In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

November 10, 2012
by annavarna

Critical Thinking and How to dance it in Paris

It’s Saturday morning here in Brussels, it’s rainy as always and a woman is sitting on her couch with a cup of coffee (the second one) and various books and magazines open around her and tens of windows open in her task bar.

This is how I feel right now

Wouldn’t it be better if she stood up grabbed her raincoat and walked to Place Flagey to taste organic breads and confitures and then enjoy a glass of champagne and a plate of moules?

No, no, this woman is determined not to lose focus this Saturday, it’s her last Saturday before she has to take the train to Paris. Oh, la la, Paris…..

I’m diverting again. So, next Saturday, I will be in Paris to participate in the 31st Annual Colloquium of TESOL France. I have to finish my presentation tomorrow at the latest but this is much harder than I expected. Mostly because there are so many good ideas and I have to trim and trim.

But in any case, right now I was reading a beautiful hymn to grammar, yes, grammar that part of Language Instruction that seems to be the scapegoat for all problems in classrooms since the beginning of time. I’ll just quote an extract from this defense because to me it’s like poetry: ” The inner theme of grammar is simplicity, even unity. This is the subtext of the rules: Let all in the sentence be one, let it be clear and agree that the center of the sentence be seen. The works of the sentence must move in harmony, like the wheels of a clock. The subject and the verb must be in agreement, the pronoun and its antecedent must be in agreement, the tenses of the verb in the sentence must be in agreement with each other. Everything being in order, the sentence can depict a truth” (Michael Clay Thompson, The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Vol XIII, No2, Winter 2002, pp 60-66).

Doesn’t it remind you of John Lennon?

Next Sunday at 10.00 in room B316 at Telecom Paris Tech, we will ponder on ruminations like this and  we will discuss and maybe debate how to best teach grammar and vocabulary to our students and at the same time promote Critical Thinking.

I can’t wait to meet all of you new friends and see again some ones from the past!

Now, I’m feeling better



June 8, 2012
by annavarna

ROMA or not, React!

A few months ago, when I was still living in Greece and working as a teacher, there was a big upheaval caused when ROMA segregated schools were closed overnight and their population was asked to “integrate” in “normal” schools. I was appalled, furious and totally disillusioned by how our educational authorities handled the issue, but even more so by how my fellow teachers refused to go to work, or send their kids to the schools where ROMA students would go from the next day. Back then I chose not to write anything about it because I was so angry and so disappointed I was bound to be unfair.

My friend Nikos, a really  Brave Teacher, was not at all hesitant in speaking out and even writing a heated article about it, but I’m not sure whether it was published after all. Local societies have the means to preserve their own and they wouldn’t concede even to listen to different views. Fortunately there were calm voices too and their scientific and sound arguments were expressed.

And then I left, and amid all the personal struggles to relocate to a new country, a new job, a new culture, far away from family and friends, I lost track of the case. But loose ends follow you wherever you go and as the poet has said no matter where you travel you will always get off at the same stop, at the same city..

So yesterday I was invited to an event about ROMA integration. There were some serious presentations about the work of the Commission on the issue and some very passionate people spoke. There were also some very talented young people of ROMA origin, from various countries, who shared their experiences. Some stories were cheerful, some humorous, some haunting…There was an energetic young woman, a stagier in Brussels, and one of the creative minds behind this site.

Somehow she reminded me of  little V a student of mine, back in Greece, in Itea. V and her brother and sister , of Roma origin, came to our school last year. Not everything was ideal from the beginning and even recently you could occasionally hear prejudiced remarks. But the truth is these kids were so cheerful, so happy to be going to school, that I think they won us from day one. I remember very well the first day they came to school and how disappointed I was (again) by some of my fellow teachers. But we talked about it. We argued, we even fought with some. And gradually, I think we won. Not only did the kids stay at school but they were fully accepted too. Earlier this year I remember we were doing an exercise about different languages and V mentioned that she could speak her own language a little. For a moment I held my breath because I was not at all sure how the other 9-year-olds would react. But they reacted as all children in their age: with honest curiosity!

