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The integration of learning technologies into Europe's education and training systems






Jane Massy

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urope's future economy and society are being formed in the classrooms of today. Students need to be both well educated in their chosen field and digitally literate if they are to take part effectively in tomorrow's knowledge society. E-learning, the integration of advanced information and communication technologies (ICT) into education systems, achieves both aims. Europe also needs to make learning a lifelong endeavor, with people of all ages continuously developing their skills. Here too e-learning can make a significant contribution, with both workers and organizations transforming the way they learn, interact, and work. Moreover, e-learning can promote social integration and inclusion, opening access to learning for people with special needs and those living in difficult circumstances, such as marginalized groups, migrants, and single parents (European Commission, Information Society, n.d.).

This chapter examines the development of e-learning across Europe and proposes that the construct of blended learning, as a trend in its own right, is largely an artificial one in the European context. As the quotation above indicates, e-learning is perceived as " the integration of advanced information and communication technologies (ICT) into the education system." In other words, it is generally conceptualized in Europe as the integration of technologies within education and training systems, not as something separate. While the term blended is used in this chapter interchangeably with the term integration, the latter term is more likely to be used in Europe.



The Handbook of Blended Learning


For readers outside Europe, it is important to understand the context in which learning technologies are being integrated. There are different systems of education within Europe, especially in further and higher education and training; the history of major policy developments relating to learning technologies is included to aid readers in understanding the current status of blended learning in Europe.

In addition to exploring the development of learning technologies across Europe, this chapter discusses the ambiguity attached to policies and practices that aim to leverage learning technologies as an instrument in education and training reform yet recognize that in the short term, blended learning in general is characterized by rather limited and unexceptional ICT use within the education and training systems as they exist today.

Current Status

Technologies are slowly being blended within existing education and training systems. In spite of early hopes that there would be rapid change and reform of education and training systems enabled by technology, the truth is that this has not occurred. Instead, these systems are changing very gradually. Integration usually occurs as teachers, trainers, and users gain competence using particular applications. In most cases, these are standard everyday ICT applications: spreadsheets, e-mail, word processing, PowerPoint, and texts or pictures from the Internet. In general, this is simply exchanging old technologies for new: PowerPoint instead of the blackboard, word processing for pen and paper.

The expansion of infrastructure and the acquisition or building of virtual learning environments has fueled questions about the relevant technology applications to support and enhance the learning process. Nevertheless, real innovation through blended learning is still rare. The most innovative applications in Europe tend to be among advocates of a constructivist approach to learning who have high levels of ICT skills, often in higher and adult education.

Advanced approaches to blended learning encourage collaboration and require different social interactions among learners and between learners and their teachers or trainers. For example, medical technicians or biotechnicians might be offered opportunities to simulate experiments both in and away from a training experience or workshop. And voice recognition technologies can be used to practice pronunciation in language learning. There is strong emphasis on adopting technologies to support those at risk of exclusion. For example, ICTs are employed to assist and engage those needing to improve literacy by enabling them to construct their own learning resources within interactive media-rich environments. However,


The Integration of Learning Technologies into Europe's Education and Training Systems 421

such cases remain peripheral to mainstream education and training and are often developed as pilots with dedicated funding rather than as part of sustainable mainstream change.

Education and Training Systems

Each country in the European Union has its own unique formal education and training system linked to its cultural, social, and economic development. Some have very strong links between training (especially vocational training) and their employment systems, where labor market mechanisms demonstrate interdepen-dencies between training, qualifications, and job mobility. Others operate more flexible approaches, where job mobility is freer and less embedded in formal occupational profiles and qualifications. Some more rigid systems (such as in Germany) are becoming more flexible, and at the same time, systems known to be more liberal, such as in the United Kingdom, are moving toward establishing stronger links between qualifications, skills, and job occupations.

All European countries recognize that learning is for life and are trying to encourage, support, and leverage opportunities for citizens to learn, as well as to recognize learning that takes place outside the formal systems. This attention to non-formal and informal learning is currently emerging and is an area of growing interest in relation to the adoption of learning technologies.

For over a decade, there has been much public consideration and agreement that in order to assist Europeans in their active participation in social and economic life, education and training systems need to be reformed. European education and training systems need to be more flexible, relevant to the learning needs all citizens, and supportive of changing needs of society.

Self-Learning

Most Europeans have access to free and, to most eyes, high-quality education, including vocational training and higher education. Vocational training systems in countries in northern Europe, in particular, have traditionally provided excellent workplace training and development.

