Opinion: The right to education needs an update for the digital world

11 juin 2020 |

A conference delegate experiences immersive learning at the 2018 Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai, UAE

In a world increasingly dominated by tech, the right to education must include digital literacy and competency


The digital revolution may have changed our way of life, but humanity still remains fundamentally human. Humans may be no match for the speed or strength of a robot, but it is our humanity which give us the advantage over the machines: our creativity, curiosity, passion, sympathy and social awareness.

I do not believe that the rapid advances in digital technology are eroding our humanity. Instead, these advances can help humans to become more human, to think for ourselves, to communicate with one another and create new ideas together. But this will only be the case if we ensure that everyone has the right to participate in this digital landscape, including access to the skills and competencies they need to take part.

What does it mean to be a human being in the digital age? For one thing, most of our social interactions now take place in a digital environment and we express ourselves principally through digital channels. The right to participate in this digital area is therefore very important. For without these social connections, and the embrace of a wider community, we would be only hopeless and lonely creatures.

It’s for that reason that we need digital rights, to expand on the fundamental freedoms envisaged under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected under international human rights treaties. These treaties, set down almost sixty years ago, guarantee our rights to freedom of expression, to association and to education. But these rights were also enshrined in international law long before the advent of the internet and mass communication. Today, these fundamental principles still stand – but they are being rapidly eroded by the march of technology.

That is why international civil society is now working on a new set of digital rights suited for a digital age. These rights would protect the freedom of anyone to access a computer and to participate in the digital landscape. There are, after all, no limits to the social connections afforded by the digital world. In this new world, it is our digital competencies rather than differences in language, distance and time, that will limit our access to human rights. Access to these skills and knowledge should therefore be understood as a cornerstone of the right to education.

In this new world, it is our digital competencies rather than differences in language, distance and time, that will limit our access to human rights. 

There is no such thing as a true digital native. The digital literacy and competencies required to navigate the digital world must be taught systematically, and acquired through experience and practice. That is why it is so important that States recognize digital competence as part of the right to education and provide access to digital education for everyone. This is particularly important as the process of learning itself becomes more and more digital.

The right to education is universally recognized by States around the world. However, unless we recognize the associated right to digital competence, education will be increasingly out of step with the way we live our lives. Digital competence is increasingly essential to lifelong learning, and to finding a good job. It is, therefore, a moral obligation for the international community to recognize the right to digital competence. More broadly, it’s important to note that digital rights are also a safeguard against the growing abuses in the digital world, including the rise of mass surveillance and data harvesting. As the UN high commissioner for human rights has said:

“These challenges drive us back to the timeless principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ... To respect these rights in our rapidly evolving world, we must ensure that the digital revolution is serving the people, and not the other way round. We must ensure that every machine-driven process or artificial intelligence system complies with cornerstone principles such as transparency, fairness, accountability, oversight and redress.”

The digital world is neither better nor worse than real life. It’s just as possible for someone to fail in the digital world as it is in real life. But the digital world could be better if more people around the world have access to it. To do that, States must ensure that the right to education includes digital literacy and competences.

Key recommendations  |

  • Establish an international framework to define, measure and certify digital competence. Such a framework should standardize digital competence requirements, and make digital competence qualifications and training comparable across systems;
  • Provide equal opportunities through education, vocational education, higher education and lifelong learning for everyone to develop their digital competence;
  • Make trainings in basic digital competence freely available for anyone with low or no digital competence;
  • Ensure that any kind of professional training includes a digital competence test and a digital competence development module if necessary.

About the author

Adam Horvath is a digital education expert and is the co-author and editor of the Digital Education Strategy of Hungary. He has worked to redefine education for a digital age with governments, private companies, EdTech startups and communities. Adam has two decades of experience working with digital technology, and is the receipient of the 2016 EU Digital Award for disadvantaged children for coding. He is a judge at World Robot Olympiade and First LEGO League championships and also an the ambassador for the European Code Week.

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