All three siblings were exceptional however. A, the younger sister is an adorable child with the highest degrees of social and emotional intelligence, clever, sparkling eyes, cuddly and confident at the same time. N, their brother should be given a prize for the student who loves school most, cause he is the first boy I have met who cries when he can’t come to school. His special abilities and speech impairment do not prevent him from becoming part of our small school community and he has such a sense of humour, he kept impressing his teacher, Ms Helen almost every day. Special mention for this Special Education teacher here, who is such an assertive person, a teacher who stood for her students  every day against all odds, against all the prejudices of a small rural society!!! Three cheers for Helen. All the teachers who were involved with the kids were fantastic in their approach, Christos, Kostas, Andreas, all of them played their role in helping the kids to become part of the group as smoothly as possible.

So last night, I was listening to these beautiful young men and women speaking about their history and their origins and I couldn’t stop thinking of V. I am pretty sure that if she is given a chance, first by her family and then by our schools, one day she will be talking at an auditorium in Brussels too!

Big thanks to my new friends here who invited me to this even and gave me the chance first to meet all these interesting people and secondly to reminisce about my students and appreciate once more what a unique educational group I was part of, before I left. But of course you have to take your distance to understand that…

May 1, 2012
by annavarna

Norwegian Schools: A trip to the future

Since October 2011 I’ve been participating in a European Comenius multilateral project called CORE (Clil Objectives Resourcekit for Educators). As its name suggests it’s a project about CLIL implementation and our main objective is to see how CLIL theory is applied in various educational systems, as well as create a resourcekit for any educators that might be interested to give it a try. There are seven partners from five countries in the project and there is a lot of diversity regarding our experience in CLIL. Our Spanish partners for example are already practicing CLIL in their settings, and Victor Pavon our Cordovan partner is an academic whose main focus is CLIL and bilingualism. On the other hand our Norwegian partners are very new to exploring the possibilities of CLIL and so are we, the Greek partners. Nevertheless this diversity is one of our strong points as a team.

So now that I have explained the basics of our project I’d like to describe my experience in Norway where the second meeting was held, and in particular my impressions from visiting two schools in the area of Karmoy.
The first visit was at Holmen school. This is an alternative school in the area of Karmoy. There are very few students and they are pupils that had serious trouble to follow the “regular” school program or children who dropped out of school so this is their final effort to graduate. They do the usual school subjects but they also do a lot of practical work, like bike repairing, painting, cooking and such. When the first school opened some 13 or 14 years ago one of the educators had the brilliant idea that if they wanted to keep the students in this school they had to give them a dream. And the dream they decided upon in this beautiful fishing town of Karmoy was to build a ship! We are talking about a real 15m long ship that will be able to sail and not a sorry model.
12 years ago they started building it, along with their teachers, little by little every year, working hours and hours, and studying all kinds of theory in order to learn how to do it. Combining science, mathematics, shipbuilding skills, and whatever else necessary now it is almost ready. In about a month she will go into water.
When our group went into the school , the head Johanes, briefed us into the story of the ship. But no briefing could have prepared me for the beauty of the vessel, its size, the kind of work that went into it and the pride of the students working on it. We met three of the students working there and they were all smiling, clever, polite boys who seemed to work with earnest love for the boat.
Talking with the teachers was enlightening as well: “There have been many students who have worked on the ship over the years. We show them that if you are patient you can achieve something big. But you have to wait. So this might help them when they go back to regular school and they will have to be patient in order to see the results of their efforts”. How true! How many times have we had students who don’t see the meaning of trying hard and working diligently? I’m sure if you have worked with adolescents you will have encountered situations like this pretty often.
Another thing that amazed me with the whole project was how few students were there. The three alternative options of Karmoy school system are the Holmen, Tarnet and Botoppen schools. All in all they must deal with no more than 40 students. But people there do not see it as an awful lot of money for so few students. They see it as an investment for the future: if they manage to keep these students at school they are convinced their investment will pay off and in the long run it will come cheaper than if these adolescents were lost in the forests of juvenile delinquency.
The second school we visited must be one of the flagships of Norwegian education. Mykje Skole on the outskirts of Haugesund is a school taken out of the Fairy Tale Schools book. We arrived there on Friday morning and we experienced the Friday assembly. In a beautiful hall (Scandinavian Design at its best) candle lit, and with music played the 300 students gathered in a most ordered manner, quiet, wearing their clogs or their socks, they sat down next to their teachers and they waited until everybody had sat. Our mouths had already dropped because everything was being done so quietly and peacefully. The music teacher announced the program which included a song sang by the school choir (I think this was done for our sake, but maybe not), some presentation about traffic safety, awarding the most careful students of the week wishing happy birthday to the people whose birthday was that week!
When the choir sang “California Dreaming” I think I started crying. Whoever has tried to teach children a simple (monophonic) song will know what kind of work it takes to achieve such a result. I am sure you will agree they are simply fantastic!

