The shift towards digitalisation of education and training systems

Digital skills imply the need to implement not only technological innovations, but also to prepare people to face emerging societal challenges like privacy and ethical issues, mental and physical health related to digitalisation, among others. 

Education and training play a key role in reaching this ambition of digital upskilling European citizens and ensuring that they can live, work and thrive in the digital age.

These essential skills go beyond the ability to use digital technology to obtain, produce and share information. They also imply the ability to solve complex problems and efficiently process and evaluate digital information, both among young people, adults and workers.

When diving to what is included in the digital skills sets, we find information and data literacy, digital communication and collaboration skills (e.g. netiquette, managing digital identity, interacting through digital technologies), digital content creation, safety (e.g. protecting devices, personal data and privacy, protecting health, well-being and environment) and problem solving skills. These skills are crucial for the future, not only for young students but also for adults.

The notion of digital skills and the corresponding implications for education and training should be addressed from a broader perspective –targeting traditional education and long-life learning systems– and include critical thinking to raise awareness against disinformation and the more and more frequent fake news.

Much like in every corner of the planet, the restless and sometimes unexpected developments of the COVID-19 pandemic had a deep impact on education, affecting more than 100 million learners, educators, education and training staff in Europe. The aftermath, unfortunately, is similar: the closure – partial or total – of school and campus buildings in an effort to contain the spread of the also called “coronavirus”, as if it would deserve to get a crown. For many, this has been a whole new experience, one that will continue in the majority of cases as the pandemic continues to re-shape the world. 

To ensure that learning, teaching and assessment could continue, digital technologies have been used on a massive scale, never seen before. As a result, the digitisation of current education and training systems have accelerated significantly. 

However, there’s a growing need to go beyond assessing the scale of achieved digitisation and its associated challenges to also cover the actual impact of such accelerated change on the quality of education and training.

In this article, we explore the fast-paced shift from traditional education systems to digital, taking into consideration the potential risks and challenges related to digitisation and how the newly-updated Action Plan of the European Commission (EC) sets the track to the transformation of European educational system.

The EC’s Digital Education Action Plan

According to this 2019 Eurostat study, many low-income homes have no access to computers, and broadband access varies widely across the EU depending on household income. The same study shows that more than one in five young people across the EU fail to reach a basic level of digital skills. 

Additionally, the COVID-19 crisis is leading to an unprecedented shift to online learning and use of digital technologies. Of all the respondents consulted for the Action Plan, though, almost 60% of them hadn’t used distance and online learning before the crisis, while 95% consider that the COVID-19 crisis marks a point of no return for how technology is used in education and training.

To provide additional support to Europe during these trying times, the EC updated its Digital Education Action Plan in September, after requesting feedback in a public consultation. The aim was to take solid steps towards an inclusive education and training in the digital age. 

It also brought the opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt until now when navigating the COVID-19 crisis and how to profit from both the opportunities and challenges that digital transformation brings.

According to this EC’s publication, the new Action Plan has two main strategic priorities:

  1. Foster the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem by: – Investing in infrastructure, connectivity and digital equipment; – Developing the digital competences of teachers and training staff and;

    – Developing effective digital capacity planning and development, developing appropriate digital tools and creating quality learning content.

  2. Enhancing digital skills and competences for the digital transformation. This priority aims at developing basic skills and competences from an early age, including digital literacy, computing education and data-intensive technologies. However, the goal is even  more ambitious: it also includes investing in advanced digital skills in hopes of producing more digital specialists and ensuring that girls and young women are equally represented in digital studies and careers.
The difference between digitisation and digitalisation 

Often used interchangeably, digitisation and digitalisation need to be clearly distinguished in the context of digital education.  

In this context, we refer to digitisation when it comes to the process of converting physical aspects of education into digital formats (e.g. developing courses in an electronic format). 

Digitalisation, in turn, implies reimagining the current education and training processes with the help of digital technologies. The key purpose of digitalisation in education isn’t just to “go digital”, but to add value and increase effectiveness through modern technologies.

We can say digitalisation is more encompassing than digitisation, as the latter may not even need to be a part of a broader educational transformation enabled by digitalisation. The term digitalisation implies seeing the bigger picture, having a long-term perspective, and, most importantly, serving the purpose of fitting education and training systems to the needs of Europeans in the 21st-century.

A trusted digital ecosystem is the base

For both traditional education to embrace digital and adhere to it, there’s the need for a trusted digital ecosystem whose pillars are education strategy, content, and tools. This type of learning solutions need to be developed participatively. Learners’ feedback and ratings are necessary for the system to continuously improve and, at the same time, attract other learners and highlight the most appreciated content creators.

Centralised platforms (for instance, a model of “video-based online training”) can play a valuable role by aggregating offerings from other smaller, specialised niche players, and offer structure and direction for learners. However, these centralised platforms tend to have very little flexibility when it comes to personalisation, limiting the learner’s choice to what the platform has to offer. 

