Home » n. 24 gennaio/febbraio 2004

E-learning evolution in Romania. The Romanian Internet Learning Workshop Project

24 gennaio 2004 | Susan English (s.j.english@wdi.co.uk)

Introduction

To discuss the particular context and evolution of eLearning in Romania it is necessary to understand the local situation with regard to Internet access and particularities of the general educational system. It has only been since 1993 that Romanian university networks and other Romanian Internet service providers have joined the ever-expanding global community of Internet users (Jalobeanu, 1998). 1989 changes in the political, social and economic system couldn’t change the people mentality, after fifty years of education focused against communication. Internet connection has been driven by Romanian scientists and students teaching, researching or learning in Western universities because of their special interest to communicate with their teachers, parents or friends. Even five years after 1989, there were local forces identifying Internet as main danger for Romanian society. It was a delay until the adoption of necessary changes in the educational system, and we miss adequate teachers for new goals. This is why initial and professional continuing teacher education in Romania must be able to offer teachers a sound technical infrastructure accompanied by up-to-date factual information as well as training in modern didactical methods, including the use of New Media and the Internet.

The “Romanian Internet Learning Workshop” (RILW) took place during 1997-2001, organized by Cultural Society Polygon. The today spread of eLearning in Romania may be considered as a flavor of these unique workshops, as a result of the intensive five years activities of the RILW participants.

The Internet in Romania
In Romania, the number of computers per capita is still very low compared with other countries (in 2000, the educational system counted one PC to 173 students), also the communication infrastructure development needs money. Investment in the educational system is extremely low and is based mainly on European projects like PHARE, and TEMPUS. Consequently, Internet access is still considered to be a privilege for a minority of the population. The studies regarding Internet penetration are rare, sporadic, and, sometimes contradictory.

The transition to an Information Society in Romania needs the required communications infrastructure as well as the information and communication technology (ICT). An e-Readiness project was launched last August, at government level, to evaluate ICT infrastructure development and impact http://www.agora.ro/news/articol.shtml?id=63677

It is also essential to have an appropriate education system that embraces integration of ICT and supports the teachers to utilizorgae the potential of the Internet in teaching and learning. But, most of all, it needs a change of attitudes in the thinking habits of the population because the Internet is essentially an open system, allowing people to take responsibility for their own learning as well as sharing ideas and helping others to reach their goals. This must also be the case in other former communist countries where speech and ideas were not ‘free’ and people were forced to live in isolation from the rest of the world.

Aims of the Project
In this context, one of the most important goals of the RILW was to build and maintain a community of Romanian and international experts as a framework for exchanging domain knowledge and promoting the organization of collaborative projects. Further, it is an opportunity for foreign participants to confront their knowledge and practical experience with the particular context of Romanian schools and universities as well as to explore new possibilities of cooperation. Locally, the main goal is to widen and extend access to IT for teachers and students, which would also make available new educational technologies.

The RILW Papers and Participants
RILW has taken place annually since the first meeting – in July of 1997. At each event, some 20 to 30 papers have been presented and several round panel discussions were held. The Internet has been exploited for the conference organization (involving several committee members across Europe) and dissemination – the conference’s homepage was initially http://www.itim-cj.ro/rilw/, changed in 1999 to http://rilw.emp.paed.uni-muenchen.de and mirrored at http://rilw.itim-cj.ro/, as well as on further Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish and American sites. As a result, the International participation was important, including exotic countries like New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Iceland, also.

The core of RILW editorial board was formed by Nic Nistor, Susan English, Mihai Jalobeanu. The accepted papers were grouped in three sections:
1. Theoretical and practically based perceptions of Internet learning.
2. Case studies, questions and issues about Internet learning in schools, universities, adult education and distance learning.
3. Software tools for Internet learning.

Yearly, for each edition, the Proceedings volume was printed before conference (since 1998 with ISDN number, too). The cover of the Proceedings volumes being designed by Andra-Felicia Predescu and Mihai Jalobeanu jr. The volumes are yet available on a public (free) basis, especially for the Romanian libraries, and Universities.

Yearly, for each edition, it was published, mainly by Susan English, a conference review report. Especially into different British and American DE journals. The conference review reports were written from the perspective of a self-confessed ‘educationalist’ rather than the ’scientists’, ‘psychologists’ or ‘technologists’ who formed the majority of RILW participants.

