Future of Education – a report from Florence, Italy, June 7-8,2012
The Conference on Future of Education held in Florence in June 2012 set itself up for very high expectations just because of the title. There were 11 thematic areas from Studies on Education, to Innovative Teaching and Learning Methodologies, Art Education, e-Learning., Gender Equality and Learning Games to People with Disabilities and Distance Education. 258 participants had registered and they presented 209 papers. The amount was overwhelming and since there were 4 parallel sessions I did not have a chance to see them all. But I ran from one room to another and tried to get as much as possible, hoping to read at least some of the papers later on. The conference was really well organized, everything was prepared and taken care of, including a Florence tour.
The opening keynote speech “Future Challenges for the European Education System” presented by Stanislav Ranguelov of the European Commission, gave a perfect perspective on the issues in education. It showed how incredibly complex the subject is. Mr. Ranguelov presented us with the results of a huge Eurydice report on Education and Learning and Innovation through ICT at School in Europe. He tackled the problem of population and the dropping number of children that constitutes a huge problem for teachers and public authorities. On the other hand, young people tend to remain longer in the education process. Looking at the statistics from all the European countries it is clear that the trend is to provide more years of compulsory education. Then there is a question of whether the education should be private or public. Statistics show that the majority still chooses public education and even the majority of chosen private education is funded publicly. Parents’ choice of a public school is allowed only in 4 European countries and at the same time it seems to be the biggest factor determining a school success. Teachers are more and more qualified and in some countries they receive practical education in addition to the theory. Teachers are also a group that retires as early as only possible. Not many countries plan ahead for the number of teachers (like Finland does) and in many countries there is a threat of aging and therefore of a sudden need for large numbers of new teachers who will then not be experienced for some time to come. We talked about the cost of education and the fact that people with tertiary education have a much better chance of finding a job but often that job is not relevant to their education.
Mr. Ranguelov mentioned 5 major challenges for education with the need to:
- Reduce the number of early school leavers
- Increase participation in primary education
- Ensure equality in education
- Reduce gaps between schools
- Work on the optimal size of classes
He also mentioned the challenges for teachers:
- Significant fall in the proportion of graduates in the field of education and training
- Salaries (to compensate for inflation)
- Increase in the average number of active teaching hours
These challenges were visible during the whole conference. This is probably my only reproach towards the conference: I did not see much of the future but I definitely saw a lot of problems with the present, fortunately often combined with some ideas as to their solution.
Ms. May M.H. Cheng of Hong Kong Institute of Education mentioned a big challenge for the teachers in Hong Kong. Apparently the country is trying to move from teacher-centered education to student-centered education but the teachers are often unable to make the shift and to understand the new approach because they were taught in a different way. Ms. Cheng stressed that this shift is really essential to the success of education.
Ruth Trinder of Vienna University of Economics and Business underlined the importance of students’ choice in the learning process. Independent learning occurs when students can at least choose when they are going to complete an assignment. When they have some influence on the process. She also stressed the fact that technology should not drive pedagogy. She noticed that the fact that most university students are digital natives does not mean that they will embrace self-access online learning with enthusiasm. In fact, a study was performed at her university where students were allowed to choose a blend of traditional and electronic ways and materials for language learning and it turned out they chose online learning just before their exams and appreciated the fact that it allowed the freedom to choose the time and place but they still valued the traditional approach. Participating in classes allowed them to keep in touch with their peers, learn where they are with materials and assess their level of proficiency. Ms. Trinder mentioned some positive aspects of eLearning that she had gathered from students during her study:
- The choice of time, place and speed
- Individualized practice
- Immediacy of explanation & feedback
- Monitoring and consolidation of knowledge
And some negative ones:
- Learner beliefs about language learning
- Belief in importance of oral interaction
- Too much eLearning in general (students are tired of learning with computers)
She summarized that what influences the use of online materials are some learner factors:
- Perceived need (e.g. self-assessment of linguistic competence, novelty of subject matter)
- Learner beliefs, learning styles and main goals
- Capacity for self-regulated learning
And some contextual factors:
- Endorsement by opinion leaders (teachers or peers)
- External structure (such as tie-in with regular classes, online mid-term tests)
- Exam relevance
Rajaa M. Albool of Birzeit University in Palestine shared her project of utilizing the storytelling strategy in teaching mathematics and its effect on the achievement and motivation of grade four students towards learning mathematics.
