Technologies for Learning and skills: the Horizon 2020 funding opportunities to foster the uptake of ICT in education

The H2020 programme’s topic ICT-22-2016 Technologies for Learning and Skills (call closing on 12 April), meant to stimulate technological and market innovation in digital learning and cross border adoption of new learning technologies, was presented on 18 January at the Information Networking Day on Technologies for Learning and Skills.

With this call, the main goal of the Commission is to foster the uptake of ICT in education, with a view to fill a perceived “digital gap” and to achieve a high level of inclusion and personalisation in learning. While Open Educational Resources and MOOCs still feature prominently among the expected components of the modernisation of education, the Commission also wishes to see the involvement of publishers in the process.

After a brief introduction of the LEIT (Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies) Work Programme 2016-2017 under the EU funding programme Horizon 2020, representatives of DG CNECT focused on topic ICT-22- 2016 Technologies for Learning and Skills, also providing an outline of the evaluation criteria for the call. Then the final session included a presentation of the Ideal-ist support network for Horizon 2020 participants.


The Commission recalled its longstanding record of activities, both in policy and in research and innovation, in this area, as the basis for further actions to be supported under topic ICT-22. They identified the policy background in the Communication ‘Opening up Education’ of 2013:the Communication put forward a set of actions dealing with innovation in learning and teaching, Open Educational Resources (OER) and MOOCs, infrastructures, products, services and connectivity, connected classrooms; in brief, taking innovation into classrooms, fostering the development of high quality resources (including OER) and supporting the development of infrastructure to enable the use of ICT to improve learning and teaching.

The Commission also recalled the significant investments already made on ICT and education under the previous funding instruments (FP7 and Horizon 2020 2014/15), supporting research and innovation (the latter intended as working with practitioners to show the effectiveness of technologies and close the gap) in many learning contexts (schools, workplace, lifelong), on a mix of enabling technologies (adaptive, gaming, affective, AI, mobile, cloud, virtual reality, etc.), looking at technology, pedagogy, organisation and cognitive aspects. For the Commission, this resulted in a strong corpus of knowledge and in several achievements (via projects funded) in areas such as personalisation and intelligent tutoring, open components for remote laboratories, using creativity to foster learning processes, learning analytics and ICT-enabled learning. However, despite the development of numerous relevant prototypes, a gap persists in the uptake of technology and model by educational systems and in the involvement of companies as providers. The Commission intends to leverage the extensive contacts had through previous projects with stakeholders (teachers, students) to reduce this implementation gap.

The ICT- 22-2016 topic: technologies for Learning and Skills

The presentation then concentrated on topic ICT-22-2016, Technologies for Learning and Skills, seen as the next step in the process of working with practitioners to increase implementation, with the Commission underlining that it was part of the LEIT section of the funding programme, not of the Societal Challenges one, to stress that its focus was on creating the grounds for technological developments in education, and for other players to integrate technological solutions in the practices of stakeholders. In addition to trying to close the digital gap, the Commission will keep pursuing the “Holy Grail” of technologies in education, the true realisation of personalisation in learning, building on the already developed theoretical models and prototypes.

Getting deeper into the details of the call, the Commission outlined the challenges and pressure faced by education systems today, having to deliver inclusive digital learning for all, to get the knowledge and skills to work and live in the 21st century; and identified several components perceived as integral to the modernisation of education: connected classrooms, the new role of teachers and pupils, educational games, MOOCs, personalised and adaptive learning and OER. The political will to achieve these goals, embodied in the Opening up Education Communication (“to tackle digital problems which are hampering schools and universities from delivering high quality education and the digital skills which 90% of jobs will require by 2020”) has been confirmed by Commissioner Oettinger, who called for the Commission “to reinforce digital skills and learning across society, with a view to empowering Europe’s workforce and consumers for the digital era”.

The Commission presented a series of running projects funded under previous calls that should inspire future proposals, in areas such as mainstreaming ICT in education (ODS – Open Discovery Space, Inspiring Science, Go-Lab, iTEC – Innovative Technologies for Engaging Classrooms), MOOCs (ECO – E-learning Communication Open-data, EMMA – European Multiple MOOC Aggregator), learning analytics (LACE – Learning Analytics Community Exchange, PELARS – Practice-based Experiential Learning Analytics Research And Support, Watch Me – Workplace-based e-assessment technology for competency-based higher multi-professional education, LEA’s Box – A Learning Analytics Toolbox, and many others); this to illustrate that several good solutions in different areas could be funded, as long as really innovative and valuable. Twelve new projects have just started or are about to start, funded under the 2015 ICT calls, dealing with topics like interactive and assistive music teaching, robot-assisted language learning, personalised learning environments for career development, learning analytics for advancing learning in online social environments, large scale pilots for collaborative OpenCourseWare authoring, and more.