The most relevant topics discussed at RILW are also outlined at SITE-2000.html, and in Toward the Virtual University book. The core of the book, the section Projects and Tools, consists of research reports originally presented at RILW. The book includes also, as an introduction, an extended presentation of RILW, including an analysis of the most relevant papers presented.

Round Panel discussions
Round panel discussions about educational and technical topics have been a regular feature at all the meetings of RILW. In this way issues have been prioritized and problems along with potential solutions have been considered. One particularly valuable proposal under discussion in 1999 involved the task of designing and delivering new courses to be offered on a networked study-center system in Romania. The known existing issues were first acknowledged: local and individual initiatives did not always have support from the authorities; legislation of this form of education is very recent; accreditation is still being defined and developed; quality assurance methods need priority attention to overcome a previous lack of rigor; strategies are needed for study centers to co-operate with each other and the type of students to be targeted as well as form of media to be used for delivery needed consideration. The outcome of the discussion highlighted issues that are pertinent to others who have the task of designing new courses for extensive use:

- Courses are more likely to be successful if there is a perceived need by the student for the subject and if the students are very well motivated and thus highly committed.
- Ease of access to equipment and facilities is very important.
- Preparation may be needed in IT skills training for students and tutors.
- Choice of media for delivery should be based on the required didactic method used in course presentation.
- Regarding a target group – evidence suggests that post-graduate level distance courses have the highest demand and success rate. In which case, existing teachers would be an appropriate group to start with and there was a need for continuing professional development in this area.
- Support from higher authority is not always present but this should not prevent the design of new courses taking shape.

Other round table topics have been: the impact of the Internet on children’s civil education; virtual libraries vs. virtual universities; universities and international cooperation; electronic distance education: the development of DE centers in Romanian Universities and Teachers’ Houses (continuing professional development for teachers). A common frustration that has been frequently voiced is how the heavy weight of bureaucracy and the feather-light touch of financial investment has thwarted many creative initiatives in Romania.

Results & Perspectives
The conference has relied on the enthusiastic and permanent participation of a core number of specialists from Germany, the UK, Spain, and of course Romania. Participants are generally university professors and lecturers but also includes under-graduate, graduate and doctoral students from Romania and abroad. The opportunity for sharing ideas, presenting research findings and formal as well as informal discussions in the intimate atmosphere of this conference has always been particularly satisfying for attendees. Though our cultures and contexts are different, many of the difficulties and problems that arise regarding new methodologies and features of learning on the Internet, are familiar. Some of the lessons we have learnt, through repeated findings in different contexts, about Internet-based learning include:
- The most suitable pedagogic designs appear to involve student-centered learning, problem-based learning and ‘real-life’ contexts and activities
- There is a need for staff development training (in creating and supporting courses) in an on-line learning environment
- Students need to be prepared with ‘learning skills’ training (team skills as well as IT skills)
- There is an imperative need for constant monitoring, evaluation and continual improvement of virtual courses.

Building the Community
There have been many factors that contributed to building the community of experts. The most important of them was the scientific exchange that took place during presentation and discussion of papers at RILW. Much cooperative work between the experts has taken place before the conference, while intensively communicating via e-mail, reviewing papers, organizing the conference, publishing all the information in the WWW. The informal and cultural aspects of the conferences have also been an important aspect in the process of building a group of people who trust, respect and learn from each other. Together, with the opportunities given for the silent sharing of musical and artistic performances, we have learnt far more than words could possibly offer. It is due to the vision and practical help of the Polygon Society (joint organizers) that RILW has been enriched with a mixture of culture, arts and science. This vision stemmed from oppressive earlier days when communication between disciplines and between countries was very limited. Now through the freedom of the Internet, we have organized, traveled and participated in scientific, social and cultural events mutually benefiting from the resulting knowledge and friendship gained.

Since RILW began (in 1997) progress has been made regarding Internet use in Romania. There has been a growing level of attention that Romanian authorities and newspapers give to the use of the Internet in education. Internet communication has been included in political decisions and reform proposals of the Ministry of Education. More new distance education centers are continuously opening and Romania is now involved with international educational projects. Using the RILW expertise, at Teacher’s House Cluj, an Internet Training Center for teachers has begun to be developed. First online training centers appear, and some virtual university as well, using mainly in house made VLEs. A methodology for online courses design and delivery was elaborated by Romanian Government, last Summer.


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