But our visit had just started. As soon as assembly finished we were assigned two student guides (who spoke excellent English, as well as all the other Norwegian people I met) who would take us around the school and explain everything. What can I say? That the facilities are of the highest standards? That classrooms had no doors but that there were specially designed rooms for group work? That there were computers and interactive boards everywhere? I think the point isn’t to describe facilities. What I saw was a school where children are free to work on their own, where there is a lot of peer learning and teaching (like in the music room where there was no teacher but the students taught each other how to play the cello), where teachers cooperate to teach a class. I saw a school where students and teachers are respected and they are given opportunities to take initiatives and create and be innovative. I saw a school where I would like to teach, and in which I would love my child to attend.
The following night we were invited to Holmen School again. This time a teacher of the school, who is also an accredited chef, would cook for us and two of the students would help in the kitchen and with the waiting. Again we experienced this look on the eyes of the students that talked about the pride they took in their work. And I couldn’t help wondering how often we give opportunities like that to our students.
A huge thank you to our Norwegian hosts who organized this visit and gave us the gift of getting to know from up close such marvelous education system. Thank you Britt-Mona, Per, John, Helga, Jane, Johanes! See you in Greece in autumn.

Here you can find the set of images related to these two Norwegian schools:

March 11, 2012
by annavarna
1 Comment

Too young for this? Not really…

One question that always bothers me is how to approach difficult topics in the primary classroom. Should I try to protect my students and keep them sealed from the outside world? Or would I act more pedagogically if I prepared them for what is out there? There are sound arguments for both stances:  “they are too young, why should you be the one to introduce painful notions like poverty, racism, injustice at this tender age? They will have all the time to suffer in the future, just try to make your classroom as happy and as innocent as possible”.

“But you are a teacher”, says the other voice. “it’s your duty to prepare them, life is not a bubble to keep them inside forever”.

Whenever I have dilemmas like this, I have a solution – I ask myself: what would you want for your child, what do you do with your child? And the answer is I wouldn’t want my child to not be aware of the darker side of life. OK, I won’t make her life miserable by showing all the injustice and violence of the world but I can introduce her somehow to the notion that not everything is pink and sugary out there. Otherwise I would be doing a disservice to her  and to all my students consequently.

So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop with Judy Boyle, organized by the Karditsa English Teachers’ Association. The topic was Human Trafficking and Judy presented some hard-boiled facts as well as the work of the NO-Project organization.

Judy mainly works with teenagers and young people and I agree with her that it is unacceptable to graduate from Secondary Education and never to have heard about Human Trafficking. Our school books claim that slavery has been abolished but this isn’t true. Every year thousands if not millions of children are sold and trafficked mainly for use in the sex trade.

Just reading what I have written above makes me sick. I cannot grasp the notion that a human being is sold and objectified like that, I simply cannot. But it happens and just by closing our eyes it won’t disappear.

So for the moment I am trying to come up with a lesson plan for my sixth graders that will revolve around the two videos below and I hope there will be good response to them.

The first one is an awarded animation film by Effie Papa and it won a prize in 2011 in Animfest, the International Animation Festival that took place in Athens, Greece. Effie Papa was a student at TEI (Technical Education Institute) in Athens at the time. It is a beautifully made video with a powerful message.



The second one is a song and video clip by Radiohead. The lyrics are really a work of art too and could spark a lot of conversation in class. I could show the lyrics first and have my students guess the content and the story behind them and then show them the video clip which shows this world of injustice as clear as possible.

Thank you Judy for this, and thank you at all the people in Karditsa for organizing it. Tonight at 18.00 there is another event at the same place (ΤΕΔΚ, Μεγάλου Αλεξάνδρου 10) about projects in first grades of Primary School and about the Barefoot School and different and innovative approaches to education.