With some few exceptions, self-learning (usually as ODLopen and distance learning) has been attractive to a small minority in European countries. In most instances, successful ODL programs have offered courses that earn formal qualifications. For instance, the United Kingdom's Open University mainly offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs. Traditionally these courses



 


       
   
 
 


422 The Handbook of Blended Learning

and programs have always been blended with on-site workshops, residential weekends, and telephone support even when relying on print and video media broadcasts. There is no evidence that the blending of new technologies has increased the number of self-learners except for growth in those learning ICT skills for qualifications such as the European Computer Driving Licence.

The majority of adults in Europe do not expect to undertake self-managed learning, especially if there is no evidence that this improves their opportunities for employment and promotion. For most, learning remains something that is done either in a formal learning environment or, if for work, during the employer's time and as part of a system of occupational competence development. In addition, in many countries, occupational training is approved and promoted on a sectoral basis, specific to the occupation and job level.

There is increasing emphasis on continuing workplace training, but the expectation and practice is that the setting in which this occurs is provided by the employer and takes place in dedicated work time. There have been cases, in some companies, for example, where a learning management system has been installed with access to libraries of learning courses for voluntary learning. However, reports reveal that these courses have very little take-up. Self-learning, undertaken as part of an individual's career decision making, applies to only an extremely small minority.

Some newer sectors, such as mobile telecommunications, have larger numbers of self-learners. Reasons for this difference may be because the occupational learning requirements for these industries have not been available in mainstream systems. Until fairly recently, the skills required for jobs within the sector (telecommunications technicians, network engineers, software developers) have been evolving, and so qualification pathways have remained uncertain. Therefore, bei: i qualified at the right level for a particular occupation has often been unclear. In response, individuals have, in effect, often designed their own jobs as the II industry has matured. As highly expert users of technology, those working in th< IT sector are often more willing to experiment with their training delivei methods. Typically, those in this field need flexible access to training and edu< tion and fast, unorthodox ways to learn. However, while important and growing employment in the ICT sector represents only a very small percentage i European jobs.

The importance of equality and social cohesion in European education and training systems cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Many Europeans exprr* concern that technologies may increase the social divide. In fact, the concept 11 e-learning as a self-learning activity undertaken by individuals or what some refer to as " pure e-learning" is often perceived as a model that favors a minorit already highly educated and advantaged individuals.



 


The Integration of Learning Technologies into Europe's Education and Training Systems 423

eEurope

In March 2000, what has become known as the Lisbon Strategy for eEurope was launched. This stated that by 2010, " Europe shall become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion" (European Commission, 2000).

In this context, the role of education and training has taken on a new importance, while technologies to support fundamental changes in education and training are given significant prominence. Given the importance attached by policymakers to the role of learning in developing competitiveness and social cohesion, the conclusions of the Lisbon Strategy stimulated a process of enhanced cooperation in education and training. A year later at Barcelona, concrete objectives for education and training were established, focusing on quality, access, and opening up European education and training to the wider world (European Commission, 2003a).

The nexus of these two policy initiatives was expressed by the commission president in 2002: " Education, training and research are the key to economic renewal.... We need an integrated strategy for education and research based on networking and mobility giving priority to the technologies of the future" (Prodi, 2002).

Education and Training and Technology Policies

In 2002, in the context of the Lisbon Strategy and the eEurope action plan, there was a \eap forward m poYLcy. IGTs were presented as a key driver in achieving the economic and social aims of the eEurope strategy. The dominant concerns were social cohesion (an overriding political concern in Europe since the end of World War II) and improving European competitiveness. In this context, there is explicit concern for the personal needs and circumstances of the learner and ensuring access and flexibility to meet the needs of all citizens.

The member states took the view that coordinated structural investment was needed with initiatives to encourage take up and adoption. A new e-learning initiative (2002-2004), later formalized into the E-Learning Program (2004-2006) (European Commission, 2003b), was intended to " coordinate (European) Community actions concerned with e-learning mobilizing the educational and cultural communities, as well as the economic and social players in Europe" (European Commission, 2001).



The Handbook of Blended Learning


From Distance to Blended Learning

Research proposals relating to learning technologies have been awarded R& D funding in Europe for nearly fifteen years, from the Second (1987-1991) Research and Technical Development (RTD) Framework Program to the current Sixth Framework Program (Information Society, Research Program, n.d.). By the mid-1990s, technologies to support formal education and training systems were also being piloted through mainstream education and training programs, such as the Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci programs (European Commission, n.d.a; European Commission, " The Socrates Programs, " n.d.b).

