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Dutch schools struggle with digitisation

Now is the time for schools in the Netherlands to determine how the opportunities of distance and digital learning resources can be made to work and how the risks involved can be mitigated

The Netherlands’ educational institutions have a high degree of autonomy. This brings a lot of freedom, but it also means schools often face challenges on their own. However, when it comes to digitisation, schools are pressed to act much more collectively.  

Bart Karstens is a researcher at the country’s Rathenau Institute, which studies the impact of science and technology on Dutch society. He said: “Digitisation of education has been going on for years, but a clear picture of what exactly is happening in education in terms of digitisation was still lacking.” 

The research report Towards high-quality digital education by Karstens et al was published recently. “During our research, which started before the Covid-19 pandemic began, we found that digitisation in education covers a very broad field, which involves digital learning tools, learning management platforms and new ways of organising learning and teaching,” said Karstens. “It was a real challenge to get a good picture of all the opportunities and risks that digitisation offers.” 

Public values framework 

The research team arrived at a public value approach to the subject, and used a framework based on three core values – justice, humanity and autonomy. “This classification gave us a grip on the matter and appears to be a solid instrument for mapping out the opportunities and risks of digitisation in Dutch education,” said Karstens. 

In education, digitisation is often associated with solving a number of pressing challenges, such as teacher shortages, falling scores in literacy and numeracy, an increase in social inequality and suboptimal preparation of children and young adults to participate in a changing society, said the Rathenau report. “But it is unclear whether digitisation can deliver on these promises,” said Karstens. “Moreover, digitisation does not only have positive effects. The pandemic also showed us that there are concerns.”

He said this includes increased inequality of opportunity because not every child had a device at their disposal, or schools and teachers themselves did not have resources at their disposal to provide digital education. “Moreover, when learning at home, not every child has access to sufficient parental support or a place to work without being disturbed. Distance learning also required a great deal of self-efficacy on the part of the children and here, too, you see big differences. Not every child is capable of doing that.”

Privacy and security 

Karstens found that digitisation in education is a layered challenge, not least because of the high autonomy of Dutch schools. “If we compare our situation with those in countries around us, you see that article 23 of our constitution, the freedom of education, ensures that there is less cooperation between schools,” he said. “It is great that educational institutions can and may make their own choices in many areas, but when it comes to digitisation, it is necessary to have more collaboration.”

Karstens pointed out that many schools in the Netherlands use Google Workspace, but last year it turned out that Google did not meet the conditions of the Dutch General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and it remains to be seen whether the company will keep to the agreements. “As a school or individual teacher, you can’t check whether big technology companies comply with privacy law – you need a collective for that,” he said.

Something similar applies to adaptive learning systems, which are increasingly being used in Dutch education. “The majority of teachers have no idea how the algorithm in that software works,” said Karstens. “It is difficult for an individual to grasp this and ask well-informed questions about it. When a large part of education is going to depend on these kinds of systems, this opacity is a source of concern.”

Central vision

The report offers the Netherlands’ education sector four lines of action that deserve attention at local, regional and national levels. “To deal adequately with the opportunities and concerns regarding digitisation in education, a future-oriented digitisation strategy is needed at national, sectoral and local levels,” the research team stated in the report.  

Central elements in the development of this vision must be: thinking through the integral influence of digitisation on education, the desired design of education in the long term, and conditions for fully equipping educational institutions to work with digital resources.  

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Karstens said: “This report comes at a time when technology is increasingly finding its way into education. Although the report is based on practical experience, we see that educational digitisation is still in its early stages and many promises have not yet been fulfilled. It comes at a time when control is needed. If the parties involved get to work on this, positive steps can be taken.”

Data collection for learning analytics 

According to the report, the influence of tech companies is putting public values under pressure. These include the autonomy of pupils and teachers and equal access to digital resources. In this area, national agreements are needed in the short term that impose requirements on the digital infrastructure and certain forms of data use, such as profiling.

“This is where the example of Google comes in again,” said Karstens. “But learning analytics, where many different types of data are collected from and about students, also requires local decision-making. As an educational institution, you have to decide how far to go, what is appropriate and proportional. These are things that cannot be imposed from above, but must be determined in practice by the people who are involved.” 

He gave the example of the Netherlands’ Vrije Universiteit (VU), which works with learning analytics. “The VU team made a number of pertinent choices,” he said. “For example, they do not process direct personal data, but only data at the aggregate level.”

Challenges of digitisation 

In a number of ways, national support is needed for digitisation to work well locally. This involves arranging equal access to good hardware and software, training digitally competent teachers and making adjustments to the education model, said the report.

“The pandemic exposed big differences in opportunities in the Netherlands,” said Karstens. “Whether or not someone has basic access to a device or an internet connection can reinforce inequality. But the professionalisation of teachers is also an issue. Teachers must learn how to use digital tools and to reap its benefits. That is not something that can be achieved overnight. It takes time.”  

The final recommendation from the research report relates to adjustments to the Netherlands’ educational model, such as modular education, blended learning and formative evaluation. “Not enough research has been done on this,” said Karstens. “There is also a great need for more research into the learning benefits of digital education.”

According to the research team, this requires stimulating research programmes in which an important focus is on local practical experiences and pedagogical and didactic expertise. Not only does the Dutch education sector has a role to play in the digitisation of education, but also, for example, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, said Karstens. “It is important for educational institutions to be able to retain their autonomy, but also to seek cooperation where necessary. Intermediate organisations, funded by the ministry, can play an important role in this respect.”  

So now is the time for the Netherlands government, schools and educational organisations to ask themselves what they actually want from distance learning and digital teaching aids. The key question is not what can be done digitally, but what is desirable to improve the quality of education. According to Karstens, this is not a technical issue but primarily a question of political and public governance.  

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