More Links that can help you with the Human Trafficking topic:

Jamie Keddie’s lesson plan about human trafficking

The No Project Organisation (You will find plenty of material, videos and info to use in your class)



February 10, 2012
by annavarna

Lemons and lemonade

I’ve been trying to write this post for a few months now. I tried to write it in September when we went to school and there were no books to give to our students. I tried to write it again when teacher underwent another cut in their already meager salary. I tried to write it again when the teachers’ unions resisted the integration of Roma students in our schools. But today I read this article by photographer David Du Chemin and all the pieces fell to place. I have been following David for a while now and I love the way he writes because his posts are not exclusively about photogrpahy, they transcend in all fields of life and they are meaningful to everyone.

So in this post (which I hope some of you will read carefully) he talks about photographers but we could very well replace this in some paragraphs with teachers or lawyers or whatever profession you may like. David writes:

 …Things are changing. Is it easy? No. Is it fair? Does it matter? EVERYTHING is changing. It always has. It always will. If you are in business for yourself as a photographer, your job, as the CEO of You Inc., is to meet those changes head on, to navigate the rough waters and do it in a way you love, while not sinking the ship. No one promised you safe passage. No one owes you a waveless voyage. …f you are floundering, it’s not because you don’t have a better camera or the same 85/1.2L lens that that other, more successful, photographer on the other side of town, or the other side of the internet. It’s because you aren’t being as creative as you thought you were or you aren’t hustling…”

 Do you get it? If things aren’t going well in your teaching situation, if your kids aren’t interested, aren’t learning, are bored, are raucous and so on and so forth, it’s not the fault of books, or the lack of equipment. It’s because we aren’t creative enough. OK, the situation is dire, and it’s not our fault, and it’s unfair. So now what? Are we going to spend the rest of our working time whining and bithcing about the indifferent ministry and the good-for-nothing people who make the decisions? Are we going to waste the time of another school year by doing nothing?

 David has expressed it better than me I think: “…Yes, things are changing. They always have. But you can either make the change or react to it. Either way you need to be creative. You can do two things with your time on this earth – play the cards you’re dealt with all the energy and conviction you can, or whine and moan about how lousy your cards are. But whining and moaning never once changed the cards in anyone’s hand. Yes, Detroit was decimated by the economy, and it was left in literal ruins. But it’s making a come back. Not because it sat there feeling sorry for itself (ok, some did, but they aren’t the ones making the comeback), but because they got creative. They stood up, dusted off the seat of their jeans and looked the situation square in the eye and said, “OK. Now what?” It’s hard work. It’ll take time. And if you don’t love that work, give up now.”

 So, to get back to our situation in my poor little country: the (new) third grade book is colourless, badly drawn, the listening material you have to download yourself etc etc. So why don’t you organize a competition for the best coloured book at the end of the year? We have already started but you may want to join us! 

January 14, 2012
by annavarna

Little K and the music

Let me tell you a story that happened the other day at school that had me thinking: It’s the story of K, a third grader and a complete beginner in English. First of all, although I teach K for the first time this year, he is not unknown to me: I used to teach his brother who was notorious in our school and little K comes laden with this burden. As soon as you meet him, my colleagues say: “Oh he’s V’s brother” (with that look that says – beware). Fortunately, V may have been very difficult at times but I remember him as the guy who wrote a beautiful poem about the universe and the stars, in English!

The second day I had a class with K I knew he had his own exceptional view of the world when he showed me what he makes with common school things such as pens, pencils and rulers. I was amazed! I asked him to make one for me too and he did; he made me my very own airplane which I have proudly exhibited on the announcement board.

Fast forward to last Thursday when we do a little listening exercise from our book (I am not going to comment here that we got our coursebook for third graders in late December – maybe it was our ministry’s attempt to get us into unplugged teaching). The exercise was actually a rap rhyme about family. I had my doubts about this thing because my adult, politically correct brain could see all the faults to it: the lyrics were talking about a fat grandmother and a short sister, the language used was unknown to the children and more difficult than what they are used to and so on and so forth. So I put the CD player on, I tell them that first we are going to listen to it while reading the lyrics from our books and I push the play button. The rhyme starts playing and K is already up and dancing. The whole class stands up from their desks and they don’t do what I asked them to do!!! My teacher brain revolts! What a mess! What did I do wrong? How am I going to calm them down again? Quick, quick stop the music. I stop the music and I restore order.  I look at K with my teacher’s look which is specially designed to terrorize even seasoned teenagers, but what he tells me throws me off my feet: “Sorry miss, but I CAN’T resist”. For a few crucial seconds I resist bursting into laughter. But then I realize what I am doing: what a wet blanket, what a killjoy! I don’t resist anymore either, I burst into laughter and I push play again and we start rapping all together (OK, I rap more, they dance and say the words mammy, daddy, grandpa –which was the purpose after all). We start walking around the class stomping our feet to the rhythm and we have great fun! For homework I ask them to practice the rhyme. Next time it’s going to be fantastic, it’s certain. And we are already making plans about performing the 3rd Grade Rap in one of our upcoming school shows.

