EPALE Conference Highlights Risk of Rising Educational Disadvantage due to COVID-19 Pandemic

30 Oct 2020
From Tuesday 6th to Thursday 8th October 2020, EPALE hosted an Online Community Conference with thousands of attendees from across Europe. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event took place in an online format, allowing participation from a broad group of stakeholders, from a range of sectors and countries in Europe and around the world.

AONTAS was represented at the event by Annmarie Power, who has recently taken up the role of EU Projects Officer at AONTAS. The conference set out to strengthen knowledge exchange among the adult learning community across Europe, focusing on priorities such as Digital Learning, Lifelong Upskilling and Social Inclusion. The online event incorporated an engaging mix of keynote speeches, panel discussions and interactive workshops to share ideas and learnings on the key themes.  

Day 1: Digital Learning & Skills: Managing Change, Embracing Transformation

The first day of the conference focused on Digital Learning & Skills: Managing change, embracing transformation with sessions highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for learners to be equipped with digital skills. The first panel discussion of the day discussed topics such as how artificial intelligence could be used in education, particularly as a way to personalise online content and to keep students motivated. Adult learning educators from diverse backgrounds shared their experiences of seizing opportunities to make the online learning experience comfortable and engaging for learners. The panel concluded that there is no going back to traditional learning, as some of the changes that have taken place have made adult learning more accessible to a greater number of people. The second panel of the day highlighted that it is important to harness the potential of learning through smart phones, and adapting content to suit such devices, as many learners don’t have access to computers and broadband. 

Day 2: Joining Forces to Provide Lifelong Upskilling: Building Stakeholder Collaboration

After a thought-provoking session on Tuesday, Wednesday’s focus shifted to the theme of Joining forces to provide lifelong upskilling: building stakeholder collaboration. The panel discussion outlined that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed inequalities across Europe, where those who don’t have access to the internet and a device are being left behind. Christianne Fenech from the Ministry of Education in Malta shared that “we have to unlearn learning”, as we need to adapt to a new way of doing things. Graciela Sbertoli from the European Basic Skills Network noted that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the severe lack of basic digital skills in vulnerable communities across Europe. At the same time, Martina Ní Cheallaigh of the European Commission, outlined that flexible and online learning may be a way of improving reach to upskill more people, particularly in rural areas.

Day 3: Social Inclusion and Democracy

The final day of the conference focused on Social Inclusion and Democracy, where a variety of workshops and discussions took place to discuss ways to improve social cohesion both in Europe and across the world. The panel discussion shared experiences of adult learning from a number of perspectives around the world including Latin America, Africa and Asia, where panellists shared their experiences of educational inequality and ways to address it. It was highlighted that the ‘digital leap’ that has taken place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant many learners in different parts of the world are being left behind and we must find ways to improve basic digital literacy to ensure social inclusion and to protect democracy.

Overall, the conference raised some very topical issues particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the affect it is having on the adult education sector. It was stressed in most discussions that it is crucial to strengthen basic digital skills to enable learners to adapt to the new learning environment, particularly as blended learning is likely to become a lasting legacy of the pandemic. The learnings from the conference further strengthen the work being achieved through the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL). If you would like to learn more about our European projects in Ireland, please contact AONTAS EU Projects Officer Annmarie Power at