Flexible learning in Estonia
If one types in the Google the words flexible learning the matches will mainly be for e-learning, distance education, open distance learning etc. This is especially common in Australia but also in the UK. In Estonia e-learning is gaining popularity. Most of Estonian Universities have open universities as well as e-learning centres. But in the non-formal education e-learning is still not established. Estonian Non-formal Adult Education Association (ENAEA) has launched several projects to develop e-leaning, but many of them have failed. It seams that most adult learners find it uncomfortable to study via the Internet. But e-learning forms only one part of flexible learning. If the learner does want to use the Internet then the educator needs to be “flexible” and offer an alternative. This could be direct communication, discussion, debates etc. In ENAEA flexible learning means in fact that the learner is central and the education provider is “flexible” to adjust the study programme and methods to the learner.
No demands Traditionally the Estonian Education system has been quite the opposite – the learner was the one to adjust to the educator and the subject. If the learner was bored with the study, the cause was never sought on the educator’s side. Even today many adult learners think in this tradition – they simply wait what the education has to offer them. They are happy when they get what they expected – but will not make demands to the education.
Flexibility can also mean simple things. For example sometimes the educator going teach at the learner’s workplace. The Educator of the year 2003 and the head of the Estonian Open Education Association (EOEA) Reet Valgma usually travels to the learners before the beginning of the course to research the learners’ background, interests and expectations for the course. Erle Nõmm, her colleague is doing the same. Reet and Erle also master the dialogue technique – in theory and in practice. And they use a good deal of dialogue in their work as it is through discussions that the learners’ needs get discovered.
Discussions in study circles For us flexibility also means active learning methods. For example the head of the study circle “Semud” (Old Friends) Juta Jõgi is organizing refresher courses using almost always the study circle method, where the participants have discussions, debates, make short reports to each other etc. The Open Mind Institute (OMI) works in a similar fashion. The Institute unites about 40 educators from all over Estonia and these educators take turns to visit each other’s courses to study new teaching methods. This is followed by an in-depth analyses and discussion. The well-known Estonian environment activist Mikk Sarv, also a member of the board of directors of The Open Space Technology Institute in the US, is currently promoting the Harrison Owen Open Space method in the Estonian non-formal education. He has also launched projects for children outdoors learning etc.
It is also true that flexibility has its limits. Often the educator has to offer the learner what they don’t even know they could ask for. The educator should also be able to see the learners’ unarticulated needs.
Many school drop-outs among children A reader from the Nordic countries might think that I am overestimating the importance of the needs of the learner. In Estonia though this is still a problem today. It is more current in secondary and high-school than in non-formal education, as grown-ups seam to know how to protest when something is not the way they want it. But a remarkable number of children are dropping out of school every year for the very reason that they cannot adjust to the study programme nor are able to protest and claim for their needs. The secondary education is still strongly centred on the study programme and not on students. For example foreign languages are usually introduced with a thorough study of grammar, in the credulous belief that grammar is the quintessence of language and the one mastering grammar will also be able to master the language. Consequently children spend up to ten years learning a foreign language – and are still unable to speak it.
In ENAEA flexible learning means in fact that the learner is central and the education provider is “flexible” to adjust the study programme and methods to the learner, Tiina Jääger says.
Fortunately in the last years language study has also shown increasing flexibility. For instance Russian schools in Estonia have opened about twenty classes where Russian children learn Estonian according to the immersion method of the Canadian Fred Genesee. Immersion means that a new language is learnt though talking and communicating – only a little grammar is introduced and that at a later phase of learning. And as a result the Russian children are able to communicate fluently in Estonian already after one year of leaning.
Step by step Estonia is moving towards a more flexible education.
by Tiina Jääger, Member of the board of directors of the Estonian Non-Formal Adult Education Association