Late that night, I reflect about the lesson.  When I started playing the song and saw the chaos that followed my first reaction was to stop the activity. Things were not going as I had planned them, therefore something must be wrong. The only thing going wrong was that I was naïve enough not to have predicted what would happen under those circumstances. The good thing was that I was flexible enough to take advantage of the general enthusiasm and make something out of it. I have a little one-to one with myself: What’s the purpose of you there Anna? To teach people how to follow instructions? They learn that everyday, thank you very much. You are there to expose them to language, to instill a love for learning in general, to kindle their creativity and nurture their talents. And if I take all these into consideration it was a successful lesson. If the objective of the lesson was to have 14 9-year-olds still and quiet for 45 minutes then I failed completely!

This was my story about little K who outsmarted his teacher. Sometimes we teachers are too worried about appearances, about curriculum and the nuts and bolts of our profession that we miss the big picture. Fortunately there are many little Ks out there to remind us what we are there for and that one of the keys to happiness is not to be able to resist the music!

October 3, 2011
by annavarna

The learning challenge

What have you learned today? What have you learned lately? Do you remember what it is like to learn a new thing? Do you remember how difficult, frustrating, excruciatingly embarrassing it can be? Do you remember the moment you realized what it was about? Wasn’t it like an epiphany? Like everything you had heard so far, suddenly made sense? What was it that kept you going? That didn’t allow you to quit the moment it got so difficult? And who taught you? Did you teach yourself or did you have a good teacher? Did you by any chance have an exceptional teacher?


LEARN from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

These were all the questions that came to my mind when I watched this beautiful video found on Vimeo. I suggest you watch the other ones too (MOVE and EAT) since I know you being the teacher you are, you are going to find hundreds of educational uses for them. As for here I am going to share one of my favourite learning experiences, one that was many years ago but is still as vivid inside me as then: Learning to fly, or to be more accurate to paraglide!

It was more than ten years ago that I went into paragliding and for a few years I was really immersed into it. I learned how to fly got my first level certificate and flew from Mt Olympus and Mt Voras here in Greece. I will never forget what it was like and I will never forget what  the learning experience either. The instructor was a very patient person who first and foremost taught us how to be safe. The fact that we have remained friends after all these years says something about the importance of the relationship. But what I most remember was my willingness to persist. I think this was what I learned best that period. That if you persist long enough then things become really simple. That if you keep running, you will take off. That if you don’t let the mountain scare you, you will fly over it!

I know I am not saying anything original, it’s in all the books about motivation, educational psychology and theories of learning: the people who are experts in something are just the people who had the persistence to do something long enough. Something like 10,000 hours is considered long enough. Of course I didn’t become an expert in paragliding. At some point I stopped practicing. I imagine that if I started again now I would need months to get to the same level. But the learning is here, it’s inside me. And every time one of my students says, “it’s too difficult miss”, or “I can’t do that teacher”, I remember. And I tell them: don’t stop now!

I would really love to hear your opinions here at the comments or even better in your blog. It seems that everyone is starting a challenge these days so this is mine: What was the most exceptional learning experience you ever had? What will you always remember? Let’s use this hashtag #learnchallenge

September 29, 2011
by annavarna

#compare and contrast challenge

Since I was a child I loved these little quizzes in newspapers where you had to find the seven differences. My students seem to share the enthusiasm whenever we come across a similar activity. It seems this exercise in observation is fun and deeply satisfying.

I just found out about the blog challenge set up by Brad and already read five or six posts by other edu-bloggers. Their different styles of writing and seeing things seems to be another exercise into reflection and observation!

So here is my contribution from the beginning of our holiday: In the first one my teenage daughter is very expressive in showing how she doesn’t like photographs with her parents at this stage. In the second by pure power of persuasion we got our act together and presto! A respectable family photograph!