What is quite noticeable is the changing terms used in these reports, which reflect the evolving understanding of factors that need to be considered when applying new technologies in the established world of practices, structures, and systems of education and training. Until about 1994, terminology reflected the expectation that ICT technologies to support learning were largely about overcoming distance and providing accessibility to those to a large extent outside mainstream systems.

In the past decade, however, the dominant view has been that technologies should be integrated (blended) with the existing systems. More important perhaps, from a policy perspective, that integration will support reform of those systems. By the mid-1990s, there was a clear conceptual shift. Earlier reports and documentation called for research proposals relating to technologies for " flexible and distance learning, " but by the Fourth Framework, the terms telematics for education and training and educational multimedia were used. By the Fifth Framework program, the term e-learning appears and then all but disappears in the Sixth Framework, where the phrase technology-enhanced learning is used.

E-Learning for Some or All?

These R& D programs focused on the development of technologies for the future. Even in the Second Framework Program, there was a hint that these new technologies were for more than just open and distance learners. Following the work of the Educational Multimedia Task Force in 1996, there was an initiative to bring together programs that were funding socioeconomic research, R& D in emerging technologies, and pilot initiatives in mainstream education and training (Belisle etal., 2001).

The aim of this initiative was to bring full life cycle focus to integrating learning technologies in education and training organizations and the workplace. This


The Integration of Learning Technologies into Europe's Education and Training Systems 425

coordinated exercise was not repeated, but its raison d'etre was maintained in future policy. At its simplest, it recognized that approaching learning technology research and pilot and experimental activity as a set of separate technological, pedagogical, and organizational components was ineffective as a means to drive the development of new methodologies and applications, as well as their adoption and evaluation.

Of significance in the Educational Multimedia Task Force report, the idea that technologies will be a means to reform education and training systems becomes central to expectations for their future use. This shifts the expectations for ICT technologies away from solely serving the current and future needs of those outside the mainstream systems and brings their use right into the heart of the evolution (and, some hope, revolution) of the formal education and training world. From this time onward, e-learning increasingly is seen as fulfilling a major change role in Europe's knowledge and skills agenda as well as disrupting institutional structures and practices.

The Fourth Framework Program (19941998) arguably represents the high point of R& D investment in education and training technologies within Europe. By the Fifth Framework Information Society Technologies (1ST) Program (1998-2002), while 10 percent of proposals were for education and training research, the area received only 5 percent of available funding. This reduction in funding may indicate growing disappointment with a policy based on a belief that financing research into innovative technologies would generate products and services that would be taken up and, in doing so, help to drive the reform process. It also represents a shift in the interests of policymakers, with those responsible for education and training policy taking over from those running R& D programs and pushing forward the agenda. In effect, implementation efforts were given priority over basic development. It was at this time that the E-Learning Initiative was born.

The E-Learning Initiative (2002-2004)

Within the eEurope strategy, this initiative set clear targets to support, through structural investment, greater adoption of IGTs within European education and training systems. These targets included benchmarking across countries, ratios of computers to children in schools, raising the speed of ICT networks for higher education and research institutes, and the massive task of training and retraining teachers and trainers. Viviane Reding, former European commissioner for education and culture, said, " The Member States of the European Union have decided to work together to harmonise their policies in the field of educational technology and share their experience. E-Learning aims to support and coordinate



The Handbook of Blended Learning


their efforts and to accelerate the adaptation of education and training systems in Europe" (European Commission, Education and Training, n.d.)

The initiative was operationalized through the E-Learning Action Plan. 2002-2004. It undertook studies, supported working groups, commissioned an e-learning portal, supported cooperation across the European Commission and related agencies, consulted with political actors, and funded relevant projects through a call for proposals process. It has been followed by the E-Learning Program, which is now the main European policy instrument focused on the integration (that is, blending) of technologies into European education and training systems.

E-Learning Program (2004-2006)

A European definition of e-learning is encapsulated by the tag line to the e-learning program used on the European Commission's Web site: " A program for the effective integration of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in education and training systems in Europe (2004-2006)" (European Commission, Education and Training, E-Learning Program, n.d.). Here, the idea of using technologies to reform European education and training systems is no longer merely hinted at but addressed directly.

