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19 January 2011 / erikduval

Systemic change in Greece…

Do you ever wonder what you would do if you really had the power to change things? I feel that we often hide behind the less than convincing argument of ‘I would know how to organize things in my family-school-university! If only my partner-principal-rector would would allow me to …’

Well, last week, I had a meeting with several vice-ministers, the minister of culture, the minister of education and the prime minister of Greece. A real meeting, with a few external participants (like myself), some advisors and the People in Power.

This meeting went a bit different than I expected. For one thing, we were absolutely free to tweet or blog whatever whenever. So, I did, during the meeting:

Second, I have been in ‘official’ meetings before and we often hear a brief message at the start that ‘the minister’ cannot be present because he has even more pressing business to attend to. Now, it is no secret that Greece has certain problems to solve, and I was very impressed that the prime minister actually participated actively for five hours in a meeting on education. In his introduction, he mentioned that the Greek school and university system was too heavy and rigid, and that ‘learning should be fun’.

Actually, the slogan of ‘Serious Fun‘ is one I often use in my keynotes. But it’s one thing to stand on a stage and say this. It’s another thing to actually try to implement measures that will realize this.

In our five hours of serious (and fun!) discussion, we went over a lot of topics. A few issues stood out for me:

  • The Greek government actually owns all the school textbooks. This may be a bit old-fashioned, but it does present an enormous opportunity for innovation: there will be no difficult negotiations with educational publishers about copyright… The Greek government can just decide to make all textbooks available digitally for free in an open format that allows remixing. Apparently, that is exactly what they intend to do!
  • My personal view is that Greece should invest in a sound technical infrastructure for learning: this includes cheap (free?) ubiquitous high bandwidth, a personal device for every teacher and learner, and basic learning services. At this level, adherence to open standards is crucial in my view as it prevents lock-in and ensures a path to co-evolve with the technology. Such an infrastructure will enable the abundance that allows the teachers and learners to steer the innovation themselves.
  • On the other hand, for tools, applications and content, I encouraged the group to be innovative and go way beyond PDF’s of the textbooks. As a simple example, I’ve had some great learning time with my daughter using the Solar System app for the iPad. What if every kid, student and adult learner in Greece had access to a device with exciting content like that and social support around it? Would that not help to ‘make learning fun’?
  • I do think that it is essential that every learner has his own personal device: the concept of computer rooms in schools and universities is really not working. A personal, portable networked device is part of the basic infrastructure for me. Whether that should be a phone, a tablet or a netbook is more open for discussion. And whatever device is chosen, it will be obsolete in a year or two-three. As long as Moore’s law holds, that is inevitable – and actually a good thing in my opinion, as it keeps the pressure on ;-)…
  • If you’re going to innovate and experiment, then you need to reassure learners and teachers that you will support them also if things go wrong. You cannot innovate if you’re worried about failure. Especially when times are tough, it is imperative that teachers do not feel threatened. My personal strategy, admittedly naive, is to try and tap into the passion for learning that I think all of us have and to trust students and teachers. I often mention that we can afford to do this, as the current situation in most schools and universities is not very good anyway. We’re failing now already, so we do not have that much to loose…

I guess many are familiar with the quote that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste“: another slogan that is easy to mention, but a lot less obvious to implement… I am sure that there must have been quite a bit of politics going on behind the scenes of the meeting I participated in. And I am too under-informed to even have an opinion on the austerity measures currently being implemented in Greece. Yet, if a Prime Minister is willing to spend most of a day discussing how to make learning fun, while his country faces one of its most difficult crises in recent history, then I must say that I have high hopes that the Greek crisis may actually benefit the country. I, for one, will be terribly interested to see how this evolves!

6 Comments

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  1. Alexander / Jan 19 2011 1:57 pm

    Hi Eric,

    I cannot agree more. Improving the infrastructure is key to success for anything further planned. The very fact that Mr. Papandreou has shown such a great interest in modernizing the Greek education system makes me confident that his country is on the right track.

    It was nice meeting you btw!

    Alex

  2. carpetbomberz / Jan 19 2011 7:16 pm

    Hi Eric,

    This is some great news. What a meeting! It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of your discussions and what can be accomplished under the Greek financial austerity measures. But sometimes even just planning is a good thing. Prime Minister Papandreou has always seemed in interviews to be an interesting person and your experience as related here fully supports that.

  3. DMcCunney / Jan 20 2011 8:29 pm

    Alex Turcic, the founder of MobileRead.com, was one of the external participants there to provide advice. I’m a MobileRead staffer, and I and the other staff members have been following this with great interest.

    I agree wholeheartedly on the necessity for the underlying infrastructure, and with the necessity to “look beyond PDF” as the format. Alex shared a draft of his presentation with us before leaving for the conference. My concerns were the infrastructure that would provide this, the need for some sort of standard format material could be provided in, and the need for something as device agnostic as possible, so students could work with course material on whatever they preferred that could display the content.

    Ultimately, I think the problems aren’t technical or financial, they’re political. For something like this to happen, all concerned must buy into it and see it as beneficial. The government can’t just say “Thou shalt” and expect it to happen. But if they come up with an overall approach that those affected will see as beneficial, they can say “You can…” and step back out of the way.

  4. Michalis Kalamaras / Jan 27 2011 2:03 pm

    Hi, I am Michalis from Greece and I am blogging on ebooks in Greek and ebook reading (devices, apps etc.). Thanks for this post first of all because in fact the only other source of information for this meeting is a single story in an newspaper “leaked” by the government. And of course is important to know what are the discussions and the ideas for schools in Greece.

    We definitely need more digital learning in Greek schools, the problem is that in Greece only 40% of the polpulation has access to the Internet and ebooks and apps and devices are in their very early days. For example, there are only around 1500 ebooks in Greek and they are mostly PDFs (10,000 books are printed in Greece annually). What I am trying to say is that most of the people don’t even know what an ebook or an ebook reader or even a tablet PC is.

  5. Nikitas Kastis / Mar 10 2011 6:07 pm

    It is good to know that such meetings are taking place!
    And that competent and knowledgeable people, like Lisa and Erik, of whom I know, had participated. I am sure they did their best to infiltrate their innovation-community based ideas into the dominant paradigm of education policy making, which they had been presented with, I guess.
    Yet, we should not expect a lot. In all areas and aspects of education decision-making, even more with those dealing with technology driven innovation, in terms of learning materials, learning processes and the collaborative practices, the dominant approach is typically supply driven and top-down.
    Add to this, the rather typical deficiency of the Greek bureaucracy and you have the best recipe of (a) “things go as it is”, (b) technologies deployed to reproduce the existing, obsolete and ineffective, failing pedagogy. Even if you have top level politicians engaged, it needs much more to change the system. Needs harnessed vision, education policy making experience and dedicated professionals (not a lot of them, at the beginning).

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