Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe (EPALE) 2020 Conference report



In this blog post, Sarah Pavey, schools representative on the CILIP Information Literacy Group, talks about the online EPALE 2020 conference she attended in October. This is a European conference and this year it focussed on the digital learning and  lifelong learning of adults.

Sarah Pavey
Sarah Pavey

Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, this conference like many others was held online using a mixture of FaceBook and Zoom as delivery platforms. It was held over three mornings from 6th-8th October 2020. More than 3,500 adult education professionals in Europe took part. The focus of this year’s conference was “Shaping the Future of Adult Learning in Europe” with a focus on digital learning, lifelong learning and social inclusion. This certainly tied in well with the CILIP Information Literacy Group’s (ILG) objectives in promoting information literacy and I had several opportunities to comment and discuss ideas within the workshop groups as well as raising questions and promoting the group during the keynote speeches and discussion panels. 

Four main outcomes from the conference were that:

  • adult education of the future will be a blend of face to face and online learning due to the impact of COVID. Speaker Joe Houghton, Program Director at UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business, told us that even his elderly learners had already familiarised with this concept and methodology.
  • it will be vital to train adult educators to adapt the new challenges brought about by digitalisation and distance learning. Educators will need to boost their own skills, learn about new tools and methodologies, and adapt their content to new needs and a changed context.
  • it will be important to reach adults from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and in particular those with no access to the internet, tablets/PCs, or who lack basic literacy and digital skills.
  • education will need to be adaptive, customised to the learners and to different target groups, to different needs and time schedules. In this respect, artificial intelligence will play an important role. Conference moderator Tamsin Rose summarised saying at the end of a session, “learners should be able to walk their own path”.

DAY 1: The need for digitalisation (both of learning and of skills

The Conference was opened by the European Commission, by Chiara Riondino (DG EMPL) and Michael Teutsch (DG EAC), who highlighted how education is central to EU policy for sustainable and fair economic and social development and recovery. They showed how it endorses the first principle of the European Pillars of social rights stating: “Everyone has the right to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning”.

The first keynote speech was delivered by Donald Clark about adult education in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). It was surprising to learn this technology has been around for more than 20 years now. It has now become sophisticated enough to be able to create and curate content, design personalised and adaptive smart learning systems, provide quick feedback and assessment. He gave examples of how course delegates have been recruited by “bots” and the entire content and assessment delivered by AI for simple structured online packages. IT scientist Linnar Viik then suggested AI needed to be diverse, adaptable to different situations, country-based and that people must involved in the change.

A panel of educators then demonstrated how they had adapted their approach to training in an increasingly digital world. Henrik Zipsane, Director of the European Museum Academy, reported how the museum sector is digitalising the collections, but also offering online lectures addressed to schools and educators. Daniela Drandić, Head of the Reproductive Rights Program at Roda, Parents in Action, explained how they managed not only to launch online courses for expectant families, but also to increase their outreach, making prenatal education available also to parents in remote areas of the country. Joe Houghton, Program Director at UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business explained the challenge of supporting students while they were experiencing fear and concern, and the importance of retaining a human element in online teaching.

The second panel discussion focussed on the digital tools and practices that can be used by adult educators. Clara Centeno, Senior Researcher, Human Capital and Employment at European Commission, described the main features of DigComp, the EU Digital Competence Framework. Celia Sokolowsky, Project leader of VHS-Lernportal, described in detail how literacy courses for immigrants were held during the lockdown, with surprisingly good results. Oliver Simko, Founder and Lead Designer at Luducrafts, described his gamification approach to successful online learning – such as setting achievable goals, the importance of narrative and challenge-based learning, giving immediate feedback, and building a team with different roles. Radek Czahajda, an Evidence Based Trainer, focused on the quality of learning experiences – which he said must be accessible, inclusive and leave space for attention and for “digesting” the new knowledge.

Much of what was said on this first day regarding the sudden shift to online learning reflected closely the findings Jane Secker and myself discovered in our ILG survey and the case studies published on this site. 

