[Translation (French - English) : EPALE France]
The current health crisis, which has resulted in half of humanity being confined to their homes in unprecedented situations of stress and survival, is one of the most significant crises of contemporary history. It is undoubtedly less severe than situations of war, famine, social or political crises forcing people to flee, or terrorism. However, this crisis, which is first and foremost a public health crisis, is having an extremely high impact on the political systems of all countries, and in turn on the education systems, involving people of all ages.
Following a publication by the European Lifelong Learning Platform, I asked Mrs Brikena XHOMAQI, its director, to explain what she means by the title “Mental health and wellbeing of all learners come first.” She agreed to answer three questions.
- How does COVID-19 create a mental health issue for learners?
The choices we make in the fight against COVID-19, and particularly the lockdown measures, have profound psychological consequences for all of us: anxiety, depression, fear for ourselves and our loved ones, inactivity, stress.
Teaching and learning activities have become factors that contribute to stress. It is interesting that the mental health of learners, teachers, trainers is not accounted for in the emergency programmes in different countries. How does this stress manifest itself? Learning methods are subject to new ways of working, new assessment methods, uncertainties about lack of equipment and obviously new skills to be implemented.
Educators in the broadest sense must carry the "burden" of the education and training systems. This is true for formal education systems (schools, colleges, universities), but also for the adult education sector as a whole. Educators lack adequate tools and resources in "hostile" and ever-changing ecosystems.
For too long, the social role of teachers, educators and trainers has been ignored. In adult education, this social role was somewhat better recognized, but without institutional recognition. Today's urgency shows that countries need to invest more in training so that educators can acquire the full range of skills they need to create inclusive and innovative learning environments.
- Is digital technology a unique solution for education systems?
Obviously today, and for the last ten years or so, digital skills have been in the spotlight for the European Union, and for individual countries. To suggest that education begins and ends with a screen is to deny the social aspects of learning.
General skills, emotional intelligence and creativity are equally important. In the training process, an entire set of skills must be put in place. There is no use in taking a "monochrome" approach.
We must not see digital tools as a simple adaptation of today's content, erasing the role of the educator as it is passed on. New forms of education will need to be invented, redefining the role of the learner, the teacher, autonomy and freedom to learn, the role of the peer group, in short, new learning environments. But this requires resources and investment, which governments have not fully provided for.
A dystopic future has been at our doorstep since last month. The education and training systems of the European countries were not prepared to meet such challenges.
- How do you see the future for education at all stages of life?
In this context, I believe that there may be a need to collect and combine the very rich expertise of the experience of e-learning providers in the formal, non-formal and informal sectors. All stakeholders will then need to work together in the design and delivery of high quality, inclusive education.
Just as economic recessions cause great inequalities, we feel that one of the most tangible consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic is to create or risk creating a gap between learners.
In Europe, the richest region in the world, thousands of learners are being told to follow training courses online. But many of them can't afford to do so: poor internet connections, a lack of equipment or equipment shared by several people. On top of this, learning online requires stronger motivation than learning face-to-face, and some home environments do not favour this mental availability.
We must also think of all those who are potentially excluded, migrants, people with disabilities.
A call for universal access to education during the pandemic was made by 28 MPs from 13 countries, from different political groups. As a Lifelong Learning Platform, we support this call. It takes the form of a letter to the European Union, asking it to avoid creating exclusion from e-learning.
More than ever before, civil society must take action so that today’s crisis will help us to create situations of universal access to education at all stages of life. All actors, including learners, whatever their age, must be at the centre of future discussions to achieve social inclusion. This is necessary in overcoming the immediate health crisis. Learning and training are weapons to overcome exclusion. In recent years, EU countries forgot this, just as they had forgotten the importance of health services based on solidarity and not linked to economic interests "during the coronavirus pandemic". We hope that the future will be different, more inclusive and more innovative.
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David LOPEZ, Coordinator EPALE France