The E-Learning Program is a further step toward realizing the vision of technology serving lifelong learning. It focuses on a set of actions in high-priority areas, chosen for their strategic relevance to the modernization of Europe's education and training systems (European Commission, Education and Training, n.d.)

The E-Learning Program has four action lines:

Promoting digital literacy

European virtual campuses

E-twinning of schools (that is, using communications technologies to connect two schools that want to carry out a number of structured activities to know about and learn from one another) in Europe and promotion of teacher training

Transversal actions for the promotion of e-learning in Europe

These action lines address some of the institutional and social issues requiring change if technologies are to be blended into mainstream systems. For example, behind the idea of a European virtual campus is the aspiration for students to be able to accumulate credits from multiple institutions across Europe. These credits might be earned from online courses as well as on-site programs, with local and


The Integration of Learning Technologies into Europe's Education and Training Systems 427

remote support being provided from different institutions, encouraging not just physical but virtual mobility within Europe. The existence of online technology might enable widening access to education and training as well as flexible course selection blended with traditional on-site attendance. The challenge here is not related to technology but rather overcoming the institutional and legal barriers as universities move toward a fully operational European credit transfer system (European Commission, European Credit Transfer System, n.d.).

The action line of e-twinning of schools in Europe and promotion of teacher training also has a strong mobility dimension. Aimed at encouraging young people to increase their networks and understanding of one another across Europe, it seeks proposals to expand student exchange and collaborative learning by blending ICTs into classroom and social learning activities.

Some Reflections

The E-Learning Initiative and Program can be seen as an initiative undertaken by the political leadership of Europe to align their investments in ICTs for education and training alongside the broader eEurope and e-learning strategies. Investment and application of technologies should help to drive Europe's economic and social agenda. As documented here, there are efforts to make technologies available and provide policy support for their use in education and training. Such efforts are perceived positively across Europe. After all, if the future is about technology, then everyone must have access to ICT applications and be able to use them effectively.

At another level, the E-Learning Initiative, and more so the E-Learning Program, reinforces earlier sentiments concerning the need to reform education and training systems and to use learning technologies as a key means of reform. Earlier vocalization from many in the education and training sector that the systems in Europe did not need reform are now much more muted than in the mid-1990s. Some have continued to argue against the dominance of an instrumentalist approach to education, disliking the fact that the economic rather than social value of education is in the ascendant. Technology deployment is associated with the instrumentalist approach in spite of the many funded research and action pilot initiatives that have focused on specific social aims (for example, the application of technologies to overcome exclusion, disabilities, or the digital divide).

The technology push from policymakers and market players is still resisted (or ignored) by many associated with education and training in Europe. E-learning policies are often viewed as being driven as much by concerns for efficiency as for interest in quality and the social function of education. Other concerns suggest that



The Handbook of Blended Learning


the attempt to speed up the pace of integration of technologies into educational and training systems fails to recognize the stark reality of the capacity of the systems to absorb the changes. Many suppliers would prefer to see blended learning evolve organically rather than using public funds to push technology into a market that simply is not ready. There are huge amounts of investment, public and private, that have created infrastructures, tools, content, and services that are clearly not being used at anything like the level at which they are supplied.

Politics, Policies, and Change

It is interesting to see how policymakers have taken up the idea that technologies will be a tool to help solve major social and economic dilemmas in Europe. These initiatives imply a frustration with the slow pace of change and reform in education and training systems. In addition, they point to the need to evolve and develop new systems to support lifelong learning and the social inclusion agenda, especially in an enlarged Europe with serious potential labor shortages resulting from the aging population. The answer has been to push various emerging technologies into education and training systems in the hope that absorption of some of them will effect the desired changes. Sadly, not only are the expected changes not occurring (at least not at the pace hoped for), but the absorption rates of the technologies are significantly less than expected.

Among players in the education and training systems, the position has moved over a decade from one of generalized resistance and antipathy to technology to one of passive acceptance but relatively little active experimentation to see where the technologies can really effect change and drive reform on the ground. The primary policy dilemma therefore is how to simultaneously push open the envelope of education and training possibilities while recognizing the reality of slow, incremental change.

Ambitious policies continue to be developed; however, recent evidence suggests that political leaders are concerned with negative press related to high-profile failures (such as the United Kingdom's e-University venture). Clearly, they are worried that technology investment is not achieving the desired educational improvements and changes. Adding to this mounting tension and state of caution, there are concerns about the replacement and upgrading of equipment and sustainability of services. Coinciding with this growing concern, the market for e-learning-related products and services in corporate and workplace training markets remains at best slow, but generally stagnant.