The overall aim of topic ICT-22 is to “promote modernisation and excellence in education and training through pervasive access to digital learning and 21st century skills”. The Commission sees the underlying scenario as one of new interactions between formal and informal learning, changing roles of teachers, increasing role of social media, evolving student attitudes and a strong demand for innovation; they identify the main current obstacles as the fact that some products are tailored to very specific contexts (“silo-products”), the lack of interoperability, closed systems that hamper reuse and the lack of cross-border adoption (products, services and solutions being developed for a national or regional market) – the latter aspect being essential to address in an EU-funded project.

The challenge addressed by the topic is “to create an innovation ecosystem that will facilitate open, more effective and efficient co-design, co-creation, and use of digital content, tools and services for personalised learning and teaching”, stimulating knowledge and partnerships to develop components to “empower teachers and learners and facilitate innovation in education and training”.

Scope of the call

The call covers two areas: Innovation Actions (IA) and Research & Innovation Actions (RIA). Innovation Actions support initiatives closer to the market; the research aspect is limited, though allowed, and the focus is on piloting and testing to promote the uptake of technology in schools. The scope involves developing and testing “open, interoperable components for a flexible, scalable and cost-effective cloud-based digital learning infrastructure to deliver user-driven innovation in technological solutions and educational services for primary and secondary education for personalised, collaborative or experimental learning and skills validation.” The infrastructure shall also maintain high levels of security and privacy for teachers and students”.

The proposed solutions should cover one or several of the following areas:

  • easy creation, mix and re-use of content, services, applications and contextual data for interactive learning processes (e.g. authoring and modelling tools; syndication tools; networked objects; electronic publishing platforms; social and collaborative networks);
  • environments for new learning experiences and experimentation (e.g. 3D simulation and modelling technologies, visualisation technologies, augmented and virtual reality, location intelligence, intelligent tutors and other adaptive and multimodal technologies);
  • educational support services (e.g. learning analytics for creating, collecting, storing, sharing learner/educational data in a systematic, secure way).

Proposed solutions should have a clearly defined learning context, integrate dynamic real-time assessment of learners’ progress and be tested through very large pilots in typical learning circumstances in several European countries. Their expected impact (to be addressed via appropriate metrics) includes:

  • Availability of new, open cloud-based components, tools and services for use in digital learning scenarios;
  • Increased cross-border availability and wider adoption of education technology products/services generating new business opportunities for European providers;
  • More efficient and effective learning, through mainstreaming new ways of learning with digital technologies and more efficient ways of assessing learning outcomes;
  • Scalable solutions, capable of reaching very large numbers of schools and students, and deliver social innovation in education.

Scalability is a very important criterion; solutions must be potentially usable in a large number for schools in several countries. The overall budget available is 20 million € and the Commission expects proposals requesting contributions of around 5 million each.

Research & Innovation Actions have a higher research component; the scope covers technologies for deeper learning of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, combined with Arts (STEAM), improving the innovation and creative capacities of learners and supporting the new role of teachers as coaches of learners. Activities may cover both foundational research and/or (rather “and”) component and system level design with pilot testing, to support (user-driven) real-life intervention strategies with new enabling technologies (e.g. new interfaces, affective computing, mixed reality learning environments, 3D technologies, wearable technology). The expected impact includes break-through technologies for learning, and an improved ability to innovate in key economic growth areas by fostering intertwined development of creative and scientific/technological skills. The total budget is 11 million €, to fund projects for an expected 2.5 million each, of a duration of 2 years.

Calls under this topic will close on 12 April 2016. As last year’s call in this area attracted some 200 proposals – many of them well below the minimum evaluation threshold – the Commission insisted on the importance of submitting relevant and high quality applications.

The Commission addressed some FAQs about the call, explaining that: the proposals can address both formal and informal education; an innovation ecosystem is a system composed of different actors and resources whose interactions enable technology development and innovation; industrial partners can be project coordinators; privacy and gender issues are not the focus of the call but should be properly considered; Innovation Actions should target formal primary and secondary education; there is no definition of “large scale pilots”, so no minimal size, but the size should be such to demonstrate the replicability and scalability of solutions, taking into account the heterogeneity of educational systems in the EU (so as to cover more than one); “typical learning circumstances” happen in classes in real schools (no controlled groups); “enabling technologies” empower learners to study STEAM subjects, their novelty can be disruptive or reside in a new way of using an existing technology; “real-life intervention strategies” means that solutions must answer real problems, not hypothetical cases.

