"Must-have": Educational projects for the digital Austria

In my last blog I outlined why digitalisation urgently needs to become the major topic in the educational sector. I would now like to report on noteworthy domestic initiatives and present the IT industry’s expectations.

Towards improving the imparting of digital skills the Ministry of Education had already reported in 2010 regarding “Digital Competency at Austria’s Schools” in the framework of its new “efit-21” IT strategy. It addressed issues of competency acquisition in the digital age, educational measures for the intelligent use of media, designing Internet policy at a school level as well as the school network’s service scope and level.

Digital competency was thereby defined as learning about and with the computer and as the mastery of multimedia and telemedia; the imparting of ICT knowledge was classified as cultural technology. Teachers were urged to rely on the use of modern electronic educational media in the coursework design, hence digitised training materials, such as e-textbooks.

An additional initiative for pedagogy emerged in the year 2013 as the Austrian Teacher Training College’s e-learning strategy group’s “White Paper on Digital Media and Technologies in Teacher Training” was published on the occasion of the proposed “Teacher Training NEW” legislation.

The chicken or the egg problem

This white paper was an important advancement in the issue of defining training content. Criticism was levied by renowned domestic training experts towards the training courses widespread in Austria, such as the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) and the EPICT (European Pedagogical ICT Licence), as they only cover certain partial aspects of a comprehensive digital competency training for teaching staff. The EPICT training course developed in Denmark and also used in a few other European countries is understood to be a European quality standard for the ongoing professional development of teaching staff for the pedagogical integration of information, media and communications technology in educational practice. It presupposes, however, a digital literacy in the use of computers. Inversely, the ECDL lacks any didactic reference.

The Austrian Computer Association (OCG) also weighed in on the educational policy discussion with its information and communications technology work and school group. The position paper “Imparting informatics competencies and media competencies into all of the teaching training studies in all of Austria’s educational institutions” proposed three modules. The “IT knowledge for educators” module deals with imparting fundamental informatics and ICT competencies. This is followed by the “Digital media and ICT in the educational system” module towards imparting application competency for educators in using digital media for teaching and learning and the “Digital media and ICT in domains and subjects” module.

The strong level of engagement by the Austrian training sector and additional IT industry circles with the topic shows that Austria has built up a high level of awareness of the problem in the past few years. The most important breakthrough for me, however, consists of “Educating educators NEW”, adopted in 2013, which reforms all of the teacher training programmes offered in Austria. Since the 2015/16 academic year, bachelors programmes have been oriented to the new academic structure, also the masters programme since the beginning of the 2016/17 university and college year. The entirety of the domestic teacher training thus now conforms to the Bologna architecture.

As a representative of the economy I would be very interested in a deeper cooperation with the teacher training pedagogy so that we could also bring our perspective on the requirements of disseminating digital competency into the discussion. I hope that a convergence of pedagogic colleges and universities will accompany this new structure in relation to the scope and content of the didactics of digital skills and capabilities and the advisory board installed here is emphasising and will emphasise this.

The gifted and talented need to be supported

Since last autumn, I have also been involved in gifted and talented education and gifted and talented research as the President of the Association of “Upper Austrian talent”. In the course of setting my first agendas I also had contact with the Austrian Centre for Gifted and Talented Education and Gifted and Talented Research. This expert organisation, which has been active in Austria for many years, criticised in a press conference last year that the BIFIE’s (Federal Institute for Educational Research) National Education Report was nearly totally silent regarding the topic of education for the gifted and talented and nearly exclusively thematises the problem area of inefficient pupils at risk.

As we are in any event not spoiled in Austria with highly gifted students according to international comparisons, special attention would need to be paid to this target group in the interests of updating our national economic performance capacity. With potential for outstanding performance at 20% per academic school year this does indeed correspond to over 200,000 students, as presented by ÖZBF Managing Director, Dr Claudia Resch.

I fully concur with her criticism of the educational policy management of the Austrian school system. Gifted students have a fundamental right to education (2009 Begabtenerlass [gifted and talented student decree]). They can only develop their talents, however, when they are strategically and systematically supported. In closing, to cite the Minister of Education, Sonja Hammerschmid: “Not supporting the highly gifted and talented causes long-term damage to the educational and economic location of Austria.” In the international “talent war” we cannot afford such a laissez faire attitude.