DAY 2: Joining forces to provide lifelong upskilling

The second day of the conference concentrated on assessing the status of basic skills provision in Europe and discussing what advances had been made and reflecting on the challenges ahead. The discussion centred on two EU agendas – the Recommendation on Upskilling Pathways and the EU Skills Agenda. Again crucial to this discussion was the impact of the COVID pandemic on implementation. Christianne Fenech, from the Ministry of Education in Malta, said adult learning priorities there had been put on the back burner at least during the initial phases of the crisis. Graciela Sbertoli, Secretary General of European Basic Skills Network, highlighted how the crisis made clear the vital need of basic skills in European societies. She pointed out that the situation had shown how the fewer basic skills you have, the less you are prepared to deal with the crisis. She felt the priority should be to invest in teachers’ training, to give them the capacity and skills to change and adapt. Martina Ní Cheallaigh, EC, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, explained that personal links and relationships between learners and educators are especially crucial and she also outlined examples of Member states adopting specific strategies and policies on basic skills provision.

Following the panel there were two options for workshops Education and Health and Basic Skills and Resilience. I opted for the Health session which had a clear focus on the current need to limit the spread of the virus, orientating people to behaviour in line with guidelines, and discussion around raising attention about the importance of motivation, skills, ownerships and follow-up in health education. Also considered was the need to counteract fake news, through media literacy and communication campaigns. Here I was able to contribute and point to our definition on information literacy and also the work done on health literacy by Ruth Carlyle.

DAY 3:  Social inclusion and democracy

The overlap between digital education and social inclusion were the focus of the keynote speech delivered by Koen Timmers. He described his global education projects Kakuma Project and Climate Action. He underlined how these projects were not just about technology but that their focus was on a specific pedagogical approach, based on collaborative learning, learning by doing, creativity and problem solving.

Following this keynote attention turned to the European Skills Agenda and whether the priorities set up in this ambitious EU plan are also valid for other parts of the world. José Roberto Guevara, Associate Professor of International Development at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, while praising the Skills Agenda for proposing a holistic approach, underlined that, from an Asian-Pacific perspective, it is important for Europe to look outside and to advocate for the same things in different parts of the world. Timothy Ireland, Vice-president for Latin America International Council for Adult Education (ICAE), raised attention about the very different challenges this part of the world is tackling in comparison to Europe such as a dramatic increase in poverty. The countries’ and people’s priorities naturally revolve around survival. He also reminded that, in such challenging contexts, adult education has to rely on its own spirit of adventure and invention. Shirley Walters, Professor Emerita at the University of Western Cape, South Africa, reflected on inequalities, on the power relations influencing policies in South Africa and advocated for a broader agenda, also including those who are striving with poverty. Uwe Gartenschlaeger, President of The European Association for the Education of Adults, called for  access to the digital world as a common good. He pointed out the patronising tendency of talking of lifelong learning for Europe and primary education for the rest of the world.He emphasised that we should not divide the concepts between what is good for us and what is good for others. David Atchoarena, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, finally focused on adult education as a powerful tool for building resilience, also in disadvantaged areas of the world, and, reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on adult learning, mentioned the need of new tools but also the rediscovery of old ones, such as community radios. I was very interested in this last point as I have yet to understand why our government did not make more use of TV channels and radio when the UK schools were closed. 

There were two final workshops on Digital Citizenship and Democracy and Values. I attended the Digital Citizenship strand. This focused on the benefits but also the obstacles brought by the digital transformation, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds: the importance of basic digital skills and media literacy, the need of building a community and a sense of belonging, and the centrality of access. Again I had an opportunity to explain some of the work of ILG in this context. 

The Conference was closed by Markus Rester, Head of Sector, DG EAC, who shared the first impressive outcomes of the Conference and thanked the EPALE community which made it possible.

This is such an inspiring community and an amazing crossing of borders and cultures. I hope that it will be possible for the UK still to be contributing to this despite Brexit at the end of this year as it is a fantastic example of collaboration for the common good – and it is exceptionally well funded too!!!


Find out more about the EPALE conference

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