Home » n. 24 gennaio/febbraio 2004

Innovation and Change in Education

24 gennaio 2004 | Ana-Maria Marhan (amarhan@acm.org) Institute for Educational Sciences, Bucharest, Romania Laboratory for Information Technology in Education (LITE), Black Sea University Foundation

Introduction

The history of the Internet applications in teaching and learning has already accomplished 30 years long. USA is the incontestable leader in both the development and the utilisation of ICT in education. In many American universities, distance education programs were using email as a mean of communication far back in the ’70s. Today, the number of universities offering online courses is spectacularly increasing: the attempt to list, evaluate, or choose amongst the numerous online courses offered today has already become an extremely difficult task.

In the case of Romania the situation is dramatically different: after 50 years of totalitarian regime, in December 1989 the most important social, political and economic changes in our recent history took place; a starting point for a demanding and difficult process of (re-) learning the ABC of free communication and exchanging of information. In the same time, the falling of the Iron Curtain suddenly made us part of an emerging interconnected world, connecting us to the Internet and further on to the World Wide Web.

Even if Romania has proved a constant impetus towards adopting and adapting to the global information and communication trends, after 13 years we still are far away from closing this gap: some of the recent statistics have estimated 3.57 PCs per 100 Romanian inhabitants; it seems that there are 806.09 internet users at 10,000 inhabitants; however, the telecomm infrastructure is characterised as “poor, but developing” (ITU, 2002).

The important aspect to be note is that most of the Romanian high schools and universities have now access to computers and Internet, and they are part of the RoEduNet – the Romanian Education Network. The implementation of a complex strategy aiming at the development of the RoEduNet infrastructure is already taking place. It is obvious that in the next few years, Romanian education system will have to be prepared for the profound changes that are approaching on global level: multimedia techniques, e-Learning systems and tools, the virtual university.

Reforming education: the legal framework
The first years following the 1989 events marked a reparatory phase at all level of the Romanian education system. Although no clear alternatives for change were offered, the measures immediately taken after the change of the Communist regime were meant to “de-communization” and “de-ideologization ” of education; some more comprehensive attempts to restructure the system (in terms of organization, financing and government, and the status of teachers) started only a few years later (Birzea, C., 1994).

It soon became obvious that a thoroughgoing education reform required a systemic overhaul: Romania’s tradition of a highly centralized political system created a totalitarian mentality that together with the cultural attitudes it spawned represented true obstacles to change, impeding legislation for reform.

In 1993, the first drafts of a new Law on Education were elaborated, the law being finally adopted in 1995. One of its the meritorious aspects was that it provided a greater autonomy to the local universities, and therefore offered the impulse for the development of a tertiary education market in Romania. However, in this moment (1995) the law made no reference to distance education, ICT or e-learning.

After three years, in 1998, under the Decree no 58 of 02.02.1998, the Romanian Government approved the “National Informatisation Strategy and the Implementing in an Accelerated Rhythm of the Information Society”. Within this framework, the development of the RoEduNet infrastructure and connecting more and more schools and educational institutions were settled by a series of Minister’s Orders: 3177/29.01.1998, 3487/30.03.1998. 4393/31.08.1998; other documents were referring to the status of “Open distance learning centres in Romania” (Order 3289 from 19.02.1998) or to the “Status of open distance learning in Universities” (Order no. 5073 from 24.11.1998).

Following this intense legislative activity, in December 1999 the Education Law was amended and republished; it can be noticed in the 1999 version of the law a first mention to Distance Education as a specific form of education, specifically addressing to a professionally active population that intends to continue or redirect the path of its education.

In October 2001, the government issued new norms (HG no. 1011/8.10.2001) and a specific methodology and criteria for evaluation and accreditation of the distance education programs offered in the Romanian universities and educational institutions. The article 13 of this document clearly stipulated the use Internet and multimedia in the education process. The further methodologies issued by the ministry would compulsory include the use of ICT and the new e-Learning technologies (as for example, it is clearly stated the use of email as a specific form of communication between the professor and his/hers students) in Distance Education programmes.

Intense debates followed the issue of the above mentioned document and the further regulations. Especially during the last months, most of the Romanian universities were busy developing the infrastructure of their Distance Learning centres, or developing web based learning environments. How successful they’ve been, we will probably see during the academic year that is about to start…

It becomes quite obvious that a massive adoption of the new learning technologies, as promoted by the current national education policy, poses the problem of effective teaching, especially of how to promote interactivity that goes beyond merely asking questions from lecture notes. In the same time, the new regulations bring infrastructure and human development needs, and produced (sometimes unexpected and unwelcome) effects in many areas of institutional practice.

