Today the Commission adopted a proposal for a programme on the use of new information and communication technologies (NICT) to improve the quality of and access to education and training (e-learning), on the initiative of Viviane Reding, the Member of the European Commission responsible for Education and Culture. This programme, to which the Commission would like to allocate a budget of 36 million euros over three years, comes in response to calls from the European Councils in Lisbon, Stockholm and Barcelona to integrate NICT better into education and training both to foster social cohesion and enable the European Union to become the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.
"Digital literacy, i.e. the ability to use the Internet, in particular, as a vocational and personal development tool, starting from a very young age and continuing throughout one's life, is rapidly becoming as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. People without access to this new form of literacy run a severe risk of social and vocational exclusion. It is to counter this and to ensure that the Internet is used more in schools, training centres and universities that the Prodi Commission is proposing the e-learning programme to underpin the initiatives taken over the past few years in the Member States", Viviane Reding declared when the proposal was adopted.
Several Community policies already contribute to developing e-learning: regional policy, research, education programmes such as Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci, etc. The programme proposed today by the Commission concentrates on a few key themes. The instruments for which the programme provides funding include a virtual structure (of the "European Internet portal on e-learning" type) for information, cooperation and the exchange of good practice. The programme also makes provision for the European Union to take part in international projects in this field conducted by institutions such as UNESCO or the OECD.
Combating digital illiteracy
The idea here is to support, through research and analysis projects, the development of digital literacy training methods, especially for European citizens who have problems with access to traditional education and training. The research work will, logically enough, be backed up by support for innovatory projects in this area, developing, for example, educational tools and materials for young people to make it easier for them to learn NICT through interactive games or to create virtual services accessible to everybody for learning about citizenship or for dialogue between cultures.
The programme will also encourage the exchange of good practice and cooperation projects (networks, associations, public authorities, public/private partnerships, etc.), which help raise awareness of the potential offered by NICT for acquiring knowledge and gaining access to training courses (public centres for access to NICT) for marginalised population groups.
Promoting virtual campuses
The idea here is to support agreements between universities in order to promote the use of NICT in areas such as mobility of students and teachers, quality of teaching and mutual recognition of curricula, adding a virtual dimension to the "Bologna process".
Under the approach provided for in the programme, virtual mobility should complement actual mobility as organised through the Erasmus and, from 2004 onwards, Erasmus World programmes. A student who is to embark on a "real Erasmus" course might, for example, prepare and/or consolidate the experience by "virtual Erasmus" activities at his or her university of origin.
The e-learning programme will help to create some joint virtual university campuses in at least three Member States which will be formed by developing joint "online" courses accompanied by offers of virtual mobility for students and hence a "real/virtual" mix of curricula. Networking of virtual universities in Europe will be encouraged, as will the development of models for public/private partnerships in higher education.
Twinning of schools through the Internet
The Commission has already published a report on this, detailing its aims (cf. IP/02/809 of 4 June 2002), namely that each of the 150 000 secondary schools in the European Union conclude an agreement on virtual twinning with one or more schools in other Member States or non-member countries by 2006, enabling any young European to participate in a cooperation project with other pupils from other countries through the Internet while they are at school.
Whilst it is primarily up to the Member States to bring about the conditions for twinning by providing, say, suitable training of teachers or a "twinning budget" for every school, the e-learning programme will do its part to achieve this aim, which was endorsed by the Heads of State and Government of the 15 Member States at the Barcelona European Council.
What the programme will do in practice is create a support network for virtual twinning of schools, made up of teachers who have experience in this area and provide advice and pedagogical support. It will also help to set up an Internet platform for information, contact and exchange of good practice which will support or streamline virtual twinning operations. Finally, the programme is to support public relations exercises on twinning of schools involving competitions and prizes, publications, etc.