What is your compare and contrast story? Check these ones too!

Tyson Seburn

Mike Harrison

Baiba Svenca

Karenne Joy Sylvester

Anne Hodgson


Ian James

Paco Gascón

Jeremy Harmer  

Larry Ferlazzo

Tara Benwell

Chiew Pang

Ceri Jones

Chris Adams


September 15, 2011
by annavarna

Web-based education in Europe and the USA by Lindsey Wright

This is a guest blog post. Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

We are both looking forward to your comments and reactions!


Online education holds the promise to enable people to pursue higher learning no matter where they are geographically. While overall access to education has improved due to online college courses, there are still major infrastructural issues that prevent web-based learning from becoming fully integrated across the entire world. Additionally, investment in web-based education in certain countries remains relatively weak. There is an unfortunately stark contrast in the prevalence of this form of education in the United States compared to Europe. These issues show major differences in how each region views and invests in education.

The benefits of online education are quite clear to some education advocates. The non-profit Sloan Foundation argues that web-based education has almost become a necessity for students who must balance family and professional lives and to be globally competitive in the job market. In 2010 alone, over 5.6 million American college students were enrolled in at least one online class at both conventional universities and for-profit schools.

The American Society for Training and Development, a non-profit workplace training association, contends this new wave of online education, or E-Learning 2.0, is a reaction against the limiting demands of traditional undergraduate life and the stale classroom environment of most universities. Typically students have to invest more or less all their time and considerable money in college, centering their schedules entirely around school. This can drive away students who need jobs to pay for school or are taking care of family members. Meanwhile, conventional classroom environments based on semester-long schedules within a top-down hierarchy and fixed class curriculum seem increasingly unappealing to many.

With increased globalization, market competition has become a matter of innovation at lightning speed. Accordingly, students in a country like the United States want instant data, flexible critical thinking exercises, and a bottom-up or democratic approach to learning. In a sense, the more students capitalize on E-Learning 2.0, the more competitively the student population is prepared for careers in the global world.

This begs the question of investment. If e-learning and online education are great educational investments, then the necessary infrastructure to support them must be put in place first. Access to broadband technologies, incentives for schools to offer online education, and the assumption students are sufficiently technologically adept to participate in e-learning are some of the largest obstacles to widespread web-based education.

According to the World Bank, the US only slightly edges out the European Union in broadband subscriptions. As of 2009, 27.8 percent of the US population has broadband subscriptions. In the 27 nations of the European Union, the figure is 24.6 percent. However, there is a major different in the quality of those connections. The average US broadband speed is 3.9 mbps, while in the EU the range is between 20 to 30 mbps.

Besides actual infrastructure, there’s also the issue of who provides online education. Although Europe’s broadband infrastructure is solid, it isn’t much used for web-based education. Glenn Russell, Professor of Education at Monash University, says European schools don’t invest much in online programs. Although many European online schools exist to help those too economically disadvantaged to enter a conventional college, the number of these virtual schools is relatively low compared to the United States.

Additionally, a major difficulty for these schools is that they cater to their specific region’s language, and are accordingly more or less unable to be transnational. In the United States, students in California or Hawaii are able to take online classes in New England or Florida thanks to minimal cultural and linguistic difference across the country. Moreover, the US’ many for-profit schools can move capital more quickly in order to invest in online programs exclusively for their student bodies.

However, even if the US has more private web-based schools, there are also problems with public online education. A 2010 US News report showed that almost 50 percent of all conventional colleges that offered online education saw their budgets decrease. This may be because tuition is usually lower and room and board costs non-existent when students enroll online.

Additionally, many professors aren’t happy with the idea of online education. Believing that face-to-face discussion and debate in a classroom are more worthwhile, many professors don’t invest in developing online curricula.

Finally, the kinds of institutions providing education online have been the target of major criticism in the US. Detractors argue for-profit online schools don’t measure up to the skills and job prospects traditional institutions provide. Questions regarding the legitimacy of these schools’ business practices and academic quality continue to fuel prejudice (legitimate or not) against web-based schooling and those who’ve earned degrees online.