The outcome was pretty straightforward: the children enjoyed the storytelling and were able to grasp the mathematical concepts more efficiently. Apparently our mind organizes itself better in storytelling.
Silvija Karklina of the Public Service Language Centre in Latvia mentioned some arguments against ICT: the cost (it is still quite expensive), the need for very close cooperation between the designer, developer and teacher in order to achieve success (therefore a single teacher doesn’t really have a chance to produce successful material on their own), the requirements for users’ and teachers’ skills.
Diane Boothe and Ross Vaughn of Boise State University in USA talked about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Apparently – as the research suggests – STEM workers create ideas that become commercialized and yield additional jobs. The key is to make those subjects relevant, increase the understanding and provide students with a good introduction so they can choose them as a career path.
Polona Kelava of the Educational Research Institute in Slovenia showed the interdependence between social inclusion and non-formal learning. She suggested a very interesting idea of rewarding the skills that the individuals obtain in informal learning to include them more in a society, to make them feel a part of it, to make them feel needed.
Jolita Savicke of Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania played an ancient Lithuanian instrument to show the audience the power of a personalized learning environment. It was amazing to see how such a simple experiment uncovers the undeniable truth that we all perceive learning differently, that we all have a different approach and have a different appreciation of even a simple piece of music, not to mention all the other educational stimuli.
Eugene j. Monaco of Albany State University in USA showed the ‘dark side’ of online courses. According to some statistics, 6.1 million students took an online course in the fall of 2011, which is an increase by 10.1% compared to 2009. But completion rates have not kept up with this increase. Drop-out rates can be as high as 50%. The reason? Students questioned the quality and the relevance of the courses. It is not enough to provide learning in the online/technology form. First we have to redefine education and then we can improve the online courses. But what Mr. Monaco was talking about was improving the courses by performing usability tests. They improve the learnability, efficiency, memorability and satisfaction and diminish the number of errors. In my opinion, this is still mostly the form and we need to think about the content but it is always a step forward. Especially when we consider the fact that testing done by 5 expert users uncovers 75% of the problems.
Jan Gejel of the European LABlearning project in Denmark talked about games in education. He summarized the history of the developmrnt of educational games from a really interesting perspective saying that there was an antagonism and distance between education and games as the latter ones were for killing people while education was all about educating them J. Then we started to put different content in the games but those educational products turned out not to be very good games. So we stopped looking at the content of the killing games and looked more into the way the learning was organized. And we discovered that some powerful educational principles were embedded in those games. So now we have realized the educational potential of games. But somehow we still cannot produce a really good and serious game. Mr. Gejel suggested that good games couldn’t be produced on market terms. The market can produce commercial games but not serious games for education. To unfold the potential of those games we need a different business model and to establish a new culture of education. Education needs to collaborate with the game producer. I think we need to watch closely as LABlearning may soon produce something spectacular J
Maja Pivec of the University of Applied Sciences in Austria talked about game-based learning (GBL). She pointed out that the mere term ‘game’ can discourage a lot of people from learning. There are some big issues that we need to analyze before proceeding with game development: how can we make adults learn and have fun in a serious way? What is the big appeal for youngsters? How can we make games culturally adaptable to different countries, different age, technology and the need to be easily accessible? She also mentioned the barriers for usage of the GBL approaches:
- Complexity of activities
- Duration time of game-based activities
- Meeting of the learning objectives
- Language of the resources
- Competence of the learners/trainers
- Technical equipment needed/available
- Access to the resources
And then at the end – in the closing speech – Pablo Campos Calvo-Sotelo of Universidad Ceu San Pablo in Spain talked about Architecture for Education: Cities, Campus, Buildings, Classrooms. He pointed out that education is a spatial act and it requires space. Interaction with that space is very important. The space has a significant impact on human mind and where we learn is equally important as what we learn and how we do it.
A lot of issues were raised at the event. A lot of problems revealed. And maybe that is really what is necessary: to realize what is being done wrong, what needs to be changed. To define the problem. My boss in the Law Office used to tell me that defining the problem constitutes 90% of its solution.
Referring back to Mr. Ranguelov’s speech, there have been some suggestions for the future provided as well:
- To make lifelong learning and mobility a reality
- To improve the quality and efficiency of education and training
- To promote equity, social cohesion and active citizenship
- To enhance creativity and innovation including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training
Combined with the results of presented studies and personal recommendations of the participants, they ensure hard work and lay a lot of tasks ahead of us. We have to start working now in order to shape the future of education tomorrow.