Evaluation criteria for proposals  

The next session was dedicated to the evaluation of proposals: the Horizon 2020programme focuses on innovation, therefore it’s challenge-based and open to innovative proposals, less prescriptive (topics are described less in detail, allowing for more flexibility) and with emphasis on impact; multi-disciplinarity and multi-stakeholder involvement are strongly recommended. The balanced approach to research and innovation allows incorporating the use of existing technologies in novel applications and continuous improvements. Activities close to market should emphasise the widest possible use of knowledge generated by supported activities, up to commercial exploitation, with particular emphasis on activities close to end-users, such as demonstrations, piloting and proof-of-concept.

Among the novelties of Horizon 2020, proposals for IA and for RIA should include an outline of the initial exploitation and business plan; there is no pre-defined structure, it should fit to the scale and scope of the project and doesn’t have to be a separate document.

The Commission makes an initial check for admissibility and eligibility of the proposals. Admissibility of a proposal implies for the application to be readable, accessible and printable, complete in all its forms, inclusive of an exploitation and dissemination plan for the results and no longer than 70 pages. Eligibility consists in having the minimum number of partners as set out in the call conditions and in the proposal being in scope with the call (the Commission will only exclude proposals in clear-cut cases when there is no obvious link between proposal and call topic).

The evaluation criteria for proposals are: excellence (relevant to the call description), impact and quality and efficiency of implementation; they are adapted to each type of action. RIAs should consist primarily of activities to establish new knowledge and/or explore the feasibility of new or improved technology, products, processes, services or solutions; they may include basic and applied research, technology development and integration, testing and validation on a small-scale prototype in a laboratory or simulated environment, and may contain closely connected but limited demonstration or pilot activities aiming to show technical feasibility in a near to operational environment. IAs may include prototyping, testing, demonstrating, piloting, large-scale product validation and market replication, and aim to validate the technical and economic viability of solutions in a (near) operational environment and/or support the first application/deployment in the market; they may include limited research and development activities.

Common criteria for assessing excellence include clarity of objectives, soundness of concept and credibility of methodology, as well as going beyond the state of the art and demonstrating innovation potential; expected impacts are listed in the call descriptions, but proposals can go beyond to enhance innovation capacity and competitiveness and create new market opportunities; implementation depends on the quality and effectiveness of the work plan, the appropriateness of resource allocation and of the management structures, the complementarity of the consortium members and the pertinence of the tasks allocation.

Evaluators give a score of 0 to 5 points to each criterion; the default threshold is 3 (unless specified otherwise) and the overall threshold is 10 for the total score. For IAs the Impact criterion is given a 1.5 weight.

The final Q&A session brought about a series of further clarifications: the Commission follows a general 80/20 rule in assessing the proportion of research in RIAs and IAs, i.e. for RIAs research should constitute some 80% of the effort (not necessarily of the budget) and for IAs there can be up to some 20% of research (again, in effort). RIAs still have an innovation component, so they need to be able to show the business potential of the new ideas generated, the difference with IAs being in the way of interacting with stakeholders and practitioners; if there is no potential for exploitation, Impact goes down and success gets very unlikely. IAs get close to the market, but generally remain out of it, dealing with pre-commercial activities. Proposals should not be too fragmented with respect to reaching a critical mass (of students, teachers, educational systems, etc.). The concept of deeper learning implies ensuring statistically visible results on learning with new method/tools, providing evidence that technology is working (as the impact of technologies on learning has not been yet thoroughly explored). Co-design and co-creation should involve an ecosystem, with many players contributing: practitioners (teachers, who will use the solutions), but also technology providers, publishers, researchers (the business and technology side), to create a middleware to lower barriers to entry in the market. Proponents should check the state of the art established by previous projects; in particular, for IAs, three main areas were identified: technologies creation and mixing up of content and services, authoring, linking learning objects, creators and users/re-users (in this case applicants should look also at other experiences with content in general, exploring how publishers may put together content and materials and see how to reuse them based on licensing terms); learning experience and experimentations (remote laboratories, etc.); educational support services (learning analytics, etc.).

The ideal-ist support network

The last session was a presentation of the Ideal-ist support network, a project that assembles National Contact Points from 72 countries, i.e. the organisations that help applicants at national level to make proposals by providing services of partner search and matching, brokerage events and pre-proposal and proposal checking, for free.


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