching approaches;

Recommendations for further action. The results of this study, which will cover the 15 Member States, will be available this year and will be the basis for a EC "political document" which will be presented soon.

Other initiatives are being prepared:

In the coming weeks a specific "Call for proposals" for European Media Literacy projects will be launched and up to 15 projects will be co-financed.

This year our Netd@ys Europe initiative concentrates on Image, whilst continuing to promote the educational and cultural benefits of using the new media, especially the Internet as teaching and learning resources. We believe that Netd@ys will provide the participants with the opportunity to develop the skills to acquire and to exchange information on a range of themes. The initiative culminates in a showcase week in November with online and offline events all around Europe and beyond.

As these few examples show, the initial results of work in the field of e-learning at European level are very positive, and it is clear that the eLearning Initiative is playing an extremely important role in helping Europe to exploit the use of ICT for education and training.

As work continues at European level in this challenging but dynamic area, a major challenge will be to keep the momentum going. It is important to monitor the results on a regular basis in order to assess whether we are achieving our expectations. Feedback received so far from the majority of stakeholders is very encouraging. It confirms the Commission's strategy of fostering a favourable environment for the innovative use of ICT in education and training, focusing on sustainable projects of critical importance for Europe.

It is important never to forget that e-learning is a means to an end, that of enabling individuals to develop knowledge and skills and to fulfil their potential in the areas in which they are seeking to do so.

If e-learning is to continue to evolve successfully, those providing it will have to ensure that it is able to satisfy the varying requirements of the learners, to cater for their wide range of learning styles and needs and to be applicable to a broad - and possibly changing - span of specific individual learning situations. In short, it will have to become increasingly flexible, tailoring itself to the needs both of learners and of those who are guiding them.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I think that we should act proactively and take the necessary steps to ensure that the transition to the information age which is taking place is in line with our ambitions and values. The market forces are going in the right direction, but they do not solve each and every problem. There is an obvious need for action by the public authorities.

We have to understand that the answer to these challenges is not "less" Europe but a "better Europe". That is also what young people say to me, when I meet them in your countries and elsewhere. They do not want to move backwards, but forwards with a Europe that fulfils their aspirations and one which offers them concrete benefits.

We have to understand that globalisation keeps on moving on and that European integration is not a process in which we loose our national roots or feelings of belonging, rather one in which we anchor these in a bigger community of shared values, as a response to globalisation.

As you know, the Lisbon summit was the beginning of a silent revolution. In Lisbon it was confirmed that Heads of State and Government are not only concerned with business and finance, but do concentrate on the fundamentals of both growth and cohesion in our societies: the information society and the role of education in this society.

In Lisbon the Union set itself a new strategic goal for the coming decade: to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world.

This vision was once more confirmed, three months ago, by EU leaders in Barcelona.

The Lisbon and Barcelona conclusions should not be interpreted as a European incursion into national education policies. As you know, education is a national responsibility. In most Member States education policy is strongly related to regional and national culture, identity and democracy. The European Treaties give the European institutions a role in promoting co-operation between Member States on issues such as quality and in developing mobility across the borders. But there is no European role in the substance of how education is conducted in the Member States. This falls, in accordance with the subsidiarity principle, under the competencies of the Member States.

What is interesting about these conclusions, however, is that, for the first time in the Union's history, we have felt the need to speak about what there is in common in education. This is why Member States have embraced a new way of co-operation. The new open method of co-ordination, adopted in Lisbon, upholds subsidiarity, but at the same time intends to "exploit" all the options available underneath the "umbrella" of subsidiarity.

Education Ministers have taken this commitment very seriously. They have agreed to a very ambitious work programme which will run until 2010. This work programme is centred around three key-objectives:

quality;

access;

opening up to the wider world.

Our overall aim is to make European education and training systems a world-wide reference by 2010.

This new method of co-ordination is designed to bring about policy changes in Member States. It involves exchanges of good practice and experience so we can share what works and learn what doesn't work. It also involves the definition and monitoring of European indicators and benchmarks. This is admittedly a difficult issue for Member States. But, if we are serious about meeting our ambitious objective, we need to demonstrate the progress achieved.

E-learning is just one example for the role that Europe can take in setting a common agenda and stimulating Member States. At the European level we can identify concrete common targets and deadlines, so as to stress both the urgency and the responsibility that we share on our way to the information age.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The transition of Europe towards a Knowledge Society should unleash the forces of innovation and growth, which Europe has in abundance. But everybody should participate in this transition, nobody should be left behind. We must combine short-term measures with long-term ones, and economic development with social cohesion. And we must do it together!

I am very honoured to be able to play a role in this process and I was happy to give a voice to that process today.

Thank you.

DN: SPEECH/02/291 Date: 20/06/2002

 

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