Europeans embrace e-education
BY SARAH PARKES
Education is a lifelong process. Happily, thanks to the Internet's ability to break down barriers—geographical, temporal, cultural, linguistic—it's also fast becoming highly interactive, global and much more enjoyable.
While 1990s Old World thinking saw many early e-education initiatives flounder, Europeans are at last beginning to embrace a newfound enthusiasm for the Internet in the classroom, thanks in part to the European Union's (EU's) efforts to make Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) the cornerstone of a strong, tightly integrated “United States of Europe.”
In Spain, where online penetration still trails well behind U.S. and even EU averages, concerted efforts to build national ICT capability has blossomed into a pioneering new pedagogical approach that goes much further than just teaching kids how to use a keyboard.
Based out of the University of Cádiz (UCA) in the country's sultry south, the CReA project is using ICTs to create new, interactive teaching materials developed not just by staff but by the students themselves. Established three years ago with the help of funding from the EU's Socrates/Minerva education program, the project unites educational institutions in Spain, Italy, France and Portugal in a virtual learning community where students and teachers alike use the Internet to develop and share information.
Joaquin Moreno (far right) and members of the CReA team turn education into an opportunity for creation, self-knowledge and personal development.
Coordinating the project is 48-year-old engineer Joaquin Moreno, who works out of UCA's Departamento de Ingeniería de Sistemas (Department of Systems Engineering) overseeing an international project team comprising senior representatives from all major participating colleges and institutions. The aim of CReA, he says, is to nurture the development of exciting and effective new learning models that focus on interaction, collaboration and the dynamic development of teaching resources.
In practice, this means students learn by creating (hence the project name), rather than by rote memorization of musty texts and preprepared lessons. “CReA encourages students to work in teams to develop their own projects—a history of their region, for example, or an analysis of a book or film,” Moreno says. “They research and create their own projects online, which then serve as learning resources for other students in partner organizations across Europe.”
Activities for the current academic year span a wide range of disciplines, from art and social sciences to mathematics and IT. Projects include the creation of electronic newspapers and geographical atlases, online debates about topical political or social issues, development of stories and dialogues for English language teaching, virtual book clubs and the creation of online cartoons, electronic Christmas cards and the like.
To manage the different learning streams, the CReA team appoints an international coordinator for each pedagogical activity, who is supported by local coordinators at each institution. Each CReA teacher is required to dedicate an average of 3.5 hours per week to the project, including ongoing ICT self-training, activities management, communication with partner organizations and preparation of new learning activities. In addition, all four CReA partner organizations submit a monthly activities report, including breakdowns of time devoted to different project activities by each staff member.
In keeping with CReA's ethic of interaction and collaboration, implementation of the project has been a highly dynamic process based around a large, geographically dispersed team of national project leaders. Developed around a seven-phase work plan stretching from 2000 to early 2004, some activities, such as ICT teacher training, have been extended subsequently through to the project's end, after periodical reviews showed ongoing technical shortfalls. Other activities, including evaluation and management, development of new pedagogical activities and dissemination of project information, will continue throughout the life of the project.
The proactive review of student and teacher experiences has been an integral element of CReA since its inception. While the first Spanish pilot elicited unanimous agreement on the fun of Web-based learning, many students remained skeptical about the new approach's ability to improve their grades. Those sorts of doubts, along with other concerns that have arisen during the project's wider implementation, are addressed at the CReA international project team's regular six monthly meetings, which analyze a global project evaluation report produced by the Cádiz team incorporating extensive feedback from all partner institutions.
“We've had difficulties in areas ranging from translation—making resources readily available in all project languages so they can be shared by the entire community—to ongoing teacher training needs, large class sizes and an inability to meet huge student demand,” Moreno says. Another challenge, he says, has been conceptualizing and developing open, flexible learning models that overturn entrenched, old-style teaching conventions.
At the management level, Moreno stresses the importance of “ownership” through designation of a single point of contact for each activity, as well as the need for CReA teachers at each institution to commit to regular fortnightly meetings to address problems before they become unmanageable.
After more than two years, students are motivated and involved in their class work, and teaching staff have found themselves empowered by their newfound ICT skills. In addition, the new learning model has broken down economic and gender barriers in the classroom.
“The CReA project embodies the notion of democratization of the classroom and the empowerment of all players—students and teachers alike,” Moreno says. “It's a mutual learning experience reflecting the dynamism of the modern world, a voyage into the ever-evolving realms of cyberspace, where outcomes are never predictable and the journey itself is the destination.” PM
Sarah Parkes is a freelance journalist with more than 12 years of experience in the telecom and IT sectors. Based in France, she is a regular contributor to a number of U.S. and European publications, including London's Financial Times.
PM NETWORK | FEBRUARY 2004 | WWW.PMI.ORG
FEBRUARY 2004 | PM NETWORK