In any case, the creation of learning ecosystems which could benefit from centralised platforms should always come first. To be effective, they have to be customisable to address the specific needs of individuals, groups, enterprises, value chains and clusters. Content developers, in close collaboration with all other key stakeholders, are to play a prominent role in their functioning. 

AI-augmented learning ecosystems and platforms could facilitate access of learners to personalised solutions from any suitable sources. However, they would also need to include guidance, coaching, assistance, assessment, validation and certification of learning outcomes. The idea is to develop several personal learning and career paths in connection with attractive job opportunities during the whole professional career, according to this PwC 2019 report for the EC.

Digitisation of education and training systems 

Our experience when working with education and training providers and when supporting structures and policy makers at all levels, shows that many of the current initiatives, both local and on a European level, are focused primarily on the digitisation of education. 

While this is an important first step in the journey towards people’s digital enablement, it needs to be justified based on critical assessment and reasonable thinking.

It’s crucial to look not only at the benefitscost-effectiveness, better reach, high scalabilitybut also at the potential risks and challenges related to digitisation. For example, the digitisation of outdated content and ineffective approaches isn’t a solution. Furthermore, some of the non-digital approaches that currently prove to be effective may lose their effectiveness in a digitised form. Thus, the digitisation of education needs calls for great caution and should be based on thorough research. 

Needless to say, assessing the impact and effectiveness of the digitisation of education on each target group is not skippable.  Fortunately, there is a growing base, for instance, of emerging research on the effects of digitisation on cognitive abilities in children and adults, on the effects of digital learning on social skills and physical health, on digital addiction in children and adults and on poor impact of micro-learning, to name a few. Nevertheless, there is always room for digging further into these subject matters. 

Based on the above, careful assessment of which elements of the education and training systems will adopt a digital form and which ones should remain in a more traditional or blended form is necessary. 

The shift towards digitalisation of education and training systems 

As mentioned above, digitalisation, in contrast to digitisation, is a broader concept, and it implies improving the quality of education and training systems through the use of digital technologies. Digital technologies, then, become enablers rather than purposes. 

Purposes, in turn, relate to developing intellectually, emotionally and socially intelligent people for future-proof Europe. Digitalisation implies long-term thinking and creating new opportunities in education for these purposes to materialise. According to this PwC 2020 report for the European Commission, examples of relevant strategies and approaches include: 

  • Preparing students for lifelong learning, i.e. when the educational offer develops the ability and readiness of students to engage in continuous learning throughout their professional lives;
  • Offering ‘big picture’ education, monitoring how the educational offer fits into the overall learning trajectory and labour market;
  • When developing curriculum goals, consider not only market/company needs (usually referred to as ‘employability’), but also societal needs (e.g. as sustainability, ethics) and, particularly, learner’s own needs or individual characteristics. This implies respecting diversity of learners’ contexts and capacities;
  • Viewing students –young, teenagers, adults and individuals involved in long-line learning– as change agents and actively engaging them in curriculum development and implementation; 
  • Shifting from knowledge towards competencies that students should acquire for their personal development and for employment and inclusion in a knowledge society, adding a dimension of mindsets, such as growth, innovation, ethics and safety; 
  • Applying cooperative work-based, project-based or problem-based learning, i.e. stimulating students to work on challenging real-life problems for which there are no established answers; encouraging students to contextualise their theoretical learning in relation to how it would be useful in the world around them, improving apprenticeships and traineeships opportunities; 
  • Paying special attention to the questions of ethics, social inclusion, diversity and sustainability (e.g. incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the curricula); 
  • Teaching students to be mindful of their safety and ergonomics at work, and specifically about the necessity of maintaining good physical and mental health, and the possible consequences of risk exposure (including what can be done about it), according to this 2020 PwC report for the EC

Digital aspects don’t always have to be at the core of these approaches, but can rather be used to enhance their effectiveness. From that perspective, it would be more relevant to move from the term ‘digital education’ towards ‘education for the new world’, where ‘digital’ is one of the components. 

The concept of digitalisation in the way it’s defined above is new to many education and training providers. At the same time, our experience suggests that there are already plenty of promising practical examples of ot. It’s important to emphasise that, on this matter, more research on systemising good practices, analysing impact and facilitating the transition towards digitalisation is undeniably necessary. 

What we think
Virginie Laye, Director at PwC Luxembourg
Virginie Laye, Director at PwC Luxembourg

It’s important that we consider two sides of digital education. The first is the integration of emerging technologies in our learning journeys such as VR, AR and online collaboration tools. The other, perhaps the most challenging, is the shift of mindsets towards new ways of learning. Education can no longer be seen as a phase in our lives but as a constant support throughout an individual’s social and professional life. Education needs to walk hand-in-hand with technology and digital developments as they’re constantly changing the way we live and work. This is human intelligence and agility at its best, to adapt and evolve in technology-led environments.


PwC participated in the EC’s public consultation. Read our response and proposition to the Action Plan’s update here.

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