Writing History: Regaining Digital Sovereignty

A call for a Declaration for a European digital infrastructure for education

The future is interoperable

Autonomy is one of the most important values of education. We need to treasure having autonomy in pedagogy and on content — and being autonomous education professionals: this provides room for diverse views and opinions and world-class education. However, holding on to autonomy in the process of enabling education, the organisation of education, can get in the way of a world-class education. If all universities hold on to their autonomy in enabling education and make individual decisions about their digital infrastructures, this will lead to a situation with many different infrastructures built on different standards. Different infrastructures that are not interoperable complicate cooperation between universities and even within universities. This does not imply that we should all use the same systems. instead, we should organize the interoperability of systems.

As student mobility increases, for example in the Erasmus + program of the European Commission, the need for cooperation and interoperability is becoming increasingly urgent. Students are more than ever aware of the opportunities of studying anytime and anywhere. Do we have the digital solutions to organize growing student mobility, to provide support for students regarding enrolment, admission, assessments, and credentialing? Europe has shown great leadership by initiating European Universities in an effort to enhance the quality of education and the competitiveness of the Continent. Already 43 European Universities exist, and students are enrolling for cross-national courses and even masters’ degrees. European Universities have accelerated collaboration and European student mobility.

The risks we face

When it comes to developing and implementing IT-infrastructure solutions to support the administrative and logistic aspects of education, coordination between universities is lagging behind. Different solutions are developed within different European initiatives, within a country and even within an institution. These solutions often work very well for problems in a unique context, but cause problems as universities seek to collaborate, for instance when students want to study abroad. At the same time, commercial parties see endless opportunities when it comes to education. Global investments in the EdTech sector grew from 15 billion dollars in 2020 to over 20 billion dollars in 2021. In general, vendors’ business models of vendors do not include interoperability as a key feature. Even though these parties (and their closed ecosystems) determine to a great extent what an infrastructure for education looks like. This trend not only stands in the way of interoperability, but it also undermines the digital sovereignty of the education sector.

The current fragmentation of the landscape and the lack of coordination to come to agreements between stakeholder has grave consequences:

  1. The growing (international) student mobility is supported by solutions that are useful within their own limited context, but are not interoperable with other solutions
  2. The pace of innovation in the educational sector is slow because public resources are spent inefficiently, both in money and brainpower, and different solutions become competing, instead of interoperable.
  3. The dominance of commercial market parties is increasing, and higher education is becoming increasingly dependent on solutions that only work within closed ecosystems: a serious risk of vendor lock-ins.

The need for a Declaration for a European digital infrastructure for education

The only solution is collaboration. As universities, as countries, and preferably as Europe. Europe has shown its strength in collaboration and joint agreements. The GDPR has a direct and global impact on market parties. And the European education sector too has shown its strength, for example with the Bologna Declaration.

The Bologna Declaration started in 1998 with the Sorbonne Declaration, an initiative of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Sorbonne Declaration was a joint declaration on harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system, and it led to the Bologna Declaration. The Bologna Declaration does not prescribe the content of the curricula, nor on pedagogy. It ensures that bachelors and masters train to the same level. And that is the strength of the Declaration: it allows and encourages autonomy of pedagogy and content of education while at the same time enhancing the way students can prepare themselves for an international labor market, and it enables student mobility.

A new Declaration which also contains the harmonisation of the digital architecture of the European higher education system could support this. This digital ecosystem does not prescribe specific technical solutions, but ensures the support of different technical solutions, and enables interoperability through open standards. Because one size does not fit all. Organising interoperability does not only involve technical issues. For example, for digital badges for micro-credentials to be interoperable, universities need to agree on the meaning and the value of courses and parts of curricula. We need to focus on both legal, organisational, semantic, and technical interoperability. Therefore, collaboration between educational experts and IT-experts is needed.

Only if universities collaborate, students can be serviced, innovation power can grow, and digital sovereignty can be regained. A Declaration for a digital ecosystem, an initiative of maybe a small number of countries, may be the start of something that has an impact that is even bigger than the impact of the Bologna Declaration. If European member states join forces now, this would be a revolutionary change with worldwide impact.

The way forward

Today, we can write history. By taking the initiative now, European member states can make an important contribution to the necessary counterforce of Europe in protecting our values and regaining the digital sovereignty of education. This is easier said than done. But realising the Bologna Declaration wasn’t easy either. Universities learned how to collaborate, just by starting the process and learning by doing. And once the process started with the Sorbonne Declaration, the process towards the Bologna Declaration developed surprisingly quickly.

For the Bologna Declaration, national Ministries of Education and national associations of universities were involved in the design process. For a digital infrastructure, national Ministries and associations of universities should be involved, and in addition to that, national organizations that are responsible for the education and research infrastructure, other national organisations working for Teaching and Learning and European organizations working on standards and architecture. They all should play a role in ensuring that all solutions that are bought or developed really are interoperable and monitor the use of open standards and agreements on architecture. It may seem like a moonshot, but hey, we did once land on the moon and soon may again.

We must, and we can do this, and you are invited to become a part of it at the OEB pre-conference workshop: Creating an Interoperable International Digital Ecosystem for Education on Wednesday, November 23, and the conference panel World-Class Public Education? Interoperability is Key! on Thursday, November 24.

Written for OEB Global 2022 by Christien Bok, SURF’s Innovation Manager for ICT and Education.

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