Beyond technology
As in other Eastern European countries, in Romania too, the education reform efforts have had to contend with a vicious circle in terms of human resources. Even if the latest policy documents recognised the human resources as the engine of the education reform in Romania, failure by the national education and training system to anticipate the need for skilled designers, authors, developers, mediators, and assemblers of new learning technologies means that there are almost no trained professionals, fragmented educational standards, and isolated adopted e-Learning innovations.

As one can notice, sophisticated technologies, as WebCT, Lotus Learning Space or Ariadne, are already implemented in several Romanian universities; other universities are developing their e-Learning systems “in house”, or prefer to implement various systems designed by local software houses.

However, no matter how sophisticated the software, technology itself can never guarantee improved teaching and learning, as so many examples of just throwing lecture notes onto the web have already shown. Disregarding the fact that for the methods we are dealing today the basic tool is a computer screen, teachers always prefer familiar methods, reproducing with new technology what they have always done without them. It is easy to see that many of the Internet based courses already offered copy the same texts, words, graphics from printed text, while a greater variety of mediums and more attractive and appropriate styles could be used.

What makes the process even more difficult is that most of the Romanian teachers have little or no formal training in how to teach; their prior experience and evident teaching strengths has always drove their attitude to change and adoption of new learning technologies: when asked why the new technology isn’t being integrated into teaching and learning, teachers will sometimes argue about lack of access and the low technological infrastructure; many will complaint about lack of specific skills; but most of them will mention low-quality pedagogy, linear mechanistic and uninteresting learning materials, and technology never replacing teachers. All these are quite reasonable and acceptable arguments about traditional class-based teaching, too.

Challenging education
Change is always a difficult process, with a dynamic depending on a multitude of factors. Technology is only one of them. A related challenge comes in shifting gear from the traditional lone academic path to adapting to the exigencies of teamwork: as require working in a course design, or learning materials production teams. On the other hand, teachers will also show their individuality in various ways, especially in how their own discipline conditions their thinking and behaviour, how they teach, and how they react in the process of integrating a new technology within their activity.

But change and development rarely happen to most educators unless they accept workloads, collegial cynicism and envy, take extra-work, and overwhelmed by enthusiastic students embracing the new technology, and expecting instant responses to their questions.

Rogers (1995) describes as follows the process of change:
Usually, the process of adopting a new technology will be enthusiastically starting up with very small group of innovators (about 2.5% from the whole target population!) that eagerly test out any new product and explore the intricacies of the new educational tools and software.
Gradually growing, this initial group will develop in a larger early adopters group (about 13.5%). It is a group that will act rather differently: relatively free from innovators’ initial enthusiasm, they experiment with an innovation to see how it might help the process of teaching and learning. They act as informed opinion leaders, and use their own professional networks to discuss their experience, to show to their more cautious colleagues the shortcuts to the smooth path to adopting the new.
An early majority (about 34% of the teachers) will analyse the characteristics of various learning technologies against their teaching values and stiles and think through various ethical, application, and workload issues before they decide to experiment and knowingly trade off some of more challenging effects of innovation against the less-challenging familiar or old educational habits.
And finally, the late majority – a 34% of the population reacting with expressions of doubts and cynicism – will adopt the technology only much latter, when they feel no risk at all, when very easy to use and reliable technology is ubiquitous, on when really pushed by peers or administrators.
Really left behind is a group of adopters Rogers referred as laggards (16%) who rely on tradition and habit and question the activity of anyone who promotes innovation adoption or worst, work with the early majority (or even with the innovators).

* * *

This is a one of the possible ways of conceptualizing change. There are many others models that look at various aspects intervening in the process. Whatever the conceptual model would be, the Romanian universities eager to implement e-Learning in their educational programs have to find the right answers to a multitude of questions:

How can resistance and innocence be overcome?
How can be supported and oriented this process?
In what way that first very small group of adopters can became the snowball attracting a large majority of teachers able to intelligently combine technology and pedagogy in an evolving and mutually enriching dynamic synthesis in favour of the new ways of learning and teaching?

References
Birzea, C., Education Reform in the Countries in Transition, Council of Europe Press, 1994.
Gallant, M. G., (2000). Professional development for Web-based teaching: overcoming innocence and resistance, New directions for adult and continuing education, no. 88, Winter 2000.
Johnson, D.W., R.T. Johnson and E. J. Holubec (1993). Circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom (4th ed.) MN: Interaction Books.
Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th edition). New York: Free Press.
Silver, H. (1999). Managing to Innovate in Higher Education, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 145-156
Country report. European Conference of the Ministers of Education, Berlin, September 2003. Ministry of Education Research and Youth, 2003
Thematic Reviews on Education Policy, OECD, 2002
http://www.edu.ro
http://www.softwin.ro
http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/Internet02.pdf


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