What are the key aspects and challenges concerning children’s use of digital technologies? Which issues are particularly important to educational stakeholders and policymakers? And how can the CO:RE platform help them make better informed decisions in this area? To answer these questions, CO:RE organised a consultation meeting with educational policymakers and advisors from seven European countries. Here we discuss the key lessons learnt.
With the participation of international researchers, educators, policy makers and concerned dialogue groups, CO:RE aims to create a comprehensive European knowledge platform on the experiences of children and young people in digital communication spaces and the effects of technological changes on children and young people.
Our team in work package 9, in charge of bridging CO:RE to the needs of the educational sector, organised a consultation meeting with educational policymakers and advisors from seven European countries. This meeting was the first of the CO:RE Consultation Series during which teachers, students and policymakers came together to discuss how research about children and online technologies can be brought closer to those making decisions in this area. In September-October 2020, ten national consultations were carried out in Belgium, Ireland, and Portugal, as well as three European consultations. The key findings from these meetings will be summarised in a report presented on Safer Internet Day 2021 and will be available for download here.
Digital technologies: Key areas, opportunities, and challenges
During our first consultation meeting representatives of Ministries of Education and local organisations working to advance media literacy got together to discuss what, in their view, are key topics, opportunities and challenges connected to children and digital technologies. The participants, all members of the Digital Citizenship Working Group coordinated by European Schoolnet, pointed out that access, wellbeing, risks and harm and skills literacies and competencies are key issues these days. According to them, these aspects have always been important to education, however, given the current COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing digitisation of educational practices, these topics have become more critical than ever before.
When asked about what opportunities digital technologies can offer to children and schools, the participants pointed out that access to information, connecting to people, social engagement and participation and learning were the main opportunities of digital technologies. As regards potential challenges, participants stressed that online bullying, exposure to potentially harmful content, privacy risks, and excessive internet use remain key issues for educational stakeholders.
From my experience as an Awareness Centre Coordinator, I think evidence is very important. Like cyberbullying, for example. In Portugal, this is the biggest problem reported by schools and also by the helpline. And with the confinement, the number of cyberbullying cases reported has increased a lot. I think evidence is quite important to make policies or strategies.
(Participant 5, Portugal)
The policymakers highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic and the imminent shift to distance learning brought more attention to inequalities which hindered some students in their education. In this context, social inequalities regarding student’s access to digital devices and support from families were stressed.
For example, in Spain, we have done a great effort in providing schools with access to technology, to online contents… In general, at [school] level, we have no big problems, but with the closing down of schools we realised that the situation at home is quite different. Here, the social status of the families plays a vital role, and the differences were really big and not expected to be so big.
(Participant 4, Spain)
Interestingly, even in countries such as Finland where most kids traditionally have access to digital devices at school, access at home became sometimes problematic. This is because even families who would otherwise be digitally well equipped, struggled when parents and kids had to telework and do homework at the same time.
And of course, if you think about little kids, they do not necessarily have mobile phones; they might have phones, but not all of them with the access to internet.
(Participant 3, Finland)
Priorities for education
Participants highlighted how important it is that educators are well equipped to use digital technologies in meaningful ways. Technologies are not meant to replace paper and pen but to enrich learning experiences by bringing opportunities to innovate and engage with students. They also stressed that unless technologies bring added value to the learning experiences, they should not displace other types of activities.
In Finland, we think that it is still important that when you are using digital technology, it is used in relevant pedagogical ways. There is not always a need to use it. It is important that when you are using digital technologies, it fits very well in the context and the learning situation. Not only using digital devices because they are digital devices. Sometimes, it is much better to use some other learning environments: Going into the nature, for example, or making some research, or communicating with each other without digital devices. But of course, it is very important that everybody learns very well how to use them.
(Participant 3, Finland)
Participants also referred to the need for better guidelines on how to assess the level of students’ digital skills and how to address difficulties of individual students. This relates to the need to better define the types and levels of digital skills that students should acquire at school.
It is very important for schools that are quite ahead to have more knowledge about how to level digital competences. So, if they have already good lessons in place, if they take action, how can they differentiate? How can they meet the needs of different students?
(Participant 2, The Netherlands)
The CO:RE Knowledge Base: Making existing evidence accessible to educational stakeholders
We asked participants about the role of empirical evidence in decision-making processes. Specifically, we asked them where they would look for evidence to make informed decisions in the area of children and digital technologies; what, in their views, constitutes a useful piece of evidence and how easy or difficult it is to access good-quality and up-to-date evidence in this area. In general, participants expressed being satisfied with the quality and quantity of evidence they currently have access to in this area. In most cases, they acknowledged that policymakers in their countries would not look up for this type of information themselves. Rather, they rely on individual “experts” or networks of experts in their respective countries. These are usually recognised academics or organisations working around topics related to children’s engagement with digital technologies.
Where do policymakers get their information? It is not that much in reading research papers, especially not if it is international articles and research journals, but in gathering networks of researchers locally that can advise them and translate what they know from research into advice for the policymakers.
(Participant 6, Belgium)
When asked about the type of content that CO:RE should offer, there was a consensus among the participants that policy-related documents would be particularly useful, especially case studies showcasing examples, Good Practices or experiences related to policy implementation initiatives in other countries. Also, academic publications such as systematic reviews were considered as helpful for decision-makers.
Maybe some examples of international policy by categories and themes could be very useful […] National plans, special policies would be very useful for policymakers to inspire our work with the work done in other countries.
(Participant 5, Portugal)
Although research articles were considered as less attractive for policymakers, they did highlight the importance of reader-friendly research summaries such as short articles or blogs.
Put more energy in interpreting research. I think Sonia Livingstone does it. Not only doing research and making it available, but also blogs all the time and gives meaning to the evidence we gather. Evidence alone is not enough. You have to give it a meaning somehow […] If we have many experts in Europe doing that in a Hub and you can facilitate that, that might be very helpful.
(Participant 2, The Netherlands)
Participants emphasised that there is no need to create yet another platform, unless it brings added value to its users such as offering a central point of access to existing networks of experts and stakeholders. This would allow a more fluent exchange of knowledge, experiences, and Best Practices within countries and across the EU. Educational stakeholders added that the design of the platform should pay attention to different levels of practices and differentiate between topics related to policy-making, school management or classroom practices.
I think it is important to make a kind of classification here because I would say that evidence for high-level policymakers is something completely different compared to evidence-based guidelines for classroom and for teachers or for parents […]. I think it could be helpful to classify evidence in at least three or four [levels] starting with high-level policymakers and ending at the more practical level for teachers.
(Participant 1, Norway)
Looking ahead, the CO:RE consortium will look for ways to integrate as much as possible the feedback from educational stakeholders into the CO:RE knowledge platform to ensure that CO:RE is not just “another platform”, but the central point of access to up-to-date European evidence on children’s online experiences for all our stakeholders. Stay tuned for more information coming in the next year!