The reality is that adoption or blending of new learning technologies is occurring extremely slowly and is typically not at a very advanced level. It is more about " stretching the mold" (Collis & van der Wende, 2002) of existing practices


The Integration of Learning Technologies into Europe s Education and Training Systems 429

and approaches than any education and training revolution. A tiny number of institutions, the best known being the University of Twente, have taken the opportunity to make real changes in practice, However, in most educational institutions, what mostly occurs is the use of tools such as PowerPoint and the inclusion of Web sites into reading and reference lists. Virtual learning environments such as Blackboard and WebCT have gained a foothold, and there are many home-grown environments across European higher education, including some open source systems. However, actual use remains limited to a minority of academic institutions and individuals within them. Few take advantage of the communications opportunities offered, with the exception of posting information for discussion on the occasional bulletin board, uploading of a document to read, or noting the URL of a particular Web site.

While there has been huge investment in teacher training, the actual blending of technologies by teachers into educational practice in schools remains disappointingly low. Some educational suppliers believe that with two-thirds of European teachers over the age of forty, the tipping point will happen only with generational change.

In workplace learning, there has not been the same level of investment in e-learning content libraries in European companies as in the United States, in part, because of the factors influencing the relatively low levels of self-learning activity. In Europe, technologies are being increasingly blended with other training and learning activities, typically to provide course-related information for example, timetabling or assessment requirements or course preparation and follow-up. Trainers are learning to use e-learning technologies; but as with higher education, the evidence suggests they are used primarily as vehicles for information delivery rather than to support work-related problem solving or develop new knowledge and skills in a constructivistic or collaborative approach. There remain many huge hurdles in getting senior and line management to see learning as an ongoing activity where technologies can provide continuous learning. Generally the perception persists that learning is an activity that occurs at a specific time and place, and resources (in terms of both budgets and time) are allocated accordingly. Blending technology therefore is viewed positively only if it is perceived as reducing the time spent at a learning event, and not necessarily to improve the quality of training or use technology to link learning to task application and performance improvement.

Using Public Instruments

One problem with this public policy intervention is the fragmented and time-bound nature of any policy initiatives with limited large-scale or long-running



The Handbook of Blended Learning


activities that can be fully tested for change impact and value. An unusual large-scale and ongoing initiative is EUN Schoolnet (see https://www.eun.org/ portal/index-en.cfm), but it is always the case that there is a constant national pull as each country deals with own issues and asserts its own way of doing things.

These public policy initiatives have revealed some of the major barriers (legal, institutional, cultural) that are preventing greater integration. Dealing with these complex and interdependent factors is part of a long-term change process. These changes are high on the policy agenda. In fact, the attempts to blend technology in mainstream learning systems have helped to throw the spodight on what really needs changing if technology is to serve education, training, and business performance needs.

Conclusion

Almost all learning supported with technology in Europe could be described as blended learning. This embrace of blended learning is currently being pushed along with ambitious public polices at both member state and European levels. The goals of these blended learning initiatives and programs have provided both a future direction as well as a set of challenging objectives for those in education and training to achieve. If the desired reform and change occurs in the European education and training systems, then a decade from now, we may find that the very term blended learning has disappeared from our vocabulary with the seamless integration of technology into lifelong learning, whether in full-time or part-time education, in the workplace, at home, or in our communities.

References

Belisle, C, Rawlings, A., & van Seventer, C. (2001, May). The Educational Multimedia Task Force 19952001: Integrated research effort on multimedia in education and training. Retrieved July 2, 2004, from https://www.proacte.com/downloads/emtf.doc.

Collis, ., & van der Wende, M. (2002). Models of technology and change in higher education. An international comparative survey on the current and future use of ICTin higher education. Twente: Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, The Netherlands.

European Commission. (2000, March). The EU heads of state or government in the Lisbon European Council. Retrieved July 2, 2004, from https://europa.eu.int/information_society/policy/ index_en.htm.

European Commission. (2001, March 28). The E-Learning Action Plan communication from the
Commission to the Council and the European Parliament.
Brussels. Retrieved July 14, 2004, from
https://www.europa.eu.int/eur- lex/en/com/cnc/2001 /com2001_____ 0172en01.pdf,



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