Laurentiu Bunescu is a Romanian and European citizen who has lived and worked in Romania (Jiu Valley and Timisoara) and Belgium (Brussels). At university he majored in Economics and Business management, but he has spent his entire professional life working for NGOs.
He sees himself as a self-taught type of person who is passionate about education and digital technologies. This has led him to dedicate his career to bringing the two together.
Since 2005, he has been involved in various local, regional and European initiatives that offer Romanian and European citizens access to technology and a chance to develop their digital skills.
How did it all start?
I was born in the Jiu Valley, formerly Romania’s largest coal mining area, which was badly affected both economically and socially by the closure of the mines in late 1990s and early 2000s. Following the fall of communism, Romania has struggled with structural problems such as corruption and poverty. It still does to this day, and, even though the country joined the EU in 2007, it still has a long way to go before being fully recovered. Jiu Valley became one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest countries in Europe.
As a result, I have witnessed a great deal of social unrest and economic hardship. Life in Jiu Valley felt very isolated as well. So, when I first discovered technology and the internet in 2000, it was like seeing the light at the end of a tunnel. At the time, I was working with a local NGO to create websites for the City halls and to promote the touristic potential of the area. In 2005, with the help of Foundation EOS – Educating for an Open Society, I opened one of the first telecentres in Romania to support ex-miners by showing them the power of the internet and teaching them basic digital skills.
The positive impact this had on the lives of those people motivated me to be part of the development of a network of telecentres across Romania. Between 2005 and 2008 over 50 telecentres we set up across the country. In 2008 I got involved in starting a European movement to promote digital skills, and two years later I became the first employee of a newly formed network called Telecentre-Europe. The network grew exponentially, and in 2017 it rebranded itself ALL DIGITAL. In the same year, I moved to Brussels to take on the CEO role of the network for the next 3 years.
ALL DIGITAL supported over 3,000,000 European citizens in more than 30 European countries, through the projects it implemented and through the work of its members. The organisation continues to play a key role in policies related to digital inclusion and education.
These days, I am based back in Timisoara, supporting the Foundation EOS - Educating for an Open Society with its relentless efforts to boost digital inclusion and education in Romania.
How is digital transformation impacting the learning provision for adults from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with low digital literacy?
In my case, as mentioned above, overall the digital transformation has been a very positive experience that has improved my quality of life; a plethora of new learning opportunities, both in my personal and professional lives. Having realised this, I think the aim for me has been to use this experience and the lessons I have learnt along the way, to support other people in having similar experiences.
But can we all navigate through this digital transformation while learning and benefiting from it along the way?
In my opinion, there are many different challenges when it comes to educating adults in the face of this digital transformation. These are perhaps the two most important ones:
- Digital literacy. More so than ever the learning provision for adults is closely related to the digital literacy of adults. We have access to educational apps, devices, online or half-and-half courses that support our learning while making it more enjoyable with the addition of gaming integrated into the online educational resources. But not all of us can benefit from these. 43% of Europeans aged between 16-74 lack basic digital skills, meaning almost half of the European population is missing out on learning opportunities brought about by the digital transformation.
- Lifelong learning. In a digital society built around information, adopting a lifelong learning attitude is a must for anyone emerging from formal education. This digital transformation is reshaping the job market, and technology evolves at a very high speed. Therefore, in most cases, what we learn in school and at university is not going to be enough to guarantee us a life-time career. The majority of adults will need to learn constantly to stay competitive in the job market. Reskilling and upskilling are crucial and they should be made available as opportunities to all those at a risk of being excluded: NEETs, unemployed, low-educated, people living in poverty, minorities, etc.
Finally, the digital transformation brings with it many benefits, enhanced learning opportunities being just one of them. But it also brings threats and obstacles especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Everyone needs to develop a mixture of basic digital, critical-thinking and learn-to-learn skills, otherwise it will be impossible to navigate through the ocean of these benefits and threats.
What is the future of cross-section and transnational cooperation in relation to lifelong learning?
I have been working both with All Digital and LifeLong Learning Platform - two large European networks that support digital literacy and lifelong learning. These two organisations are having a major impact at the European level when it comes to transnational cooperation and cross-sector collaboration. I recommend to anyone to check out their initiatives and their position papers in which they both tackle the importance of lifelong learning and digital literacy at a time when we are being challenged not only by this digital transformation but also by the coronavirus pandemic.
The EU’s Erasmus+ programme is constantly providing extremely useful opportunities for partnerships focused on the education of adults. Whether we talk about innovation in learning, exchange of good practices, or capacity building, Erasmus+ is playing a key role in connecting and supporting adult learning providers.
Working with Foundation EOS in Romania, I see a lack of awareness from the government and from the civil society when it comes to EU policies on digital education and lifelong learning. One of our roles is to work with public institutions, policy makers and the business sector in order to ensure that these policies are fully understood and applied. That is why we have created the Romanian Coalition for Digital Education, an initiative that brings a united and louder voice to the practitioners.
Will the coronavirus pandemic have a long-term impact in your opinion?
The coronavirus pandemic will have a major impact on the economy and society in general. In terms of the education of adults, there has never been a better time to reskill and upskill. Most of us who are in self-isolation have the time to focus more on things we are truly passionate about and to find ways to learn new things. Only a big crisis can bring real, long-lasting changes and for education and learning, we can already see these changes happening. The learner is finally taking the center stage, deciding for themselves on what to focus and how much time to dedicate to various subjects. Technology and the internet can facilitate this, but of course not entirely. However, now I think we are all beginning to appreciate just how important it is to have those basic digital skills so that we can continue to function, study and work.
A lot of organisations, including EOS, ALL DIGITAL and the LifeLong Learning Platform, are supporting adult education, in order to ensure that educators and learners have positive online learning experiences. But these organisations need support and they need to work together with Governments, EU institutions and the business sector. This is how you respond to the challenges of the pandemic and keep the momentum moving forward, in a bid to foster a better, more personalised digital education and a lifelong learning mentality.