Education’s digital transition has allowed students to study and researchers to work remotely throughout the pandemic, however we need to ensure technology is not abused and access is open to all.
Today, there is a blank spot in EU digital regulation: education and research. The digital transition is and already deeply impacting these activities, as well as universities’ ambitions to make knowledge widely available.
Universities across Europe were quick to move their learning and teaching online during the pandemic, but digitalisation will not stop with digitally enhanced learning. Similarly in research and innovation, the importance of data-driven science has increased in recent decades, starting in disciplines such as particle physics or biomedicine and more recently also in the social sciences and humanities. The current pandemic is one of the best examples of the rise of big data and, more importantly, of ensuring that it is shared. It was a turning point that demonstrated that only through the global opening of data were researchers and innovators able to deploy vaccines and propose adaptable public health measures.
The Open Science is a movement paving the way to making research results openly available to all and to promoting full access, sharing and re-use of data and protocols. More generally, it is a fundamental driver for universities’ mission in society at large and for their ability to cooperate in solving global challenges like climate change or the next pandemic.
The European University Association’s recent survey on Open Science demonstrated the strategic importance of Open Science for European universities, with over half of the surveyed institutions rating it as very high or high importance for their strategy. But while Open Access to research publications was of high importance for 90% of institutions, only 60% considered its implementation level to be high enough.
Furthermore, this gap grows in data-related areas where implementation remains much lower. To specifically achieve Open Access, institutional repositories – platforms or digital archives where research created within a university and made available and accessible with few if any barriers - are seen as the most common and important steps. Yet EU legislation like the Digital Services Act (DSA) could strongly impede if not completely stifle the efforts of universities to share science widely through institutional repositories. If left unaddressed, the DSA would overburden them with unnecessary legal, administrative and financial constraints.
The private sector can also create a barrier to sharing research results for the benefit of society when it chooses to interfere. Recently publishers have attempted to establish overly restrictive criterion in their guidance for researchers in selecting a repository to manage, share and preserve their data. Actors across the research community have expressed their concerns over the nature of the proposed set of criteria. There are also questions surrounding the lack of transparency in the way scientific publishers allow researchers to use open access to data. This can conflict with what universities or funding organisations recommend. It remains important to strengthen and expand the existing repository ecosystem and encourage the adoption of good practices, but researchers must have a real choice including the option to choose community-managed institutional, national, domain or generalist data repositories. Policymakers both in the digital and research fields need to be aware of the conflicts and obstacles on the road to Open Science.
More broadly, universities also plan to implement digital tools for management and for data gathering that will assist them to grow and improve, just like any other sector. However, higher education and research in Europe have specific values that need to be protected, particularly from control by large technology companies. With online learning and digital management, the possibilities increase for data gathering and monitoring, perhaps with a European education or skills data space as a consequence. Here, the control and ownership of this data becomes a pertinent issue. Who will have access to data on learning behaviour from Europe’s 20 million students? Should we know how often they click a mouse during an online course, if their eye movement suggests that they are attentive or not, or if they should be labelled as “problematic” or “at risk” by an algorithm? Should data on learning be available for private providers, such as big online, for-profit platforms to sell credentials? Should big tech companies be able to use them for their own education programmes? These are big questions that are of concern to universities, which benefit from digital services but need to stay in control. Research and education data is not like any other data space, it is dependent on values and individual life choices. The Digital Markets Act is a good step towards securing a competitive market for digital services, and the Artificial Intelligence Act sets boundaries for the use of AI in education. However, attention should be paid systematically across digital regulation to research and education and the specific needs of the institutions that perform these functions.
This raises two questions: first, how does regulation impede access to knowledge; is legislation suitable for the kind of entities that ensure that scientific knowledge is available to all? Second, how can we ensure that human values guide education and research, and that digitalisation gives private companies the opportunity to serve, but not control and direct, what we know and how we learn? These issues must be dealt with as an integral part of the debate on Europe’s digital transformation.
This article was first published by The Parliament Magazine on 1 February 2022.
“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.