All the international trainings and exchanges have been moved online during the pandemic. Can participants still benefit from a cultural exchange, make valuable connections, and feel stimulated in an online environment? What has been lost, and what has been gained? An EAEA event, organised with the framework of the Erasmus+ INTALL project, took place 13 July and discussed some of these issues.
“We have the experience that it’s beneficial for both sides if we learn and study together,” said Prof. Regina Egetenmeyer from Wuerzburg University, Germany, explaining the background of the INTALL project, which brings MA and PhD students together with practitioners in adult learning and education.
The Adult Education Academy is organised annually in Wuerzburg, Germany. Since it commenced in 2014, it has hosted 480 participants representing 53 countries. Every year, participants get to exchange on several topics, visit local adult learning organisations, and celebrate together during a festive evening wrapping up the two-week programme. In 2020 it became clear that the February 2021 academy would need to happen differently.
Setting the right expectations
“There were a lot of emotions behind the decision to move the programme virtually. Are we losing the core of our activity? We had a lot of doubts if we were going to be successful, said Egetenmeyer. She explained the steps taken to organise the 2021 edition of the academy, highlighting the importance of setting the right expectations and agreeing on a joint message: making the best out of a difficult situation. The emotional preparation was crucial, creating a learning community for exchange:
“We agreed on a set of principles: we adapted the timetable for the whole programme, starting interactions already in November, with clear breaks. We also focused on the didactics for learning in online rooms, without changing any of the content.”
We had a very high satisfaction rate and very high learning effects
In the next phase, the organisers exchanged about digital tools that are available, established selection criteria and held a training to get familiar with them. A didactical preparation phase followed.
“We tried to celebrate patience with the technology, and with the technical skills of all of us,” emphasized Egetenmeyer.
As the Adult Education Academy kicked off, some ground rules were set: working with small groups, encouraging informal communication and regular breaks, opening the floor for questions from participants.
“We’re really happy that we could reach a huge number of people,” said Egetenmeyer, adding that 67 participants joined the virtual Academy, representing 23 countries.
“We had a very high satisfaction rate and very high learning effects, especially about understanding adult education and lifelong learning in other countries and shifting perspectives about their own countries.”
Reflecting the quality of delivery
According to INTALL project partners, good communication with other colleagues and established relationships were some of the success factors in moving the Adult Education Academy online.
“We were supported in what we wanted to do and new ideas were proposed to us,” said Prof. Paula Guimarães from the University of Lisbon.
Acknowledging the necessity to change was key. “Life has changed around us very dramatically. We have to get accustomed to how to combine virtual tools in a way that it doesn’t harm our autonomy and privacy in learning,” commented Dr. Balazs Nemeth, EAEA Executive Board member, from University of Pecs.
… we’ve been surprised to see how quickly our learners adapted to the new environment because they understood the necessity.
“At our organisation, we’ve been surprised to see how quickly our learners adapted to the new environment because they understood the necessity,” said Vassiliki Tsekoura, speaking on behalf of Dafni Kek, an adult learning provider in Patras, Greece, and EAEA member. She added that despite barriers such as family responsibilities, technical issues in terms of skills or infrastructure, many adults found their way.
“But to keep these learners, you need to all the time reflect on your quality of delivery as a provider: if your technology is appropriate, if you are patient enough, if you provide them understandable tools. It gives food for thought on our responsibility as adult providers: what are the needs of our learners? What are their limitations?,” Tsekoura continued.
Patience and systematic approach is needed
“It’s undoubtable that people were frustrated at the beginning: you start building relations, as a learner as a teacher, and then everything changes,” added Angeliki Giannakopoulou from Dafni Kek. “A systemic approach is needed: being organised, having a plan, communicating.”
It’s an interesting momentum – you’re being thrown into deep water and you have to learn how to swim.
The panelists agreed that patience was important, and that it was also going to pay off long term.
“You need a lot of resources, you need a lot of time. What will help us in the future is that we’re getting more familiar: even though the technology might be changing, the type of the tools will most likely stay the same. Both teachers and learners become more accustomed,” said Prof. Sabine Schmidt-Lauf from Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg.
“It’s an interesting momentum – you’re being thrown into deep water and you have to learn how to swim,” added Dr Nemeth.
From quality assurance to inverse blended learning
What do teachers and adult educators need to be able to swim in such deep waters? Certainly the set of skills needed by adult educators is quickly evolving.
We established a set of principles that make online learning successful.
“Even before the pandemic, there were many online learning possibilities that were open to us. Some estimate that Youtube is the biggest learning platform,” said Karin Kulmer from CONEDU, Austria. CONEDU is an online platform for adult educators that in March 2020 launched EBmooc plus, a follow-up of an earlier popular course. Their efforts were awarded the Innovation Prize of the German Adult Education Institute last year.
“We established a set of principles that make online learning successful: autonomy and flexibility, pleasant learning environment, safe and healthy participation, using functional and familiar devices and infrastructure,” said Ms Kulmer.
The course tapped into a field that is growing but remains largely unexplored: the complex set of competences needed by adult educators in a digital environment, with a reflection on digital safety, information literacy and changing job profiles. To encourage interaction, the course organisers investigated the concept of “inverse blended learning”.
“If you think of blended learning, traditionally you had a presence course and an online course as an extra. In inverse blended learning course, it’s the online course that is the basis, and in addition you have some presence trainings,” Kulmer explained.
In addition to “learning groups” – which were held predominantly virtually – CONEDU also used different ways to reach out to the participants in a more personalised way, for example discussion forums and consultations, during which learners could ask questions, but which often became more of an exchange of ideas.
More choices in the future
Looking ahead, will the ongoing pandemic encourage a shift towards more online learning, or perhaps the opposite – will we jump at the first opportunity to carry out face-to-face activities again?
“It’s undoubtable that we have more opportunities, in terms of who is able to participate or to catch up on things after they have begun, for example by watching a recorded session,” commented Ms Giannakopoulou, adding that social contacts can never be completely compensated in an online environment.
“The critical issue for the future will be the choice – which format is best? What are the needs of our learners? My hope is that this reflection will allow us to have better presence training and better online training in the future,” concluded Ms Kulmer.
Text: Alexandra Kozyra, EAEA