Comparing online education in Europe and the United States isn’t quite apples and oranges, but it may be Red Delicious vs. Granny Smith. Both continents have different levels of investment in broadband infrastructure, the essential resource for all students to access online education. However, both regions also differ in how web-based schooling is available. While the courses of development will surely be different in the EU and US, online learning will certainly see increased investment in the coming years, even if it continues to be regarded as second-rate on both sides of the pond

September 2, 2011
by annavarna

Together Together

I read Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and it made a deep impression on me. This morning, I watched a presentation on augmented reality and I must confess I was bewildered if not disturbed.
Let me explain starting with the book: Sherry Turkle is a psychoanalytic anthropologist who was a member of faculty at MIT, during the first days of computers, and has been studying their relationships with people, our perceptions of self and emotional intelligence since then. Her first books as she says were optimistic about where this journey would take us. She was observant enough to see computers bring philosophy into everyday life and self reflection as well. But, naturally, she was not one to accept that computers were “just” a tool: “I was certain that the “just” in that sentence was deceiving. We are shaped by our tools. And now, the computer, a machine on the border of becoming a mind, was changing and shaping us.”
This latest book however, no matter how balanced it is, is not optimistic. At least for me. She sketches a society where people are so tethered to their various devices and virtual social circles they neglect their people, their jobs and sometimes themselves. She presents some cases that could be said to be extreme examples. But the general idea she gives agrees with the image we can see around us. An image where “technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”.
Her conclusions have been sometimes painfully familiar and they have made me reflect on the last three years of my life in the virtual world. For me discovering this world (quite late, because I was not a pioneer of the IRC or chatrooms) was what Turkle describes as a “dazzling breadth of connection”. But getting connected with all these new people and keeping up with them doesn’t come without a cost. I hope I wasn’t one of those mums she describes that neglected their kids to text their friends. What I have gained is new friends and I wouldn’t change that. I can totally relate with what the writer describes as “erosion of boundaries between the real and the virtual”. My virtual friends have special places in my heart and I do not regret the time I invested in getting to know them. Turkle says that “networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to accessed – and only the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.” But in order to be part of a wider professional community it is a risk I am willing to take.
What resonates even more with me, are the stories of young people she describes. My students may be in primary school but they are becoming increasingly connected. Moreover the way these children grow up, with parents all the more dependent on mobile technologies, surely affects the way they are at school and their expectations. My concern is not the way people learn and pick up what they need has changed. I welcome this change and I am very interested in incorporating into my classes. What worries me is the pace this is happening. Turkle says about the pace of relationships online: “One quickly moves from infatuation to disillusionment and back. And the moment one grows even slightly bored, there is easy access to someone new”. Sometimes I am afraid this is happening in classrooms all over the world. I am not saying that teachers should keep to their old ways, because those worked for them. The world has changed beyond recognition and schools should change too. In another fascinating book I read this summer “A new culture of learning” by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown emphasizes how we can use this new reality to benefit education. The writers draw many of their examples from the world of online games and show how learning happens there. However, this constant hunt for new pleasures, for more excitement in the classroom leaves me breathless and none the more satisfied.


Yesterday morning just before I left for the first day of school (first day for teachers) I saw this presentation and I was stunned. 3D technology in class! I can immediately think of how many applications it can have especially for science related subjects. And it would be cool. But I also wonder that once we start wearing these special caps, or glasses or whatever, we are going to miss yet another piece of real life around us. (And now that I’m rereading what I wrote yesterday I think I have become a grumpy old teacher who’s afraid to try anything new. The concern new inventions will destroy the world as we know it is as old as Socrates who damned the advent of alphabet because it would mean loss of memory)
Of course, my reality is very far from even approaching what Turkle describes and Steve Yuen shows. Our school is probably low tech compared to other schools even in Greece and no matter how infatuated with our mobiles we Greeks are we are very far from becoming like the people the book depicts. If for nothing else because our culture is not so job oriented as other societies. Turkle for example mentions many times that people find calls more and more intrusive and they prefer to text their colleagues or friends in order to be more effective. This is not happening here (yet). Privacy is not so valued and my personal joke about it, is that for example my parents in law completely ignored the meaning of the word tactful.
In a few days educators all over the world will be welcoming new and old students in their classrooms. Some (me included) are already planning how best to use Skype and Glogster and even Facebook to communicate, to support, to stimulate their students. Let’s share our concerns and doubts on how to best do that. Let’s also take a step back, to take in the whole picture and reflect. Let’s not be Alone Together but Together Together! Looking forward to your comments and ideas!

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